Movie Reviews - 2010 postsWednesday November 14, 2012
Movie Review: 30 for 30: The House of Steinbrenner (2010)
Anyone who knows me knows I’m no fan of the New York Yankees; but even they, the team named after a masturbatory gesture, that added “Suck” to the baseball lexicon, those overpaying, playing-field-tilting, star-grabbing 1% bastards of Major League Baseball, even they deserve a better documentary than this.
It’s a muddled movie. It was filmed in 2008, when the Yankees played their last game at Yankee Stadium, and in 2009, when they moved to New Yankee Stadium and won their 27th World Series title, and in 2010, when George Steinbrenner, the owner of the club since 1973, the Mouth that Roared, finally died after a long illness; and during these years the team is at a kind of crossroads. Is New Yankee Stadium for fans or corporations? Will the winning tradition continue? The old is dying and the new cannot yet be born, and in this interregnum Barbara Kopple filmed “The House of Steinbrenner.”
It doesn’t help that Kopple, a two-time Academy Award winner for “Harlan County U.S.A.” (1976) and “American Dream” (1990), is a Yankees fan. ESPN’s 30-for-30 docs begin with the filmmaker talking about why they were interested in the subject. Here’s Kopple:
When I was a kid I went to Yankee games with my brother and my parents and how could I not want to make a film about the Yankees? I mean, the Yankees are the biggest sports entity in the world. And I think what really made me want to do it is I was home and watching the All-Star Game. And I saw George Steinbrenner going around in a golf cart. He starts to cry. And I just thought, “This could be an amazing film.”
It isn’t. It’s tough to tell the story of something you love. Love is about not seeing clearly. That’s its point.
The stupid shit Yankee fans say
“The House of Steinbrenner” begins in triumph with the Yankees’ 27th World Series title and a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan. We get shots of the Yankees on their floats: Nick Swisher rocking out like a rock star, Alex Rodriguez, as always, too self-aware, Derek Jeter looking up at buildings as if he’d never seen them. We get sound-bite interviews with fans whooping it up and saying the stupid shit Yankee fans say:
- “The world is back to normal. Because the Yankees are champions of the World Series!”
- “The Steinbrenner family is the greatest owners in sports! New York fans are the luckiest cause they’ve got the Steinbrenners, who spend money so we can have parades like this! Let’s do it again!”
Then we get the sadness and nostalgia of the last game at Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth Built, and the excitement and disappointment (expensive seats; obstructed views) of the first day at New Yankee Stadium. We get a lot about George but little from George, since, by this time, the illness that would take his life in 2010 had rendered him mute. We get a really nice line from one of the New York scribes:
He’s not George anymore. He’s a quiet man in his twilight and looks at the scene from afar now.
Meanwhile, Hal Steinbrenner, heir apparent, comes off as a tight-lipped, bristly CEO. He comes off as a numbers man. He’s someone desperate to make sure the mask doesn’t slip.
Fudging Yankee history
It doesn’t help that the doc fudges Yankees history. Early on, Kopple asks various folks, “What’s your favorite memory at Yankee Stadium?” and we hear three answers:
- Louis Requena, official photographer at Yankee Stadium, says, “Maris hitting that big homerun. You know?”
- Yogi Berra, catcher and philosopher, says, “I gotta say the no-hitter. That Don Larsen pitched.”
- George Steinbrenner, circa 1998, says: “’77/’78, great teams. I can remember plays. I remember Piniella’s play in right field, one of the greatest defensive plays I’ve ever seen. Couldn’t see the ball. Stuck his glove out—boom. It hit. Against the Red Sox. The playoff.”
What’s wrong with these answers?
Perspective on the Maris homerun would’ve been nice: the fact that Yankee fans spent 1961 booing Maris because he wasn’t Mickey Mantle; the fact that hardly anyone showed up for the last game of the season when he was sitting on 60.
The Yogi thing is simply semantics. I can guarantee you that almost every baseball fan watching muttered underneath his breath, “Perfect game,” every time Berra said “No hitter.”
Then there’s Piniella’s catch. As soon as Steinbrenner mentioned it I saw it in my mind. Bottom of the ninth inning, Sox down 5-4. With one out, Rick Burleson draws a walk. Then Jerry Remy hits a line-drive to right field. What we don’t know is that Piniella has lost the ball in the late-afternoon sun. We don’t know it because he pretends he doesn’t. He pretends he’s about to catch it, and this keeps Burleson close to first. And then Lou’s lucky. The ball drops five feet away from him and he stabs at it with his glove and keeps Burleson from going to third. So it’s first and second, rather than second and third, when Jim Rice flies out to deep right. Burleson can only tag up to third rather than home. He doesn’t tie the game. Then the great Carl Yastrzemski pops up for the final out and the Yankees win and go on to win the ALCS and the World Series—their 22nd.
Except that’s not the highlight they show. The highlight they show is the catch in the bottom of the 6th when, with two on and two out, Piniella went into the corner to rob Fred Lynn of extra bases. It’s a nice catch. But I’ve never heard anyone say Piniella lost that one in the sun. So … did they show the wrong clip? In a documentary called “The House of Steinbrenner,” while relaying George Steinbrenner’s favorite moment at Yankee Stadium, did they show us the wrong moment?
But the history that’s mostly fudged isn’t from Steinbrenner; it’s about Steinbrenner.
Memories are short, the man is dying and then dead, so the encomiums come fast and furious. We get eulogies. Fans remember ’77 and ’78, and the late ‘90s dynasty, and forget the years in the wilderness. They forget that Steinbrenner’s desire to win got in the way of winning. He was too impatient, and, as a result, under his watch, the Yankees went pennant-less (15 years), and without a World Series title (18 years), for longer than at any time since the team bought Babe Ruth in 1919. And, it could be argued, and has been argued, that they only won then, in 1996, because Steinbrenner had been banned from Major League Baseball in 1990 for hiring a private detective to tail his superstar outfielder Dave Winfield. As a result, for two or three years, he wasn’t around to muck up the works. He wasn’t there to trade prospects like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettite for an aging star or utility player. Thus Jeter, Rivera, Pettite stayed. And they became the core of that 1990s dynasty.
The fans blame Hal for the problems of New Yankee Stadium, but that was George’s baby. We get a clip of him in 2002, talking. “You hate to think about moving away from that great stadium,” he says. “But we do have problems: all the new stadiums coming. We have new generations of people coming. That maybe that stadium doesn’t mean as much to them.”
Right. Steinbrenner was more interested in the profits a new stadium and its corporate boxes could bring than in the grand tradition of Yankee Stadium. The Yankee organization put profits before tradition, then went out and bought a bunch of players and won in their first year at the new ballpark. Since? Bupkis.
Is this the new curse? Old Yankee Stadium cursing New Yankee Stadium? Let it be so.
There are people and there are assholes
At least the scribes get George right:
- Bill Gallo of The New York Daily News: “He was vain. He was at times rude. He reminded me of a Prussian general: General von Steinbrenner.”
- Maury Allen of The New York Post: “He thought the loss of a game in June was the end of a season. … He loved the ego gratification of what the Yankees is all about.”
George, too, gets George right. “There are major league ballplayers,” he says, “and there are Yankees.”
Man, that’s an asshole thing to say. “The House of Steinbrenner” is a documentary about such assholes, directed by a woman who loves them so.
Movie Review: Les femmes du 6ème étage (2010)
Is there no culture, no matter how free and sexy it seems to outsiders, who don’t see themselves as uptight and staid and in need of the wildness of another, generally more southern culture?
So as the British did with Italy in E.M. Forster’s novels and subsequent Merchant-Ivory films, and as Americans do in the Caribbean, getting their groove back, etc., so the French, in “The Women on the 6th Floor,” turn to Spain to shake off the shackles of their deadening, monetized, neutered civility. And they don’t even have to leave Paris to do it.
It’s 1962, and Jean-Louis Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) and his wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) live in relative luxury in an apartment in Paris. He’s a successful, genial stockbroker, she shops and complains. But right before the movie begins, his mother dies. Apparently she ran the household with the help of a longstanding, dour French maid, Germaine (Michèle Gleizer), who in effect raised their kids, now off at boarding school, and over whatever objections Suzanne had at the time. But: queen is dead, long live the queen. Suzanne and Germaine now clash, Germaine leaves in a huff (or on a bender after some Malaga wine from the Spanish maids on the 6th floor), and in the next shot there are dishes in the sink, the refrigerator is filthy and M. Joubert has no clean shirts. What to do? Mme. Joubert is at a loss. But her pick-a-little, talk-a-little friends suggest the latest thing: a Spanish maid. Apparently Mme. Joubert doesn’t know a whole passel of them live on the 6th floor of her building, so she goes to the local church and picks out Maria Gonzalez (Natalie Verbeke), who 1) lives on the 6th floor, 2) is newly arrived from Spain, and 3) is a looker. Because what wife doesn’t want a hot maid cooking for her husband?
There are trials. Maria must make M. Joubert’s egg just so, three and a half minutes, and does. She is given impossible tasks by the Suzanne ... and enlists the other maids to help complete them. They sing a Spanish version of “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” while doing so. It looks like fun. Maiding.
The other maids are mostly stock, nondescript, and/or played by Almodovar alums. There’s Maria’s Auntie, Concepcion (Carmen Maura, who’s been in almost every Almodovar since “Folle ... Folle ... folleme Tim!” in 1978, and who picked up a Cesar for her performance here), stocky and jovial; Dolores (Berta Ojea) is also stocky and jovial. There’s Carmen (Lola Dueñas, “Broken Embraces,” “Volver,” “Talk to Her”), a tough, cynical communist, and Teresa (Nuria Solé), a tall drink of water who winds up married to a French salon keeper. Then our Maria of the beautiful eyes.
Initially, Jean-Louis is a bit stodgy, demanding that Maria call him “Sir,” etc., and Maria has secrets, including an 8-year-old son back in Spain, and the maids have various machinations and battles with the nasty concierge, Mme. Triboulet (Annie Mercier).
We get Jean-Louis’ background in a burst while helping Maria move some of Madame’s things to the 6th floor. Apparently his grandfather started the brokerage firm, his father maintained it, and now he runs it. Apparently he’s lived his whole life in this building. Not a surprise. He seems a dull man without much imagination. At this point, for example, he hasn’t imagined sleeping with Maria.
But on the 6th floor he’s introduced to the other maids, helps them with their stopped-up toilet, and basks in their gratitude. He lets Dolores use his phone (landline, kids) to find out about her sister’s child. In this manner he becomes immersed in the lives of the maids and becomes interested in all things Spanish. “You never worry about anybody, suddenly you care about Spanish maids?” his wife asks him. He does. Fairly innocently thus far.
Eventually, despite the above comment, his wife mistakes his absences for an affair with a client, the notorious, red-haired man-eater Bettina de Brossolette (Audrey Fleurot), and she throws him out. After a pause on the steps, he returns to a room on the 6th floor and lives with the maids. He’s never had a room of his own. He luxuriates in it. It’s kind of cute, actually. The man who has much who’s never had this.
If the maids had all been dumpy, and his interest in them quirky, I might have been charmed by “Les femmes du 6ème étage.” But the maids are not all dumpy and his interest in them, at some point, is fired mostly by his interest in Maria, which he hides, poorly, behind an unsure smile and dumbfounded looks. They sleep together, of course. But they’re so nice about it. And that wife is so awful.
That’s the movie, basically: a rich, dumpy Frenchman leaves his wife to fuck his hot Spanish maid. But the movie stacks the decks so we like both of them, don’t like the wife, and get our happy ending in Spain, where Maria flees, despite another child, a daughter this time, but where Jean-Louis finds her hanging up the wash. He smiles at her, she smiles at him. The ending implies they wind up together. But what does she see in him besides money? What does he see in her besides hot? What happens when his money and her looks go? What will they have? Nice? How long before she throws that three-and-a-half minute egg in his face?
Movie Review: Clash of the Titans (2010)
WARNING: RELEASE THE SPOILERS!
Has there been a more truncated heroic cycle than “Clash of the Titans”? Our hero is a baby cast adrift, then he’s a son gazing at the horizon, then he’s an adult orphan bent on revenge, and with a mission, which takes one, two, three, four steps, after which he kills the big monster and banishes the big villain (for the sequel), and kisses the girl, and ... and that’s it. We ... are ...outta here.
This is the way we do things now. Our need to get on with the story reveals our contempt for the story. Maybe because we already know the story. “Tell us that one again, Daddy.” We’re adults now but we act like kids.
The story being told here is one of my least favorite for being so ubiquitous in the 21st century: the One; the Chosen One. It plays on our id, our early years, when the world revolved around us, when we were all chosen ones. When everything had a reason.
“You were saved for a reason,” Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), Perseus’ foster father, tells a newly adult Perseus (Sam Worthington), as Perseus stands on the prow of the boat gazing longingly at the horizon. “And someday that reason will take you far from here.”
I’m so tired of this conceit. Should we turn it around? Hey, Fatso. There’s a reason you’re in this theater stuffing your face with an extra large tub of popcorn with extra butter and watching this crap. And someday that reason ...
Stop making no sense
In “Clash of the Titans,” which contains no Titans, the Gods create man but can’t live without man’s worship. That makes no sense. A group of humans from Argos, intent on worshipping King and Queen, tear down a statue of Zeus (Liam Neeson), invoking the wrath of Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who secretly despises Zeus. That makes no sense. After attacking the upstart Argosians, he kills, as a freebie, two innocent bystanders, Spyros and Marmara (Elizabeth McGovern), which makes no sense, but it enrages their son, a young Perseus, giving him his raison d’etre, revenge upon Hades, which he’ll forget in the second movie.
Despite this display of God power, the Argosians are determined, more than ever, to not worship the Gods, which makes no sense, and Cassiopeia (“Rome”’s Polly Walker) brags about the beauty of her daughter, Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), bringing down an even greater wrath. Hades shows up again, turns Cassiopeia to dust, disperses the Argosian soldiers, and promises to “release the Kraken,” a horrific monster, if Andromeda is not sacrificed for her mother’s effrontery. But Hades finds he can’t kill Perseus and immediately knows why: Perseus is a demi-god, the son of Zeus. He’s special.
Of course Andromeda’s father doesn’t want to sacrifice his daughter, so he sends his men, led by the stalwart Draco (Mads Mikkelsen), away from Argos, on a mission to kill the Kraken. This, too, makes no sense, since the Kraken is going to show up in a few days anyway. Why send your best men away from the city? Why not wait him out?
Right. Because “waiting him out” isn’t a story.
Zeus, half-son revealed, now has mixed feelings about the whole thing. He wants the Argosians punished, sure, but he doesn’t want to kill his half-son to do so. So he sends him a winged horse named Pegasus and an enchanted sword to protect him. But Perseus’ hatred for his absentee father is apparently greater than his hatred for the killer of his foster parents, and, initially, he refuses both gifts. He thinks he can get by without them. He’s an idiot without a personality. He’s an idiot only idiots can like.
Love? Fear? Release the Kraken!
Around this time we learn that Zeus lives off the love of man while Hades lives off their fear. So shouldn’t Hades be more powerful than Zeus? Isn’t fear more prevalent in us than love? At the least it’s worth a debate, a mention, a passing line or two. Here. Let’s trade two giant scorpions for 30 seconds of debate.
Nope. On we trudge, stupidly, to get the head of Medusa with which to beat the Kraken. Battles are engaged, soldiers fall, until we’re left with just the main dudes, the ones who have names. But all of them, even Draco, buy it in the underworld. Only Perseus, looked over by a kind of angel, Io (Gemma Artetron), who’s kind of hot, triumphs.
Of course, back in Argos, the people, led by a religious nut (Luke Treadway), are rightly worried about Zeus, Hades and the coming Kraken, so they grab Andromeda and tie her up on the cliffs above the sea, as an offering, and because it’s sexy. But at the last minute Perseus appears on Pegasus and yadda yadda. Hades appears and yadda yadda. Then Perseus and Andromeda kiss and ... Wait. He winds up with Io, not Andromeda. That makes no sense. Isn’t she a guardian angel? It’s like dating the tooth fairy.
So most everything that happens in “Clash of the Titans” is expected. The only unexpected moments are the nonsensical ones.
“The oldest stories ever told,” Io tells us in the beginning, “are written in the stars.”
Or in Hollywood.
Movie Review: Haevnen/In a Better World (2010)
Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” the English-language title for the Danish film “Haevnen,” which won the Oscar for best foreign language film at the 2010 Academy Awards, attempts to give a more adult answer to the dilemma Hollywood has spent 100 years exploiting: What do ordinary, law-abiding citizens do when confronted with bullies and psychopaths? How does a man face brutality without becoming brutal himself?
These films are now called vigilante films, since, in them, ordinary citizens go beyond the law to set things right (see everything from “Death Wish” to “Harry Brown”), but they were once simply called westerns. The hero that emerged, often John Wayne, didn’t have to worry about going beyond the law because there was barely a law. He also shot second. (He was eminently fair.) There was also no blood, no rape, no none of that. Hays Code.
In “Haevnen,” Elias (Markus Rygaard), buck-toothed and braces-wearing, is the picked-upon kid at his local school, whose hallways are ruled by Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm) and his crew of toadies. They block entranceways, demand obeisance, and hurt and humiliate those they don’t like. Elias, sweet-natured, is a favorite target.
Then Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), Danish, but recent of London where his mother died of cancer, arrives on the scene. He’s no bigger than Elias, and both are smaller than Sofus, but he moves through life with an intense glare. The first day he scopes out the scene like a little Clint Eastwood, stands up to Sofus (for which he gets a soccer ball in the nose), and the next day, when Sofus follows Elias into the boys’ room to further pick on him, Christian follows and attacks Sofus with a bike pump and a knife, leaving him bloody and moaning on the floor. It’s like John Foster Dulles’ 1950s foreign policy of massive retaliation except in a Danish middle school.
School officials, absent or impotent for the reign of Sofus’ terror, now, of course, get involved. The knife is particularly troublesome—it’s apparently the Danish equivalent of bringing a gun to school—and parents are called and admonished; but both boys stand firm, the knife is never found, and Sofus’ reign ends. Half an hour into the film.
That itself is intriguing. In the typical vigilante film, you get your moment of revenge in the third act, not the first, and it pretty much ends the movie. Now we’re left wondering what’s going to happen next. (At the same time, it doesn’t mean we didn’t thrill to the beating of Sofus, the little shit, any less than we thrill to the revenge perpetrated against any number of cinematic bullies. First or third act, the desire for justice of a violent nature is still there.)
I suppose that’s the question of “Haevnen”: Can we have a justice that’s not violent? That’s within the law? That’s adult?
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), the father of Elias, attempts to find out. Well, he doesn’t attempt to find out. It’s less proactive than that. He just finds out. Kind of.
Anton spends half his time as a doctor-without-borders in sub-Saharan Africa, treating the sick and the injured. The latter group, increasingly, is filled with pregnant women whose stomachs have been slit open. Why? Who could do such a thing? Turns out, the local chieftain, Big Man (Odiege Matthew), who bets compatriots on the gender of the unborn babies of passing pregnant women. Cutting them open is a way to settle the bet.
It’s in Denmark, though, that Anton finds his bully. One day, chaperoning his two boys and Christian near the docks, Morten (Toke Lars Bjarke), Elias’ younger brother, pulls away and gets into a fight with another boy over a swing. When Anton tries to break it up, the father of the second boy shows up, belligerently objects to Anton touching his son, and slaps Anton in the face several times. It’s a shocking moment—for both us and the kids. It’s also shocking for Anton, who keeps his cool but cools off his injured cheek (and injured spirit?) with a swim in the family lake at dusk.
In a better world, Anton would forget about the incident. Unfortunately, now his son thinks him a coward. So after the boys have tracked the bully, Lars (Kim Bodnia), to his workplace, Anton shows up, with boys in tow, and confronts him. Except Lars feels no shame, just maliciousness, and again slaps Anton repeatedly. It’s an interesting scene. Anton is confrontational but peaceful, and shows no fear, and questions every move Lars makes. Afterwards, outside, he claims that Lars showed himself to be a big jerk not worth anyone’s time or attention. He says Lars lost. But Christian annunciates our thoughts: “I don’t think he thinks he lost.”
This sets up the second half of the movie: Anton, in Africa, dealing with an injured Big Man, and Elias and Christian, in Denmark, scheming against Lars. In his grandfather’s garage, Christian finds old fireworks and uses their gunpowder to create a bomb with which to blow up Lars’ car.
In the end, retribution against Lars is premeditated and comes with complications (Elias is caught in the blast), while retribution against Big Man is impulsive and ... without complications? Anton treats Big Man for an infected leg for several days, but when Big Man makes a joke about a girl who dies on Anton’s operating table, Anton loses it and shoves him and his entourage—two unarmed men—into the courtyard. The two men flee, while Big Man is left helpless on the ground. The citizens gradually close in on him and tear him apart.
If there are complications for Anton’s actions, they are internal, within Anton, never external. At no point, for example, do any of Big Man’s men take revenge. Because they wanted Big Man gone, too? Who knows? It’s all left hanging. Does Anton feel less culpable about Big Man’s death because it wasn’t by his own hands? Does he feel disappointed in the citizens who tear him apart? Does he revel in the revenge, as most of us, from the safety of our theater seats, do?
Every answer “Haevnen” offers is dissatisfying. Most, one imagines, are purposefully so, but the movie is dissatisfying in other, seemingly unintentional ways. How, for example, does Christian become a 10-year-old Clint Eastwood in the first place? Solely through the death of his mother? He apparently learns his lesson—or a lesson—about his violent ways by almost causing the death of Elias. But how long does the lesson hold? And does Anton feel any culpability here? If he’d simply stood up to Lars, or called the cops on him, the boys wouldn’t have felt the need to take action themselves. What’s the better world of the title: one in which Anton stands up to Lars or one in which Lars doesn’t exist?
The cinematography is gorgeous and the acting excellent—particularly William Jøhnk Nielsen’s astonishing turn as Christian, for which he was nominated best actor at the Danish Academy Awards. But “Haevnen” still feels weak for a best foreign language film winner. We watch for two hours and no insight, great or small, comes.
Movie Review: “Morning Glory” (2010)
WARNING: THERE ARE NO SPOILERS IN A MOVIE THIS OBVIOUS
In “Morning Glory,” an enthusiastic, workaholic TV producer, Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), lands a gig with a floundering national morning news show, “Daybreak,” and does whatever she can to turn the show into a success.
In “Morning Glory,” an enthusiastic, workaholic actress, Rachel McAdams, lands the lead in a floundering star vehicle, “Morning Glory,” and does whatever she can to turn the movie into a success.
Becky succeeds. The way she succeeds is part of why Rachel fails. Shame. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a likeable talent turn in such a funny, nuanced performance in the service of such crap.
As the movie begins, Becky is the producer of “Good Morning, New Jersey,” which has just been bought by a conglomerate, and in the reshuffling everyone expects her to get promoted. Subordinates wear T-shirts reading, “Way to go, Becky!” and Becky wears a T-shirt into her boss’s office reading, “Yes, I accept!” Instead of getting booted up, of course, she gets booted out. Cue box of personal items and crying subordinates, still wearing their “Way to go, Becky!” T-shirts, in the parking lot.
That’s not a bad scene, actually. They telegraph it, but something about those T-shirts in the parking lot forgives the telegraphing.
No, the first real red flag of the movie is subsequent to that, when Becky’s mother (Patti D’Arbanville, “Lady D’Arbanville” Cat Stevens fans) has a heart-to-heart with her. She tells her it’s time to give up on her dreams. She tells her those dreams used to be cute but now they’re just ... embarrassing. She tells her to stop now, please, before her life becomes tragic.
Really, Mom? Your daughter just got fired through no fault of her own? From a job she was obviously good at? And this is your advice? It’s not like she’s 28 and wants to be a ballerina. She just wants to be a producer. She wants to work in TV. Maybe if you’d given a speech about how it’s 2010, and TV is dying, and you need to look to the future and try something Twitterish or YouTubeish, we would’ve bought it in some respect. Maybe if you’d owned up to how volatile the world seems, and how no job, no profession, no career seems safe in these shifting times, you would’ve connected Becky and her problems to us and ours, in a way that felt meaningful, and we would’ve cared more about the movie. Instead ...
Of course this speech was designed (by screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, director Roger Michell, and the suits at Paramount) to make Becky more sympathetic. It provides a kind of false tension in the first 10 minutes. She needs to show her mother! And quickly! Which she does. She lands a plum (or plummish) gig as producer of the IBS network’s fourth-place morning show: “Daybreak.”
When she arrives, the doorknobs don’t work, the staff is lethargic, the cohost, Paul McVee (Ty Burrell) is a sex pervert. So she energizes the staff by firing the co-host. But her boss, Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum—always welcome to see), rather than applaud the move, tells her she has no budget for a new cohost. So she has to pick someone already contracted to, but not really working for, the IBS family.
Ah, but there is someone in this category. A legend, actually: Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford, all wrong for the role), a Mike Wallaceish, crotchety, old-school TV newsman, and, according to hunky fellow IBSer, Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), “the third worst person in the world.” Through a kind quirky persistence, she lands both the hunky Bennettt (in bed) and the crotchety Pomeroy (in the co-host chair). But while the former is accommodating and tight-abbed in the Hollywood manner, the latter fights and grumbles all the way.
He’s full of himself and his importance. He has ego battles with co-host Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) over who gets to sign off the show—not a bad bit, actually—even though he doesn’t care a wit for the show. He insists on announcing only depressing news, or “news.” He thinks shows like “Daybreak” are contributing to the decline and fall of western civilization.
Problem? He’s right but completely unlikeable. He’s so gruff and serious he makes the real Mike Wallace seem like Richard Simmons in comparison. He’s so gruff he even has a growly voice, which doesn’t work for TV news at all. Listen to Wallace, Safer, Koppel. Their faces may be craggy but their voices are smooth. Harrison Ford? He’s virtually expectorating every word he says. He’s Demi Moore with bronchitis.
Bigger problem? Becky, our heroine, is likeable but wrong. We want her to win, but to win, to get the ratings up so the show isn’t canceled, she has to make her show sillier, which she does with enthusiasm. She puts the weatherman on a roller coaster. She makes him skydive. His horrified reaction makes everyone laugh and he becomes “a YouTube sensation,” whatever that’s worth. Now Colleen wants in on the action. She bakes this, she dances with that, has animals on her show. Animals! And funny things happen with them! Oops, here comes a sku-u-unk...
But it works. By aiming low, by making the fluffy show fluffier, the ratings go up, they get new doorknobs, and Becky is called into the offices of the “Today” show to become their producer. Will she abandon what she’s created, and her team of misfits, to take her dream job? Of course she won’t. This is a movie, not life. So Mike Pomeroy, realizing he’s about to lose the producer who saved the show he never wanted to be on in the first place, makes an impromptu frittata on camera, to show that he’s loosened up; and Becky, about to take the job in the “Today” show offices, sees him do this—because NBC apparently displays all their rivals’ TV shows in their corporate offices—excuses herself, and runs across town to get back to him in time. In time for what? For the frittata? The tension is past. Her choice is made. That was the tension. No, she runs for pretend tension: so she can be in the wings and smile at Mike Pomeroy as he signs off.
Get a room already, you two.
You know what might’ve been a cool movie? “An award-winning TV journalist, Mike Pomeroy (Donald Sutherland), is forced to take a job on a morning news program, where his standards keep getting lowered until his overly enthusiastic producer, Becky (Rachel McAdams), asks for one final humiliation.” Think of it as “Morning Glory” mixed with “Blue Angel.”
Or this? “A likeable, quirky TV producer, Becky (Rachel McAdams), continually lowers the standards of her morning news show to get the ratings up, but it doesn’t work and the show is canceled.”
I know. Neither would ever get made. But in a way the latter one did. “Morning Glory,” a movie that continually lowered its standards to give movie audiences what they wanted, wasn’t what people wanted. It opened in fifth place last November and sank without a trace.
Movie Review: “Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS OF STEEL
It’s immediately suspect, isn’t it? “Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics,” produced by DC Entertainment. Most corporations can’t police themselves let alone document themselves. Gonna suck. Gonna sweep shit under the rug.
And it does. We get Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster creating Superman in 1938, and, according to Bob Kane, earning $800 a week a year later, but not being shunted aside in the 1940s by DC, then forgotten, then scraping out an existence while their creation soars to new heights, until, in the 1970s, to prevent bad publicity prior to “Superman: The Movie,” Warner Bros. finally, meagerly compensates the two for changing the world. We get Captain Marvel outselling even Superman in 1940, but not the eight-year-long lawsuit by DC that kills that creation as well as Fawcett Publications. We get editor Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger rescuing Superman in the late ‘50s by inventing Supergirl and Superdog and Supercat and Superhorse and Supermonkey, but no word on how all of this super crap essentially buried the Man of Steel under layers of irrelevance just as Marvel Comics was about to make comic books relevant again.
The first words in the doc don’t help. A dude who turns out to be Neil Adams defends comics through hyperbole. “There is no better medium than comic books,” he says. “It’s the medium.” A second later he defends comics through a kind of quotidian consumerism. “You may not like comic books, you may not respect comic books, but they’re something that people buy for themselves that they want to read.”
Really? That’s your open?
Yet “Secret Origins” isn’t bad. Some shit even stays on top of the rug. Gerard Jones, author of “Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book” (a must-read), talks up the gangster contacts of Harry Donenfeld, along with the near-pornography status of his early pulps, before he and accountant Jack S. Liebowitz partnered with Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson of National Allied Publications and created “Detective Comics #1.” Both Jones and comic book writer Mark Waid, all half-smiles and shrugs, talk up the bondage fixation of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Marston, which was translated to the comics page with breathtaking regularity. Stan Lee and Marvel Comics get their 30 seconds, too, which is 30 seconds more than I thought they’d get, while Denny O’Neil offers a charming, heartfelt mea culpa for taking away Wonder Woman’s powers in the early 1970s: “What I did, in effect, was take the feminist icon and depower her, dial her way down, and then to compound the sin give her a mentor [I-Ching] who is a male, and then, to compound that sin, named that male after one of the classics of Chinese literature.” A grimace and an eye-roll. “Hoo!”
The doc, to its credit, doesn't ignore the bondage fixation of William Marston, Wonder Woman's creator.
Talking heads often make the doc and “Secret Origins” is as packed as the Justice League in this regard: Not just Jones and Waid and O’Neil but Chip Kidd, Neil Gaiman, and Len Wein. We get archival footage of Bob Kane behind the wheel of the 1960s Batmobile (the coolest car ever) and Alan Moore recounting that first phone call from Len Wein offering him “Swamp Thing.” The doc takes us from the mid-1930s and “Fun” comics to the constant reboots of today.
Some of the footage is truly archival. Here’s a kid caught up in early Supermania:
Here’s “Superman Day” at the World’s Fair in 1940:
Chip Kidd, unlike Adams, is charming in his hyperbole:
I think the Fleischer Superman cartoons are a pinnacle of cinematic achievement in the 20th century. I’m sure people will laugh at me for saying that. But they’re like beautiful little poems that I never get tired of viewing.
How good are these cartoons? Near the end of the doc, there’s a nice juxtaposition of Max Fleischer’s cartoon Superman stopping a plane from crashing (in 1941) with Bryan Singer’s live-action Superman stopping a plane from crashing (in 2006), and they’re so similar one wonders if the former didn’t inspire the latter.
The mighty Superman, in 1941 (top) and in 2006.
Unfortunately, Singer isn’t a talking head here. His Superman is being rebooted by Zack Snyder so he’s literally out of the picture.
DC frames their story—correctly I believe—as one of invention followed by stagnation, followed by the next generation’s invention. Thus the company went from messy, creative, 1940s sweatshop to surviving by tiptoeing through the reactionary 1950s to a burst of Julius Schwartz-directed activity just before 1960 (the origin of the modern Flash is particularly interesting), which led indirectly to the resurgence of Marvel, which led DC to attempt, breathlessly, to catch up with stories of poverty and drug abuse from the younger generation (Adams; O’Neil), and which ultimately led to the astonishing reboots and darker visions of Frank Miller and Alan Moore in the 1980s. But the 1990s saw excessive darkness and vigilantism from Miller/Moore acolytes, so Alex Ross and Mark Waid created the “Kingdom Come” series, in which Superman, etc., returned to battle the new amoral superheroes. Post 9/11, apparently, we got a return to the superhero as wish-fulfillment. At least that’s what’s implied here but the modern era is out of my purview. (To me it feels like it’s all one-shots and reboots.)
So much is missing. We get tears, literal tears, on the overhyped “Death of Superman” in 1994 but nothing on John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” reboot or Marv Wolfman’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” maxi-series. We get the 1950s “Adventures of Superman,” the 1960s Adam West “Batman” and the 1970s “Superfriends”; but no mention of the 1940s Superman/Batman serials (two each), the 1960s Broadway musical, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman!,” nor the 1960s “Superman/Aquaman Hour."
So many issues (no pun intended) are left untouched:
- What does it mean to kill off continuity with reboots and one-shots? Continuity leads to stagnation and the weight of history, but reboots lead to ... what? Frivolity? None of it matters because none of it is the story. It's all imaginary tales now.
- Does the increasing sophistication of comic books, and their marginalization into specialty stores, mean losing younger generations of fans?
- What are sales like these days? Are comic book characters thriving in other media (“Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight”) even as comic books themselves struggle to survive anemic sales?
- The biggee: Why did superheroes emerge when they did? What were the nearest forerunners to superheroes in the 19th century? In the 14th? In 29 A.D.?
All of which means, I suppose, that the great documentary on Superman, or DC Comics, or the long history of comic books in general, still needs to be written.
Same Bat-time, kids.
Movie Review: “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest” (2010)
WARNING: SPÖILERS III
“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest”? Really? How about “The Girl Who Lies in Bed While a Bunch of Old, Decrepit Hornets Buzz their Last Buzz”? If some trilogies follow the Hegelian pattern of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, the Millennium trilogy goes a slightly different route: thesis, thesis, anesthesia. I felt nothing but sleepy here.
The thesis of the series is in its Swedish title, “Män som hatar kvinnor”: “Men Who Hate Women.” So “Dragon Tattoo,” the first film, gives us not only Martin Vanger, a Swedish Nazi who has been torturing, raping and killing women for 40 years, but, for extra credit, Nils Bjurman, lawyer, guardian, and rapist of our fidgety, feral heroine, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). Both villains get theirs. The second film, “Played with Fire,” brings back Bjurman for a final bow before kicking him to the curb. There are also allusions to human trafficking, but these gets buried when it’s discovered the man running the sex trade, Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), is Lisbeth’s father, whom fire played, while his blonde, brutish henchman, Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), is the half-brother she never knew she had. These guys hate, sure, but they overflow our thesis. They’re EOE. They hate everybody.
By the third film? We’re left with Dr. Peter Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom), the director of the institute where 12-year-old Lisbeth was incarcerated after she played with fire. Apparently he was in the second film, too, but I don’t remember him. Apparently he tied up Lisbeth for more than a year of her two-year-stay, and there are allusions he abused her, along with vague, grainy, flashback footage. But he’s a toothless beast now, more pathetic than horrifying. When not the main government witness in a trial to incarcerate Lisbeth again, he jerks off to child porno.
“Hornet's Nest” is less revelation (for us) than attempted cover-up (by the powers-that-be). Because Lisbeth survives that bullet to the brain from the second movie, and her father, Zalachenko, survives that axe to the head from the second movie, the authorities are intent on charging her with attempted murder (of him), and him with ... isn’t it also attempted murder? Of her? So shouldn’t these two charges off-set each other somewhat? Someone, anyway, has a good self-defense argument.
Old, powerful men keep gathering. They talk in hushed tones. They need things hush-hush for the remainder of their sad lives and will do anything to make it so. Example: Zalachenko, from this hospital bed, demands protection from the powers-that-be or he’ll implicate them. He’ll spill the beans. He says to Evert Gullberg (Hans Alfredson), “You have no choice.” To which Gullberg, who reminds me of former baseball manager Bill Rigney, sagely replies, “Life has taught me there’s always a choice” and promptly shoots Zalachenko in the head. Then he goes after Lisbeth. But the door to her hospital room is barricaded, and after one or two feeble attempts, oof, he sits down, an old man on a waiting room bench, to catch his breath. Then he puts the gun to his cheek and pulls the trigger.
“What are these guys trying to cover up again?” I asked Patricia halfway through the film.
“That stuff about Zalachenko,” she replied. “How he worked for them. How they protected him.”
There really is nothing new here. We already know what the truth is. So do the main characters. We’re just waiting to see if the rest of Sweden will catch up. Shocking revelations are made in Millennium magazine: the stuff from the first two movies. Shocking revelations are made in court: the stuff from the first two movies. Basically we get to watch while lawyers and judges watch plot points from the first two movies and agree how horrific it all was.
It’s an odd trilogy, isn’t it? Men who hate women, sure, but also men who nurture women. Or a woman. How many good men does Lisbeth have on her side to offset the bastards? Count ’em off:
- Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), our journalist hero.
- Dragan Armanskij (Michalis Koutsogiannakis), her employer from the first film, who does some investigative work for Blomkvist in this one.
- Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson), her first guardian.
- That boxer from the second movie, Paolo Roberto, who kicks ass.
- Plague (Tomas Köhler), the computer hacker, always there to act as a modern deus ex machina, extracting information, as it became necessary, from other people’s computers. This is never more true than at the end of “Hornet's,” when he saves the day and is then forgotten. All credit goes to Blomkvist.
- Finally, “Hornet's” gives us Dr. Anders Jonasson (Aksel Morisse), the surgeon who extracts the bullet from Lisbeth’s brain. She barely says anything to him but he’s quickly smitten. He keeps the police at bay for her. He buys her pizza when she wants it. He gives her gifts: a book on DNA. She nods her thanks.
As for the women? For a trilogy that feels feminist, the women, with the exception of Lisbeth, are kind of lame.
In the first movie there’s Harriet Vanger, who would rather let her brother rape and kill for 40 years than confront him or even warn the authorities about him.
Erika Berger (Lena Endre), the publisher of Millennium, is a wishy-washy mess. In “Hornet's” she gets a few threatening emails warning her not to print the magazine with Lisbeth’s story in it. Then a rock is thrown through her window. What does she do? She decides not to print the magazine with Lisbeth’s story in it. Hardly Katie Graham.
One has higher hopes for Annika Giannini (Annika Hallin), Blomkvist’s sister, pregnant, and a no-nonsense lawyer, but she disappoints, too. She takes Lisbeth’s case reluctantly, grumbling all the while, as a favor to her brother, even though it’s probably the biggest case in the country. Does she do investigative work? Who knows? Everything seems handed to her. Blomkvist gives her Lisbeth’s story, along with documentary evidence of some of the authority abuse she suffered (a DVD of the Bjurman rape), but she doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. When the main government witness, Teleborian, claims the Bjurman rape is part of Lisbeth’s paranoid schizophrenia, Annika doesn’t introduce the DVD into evidence to discredit him. Not immediately. We still have half an hour of film to watch. So she wrings her hands, and whines, until Plague, hacking Teleborian’s computer, delivers the coup de grace: evidence that Teleborian created his diagnosis of Lisbeth before even seeing Lisbeth. Plus there’s all that kiddie porn. Plague hands off to Blomkvist who hands off to Annika, who finally makes her case. Hardly Maureen Mahoney.
Even Lisbeth seems to regress in the third film. Remember the first film? She was almost too interesting there: tough, feral, a computer hacker with a photographic mind who saves the day and vanishes like the Lone Ranger, leaving Blomkvist and us to wonder: “Who was that stoic girl?”
In the second film she begins to let people in—Blomkvist literally—but by the third film, with her hacking skills and photographic mind a thing of the past, she has trouble just saying tack. The “Godfather” trilogy suffered from its Arte Johnson-like ending (an ancient Michael Corleone falling off a park bench and dying), and the Millennium trilogy, which ain’t nearly in the same category, suffers from its almost shrug of an ending. Lisbeth, sure, takes care of Niedermann, who shows up like a Bond villain in the denouement; then she takes a bath. Blomkvist comes by. They exchange awkward greetings. She finally says what she hasn’t been able to say, tack för allt, thank you for everything. Should the movie have ended there? With a close-up of her face? Or his? Instead we get more awkwardness, then a flat, distant shot of Stockholm from the water; then the credits start rolling. Hej då.
For all my problems with the series, the girl with the dragon tattoo, who played with fire, who kicked the hornet's nest, deserved a better ending than this.
Movie Review: “Biutiful” (2010)
WARNING: THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD SPOILERS
The world of Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams,” “Babel”) tends to be a polyglot of crowded, marginal characters. It’s a world where everyone ekes a living off of each other, and what light there is is fluorescent. Halfway through his latest, “Biutiful,” the sun shines on a family eating breakfast together. “Ah, the sun,” I thought. Then it goes away. The sun is for other people’s movies.
Iñárritu is all about border crossings. At the start of “Biutiful,” Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is facilitating between two immigrant groups, the illegal Chinese and the legal African, in Barcelona. The former make bootleg products in basement factories, which the latter then sell along Las Ramblas or in the Plaza Cataluña. Uxbal bribes la policia to look the other way.
He’s also clairvoyant. Did I mention that? He can communicate with the recently dead and help them cross that final border to the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. I should add that never has such a gift been presented in such by-the-way fashion in a movie. Uxbal has an answer to the most profound question in human history—does the individual consciousness survive death?—and he views it like it’s pro bono work, like it’s a hobby. He does it on the side when he has the time.
Despite this gift, Uxbal’s life is no great shakes. He lives in a cramped, basement apartment with his two kids. His ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), is bipolar, an addict, and sleeping with his brother. He’s really only a step or two up from the immigrants he’s helping or exploiting. Then he’s diagnosed with cancer and given months to live.
So is this going to be that kind of story? The inconsequential man, forced, by the proximity and sudden inevitability of death, to see the beauty of life? Yes, there’s some of that. Uxbal is a hulking figure for much of the first third of the film. (You realize what a powerful back, and what a huge head, Bardem has.) After his diagnosis, he softens a bit. He visits his clairvoyant mentor, who tells him, “Put your affairs in order.” Both she and he know that the biggest problem for the recently dead is worry over unresolved matters, which get them to linger, to remain where they shouldn’t, and neither wants that for Uxbal.
So Uxbal begins to put his affairs in order. He tries to help the Africans, who are being deported for selling drugs. He tries to help the illegal Chinese immigrants, who live in horrible conditions, by buying them space heaters. He reconnects with Marambra, who still loves him, and he and the kids move into her apartment. They have breakfast together. The sun shines through the window. Life is good.
But life, as short as it is, lasts longer than “good.” The Africans are deported despite Uxbal’s efforts. Marambra goes back to partying, and doing drugs, and she beats the youngest, Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), forcing Uxbal to move everyone back into his basement apartment, which he’s already given to Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the wife of one of his deported Africans.
Most horrific: the heaters Uxbal buys for the Chinese immigrants—made, no doubt, by people under conditions similar to theirs—don’t work properly. Iñárritu telegraphs the moment. Twice in the movie we see the Chinese foreman unlock the doors to wake the workers at 6:30 a.m., but both times we’re inside the room. The third time Iñárritu places the camera outside the room, over the foreman’s shoulder. The door opens and, lo and behold, dozens of dead bodies lying on the floor. Patricia, watching next to me, gasped in horror, but I was only surprised that it was an apparent gas leak. I was expecting charred bodies burnt to a crisp.
So now Uxbal has dozens of deaths on his conscience just as he’s dying himself. How does he deal with the weight of all this? Poorly or not at all. He makes a few motions, feints in several directions, but he’s really too busy dying to do anything proper. He withers, wears diapers, is confined to bed. Ige begins to watch his kids, to feed them. Will she be his savoir? On his deathbed, Uxbal gives her money to pay a year’s rent, so at least his kids will have a place to live for a year, but she uses the money to travel back to Africa and her husband. She abandons his for hers.
Every attempt to put his affairs in order, in other words, leads to chaos and heartbreak. It’s as if a sick God is foiling his every move. One is.
What is it about Iñárritu? He deals with themes I care about but his execution always bores me. His scenes are gritty but peculiarly weightless and airless. He shoves too many characters on the screen, shrinking them to make them all fit. He pisses me off.
I did like two scenes, however, shown both the beginning and end of the movie.
In the first scene, the camera focuses on two pairs of hands, male and female, and we hear voices, male and female, talking about a diamond ring. “Is it real?” she asks. Yes, he answers. She wants to wear it. He lets her. It could be a young couple, postcoital, at the beginning of their journey, but by the end of the movie we know it’s Uxbal and his daughter, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib), and the conversation is the last he will have in this world.
In the second scene, Uxbal is in the woods eyeing a handsome young man. They smoke cigarettes and have an odd conversation about owls. The man, younger than Uxbal, shorter than Uxbal, seems the dominant one, while Uxbal has a kind of shy, flirtatious love shining in his eyes. Initially confusing, by the end of the movie we know the man is Uxbal’s father, who died when Uxbal was young, which means Uxbal is now dead. This is the afterlife. But it’s almost like a dream, isn’t it, pieced together from life in the way of dreams. Freud once observed that anything we hear in a dream we first hear in life, and so it is with the conversation about the owls. Initially it was Mateo’s conversation to Uxbal. The woods themselves seem culled from a refrigerator drawing of Mateo’s: childish woods beneath the word “biutiful.”
But this is only the beginning of death. In the woods, Uxbal’s father moves away, and Uxbal says “What’s over there?” He follows him. The camera stays behind. And that’s where the movie ends.
Patricia loved it. When the lights came up I looked over and her cheeks were soaked with tears. For a moment it made me question my own nonplussed reaction. But only for a moment.
Iñárritu is all about border crossings but his movies don’t inspire any border crossings in me. They don’t take me any place I haven’t been or want to go. I remain (stubbornly? frustratedly?) on this side, in the place I started.
The Tardiest and Positively Last List of TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2010
The movie year increasingly reminds me of the old video game “Space Invaders.” In the beginning, the invaders drop down intermittently and at a snail's pace—easy pickings—but as the game progresses they come fast and furious until you can't keep up, and then ... Blam! Game over.
That's my movie year. It starts out slowly, luxuriously, with huge gaps between one good film (“The Ghost Writer”) and another (“Un Prophete”). The dashed hopes of spring (“Kick Ass”) eventually give way to the heat of summer blockbusters (“Toy Story 3”; “Inception”). In fall, there's September pretenders (“The American”), October surprises (“The Social Network”), but before you know it you're inundated (“Black Fair Rabbit Fighter Job Speech Grit”) until ... Blam! Game over.
Long way of sayng I should've posted this sooner but kept trying to pick up all those I missed. Then I looked around and it was February and I knew I had to go with what I've got.
This is what I've got.
10. “Inside Job” is the first of three documentaries in my Top 10. It's the least powerful but probably the most necessary since it goes into the whys and hows of the global financial meltdown, which most of us, including especially me, don't quite understand yet. The talking heads we want (Henry Paulson; Larry Summers) aren't talking, of course, but enough middle-management types, flattered to be asked, are. My favorite? Little Freddy Mishkin, tanned and suited up, who hems and haws through a series of questions, including one on a 2006 independent study he co-authored, for $125,000, for the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce. He called it “Financial Stability in Iceland.” This was just before the Icelandic economy collapsed disastrously. So now in his CV it's called “Financial Instability in Iceland.” When questioned on the switch, he responds with his usual grace: “Well, I don't know, if, whatever it is, is, the, uh, the thing—if it's a typo, there's a typo.” Review excerpt:
Most of us struggle to find something we’re good at, and for which we can get paid, and, if we’re lucky, we do this thing for 40 to 50 years until we can hopefully retire with a bit of comfort. And while we’re doing this thing, we’re putting our money, bit by bit, into a room, which is where other people, bit by bit, are putting their money, too. So there’s a huge pile of money in this room. Now there’s another group of people who are attracted to this room for the pile of money. They believe they can take that pile of money, our money, and turn it into a bigger pile of money, a lot of which will be their money. But while they’re doing this magic act, they don’t want anyone to watch. Because we can trust them. Because they are self-regulating. Because what could possibly go wrong?
9. I had problems with “The Ghostwriter,” particularly the ending, in which the Ghost (Ewan McGregor) figures it all out then gives it all up to his enemies, the faux-Bush administration, and dies two seconds later. It's as if U.S. government agencies are quick, coordinated and supersmart rather than the slow, clumsy battleships we know them to be. So I never thought this movie would make my top 10. It's the weight of it that finally won me over. It's the images that stayed in my head: the lone SUV, alarm blaring, on the ferry; McGregor next to the full-paned window revealing the dunes outside—making it appear he's half in the room and half out; the unsexy sex scenes; the investigation through GPS; the cold and the gray and the paranoia of it all. For all the problems with story, the feel of it was created by a true artist. Review excerpt:
In the 1970s, and in political thrillers such as “Three Days of the Condor,” the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the left for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in everything. In the 2000s, the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the right for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in nothing. Bushies outed CIA agents. That’s how crazy things got. In “The Ghostwriter,” the CIA, FBI and the faux-Bush administration all work together in super-smart, super-efficient fashion. As soon as perceived enemies appear they are struck down. One ponders the sad history of this past decade, particularly before and after 9/11, and thinks: Right.
8. There are two big reasons why “Black Swan” is on my list. Half an hour after watching it, I still had to remind myself to “breathe” because I'd barely breathed at all during the last half hour of the film. And I'd barely breathed during the last half hour of the film because director Darren Aronofsky, and star Natalie Portman, get you into the head of the main character, Nina, as well as Dostoevsky gets you into the head of Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment.” That's the realm of novels not movies. But Aronofsky is making it the realm of movies. Review excerpt:
No, Nina is hardly innocent. She’s covetous. Early in the film, after Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) trashes her dressing room when she learns she’s been summarily dismissed as prima ballerina of their New York ballet company, Nina sneaks in and sits at the vanity mirror and looks at herself and tries out Beth’s lipstick; then she pockets Beth’s lipstick. It seems a minor thing. Until later in the film when Beth is in the hospital and Nina brings out all the things, including diamond earrings, that Nina stole from her over the years. She’s been coveting the role of prima ballerina for years, and now it’s hers, but she can only see versions of herself ready to take it away again. She assumes the world is like her—we all do—and that’s why she’s paranoid. She knows how awful the desire to take.
7. I still think about it sometimes. What if the creators of “Toy Story 3” had not given us their deus ex machina at the junkyard and allowed the toys, our favorite cinemantic toys, to be pulled into the furnace? What if we had all watched the beloved face of Woody (Tom Hanks) melt away as if he were the Gestapo officer in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? How much stronger the lesson would've been about our wasteful, throwaway culture. Of course: the howls of protest that would've emerged; the billions of dollars that wouldn't have been made. Instead we got our happy ending. Andy's life goes on but the toys are eternal. They will never die. It's a bit of a lie, but an argument can still be made that the “Toy Story” series is still the greatest trilogy Hollywood has ever produced. Each film builds on, and deepens, the previous one. Review excerpt:
Can we watch these movies and not think about ourselves? What the toys go through is essentially what we will all go through. First we’re useful; then we’re not; then we’re taken to a home where we may be abused. We live in a throwaway culture where we’re the last thing thrown away. “Toy Story 3” doesn’t want us to think about this too much, of course, so it gives us its bittersweet ending, where Andy finally, reluctantly, takes his childish things and gives them to Bonnie, shy Bonnie forever hiding behind her mother’s legs, where they will be both safe and useful. In Andy’s reluctance to let go, one sees the reluctance of Pixar itself, which began its empire with Woody and Buzz, and finally has to put away its childish things.
6. There's always a hint of unreality when one leaves a movie theater—it's as if you are waking from a dream—but I felt this tenfold leaving Chris Nolan's “Inception,” a movie which knows all about the connection between movies and dreams. And video games? Our inception team goes several levels into the unconscious of its victim and has to fight its way out of each level before surfacing in our own. Or is it our own? That's not just a question for Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb at the end of the movie, or for us in the audience watching “Inception”; it's the question in our heads as we walk the streets afterwards. Why is this level the real one? I guess because we're stuck here. Until we aren't. Review excerpt:
There are parallels, certainly, between “Inception” and “Shutter Island,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s previous movie that included a crazy wife who kills herself and the protagonist’s subsequent retreat from reality. But I felt “Inception” more. With “Shutter,” the craziness is isolated in one character. With “Inception,” it spreads. Like an idea. The sanest person in the movie, in fact, may be Mal, just before she kills herself. Once you navigate to the lower dream levels, who is to say that our level, the non-dream level, is the final level? Aren’t we told, all of our lives, that there is another, higher level? Or levels? Who’s to say that reality isn’t the dream from which we need to wake up? The greatest philosophers have said just that. Most of us have felt just that. Nolan is actually tapping into the sense of unreality that reality has. Not bad for a summer blockbuster.
5. “A Film Unfinished” ran from August to November in the States, played in 16 theaters at one point, and grossed $320,000. What a shame. Everyone should see this documentary. It's not just about the Nazis, or the Warsaw Ghetto, or the Holocaust; it's about what propaganda truly means. It's about what evil truly is. The Nazis filmed Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in the months before its liquidation in 1943. Why? Forty years later, historians realized they actually staged some of those scenes—creating scenes of comfortable and/or rich Jews. Again: Why? To hide what they were doing before they finished doing it? But hide ... from whom? And why film scenes of poor and starving Jews as well? The answer, when it hit me, hit me with a blow that both clarifies and sickens. Review excerpt (and spoilers):
The juxtaposition between rich Jews and poor Jews was justification. The Nazis were documenting a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination. In that moment of horror, of revelation, one understands the true meaning of propaganda. It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.
4. “The Social Network” sizzles with intelligence, doesn't it? That's how I still think of it three months later. It begins with a tabletop conversation that Quentin Tarantino would slit his wrists to have written, goes into an all-night, intellectual, misogynistic bender, and doesn't stop. The first half is about the creation of a global phenomenon. What fun! The second half is a love triangle between three boys with Sean Parker playing homme fatal. That's less fun. If the first half is about getting ahead in the Internet age, the second half is about who gets left behind. Sorkin's Zuckberg may not be the true Zuckerberg, but Eduardo is us. Review excerpt:
The final scene, where Zuckerberg finds Erica on Facebook and sends her a friend request, then refreshers her page again and again, is a scene for our time. This thing has been sent out into the ether and we need something to come back. We need to be filled, constantly filled, by the online world, because we're social animals, and socializing online is like the thirsty drinking salt water. We keep doing it and it’s only making us thirstier.
3. “True Grit” is a movie without adjectives or adverbs. It just tells its tale. It's not pushing us in any particular direction, it's just allowing us to ride along. The spectacle, if there is spectacle, is there in the main character, Rooster Cogburn, and in the language, most of it culled from Charles Portis' novel. But within its simple structure, its straightforward storytelling, the Coens make you feel things. You feel the violence of fingers chopped off and the heavy weight of hanged men. You feel the bark of trees and the biting cold of winter. You feel the power of a single gunshot. You feel the damp sweat of horses. Mostly, you feel the Old Testament logic to the world. As Mattie says: “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” Review excerpt:
Each character surprises. Each has his own code. Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, robbed banks in his youth, then dismisses it with a shrug and an excuse about never robbing a citizen. Lucky Ned, wearing the nastiest set of teeth in movies, and trading spittle-filled invective with Cogburn while pushing a boot into Mattie’s face, later acts the man of honor. Bargains are made—you do this and I’ll do this—but both Cogburn and Chaney go back on their word. Only Ned Pepper keeps his. This is a rough and absurd world, an Old Testament world, where a laugh is followed by the horror of fingers being chopped off; where an anticipated showdown with a killer becomes the absurdist image of a bear toddling through the woods on a horse. (Should the Coens adapt John Irving? Or is he too New Testament for them?)
2. You know how you hear, say, a political speech that moves you, and then the talking heads on cable news get our their knives and forks and cut it all up? That's how I felt during the Q&A for “Restrepo” after a Friday night showing at the Harvard Exit last May. Both directors were there, Timothy Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, and I was in the back row, still mesmerized by the power of this documentary; then the crowd, Seattle International Film Festival folks, got out their knives and forks. They wanted the doc to say what they wanted it to say. Why didn't it critique our Afghanistan policy? Why didn't it attack the Bush administration? They wanted it narrowed and defined. In the Stephen Daedalus sense, they wanted an improper art that is kinetic and didactic, and Hetherington and Junger merely gave them a painful ode to the fragility of the human condition. They gave us a tragic tale that arrests the mind above desire and loathing. They gave us art. Excerpt:
Finally, there’s Cortez, who’s smiling, always smiling in the post-deployment interviews. One wonders: “Why is this dude smiling?” Then you realize there’s a disconnect between the look on his face and what he’s saying. Near the end, he talks about how he can’t sleep.
I’ve been on four or five different types of sleeping pills and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep, and not dream about it, than sleep and see the pictures in my head. It’s...pretty bad.
The smile never leaves his face.
1. Am I too much a Francophile for reasons beyond Marion Cotillard? The French are now 2-for-2 on this site. Olivier Assayas's “L'heure d'ete” topped my list last year (posted Dec. 31st!), while, this year, it's Jacque Audiard's “Un Prophete,” the story of Malik, a young, illiterate Muslim who survives prison, first, as assassin, and then as lacky and go-between for the powerful Corsican mob. It's a kind of Malcolm X story: deliverance, and ultimately redemption, through incarceration. Malik is a Muhammadian figure the way Cool Hand Luke is a Christ figure. He enters as the most marginal of figures and leaves a powerful one. But it's the moments of quiet beauty that ultimately recommend the film. Review excerpt:
The arc of its story is brilliant but it’s the details that stay with me, such as Malik’s first plane trip, sandwiched between two bored commuters, but trying to get a glimpse of the sky out the window. He’s heading to Marseilles for a meeting, at Cesar’s behest, with Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi—one of the many amazing faces in this movie), where, again, he’s the distrusted Arab courier, but where his vision of a deer saves his life. Afterwards the deer meat is washed in the Mediterranean, and Lattrache, eyeing him with new respect, is intrigued by this quiet, honest man who straddles cultures. “Let’s get sucked before you go,” he says, but Malik turns him down. “I’d like to stay on the beach,” he says. He wades out into the water. One senses he’s never seen the sea before. Back in the dark of his prison cell, he takes off his shoe, looks inside, upends it. Sand courses through his fingers.
Movie Review: “The Town” (2010)
You can tell Dougie McRay (Ben Affleck), the handsome bank robber, will wind up with Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the pretty manager of the first bank we see him robbing, because, while the other robbers in scary skull masks yell at her to open the safe, and quickly, causing her to keep flubbing the combination, Dougie, ever sensitive to the situation, gently puts his hands on her hands and tells her to “breathe.” We should all have such bank robbers.
Where did it come from—this sensitivity? Dougie’s background belies it. When he was six, his mother ran away from home and he never saw her again. His father, Stephen (Chris Cooper), is currently serving five life sentences in federal prison for killing a guard during a robbery. His sometime-girl, Krista (Blake Lively), has a four-year-old girl of her own (his?), as well as a drug habit. Oh, and Dougie was a good enough hockey player (“hawkey playa”) to make the NHL but had such a temper he fought with his own teammates and was cut loose. Claire sees a photo of him, the local star, at a youth hockey arena where she volunteers, and he just shakes his head. “I look at that picture and see a 20-year-old kid who thinks he’s got it all figured out,” he says, “right before he’s about to throw it all away.”
Not a bad line. Not a bad director, either. Affleck has written and directed two movies now worth seeing, and while “The Town” isn’t as good as “Gone Baby Gone,” it’s not bad. Word of advice, though, for the writer-director: Get a better leading actor next time.
Affleck, as actor, can be awful (“Pearl Harbor,” “Surviving Christmas”), but he can also be very good. Check out “Dazed and Confused,” “Good Will Hunting,” and, in particular, “Hollywoodland,” in which he plays George Reeves, the 1950s Superman, who winds up caught and trapped by his role. He’s good playing petty men or regretful men. But as leading man?
Admittedly it’s a tough role. Doug McRay is supposed to have the quiet calm of a leader, and we see the quiet calm but we don’t really see the leader. He’s supposed to be capable of sudden violence—beating hoods with bats; killing gangsters—but we don’t feel violence within him. His threats, when he makes them, sound hollow. Compare him, for example, with Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), the gangland boss inside the florist’s shop, who keeps Doug in the game and in the town. He may be old, his arms may be shriveled, he may be in the act of trimming roses, but you still feel that this is a man capable of sudden and remorseless violence. He’s scary. Dougie isn't. He has arms like oaks, and tats all over his body, but there’s no threat in him, no killer inside him. The opposite. He’s the guy who can put his hands on the hands of a flustered girl and tell her to “breathe.”
His main partner, on the other hand, Jimmy (Jeremy Renner), is a dude you cross the street to avoid. Anyone else think of Cagney here? The short, volatile, Irish gangster? His ending, machine gun blazing as he’s rattled with bullets, has a particular “Top of the world, ma!” quality to it.
The story: Charlestown is the bank-robbingest neighborhood in the world, and these guys, our four guys, are good at it. So good they get a slightly immoral FBI agent, Frawley (Jon Hamm, also without the killer instinct necessary for the role), on their tail.
The trailer tells you most of the first half of the movie. Robbers use Claire as hostage; Dougie subsequently romances Claire, who doesn’t know what he does, or that he used her as a hostage. Jimmy, meanwhile, wants her scared. “Scared,” in Jimmy’s worldview, may equal “dead.”
At this point we have three questions:
- Will these guys get caught?
- Will Claire forgive Doug when she finds out?
- Will Doug choose Jimmy or Claire?
The second half doesn’t do poorly with these questions. Jimmy finds out about Claire, and he and Doug brawl about it, but it doesn’t get any worse. Claire finds out about Doug, through Frawley, and has no forgiveness. Her reaction seems real. She refuses to listen to his explanations and throws him out.
Finally, yes, they get caught, stealing money from Fenway Park after a four-game Red Sox-Yankees series. (The fun Affleck must have had writing that.) Well, three of them get caught—“caught” as in “dead”—but Doug, the smart one, escapes. Then he wraps things up neatly. He kills Fergie and his bodyguard (too easily, to be honest), then calls Claire one last time. He can see her from his uncle’s apartment across the street, surrounded by FBI agents, urging him to come over. She’s ready to betray him. That’s sad. But at the last instant she gives a verbal cue, one the agents won’t suspect, to warn him away. She cares. That’s good. He smiles. Me, I smiled at FBI agents so stupid they’d stand around in full view in a curtainless apartment while laying a trap. Your tax dollars at work.
All the compliments I have for “The Town” are in the negative. It’s not bad, not poor, the second half is not cheesy. Has anyone compared “The Town” to “Good Will Hunting”? Two friends: one a tall, tracksuit-wearing goombah (Affleck in both), the other a volatile shrimpkin (Damon, Renner). Plus a girl. Here, Affleck takes Will’s genius I.Q., halves it, and gives it to his character, along with the lead and the girl. Both movies are basically love letters to working-class Boston about getting the hell out of working-class Boston. Care is given to character, and story, but the ultimate goal for the lead is as inchoate and adolescent as an early Springsteen song. Just get out. Somewhere, maybe, there’s a girl waiting.
Review: “True Grit” (2010)
WARNING: FILL YOUR HAND WITH SPOILERS, YOU SON OF A BITCH!
There’s an irony to how well “True Grit” is doing at the box office—$126 million after four weeks, by far the Coens highest-grosser—because, and with deep apologies to cinematographer Roger Deakins, this is a movie that needs to be seen on DVD, and with the subtitles most definitely on. It’s not just that some of Jeff Bridges’ better lines are swallowed in a drunken rumble; there’s such richness to the language here that you don't want to miss anything. It’s so specific to time and place. Examples:
- You cannot have your way in every particular.
- I do not entertain hypotheticals; the world, as it is, is vexing enough.
- You have got very little sugar with your pronouncements.
People speak without contractions. They are precise. Their language is the language of those raised on the poetry of the King James Bible and little else:
- I felt like Ezequiel walking in the valley of dry bones.
- The author of all things walks with me and I have a fine horse.
- I will meet him later walking in streets of glory.
Most of this comes from the source material, Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, but the Coens knew enough not to mess with it, as Hollywood levelers and temperature-takers generally do. You could say this is true of all of the Coens' movies. Each has its own language specific to time and place. Darn tootin’.
In the Coens’ previous western, “No Country for Old Men,” they upended the genre’s tropes—the hero is killed off screen, the sheriff, plagued by nightmares, retires, while the villain keeps on keeping on—and, at first glance, “True Grit” feels like a corrective. It feels like a more traditional western. It is, but those boys are still upending the genre’s tropes.
For one, the story isn’t set in the “west.” It’s set in Arkansas, and the Choctaw Nation, which eventually became Oklahoma.
More, most westerns are about lawless places getting law. The line is clear: there’s chaos and then, generally after the hero arrives, there’s order. “True Grit” has a mix more familiar to modern sensibilities. Yes, people are killed, and outlaws light out for the territory; but the law still reigns.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl intent on avenging her father’s death, uses her lawyer as both cudgel and bargaining tool with everyone she meets. Won’t give her what she wants? She’ll sic her lawyer on you. Won’t tell her what she wants? Her lawyer can help you if you talk.
The first time she sees Rooster J. Cogburn (Bridges), drunkard and U.S. Marshall, he’s in a courtroom, the prosecution’s witness, and a defense lawyer, an almost strutting popinjay, who in anyone else’s movie would be flicked aside by the hero without much trouble, gets the better of him. Cogburn gets off some good lines, some unintentional, and you can see him playing to the crowd; but in the end the defense lawyer confuses him, makes him backtrack and ruins his case. Cogburn is the man with true grit, who has, Mattie says later, “great poise”; but this is a West where words matter as much as guns. Maybe more.
Let’s count the instances.
It’s Mattie’s words, along with the threat of her lawyer, which finagle $320 out of Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) in a hilarious epic of bargaining; and it’s Mattie’s words, along with $100, which finally prompt Cogburn into pursuing Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s killer; and it’s Mattie’s words, along with her own true grit, and the true grit of her horse, Little Blackie, fording the cold waters of the Mississippi into Choctaw territory, that allow her to accompany both Cogburn and a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has been, in Mattie’s words, “ineffectually pursuing Chaney” for years for the murder (an assassination we would say now) of a Texas state senator.
Each of the main characters has his own vocabulary. Mattie’s words are always straightforward and come with a purpose: these words to get this done. Cogburn’s words are as rambling and shambling as he is. While they ride he goes on about his many wives, and in the midst of pursuit he makes promises to a dying man he doesn’t keep. It’s his very carelessness with words that allows the defense lawyer to run him in circles. LaBoeuf, meanwhile, makes grand, airy pronouncements like he’s his own PR rep. He’s forever in the midst of creating his own legend. “Never doubt a Texas Ranger,” he says at the end, when he finally makes good. “Ever stalwart.” He’s Hollywood a half century before Hollywood.
A word almost causes Cogburn and LaBoeuf to come to blows. “Sounds to me like you are being hoo-rahed by a little girl,” LaBoeuf says, and Cogburn can’t abide it. They accuse each other of being “bushwackers” and “brushpoppers,” and then they get on each other about the Civil War, only 11 years gone at this point, and the role of Capt. Quantrill, whom Cogburn served under, and who staged guerilla raids into neighboring territories—including an infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in which 190 men and boys were executed. It’s a passing reference that suggests the vast history beneath the small story we’re watching. The Coens don’t bother tidying it up. You either know or you don’t, and if you don’t you can look it up. (I looked it up.)
Do I need to say Bridges is monumental here? Cogburn’s vanity is on display in the courtroom and Bridges’ lack of vanity is on display everywhere else. He hangs out in his filthy longjohns, hair askew, bloated stomach threatening to burst past his buttons. His one visible eye looks confused at Mattie, annoyed at LeBoeuf, determined and deadly in a gunfight, and mean when he’s on a drunk. His comic timing is impeccable: “Well,” he says, dead bodies lying all around, “that didn’t pan out.”
No vanity for old men.
Steinfeld is a find, wonderfully forthright and proper and heroic; Damon suggests the hollow man LaBoeuf is, while Brolin is all low brow and grunts. He looks villainous and frightening but takes a while to get there.
When, after all that tracking and pursuit, Chaney is suddenly there in the creek in which Mattie has gone to get water, his reaction isn’t frightening at all; it’s dimwittedly friendly. “I know you,” he says, pleased. He can’t imagine why Mattie would be this far out in Choctaw territory. He sees it as a wonderful coincidence.
In the gang with which he hooked up, led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), again, he’s not frightening. He’s the younger, stupider brother, forever ignored, disrespected and left behind. “Take me with you,” he whines, to no avail. One member of the gang is a short pug of a man who can only make animal sounds, but even he gets the respect denied Chaney. Mattie needles him for this and almost succumbs to the same fate as her father. Because this is when Chaney becomes frightening and villainous. He’s a man who takes out the disrespect he feels from more powerful people, such as Lucky Ned, on less powerful people, such as Mattie.
Each character surprises. Each has his own code. Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, robbed banks in his youth, then dismisses it with a shrug and an excuse about never robbing a citizen. Lucky Ned, wearing the nastiest set of teeth in movies, and trading spittle-filled invective with Cogburn while pushing a boot into Mattie’s face, later acts the man of honor with her. Bargains are made—you do this and I’ll do this—but both Cogburn and Chaney go back on their word. Only Ned Pepper keeps his.
This is a rough and absurd world, an Old Testament world, where a laugh is followed by the horror of fingers being chopped off; where an anticipated showdown with a killer becomes the absurdist image of a bear toddling through the woods on a horse. (Should the Coens adapt John Irving? Or is he too New Testament for them?)
“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another,” the adult Mattie narrates at the beginning of the film. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.” Indeed. Mattie gets her revenge—she’s the one who shoots and kills Chaney—but in that exact moment, when she (and we) should be enjoying her revenge, she begins to pay. The kick of the gun propels her into a deep pit she’s been twice warned about, and once she stops falling she looks up as if from the bottom of grave. (One can’t help but think of her sleeping accommodations at the undertaker’s place in Fort Smith.) Then she’s snake-bit, and Cogburn takes her to the nearest doctor, riding Little Blackie through the day and into the night, and into death. That’s the first way she pays. The second way is with her arm. She wanted to travel with these men and so becomes like them. LaBoeuf, the man full of hollow talk, loses part of his tongue; Cogburn, who likes to pull a cork, has a missing eye. She and her arm. No one gets through this life whole.
You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another.
Movie Review: “The King's Speech” (2010)
When I first saw a trailer for “The King Speech” (American trailer, not international), I was almost moved to tears. I thought, “Colin Firth seems amazing. Geoffrey Rush looks like he’s having a ball.” Then I thought, “Except it feels like I’ve seen the entire movie now but for the last 10 minutes. And I can guess those.” (Psst: The speech goes well.)
And Colin Firth is amazing, Geoffrey Rush seems like he’s having a ball, and the entirety of the movie is in the trailer except for the last 10 minutes. And you can guess those.
Once upon a time, trailers merely hinted at what a movie might be. It gave away a sense of the film, its genre, certainly, as well as first-act particulars. By the 1990s, it felt like the trailers were giving away second-act particulars as well. Now we get the whole bloody thing: first, second and third act, all tied up in a neat, two-minute package. For a sequel-mad culture, which only wants to see what it’s already seen, this makes sense. In this way, trailers become a kind of first movie while the actual movie becomes a kind of sequel. Audiences are never forced to deal with the unfamiliar; they go away comforted. As for those of us who still want to be surprised by story? We’re fucked.
(Aside: Among the differences between the international and American trailers, the one I find most amusing is the moment where Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham Carter), explains to unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) why her husband can’t change jobs. International version: “And what if my husband were the Duke of York?” American version: “And what if my husband were [cut] the King?” Yep. We smart.)
The movie opens in 1925 as the Duke of York (Firth), son of King George V (Michael Gambon), and second-in-line to the throne after the Prince of Wales (Guy Pearce), attempts to give a speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. It goes poorly. Poor man can barely get a word out. Some in the audience look annoyed, some amused (these are the bad people), while his wife looks on with a pity (she’s good). Yet isn’t pity as awful a reaction as the others? Who wants pity?
Traditional speech therapists do nothing for him, and, as a last resort, under a pseudonym, his wife seeks out Logue. His office is in a dingy basement, he’s not much for formalities (he has no secretary), and he greets the Duchess of York with a handshake after flushing the toilet.
Informality is key to his therapy. He insists on calling the Duke “Bertie” (as the royal family does) and being addressed as “Lionel.” These early scenes—the clash between an uptight, stammering royal and an iconoclastic, unlettered therapist—are the best in the film. We get one good line after another from screenwriter David Seidler: My favorite exchange:
Bertie starts to light a cigarette from a silver case.
Lionel: Please don’t do that.
Bertie: I’m sorry?
Lionel: I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you.
Bertie: My physicians say it relaxes the throat.
Lionel: They’re idiots.
Bertie: They’ve all been knighted.
Lionel: Makes it official then.
What Bertie needs, of course, is not just speech therapy but therapy. As a child he was mistreated by a nanny, who favored his older brother. He was made to wear braces on his legs and forced to correct a natural left-handedness. Supposedly this last is a common cause (was a common cause?) for stutterers.
Firth does an amazing job making us care about this man born to privilege. We get a sense of how trapped he is by circumstances. He is, in fact, doubly trapped: by his role, which he can never escape, and by his speech impediment, which won’t let him carry out that role.
He’s not wholly a victim, thank God. He lashes out, often, but even in that lashing out we maintain sympathy. We see the correlation. What we don’t see, and what would’ve been interesting to see, is more of his life outside his attempt to correct the stammer. Yes, his father was impatient and demanding; yes, his older brother was dashing, slightly mad (for Wallis Simpson) and cruel to Bertie when he needed to be. Yes, his wife was supportive, and, yes, his children, Elizabeth and Margaret, were adorable, as was he when he stammered through a children’s story for them. But I still don’t have a sense of what it feels like to be a royal. The dailiness of it. You wake up and ... what? Who is there for you? What is the schedule like? How much of your time is your own? Any of it? All of it? Do you get to go to the bathroom by yourself?
Instead we get a relationship movie, along with the starts and stops typical of relationship movies. At one point, Lionel, the commoner, oversteps his bounds and they break up; at another, Bertie, the royal, discovers Lionel isn’t properly credentialed and they nearly break up. Etc.
Ultimately it’s Lionel’s job to not only correct Bertie’s stammer but his squashed ego: his belief that he doesn’t deserve his position. In this he is the same as any pitching coach from Little League to the Majors. He has to make his charge believe he belongs where he is.
This very personal story is set against a backdrop of love and war. The “love” (and the movie would definitely put the quote marks there) is Edward’s for Wallis Simpson’s, which leads to his abdication, and the coronation, in 1936, of a reluctant Bertie as King of England. The war, meanwhile, is Hitler’s, and then all of ours. In September 1939 it’s up to Bertie, suddenly, to rally the country. But there’s the stammer. “The nation believes that when I speak I speak for them,” he says. “But I can’t speak.” That’s the 10 minutes the trailer didn’t reveal: how the titular speech goes.
And he blows it. His stammer reflects on a nation nervous about war, which plunges the Brits into depression and makes them easy pickings for the Nazis, who roll over the country and the world, ending the idea of democracy and freedom forever. Heil Hitler.
“The King’s Speech” is a smart movie that’s fun to watch. I expect Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Firth, Rush and Seidler. I was moved by the montage of the British people listening to the speech, all ears turned, all with a shared purpose. Other than that, there’s not much to say. It’s all in the trailer.
Review: “Rabbit Hole” (2010)
How do you deal with an unbearable tragedy, the death of a son, a four-year-old son, who chased his dog into the street and got hit by a car? If you’re his parents, how do you go on?
In “Rabbit Hole,” Becca and Howie (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) come up with opposite answers. She excludes, he includes. She removes, he embraces. In Biblical terms, she commits sins of omission, he commits sins of commission. But “sin” is too strong a word for what they’re doing. They’re just trying to find comfort. They’re both just trying to keep living.
As the movie opens she’s putting fresh soil into her garden. It’s the soil to which we all return, and to which her four-year-old son, Davey, returned, too early, eight months previous, but here, for a moment, it feels like a positive. It’s soil to grow, not bury. Then her neighbor shows up and invites Becca and Howie to dinner that evening. Becca politely declines. Plans, she says. But they have no plans. She just can’t be with people. She’s still in the act of burying.
She’s slowly divesting herself of everything that reminds her of the pain of her son. She starts with the dog that the boy chased into the street (now cooped up at her mother’s apartment), then the drawings on the refrigerator (put into boxes in the basement), then the clothes in the bedroom (given to Goodwill). Eventually she’ll suggest selling the house itself.
Her husband’s the opposite. He watches the same video of his son, over and over again, on his iPhone. He takes comfort in what’s still here. Until one day the video isn’t. After she uses his phone. Oops.
At group therapy, she can’t abide the way other couples assume an order to the universe. How the death of their child was part of God’s plan. How God needed another angel in Heaven. “Then why didn’t He just make one!” Becca finally erupts. “He’s God!” Everyone stares, aghast. So much for group.
She keeps doing this. She holds in, then erupts. A child in a grocery cart pesters his mother for fruit rollups and Becca confronts the mother, tells her to give in, says it won’t hurt him. The mother reacts as mothers do. She says mind your own business. She says, “Do you have any children? I didn’t think so.” Now it’s Becca’s turn to be aghast and she slaps the woman in the face. Basically she commits a criminal act. When she runs off, horrified by what she’s done, by what she’s become, her sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), tries to explain to the mother about how Becca lost a child, etc., but the mother isn’t having it. “I don’t care!” she says.
Neither do we, by this point. That’s the problem. The film juxtaposes two ways of dealing with grief but one of them—Becca’s—is solipsistic and unsympathetic. Howie tries to take comfort in intimacy, in his wife, but she refuses to let herself feel good and makes accusations. “You want to rope me into having sex?” she says, horrified. Later when he brings up having another child, this becomes the accusation. “Were you trying to get me pregnant?” she says, horrified. Howie, on the other hand, never loses our sympathy. For a time, left out in the cold with Becca, he contemplates an affair with another, warmer woman (Sandra Oh), but he doesn’t go through with it. “I love my wife,” he finally says. He’s just waiting for her to return.
Instead of getting close to her husband, though, Becca begins an odd relationship with the high school boy, Jason (Miles Teller), who drove the car that killed her son. She follows his school bus. She follows him to the library. They begin to talk on park benches. Is this a sex thing, one wonders, Kidman’s “Birth” revisited, or a maternal thing? Teller’s got a great face, sad and dumpy, with a puffiness around his eyes as if he’d just woken up or never been to sleep. He’s obviously devastated by what’s happened. He’s also been working on a comic book, “Rabbit Hole,” about parallel universes, about all of the other lives we might be living instead of this one. She reads the book he read for research. She reads his comic book. And in the end it’s this notion—that somewhere, in the many somewheres out there, her son is still living—that finally gives her comfort. She’s saved, not by God and religion, but by scientific theory.
“Rabbit Hole” was directed by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) from a screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his own Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, and there are moments that feel a bit theatrical. The best speech in the movie, in fact, delivered by Becca’s mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest), feels theatrical to me. I get a glimmer of the artificiality of the stage from it. But I wouldn’t change a word.
Throughout the movie, the main source of tension between Nat and Becca is that Nat, in an attempt to console her daughter, keeps bringing up the fact that she, too, lost a son. Becca’s not having it. Her brother died at 30, not 4, and his death was self-inflicted (a drug overdose), he didn’t get hit by a car. But there’s still pain there. Late in the movie, heading into the basement with her mother, Becca comes across Davey’s things, his refrigerator drawings that she’d hidden earlier in the film, and it’s like a punch in the gut. “Does it go away?” she suddenly asks. “What?” Nat asks. “The feeling,” Becca says. “No,” Nat says. There’s a pause. “It changes, though.” When asked how she says this:
The weight of it, I guess. At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under. And carry around—like a brick in your pocket. And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is: “Oh right. That.” Which can be awful. But not all the time. Sometimes it’s kinda... Not that you like it exactly. But it’s what you have instead of your son.
For all the issues I have with the movie, I know I’ll carry these words around with me—and not like a brick—the rest of my life.
Review: “Black Swan” (2010)
WARNING: WHITE SPOILERS, BLACK SPOILERS
At the least, particularly for those of us unfamiliar with ballet, we have a new metaphor with which to talk about ourselves. After the movie, the group of us, six in all, grabbed a bite and talked about whether we thought we were more white swan or black swan. Vinny claimed black swan for himself but no one agreed. (The man can demonstrate how to fold a fitted sheet, for God’s sake.) Theresa is obviously black swan, while Laura, who danced ballet until she was in her late teens, is decidedly mixed. Patricia, my Patricia, loves hanging with the black swans—like Ward—to bring out the black swan in herself. Because she’s mostly white swan.
Me? I am so white swan it hurts. I began this blog, in fact, with the same hope that ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has for his new star, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), as she prepares for “Swan Lake”: to give up some part of the careful, controlled half (the white swan part) and let go into wildness and creativity (the black swan part). She had better luck than me but at a steeper price. The white swan is a bitch of a muse.
Has any recent movie gotten us into the head of its main character as well as this one? I kept having to take deep breaths after it was over. I’d been holding my breath for the last half hour along with Nina.
It helps to think of the white-swan part of Nina’s personality as less about innocence than control. Sure, Nina is sexually innocent, but one suspects it’s a direct result of her control and discipline. I mean, she doesn’t think about touching herself until Leroy suggests it? Until it might help get the part she covets? I’ll masturbate, but only to be good in the role. One way to make students do their homework.
No, Nina is hardly innocent. She’s covetous. Early in the film, after Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) trashes her own dressing room when she learns she’s been summarily dismissed as prima ballerina of their New York ballet company, Nina sneaks in and sits at the vanity mirror and looks at herself and tries out Beth’s lipstick; then she pockets Beth’s lipstick. It seems a minor thing. Until later in the film when Beth is in the hospital and Nina brings out all the things, including diamond earrings, that Nina has stolen from her over the years. She keeps dipping into her pockets and coming out with more stuff. She’s been coveting the role of prima ballerina for years, and now it’s hers, but she can only see little versions of herself ready to take what’s hers. She assumes the world is like her—we all do—and that’s why she’s paranoid. She knows how awful the desire to take.
The rival she’s most fearful of is Lily (Mila Kunis), late of a San Francisco company, whom she first sees riding the subway and getting off a stop too early and thus arriving late for rehearsal. Lily’s all black swan. Does she need to warm up? “I’m good,” she says. She has a beautiful tattoo of black wings on her back. Nina’s back is full of scars and a rash from where she scratches herself at night. Lily talks boldly, walks with a swagger, while Nina tiptoes and speaks in a squeak of a voice. She’s all apologies. “I’m sorry,” she tells Leroy. “No! Stop saying that!” he responds.
Leroy plays the girls off each other like a movie director. He exacerbates the tensions. He leaves everyone dangling. “Would you fuck that girl?” Leroy asks others about Nina, within earshot of Nina, implying no. He kisses her in private, forcing her mouth open until she responds, then breaks it off. “That was me seducing you when I need it to be the other way around,” he says.
But Leroy is messing with forces that have been built up over a lifetime. Nina still lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), in a cramped New York apartment, and her bedroom is all fluffy whites and pinks, with stuffed animals and ballerina music boxes playing tinkly music. She’s isolated, at home and at the company, and lives too much in her head. “The only person standing in your way is you,” Leroy tells her. Leroy wants Nina to unleash something, but what she unleashes is darker and more self-destructive than he imagines. She sees doppelgangers everywhere. IMDb.com lists both Portman and Kunis as 5’ 3”, Ryder a half-inch taller, and each is dark-haired and pretty. So who’s that coming towards her? Is that Beth, whom she replaced, or Lily, who wants to replace her as surely as she wanted to replace Beth? Or is it some darker version of herself—the black swan demanding freedom from the tight grip of the white swan? Or is it her mother? There’s creepy women stuff throughout the film. “You girls are nuts,” I told Patricia afterwards.
Three things propel the story along: 1) We want to know if Nina dances the part; 2) we want to know if she dances it well (if her black swan is released); 3) and we want to know, finally know, what’s real. We assume, for example, when Lily returns to Nina’s place after a night of carousing, and the mother doesn’t comment upon her presence, that, yes, Lily’s not really there, that she’s just in Nina’s head. So much of the movie is a guessing game. OK, this probably isn’t really happening. She really isn’t pulling the skin off her finger, her toes really aren’t stuck together, the old man in the subway really isn’t rubbing his crotch. Is Lily really in her dressing room? Did she really kill her? Is there someone else bleeding to death in the shower stall? Getting into the heads of characters is the novel’s business but no one does it better with film than director Darren Aronofsky.
The ballet numbers are beautifully filmed, the black swan dance a highlight. But did I need that ending? It parallels the ballet, certainly, as well as Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler,” but without the poignancy. Randy the Ram reaches a dead end, he feels useless, that’s why he does what he does. But Nina is at the top of her game so her on-stage suicide merely feels self-destructive. And does it muddy the metaphor or sharpen it? It’s the white swan who demands perfection ... and so she stabs herself to release her black swan ... in order to be perfect? Am I missing something? I need to think on it some more.
At the least, Nina is the latest character to personify St. Therese’s maxim. Her prayers are answered and the tears flow.
Review: “The Fighter” (2010)
WARNING: ROCKY SPOILERS
According to IMDb.com, there have been 12 movies from various countries called “The Fighter.” David O. Russell’s, starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, is the lucky thirteenth.
The story may seem familiar. It’s about an underdog boxer, a gentle man from a working class neighborhood, who wastes his talent for most of his youth, and then, on the other side of 30, takes one last shot at proving he weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood, and finally, finally triumphs, with his trainer in his corner and his best girl by his side.
We can be forgiven for asking: OK, so how does it differ?
For one, “The Fighter” has the advantage of being mostly true.
It has the added advantage of Christian Bale’s over-the-top, look-at-me-I’m-not-Batman performance as Dicky Eklund, a one-time middleweight contender, trainer to his half-brother, Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), and crack addict.
In ’78 Eklund went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard but lost by unanimous decision. He also knocked down the champ in the 8th round. Eklund’s been living off that moment ever since. He’s “the Pride of Lowell,” never at a loss for words, and, as the movie opens, an HBO camera crew is following around the brothers. We assume it’s pre-fight hype, since Mickey’s about to step in the ring again despite three straight losses, but the crew is actually following around Dicky. He crows about how they’re filming his comeback, but one look at his emaciated body and you wonder, “What comeback?” Yet there’s the camera crew again. A third of the way through the movie, we get our answer. A local at a bar asks a member of the crew what the movie’s about, and the guy replies, “I told you. It’s about crack addiction.” That line lands like a body blow. Dicky’s self-delusions, and his family’s delusions about him, are laid open in the matter-of-factness of the response. What else could it be about?
The HBO doc is, in fact, a turning point of the movie. It’s the moment Mickey comes to his senses about Dicky, Dicky half comes to his senses about himself, and the family’s eyes, at least momentarily, are opened. For a second I condemned this family, the awful mother, Alice (an incredible Melissa Leo), and those harpyish sisters, for needing HBO to show them how their son/brother lives. A second later I realized we all need such docs about our loved ones. My older brother is an alcoholic, about which he and I have no delusions, but I don’t know how he spends his days. The people closest to us are still unknowable.
When the HBO doc airs, Dicky’s in prison, on too many counts to mention, but he hasn’t lost his swagger. As they’re about to air the doc, he revels in the attention and applause the other inmates give him. “Going to Hollywood!” he says. He thinks it’s going to be fun. He’s forgotten what he’s said. He doesn’t know who he is.
Out in the world, Dicky is full of lies and bonhomie but in the doc he speaks the truth. “You feel young, like everything’s in front of you,” he says of smoking crack. “Then it fades and you have to get high again.” There is no comeback. The comeback is in the crackpipe.
Up to this point, Dicky has not only been a lousy brother and son, he’s been a lousy trainer, too. Mickey is forced to wait for him at the gym; he’s forced to wait for him with the limo that’ll take them to the airport, and then to Vegas, to fight another welterweight. But in Vegas Mickey is told his opponent has come down with the flu and the replacement is a middleweight, a guy with 20 pounds on him. He fights him anyway and gets his face smashed in. Back in Lowell, he and his soon-to-be-girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), are talking:
Mickey: Everybody said I could beat him.
Charlene: Who’s everybody?
Mickey: My mother and my brother.
(Earlier they’d had a bit of dialogue as spare as anything by David Mamet. Mickey has two bandages on his face and Charlene tells him, “Your thing’s coming off.” He reaches for the bandage above his right eye and she says, “Your other thing.”)
Mickey should be the pampered center of attention—as any contender is—but his needs are overshadowed by his brother’s, who sucks the air out of any room he swaggers or stumbles into. Everyone warns Mickey he needs to cut his brother loose or miss his shot, and, after the HBO doc, he takes their advice. A local cop and trainer, Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself), begins to train him, with money from a local businessman. The mother has a fit, and flies at her son and Charlene, with claws bared and tongue wagging, her awful daughters tagging along. A fight breaks out among the women. A catfight? Not close. There’s nothing sexy about it. Family is no support here. The mother, like Dicky, thinks she’s the center of the story when Mickey’s the one in the ring. Much of the movie is spent waiting for Mickey to realize this, to articulate this, himself.
Once he breaks free from his family, once he has the money to train year round, he begins to win, but the movie knows this isn’t the whole answer. Mickey’s been called a “stepping stone,” the guy other guys use to get their shot, and before a big match with Alfonso Sanchez, an undefeated contender with a title shot, Mickey visits Dicky in prison and is asked about his fight strategy. In the audience we’re thinking, “Don’t tell him,” but Mickey tells him and Dicky finds fault and offers an alternative. In the audience we’re thinking, “Don’t listen, get out, don’t let him drag you down again,” but it turns out Mickey’s original fight strategy got him nowhere. It’s Dicky’s, adopted late in the match, that wins the match. Now it’s Mickey with a title shot.
First, more family drama. It’s not enough to break free of family—as nice as that sounds—because you’re never truly free of family. So conflicts have to be resolved. People have to be reconciled. Out of prison, back in the gym, and back in the ring with his brother, Dicky has scattered Mickey’s supporters—Mickey O’Keefe, Charlene—and left him with his mother and sisters, who talk up Dicky yet again, who confuse the movie yet again, and it’s Mickey’s Popeye moment. All he can stands, he can’t stands no more. Thus: body blow, body blow, Dicky goes down. Mickey finally finds his voice. He confronts his mother, his sisters, his brother. He basically says, as we all need to say, “This is my movie!”
For something so messy for so long, it gets neat quickly. Kudos to the filmmakers for making it seem plausible that within five minutes of screentime: 1) Mickey finds his voice; 2) Dicky gives up crack and rallies his brother’s original supporters; and 3) Mother and sisters accept their subordinate status. And we’re set up for our finale and the title shot.
The Fighter” is a good movie, a worthy movie, but not a great movie. Wahlberg is fine, but he’s playing his gentle-voiced, blending-into-the-background leading man again. (See: “Planet of the Apes,” “The Truth About Charlie,” “The Italian Job.”) He’s a bit dull. In this way, the movie parallels its own story. Just as Dicky overshadows Mickey, so Bale’s performance overshadows Wahlberg’s. I’m not sure if this is ultimately a strength or a weakness, but I wish Wahlberg’s characters had as much in them as Wahlberg seems to.
But what is a weakness of the movie? That original “Rocky”-like synopsis. The basic story of “The Fighter” is the most oft-told story in Hollywood history: the underdog triumphs. It’s what we want while sitting in the audience but it’s also why the movie doesn’t resonate much afterwards. Mickey wins! That’s nice. This is what it takes to win! That’s nice. This is a story of two fighters, two brothers, Mickey and Dicky, who both triumph over their personal demons! That’s nice. And it ends. And it’s complete. And we’re happy.
That’s what makes great entertainment. But that’s not what makes great art.
I compare “The Fighter” inevitably, and unfairly, to Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” which is a movie about an entertainment (professional wrestling) rather than an art (boxing), yet is, itself, closer to art than entertainment. Because it finds a different way out. Its title character, Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke), is on the wrong end of his 40s, reaches a dead end and sees no alternatives, so his return to the ring, and impassioned speech in that ring—a triumph in the trailer—is actually a suicide. That’s the unique and horrifying way out. In the final shot we see Randy soaring off the turnbuckle and out of the picture and out of, one assumes, life, but we have to fill in the end ourselves. Maybe that’s why that movie keeps resonating. We have to assume its ending as much as we have to assume our own.
Review: “Please Give” (2010)
I met Nicole Holofcener briefly on the set of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” in 2004. I was visiting a friend there, a writer/story editor for the show, and she was directing an episode he had written, and after introductions I told her how much I liked her movie “Lovely & Amazing.” She quickly dismissed the compliment. Because most compliments are bullshit? Because inuring yourself to compliments is part of inuring yourself to criticism? I got the feeling she thought that no one had actually seen the movie. This was in the days before I seriously looked at box-office numbers and so I had that warped perspective that my milieu was the milieu. To me, “Lovely & Amazing” wasn’t a film with a limited release of 175 theaters around the U.S. It was a film that showed up in Seattle and never went away. Everyone talked about it.
It’s a shame we had this disconnect before I could compliment her on the film’s opening scene. Remember? Michelle Marks (Catherine Keener) is trying to sell her homemade trinkets to a trinket store and she runs into a former classmate, who seems cool and collected, and she asks what she’s been doing. “I’m a doctor,” the woman says. Michelle thinks the woman is joking and laughs. How could someone be a doctor already? “We’re 36,” the woman says. It’s a brutal scene with which I wholly identified. Peers become professionals, they become parents and adults, and you’re left behind trying to sell crappy gimcracks at some crappy gimcrack store. Life, somehow, has passed you by.
I never saw “Friends with Money,” Holofcener’s 2006 film about this same subject—the divide between friends with success/money and those without—possibly because the reviews were so-so. I wanted to see “Please Give” in the theaters this spring (widest release: 272 theaters) but time slipped away. Plus it looked, you know, a little precious: a slice-of-life about the vague wants and distractions of solipsistic New Yorkers. But lately it’s been landing on some top 10 lists so I decided to check it out.
It’s a little precious: a slice-of-life about the vague wants and distractions of solipsistic New Yorkers.
Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) run a mid-century vintage furniture store for people with more money than sense: a table for $5,000, bookcases for $1,400 apiece. Kate acquires these pieces by visiting the homes and condos of the recently deceased and paying off relatives who don’t know the true value (or the true inflated value) of the furniture; who just want it all gone. It’s a ghoulish gig. There’s a sense of waiting for people to die in order to live. Kate and Alex are also waiting for their 91-year-old-neighbor, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), to die, so they can combine her condo with their own and make something bigger and better.
Alex is fine with all of this. He’s an unremarkable middle-aged man who listens to Howard Stern and never reads any more—even magazines—but Kate feels increasingly guilty. She feels she’s taking advantage of people. Her guilt manifests itself in giving money—$5 here, $20 there—to panhandlers. At one point she even gives a doggy bag to a black man on the street but he’s simply waiting for a table at a crowded restaurant. Apologies ensue. She exudes the need to be forgiven. Her attempts at volunteering for the less fortunate are equally inept. She pities them. An elderly woman is stooped from rheumatoid arthritis. “Is it painful?” she says. “It looks very painful.” She tries to help kids with learning disabilities but feels so sorry for them she begins to cry. “You have to leave now,” the director of the facility tells her. It’s the best part of the movie.
Their counterparts in the solicitude/stoicism dichotomy are Andra’s granddaughters: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a passive mammogram technician, who cares too much about Grandma, and Mary (Amanda Peet), an overly tanned spa technician, who cares too little, and who begins an affair—surely one of the more unlikely affairs in movies—with dumpy ol’ Alex. He’s attracted to her, she’s bored. They bond over Howard Stern.
We get some good bits with Grandma—“You gained weight!” she tells Alex, bluntly, in the manner of the aged—but Holofcener also reminds us of the unbearable sadness of aging: losing your mobility, your sight, the world shrinking until your one solace are the idiot rhythms of “Entertainment Tonight.” George Clooney is an actor who has it all... This stuff is in the background of her place all the time, and there’s a kind of horror to it. That awful, chummy language about people we don’t know. When she dies, it’s one of the six sentences spoken at her funeral: “She liked watching ‘Entertainment Tonight.’”
In this manner, “Please Give” touches on important themes but then leaves them alone. It’s a slice of life that still manages to feel artificial. Plus there’s nothing driving the story. All of these New Yorkers are as passive as Seattleites. They all feel peripheral.
Let’s ask the dramatist’s question: What do the characters want? Kate and Alex want people to die, and for this Kate wants to be forgiven. Rebecca wants a boyfriend, and winds up with one, but overall she’s not quite there. Who is she? I have no clue. Mary thinks of herself as a straight talker, but her obsession with a clothing clerk turns out, in the final act, to be a pathetic version of stalking. Meanwhile, Kate and Alex’s 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele, in a fine performance), wants a $200 pair of jeans. She’s the most clearly defined character in the film.
Review: “Fair Game” (2010)
WARNING: The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of SPOILERS from Africa.
We like being lied to. That’s the problem.
We like the lies of Hollywood in particular. We like believing we are good, and others are bad, and we stare them down and shoot them down and ride off into the sunset. We like this narrative so much we’ve transferred it into the real world, which is complex and problematic, then we’re surprised when the narrative falls apart. Or do we simply ignore it when it falls apart? We move on to other narratives, other lies, and keep digging ourselves in deeper. It’s like our national debt but with lies. We tell one lie to make up for another to make up for another. Soon we’re steeped in it. We’re a sick country, a sick race. Are we tired of it yet? Do we want to know what’s true anymore?
“Fair Game” is a movie about a series of lies perpetrated by the Bush administration, sometimes on itself, and certainly on us, from 2002 to 2005. They were lies with massive consequences, lies that got us into war, lies that led to the deaths of tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe someone you knew. Maybe someone close to you is now dead because of what the Bush administration wanted to believe. They reconfigured the globe because of what they wanted to believe. The one time they told the truth, it was a treasonous act. But they got away with that, too, because they lied their way out of it.
My god. Can we be incensed again? Is that still possible? Let’s run through it.
We got into a war because of lies.
When a man called us on one of those lies, we lied about him. We tried to ruin his life.
When that wasn’t enough, we told the truth about his wife. She was a CIA agent and we outed her. We cast her aside. She was a good soldier, and “Support the Troops” signs were everywhere back then, but her husband was pointing out the lies in the war narrative so she had to be sacrificed to make the Joe-Wilson-is-incompetent narrative work. She was, as Karl Rove later said, fair game. To Karl Rove, we're all fair game.
The movie should work. It should work the way that “All the President’s Men” works and “The Insider” works. Two people, attempting to uncover the truth, take on a vast, powerful entity intent on continuing the lie. It’s a classic underdog narrative, the kind Hollywood loves producing. And it’s true.
But it doesn’t quite work here, does it? “Fair Game” is a good movie, a necessary movie, a movie you want more people to watch. But Doug Liman doesn’t make it sing the way Alan J. Pakula made “All the President’s Men” sing and the way Michael Mann made “The Insider” sing. Why?
Is it because he shows us some of the inner workings of the Bush White House? Was that a mistake? Pakula never got us into the Nixon White House and Mann only showed us a snippet of a conversation between Brown & Williamson’s CEO and his lawyers—a snippet, it can be argued, that Jeff Wigand (Russell Crowe) could hear as he stormed out of the CEO’s office. Isn’t it better to keep the enemy at a distance? Shadowy? Unseen? Wasn’t that the lesson of “Jaws”?
Or is the problem that, of the two heroes in “Fair Game,” neither is a reporter? Both heroes in “President’s Men” were reporters: Watergate was a mystery and they were trying to uncover the truth. One of the heroes of “The Insider” was a reporter, and he was trying to get a former tobacco company vice-president, Wigand, and then his network, CBS, to reveal the truth. In “Fair Game,” we’re down to zero. The reporters in this movie don’t uncover the truth, they help cover it up. They have high-ranking government sources who feed them information, or disinformation, which they then spread. They provide obfuscation rather than clarity. They ambush the hero outside his house. “Isn’t it true...?” “What about the allegations that...?” They’re part of the problem.
No, the heroes in “Fair Game” are a career diplomat, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), and his wife, an undercover CIA operative, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). For most of the movie, they’re working on different aspects of the post-9/11 world. She’s trying to find the bad guys in the Middle East and he’s sent to Niger to see if one Middle East ruler, Saddam Hussein, bought, or tried to buy, yellowcake uranium there. He concludes no, the administration concludes otherwise, and Pres. Bush, in his January 2003 State of the Union speech, says the 16 words that provide a justification for war:
The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
Initially Wilson concludes he’s referring to another country in Africa. He assumes they have other information. But after the war, in a New York Times Op-Ed, he comes out with what he knows.
It’s startling reading that Op-Ed, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” now, more than seven years later. Its language is so mild. It’s so straightforward. Wilson writes:
If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why). If, however, the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses. (It's worth remembering that in his March ''Meet the Press'' appearance, Mr. Cheney said that Saddam Hussein was ''trying once again to produce nuclear weapons.'') At a minimum, Congress, which authorized the use of military force at the president's behest, should want to know if the assertions about Iraq were warranted.
Wilson’s Op-Ed was published on Sunday, July 6, 2003. A day later the White House admitted its “WMD error.” A week after that, Robert Novak came out with his column, “Mission to Niger,” in which Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA agent.
Despite the outing, Novak’s column is fairly tame, too. He even owns up to Wilson’s exemplary background:
His first public notice had come in 1991 after 15 years as a Foreign Service officer when, as U.S. charge in Baghdad, he risked his life to shelter in the embassy some 800 Americans from Saddam Hussein's wrath. My partner Rowland Evans reported from the Iraqi capital in our column that Wilson showed “the stuff of heroism.” The next year, President George H.W. Bush named him ambassador to Gabon, and President Bill Clinton put him in charge of African affairs at the National Security Council until his retirement in 1998.
But Novak is also sloppy. His second paragraph begins this way:
Wilson's report that an Iraqi purchase of uranium yellowcake from Niger was highly unlikely was regarded by the CIA as less than definitive...
By the CIA? Or by certain officials within the CIA? The question was never whether Wilson’s account was definitive or viewed as definitive; the question was, and remains, why the Bush administration believed Report B over Report A.
In the movie, Wilson’s Op-Ed leads to a discussion between Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, in which the former says, “We need to change the story,” and the latter says, ominously, “Who is Joe Wilson?” For the rest of the movie, they create their own Joe Wilson in the press. Misinformation is spread. The truth struggles to get out.
After Novak’s column is published, Plame scrambles to protect her operatives. “I have 819 teams in the field,” she says. “It’s over,” she’s told. Then she clams up. She plays the good soldier. There’s a scene where she and CIA director George Tenet (Bruce McGill) meet on a park bench facing the White House, and Tenet tells her: “Joe is out there on his own, Valerie.” I assumed this meant: help him. But it means, to both him and her, abandon him. Which she does.
For most of the final third of the movie, Plame and Wilson are at odds. She even moves back in with her folks. She abandons him as surely as Jeff Wigand’s wife abandoned Wigand. The difference is that Michael Mann shows how this affects Wigand; Liman shows how this affects Plame. In terms of drama, it’s all wrong. For the final third of the movie, Plame is the good soldier for the wrong side and the movie doesn’t own up to it. It takes 20 minutes of screentime, plus a no-nonsense speech by Sam Shepard, Mr. Right Stuff, as her father, for her to come to the dramatically obvious conclusion that she needs to join her husband in fighting the Bush White House. Then she testifies before Congress, and Joe Wilson talks to students about the necessity of participation in a democracy, and we get a bit of flag-waving at the end. The End.
Feel dissatisfied? You should. For the following reason most of all:
The work of Woodward and Bernstein led to the resignation of Pres. Richard Nixon.
The work of Wigand and Bergmann led to one of the most successful lawsuits in the history of this country, in which the tobacco companies agree to pay $246 billion to all 50 states.
The work of Wilson and Plame led to ... the prosecution of Scooter Libby. Who was pardoned.
We don’t get the ending we want. The truth gets out there and nothing happens. Because we, as a country, don’t want to know the truth. We want our comfortable lies. For “Fair Game” to work, it needed to own up to this. It needed to show us, perhaps during the end credits, all of the lies and bullshit since that fateful spring and summer: Abu Ghraib and Pat Tillman and fake White House correspondents and firing U.S. attorneys and “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie” and “Keep Gov’t Out of My Medicare” and “You lie!” and birthers and Obama = Hitler. And on and on. They got away with it all and they’re still getting away with it. Their lies used to emanate from the White House and now they're directed at the White House, and, if anything, the liars have gotten bolder.
Review: “L'arnacoeur” (“Heartbreaker”) (2010)
It’s a brilliant idea for a movie: Hire a handsome guy, French no less, to break up couples.
Immediately I thought of the unrequited lover who wants a chance, so he hires this French guy, let’s call him Alex (Romain Duris), to wedge himself in-between the girl and the dullard she’s currently dating, pry her away, then cast her adrift, where unrequited can go for it. Or maybe it’s a jilted lover who just wants a good, malicious laugh. Or maybe a girl wants to break up the couple so she can go for the guy. The possibilities seem endless. There’s always some disgruntled person on the periphery of a happy loving couple.
“L'arnacoeur” (“Heartbreaker”), a French romantic comedy by first-time director Pascal Chaumeil, quickly circumscribes the possibilities.
As the movie opens, a French couple is vacationing in the Middle East. He is, yes, a dullard who wants to stay by the hotel pool and watch a wet T-shirt contest, while she actually wants to see the country they’re visiting. To do so she hitches a ride with a rugged humanitarian (Alex), who is bringing medicine to orphans, and they connect, and fall in love, although he insists he can no longer be with anyone. But: “I’ve never felt so alive,” he tells her. “You deserve better,” he tells her. And back at the hotel she promptly dumps her jerk of a boyfriend and gets on with her life.
It’s all a pretty ruse. Later we see Alex getting paid by the brother of the girl, who couldn’t stand the boyfriend. Alex’s contract comes with a money-back guarantee and the brother asks how often he’s had to return the money. “Jamais,” Alex replies. Never. Then Alex walks through the airport in super-cool slow-motion with his team, Melanie (Julie Ferrier) and Marc (François Damiens), while in voiceover he tells us about the gig.
There are three categories of women in relationships, he says:
- Knowingly unhappy
- Unknowingly unhappy
He concentrates solely on no. 3. Drag. Plus he doesn’t sleep with the girls. Dragger. He simply makes them realize that other men, vaguely handsome men, desire them, allowing them to dispense with whatever lame-o they’re currently dating. It’s pretty clean stuff. Rather too clean. Not only do these principles circumscribe possibilities, they actually get in the way of a good story. So they’re abandoned five minutes later to allow us our lukewarm story.
Back in Paris, Alex and his team are contacted by a man named Van Der Becq (Jacques Frantz), whose daughter, Juliette (Vanessa Paradis), is about to marry a rich Brit named Jonathan Alcott (Andrew Lincoln). Can they break off the wedding? Ca depend. They concentrate solely on no. 3s, remember. So first they have to determine if Vanessa is truly happy in her relationship. And how do they do this? By seeing what kind of man Jonathan Alcott is. They determine her emotional state, in other words, through his personality. How enlightened.
Worse, they come off like muckraking journalists rather than true investigators. At one point, disguised as panhandlers outside a fancy restaurant, they see Jonathan, inside, asking for a doggy bag. Ah ha! They assume the pejorative (doggy bag = cheap), rather than the positive (doggy bag = thrifty), but, regardless, we see the punchline a mile off. Jonathan hands them, the poor panhandlers, his food. Doggy bag = charitable.
They take the gig anyway. Alex owes gamblers and needs the money. So much for the principles he told us five minutes earlier. Hey, he lied to us in slow-motion!
The wedding is to take place in Monaco, and, to get close to Juliette, Alex passes himself off as a bodyguard hired by her father. She resists and acts the brat, but he arranges to save her from a car thief in grand, nonchalant fashion, so she allows him to stick around. And everything falls into predictable patterns. She seems to fall for him. He seems to fall for her. But there’s the fiancé, who’s a nice guy, and the mob enforcer, who isn’t.
Comic relief is provided by Marc (who has a Rhys Ifans thing going), and Juliette’s crazy friend, Sophie (Héléna Noguerra). My favorite bit is when Sophie aggressively, sexually attacks Alex in his room and Marc is sent to create a diversion. He does. He knocks her out from behind.
Question: Why do we assume that people are attracted to each other through commonalities? They research Juliette and discover she likes the music of George Michael and the movie “Dirty Dancing” so they create situations where these commonalities can be introduced. Oh, you like Wham!, too? Oh, you like “Dirty Dancing,” too? Thus they bond. But do we simply want mirror images of our own tastes? Don’t looks and personality still predominate?
To its credit, the movie never makes Jonathan a villain. He’s always a nice guy, who always loves Juliette.
In fact, I began to root against Alex. Or maybe I just began to root against the traditional romantic comedy. No, don’t bring the two stars together just because they’re the two stars. No, don’t make the girl fall for the guy who’s spent the entire movie lying to her. Surely, I thought, the French won’t let me down the way that Hollywood does.
They didn’t. Alex’s team fails for the first time, and, in a callback to the open, we see Alex walking through the airport in slow-motion and telling us who he is and what he does. “We only break up couples, we never break hearts,” he says, before adding this poignant code: “My name is Alex Lippi and today I’ve broken my own heart.”
Nice end, I thought.
Except that’s not the end.
Because at the check-in desk he suddenly realizes his life is incomplete and runs back to Monaco, literally runs, a la Benjamin Braddock, to get to the wedding before it’s too late. Juliette, more Julia Roberts than Katherine Ross, doesn’t wait, either. She runs away at the altar on her own. Eventually they run into each other on a beautiful stretch of road overlooking the sea. They catch their breath. They talk. They kiss. It’s meant to be. The End.
Blech. What’ll it cost me to break this couple up?
Review: “Inside Job” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS...IF YOU'VE BEEN LIVING IN A HOLE FOR THE LAST THREE YEARS
I know little about business and economics but I knew a lot of the information in “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the global financial meltdown of ... 2008? Just two years ago? Wow.
Ferguson puts together all of the pieces familiar to me, then adds a couple I don’t know. He clarifies and reminds.
Oh yeah, there’s Pres. Reagan deregulating the S&Ls overnight in 1982, which Ward B. Coe III and I talked about during our Q&A for Maryland Super Lawyers magazine in 2009. Oh right, Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, whose attempts to regulate derivatives during the Clinton years were shot down by Larry Summers , and who became the subject of that “Frontline” special I streamed off of Netflix earlier this year. Oh god, there’s Joe Cassano, the idiot head of A.I.G. F.P., and the bete noir in Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair piece in July 2009. Oh lord, there’s Alan fucking Greenspan and Henry fucking Paulson and Phil fucking Gramm and Richard fucking Fuld and Larry fucking Summers. It’s old home week. They got the gang back together again.
Except they didn’t. None of the big, bad boys (Greenspan, Summers) agreed to sit for “Inside Job,” just as none of the big, bad boys (Bush, Cheney) agreed to sit for Ferguson’s previous documentary, “No End in Sight,” about our missteps in Iraq after March 2003.
What sticks out in that earlier doc, though, is the he said/he said between Col. Paul Hughes, who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and who seemed to have a sense of what Iraq was and what we should do there, and Walter B. Slocombe, the Senior Advisor for Security and Defense to the CPA, who arrived for a week in May, got his boots a little dusty, and helped make all the wrong decisions. Hughes seems insistent and exasperated, while Slocombe starts off almost jaunty; then, as he is questioned about (held accountable for) his actions and policies, his eyes retreat, his voice turns tinny, he reveals himself a hollow man. One wonders what lies he tells himself to make it through the day.
The Walt Slocombe of “Inside Job” is the aptly named Fred Mishkin, an American economist who was one of six members of the Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2008. Another talking head, Robert Gnaizda, general counsel for the Greenlining Institute (a non-profit working for the disenfranchised in local communities), was aware of the problems with subprime mortgages, with predatory lending practices, with defaults and foreclosures, and he had semiannual meetings with Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, to attempt to address these issues. But only in 2009 did Bernanke admit there were problems that needed addressing.
Of course Bernanke didn’t agree to be interviewed. He’s insulated and unaccountable. Ah, but there’s Mishkin, tanned beyond recognition, proudly admitting he was at the semiannual meetings between Gnaizda and Bernanke. He’s expecting softballs. Instead, Ferguson, off camera, states that Bernanke was warned and did nothing. Mishkin’s response? He collapses. He evaporates into nonsense:
Yeah. So, uh, again, I, I don't know the details, in terms of, of, uh, of, um – uh, in fact, I, I just don't – I, I – eh, eh, whatever information he provide, I'm not sure exactly, I, eh, uh – it's, it's actually, to be honest with you, I can't remember the, the, this kind of discussion.
One almost feels sorry for him, this little Don Segretti of the Global Financial Meltdown, until later in the doc, when Ferguson gets into the conflicts of interest between economics departments and industry: How industry often pays prominent academics to present viewpoints industry wants. Mishkin did this in 2006. He was paid $125,000 by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to coauthor a study of Iceland’s financial system and found it stable “with prudent regulation and supervision.” But “Inside Job” actually begins in Iceland, where we’re informed of the deregulation that occurred in Iceland’s banking industry in 2000, leading to insane loans, and, currently, a debt 10 times its GDP. Mishkin owns up to that. “It turns out that the prudential regulation and supervision was not strong in Iceland,” he says. So Ferguson asks the obvious follow-up: What led you to think that it was? Mishkin’s stuttering response? He seeks refuge in the passive voice and second-person point-of-view. He says all of the following:
- “You’re going with the information you have.”
- “The view was that Iceland had very good institutions.”
- “It was an advanced country.”
- “You talk to people.”
- “You have faith in the Central Bank.”
Suddenly you’re disgusted all over again. These are charlatans in prominent positions. They are hollow men. Mishkin was paid more than twice as much as I’ve ever made in an entire year to simply co-author a study...and he couldn’t be bothered with independent research. He said what they wanted him to say.
The little Don Segretti of the Global Financial Meltdown
But that’s not even the worst part of the incident. The worst part is when Ferguson asks him why the title of this study, “Financial Stability in Iceland,” has been changed, in Mishkin’s current CV, to “Financial Instability in Iceland.” As if he foresaw and warned against a crisis whose hand he held all the way to the precipice:
Well, I don't know, if, whatever it is, is, the, uh, the thing – if it's a typo, there's a typo.
But again: this is little Freddy Mishkin. In “All the President’s Men,” Deep Throat notices that Bob Woodward is focusing too much on the ratfucking activities of Donald Segretti, and reminds him of the deeper issue: “They cancelled Democratic campaign rallies. They investigated Democratic private lives. They planted spies, stole documents, and on and on. Now don’t tell me you think this is all the work of little Don Segretti?”
So while it’s fun to watch Mishkin hemming and hawing on camera, it’s less important than: How we got there, what happened, where we are now.
Rep. Barney Frank talks up the old borrower-lender dynamic—a dynamic that, even three years ago, I thought was still in place. A person borrowed, a bank lent, and the borrower paid back to the lender; and because it usually required decades to pay back, the lender was careful about who was doing the borrowing. That’s the way the world worked.
The world changed in the 1980s when brokers at Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment bank, created complex mortgage derivatives called collateral debt obligations, or CDOs. Per my limited understanding: The mortgages were sold from banks to investment banks, who cut them up, bundled slices with hundreds of slices from other mortgages—to spread and thus minimize the risk—and sold them to investors.
So now when you pay your mortgage, you pay, not the bank, but these investors. Of course, since banks sold the mortgages, banks could be less careful about who they loaned to; and since, with all of that bundling and slicing, risk was minimized, risk could be increased. As it was. Which is how you got subprime mortgages: loans being given to people who had no collateral and couldn’t afford the payments, and who would ultimately default. Their entry into the system drove up prices, and their exit from the system collapsed the prices. The exit almost collapsed the system.
We get some back-and-forth on who foresaw the crisis (Allan Sloan) and who didn’t (Alan Greenspan). We get a little on who began to bet against all of the subprime mortgage loans (Goldman Sachs, chiefly), and who didn’t (A.I.G., chiefly).
One of the most telling incidents, about which you could make a good HBO movie, occurred at the 2005 Jackson Hole Symposium, at which you had the usual suspects: Greenspan, Bernanke, Summers, Geithner, and where an IMF economist, Raghuram Ragan, delivering a paper, less on the nitty-gritty of subprime mortgages and CDOs, than on the larger topic of incentives and risk. Here’s narrator Matt Damon:
Rajan's paper focused on incentive structures that generated huge cash bonuses based on short-term profits, but which imposed no penalties for later losses. Rajan argued that these incentives encouraged bankers to take risks that might eventually destroy their own firms, or even the entire financial system.
Prof. Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard:
Rajan hit the nail on the head. What he particularly said was: “You guys have claimed you have found a way to make more profits with less risk. I say you've found a way to make more profits with more risk.”
The reaction to his paper? Larry Summers attacked. He accused Ragan of being a Luddite. “He wanted to make sure that we didn’t bring a whole new set of regulations to the financial sector at this point,” Ragan says.
“Inside Job” is divided into five parts—“How We Got Here”; “The Bubble”; “The Crisis”; “Accountability”; “Where We Are Now”—and should be required viewing for every man, woman and child in the United States. It won’t be, of course. So far it’s grossed $1.8 million, which works out to about 180,000 people. Out of a nation of 308 million. It's barely being seen.
I could've used more on the history of deregulation (the who and how) and on what reforms have been enacted since Sept. 2008 (if any). I also would’ve liked something on the way the crisis has been spun by the anti-regulation right. It’s doing the shit it always does: blaming the opposition for its own crimes. In this scenario, the crisis was caused by government, not the private sector. In this scenario, government is still the problem and the financial industry can regulate itself—give or take a multi-trillion-dollar bailout from the federal government. I wanted Ferguson to take these guys down. (Though he does have a nice back-and-forth with Glenn Hubbard, Chief Economic Advisor during the Bush Administration, current Dean of the Columbia University Business School, and a nasty piece of work.)
The poster for “Inside Job” shows a suited man crossing his fingers atop a pile of money. This is a key metaphor for me. I don’t know much about business and economics, but, to me, here’s what life feels like in a fairly well-off, post-industrial society.
Most of us struggle to find something we’re good at, and for which we can get paid, and, if we’re lucky, we do this thing for 40 to 50 years until we can hopefully retire with a bit of comfort. And while we’re doing this thing, we’re putting our money, bit by bit, into a room, which is where other people, bit by bit, are putting their money, too. So there’s a huge pile of money in this room. Now there’s another group of people who are attracted to this room for the pile of money. They see the pile of money and say, “That’s what I want to do.” They believe they can take that pile of money, our money, and turn it into a bigger pile of money, which will be mostly their money. But while they’re doing this magic act, they don’t want anyone to watch. Because we can trust them. Because they are self-regulating. Because what could possibly go wrong?
Review: “A Film Unfinished” (2010)
I had a moment of regret when this documentary started. “Why am I watching this?” I wondered. “What’s it going to tell me that I don’t already know? That conditions there were horrific? That evil is banal?”
Here’s the background. At the end of World War II, a 60-minute, silent documentary was found in the German archives on Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto in the months before the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants shipped off to the extermination camps of Treblinka. For 45 years, the footage, among the only known footage of life in the Warsaw ghetto, was treated as fact, as documentary fact, until a fourth reel was found indicating that many of the scenes were staged by the Nazis.
“A Film Unfinished” is Yael Hersonski’s 90-minute documentary on that 60-minute propaganda film.
Thus the moment of regret. “How,” I thought, “can Hersonski make this silent film interesting?”
It’s no longer silent. She adds her own narration as well as readings from various diaries, including those of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish Council), and Heinz Auerswald, the Nazi commissioner of the ghetto. The victims, along with the perpetrators, have voices again.
Two. She appreciates the power of the human face. She shows us not only the haunting faces in the silent propaganda film but the haunted faces of Warsaw ghetto survivors, “witnesses” she calls them in the credits, whom she films watching the silent propaganda film for the first time. There are five of them: four women and one man. The man has a slight smile on his face at odds with the heaviness of his sigh. The women simply looked pained. “Oh God,” one says, “what if I see someone I know?” Another: “I keep thinking I might see my mother walking.” There’s this tension between wanting to see and not wanting to see, between recovering this past and burying it forever. Will seeing her mother make things better? Or will it make the pain unbearable?
Finally, there’s the mystery. In the opening narration, Hersonski says the Third Reich was “that empire that knew so well to document its own evil,” but one still wonders why they filmed this particular piece of propaganda. What purpose did it serve? The staged scenes tend to feature better-off Jews going about their day: a woman putting on lipstick in her vanity mirror, another woman buying goods at the butcher, couples dining out. The witnesses refute each of these instances. “Most had sold everything.” “They were waiting to die.” “You woke up to find a corpse every 100 meters.”
Czerniaków’s diary details what was being filmed that day, the subterfuge that went into the filming, and then we see the footage. This bris, that ball, this show. The Jews in the show’s audience were held there all day, without food, without bathroom breaks, and ordered to laugh for the cameras.
Initially one thinks the Nazis are doing the obvious: showcasing comfortable people to refute claims of horrible conditions. Except they also showcase the horrible conditions.
We see piles of garbage. People were too weak to go downstairs, one witness says, so they simply threw garbage out the window. “I was 10 years old at the time,” another witness says, “and I was the dominant figure in my family.” She escaped the ghetto several times a week, risking her life, to get food for her family.
We see emaciated people with shaved heads. We see children in rags. We see a corpse every 100 meters. The Nazis filmed it all.
The point of the filming was, in fact, this juxtaposition. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of a well-off woman buying meat at the butcher while children in rags starve outside. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of sated couples leaving a restaurant and ignoring the emaciated woman in rags begging for a handout.
Much of the footage was taken by Willy Wist, a German cameraman who testified during the war-crime tribunals in West Germany in the 1960s, and whose words, read by German actor Rüdiger Vogler, constitute less the banality of evil than the shrug of it. He didn’t know the ultimate purpose of the film; he just filmed it. He says, at one point, “I recall I had to film a mass grave,” and then we see that footage. A makeshift slide was created to deliver the corpses into the pit outside Warsaw. One lifeless, naked body after another slides down and lies crumpled at the bottom. It’s the final solution foreshadowed, and Wist filmed it all because it was his job to film it all. If this seems unforgivable it’s because it reminds us of us. We see a line, we thank the stars we’re on this side of it, and we continue to do what we do.
It may be obvious, as you read this, why the Nazis staged what they staged—the ultimate purpose of their silent propaganda film—but it wasn’t to me watching Hersonski’s doc until about three-quarters of the way in. Was it explained outright? Was it implied? I forget. Hersonski’s narration tends to be quiet and even, and she presents most of the material without editorial comment. In this restraint she shows her artistry. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost once wrote, and she does, and that pressure builds, and eventually, either nudged by her or by some spark in my brain, it hit me, the answer, and I felt a fresh horror wash over me.
The juxtaposition between rich and poor Jews was justification. The Nazis were documenting a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination.
In that moment of horror, of revelation, one understands the true meaning of propaganda.
It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.
I sat down for “A Film Unfinished” almost regretting sitting down. What else could I learn about the Holocaust that I didn’t already know? But there’s always fresh horror. The redemption, if there is any, is that the Nazis created a document of lies, and, from this, Yael Hersonski created a document of truth. She restores voices, and faces, and meaning.
Review: “Tangshan dadizhen” (2010)
XIAO XIN: SPOILERS
I knew going in that Xiaogang Feng's “Tangshan dadizhen” (“Aftershock”) focused on the Tangshan, China earthquake of 1976 that killed 240,000 people. I knew the movie set the all-time box-office record in China this year. And that’s about all I knew. So I spent much of the movie trying to figure out what the movie was about.
It begins well. We’re told it’s July 27, 1976 in Tangshan City, a train goes by, and it’s followed by a dragonfly. Then two. Then thousands. The people waiting at the railroad crossings are freaked, astonished, puzzled. “Daddy,” a little girl in a truck says, “why are there so many dragonflies?” The father tilts his head out the window. “A storm must be approaching,” he says.
That’s not bad.
There are early touches that reminded me of early Spielberg. We follow this family, the Fangs, whose two kids—a boy (Fang Da), and a girl (Fang Deng), twins—noisily request popsicles, fight and run from bullies, and share, with mom, the benefits of a new electric fan on a hot, summer day. I'm not sure my mind would’ve turned to Spielberg without knowing this movie set the box-office record in China, but at the least there’s a broadly drawn cuteness here that would’ve fit just as easily into an Arizona suburb.
That night, or early morning, as the kids are sleeping, and as the mother and father, at his late-night construction job, make love in the back of his enclosed truck, there’s more ominous foreshadowing. The sky turns purple and the little girl’s fish jump right out of the fishtank. Then the earth moves. The Tangshan earthquake registered anywhere from 7.8 to 8.2 on the Richter scale, and its death toll makes it the most disastrous earthquake of the 20th century. Pipe mains burst, buildings give way, heavy objects—boom—crush people indiscriminately. It’s brutal. People run, but from what? To what? There’s no safety. Mom and Dad struggle to make it back to the kids. At the window, the little girl cries for her mom. Mom cries back: “Lie-le!” (“I’m coming!”) But the father spins the mother out of the way, and to relative safety, just as the building collapses with the kids in it. Pretty horrific. We see them go down like Leo in “Titanic.” The special effects aren’t Industrial Light & Magic, but they’re not bad.
An earthquake can only last so long, though—Tangshan’s lasted 23 seconds—and we’re just 10-15 minutes into the movie. At this point I’m wondering: “What is this film going to be?”
When the dust settles, both kids and father are trapped, but alive, so I thought, “Oh, this will be about the struggle to get them out. It’ll be like ‘World Trade Center.’”
Then aftershocks hit and the father dies. The twins are still trapped beneath opposite sides of the same concrete slab, and the mother begs neighbors and workers—those small Chinese men in boxers and flip-flops who can lift refrigerators on their backs—to get them out. To lift the concrete slab, unfortunately, the weight has to go on one side. One child will be crushed in order to save the other and the mother has to choose: Which child do you save? Which child do you kill? It’s an impossible choice. But as the men are about to leave to help others, she shouts, suddenly, and then says, quietly, horrified, “Jao Di Di” (“Save little brother”).
“Oh,” I thought. “So it’s like ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ A mother has to live with the consequences of sacrificing one child in order to save another.”
A moment later, the mother carries her daughter’s broken body and places it next to the father’s broken body. Then she and her chosen son, the only two members of the family to survive, make their way, with other survivors, out to relief stations set up by the Chinese army, who are making their way into the devastated city.
Except the girl is not dead. A rain falls and she rises, blinking one eye. (The other is swollen shut as if she’d just gone 15 rounds with Apollo Creed.) I’m not sure what to make of this resurrection. Her death was greatly exaggerated? Her father’s spirit somehow revived her? We do know that while the concrete slab apparently didn’t crush her body, her mother’s choice, which she heard from beneath the rubble, crushes her spirit. The vivacious and mouthy little girl we knew for the first 10 minutes of the movie is gone, replaced by a blank, mute girl. Ultimately she’s adopted by two officers of the Chinese army, and they rename her Ya Ya, but, speaking up for the first time since Mom’s choice, she insists on being called “Deng,” even as she’s willing to give up the “Fang.”
The boy, meanwhile, has lost his left arm, and he’s about to lose his mother. In one of those really Chinese cultural moments, the mother of the now-dead husband, the grandmother, insists, in that roundabout Chinese way, of raising the child herself, while the boy’s actual mother, with apparently no rights in the matter, acquiesces. But just as the bus is pulling away, the grandmother’s daughter, the boy’s aunt, finally speaks up and shames the grandmother. At this point we see it all from the mother’s perspective. The bus rumbles down the dirt street. Then it stops. The doors open. And out comes little Fang Da running towards her. It’s a hokey moment but hokey works. I choked up.
Of course I’m waiting, with everyone, for the twins to reunite. But suddenly it’s 1986 and Deng is going off to med school while Da is starting a pedicab business; and then it’s 1995, and Deng has an out-of-wedlock child, a daughter, whom she couldn’t abort because of her own mother’s choice to, in essence, “abort” her, while Da is married and running a successful business but dealing with conflicts between his wife and his mother, the original Chinese martyr. “Oh,” I thought. “This is a decades-long melodrama. Like ‘Giant.’”
And it continued. The movie takes us from the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 (8.0; 68,000 dead), where the twins, both volunteers, finally reunite (interestingly, off-screen). The movie is about how this family is broken and how it comes together again. It’s also about how Tangshan is broken and comes together again. Reduced to rubble in 1976, it is, by the end, a glittering metropolis. Could it finally be about how China is broken and comes together again? The 1976 section ends with Mao’s funeral, with China reduced to economic rubble, and takes us to today, with China a world economic power, and with all of our main characters, with their heavy heartaches, living in relative comfort. Even broken, they have risen.
And that’s when I finally got it. “Oh,” I thought. “It’s the national story told as one family’s soap opera. Or the national soap opera told through one family. It’s ‘Gone with the Wind.’” Thus its popularity.
At the same time, setting “the all-time Chinese box office record” doesn’t mean much these days. The record it broke, “Avatar’s,” was set earlier this year, while the record that one broke, “2012,” was set in 2009, while the record that one broke... etc. Box-office records are broken all the time in China now for a reason. More theaters are being built, and more Chinese have the leisure time and disposable income to see filmed stories that solidify national myths: I.e., this is a story about how we got to the point where we could waste our time watching this.
Welcome to the party, pengyoumen.
Review: “Hereafter” (2010)
WARNING: UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY SPOILERS, FROM WHOSE (JASON) BOURN NO TRAVELER RETURNS
“Hereafter” needs a subtler touch than director Clint Eastwood brings. Eastwood has a nasty habit of choosing sides. His is all good, the other is all bad, and doubt and ambiguity are for saps (or, in Eastwoodian, “punks”). This is true if the subject is a San Francisco cop, a lady boxer, or the most important question human beings can ask:
What happens when we die?
Every religion in the world, and half the charlatans, promise to answer that question. Eastwood, and screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”; “Frost/Nixon”), now do. Without doubt or ambiguity. You got a problem with that...punk?
We get three main storylines. In the first, a pretty French TV journalist, Marie Lelay (Cecile de France), finds her career, and life, sidetracked after she is swept up in a tsunami and dies for an unspecified amount of time. This tsunami is monstrous and terrifying and the best part of the film. After getting knocked out, Marie drifts in the water while a toy bear, floating above her, stares down. We hear a heartbeat until we don’t. The screen goes dark. Then we get blurry images, silhouettes, and mumbling. It’s like that scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when the aliens emerge from their spaceship. Are these silhouettes the living, whom she is leaving, or the dead, who are greeting her? At first I assumed the latter, but then two silhouettes move towards us, and one gives us a sense of resuscitation, and, voila, suddenly we’re back, with someone on a rooftop giving Ms. Lelay mouth-to-mouth. Enjoy that scene. The movie is called “Hereafter” but this is the last glimpse of the hereafter we’ll get.
The second storyline follows George Lonegan (Matt Damon), who, as a child, had a near-death experience, and ever since, whenever he touches someone, zap, he can communicate with this person’s deceased loved ones.
(BTW: Do the communicatees have to be “loved ones”? And are they the deceased who mean the most to this person or the deceased for whom this person means the most? Might George touch my hands, for example, and suddenly be talking with someone I barely knew but who secretly loved me and is just, you know, hanging around? Are there stalkers in the hereafter?)
George’s older brother, Billy (Jay Mohr), a businessman, wants to exploit this talent—he’s developed a website and everything—but George wants to ignore it completely because the after-effects are somewhat deleterious. The connection isn’t immediately broken and he seems not quite there, floating in this middle kingdom, listening to dull radio fully-clothed in bed. “A life about death is no life at all,” George tells his brother. So he’s trying something else: a working-class job at the C&H plant and a once-a-week Italian cooking class to meet people. Mostly, though, he’s alone. Eastwood does alone well but he does it too often here. I think we get three shots of George eating by himself while a guitarist on the soundtrack picks out a few lonely chords.
If that’s not pathos enough, there’s the London storyline, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), twin boys who save their pennies, or maybe their ha’ pennies, to pay for a self-portrait for their mum, who, alas, is a drug addict. It’s like something out of a silent melodrama: They care for her with one hand while fending off social services with the other. One morning she sends Marcus on an errand, but at the last instant, Jason, the more talkative, baseball-cap-wearing brother, goes, and I immediately thought, “OK, he’s dead.” It reminded me of the anxiety accompanying the first scenes of the HBO series “Six Feet Under”: Who’s going to die and how? Here we know who; it’s all about how. Ah, bullies: Eastwood’s favorite trope. No wait, Jason runs from the bullies. So he’ll run right into an oncoming car, right? Wrong. It’s an oncoming truck.
Those are our three storylines—all related to death and the hereafter. One assumes they’ll connect eventually. And they do—eventually—but Eastwood's 80 now, and like any 80-year-old he takes his time getting there.
In the meantime: Lelay takes a leave of absence from her weekly news-magazine show to write a revisionist bio of former French president Francois Mitterrand, dead now 10 years, but turns in three chapters on the hereafter instead. She’s shocked that her publishing house isn’t interested, and shocked again when her weekly show, and accompanying Blackberry ads, go to a younger, Asian-y woman. She was so proud of those ads.
Lonegan begins a flirtation with a cute woman in his cooking class, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), in which each’s interest in the other is obvious. But during prep for a home-cooked meal, his secret, his superpower as it were, is slowly revealed; and when she insists he try it on her, he finds out things she doesn’t want revealed. And there goes that. He’s back to eating alone while the guitarist plucks a few lonely chords.
Marcus, meanwhile, is put into a foster home with well-meaning parents, but he’s quiet, and wearing Jason’s baseball cap, and doing whatever he can to communicate with Jason. This includes visiting charlatans who claim to communicate with the dead.
In this way, each character deals with a perhaps culturally specific response to their association with the hereafter. Marcus gets British charlatans. Lelay, who definitely experienced something when she died, gets the French, the center of modern, progressive culture, who definitively know nothing happens. We just die. C’est tout. And Lonegan definitely communicates with the dead, but instead of treating this as the greatest discovery in the history of mankind, which it is, his brother treats it as a way to make a coupla bucks. So American.
Eventually (there’s that eventually), all three converge at a convention for a dying industry (books) in London. Marcus is with his foster parents, Lonegan, who loves Dickens, is attending a Derek Jacobi reading of “Little Dorrit,” and Lelay is shilling her book in stilted English.
Lonegan, lonely boy, is of course enamored of Lelay, chic Frenchwoman, but does nothing with it. (Welcome to the party, pal.) Marcus, meanwhile, recognizes Lonegan and convinces him to use his superpower to communicate with Jason.
This is the fourth example of communication with the hereafter we have in the film. The first, Lelay’s, is visual but vague, while Lonegan’s two previous encounters—with his brother’s neighbor and with Melanie—are more about helping the living with their personal issues. The dead are so understanding that way. The neighbor’s dead wife encourages him to marry again, to her former nurse, June, with whom he was secretly in love. Melanie’s dead father apologizes for sexually abusing her. None of the living ask the obvious question: Hey, what’s it like to be dead?
Marcus has a bit of Dr. Phil in him, too—he tells Jason to stop wearing his baseball cap and get on with his life—but, bless him, he at least gives us a glimpse of what it means to be dead. Quick answer? It’s fun. “You can be all things and all at once,” he says through Lonegan. “And the weightlessness!”
That’s the shame of “Hereafter.” It posits that none of us, except a chosen few, are interested in what happens when we die, when all of us are interested in what happens when we die. We’re just tired of the answers we keep getting. Including, now, Eastwood’s.
Death is apparently like this, but with smaller heads.
Review: “Red” (2010)
WARNING: COMPANY SPOILERS
How far have we fallen as a country in the last 30 years? Here’s how far.
Our movies about the CIA used to be this: The CIA is trying to assassinate the president of the United States! Oh my god!
Now they’re this: The CIA is trying to assassinate the vice-president of the United States! Yay!
The assassins in this latter case, in the movie “Red,” are, to be sure, rogue agents, or retired agents, who have been forced out of retirement because this vice president, with war crimes to hide, has targeted them. So our heroes are less “the CIA” than individual agents. They’re soldiers. Support the troops, man.
But it’s still odd and disheartening.
Our fear used to be Frankensteinian in nature. The monster we created, the national security agency, had turned on its creator, the U.S. government, and through a rogue agent (“In the Line of Fire”), or with the help of the entire agency (“JFK”), was trying to remove the democratically elected president of the United States. The CIA, created to protect the people, but unaccountable to the people, was subverting democracy.
Now? In “Red”? The agency still sucks because it’s a bureaucracy and bureaucracies suck. But democracy sucks, too. The vice-president needs to be assassinated not only because he’s immoral but because he’s running for president—he has the money and the organization—and we have no faith that we the people won’t see through the money and organization, and we’ll elect him anyway. We are, in a certain sense, the movie’s unnamed villains. Democracy, a good idea in its day, doesn’t work with people as stupid as us.
When the movie opens, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is dealing somnabulantly with retirement. He gets up at six, pads downstairs in his robe, drinks coffee, works out. He’s a retired CIA agent—we know that going in—but he’s like someone in the witness protection program. A neighbor says hi, he says hi back, then notices all the other houses have Christmas lights up. So he buys some. He’s just trying to fit in with these people.
The one bright spot in his day, or his week, is talking on the phone with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), a customer-service rep whom he contacts when he doesn’t get his retirement check. He gets it all the time but he keeps tearing it up so he can talk to Sarah. It’s a small life.
One morning, though, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep (I know the feeling), so he pads downstairs. In the darkness, three men wearing ninja clothes, infrared goggles, and carrying high-tech weapons, silently follow him as he walks into the kitchen. Then they shoot up the kitchen. But he’s not in the kitchen, he’s in a nearby room, and he takes them all out. They’re just the first wave of the assault team. The second wave turns his house into swiss cheese with automatic weapons fire but by this point he’s safe in the basement; and when the second wave enters the house he takes them out, too, then leaves while part of his house crumbles. He doesn’t look back.
He’s on his way to Kansas City and Sarah. He assumes the CIA hit squad was targeting him because he had been talking to her. So they must be targeting her, too.
Sarah is the typical civilian in these kinds of stories. She dates badly and reads thrilling adventure novels to make up for the boredom in her life. Nothing ever happens to her. Until Frank shows up at her place, or in her place, and freaks her out.
Some good comedic bits here. “Did you vacuum?” she asks, looking around her apartment. “It was a bit messy,” he admits. Later, as they drive away, he talks about how he imagined it would be different the first time they met. Cut to: her, tied up in the back, duct tape over her mouth.
Moses is a man on the run trying to figure out why he’s on the run. He visits other retired agents: Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) in New Orleans and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) in Florida. Joe has a bit of a good speech: “I never thought this would happen to me,” he says. “Getting old.” For a moment we identify; then we realize he’s talking less philosophy than lifestyle. “Vietnam. Afghanistan. [pause] Green Springs Retirement Home?” Marvin, meanwhile, is nutso. He thought they were feeding him daily doses of LSD, and, Moses admits, they were, for 11 years. He’s the kind of anti-government paranoid that used to be associated with the left but is now wholly associated with the right. Libertarians are beating anarchists in the battle for nutjobs everywhere.
So why is Moses being targeted? I alluded to it earlier. Seems he and some others—all of whom have died over the last year—were part of a CIA extraction team in Guatemala in the fall of 1981. They were extracting a war criminal, the son of a rich man, who became Robert Stanton (Julian McMahon: Dr. Doom from “The Fantastic Four”), the vice president of the United States. Stanton is now running for president, and he, or someone backing him, doesn’t want any skeletons. Moses doesn’t want to be a skeleton. Thus the conflict.
I wonder how these movies play abroad. Are they accurately translated? There’s a moment, for example, when the young CIA buck, William Cooper (Karl Urban), enters the archives in Langley, Virginia, watched over by Henry the Record Keeper (Ernest Borgnine), to check out the file of Moses, the man he’s been ordered to kill. He opens it up... and almost everything is redacted. There’s nothing to read. It’s a good bit, worth a laugh. Karl then talks up Moses. How he was the best. How in his day he took out drug lords and terrorists. “Hell,” Henry says with a bright smile, “he toppled governments!”
Really? That’s the kind of thing that used to cause major moral qualms in this country. We’re toppling democratically elected governments? I thought we were the good guys. Now it’s a throwaway line said with pride. It’s what our heroes do.
You know that scratchy, sickly feeling you get in your chest and throat right before you get a cold? How you can’t pinpoint it but you know it’s an indication something worse is coming? That’s how I felt walking out of “Red.” It’s a movie that demonstrates how sick we’re becoming.
Review: “Secretariat” (2010)
WARNING: I GIVE IT UP TO CHIC ANDERSON WITH THE SPOILERS
There are entertainments I associate with my mother’s mother, Grammie, who lived in Finksburg, Maryland, and watched shows on a heavy, RCA console television set with a lace doily and ceramic figurines of cherubic children on top. Think of these shows as one part “Lawrence Welk,” one part “Hee Haw,” and one part ceramic figurines of cherubic children. Characters were both ploddingly obvious and oddly foreign, huge swaths of time seemed to envelope moments between dialogue, and the overall effect was so airless and enervating that as a child, watching them, I grew vaguely nauseous. Alexander Payne captured these entertainments perfectly in “About Schmidt” with whatever late 1960s Bob Hope/Phyllis Diller comedy Warren Schmidt was watching after his wife died. These are shows for people who are no longer quite alive, who are set in their ways, who are now as stubbornly unmovable as Grammie’s heavy, RCA console television set with the lace doily on top.
Walt Disney’s “Secretariat,” the new film from screenwriter Mike Rich and director Randall Wallace, is that kind of entertainment.
The movie begins with a voiceover from Diane Lane quoting scripture: that moment in the Old Testament when God basically tells Job, “Who the hell are you to question Me?” then iterates all the stuff He, and not Job, has done. Including:
Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane? Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting? He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength, and charges into the fray. He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing. ... In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground; he cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.
Cut to: a nice suburban home in Denver hardly suffering the deprivations of Job.
It’s 1969, a year of social turmoil in America, but in this home, the Tweedy home, standards are maintained. Mom’s hair is expertly coiffed as she serves breakfast, Dad (Dylan Walsh), a lawyer, reads the newspaper in his business suit, the teenage girls are rebellious in the manner of teenage girls (they’re putting on an anti-war pageant), while younger brother holds his rambunctiousness until he’s outside. Then the phone rings, Penny Tweedy, nee Chenery (Diane Lane), answers it, and a second later she drops a bowl on the floor. Does anyone really drop dishes when they hear bad news? It’s like a conceit out of films from the 1930s.
Penny grew up on a farm in Virginia, where her father, Christopher Chenery (Scott Glenn), bred thoroughbreds. But now Mom’s gone (that’s the bad news) and Dad’s suffering what one assumes is Alzheimer’s (it’s never mentioned: standards need to be maintained), so Penny has to make sense of all this. She has to figure out what to do with the family legacy, which includes two pregnant mares, one of whom, Somethingroyal, bred to Bold Ruler, will give birth to our title character.
Secretariat may be the title character, but this is Penny Chenery’s story: how she broke into the old boys’ club, saved the family farm and kept Secretariat, the horse with whom she had a special, if vague, and wholly undramatic bond.
It’s a story of a woman breaking into the old boys’ club the old-fashion way: with the help of the old boys: Bull Hancock (Fred Thompson), and Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), the richest man in America, both of whom are amused and impressed by this gal’s genteel pluck.
Arrayed against her? Her husband and brother (Dylan Walsh and Dylan Baker) who want her to sell the farm.
Because her father’s trainer turns out to be a jerk and a thief, she hires another, the French Canadian Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), who, one character says, “dresses like Super Fly,” even though he really dresses like a color-blind Bing Crosby, and even though in the actual world “Super Fly” won’t be released for another three years. Lucien is a respected trainer who carries losing press clippings in his wallet. That’s why Penny hires him. She knows he wants to win as much as she does.
In her corner, she also has her assistant, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale—“Paris je’taime”’s Colorado postal carrier), who names the horse and keeps Lucien in line, and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), a Negro with magic hands, whose dialogue (“You ‘bout to see somethin’ you ain’t never seen befo’!” shouted to the Kentucky morning) is like a conceit out of films from the 1940s.
So Secretariat is born, stands almost immediately, and then is off and running... somewhere. How does Lucien train him? We don’t know. How does Big Red get along with stablemate Riva Ridge, the ’72 Derby winner? That’s not even mentioned. Penny Chenery just has too much to worry about.
First: Can she keep up the farm? (Yes.) Then: Will Secretariat win as a two-year-old? (Yes.) Then her father dies, the feds want their damned estate taxes, and she, wife to a lawyer, sister to a Harvard economist, can’t afford them....unless they sell Secretariat, possibly to Ogden Phipps, who had his choice between two colts in 1969 and opted for the one that wasn’t Secretariat. Meanwhile, no one, no one, thinks her horse can win. Even when he wins he’s the underdog. Because apparently that’s the only kind of sports drama that Hollywood, and Disney, and you and I, can understand.
The movie is based upon a book by William Nack, played in the film by Kevin Connolly of “Entourage,” who wears fedora and moustache with as much conviction as a kid in a sixth-grade play. Nack also wrote a 1989 Sports Illustrated article about Secretariat called “Pure Heart,” which was chosen by David Halberstam for the compendium “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century.” It’s worth reading for itself and as a corrective to the movie. One Baltimore handicapper, for example, a former prizefighter named Clem Florio, was so enamored of Secretariat, that, after his first victory—his first—he predicted Triple Crown. Then he got into a fistfight with a New York handicapper who questioned his judgment. Penny Chenery was hardly alone with her predictions of greatness.
Nack also gives us this:
Secretariat was an amiable, gentlemanly colt, with a poised and playful nature that at times made him seem as much a pet as the stable dog was. I was standing in front of his stall one morning, writing, when he reached out, grabbed my notebook in his teeth and sank back inside, looking to see what I would do. “Give the man his notebook back!” yelled Sweat. As the groom dipped under the webbing, Secretariat dropped the notebook on the bed of straw.
Great scene. Nowhere in the movie, of course. Nothing even close to it. “Secretariat” is a horse racing movie without much horse or much racing. It just tosses up obstacles—including, in the third act, Sham’s trash-talking owner, Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano)—for its poised, almost brittle heroine to genteelly step over.
Has Diane Lane ever been this bad? She sells none of the film’s awful lines. Malkovich provides good comic relief, and Martindale is sturdy, but everything else feels as false as Kevin Connolly’s moustache.
What a shame. Secretariat is the perfect horse for Hollywood because he always came from behind to win—as he does in the Derby and the Preakness. Then we get the Belmont Stakes, the final and longest leg of the Triple Crown. Can Secretariat last? Will he fade? That’s the concern in the film.
My concern was different. Confession: I actually watch this race about six times a year on YouTube, usually when I need cheering up, so in the audience I wondered: Will they screw up dramatizing one of the greatest races ever run? For a moment I was hopeful when I heard, “I give it over to Chic Anderson with the call.” Anderson’s call is legitimately famous. He really didn’t have a race to call, he had a blowout, but he was up to it:
They're on the turn, and Secretariat is blazing along! The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 and four fifths. Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!
But the movie doesn’t give us the Chic Anderson call. It gives us someone doing the Chic Anderson call. And correcting it. Secretariat was so far in front of the other horses that Anderson couldn’t calculate his lead, so he had him winning by 25 lengths when he actually won by 31. In the movie, they get it right and miss the point.
Worse, and unforgivably, at the final turn, they suddenly cut the sound and go to slow motion. Then we hear, once again, Lane’s “Book of Job” voiceover. God, you see, has touched this horse in a way that He hasn’t touched you or I. He’s given him powers beyond those of mortal horses. That’s the only implication for such a monumental victory. God.
Unless one reads William Nack. “Pure Heart” begins in 1989 with Secretariat’s autopsy, when it’s discovered that the horse’s heart was twice the normal size. “It wasn’t pathologically enlarged,” the doctor tells Nack. “All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger.” If there’s a whisper of this in the movie you can’t hear it over the Jesus chorus. And I mean Jesus chorus. This is the song we get when Secretariat bolts down the stretch at Belmont to become the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown:
Oh happy day
When Jesus washed
He washed my sins away
See the connection? Neither do I.
“Secretariat” is a movie that’s been scrubbed clean of life. It’s a movie without shit or sweat or intimations of sex. It’s as if these things don’t exist in this airless world. Neither, really, does war, since we think our kids are silly to protest it, and neither, really, does inequality, since, if Negroes know their place, and pretty housewives charm rich men, everyone can just get along. It’s a movie made to be watched on Grammie’s heavy, RCA console television set with the lace doily on top. It’s for people who like the lie.
Review: “The Social Network” (2010)
STATUS UPDATE: SPOILERS
There’s such a joy of intellect in Aaron Sorkin’s scripts that he’s almost unAmerican. He makes brains and articulation seem like a superpower. He makes them seem cool.
The people in his stories have so much to say that they can’t stop to say it; they have to keep moving. You could say Sorkin was made to write the script for “The Social Network,” the story of the founding of Facebook, because it, too, is about supersmart, superarticulate people who are perhaps so smart and so articulate that they speak before they should. This goes not only for the character of Marc Zuckerberg, played in an Oscar-nomination-worthy performance by Jesse Eisenberg, but also Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski), the then-Harvard president, who, when confronted by the Facebook phenomenon, scoffs at this “million dollar idea.” And he should scoff. To quote Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) channeling Dr. Evil later in the movie: It’s not a million dollar idea; it’s a billion dollar idea.
The movie begins with one of the best conversations I’ve heard in the movies (or anywhere) in a long time. Zuckerberg and his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara—the new Lisbeth Salander), talk around and through each other over beers at the Thirsty Scholar Pub at Harvard University in the fall of 2003. He brings up the topically relevant but factually doubtful factoid that there are more genius I.Q.s in China than there are I.Q.s in the U.S., while offhandedly bragging about his SAT scores (1600) and worrying over which Harvard “final club” (off-campus social club) he should pledge. She tells him he’s obsessed with final clubs, pronouncing them “finals clubs,” which he corrects. The deeper into the conversation they go, the more each says something that implies more than it says. She asks which final club is the easiest to get into (implying he needs “easy to get into”) and he says, when she pleads homework, that she doesn’t have to study because she goes to B.U. (Boston University: i.e., with the rest of the yokels). She breaks up with him on the spot, then delivers the crushing blow. She tells him he’s going to go through life thinking girls don’t like him because he’s a nerd; but, really, they won’t like him because he’s an asshole.
Cue opening credits.
Wow. Now that’s my kind of open.
The bang-bang doesn’t stop. In his dorm room, he grabs a beer and blogs out his anger on livejournal.com. “She’s not a 34 C; she’s a 34 B—as in 'barely anything there,'" he writes. There’s something quaint about the founder of Facebook using a site as pedestrian as livejournal.com. Although according to some measures, it’s still one of the top 100 sites on the Internet. Facebook? It’s no. 2. After Google.
On the same night, Zuckerberg gets an idea for rating the women of Harvard, hacks into dorm records to gets their photos, borrows an algorithm from his business-major friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield—the new Spider-Man), and goes live. Within hours, and in the wee hours, there’s so much traffic it crashes the Harvard servers. There’s pride all over Zuckerberg’s face. Then a sense of ... oops.
He’s put on academic probation for six months, becomes even more of an outcast with women (“u dick,” one note reads), and gets the attention of some upperclassmen, the Winklevoss twins, Tyler and Cameron (both played by Armie Hammer), tall, strong, stars of the crew team, who recruit him to update their Web site concept harvardconnection.com, a place where Harvard students can meet each other online. But they make a couple of mistakes in the overture: 1) they only let him enter their club as far as the bike room, and b) they imply his reputation needs rehabilitation, even though it’s obviously that rep that drew them. So with seed money from Eduardo, he begins creating his own Web site where Harvard students can connect. He calls it “The Facebook.” When it goes live and proves remarkably addictive, the Winklevosses, or Winklevi as Zuckerberg calls them, are furious.
Throughout, scenes are juxtaposed with two future depositions: one brought by the Winklevosses, the other by Eduardo. In each, particularly the former, we get Zuckerberg’s stubborn insistence that he never stole any of their code. Where is their code? he repeats. It’s a legally bogus argument that reveals so much. To Zuckerberg, code is the only intellectual property—the only language, really—that matters.
So at this point, now that he’s got Facebook created, what’s the story? What’s “The Social Network” about?
Essentially it’s a love triangle: Zuckerberg and Eduardo are the lovers, or the partners anyway, and Timberlake’s Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, is l’homme fatal: the man who comes between them. At their initial meeting, he quickly (too quickly?) impresses the usually unimpressed Zuckerberg, while Eduardo’s face reveals a different emotion—one that most of us in this zippy, broadband world can relate to: the fear of being left behind.
Eduardo and Zuckerberg wind up clashing over what to do now that Facebook is taking off. For Eduardo the answer is easy: make money; sell ads. For Zuckerberg the answer is easy: let it become what it’s meant to become without the impairment of ads. The site has to be cool and ads aren’t cool.
Zuckerberg moves near Stanford (and Parker) for the summer, then for the following semester. Facebook expands to other Ivy League schools, then other schools across the country, then across the pond, and they’re doing it all on Eduardo’s original $19,000. But poor Eduardo is acting like a salesman now, a Willie Loman, pushing his product in Manhattan offices to people who just don’t get it. He’s being left behind.
More even than the Winklevosses, who have something sturdy and noble about them, Sorkin and director David Finch make Parker the villain here. At a hip, west-coast club, over a thumping beat, Parker tells Zuckerberg that his is a once-in-a-generation, holy shit idea, and adds, for confirmation, “Look at my face.” I had been looking at his face. In the hot lights of the club, it was glowing as red as the devil’s. Plus, for most of the movie, it’s a surprisingly unattractive face, seeing that it belongs to Justin Timberlake. It’s as if they gave the singer the flu so he could play the part.
Betrayals are made all around—first Eduardo, then possibly Parker—but how culpable is Zuckerberg? Is he truly that vindictive or is everyone else truly that paranoid? The longer the movie lasts the less we know him. That’s criticism of a sort. Throughout the depositions, Zuckerberg often asks questions of a pretty, two-year associate, Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), and she seems sympathetic to this boy genius, this solitary, disconnected man who connected the world, and offers, at the end, a comment that bookends Erica Albright’s at the beginning: “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying hard to be one.” That, unfortunately, is one of the weaker lines of the movie. I don’t believe a two-year associate would say it under those circumstances. And I don’t believe it’s true. He is an asshole. That’s part of why he is where he is.
There are a couple of other moments that, at second glance, lose their luster. Sean Parker is introduced in a great scene in which he and a Stanford co-ed introduce themselves after a one-night stand. She accuses him of not knowing her name, but he does. Yet she doesn’t know his. Only after another half-minute of conversation does the other shoe drop. The Sean Parker? Of Napster? It’s a great intro, but, once we get to know him and his self-aggrandizing ways, it’s hard to picture him entering any party where he might meet such a co-ed without letting everyone know who he is.
There’s also the implication that Zuckerberg did all he did for Erica Albright, the girl who rejected him in the beginning. Many critics have already compared the film to “Citizen Kane”—less for form than content: the rise and fall of a scoundrel; the Xanadu loneliness; the betrayal of the last, best friend—but, in the scheme of things, a sophomore-year girlfriend is hardly a childhood sled. It reveals little that we don’t already know about the man. Or the boy.
My criticisms are mild, though. This is a smart, fun, hugely relevant movie. The final scene, where Zuckerberg finds Erica on Facebook and sends her a friend request, then sits refreshing her page over and over again, is a scene for our time. This thing has been sent out into the ether and we need something to come back. We need to be filled, constantly filled, by the online world, because, for social animals, connecting online is like the thirsty drinking salt water. We keep doing it and it’s only making us thirstier.
Review: “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010)
WARNING: BACK-TO-THE-FUTURE SPOILERS
The joke is in the title with a movie like “Hot Tub Time Machine.” You just cross your fingers that the jokes keep coming.
They don’t. Pretty quickly the necessity of the plot, such as it is, kicks in, and the jokes gradually disappear so we can move the story along towards its monumentally stupid resolution.
The beginning isn’t much better. We start with the usual schtick for cinematic down-on-their-luck schmoes:
- Nick (Craig Robinson of “The Office”) is recognized at his customer-service job by a douchebag who remembers him from his glory days—fronting a band called “Chocolate Kiss”—and he’s embarrassed by it.
- Adam (John Cusack) comes home to find his girlfriend has left him and taken half their shit.
- Adam’s nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke), a fat 20-year-old, lives in his basement playing video games.
- Lou (Rob Corddry), boozing it up, drives his sports car recklessly into his garage, plays air piano and air drums to bad ‘80s music, and, because he doesn’t turn off the car, nearly asphyxiates himself.
Everyone assumes it was a suicide attempt. That’s how these three friends (plus Jacob) reunite again. They were inseparable 20 years ago but they’ve since drifted apart, as friends drift apart, but to cheer up Lou they decide to go back to Kodiak Valley, a ski-resort town and one of the high points of their youth, where “Nobody gets carded and everybody gets laid.” In a way, this formula is similar to last year’s box-office hit, “The Hangover”: three friends plus a fat guy head to Nevada to party.
Unfortunately, K-Val is now run-down and full of “out of business” signs. Their room at the Silver Peaks Lodge smells like cats, their one-armed bellhop (Crispin Glover, the first—or, after Cusack, the second—’80 icon to appear), is surly, and the hot tub is empty and filled with an old, dead, smelly animal. “If Lou kills himself, can we go home?” Jacob asks plaintively, in one of the film’s better lines. Instead they sit around, play quarters, and bitch.
Until the hot tub comes magically to life. Why does it come magically to life? Who knows? Why does it become a time machine? Because a Russian soda drink, made with chemicals that are “probably fucking illegal in the United States,” spills on the control panel. Sure, why not? We know from the title that this is supposed to happen so it happens. And back to January 1986, and that glorious weekend in Kodiak Valley, they go.
Only gradually do they realize they’ve traveled back in time. They see legwarmers, big cellphones, geri curl, “Safety Dance,” “Miami Vice,” ALF, and Ronald Reagan making a speech. Reagan is saying, “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not,” which is from his arms-for-hostages mea culpa, which is from March 1987, not January 1986. It’s the first of many, many anachronisms in the movie. There are so many they almost seem purposeful: a celebration of a “fuck it” society.
I had two thoughts when I first heard of the film’s concept: 1) Funny title, and 2) Who the hell wants to go back to the ‘80s? The movie agrees:
Lou: It’s the fuckin’ 80s, guys. Let’s do what we wanna do. Free love!
Jacob: That’s the ‘60s, dipshit.
Adam: No, we had, like, Reagan and AIDS. Let’s get the fuck out of here.
To us, and to each other, they still look like John Cusack, Rob Corddry, etc., but to everyone else, and in the mirror, they look like their 1986 selves. Lou has long, heavy-metal hair, Nick has a Kid (from Kid n’ Play) ‘do, Cusack is youthful, Jacob keeps shimmering into non-existence like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.”
And just like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future,” they realize their presence in the past could change the future, which is their present, so they decide to, in essence, walk in their own footsteps and do what they did 20 years ago. Which means Adam has to break up with his hot, bouncy girlfriend, Jenny (Lyndsy Fonseca), Lou has to get beat up by the ski patrol, Nick has to go onstage and sing.
Except Marty McFly had a reason for not changing the future: otherwise he might not exist. Ditto Jacob here. But Adam, Lou and Nick? Their lives suck in 2010. They have a chance to do what most of us would love to do: relive their young adulthood with an idea of what’s coming. Example: it’s January 1986? In two months, Microsoft goes public. I’ll take ten thousand shares, please.
Things have begun changing anyway. Jenny breaks up with Adam rather than vice-versa, Adam meets a quirky girl from Spin magazine and begins a very 1980s, very Cusack-esque relationship with her, and the Denver Broncos lose a big game it was supposed to win.
The film has moments. At one point, Nick, who is so whipped he can barely “cheat” on his wife in his 1986 incarnation, tells Adam why he clings to her so much: “I don’t have my music. I barely have friends. Without Cathy, I’m nothing.” This is a frank and deep (and adult) admission for a comedy but the movie doesn’t do much with it. Instead it pushes the usual envelopes (Lou loses a bet and has to give Nick a blowjob—but he passes out first) or gives us scenes cadged from other, better movies (Nick wows a crowd with a Black-Eyed Peas song the way Marty McFly wowed his crowd with a Chuck Berry song). There’s a fight, a chase, and a kind of mystical repairman (Chevy Chase) who helps them, in the end, get back to the future. Except Lou. “ I really was trying to kill myself” in that garage, Lou tells Adam. So he decides to relive his life and make it better.
This would be an interesting twist if it weren’t so icky—if Lou weren’t so icky. Earlier in the film, Nick says of Lou, “Like the friend who’s the asshole? He’s our asshole.” He’s basically the Biff Tannen of the movie, and, like Biff Tannen in the “Back to the Future” sequel, he uses his knowledge of the future to create a crummy empire. Nick, Adam and Jacob swirl back to 2010, where Lou is rich. He started “Lougle” before “Google” (apparently it doesn’t require coding or anything, just a name) and fronted Motley Lou rather than Motley Cru (apparently it doesn’t require talent or anything, just a voice). Did Lou do anything good in the meantime? Prevent 9/11? Encourage George W. Bush to become Commissioner of Baseball in the early 1990s? And if he did start mucking with global events (Kuwait, Iraq, al Qaeda, Clinton, Lewinsky, etc.), at what point did the year he was living through a second time no longer resemble the year he lived through the first time?
“Back to the Future” was a good popcorn movie, and hugely popular in the summer of 1985, but it did leave us with the uncomfortable thought of what happened to the other Marty. In 1955, Marty helps his future dad grow a pair and that changes everything, and thus, when he returns to 1985, his father’s richer, Biff works for his family rather than vice-versa, and his siblings aren’t losers. Marty grew up in Family A but this is now Family B, and...he doesn’t know them. He doesn’t know anything he and his family did for the first 18 years of his life. More, he, Marty A, has now replaced Marty B, the kid who did do all those things with his family. So what happened to Marty B? Replaced? Erased? Out of existence?
Same thing here. These guys go back to 2010 and Nick is a former rap star and current record executive. Adam, instead of coming home to a house without a wife, comes home to a mansion with a wife—the Spin magazine girl. This is Life B rather than Life A. But Nick and Adam have the memories of Life A. So what happened to Nick B and Adam B? Replaced? Erased? Out of existence?
It’s a happy ending but should it be? Shouldn’t someone speak up? “Dude, I don’t know my wife, I don’t know my job. My memories for the last 20 years are now false. You stole my life!” Shouldn’t they be counting their friends to see who’s missing? Shouldn’t they be counting their children to see if they have them? Or lost them?
I know. I’m overthinking a shitty little movie. Would that I could rewind my two hours and live them over again with a good book.
Cusack and Duke wonder how they wound up in 1986...or in “Hot Tub Time Machine.”
Review: “Winter's Bone” (2010)
WARNING: HARDSCRABBLE SPOILERS
“Winter’s Bone,” written by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik, and directed by Granik, from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, opens to an acapella version of “Missouri Waltz,” the state song of Missouri, where the film is set, and its spareness suits the environment. The trees are bare, the grass scabby, the sky overcast. The sun never shines and the rain never comes. Everything feels dead. There’s music in this place but this is a place without music.
The scary underside of the American dream that’s usually displayed on film is black inner-city life. Woodrell’s Missouri Ozarks is the negative version. Not black but white. Not inner-city but rural. Families rather than gangs. Meth rather than crack. At the center, though, the same: tough, scary people with their codes of silence.
The movie opens on what seems like an untenable existence. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year old girl taking care of her two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson), in a scabby house near some scabby woods. It’s all tied-up dogs and beat-up couches and flannel shirts and plastic cups—the refuse of the local Goodwill. It’s children caring for children. The mother lost it a while back and the father, Jessup, well, he ain’t around no more, but Ree does what she does. She wants to go into the Army but she’s got her responsibilities and she takes them seriously. On the way to school with the kids: Spell “house.” What’s 7+2? She washes and combs her mother’s hair, cooks potatoes in bacon fat, and teaches the kids the lessons that the Ozarks taught her: “Never ask for what oughta be offered.”
One day this untenable existence becomes a whole lot less tenable. The local sheriff pulls up looking for Ree’s father. He’s out on bail, but disappeared, and he put up the house as part of his bond. If he fails to show for his court date next week the bondsman will claim it. In a flash you see Ree’s toughness.
Ree: I’ll find him.
Sheriff: Girl, I been looking.
Ree: I’ll find him.
Her search is our introduction to this world. It’s not pretty.
First she goes to her friend Gail’s house, in a kind of exurbia, and asks to borrow the truck so she can do her search. Gail (Lauren Sweetser) is a new wife, new mom, and she asks her husband, who’s listening to some roaringly angry rock music. He says no. Ree can’t believe that her friend, whom she thought tough, would back down so quickly. “It’s different once you’re married,” Gail says. Indeed. This husband, in fact, turns out one of the better ones.
Subsequent visits are similar: once-handsome, now-haggard women greet her suspiciously, guarding the inner sanctums of their mostly silent men. First it’s Victoria (Cinnamon Schultz) keeping folks away from Teardrop (John Hawkes), Jessup’s brother, who eventually emerges from his back bedroom, and who deals with his niece’s questions by choking her for 10 seconds. Then there’s Megan (Casey MacLaren), who doesn’t know Ree, and who guards the junkyard fiefdom of Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan), Jessup’s meth-head friend. Finally, it’s Merab (Dale Dickey), the matriarch of the Miltons, with whom the Dollys have apparently feuded, and whose patriarch, Thump (Ronnie Hall), she doesn’t even get in to see. Her descent into increasingly unfriendly territory is revealed in each woman’s greeting:
Victoria: “What brings you here? Is somebody dead?”
Megan: “What’s your business?”
Merab: “I expect you got the wrong place.”
This is a harsh, unsympathetic world and the solutions people offer are half solutions or no solutions. Her neighbors say they’ll take Sonny but not Ashlee. Teardrop suggests she sells the woods before the land is taken. The Army won’t allow her to join and take care of the kids.
Meanwhile, Ree keeps teaching her brother and sister. Here’s how you make deer-meat stew. Here’s how you shoot a rifle. Here’s how you pull squirrel apart to get the meat. It’s Rural 101.
But news about Jessup? Silence.
Eventually she tracks down Thump Milton at a livestock auction and pursues him back to the Milton place, where Merab greets her with a glass of water in the face and a punch in the stomach. She’s then dragged to the barn and beaten—by the Milton women. Thump stands over her and tells her to explain herself. One senses it’s a life-and-death matter. Explanations are defiantly given and stoically accepted. This is a land whose very culture of silence fosters misunderstanding, but before anything else can happen, Teardrop shows up to barter for her. “She does wrong you put it on me,” he says. “She’s now yours to answer for,” Thump responds. It’s as if we’re watching a foreign culture. We are, but it’s Missouri.
There’s a great moment, by the way, inside the barn when we first hear Teardrop’s truck pull up. The Milton men, who are many, flutter away from the door like birds. “Shit,” one says. Another says, “I ain’t gonna stand her naked with that motherfucker coming.” Teardrop is the guy who choked Ree earlier but he’s a slight man, so we don’t quite know what the deal is until he gets involved in the search. One scene in particular. He rousts Ree from bed, saying, “I’m tired of waiting for shit to calm down. Let’s poke ‘em and see what happens.” They visit a cemetery. No luck. Then the local sheriff pulls them over. He approaches the car and tells Teardrop to get out. He says, “I know you, I know your family.” He says, “It’s about your brother.” Teardrop doesn’t move. He just stares into the driver’s side mirror with the scariest, deadest eyes. Is there talk for John Hawkes for best supporting actor? I know Jennifer Lawrence’s name has been bandied about all year but haven’t heard thing-one about Hawkes. He deserves the talk and probably the nom. This scene alone. I don’t know how you get your eyes to look like that. In the end the sheriff backs down because he could see—and we could see—Teardrop wouldn’t.
By this point Ree knows her father is dead (“I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered, and that’s how I know,” she says), and even more so when she discovers her father, one of the many meth addicts in the Ozarks, turned snitch. He talked in a land where you don’t. But Ree’s talk in the Miltons’ barn—why she wants to know what happened to her father—along with Teardrop poking ‘em, finally breaks the Miltons’ silence. In the middle of the night the Milton women take Ree for a car ride, then on a rowboat ride out into the middle of a lake/swamp, and Merab nods downward. Ree reaches into the frigid waters and feels her father’s cold dead hands. In the audience I thought: “And? She promised not to tell anyone where the body is, and she certainly can’t pull it up, so what evidence is she going to bring back to the sheriff?” Which is when the chainsaw comes out. Yikes. Ree can’t do it, so Merab, rolling her eyes, chainsaws one of the hands loose and Ree, sobbing, lets go of the other. Which brings up this sad, sad line. “Why’d you let go?” Merab chastises. “You need both hands. You know that old trick.” That old trick: Sawing off one hand so the cops think you’re dead. This is a harsh fucking world.
“Winter’s Bone” tells a good story but it’s so grim, so unrelentingly gray and cold, that I can’t say I enjoyed myself much watching it. At the same time it’s expertly done. It tells of a foreign culture in the middle of the United States. It gives us a strong, upright, central character, who, at the end, is merely back in the middle of her untenable existence, stronger for the journey. That’s the happy end: the grim beginning. It’s the man with no shoes who almost lost his feet so now he’s happy he merely has no shoes. “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back,” Ree tells her siblings at the end, and it’s probably true. Everyone strays in this movie but she never veers from the path.
Review: “The American” (2010)
WARNING: COOL, PROFESSIONAL SPOILERS
One imagines they called it “The American” only because “The Quiet American” was taken.
This is one quiet action film. It’s more of a suspense film. The suspense is often: What’s he doing? Who’s that guy? What the hell is going on? Apparently American moviegoers have complained. I’m not surprised. This is a Labor Day movie that requires work, and most Americans go to the movies to not work, to justify their preconceptions, to strengthen their worldview. “Give me a hero who’s handsome and knows everything and shoots second and wins, and let me eat my bucket of popcorn and slurp my soda and imagine I’m him.”
Well, we got handsome anyway.
Last January, Terrence Rafferty had a good piece on George Clooney in The New York Times, in which, of Clooney’s recent roles, he wrote: “He works the territory of 21st-century American normality, playing—now, at 48—middle-aged men who are good at what they do and getting by, for the moment, but are beginning to feel stirrings of doubt and dread.”
I’d go further. The longer Clooney’s been a star in Hollywood, the more he’s played the cool, distant professional in an unethical business who is thinking of escape, of saving what’s left of his soul. Think “Syrianna,” “Michael Clayton,” “Up in the Air” and now “The American.” I don’t want to be an assassin, a fixer, a man who fires people, an assassin. Do we add movie star to the list? Are these roles a cry for help? Maybe it’s George Clooney who is the cool, distant professional in an unethical business who wants to save what’s left of his soul.
As “The American” starts, Jack (Clooney) seems to be living it up: a cozy, snow-bound cabin, a glass of wine, a naked Swedish woman on the bed. Most men would be happy, but he seems distant. The camera shots aren’t lurid but quiet and serious. There’s already an air of dread.
The two bundle up and go for a walk out on the snow-bound frozen lake. It’s beautiful. Then we get a perspective as if from someone watching them in the nearby woods. A second later, Jack sees footprints in the snow. He’s suddenly on. He looks up, around, then pulls Ingrid (Irina Björklund) to the cover of a nearby rock just as, bewwww!, the first bullet hits the rock. Ingrid is startled and scared, and even more startled and scared when Jack pulls out a gun and shoots the assassin. “Jack?” she says. “Jack, is he dead?” He gives her orders. “Go to the cabin and call the police!” I’m thinking he’ll use this opportunity to get away. Nope. She takes two steps in the snow and he puts a bullet into the back of her head. Later he kills the second assassin, steals his car, travels to Rome, calls the home office. He and Pavel (Johan Leysen) use shorthand. “It’s Jack. I’m here.” They meet at a pasticceria and use more shorthand. “Who was the girl?” Pavel asks. “A friend... She had nothing to do with it.”
We suspected as much but it’s still a shock to hear him say it. He killed her then for what? To save himself? To save his agency? His cause? He seems like a man without agency or cause. He seems like a man full of dread and doubt who keeps doing what he’s doing because he’s on automatic. Pavel makes arrangements for Jack to disappear into a small Italian town, then gives one last piece of advice. “Don’t make any friends, Jack,” he says.
That’s our set-up. A quiet American, traveling through small Italian towns, suspecting everyone, not making friends. It’s a tough set-up. A man needs something to play off of. Drama needs a second actor on the stage. Clooney’s just got... what? His suspicions. He even suspects Pavel. The cell phone he’s given he throws into a river. He switches small Italian towns. You know those modern, high-tech secret agents who can track villains around the world using high-tech gadgets? While running furiously? Jack’s old school. He makes calls from rusty pay phones, reads The International Herald-Tribune in newspaper form, collects car parts to make his weapons. He’s off the grid. Safer there. The movie is based on a 1990 novel by British author Martin Booth called “A Very Private Gentleman,” and that’s what he is. Though more distant than private, more man than gentle.
But we’re social animals. We need. Jack begins to frequent a brothel. Same woman: Clara (Violante Placido). He keeps running into the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who asks questions in heavily accented Italian. He is curious about this man who is curious about nothing. He encapsulates Jack’s country, my country, in a sentence. “You are American,” he tells Jack. “You think you can escape history.”
Eventually the home office gives him another job. He doesn’t have to kill—apparently he doesn’t want to kill—he just has to make a weapon for another assassin, named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who’ll do the killing. She shows up, tests the weapon in some fields, requests refinements. She seems a female version of Jack: attractive, distant, highly professional. One senses Jack’s interest, particularly when, back in the brothel, Clara says he seems different. Is he thinking about something? “Or someone?” she asks with a smile. But the movie doesn’t go there. He spends more time with Clara, and she with him. Is she the luckiest hooker in the world? Not only does her john look like George Clooney but he goes down on her. He takes her out to dinner. They have this conversation:
She: Can I ask you something?
She: Are you married?
She: I was sure that was your secret.
He: Why do I have to have a secret?
She: You are a nice man, but...you have a secret.
He suspects her. He suspects Father Benedetto, too, but accepts a dinner invitation to his house, and gets spare parts from one of his wayward flock, Fabio (Filippo Timi), who, we find out later, is actually the Father’s son. We’re all sinners. We all have secrets.
Where can the story go? That’s the question. Where can Jack go? Toward humanity? Or do his suspicions get the better of him? In a later scene, reminiscent of the first, he nearly kills Clara during a picnic by a waterfall, then holds her close. Maybe this is when he begins to change. It helps that Clara is innocent. But then so was Ingrid.
So Jack moves toward humanity, toward love for Clara, and away from his dirty business. From another rusty pay phone he tells Pavel he’ll make the drop to Mathilde but then he’s out. Pause. “OK, Jack,” Pavel says. “You’re out.” We’ve seen enough of these movies to know the shorthand. Out = dead, doesn’t it? Or are we being paranoid? The drop is done at a roadside cafe. Two tough guys sit by a window. A waitress comes by, then Mathilde, who leaves to check the weapon in a bathroom. Then the two men leave. Then the waitress leaves. Jack is alone in middle of the cafe. Is he alarmed? We are. Get out of there! He does. He meets Mathilde outside the bathroom rather than inside the cafe. They say their goodbyes as a busload of middle-school futbol players pulls up and unloads.
Were we being paranoid? Nope. Pavel later chastises Mathilde for not killing Jack and she pleads a lack of opportunity. But she’ll use the weapon he made to kill him.
Question: Was Jack always constructing the means of his own death? Or did they only target him once he wanted out?
Follow-up question: Did he sabotage the weapon because he was tired of the killing, all killings, or because he knew they would target him? The home office always cleans up around its messes and he knows his mind is one messy place.
I think screenwriter Rowan Joffe and director Anton Corbijn make a mistake bringing Pavel to the small Italian town for the killing. Pavel seems a guy tied to his home office. He doesn’t go out into the field, and certainly not when a killing is underway. So once the weapon backfires and Mathilde dies we know his real purpose there. He’s the assassin now. Sure enough, after hearing Mathilde’s final words (“Who do you work for?” he asks. “Same...as you” she responds), Jack walks down a small Italian street, alone, senses something, turns and fires. Pavel drops, bullet holes in his stomach and forehead. But weren’t three shots fired? Was Jack hit? Corbijn keeps the camera close so we’re not sure, but Jack seems to be walking unsteadily, and, yes, in the car, he’s sweating too much. Yes, he’s been shot. Yes, he’s about to die. But he needs to see Clara one last time.
One of the criticisms of the film is that it’s too brooding, too gloomy, and maybe it is, but what does one expect from a director who photographed this famously gloomy album cover? Besides, the film was consistent in its tone. It reflected its protagonist’s mood.
There are small joys here: the conversations with the old priest, who’s got a great face, and the quiet, efficient way Jack works. Jack is passing himself off as a travel photographer, but the priest surmises, “You have the hands of a craftsman, not an artist,” and he’s right. That’s one of my takeaways from the film: the scenes of Jack expertly building this weapon. The doing of the thing to see if it can be done.
No, the problem isn’t the mood but the resolution: Pavel showing up and Jack getting shot and dying. How much more effective if Jack had gotten away? Because there is no away. He’d still spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Worse, he’d have something (Clara) that he cared about. Worse, the two might have several things (kids) that they cared about. It wouldn’t get any better for Jack, it would only get worse. Some suggestion of this in the final shot would’ve been effective, I think.
I’ll take the end-end, though. Throughout the film, Clara and Mathilde call him “Mr. Butterfly” for the butterfly tattoo on his upper back; and in the final distant shot by the waterfall, Jack’s car rolled to a stop by a tree, Jack dying inside, we see a small white butterfly move up against the darkness of the tree. Is it too much? I liked it. It was subtle enough and implied a lot. After a lifetime of brutality, some small fragile thing was finally set free.
Review: “Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1” (2008)
WARNING: SPOILERS, PART DEUX
No one has a chance against French gangster Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel).
Which is to say: no one in the audience has a chance to root for anyone else in the movie. He may kill and steal, he may be sadistic and egomaniacal, he may get fat and wear the most ridiculous hair and beard styles of the 1970s, but he’s still the main guy in the movie, the main force, the main man. His eyes are alight. He makes big French meals and gets beautiful French women—sometimes two at a time. He has fun. The cops, in comparison, are beady-eyed things, the journalists either left-wing dupes or right-wing liars, his fellow criminals dull company men. Everyone scrimps, whispers, scuttles. Mesrine booms.
Only once does he meet his match, and that’s when he kidnaps 82-year-old real estate mogul Henri Lelièvre (Georges Wilson). At the grand estate where Lelièvre lives, Mesrine and his mostly silent partner Francois Besse (Mathieu Amalric) pretend to be cops who need to question Lelièvre about some of his properties. Lelièvre is 82 and looks it. He moves slowly, seems fragile. One cringes at the thought of him in the hands of these brutes, and, sure enough, before we know it, he’s sitting on the edge of a cot in a small room, perplexed, wondering what they want with him. Mesrine gloats. They’ve kidnapped him! They’re demanding 10 million francs! Then the fun begins. Lelièvre says aloud, “10 million? I’m 82,” and shakes his head. The businessman in him is insulted at the price even though it’s his own neck on the line. Mesrine is taken aback. He bargains. Eight million? Seven million? In the end they agree to six million over three installments. Lelièvre may be 82 and helpless, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get ripped off.
The 1970s were an absurd time, both in the states and abroad, and “Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1,” the second part of Jean-Francois Richet’s nearly four-hour staccato biopic, reflects that absurdity. Against a backdrop of organizations attempting to bring down the system—PLO, Baader-Meinhoff, Red Brigades—Mesrine, an uncommon criminal with a gift for gab, impersonation and escape, passes himself off as a man of the people. In reality he’s just a violent man who can’t bear the 9-to-5 life. We’re intrigued by the second part, repelled by the first, but in the end I still wondered, as I did at the end of part one, “What’s the point? Of all the lives to portray, why portray this life?”
Part two begins back in France, in 1973, with Mesrine (pronounced May-reen) incarcerated, bragging to the cops that he’ll break out in three months. It doesn’t even take that long. On the way to trial, he claims sickness, needs to use the bathroom. Even as the cops hold onto one end of his handcuffs behind the bathroom door, he, a la Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” reaches behind the toilet tank to retrieve a revolver his pal left there. He takes it into court and, boom boom, uses it, and a judge/hostage, to escape.
For the first half-hour we get various escapes, where the back window of Mesrine’s car is invariably shot out, and where spectacular car crashes invariably occur but Mesrine’s car invariably limps to safety. Bullets fly but everyone’s a pretty lousy shot. Occasionally one of the bad guys gets winged but that’s about it. Juxtapose these action scenes with a few family reunions. A disguised Mesrine reconciles with his dying father. An incarcerated Mesrine clumsily bonds with his teenaged daughter. Cassel is brilliant in all of this. His own father, actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, was dying of cancer at the time, and the deathbed scene with his on-screen father, who would’ve been played by his actual father if cancer hadn’t reared its ugly head, is particularly intense.
In September ’73 Mesrine is finally captured (again), and in prison he rails against, not the cops or the system, but the Chilean coup that stole his press. “Pinochet, Pinochet,” he complains, flicking his hand at a newspaper. Filling a gap, he demands a typewriter and writes his own memoirs, “L’instinct de mort,” which became the basis for the first part of the film. But it takes him five years to live up to his promise of another escape.
For the rest of the film he complains about maximum security facilities, but we don’t see much of this incarceration so don’t know what he’s complaining about. He meets Besse, a no-nonsense crook who does prison-yard pushups even as Mesrine’s body goes to pot, and they plot escape. But the five years, interminable for him, go like that for us. Plus the escape isn’t that cool. Besse is able to hide a can of mace inside a box of “Petit Beurre,” and when the guards’ metal detector goes off during a routine search they assume it’s the tinfoil packaging and don’t look inside. As for how Mesrine gets his guns? His lawyer brings them. Hardly Andy Dufresne at Shawshank. (Also untrue? According to Wikipedia, guards smuggled in the weapons.)
The larger-than-life Mesrine and the smaller-than-life Besse make a good team. Post-escape, they rob a casino and go on the lam. A stream they’re fording turns out to be much deeper than the optimistic Mesrine anticipated, so he attempts, optimistically again, to toss the loot onto the other side. It splashes in the water, floats downstream, sinks. “That’s your share!” Besse complains bitterly. Then the punchline. He spots a rowboat, 10 feet away, on their side of the river. The fording wasn’t necessary. As an army of men, arms linked, march across a field to capture them, they make their escape via dingy, half their loot unnecessarily, optimistically spent.
“Mesrine” part II contains parallels with part I—Mesrine hooks up with a girl (Ludivine Sagnier), he hooks up with different partners, he kidnaps an old, rich dude—but the most pungent parallel is the kidnapping and near-murder of French journalist Jacques Dallier (read: Tillier, played by Alain Fromager), which echoes, and provides an overall bookend with, the kidnapping and murder of Ahmed the Pimp in “L’instinct de mort.” In both, the victim goes on a car ride with Mesrine and another man. In both, he assumes he’s safe. In both, he’s toyed with in sadistic fashion, then stripped naked, beaten, shot or stabbed, and left for dead. Finally, in both, neither victim is particularly sympathetic. Ahmed is a pimp who beats women; Dallier is a right-wing, racist snitch. Each scene shows Mesrine at his worst.
We needed more such scenes. Not to be too Will Hays about this, but Mesrine was a nasty, opportunistic man, and Cassel is entirely too charismatic to play him so we don’t want to be him. He’s living large, getting babes, talking trash. Sure, he winds up in a pool of his own blood, at the hands of frightened policemen, but he’s our eyes and ears through this world, and he’s the only one having any kind of fun. He’s still the man. As for a larger point in the biopic? It escapes me.
Sidenote: Just as Mesrine’s ’73 capture coincided with the Chilean coup, which stole his press, so his death, on November 2, 1979, occurred two days before Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took hostages. One imagines him in the afterlife, complaining bitterly: “Khomeini, Khomeini.” One imagines him demanding a typewriter to set the record straight.
“OK, here's the deal. We escape together, but afterwards I get all the women, the best scenes, and, ultimately, the biopic. D'accord?”
Review: “Un Prophete” (2009)
WARNING: DEER-IN-HEADLIGHTS SPOILERS
“The idea is to leave here a little smarter,” Reyeb (Hitchem Yacoubi) tells Malik (Tahar Rahim), as the two sit on the edge of his prison bunk and Reyeb stirs his coffee. Reyeb has just found out that Malik, his fellow Muslim, is illiterate, and he’s acting solicitous toward him—suggesting he can always learn to read, telling him he’ll give him some books—even as he’s anticipating a blow job. Instead he gets his throat slit. Guess the joke’s on him, right? Guess he left there a little smarter.
But he doesn’t leave. He remains in Malik’s life—a palpable, matter-of-fact symbol of guilt—and his words linger. And after six years Malik will leave there a whole lot smarter than when he entered. He will leave a prophet. It’s prison as a means to both worldly and spiritual redemption. Kids, don’t try this at home.
“Un Prophete,” which was nominated for 13 Cesars and won nine, including best picture, director (Jacque Audiard), actor (Rahim), supporting actor (Niels Arestrup), writing, editing, and cinematography, is both gritty and uplifting, full of lessons of realpolitik and the unknowability of dreams and life. It’s a movie for anyone who thought nothing more could be done with the prison drama or the gangster life. It’s a film we will still be watching in 50 years.
Malik’s life begins when he enters prison. He has nothing but the scars on his face and the 50-euro note he tries to hide in his shoe; it’s found and confiscated. He’s stripped, shaved, given a pillow and a metal tray and a new pair of tennis shoes. In the prison yard, alone, the shoes are big and white and seem to gleam, and a second later he’s attacked and his shoes are taken. He gives back—he attacks his attackers—but gets beaten down again. The odds aren’t good. He’s alone with six years to go.
He might not have made it if Reyeb hadn’t shown up. The prison is divided between Corsicans, who are few but control the guards, and Muslims, who are many but control nothing, and Reyeb, about to testify in a trial against a Corsican, is targeted by prison don Cesar Luciani (Arestrup), whose boss, Jacky, has given him 10 days to kill the snitch. Easier said. Cesar moves through the prison with relative ease but he doesn’t control the Muslim section. Then he hears that Reyeb asked this new kid to suck him off, and, in the prison yard, he makes Malik an offer he can’t refuse: Kill Reyeb or I kill you.
We later learn that Malik didn’t have much of an upbringing. When asked if he spoke French or Arabic with his parents, he responds, “I wasn’t with them.” When asked about school, he replies, “The juvenile center.” We have sympathy for him the way we would a stray dog. He’s scared and confused, but watchful, and back in his cell, after Cesar threatens him, he tells himself, “I can’t kill anyone.” He tries to contact the warden but the Corsicans hear and nearly suffocate him in a plastic bag, saying, “We run this place.” In the sewing shop he joins in a beat-down of a helpless prisoner, hoping to get tossed into solitary, but Cesar hears of this and beats him down. He’s trapped. He has to do this thing.
It’s the palpability of the act that gets you: less the Peckinpahesque spurting of blood from Reyeb’s neck than the goopy way blood and saliva mix as Malik pulls the razor blade from his mouth, where he’s involuntarily cut himself. It’s his careful extrication from the scene: stepping over the blood; placing the razor in Reyeb’s hand; scrubbing the blood from his shirt in the prison bathroom. It’s the disconnect one feels despite this precision. Malik hears someone screaming; he sees flames falling out of a prison cell. What is going on?
Prison life opens up for Malik afterwards. He receives cartons of cigarettes from Cesar (“You’re under his protection now”), and, taking Reyeb’s advice, he learns to read (“Canard: Ca-nard”), but he’s still isolated. The Muslims view him as a Corsican while the Corsicans disparage him as a dirty Arab. His main companion is the man he killed. In his dreams Malik wrestles with Reyeb, as if he were the Archangel Gabriel, and in the morning Reyeb is there, a physical presence. Reyeb is the one who sings “Happy Birthday” to Malik in Arabic on the one-year anniversary of his incarceration. He’s the one staring with him out his cell window as snow falls on the prisoners in the courtyard.
Life opens up even more when these Corsican gangsters, like naughty schoolboys, are separated by powers outside the prison. Perhaps feeling sorry for Cesar, Malik, eyes alight with his secret, reveals that he’s learned Corsican over the years and the conversations he’s been privy to. Cesar stares at him, then hits him. Because he senses the pity? Because he senses opportunism? Because his private conversations weren’t private and this dirty Arab is smarter than he realized? Regardless, he soon comes to rely on Malik more and more, but there is no corresponding sense of respect. He keeps treating Malik like a dirty Arab.
Bad move. Both inside the prison, and outside on work-leaves, Malik makes contacts and accrues power. He gets involved with Jordi, the Gypsy (Reda Kateb), who deals hashish. He becomes friends with Ryad (Adel Bencherif), who is the beginning of his entré into the suspicious Muslim prison community. He does his jobs, straddles both worlds, acts the professional. There’s an unaffected quality to him, an ingenuousness. “Why is an Arab working for the Corsicans?” he’s asked. “I work for who pays me,” he answers. One realizes after a while: He doesn’t lie. He’s polite, and professional, and doesn’t lie. The world he lives in expects lies and he disarms everyone with honesty.
His first work-leave is beautiful. After three years he’s finally out of prison, and as Ryad, who’s done his time, picks him up, Alexandre Desplat’s music, “La sortie,” wells up and overwhelms any attempt at conversation, as if the music were Malik’s emotions. He feels the wind on his face, the sun on his face; then he does a job for Cesar. He gets 5,000 euros to retrieve a Corsican gangster from a Muslim gang. Then he does a job for himself. He retrieves 25 kilos of hash stored by one of the Gypsy’s men. “Five thousand euros and 25 kilos of hash?” Ryad asks him, stunned, when they hook up at dusk. “All in one day?” You know that scene in “The Godfather” where Michael suggests killing the Turk? Where Michael essentially takes over? That’s this. Malik doesn’t respond to Ryad’s question. He simply tells Ryad what they’re going to do:
We get guys to stock and sell. We supply. We use convoys and buy at the source. The Gypsy has contacts. We need three big cars. Paris-Marbella in one night.
When Ryad objects, saying he’s never done this before, Malik responds, “What’s the big deal? Neither have I.”
What do we make of the prophet angle and Malik’s vision of the deer? To what extent do we compare Malik, the prophet, with the prophet Muhammad? Both are orphans. Both get involved in the merchant trade. Later in the film Malik will go into isolation, solitary, for 40 days and 40 nights, and emerge more powerful than ever. One can call him a Muhammadian figure the way one can call Luke in “Cool Hand Luke” a Christ figure. Elements of the ancient religious story are used to tell the tale of a modern prisoner.
Would things have turned out differently, less Oedipal, if Cesar had treated Malik with any kind of respect? Actor Niels Arestrup has a mane of white hair and fierce blue eyes, and initially one thinks of him as a Godfather type, a Don Corleone in prison; but as the movie progresses and one sees his prejudices, his betrayals, his smallness, one realizes he’s more like the Black Hand. He’s the classless oaf that needs to be overcome. It’s Malik who becomes the Godfather. At one point Cesar nearly puts Malik’s eye out, telling him, “People look at you and see me. Otherwise what would they see? Can you tell me?” The implication is that Malik is nothing without him, but the greater implication, which Cesar fears, or is perhaps too stupid to realize, is that Malik is becoming him. Returning to his cell, his eye damaged by Cesar, Malik promises himself “I’m gonna kill you,” just as, earlier, he’d promised himself, “I can’t kill anyone.” It’s the promises to himself that he breaks. He does kill, Reyeb and others, but he doesn’t kill Cesar. He does something worse. He renders him powerless. By the end their positions are reversed: Malik is the prison don, respected in his community, while Cesar is the weak, isolated man in the prison yard, beyond the circle of power. Beyond contempt.
The arc of its story is brilliant but it’s the details that stay with me—such as Malik’s first planetrip, sandwiched between two bored commuters, trying to get a glimpse of the sky out the window. He’s heading to Marseilles for a meeting, at Cesar’s behest, with Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi—one of the many amazing faces in this movie), where, again, he’s the distrusted Arab courier, but where his vision of the deer saves his life. Afterwards the deer meat is washed in the Mediterranean, and Lattrache, eyeing him with new respect, is intrigued by this quiet, honest man who straddles cultures. “Let’s get sucked before you go,” he says, but Malik turns him down. “I’d like to stay on the beach,” he says. He wades out into the water. One senses he’s never seen the sea before. Back in the dark of his prison cell, he takes off his shoe, looks inside, upends it. Sand courses through his fingers.
I’ve seen this movie twice; I feel like seeing it again now.
Malik (Tahar Rahim), left, after earning a place on the bench of Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), in Jacque Audiard's brilliant prison drama “Un Prophete.”
Review: “Mesrine: L’instinct de mort” (2008)
WARNING: SPOILERS, PART UN
“Mesrine: L’instinct de mort,” the first part of a two-part movie on notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine, which, in February 2009, garnered Vincent Cassel the Cesar for best actor and Jean-Francois Richet the Cesar for best director (but lost best picture to “Seraphine”), and which only now is being shown in U.S. theaters, is a zippy biopic about a brutal man who crammed a whole lot of activity into a short span of time.
At one point, for example, we see him, after an attempted bank robbery, walking into prison. The graphics inform us: Evreux Prison, 1962. His wife and daughter visit him there; he’s overjoyed to see both. He serves his time. When he gets out he goes straight. He gets a job at an architectural design company, working for a man named Tabacoff, has another kid, then a third. But times are tough, Tabacoff has to lay him off, and when he does Mesrine returns to a life of crime. His wife objects. In one scene she threatens to call the cops and he smacks her, then forces a gun into her mouth and tells her, “Between you and my friends, I choose them. Every time.” His young son is watching on the landing above. “Mama?” he says. “Take care of your kid!” Mesrine sneers, and goes out into the world. But his boss, Guido (Gerard Depardieu), tells him times are changing, Pres. de Gaulle is cracking down on their syndicate, so Mesrine has to get inventive. In the next scene he walks into a bar, and the graphics inform us: Paris, 1966.
You’re kidding. Four years for all that? How long does it take to serve time for armed robbery in France? How long does it take to have kids in France?
Initially I feared the film would justify this man’s brutality, and initially it does. In the army in 1959 we see Mesrine shoot and kill a helpless Algerian rebel—but only because his commanding officer ordered him to shoot and kill the rebel’s helpless sister, and this seems the better option. Mesrine berates his henpecked father—who was also a collaborator with the Germans during World War II. Mesrine kills another Arab, a pimp named Ahmed (Abdelhafid Metalsi), but only after Ahmed brutalizes Mesrine’s favorite prostitute. Mesrine’s a defender of women! Until, of course, he goes off on his own wife. But, of course, she threatened to call the cops on him.
At least the brutality throughout isn’t sugarcoated. When Guido and Mesrine take Ahmed for a ride, after promises of safety have been made, they slowly, sadistically, go from polite to insulting. “What do you say to an Arab in a suit?” Mesrine asks. “Defendant, please rise!” he answers, and Guido cracks up, then apologizes, then tells his own Arab joke. Ahmed’s eyes begin to falter as the ride continues. When it ends, in a desolate spot, they brutalize him. They beat him and strip him before an empty grave. Then Mesrine stabs him in his lower back and cuts up. We see the blade go into his skin, we hear Ahmed scream. It’s tough to watch. Finally, they roll him, still twitching, still alive, into the shallow grave and shovel dirt on top. These are not nice men.
At the same time, neither was Ahmed. That’s why we need the kidnapping of millionaire Georges Deslauriers (Gilbert Sicotte). In ’68, Mesrine and his Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque girlfriend, Jeanne (Cecile De France), flee France for Montreal, and she finds them a gig as housekeeper and chauffer to Deslauriers. First we see the beautiful mansion. Then we see the kind, wheelchair-bound Deslauriers. I almost flinched the first time Mesrine pushed Deslauriers toward a pair of French windows, recalling Richard Widmark and a flight of stairs, but for months he simply does his job. Then Jeanne gets into a fight with the gardener, and Deslauriers, taking the side of someone he’s known for 20 years over someone he’s known for three months, dismisses the two. That’s when Mesrine gets angry. In the next scene, he and Jeanne are watching television in a non-descript, high-rise apartment, and slowly we become aware of noises from another room. So does Mesrine. He stands up, pissed off, goes into the next room, and browbeats Deslauriers, who’s tied to a chair, confused and helpless. That’s when I really turned on Mesrine. That’s when I wanted bad things to happen to him. They do.
“Mesrine” is a biopic so it’s inevitably as cluttered as life, but director Richet and writer Abdel Raouf Dafri (who also wrote “Un Prophete”) are remarkably quick and clever with their transitions. My favorite may be early on, when two men discuss an “easy bank job” with Mesrine, who looks doubtful but says, “I’m in.” Cut to: that walk into Evreux prison.
The post-kidnapping transition works well, too. When Jeanne and Mesrine go for the ransom, Deslauriers crawls through the apartment, breaks a window, gets help. The two gangsters return to see cops all over the place. Cut to: the Arizona desert, 1969, as six state patrol cars race after Mesrine and Jeanne in a convertible.
Extradited back to Canada, the two are proclaimed a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde by the counter-culture press, and Mesrine revels in the role. But not for long. In prison, he’s beaten, stripped, firehoused. He suffers sleep deprivation and hunger. I had two thoughts: “Really? Canada?”; and “OK, let’s not make him sympathetic now.” I wanted to hold up a sign: Remember Deslauriers!
Sympathy for Mesrine, or at least transference, is inevitable, though. We see this world through Mesrine’s eyes, he’s played by Cassel, who’s charming and handsome, and he’s doing what most of us sitting in the audience with our bucket of popcorn don’t begin to do: He acts out every impulse. Sure, he winds up in prison. But he also gets money and beautiful women and fame. “I go wherever I want,” he tells Jeanne when they meet. In prison, in fact, they don’t break him, he breaks out, using only his guile and a pair of wirecutters. Then, fulfilling a promise to a fellow inmate, he actually tries to break in. He returns in a Ford pickup truck and shoots it out with the guards. “Crazy Frenchman,” the inmate says, shaking his head with admiration. Mesrine is admired. His life is full. Hell, we’re watching a movie about him, aren’t we? How cool is that?
And yet: Remember Deslauriers!
“Mesrine” is a good film, or half of a good film, but so far it’s not a great film. For one, it’s hard to make biopics great. One also wonders: Why film this life of all lives? Because it’s exciting and absurd? Because audiences are always interested in gangsters, in men who do what they want, because most of us lead lives of quiet desperation? Because this is the way we can get a safe glimpse of what terrifies us—like at the zoo? Are we trying to understand him or be him?
Perhaps we’ll find out in “Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1,” which, unless Music Box Films is a sadistic distributor, should be available in the U.S. in September.
The real Jacques Mesrine wasn't quite as handsome (or, one imagines, as charming), as Vincent Cassel.
Review: “The Other Guys” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS THAT ARE PERKY, FIRM AND YOURS
I had the two biggest laughs of the year while watching “The Other Guys” and neither involved Will Ferrell, who I think is one of the funniest men around. There was a backlash against him last year with “Land of the Lost,” and a bit the year before with “Semi-Pro,” but I liked “Semi-Pro” (more than “Step Brothers,” which did a lot better at the box office: $100 million vs. $33 million), and while “Land of the Lost” was an obvious stumble I figured he’d be back making me laugh again. He is. I’ve been waiting for this movie since the trailer hit the Internet last February.
It’s a great concept for a comedy, and it’s right there in the trailer’s low, gravelly voiceover: In the toughest city in the world, nobody fights crime like these guys... Cue squealing tires, impossible stunts, and nonchalant quips by action stars Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson.
Cut to: Det. Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) typing happily at his desk, humming “The Theme from ‘S.W.A.T.,’” and infuriating his partner, Det. Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg).
And then there are the other guys...
The other guys are, in other words, the ordinary guys, the misfits, the fuck-ups, forever found wanting in comparison with star cops like Highsmith (Jackson) and Danson (Johnson). They’re us, sitting in the movie theater with our bucket of popcorn, and forever found wanting in comparison with the stars on the screen.
Which brings me to the first of the big laughs.
Highsmith and Danson are on the trail of professional jewel thieves but lose them via zipline on top of a 20-story building. As they stare at the bad guys getting away on the street below, they have this typical action-star exchange:
Highsmith: You thinking what I’m thinking?
Danson: Aim for the bushes.
Then they leap off the roof in slow motion, arms and legs pinwheeling, and the camera follows them down. In the audience I kept wondering why bushes or anything that might break their fall didn’t come into view. And then: SPLAT! Right on the sidewalk. Cut to: A funeral.
Man, did I laugh. I laughed so hard I missed a lot of what followed, and what I caught—Hoitz and Gamble whispering to each other about “What were they thinking anyway?” and “There wasn’t even an awning nearby”—made me laugh all the more. It’s always dangerous dissecting humor, but I think this scene is funny because it’s both unexpected and it lays bare the lie of 100 years of Hollywood action movies. They really can’t really do what they do.
The laughs keep coming. After the funeral, during the quiet dignity of the wake, the cops, particularly Martin and Fosse (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans, Jr.), now jockeying for the high position Highsmith and Danson held, whisper insults to Gamble and Hoitz, and Martin and Hoitz get into a whisper-quiet, rolling-on-the floor fight, screened and surrounded by a phalanx of cops, who whisper rather than shout the usual testeronic encouragements. Even when Capt. Gene Mauch (Michael Keaton, using the name of the old Phillies/Twins/Angels manager) comes over and orders them to knock it off, he does it via whisper.
By this point, half an hour in, I’m thinking “The Other Guys” is the funniest movie I’ve seen in 10 years. Then the law of averages kick in.
Most comedies are uneven, possibly because most are spoofs, and spoofs invariably give in to, or buy into, the tropes of the very genre they’re spoofing. Happens here, too. The first part of the movie shows us the absurdity of action-hero cops, but the rest of the movie is about how the other guys, the guys like us, become the action-hero cops they always wanted to be. Hoitz gets into an epic, slow-mo gun battle in which he slides down a conference table on his back with both guns blazing, while Gamble, in his Prius, is great at high-speed chases. “Where did you learn to drive like that?” Hoitz asks. “’Grand Theft Auto!’” Gamble replies. The audience’s identification with these budding heroes is complete. They are us and heroes. Shame. Would that they had just stayed us.
Other tropes include Gamble and Hoitz 1) stumbling upon the true criminals, who are 2) high-powered investment types surrounded by men with guns, and then pursuing these bad guys despite 3) no support, and even interference, from gray-haired higher-ups in the police department. Not to mention the whole “opposites as partners” motif.
Wahlberg, whom I slammed 10 years ago, but who’s impressed in many movies since, plays a pretty good straight man. He even gets off a great line impugning another’s manhood: “The sound of your piss hitting the toilet sounds feminine!” he tells Gamble. Ferrell is hilarious as always.
There’s a lot of nice bits throughout: Gamble’s Little River Band (LRB) fixation; Captain Gene constantly, unknowingly, quoting TLC lyrics; the whole “Capt. Gene” thing, which Mauch says makes him sound like the creepy host of a kid’s show; Mauch’s open, friendly, unembarrassed face when they find him moonlighting at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Keaton brings something good here. He plays it low-key but funny. You see his early comedy chops on display again. Welcome back.
Has anyone written about the brilliant end-credits? A peripheral theme of the movie is ponzi schemes, and with early ’60-s-style animation we’re informed, while the credits roll, what they are, and how Bernie Madoff’s in 2008 makes the original in the 1920s seem like that of a piker. We’re shown just how much the $700 billion TARP bailout from 2008 was, and how the tax rate for the wealthiest has gone down over the last 30 years while the take-home pay of the wealthiest has skyrocketed. It’s fascinating, populist stuff that everyone should stay for. Bonus: post credits, there’s a final scene between Wahlberg and Ferrell.
When Patricia and I left the theater, we were preceded by two girls who were still laughing, uproariously, bodies bent over, about the closing-credits song, “Pimps Don’t Cry.” It’s a reference to Gamble’s back story: why he is who he is; why he’s a police accountant working a desk. Back in college, when the tuition went up, he basically became the pimp for a number of co-eds. He called himself “Gator” and acted the role. His dark side came out. That’s why he’s so timid in the present day; he doesn’t want to “set Gator loose.” To me, it was one of the weaker jokes of the film, but these two girls obviously disagreed.
For me, the funnier backstory is Hoitz’s. That, in fact, is the second of the two huge laughs I had during the movie. Hoitz is attending a group therapy session for officers who have discharged their weapons, and while the others relay their stories, bragging and high-fiving rather than tearily revealing tragic results, Hoitz sits quietly in a corner. The therapist then tries to get him to reveal his story but the others moan and bitch and don’t want to hear it. We soon find out why.
It was before Game 7 of the World Series and Hoitz was working security. He was in the long hallway before the locker room when a silhouetted figure approached. He told him to stop. The man didn’t. He repeated himself. He drew his weapon. He warned one more time. The man kept coming. So he fired and the figure fell out of the shadows and into the light: Derek Jeter wearing an iPod, now clutching his leg. “He shot Jeter!” one of the cops in the therapy session yells. “We lost the championship!” another shouts. Me, I laughed and laughed. Talk about wish fulfillment. I'm not proud of it, but I might have to buy “The Other Guys” for the sheer pleasure of watching, in slow-mo, Derek Jeter getting shot in the leg, again and again.
Review: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS AND STUFF
Have I ever felt so old watching a movie?
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” does what it does well. It’s hip and irreverent and sometimes funny. It skewers Bollywood, sitcoms and video games. OK, so it’s more of an homage to video games. OK, so it is a video game. Video games allow dweeby guys to compete—and prosper—in rock ‘em, sock ‘em matches that involve levels and “health” and “life,” and “Scott Pilgrim” allows Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a dweeby guy in Toronto, to compete and prosper in rock ‘em, sock ‘em battles to the death with the seven evil exes of his new maybe girlfriend, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Each evil ex is a different level and each level involves more points: 1,000 for taking out the first evil ex, 3,000 for the third, etc. And what happens when he reaches the final level? Epiphany. Of a sort.
The movie starts with all of Scott’s friends giving him shit for dating Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a 17-year-old Chinese girl. (He’s 22.) Trouble is, Wong looks about the same age as Cera, and she’s twice as attractive, so it seems a step up. Thankfully, they have her act young so you can see their point. And it leads to this good bit of dialogue with Scott’s sister, Stacey (Anna Kendrick)
Stacey: A 17-year old Chinese schoolgirl? You’re serious?
Scott (abashed): It’s a Catholic girls school, too.
How to escape this dilemma? Scott dreams of another girl, Ramona, with dyed pink hair, then sees her the next day. She’s literally the girl of his dreams. The movie keeps doing this. A rock band literally blows the roof off the place, Scott literally gets a life. Is there a point to this or is it just a laugh?
Scott’s pursuit of Ramona is clumsy, as such pursuits often are, but they work, as they often do in the movies. Then the trouble starts.
Scott plays bass for a garage punk band, Sex Bob-Omb, and in the middle of a battle of the bands, the first evil ex, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), shows up, dressed in bizarre Bollywood crap, and they duke it out in comic-book, aerial, martial arts fashion. That Scott can do this causes no one to blink. Massive battles take place, enemies are literally pulverized, but there are no real consequences for the hero. Nothing is felt, you just get to the next level.
Most of the evil exes feel specific to this generation. We get a lesbian (from when Ramona was bi-curious), silent Japanese twins (male version), a skateboarder-turned-movie star, and a vegan/bassist. These last two are played by actors who have actually played superheroes: Chris Evans (the Human Torch/Captain America), and Brandon Routh (Superman).
The final evil ex, at level 7, is a more universal type: Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), a slick record-company exec, who holds some kind of power over Ramona, and who actually defeats and kills Scott. Ah, but there’s that “life” he got at the previous level, which allows him to redo the fight with greater knowledge and understanding. It allows him to fight Gordon not for LOVE (which is apparently weak), but SELF-RESPECT (which is apparently strong).
Is that the great lesson of this generation? Before I saw the film I hoped that once Scott was victorious, as we knew he would be (the film can’t skewer that trope), he would decide that Ramona wasn’t worth it; that once he battled not only the ex-boyfriends but his fears he would be able to move on. The movie beat me to the punch but in a weak way, using a weak word like “self-respect.” Scott can’t move beyond fear because he never really has it. This is a gamer’s universe so there’s no fear because there are no consequences. There’s just embarrassment (with girls) and victory (in simulated battle).
I worked in games—four years at Xbox in the early 2000s—and I’m not much of a fan of that universe, which is without consequences and generally without sympathy. Look at the other characters here. They veer between the shrugging doofus (Comeau, who keeps showing up at parties) and the self-amused instigator (Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace, Kieran Culkin channeling Robert Downey, Jr.), without much in-between these two uncaring extremes.
Scott racks up the points. GOOD! COMBO! PERFECT! He wins. He gets the girl. But the victory is without consequences. And the girl remains unknowable.
Review: “The Kids Are All Right” (2010)
The kids may be alright but the adults sure are screwed up.
One gets that feeling five minutes into the movie. The teenage boy, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), may hang out with a jerky friend, and the teenaged girl, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), may be too timid to move beyond Scrabble with the boy she likes, but at least there’s something open-ended and possible about their personalities. At least they don’t have 20 years of a relationship grinding and truncating each personality into a parody of itself. At least they didn’t name one of their kids ‘Laser.’
The couple in question is a lesbian couple but it may as well not be. Nic (Annette Bening) is the dominant, male figure who returns home from an important job (she’s a doctor), tosses off an exasperated line about the difficulty and importance of that job (“17 thyroids today”), then minimizes wifey’s contributions. She dotes on her baby girl, now 18. She acknowledges the girl is 18 but continues with the baby talk. She wears sleeveless T-shirts. She drinks too much.
Jules (Julianne Moore) is the passive-aggressive, female figure who allows herself to be minimized, then resents that minimization. She wants to do something, start a landscaping business, but doesn’t know where to begin. To be honest, she’s afraid to start. Plus she gets no support in the matter. She’s a bit loopy in a west-coast way, and knows it, and resents it. During sex, she goes down on the dominant figure.
Is this an inevitability in relationships—that we grind each other into parodies of ourselves? I don’t know, but the beginning of the movie felt false to me in the way that first episodes of TV shows, where the characters are more broadly drawn than what they become, feel false. I would’ve appreciated a finer touch here.
Each of the two women gave birth to one child—Nic to Joni, Jules to Laser—and now that Joni’s 18, and at the urging of Laser, who is probably craving a male figure in his life, they search out the sperm donor, from back in ’92 or ’95, who was anonymous. Considering all of the messy possibilities they hit the jackpot. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is a not-bad-looking, scruffy, laid-back dude who runs a restaurant using organic, locally-produced food. He rides a motorcycle. He exudes interest and passive sexuality.
The initial meeting between kids and donor is clumsy, as it should be, and Laser comes out of it disappointed, but Joni is jazzed and wants to see where it leads. Nic and Jules, of course, are horrified. Nic, the dominant figure in the household, is particularly upset that another bull is sniffing around outside, but she lets him in to diminish him. “Let’s just kill him with kindness and put it to bed,” she says. Except she’s the one who gets diminished. She can’t hold her wine and comes off as small and combative, while he comes off as mellow and reasonable. He gives Jules both encouragement for her landscaping business and her first job: fixing up his backyard. There, they bond over the word “fecund,” while she apologizes for all the double-takes because “I keep seeing my kids’ expressions in your face”—a fascinating area of inquiry that is all but forgotten when the two, more alike than not, fall into bed together.
At first it seems a one-shot. Then it happens again and again. Meanwhile, Paul is also bonding with both Joni, who gets to ride on the back of his motorcycle from the organic farm, and Laser, to whom he gives good advice about his jerky friend. Nic? Nic is working. She’s being nudged out of the picture.
The movie lost me when Paul gets serious about Jules. Yes, an argument can be made that while Paul’s personality is essentially unserious the kids have made him more serious, so now he’s ready to get serious. But I still didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy it particularly because at that point he was also sleeping with the most beautiful woman in the world, Tanya (Yaya DeCosta), the hostess of his place. DeCosta is a fine actress but it was tough believing that someone that beautiful even exists, let alone that she’s schtupping Mark Ruffalo, let alone that he then throws her over for Julianne Moore. (No offense to Julianne Moore.) For me, it was one “let alone” too many.
Tanya, by the way, gets off the best line in the movie, which is an early candidate for best line of the year. When Brooke (Rebecca Lawrence), the organic farmer, flirting with Paul with a basket of fruit, says “I thought you should have first taste,” Tanya, after Brooke leaves, mimics her, “I thought you should have first taste...” and then, in her own voice and under her breath, “...of my pussy.” I roared.
There’s been a lot of buzz this year from the filmfest circuit on “The Kids Are All Right,” and I liked it well enough but wasn’t blown away. It’s partly that broadly-drawn beginning. It’s partly the sense of privilege that permeates these characters in their busy, eating-outdoors lives. Back in the early 1990s, Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story” tried to be a kind of L.A. version of Woody Allen’s New York, but “Kids,” from writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon”), pulls it off better than “Story” ever did—and that’s not wholly a compliment. Again, it’s the sense of privilege. These are people who have the time to be neurotic.
That said, Bening is a wonder and deserves another Oscar nomination, and possibly, finally, the statuette itself. Hutcherson sure has grown up fast (was “Bridge to Terabithia” really three and a half years ago?), while Wasikowska has something like true beauty about her.
The movie has buzz because of its unconventionality—a lesbian couple! looking their age!—but that unconventionality is wrapped in a conventional story and lesson. Family is hard but sacrosanct, and woe to he who violates that sanctity. Is the usual sanctity-of-marriage crowd objecting to this movie? Ironic if they are. It’s such a pro-family movie. In its quiet, forgiving end, in which the family is fortified against outsiders like Paul, I, identifying with Paul, the childless fortysomething, experienced regret at not knowing that feeling; at not having started my own family.
The kids are alright; the adults still need work.
Review: “The Girl Who Played with Fire” (2010)
WARNING: SPÖILERS II
After everything she went through in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” from subway attacks to rape, it’s a shame to see Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) get worse in “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” I don’t mean being shot and buried alive by her own father. I mean having to wear a New York Yankees sweatshirt and cap. Ick.
“Fire” starts out where “Tattoo” left off. Lisbeth is abroad, living in comfort by the peaceful sea, with the money she nicked from the bad guys. But she finds no peace. She has nightmares about her father, who abused her and her mother until she set him on fire when she was 12. That act resulted in incarceration in mental institutions, and a legal-guardian arrangement (specific to Sweden?) administered, first, by the sharp, sympathetic Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson), and then, when Holger suffered a stroke, by the horrific and misogynistic Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), who rapes Lisbeth in “Tattoo” but gets his: she sodomizes him with a dildo and tattoos on his fat white stomach: “I am a sadistic pig and a rapist.” It’s even longer in Swedish.
From her seaside villa, Lisbeth uses her computer hacking skills to track Bjurman and realizes: 1) he’s not submitting the necessary monthly reports on her that will keep the authorities off her dragon-tattooed back, and 2) he’s looking into tattoo removal. So she returns to Stockholm and confronts him at midnight with his own gun. Submit the reports, she tells him. And keep the tattoo.
What she doesn’t know is that someone has already contacted him about her.
In the meantime, at Millennium magazine... Hey, what’s with Millennium anyway? It’s supposed to be one of the last bastions of a relevant print publication in an online world, yet the oldsters leading it, from our man Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to his lover, Erika Berger (Lena Endre), are super cautious about everything. They meet a kid, Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin), who’s doing an investigative piece on human trafficking and prostitution in Sweden, and he has evidence that links many of these women to public officials, and he’s already done interviews with some of these public officials. Yet the Millennium staff only cautiously welcome him aboard for a two-month assignment? Grow a pair already.
At the same time, one wonders how much of an exclusive Dag actually has, since his girlfriend, Mia, has just published a treatise on the topic. We see the two planning to celebrate its publication by going on vacation. From my notes: “They look young and happy. They’re dead.”
Indeed. Two minutes later, Blomkvist finds them shot in their apartment. The weapon belongs to a lawyer, Nils Bjurman, and the only fingerprints belong to one Lisbeth Salander. When Bjurman is found dead, too, an APB goes out for Lisbeth’s arrest. Quaintly, and oddly for a computer hacker, Lisbeth first discovers this through a kind of “Wanted” poster stapled to a lightpost, then through print newspapers, and only lastly via something called the World Wide Web. It’s like we’re back in 1995.
By this point we’ve already been introduced to some of the bad guys, particularly a stoic, blonde brute named Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), who recalls the Russian villain in “From Russia With Love.” We see him fight Lisbeth’s sometime-lover, kickboxer Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi), as well as middleweight boxer Paulo Roberto (a real figure in Sweden, who plays himself), and Neidermann takes care of both handily. Despite their skills, their blows have no effect on him. Watching, I recalled a documentary about kids who suffer from the genetic defect analgesia, who literally feel no pain, (the doc is called “A Life without Pain,” and it is, no pun intended, painful and heartbreaking), and I wondered if that wasn’t Niedermann’s secret. It is. It's just not heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, Blomquvist has taken up where Dag left off, tracking down johns, but he’s doing it less for the article than to help clear Lisbeth. From one john he gets a name, Zala, and a story. Zala is a merciless, former top agent with the U.S.S.R. who defected to Sweden in the mid-1970s, and was thus protected by the Swedish national police and its intermediaries, including Nils Bjurman. Good start.
So what is our heroine, Lisbeth, doing while her friends are investigating for her and risking their lives for her? Not much. She's all third act, when she confronts Zala and his henchman, Niedermann, in a remote cabin. Zala, the man running the East European prostitution ring, turns out to be Alexander Zalachenko, who turns out to be, a la “Star Wars,” her father, who got played with fire, while Niedermann turns out to be her half-brother. In the end it's all about her.
Lisbeth is a stoic figure who keeps the world at a distance—one of the lessons she learns in “Fire,” in fact, is about letting people in (Blomqvist literally)—so Rapace doesn’t always have a lot to do acting-wise. But I love how alive her eyes become when she confronts her father. Does she enjoy seeing him? Or does she enjoy seeing him diminished? There’s a fierce intelligence in her. “I know you,” she seems to be thinking. “And you don’t scare me any more.”
He should. That night, father and half-brother lead her to a shallow grave. Blomqvist, we know, is making his way toward her and the remote cabin, and, used to the tropes of movies, we wonder when he’s going to arrive to rescue her. I’d clearly forgotten my heroines. Trying to escape, Lisbeth is shot twice by her father, dragged back by her half-brother, and buried alive. I’m on the edge of my seat. Where’s Blomqvist?
Cut to: Blomqvist, at dawn, looking at a map, his automobile pulled off to the side of the road. I nearly laughed out loud. Poor bastard.
Lisbeth isn’t just the girl with the dragon tattoo, or the one who played with fire, or the one who will kick the hornet’s nest in the next movie; she’s the girl who doesn’t need rescuing. She rescues. The movie conventions of 100 years are upended in her.
Thus, after being shot twice and buried alive, Lisbeth digs her way out using the cigarette case Miriam gave her at the beginning of the film, then takes an axe to her father’s head, then scares off Niedermann with her father’s gun. Which is when Blomqvist, the caring man, forever inconsequential in a fight, finally shows up.
Most of “Fire” disappointed me. The plot about the East European sex-slave trade is more-or-less forgotten, as are Lisbeth’s computer hacking skills, while there’s nothing nearly so engrossing as the mystery of the first film: the disappearance of Harriet Vanger and all of those girls. Here, we get no mystery. There’s a bad guy. His name is Zala. Hey, there he is! Worse, for most of the film we’re ahead of both Blomqvist (since we know about Nils Bjurman) and Lisbeth (since we find out about Niedermann’s analgesia). It’s not much fun waiting for your protagonists to catch up with you.
But my girlfriend loved the movie. When I asked why, she talked about how tough Lisbeth was, how calm she remained in battle, and how she wished she could be like her. Lisbeth is wish-fulfillment for women the way Bruce Willis is for men. I like that. I like having a female wish-fulfillment who doesn’t depend on a man, or a dress, or a pair of Manolo Blahniks.
Just lose the Yankees cap, Lisbeth. The Yankees are corporate and imperialist. You’re much more of a Pittsburgh Pirates girl.
Review: “Inception” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS (OR ARE THEY?)
“Dreams feel real while we’re in them,” says Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), early in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” “It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”
In this regard, nothing feels like a dream so much as a movie. In the dark we suspend disbelief. Then the lights go up, the analytic part of the brain starts working again, and we go, “Wait a minute.” Sometimes we don’t have to wait for the lights to go up.
That’s one of the things I loved about “Inception”: the parallels between its form (movies) and its content (dreams). At one point Cobb is attempting to recruit Adriadne (Ellen Page), his latest architect of dreamscapes, to become the final member of his team, his subconscious “Mission: Impossible” force, and they’re drinking coffee at an outdoor cafe in Paris when he tells her that dreams always begin in medias res; we don’t know how we got to a place, we’re just there. Then he asks her: “How did you get here?” She thinks, can’t remember, realizes they’re in a dream, but in the audience I’m thinking, “I know how she got there: the quick cut.” That is: They’re in one spot talking about a topic; then they’re in another spot a bit further in the same conversation. It’s a common storytelling device. We accept it in movies. Hell, we demand it of movies because we don’t want to watch characters walking downstairs, going outside, hailing a cab, being driven to the cafe, getting out, paying the cabbie, getting a table, ordering, drinking, and then continuing their conversation. Just give us the quick cut already. That’s part of why movies are the perfect medium for a story about dreams. Form lends itself to content.
My favorite of these parallels may be the moment Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s dead wife, who haunts his dreamscapes, and is in fact the most uncontrollable and malignant element within these dreamscapes (hence her name), tries to convince him to stay with her in his dream world. She tries to convince him that what he considers the real world? That’s the dream. Think about it, she says. Some faceless international corporation is out to get you—you think that’s real? As a movie audience, we accept that trope because we’ve seen it before: the subplot that continues to dog the protagonist throughout the plot, adding an extra frisson of tension. But once she mentions how absurd it is, well, it does seem absurd. Because it’s a movie, a Hollywood movie, and most Hollywood movies are absurd. She’s basically the movie critic in his subconscious, saying, “C’mon, man, this is bullshit.”
So is this movie bullshit? When the lights come up, do we go, “Wait a minute”?
In “Inception,” Cobb is an on-the-lam extractor, a man who can navigate other people’s dreams and extract useful information for, say, international corporate rivals. That’s basically where we first see him. Like in a dream, we’re plopped in medias res into a complicated storyline and have to suss it out. Cobb, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Nash (Lukas Haas), are trying to extract business secrets from international CEO Saito (Ken Watanabe). But their real selves are in a dingy room in a Latin American country in the midst of revolution, with IVs strapped to their arms putting them under. In the dream, an elegant party at Saito’s place in Japan, Cobb is betrayed by Mal, his dead wife, whom his unconscious keeps dragging along to gum up the works, but at last he has the information in hand when, no!, he’s forced to wake up because things are getting dangerous for their real selves. Except why the quick-cut to the Japanese kid on the train? We get the answer to that when Cobb and Saito fight in their dingy room and Cobb forces Saito’s face into an ugly shag carpeting. The room, it turns out, is the room where Saito often met his mistress, and he says he always hated that carpet, and the smell of it, and he can’t smell that smell now. So he knows he’s still in a dream. A dream within a dream. That revolution outside? That’s Saito’s subconscious, rebelling, like antibodies, and trying to attack the foreign substance, which is the dream’s architect, Nash. Their real selves are actually on the train, being administered to by the Japanese kid, who wakes the three team members with Edith Piaf’s song “Non, je ne regrette rien.” At first I thought this homage to Ms. Cotillard, who won an Oscar playing Piaf in “La vie en rose.” But it has a deeper meaning. This film is all about regret.
Saito quickly tracks them down. Not to hurt them but to hire them. And he wants something more dangerous that extraction. He wants inception: an idea planted into the mind of a rival, Robert Fisher, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), that will cause him to break up his international corporation, which currently controls one-half of the world’s energy. “Choose your team wisely,” he says to Cobb, in reference to Nash, who couldn’t make carpets smell right, who didn’t get the details right. He’s like the lackadaisical production designer on the Michael Mann set. Fired.
(At the same time, if you extend the metaphor, the real screw-up is the director, Cobb, whose guilt over the death of his wife is so strong he keeps dragging her along into other people’s dreamscapes. Is this a directorly admission that you’ll eff up the production when you bring your personal baggage onto the set?)
For his team, Cobb already has Arthur, his point man, and he quickly gathers the rest: Ariadne, who will design the dream, Yusef (Dileep Rao), who will administer the drugs, and Eames (Tom Hardy), the forger, who can impersonate important people from Fisher’s world in the dreamscape. It’s both a good team Cobb has assembled and a good team writer-director Christopher Nolan has assembled. Ellen Page is whip-smart. Cotillard is both dreamy-looking lost love and dangerous femme fatale. But I may have been most impressed with Hardy. He steals every scene. The scam is Cobb’s, the whole story is Cobb’s, and everyone seems to channel their energy into these, and his, obsessions; but Hardy suggests for Eames a life outside of this story. We don’t have much to wonder about with Cobb but we have everything to wonder about with Eames.
To plant their idea into Fisher Jr.’s mind, they plan on three levels of dreams, each one more dangerous, each one requiring a heavier level of sedation. They need time, too. On the plus side, each level you go down, time speeds up. Cobb and his wife once spent 50 years in a dreamscape together, growing old, creating their world, while in the real world, what, a month passed? Less? But they still need access to Fisher Jr. for an extended period of time without his knowledge. They get it when he books a 10-hour transatlantic flight to Los Angeles. So they book the rest of the seats. Everyone on board is with them. (Question: Has he no security, though? Does one control half the world’s energy and not travel with bodyguards?)
To reiterate, for myself as much as you: They enter his dream, his subconscious, but the dreamscape has been designed by Ariadne, and they, the team, are conscious actors, as opposed to figments of his subconscious like everyone else. But he can’t tell they’re conscious actors.
On the first level it’s raining hard, and they complain about the water Fisher drank on the plane. Nice touch. Then they kidnap him in a taxicab but things quickly go awry. A train, not designed by Ariadne, slams through the middle of a street, and suited toughs, projections, placed in Fisher’s subconscious to protect him from just this kind of attack, engage the team in a gunfight. Saito, along for the ride (for some reason), is shot in the chest, and the team holes up in a warehouse, where they are continually assaulted, and where Cobb tells them that dying in here won’t wake them up up there. They’re too heavily sedated to allow for such a wake-up jolt. So what happens? They will remain here, in Fisher’s subconscious, forever. Scary.
To get down to the next level, they get into a van with their IVs, and Yusef drugs them to sleep. Then he drives furiously through the dreamscape, chased by projections. That’s level 1.
At level 2, they’re at a 1940s-style hotel. At level 3, they’re at a wintry fortress that looks like something out of a James Bond movie or the ice planet Hoth. But every level affects the lower level. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. So if the van at level 1 careens wildly, the world of the 1940s-style hotel tilts correspondingly. This leads to some of the movie’s best visuals, particularly a fight in the hotel hallway that’s turning over and over, as the van, at level 1, rolls down a hill.
At level 3, both Fisher and Saito die, so Cobb decides to go into his own subconscious to retrieve them. Not quite sure how this works, to be honest. But Ariadne, who’s spent the movie sussing out the pieces of Cobb’s tragedy, goes along with him. To level 4.
Cobb is on the lam because he’s accused of murdering his wife. Apparently the two went deep into their 50-year-old dreamscape, grew old together, and she refused to come out. She refused to believe that their dreamworld was in fact a dream. So, for the first time ever, Cobb messed about with inception. He planted an idea directly into his wife’s mind that this world wasn’t real; that they needed to die, under train tracks, to get back to the real world. Which they did. All good. Except that idea followed Mal into the real world, and she became convinced that the real world wasn’t real, and that the two of them needed to kill themselves to “wake up.” And that’s what she does. She leaves evidence behind implicating him. That’s his tragedy. That’s why he’s on the lam and that’s why he can’t see his kids. Non, je regrette tout.
The dreamscape Cobb and Ariadne encounter at level 4 is the world, now crumbling majestically, that he and Mal created so long ago. There, with Ariadne helping guide him toward rationality, he finally faces his past, his regret, and the two retrieve Fisher and jolt him awake at level 3. Cobb then remains behind to retrieve Saito.
Thus, more or less concurrently, you have: Cobb confronting an ancient Saito at level 4; a gun battle at the ice fortress at level 3, where Fisher also confronts his father, and where the idea of breaking up his father’s empire is ingeniously implanted in Fisher’s mind; Arthur figuring out how to jolt the principles awake in what is now a gravity-less hotel at level 2; and it’s gravity-less because, at level 1, the van has been driven off a bridge and is falling in slow-motion into a river. Four cliff-hangers for the price of one. Four Steven Spielberg movies all at once. It’s like a Pixie-Stix IV straight into the veins of the summer moviegoer.
Eventually, at all levels, everyone is jolted awake, and everyone, including Cobb and Saito, wake up on the plane. Secret smiles are shared. Fisher looks like an idea, that most resilient parasite, has gotten hold of him.
Cobb is still wanted for murder in the U.S., of course, but Saito promised that if the mission succeeded he would make it all go away. And he does. At Customs, Cobb is allowed in. “Welcome back, Mr. Cobb.” His father-in-law (Michael Caine) is there to greet him, and he takes him back to their home, where his kids, who, throughout, have remained playful but distant, forever turning their faces away from him, finally turn, smile, and rush into his arms. It’s like a dream.
Is it? If you’re someone who enters dreamworlds all the time, one of the things you bring along, Cobb advises, is a totem: some small object that only you know about. Cobb’s totem is a small metal top, which, he suggests, never stops spinning in the dreamworld. That’s how he tests his reality, his sanity. If it stops spinning, he knows he’s in the real world. And just before his kids turn to him, he spins his totem on the dining room table, then forgets all about it as his kids rush into his arms. The camera doesn’t forget, though. It pans back. The top is still spinning. Still spinning. And just as it maybe begins to wobble, the screen goes dark. The End.
There’s going to be a lot of discussion on this lady-or-the-tiger ending, but the question I’d ask isn’t “Is the ending a dream?” but “Is this ending more effective?” I’d argue that it is. “Inception” is about questioning reality, and an ambiguous end lends itself to this theme, and we carry that feeling out of the theater. At least I did. As I walked in downtown Seattle at twilight on a Friday night, everything seemed slightly off. People seemed odder, buildings less substantial. And why were all these Japanese walking around speaking Japanese? Where was I anyway?
There are parallels, certainly, between “Inception” and “Shutter Island,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s previous movie that included a crazy wife who kills herself and the protagonist’s subsequent retreat from reality. But I felt “Inception” more. With “Shutter,” the craziness is isolated in one character. With “Inception,” it spreads. Like an idea. The sanest person in the movie, in fact, may be Mal, just before she kills herself. Once you navigate to the lower dream levels, who is to say that our level, the non-dream level, is the final level? Aren’t we told, all of our lives, that there is another, higher level? Or levels? Who’s to say that reality isn’t the dream from which we need to wake up? The greatest philosophers have said just that. Most of us have felt just that. Nolan is actually tapping into the sense of unreality that reality has.
Not bad for a summer blockbuster.
Review: “Micmacs” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS AFFECTEE
If you felt Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” (or, in the original French, “Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain”) was too pleased with its own quirkiness, then Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Micmacs” (or, in the original French, “Micmacs à tire-larigot”) is probably not the film for you.
Jeunet is a master visual storyteller. No argument there. In the first two minutes we see a mine-sweeper in the Sahara get blown up, his wife and son receiving the bad news, the wife catatonic at the funeral, the son taken away to Catholic school, the son punished at Catholic school, the son escaping from Catholic school—all with hardly a word spoken.
Then it’s 30 years later. The son, Bazil, is now Dany Boon, late of “Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis” (2008), the most popular film in French history. He’s working late at Matador Video, watching “The Big Sleep” dubbed in French, and repeating the dialogue along with Bogart and Bacall, or Bogart and Bacall’s French dubbers (who, by the way, are fantastique), when he hears gunfire, real gunfire, outside. He goes to the door and sees men in a car chasing a man on a motorcycle—or vice versa. There’s a crash, a gun goes off accidentally, and the bullet goes, pow!, straight into Bazil’s forehead. Down he goes. Out come the opening credits.
Is he dead? Nope. But the bullet is so close to his brain it’s a coin toss whether it’s riskier to operate (and possibly turn him into a vegetable), or leave the bullet where it is (where a sneeze or knock on the head might kill him). And that’s what the surgeon does. He flips a coin and leaves the bullet in.
Thus Bazil is given a new, precarious lease on life, but life does not exactly open its arms to welcome him back. His apartment has already been rented out from under him, his effects have been stolen, and his job at the video store has been given to another. In Jeunet’s world, this no reason to get all gloomy. Au contraire! Instead we get a series of short, Chaplinesque scenes from our new little tramp. Bazil stands behind a subway pillar and mouths along as a girl on the other side of the pillar sings for the coins of passing commuters. He performs a robot dance for the tourists at some brasserie de musee. He cleans his feet via street-cleaner. He eyes a breadline, but, from pride, refuses to get in it, implying to the pretty volunteer that he’s simply waiting for a taxi. Which, of course, is when the taxi arrives, requiring further subterfuge. No bitterness is associated with any of these circumstances. Even as he strains to sleep beneath a cardboard box by the Seine, he merely smiles and waves when a boat, filled with lights and gaiety (and rich bastards), floats by.
But he’s getting a rep, and one day, a man named Placard (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who has spent three-quarters of his life behind bars, brings him to a junkyard, a rather magical junkyard, where, under a “tire-larigot” sign, he’s led through amazingly clean tunnels and introduced to a group of misfits, each with their own talent. La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier) is a contortionist who can fit her body into the bottoms of refrigerators, while Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup, who has an Amelie thing going) can calculate weight, height, distance, on sight. Petit Pierre (Michel Crémadès) is a genial puppet/robot-maker who is shockingly strong, while Fracasse (Dominique Pinon of “Delicatessen”) is a human cannonball who claims, vehemently, to have once held the Guiness record for human cannonball flight. Mothered over by Tambouille (Yolande Moreau of “Seraphine”), they’re a kind of French version of the X-Men.
They spend their lives taking the useless and making it useful, and, in a way, that’s what they do with Bazil. More than they know. He’s off on his first junk run, when he stumbles upon the headquarters of the weapons merchants that manufactured the mine that killed his father, run by François Marconi (Nicolas Marié), right across the street from the headquarters of the weapons merchants that manufactured the bullet that nearly ended his life, run by Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (Andre Dussollier).
Both men are pieces of work. Marconi (who could’ve been played by Daniel Auteuil) imagines himself a poet while perpetually quizzing his son on the trivia of historical munitions. Fenouillet (who suggests a French James Caan) collects bits of the famous dead under glass: the heart of Louis XVI, the molar of Marilyn Monroe, the vertebrae of Tino Rossi. In a way these bits suggest what’s left of humanity after an explosion. They also suggest a way of life opposite of our heroes. Fenouillet is taking the useful and keeping it useless.
Bazil’s revelation leads to an immediate frontal assault on both headquarters that goes nowhere. But soon he and his French X-Men concoct over-elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esque schemes to bring down the bad guys.
Example. They distract drug dealers in order to fill a mailbox full of water, allowing the drug-filled envelope inside to float within finger reach; then, at the airport, they plant said envelope into the pocket of a deposed African dictator, who is doing business with Fenouillet (illegal arms for Mussolini’s eye, I believe); then, with Fracasse luring drug-sniffing dogs forward with meat, La Môme Caoutchouc, tucked inside a suitcase, cuts the dog’s leash from his unobservant, Robert De Niro-imitating police master, and the dog bolts for the meat—until he smells the drugs in the dictator’s pocket and starts barking. The bad guys are led away. Could this have been accomplished more easily? Yes, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun.
The goal is to keep pricking both men to see if they bleed, and, of course, being men of power and prestige, they react badly to the pricking and suspect each other. The movie might have made more sense if our heroes had merely pushed each industrialist into the other and then gotten out of the way, but it’s our heroes who keep doing the pricking. The contortionist enters Fenouillet’s place via special-delivery box and vacuums up all his prized celebrity parts—leaving behind one hand with middle finger extended. A cache of Marconi’s arms are stolen and dumped into the Seine via coffee pot of bees and the services of the human cannonball (or Bazil). Fenouillet’s place is blown up. By accident? On the news, we’re told, “There were no fatalities.” Of course not. Otherwise our protagonists would be as bad as our antagonists.
The final scheme involves kidnapping both weapons merchants and transporting them to an Arab desert, where Fenouillet, with one of his explosives clenched in his mouth, is put on the shoulders of Marconi, standing on one of his own land mines, and the two men totter, and plead shamelessly, before a silent tribunal of Arab women in burkhas who hold photos of their own mutilated or murdered children before them. The men admit their crimes, offer, in a sense, arms for hostages (“I’m all for terrorism!” Marconi shouts), but it’s our heroes under the burkhas, and the desert is a building site in France. And it’s all being recorded.
How old am I? After that moment I thought: “Oh, they can get this footage to some news outlet.” Instead they upload it on YouTube under the title “Arms dealers fooled,” and it becomes a hit. We see people around the world watching it...and then presumably going back to their 9-to-5. Or watching some other YouTube clip? “California Gurls”? “Nekkid Mom”? “Crazy Snake Attack!”? The arms dealers get more than humiliated—Marconi gets 15 years for illegal arms sales—but YouTube still feels like a small ending to such an elaborate scheme.
Is the set-up too easy? Band of misfits vs. weapons merchants—with the latter vacuous and bitter and the former a little too pleased with its own quirks. Besides, take down Marconi and another CEO rises in his place. Take down his company and another rises in its place. The problem is less the supply than the demand. And there will always be demand, world without end.
At the same time...why not? Sure, weapons merchants are easy targets, but so are terrorists, which is why Hollywood keeps sending one lone man to fight them. Again and again and again. When was the last time Hollywood made villains of weapons merchants? Why, they’re just capitalists. Like the rest of us.
That may be my favorite thing about “Micmacs.” By its French example, it lays bare the claim that Hollywood’s product is anything close to liberal. Merci, M. Jeunet.
Review: “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (2010)
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” could be an ironic twist on the documentary form, in which the subject is forced to become the documentarian because the original documentarian turns out to be incompetent, and in which the celebration of art (in its street form) becomes a condemnation of the art world (in its gallery form).
Or it could be a hoax. In which case... what? The laugh, rather than being on the art world, is on us? We are the suckers we thought we were watching.
And if the latter, does this make the doc more meaningful or ultimately meaningless?
Let me begin by saying I don’t know from art, let alone street art. I knew of Shepard Fairey through the Obama “Hope” poster and its subsequent AP lawsuit, (and from articles that mentioned his original famous work: the Andre the Giant “OBEY” graffito), but I’d never heard of the others: Monsieur Andre, with his flowing, friendly stick figure drawings; Space Invader, who tucks his Atari-inspired glyphs in out-of-the-way places around Paris; Zeus, painting shadows on the streets. Most of this stuff is fun. I laughed out loud at the chicken-or-egg humor to this graffito: “SORRY ABOUT YOUR WALL —Borf.”
Then there’s Banksy, whose name flashed by during the opening credits. Isn’t the whole thing called “A Banksy Film”? He’s interviewed early, his voice altered, his entire hooded form in silhouette, and lays it all out: “The film is the story of what happened when this guy tried to make a documentary about me... [but] the film is now kinda about him.”
This guy is Thierry Guetta, a French, vintage-clothing store owner living in Los Angeles, who has the habit, possibly from childhood trauma, of filming most of the interactions in his life. In 1999, he was visiting family in Paris, including his cousin, Space Invader, and Thierry and his video camera went on his night rounds with him. The impermanence of street art was thus recorded for posterity. This was Thierry’s entrée into the street-art world.
Soon Thierry lands one of the biggees, Shepard Fairey, and follows him around for 10 months. Then he lands the other biggee, Britain’s super-secretive Banksy, “the Scarlet Pimpernel of the street art scene,” according to Cablestreet, who is famous, or infamous, for his stenciled rats, for putting up his own framed artwork in prestigious galleries, for painting a crack in Jerusalem’s wailing wall through which one can view a Caribbean paradise. When Banksy heads to L.A. and needs a tour guide, Fairey hooks him up with Thierry and his camera.
Thierry’s there, filming, when Banksy stages an intervention into Bush-era America. He blows up an orange-suited Gitmo doll and places it in full view of a roller-coaster ride at Disneyland. Banksy is able to make his getaway but Thierry is grabbed by Disney security and interrogated for four hours. The absurdity of that situation—the heavy hand of the Happiest Place on Earth, along with the obvious Disney/Gitmo connection—is both creepy and hilarious. It’s as if Banksy (and Thierry) get their antagonists to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of the very point they’re making.
All the while, though, there’s something off about the narration from British actor Rhys Ifans. It’s telling us a story, this story, but Ifans, sounding a bit like Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” reads it like he doesn’t believe it. There’s an ironic, sarcastic layer to everything he says. There's something off, too, about Thierry, who, in recent talking-head interviews, wears Civil War-era muttonchops and never seems particularly bright. Halfway through, the bomb is dropped. The doc he's making? He's not making it. He simply puts the videotapes in shoe boxes and never reviews it. It’s not until Banksy asks him to create the doc he’s been talking about that he tries to create the doc he’s been talking about.
And it’s shite: like a caffeinated man flipping through 900 TV channels for 90 minutes. (Or so we’re told: we only get a snippet.)
So Banksy, like some latter-day David O. Selznik, takes over. He’ll put together the doc, based on Thierry’s footage. And what should Thierry do? “Make some art,” Banksy tells him.
He does. “I didn’t want to disappoint Banksy,” he says.
Earlier, Banksy had put together a successful show in L.A.—which included a spray-painted elephant, the so-called elephant in the room of modern society, which led to PETA protests—and it was a hit. Thierry wanted to do something similar. He decided that all street art, from Shepard Fairey's OBEY to Ron English's creepy Ronald McDonald, was really a reaction to the brainwashing of modern society, so he renames himself Mr. Brain Wash, and creates a show, “Life is Beautiful.” It keeps growing and growing. He hires people to help. He sinks more and more of his own money into it. He’s the street artist without the street, and possibly without the art, and one watches horrified that he’s going to bankrupt himself and his family on this whim. Then he gets positive blurbs from Shepard Fairey and Banksy, and his show winds up on the cover of LA Weekly, and one becomes more horrified that his show may actually succeed. And it does. Thierry, now Mr. Brain Wash, and a celebrity in his own right, makes over $1 million selling his not-very-good artwork to not-very-discriminating patrons. He winds up creating the cover art for Madonna’s 2009 CD “Celebration.” We cut to Banksy, apparently interviewing himself, saying, “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don't do that so much anymore.”
So tables were turned and lessons were learned. The fake had supplanted the real and no one could tell the difference. We are revealed as a society without taste. Gore Vidal once called Tennessee Williams “someone to laugh at the squares with,” and that’s what these patrons are, squares, as is, ha!, Madonna, as is our whole culture. But you and I and the other theatergoers? We know. We’re with Banksy.
Except is the story true?
When the doc screened at Sundance in January, a letter from Banksy was read, which included the line, “Everything you are about to see is true, especially the bit where we all lie.”
So what’s the lie? That Mr. Brain Wash (as opposed to, say, Banksy) created his crap art? That gallery patrons bought it? That a guy named Thierry had a predilection for filming? That a guy named Thierry exists?
And if it is a lie, what’s the point of it? Most of Banksy’s art has a point. Think of that stencil of Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, skipping hand-in-hand with the naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl from 1972—an image both hilarious and sickening. The best of Banksy’s art puts the blunt reality in the midst of the corporate or government fantasy. But if most of the doc is a lie? It's blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in a way that feels like a giggle rather than a point.
Or is the point of Banksy's art to subvert comfortable norms—from Queen Victoria to art galleries—and the movie theater is one more comfortable norm he’s subverting? His art is designed to wake people up from believing everything they hear, and that includes, in the end, what they hear from him. He's now the man he's warning us about.
When the doc screened at the Berlin Festival in February, Banksy seemed to backtrack on the “lies” issue:
Essentially, I thought it was important to start recording the global phenomenon of street art, because I felt if we didn’t get it on tape a lot of people wouldn’t believe some of the things that were going on. As it turns out, some of the people don’t believe it anyway and they think the film is some kind of spoof. This is ironic because ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is one of the most honest films you’ll ever see. There was no plan, there was no script and we didn’t even realize we were making a film until about halfway through.”
But even this backtrack raises questions. He started recording the global phenomenon of street art? Wasn’t it Thierry?
For me, it’s a little sad if the story is a lie. We already have enough lies in our lives.
Review: “The Karate Kid” (2010)
“The Karate Kid” practices what it preaches.
Not the karate, since it’s set in China and that’s kung fu. Nor, really, the idea of using kung fu to avoid fights, since we didn’t buy our tickets to watch someone not fight, thank you. We’re moviegoers and we want our wish fulfillment. We’re Old Testament and we want our just desserts.
No, here’s what it preaches. At one point, Mei Ying (Han Wenwen), a young Chinese violinist who wants to get into the prestigious Beijing Academy of Music, and who is the love interest/crush of our main character, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), is told by her teacher that she’s playing the music too fast. She needs to slow down and appreciate the pauses.
That’s what the film does. Most summer movies rush to get us onto the roller coaster, then zips us around for two hours. “Kid” takes its time.
It begins in Detroit with a not-bad visual shorthand. Dre is in an empty room staring at the pencil hash marks on the wall indicating how he’s grown over the years. In this way his life is tracked: “Started kindergarten”; “Lost tooth” “First homerun”; “9th birthday”; “Daddy died.” Then his mother (Taraji P. Henson) calls to him and he pencils in the final one: “Moved to China.”
(Caveat: Of course this shorthand only works if you don’t think about it for more than two seconds. “Daddy died, honey. Let’s see how tall you are!”)
On their first day in Beijing, fighting the jetlag, Dre wanders the neighborhood and meets 1) a blonde-haired American kid, Harry (Luke Carberry), who speaks pretty good Mandarin, and who (intentionally?) reminds us of the gang of blonde-haired bullies from the first “Karate Kid”; 2) Mei Ying, who sits on a park bench and smiles at Dre’s various shenanigans, which include sucking at basketball, sucking at ping pong, but busting some good dance moves; and 3) the new gang of bullies, Chinese now, and led by Cheng (a stunning Wang Zhenwei), who may like Mei Ying, may dislike foreigners, or may just be a jerk. But he picks a fight with Dre, who, good for him, stands his ground. Then Dre gets his ass kicked. Harry tries to intervene, saying, “Ta gang li de. Ta bu jrdao ni shr shei,” or, in English, “He just got here; he doesn’t know who you are.” That’s a pretty scary sentiment. One wonders how long the 12-year-old Cheng has been bullying this neighborhood.
How much does “Karate Kid” appreciate the pauses? It makes us wait an hour before we see these bullies get their first comeuppance—when the maintenance man in Dre’s apartment building, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), prevents Cheng and his buddies from putting Dre into the hospital. He does it in the usual Jackie Chan manner: by using his opponents as props; by using his opponents’ need to fight to defeat them. “When fighting angry blind men,” he says later, “best to just stay out of the way.”
Before that moment, we’re mostly getting to know Dre as he gets to know Beijing. He visits the Forbidden City. His mother thinks the hot water in their apartment doesn’t work, but Mr. Han informs him hot water in China works with a switch: turn it on, wait a half hour, take your shower, turn it off. When Dre tells him the U.S. doesn’t have such a switch, he stares at him, then says, “Get switch. Save planet.”
(Caveat: Cute advice coming from, you know, China, where public health, let alone environmental issues, has never been a great concern.)
We’re also getting to know Jaden Smith. It takes a lot for a possibly nepotistic 12-year-old to star in his own film, but he pulls it off. Often he has looks, unconscious looks, that remind us of his father: that slight head shake, for example, while growing increasingly fed-up and angry. What he can’t pull off, and what his father could pull off effortlessly, is that empty bragging thing: that feigning front that lets the audience know the braggart’s got nothing—and yet somehow makes us like the braggart. Jaden tries it that first day at the park, with the basketball and the ping pong, and the humor falls flat.
Jaden is at his best, I believe, when he reminds me, not of his father, but of my nephew, now 9 years old: that almost trapped, desperate look of being unable to explain to grown-ups the injustice of the world. That naked vulnerability. “I hate it here!” he tells his mom. “I want to go home!” When tears well up in his eyes and slide down his cheeks, it’s heartbreaking stuff. Some critics have complained that Jaden, 11 going on 12 now, 10 going on 11 when the movie was filmed, is too young to play the role Ralph Macchio originated at 22 or 23, but the advantage to youth is vulnerability. Dre isn’t on the verge of manhood. He is just a kid.
Despite that, and despite the switch to China and kung fu, this remake mostly follows the path of the original. Bullies gather. Mentor emerges. Mentor says “No such thing as bad students, only bad teacher.” Then he meets the bad teacher, Mr. Li, (Yu Rongguang), who decorates his school with huge, framed photos of himself in aviator glasses, and who physically beats students who dare show mercy to other students. Mr. Han looks both startled and, yes, scared that there are such teachers in the world, so he agrees to teach Dre what he calls “real kung fu.” In the 1980s version, it was wax on/wax off. Here it’s jacket on/jacket on. Same idea. Repetitive task leads to the unconscious physical movements that act as the doorway to the martial art.
Jackie Chan fans, or at least this Jackie Chan fan, has been waiting for years to see him in this kind of role. He became a star in Asia in the 1970s playing the ne’er-do-well student to a crazy or stern taskmaster, often played by Siu Tien Yuen, and now he gets to play that stern taskmaster. He does it well. He’s both stern and concerned. He is stern because he is concerned. He’s teaching not just a one-time thing but a way of life. “Everything is kung fu,” he says. On the window of a train to the Chinese countryside, during a pilgrimage to a Chinese temple, he draws the Chinese character for “chi,” and explains that it means: the eternal essence that flows through life. Dre translates this into pop cultural terms. Chi equals the Force. “You’re Yoda,” he says, “and I’m like a Jedi.” Great line.
This temple is ridiculously beautiful, and a martial arts master mesmerizes a cobra while balancing atop one of the temple’s ornate wings, and later Mr. Han and Dre practice on the Great Wall of China with no tourists or officials in sight (nice gig if you can get it), but despite all of this fanciful stuff the movie works to stay grounded. Most of the training is done in Mr. Han’s cluttered yard, or on a rooftop between drying laundry, and the emphasis keeps returning to the basics: focus, concentration, practice—all of the things you need to succeed in any discipline. The emphasis of the movie, meanwhile, keeps returning to the basics of storytelling: the humanity of its two main characters. When Dre is finally able to punch Mr. Han with force, he looks scared. When Mr. Han’s tragic past is revealed, the movie, rather than being derailed, deepens because of the honesty of Dre’s response. When Dre is injured in the tournament and wants to go back out for the final round, and Mr. Han asks him why, Dre says, “Because I’m still scared.” Another great line. Another great lesson.
The final point of the final round of the tournament is over the top, literally over the top, but the comeuppance of the bad teacher is quiet and dignified and devastating. I walked in hoping “Karate Kid” would be an OK movie; I walked out thinking it was much, much better. It’s wish fulfillment, obviously, but it’s inner-directed wish fulfillment. The point isn’t to decimate your enemies but to better yourself and hope some part of the world follows.
Review: "Get Him to the Greek" (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS, INIT?
The sadness that permeates the comedy “Get Him to the Greek” has less to do with the polite desperation of record flak Aaron Green (Jonah Hill), who has 72 hours to get notorious rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) from England to the eponymous theater in Los Angeles, nor with the ultimate emptiness of Snow’s dissolute, rock n’ roll life; it has to do with the state of rock n’ roll itself.
In each of the cities we visit in the movie, we get a quick spin through the musical landmarks—Whiskey A Go Go in L.A., Abbey Road in London, Roseland in N.Y.—and each feels less homage than memorial. Ah yes, I remember a time when music was central to our culture instead of whatever it is now: a sometimey, YouTube-y thing where real musicians fight for attention with your Mileys and Jonases, your “Britain’s Got Talent” and your “David After Dentist.” And lose. I remember when we listened, really listened to music, lying on the living room floor and reading the liner notes while the entire album played, instead of whatever it is we do now: downloading an MP3 file and playing it on shuffle in the background while we do busy work in the foreground. Oh, this is a good song. Love this song. Who is it by again?
At least “Greek” doesn’t pretend, the way “Be Cool” pretended, that the current music industry isn’t dying. It knows it’s dying. That’s why the president of Pinnacle Records in L.A., Sergio Roma (Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs), gathers his troops to hear their ideas. It’s also why they don’t have any. Some dude mentions a new discovery, the Next Big Thing, but this is a guy who always sees the Next Big Thing and his idea is dimissed with a flick of the wrist. That’s when Aaron Green pipes up about Aldous Snow. It’s the 10th anniversary of his show at the Greek Theater in L.A. Why not bring him back for an anniversary show—which can have all of these ancillary ways of making dough: PPVs and marketing tie-ins and what have you? Wouldn’t it be cool? It would. But Green, too, is dismissed. His idea is looking backward rather than forward.
Snow, whose character first appeared in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” is one of those thin-hipped, bad-boy, British rockers, and the movie opens in the late ’90s with him at his peak: shooting a video in Africa called “African Child,” with his girlfriend, model Jackie Q (Rose Byrne). But he’s an idiot and this is his moment of excess. He wants to be political, he wants to be relevant, and even mumbles something about the war in Darfour, and how “That isn’t right, is it?,” before singing an insane song about a white African Christ from space. Played by him. It’s “We are the World” meets David Bowie meets ick. The song bombs, his career is in shambles, while Jackie Q’s new music career takes off. She’s sexy and sings absurd, hilarious songs about sex (“Supertight”; “Ring ‘Round (My Rosie)”). She’s her own Pussycat Doll. She is what we have now instead of musicians: canned voices flouting sex.
Of course Roma comes around to the 10th anniversary concert and sends Green to England to bring back Snow. No small task. Green is polite, provincial, and in awe of the rock star. He’s a non-celebrity who has no leverage against a celebrity other than his honesty, which, initially, he refuses to use. Snow sizes him up and immediately finds him wanting.
Jonah Hill made his name as the street-smart half of duos—to Michael Cera’s fumbling geek in “Superbad” and Seth Rogen’s starstruck geek in “Funny People”—so this is really new ground for him. He’s drawing comedy not from telling us uncomfortable truths about ourselves but showing us an uncomfortable version of ourselves: the American abroad who doesn’t know foreign (even British) customs; the non-celebrity in the celebrity world. He’s good at it. His line-reading of “Europe,” after he kisses a Brit on both cheeks, French-style, still makes me smile.
Brand is in another orbit. He’s perfect. He plays Snow complex: both unaware and superaware; both dissolute and frightened. There’s something about Brit comedians, the lack of the wink, that’s almost scary, and Brand has that quality.
Given all this, the movie should be funnier. It’s funny, I laughed many times, and along with “African Child” we get great parodies of punk (“The Clap”), soaring rock ballads (“Bangers, Beans and Mash”) and gangster rap (“F**k Your S**t Up”), but I expected more. Maybe the film’s need to get warm and fuzzy tempered the humor. Maybe it got bogged down in Snow’s troubles with his father (Colm Meany). Maybe P Diddy’s suddenly psychotic record executive comes out of left field, or the menage a trois between Snow, Green, and Green’s girlfriend, Daphne (Elizabeth Moss of “Mad Men”), a resident doctor, pushes the envelope without pulling along the humor, or maybe Snow finally performing the Greek concert with a bone sticking out of his forearm is more unnecessary envelope-pushing that distracted from the proceedings.
Or maybe the movie just can’t overcome the sadness of its premise. A rock legend has to rush to get on the freakin’ “Today Show”? To do a lame 10th anniversary concert? It’s all look back. The dying music world still belongs to the Jackie Qs:
Shake A Room
Like It's Dynamite
That’s funny and it isn’t.
Review: “Toy Story 3” (2010)
WARNING: A TOY CHEST FULL OF SPOILERS
“When I was a child I spake as a child,” 1 Corinthians 13:11 begins, “I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.” Sound advice. But what if you are the childish thing? That’s the dilemma of “Toy Story 3.”
Pixar’s “Toy Story” is essentially “The Godfather” of children’s movies—critically and popularly acclaimed, redefining the genre, with a lot of time between second and third installments—so one holds one’s breath with this third installment. No one wants another “Godfather III.”
We don’t get it. We get a fun and funny adventure movie with bittersweet moments, but also moments when the people at Pixar had to choose between the daring thing and the safe thing, and, despite their daring over the last few years with “WALL-E” and “Up," chose the safe thing. It’s hard to fault them. The daring thing is almost too daring for adults, let alone kids.
The movie opens in the insane world of a child’s imagination. A train robbery is being foiled by Sheriff Woody (voice: Tom Hanks) and his gal Jessie (Joan Cusack), but the train robbers, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), blow up the bridge, leaving the train full of screaming orphans (troll dolls) on a collision course with disaster! So Woody rides his horse next to the train, hops on, and applies the brakes. Too late! The train plummets into the chasm... only to be lifted up by, ta da!, Buzz Lightyear! (Tim Allen) The bad guys are about to be brought to justice but instead bring out their attack dog with force field. Ah, but the good guys have a dinosaur (Wallace Shawn) who eats force fields! Ha! But then the baddest guy of all, Hamm the Pig (John Ratzenberger), arrives in his giant pig spaceship and unleashes the monkeys, the barrels of monkeys, and the monkeys grab our heroes and hold them and stretch them every which way until... we’re out of Andy’s imagination and into his world, where his mom is filming his playtime adventures with a camcorder. It turns out, too, that this particular playtime was a long time ago. The toys are now sitting in the dark of the toy chest, where they haven’t been played with for a while, and Andy’s about to leave for college.
(A quick aside: I know this is a kid’s movie but you do have to wonder about Andy. Dude’s 18 and he still has a chest full of toys? In his room? And he’s taking Woody, his oldest, bestest toy, to college? That’s a guy who’s never getting laid. Or a guy who will eventually work at Pixar.)
His mom wants him to divide his things into one of four possible destinations—college, attic, daycare center, and trash—and she suggests the daycare center for the toys. Andy, affronted, unable to throw away what was once precious but is no longer relevant (we’ve all been there), sets Woody aside and puts everyone else into a trash bag for the attic. But it’s mistaken for trash-trash and taken to the curb. The toys affect a breathless escape, but, affronted by Andy’s treachery, and over the protestations of Woody, who saw all and remains loyal, happily get into the box destined for daycare. They want to be played with again.
I love that idea, by the way: Toys desperate to be played with. (We’ve all been there.)
The place is called the Sunnyside Daycare Center, with a sign outside featuring both sun and rainbow. Inside, our friends are greeted by friendly toys, including Lotso (Ned Beatty), a purple bear whose fur is worse for wear, and who walks with a cane, but who still smells like strawberries. He shows them the sights and takes them to another room, the Caterpillar Room, guarded by Big Baby, a plastic doll with one eye creepily half-closed. “Here’s where you folks will be staying!” Lotso says. But it’s a trap. They’ve been put in the toddler room and when the toddlers arrive, they do what toddlers do. They destroy. This is survival of the craftiest. Lotso and the others want to live as long as they can, and someone has to be sacrificed to the toddlers. For Buzz and the others, escape becomes necessary.
It’s a familiar scenario. Too familiar? It’s reminiscent of both “Toy Story 2” (the escape from the clutches of Al, the toy collector), and that great “Simpsons” episode where Maggie and the other babies in the daycare center devise a “Great Escape”-like plan to get their binkies back. But it works here because the director (Lee Unkrich), and the writers (Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Unkrich), get all of the details right. The initial escape attempt, through the inevitable slanted window above the doorway, is a veritable Rube Goldberg contraption, while the movie allusions—including the “night in the box” schtick from “Cool Hand Luke”—are subtle enough to not get in the way. Plus the dialogue is great. “Let's see how much we're going for on eBay,” a dejected Hamm says at one point.
But I particularly like the way they use familiar, sometimes generic toys for specific jobs. Thus the warning system for the bad guys, their eye-in-the-sky manning the security cameras, is one of those screaming monkeys with clanging cymbals. On the periphery you have a Fisher-Price chatter telephone, delivering cryptic warnings to Woody, or giving up the good guys at just the wrong moment. (Dude can’t stop chattering.) Lotso and company use the instruction manual for Buzz Lightyear to essentially reboot him back to his factory-model personality, while Ken (Michael Keaton), all ‘60s lingo and fashion, insists, in late-night poker games with the more manly toys, “I’m not a girl’s toy! I’m not! Why do you guys keep saying that?”
But the most brilliant use is Big Baby. Huge and lumbering, with a lazy eye like Forest Whitaker, Baby is the silent enforcer, a terrifying figure. Until she opens her mouth. Then out comes the gurgle or sigh of an infant. Big Baby really is just a baby.
The escape plan is a team effort, full of betrayals and counter-betrayals (is that a “Star Wars” homage with Lotso and Big Baby?), and our guys wind up riding the garbage truck with Lotso to the landfill, where they are put on a mechanized path to incineration but are saved at the last minute by the most unlikely of deus ex machinas.
It’s here, particularly here, with its echoes of “WALL-E,” that I wondered if “Toy Story 3” might not say something deep and meaningful about our consumerist society, our throwaway culture. Doesn’t happen. The lesson is there for anyone who wants it, but it remains in the background, while in the foreground we get more palatable lessons about loyalty and teamwork and going home.
Except what’s home for these guys? That’s the dilemma their adventures obfuscate for 90 minutes. In many stories, we start out in a safe place, we go off on a dangerous adventure, we get back to the safe place a little wiser. But these guys don’t have a safe place anymore. Or they don’t have a place where they are both safe and useful. They’re safe but no longer useful at Andy’s, and they’re useful but not nearly safe enough at Sunnyside. The toys go back home, in essence, so Andy can make the decision he should’ve made at the beginning: where their new home is going to be.
(One wonders what resolutions Pixar toyed with. Leaving our friends in the landfill? Incinerating them? Imagine Woody’s plastic face melting off like the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” A moment of trauma for the kids in the audience but a lesson for a lifetime about what happens when we throw things away.)
Can we watch these movies and not think about our own toys? I used to have an army of stuffed animals to whom I gave names and personalities. Pooh Bear was the small but tough leader. Old Snoopy, the first stuffed Snoopy I owned, was big and dull—his parts couldn’t move well—and he tended to stay on the periphery, his tongue hanging out. New Snoopy, his replacement, was cute and playable—his parts moved, he could dance—but he eventually lost an ear or an arm (or an ear and an arm?) in a fight with a sibling. The most memorable, in his own way, was King Kong (Real name: Chester O’Chimp, 1964, Mattel), the stuffed monkey with the plastic face and the felt hands, who had a pull string and voice box, and said things like “Let’s go the zoo and see all of the wild people!” and “I’m just a little chimp! Duddly duddly dum.” He, too, eventually lost an arm. Whatever happened to them? What landfill did they wind up in? It’s sad just thinking about.
Can we watch these movies and not think about ourselves? What happens when we are no longer useful? What the toys go through in “3” is essentially what we will all go through. First we’re useful; then we’re not; then we’re taken to a home where we may be abused. We live in a throwaway culture where we’re the last thing thrown away.
“Toy Story 3” doesn’t want us to think about this too much, of course, so it gives us its bittersweet ending, where Andy finally, reluctantly, takes his childish things and gives them to Bonnie, shy Bonnie forever hiding behind her mother’s legs, where they will be both useful and safe. It takes a long time to get there. In Andy’s reluctance to let go, one sees the reluctance of Pixar itself, which began its empire with Woody and Buzz and Hamm and Rex (my personal favorite: always so excited; always so wrong), and finally has to put away its childish things.
This ending is both mature (in letting go of childish things), and not (the implication that the childish things, now with Bonnie, carry on to infinity and beyond). It’s a kind of a lie, but it’s a forgivable lie since it’s the same lie we tell ourselves every day. Yes, experience is fleeting. Yes, kids grow up and go out into the world. But we live forever.
Review: “Nanjing! Nanjing!” or “The City of Life and Death” (2010)
WARNING: 100,000-300,000 SPOILERS
Lu Chuan’s “Nanjing! Nanjing!” (international title: “City of Life and Death”) is to the Rape of Nanjing what Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” is to the Holocaust: a beautifully photographed, black-and-white epic about an unspeakable horror, with a leading, sympathetic role for a man on the side committing the atrocities.
Comparing a movie to “Schindler’s List” is generally a compliment but not here. Like “Schindler’s,” “Nanjing!” also reduces the unfathomable to the understandable. It allows itself melodrama. It tries to draw emotion out of us, all of us sitting in our safe theater seats, by showing us tragedy that can be comprehended (one baby tossed out a window) rather than horror that can’t (dozens of babies skewered on bayonets). It milks scenes for emotion when, given actual events, we should be drained of it.
When I lived in Taiwan 20 years ago I wondered why the Rape of Nanjing wasn’t better known in the West. Iris Chang, in her book, “The Rape of Nanking,” calls it “the forgotten holocaust of World War II,” and that seems accurate. It’s forgotten, or glossed over, by everyone but the Chinese, on whom it was perpetrated, and the Japanese, who were the perpetrators, and some of whom deny it happened. So it goes with unspeakable horrors.
The movie begins in December 1937 with the Japanese Army, which had already taken over Manchuria in 1931, and which invaded China proper in July, on the outskirts of the then-capital, Nanjing, a walled city. China had been a divided country since the revolution of 1911, and we see some of this division within Nanjing, as the majority of the Chinese Army, probably Kuomintang, attempt to flee, while a few hardy resisters, led by Lu Jianxiong (Ye Liu), engage in a kind of giant scrum to hold them back. They are unsuccessful. Most of the first hour of the movie deals with the heroic resistance of these last remnants, with a small child, Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), constantly looking up to and emulating Jianxiong. Then, after surrender, all of these are systematically slaughtered.
The Mayor of Nanking fled on December 7 (always an infamous date), and the government, such as it was, switched into the hands of an international committee, led by German businessman and Nazi party member John Rabe (John Paisley), who established a “safety zone,” where the Japanese were nominally circumscribed as to who they could rape and kill.
What was it like? A foreign missionary, Rev. James M. McCallum, wrote the following in his diary:
I know not where to begin nor to end. Never I have heard or read such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night, and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval, there is a bayonet stab or a bullet ... People are hysterical ... Women are being carried off every morning, afternoon and evening. The whole Japanese army seems to be free to go and come as it pleases, and to do whatever it pleases.
How many Shanghai citizens were murdered? One hundred thousand? Three hundred thousand? How many women were raped? Twenty thousand? Eighty thousand? The numbers are staggering but they are only numbers, so Lu Chuan spotlights a few people to care about.
There’s Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), assistant to John Rabe, who, in the beginning, when his wife (Lan Qin) asks if Nanking is safe, replies, “I work for the Germans. We are safe.” One awaits for his rude awakening. One doesn’t wait long.
There’s Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan), a pretty administrator, who also works inside the Safety Zone. Who is she? Who knows? She’s mostly pretty, and generically heroic, but of course both qualities work against her here.
Then there’s Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), the Japanese soldier who opens the film by waking up and shielding his eyes from the rising sun. Metaphor alert. His path, during the course of the film, will take him to a point where he can no longer shield his eyes from the Rising Sun and its atrocities.
Kadokawa is, like Oskar Schindler before him, both the enemy and the most finely drawn character of the bunch. There’s a not-bad, early scene with a Japanese “comfort woman,” with whom he has his first sexual encounter. He comes away thinking it means something, that she has feelings for him—even as another man takes his place—but a later scene reveals that she doesn’t even remember him. It would be slightly sad under normal circumstances but these are not normal circumstances. And yet it’s still sad. How does that work? I think, like Kadokawa, we want a touch of the humane amidst all this inhumanity. Like Kadokawa, we don’t get it.
I cared not a bit for Mr. Tang. Every move he makes is wrong. He rushes home to cut off the hair of his wife and daughter but it doesn’t help. He attempts to negotiate with the Japanese but they dismiss him. He attempts to bribe them with money and information, including the whereabouts of two Chinese soldiers in the Safe Zone, but he only gives the Japanese an excuse to enter the Safe Zone, where his wife/daughter are nearly raped, and where his baby is tossed out the window by a Japanese soldier. The camera holds on his stricken face for an eternity. I thought of “Sophie’s Choice"—that scene after the choice is made and the camera holds on Sophie's face, and she goes from horror to an even deeper horror, to a lifelong horror; and while I know it’s unfair to compare another actor with Meryl Streep (it’s like comparing another songwriter to Dylan or another novelist to Joyce), we get nothing close to that here. Tang starts out stricken and ends stricken. And the camera holding on him so long merely makes us aware that the camera is holding on him for so long.
Eventually a release is negotiated for Tang and his wife, along with a third man, and the three make their way to the exit gate, where John Rabe and a car wait on the other side of a 60-foot no-man’s land. But Ida (Ryu Kohata), the subtly sadistic Japanese commander, after a reference to Tang’s wife’s beauty, tosses in a wrinkle. Only two can leave. Ultimately the third man has to stay behind and Tang and his wife walk slowly across the no-man’s land. But halfway, Tang stops. His conscience won’t allow him to go on. He tells his wife this. She looks confused. He says he’s going back to look for May, her sister, who we know (and probably he knows) is dead, but he says this for his wife’s benefit. He knows he’s going back to an execution. Tang's gesture is supposed to be a grand gesture but it feels empty. His responsibility should be to his wife, and to the baby inside her, but instead it’s to...what? A sacrifice for this third man? A general sacrifice for the Chinese, whom Tang betrayed? Worse, when he makes his way back, his wife follows and pleads with him through the barb wire fence; and all the while, knowing Ida could change his mind on a whim, my mind screamed, “SOMEONE GET THAT UNRAPED WOMAN OUT OF HERE!!!” Then Tang is executed grandly—tied to a post, in ready-aim-fire fashion, with Ida, facing away, in the foreground—when a quick death, in which Tang is treated like the dog the Japanese saw him to be, would've been more effective. Not to mention more realistic.
The movie keeps doing this. Making grand what isn’t. Milking what has no milk. Making the naturally dramatic melodramatic.
Is there a smart Chinese character here? A heroic one after Lu Jianxiong? Near the end, the Japanese are loading men onto a truck to cart them off and kill them, but, for some reason, Ida allows each Safe Zone citizen to take one man off the truck to save them. Miss Jiang, still un-raped, still with her perfect hair, chooses Xiaodouzi, the boy who looked up to Lu Jianxiong in the beginning, and who survived the slaughter of the Chinese Army. But he survived with another man, a fat man, who begins to cry out for Miss Jiang to save him, too. He won’t shut up. He keeps saying her name, and drawing attention to himself, and to her, and in the audience I kept thinking, “Shut up. You’re a soldier, and a man, and you’re getting this woman into trouble to save your own fat ass.” Sure enough, she comes back for him. And sure enough, she’s targeted. Ida gives her the once over. He tells her Mr. Rabe can’t save her now. He says “Our people will be pleased.” Then she’s led away to become a comfort woman, to be, in essence, fucked to death. “Shoot me,” she says to a Japanese soldier. Luckily it’s our Japanese soldier, Kadokawa, and the camera cuts to his point-of-view. He’s just standing there. Then slowly he begins to move. Faster and faster. Up to the two soldiers leading Miss Jiang away. Will he or won't he? I suppose it’s something that writer/director Lu Chuan actually has us rooting for the death of a sympathetic character like Miss Jiang, but it still feels like the scene goes on too long.
As for Fatty? He and the boy get away. Kadokawa takes them outside the city to kill them but instead lets them go. “Life is more difficult than death,” he says, then chooses death for himself. Before the final credits, we find out what happened to all of the historical figures, how long they lived, etc., and for the child, Xiaodouzi, who may or may not be a historical figure, we’re told, “Xiaodouzi is still alive.” It’s a great moment, a “Fuck you” to the Japanese, but the earlier, getting-away scene doesn’t work. Kadokawa lets them go and he and Fatty smile before they even reach the woods. They smile too quickly given everything they’ve been through, how much they have to carry inside them, how cheap they now know life is. They smile as if they’re safe, when they should know, more than anyone, that there is no safe.
Review: “Au Revoir Taipei” (2010)
WARNING: WO BU YAO GEI NIMEN SPOILERS
“Au Revoir Taipei” begins with a farewell scene next to a taxi on a wet Taipei street and ends with a farewell scene next to a taxi on a wet Taipei street, and much of the movie, which is charming and funny, is how the main character, Kai (Jack Yao), switches from being the guy left standing in the street to the guy riding away in the taxi. And whether he’s happier as a result.
Kai helps his parents with their noodle shop but he’s focused on his girlfriend, who, alas, is now in Paris. (She’s the one who left by taxi to start the film.) Kai wants to impress her so he spends his free time on the floor of a bookstore learning French; then he leaves her long-distance voicemails in stilted French reminiscent of the Colorado postal carrier in “Paris, je t’aime”—“Bon jour, Faye. Sans toi, Taipei est triste, tres triste”—before lapsing back into rapid-fire Mandarin. We see him leave several such voice mails. She never picks up. Not a good sign.
There’s another girl, of course, Susie (Amber Kuo), who works at the bookstore and teases him about his floor sitting. “This isn’t a library, you know,” she says. She quickly develops a crush on him, but, though she’s cute, he can't be bothered. He’s interested in the girl who isn’t there.
Meanwhile, Kai’s friend, Gao (Chiang Kang-Che), a sweet, supertall, mouth breather, has a crush on a fellow employee, Peach, at the convenience store where they both work.
Meanwhile, a full-of-himself cop, (Chang Hsiao-chuan), takes his girlfriend for granted until she leaves him.
Meanwhile, a neighborhood gangster, Bao Ge, near retirement, and fronting a legitimate real estate business, has fallen in love and agrees to one more score before he’s done.
Meanwhile, the gangster’s nephew, Hong (Ko Yu-Luen), wearing the orange pants and vest of a real estate agent, and about to inherit his uncle’s legitimate real estate business, wants a piece of the illegitimate action, and, with his ne’er-do-well buddies, all dressed in orange suits with big blue ties, plots to rob his uncle of his last, big score.
All of these elements collide one hilarious evening.
Writer-director Arvin Chen has a good visual shorthand. When Kai finally gets through to Faye, for example, we see him in his room, pacing and talking. Then he stops pacing. “Why?” he asks. Cut to: Kai in bed, crying.
Determined to fix their relationship, he asks his parents for the money for a plane ticket to Paris but they scold him for being impractical. So he goes to Bao Ge, who, amused by this neighborhood kid, and nostalgic about his own loves—first or otherwise—loans him the money. Then he asks a favor.
Kai is supposed to take a package with him to Paris, but the exchange is handled clumsily, and watched by both the cops and the nephew’s ne’er-do-well gang. Everyone gives chase. Kai and Bao bump into Susie, but, Gao, slow and intent on food, is subsequently separated from the others and kidnapped by the orange-suit gang—although these guys come off less as gangsters than confused high school kids on a caper. “What do we do with him?” one asks. Pause. Longer pause. Finally Gao, with a vague, uncertain lilt, speaks up: “Just drop me off anywhere around here,” he says. It's a great line reading.
Tied up in a hotel room, he shares restaurant information with the gang while they give him relationship advice, such as it is, about Peach. They play mah-jong and he trumps them. “I told you guys,” he says. “I have mad mah-jong skills.” He’s like a pleasant, less-icky version of Napoleon Dynamite.
Is too much of the film derivative? Along with “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Paris je’taime,” I caught whiffs of early Woody Allen in the whimsical soundtrack and Wes Anderson in the tone, camera placement, and the uniformity of clothes (here: orange suits) as a running visual gag. One joke comes directly from “Midnight Run” while the ending is reminiscent of the ending of “Slumdog Millionaire.” Everyone dances.
Even so, I had a great time watching “Au Revoir, Taipei.” The actors who play Gao and Hong are both hilarious, while the romantic leads are cute and sweet. One could call Amber Kuo’s Susie the quintessential Taipei girl: feisty, pouty, fragile. You fall in love with her and want to smack Kai for taking so long to fall in love with her.
It’s a world full of passivity and best-laid plans but mostly it’s a very safe world: broken hearts are easily mended, young gangsters and cops are easily distracted, and the gun introduced in the first act doesn’t go off in the third.
Review: “The Tillman Story” (2010)
WARNING: REDACTED SPOILERS
As someone who just lived through the 2000s I can honestly say that W.H. Auden didn’t know from low dishonest decades.
Auden used the phrase in his poem, “September 1, 1939,” about the 1930s:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade...
His low dishonest decade ended with war, ours began with it. The dishonesty of his decade was the enemy’s, masterminded by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebels, which played on our hopes for peace. The dishonesty of our decade was our own, the Bush administration’s, masterminded by Karl Rove, which played on our fears, as well as our corresponding need for heroes. The administration that couldn’t stop attacking Hollywood kept using the tropes of Hollywood to gather power and silence opposition.
Pat Tillman was a minor figure in all of this, a pawn in the Bush administration’s game, and “The Tillman Story,” a documentary written by Mark Monroe and directed by Amir Bar-Lev, is his family’s attempt to set the record straight.
Most of us are familiar with some part of the story. On Sept. 10, 2001, Pat Tillman was a an All-Pro safety with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, happily married and making millions of dollars. Eight months later he joined the U.S. Army Rangers. He served a tour in Iraq in 2003. In his second tour, in Afghanistan, on April 22, 2004, he was killed. He was posthumously promoted to corporal and awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest award for combat valor, because of “gallantry on the battlefield for leading his Army Rangers unit to the rescue of comrades caught in an ambush,” according to the New York Times. A memorial service was held in San Jose, Cal., and Tillman was eulogized by the Pentagon, by politicians, and throughout the media as a patriotic hero-soldier who died selflessly for his country and for his fellow soldiers.
Except it was a lie. During an ambush by enemy forces near the village of Sperah, close to the Pakistan border, yes, Tillman led several men to higher ground; but they were subsequently mistaken for the enemy and fired upon by their own troops. Tillman and a member of the Afghanistan Military Police were killed by friendly fire.
Everyone on the ground knew this. There was no mistaking it. But the lie got out quickly.
Reading the first, heroic press accounts, with details provided by the Pentagon, is to be steeped in Bush-era bullshit. From USA Today:
When the rear section of their convoy became pinned down in rough terrain, Tillman ordered his team out of its vehicles “to take the fight to the enemy forces” on the higher ground.
As Tillman and other soldiers neared the hill's crest, he directed his team into firing positions, the Army said. As he sprayed the enemy positions with fire from his automatic rifle, he was shot and killed. The Army said his actions helped the trapped soldiers maneuver to safety “without taking a single casualty”...
A month later, the truth seeped out, but it wasn’t well-covered. As the saying goes: the mistake is always on page 1, the retraction on page 14. From the May 30th New York Times:
Ex-Player's Death Reviewed
Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals football player, was probably killed by allied fire as he led his team of Army Rangers up a hill during a firefight in Afghanistan last month, the Army said.
Sometimes there’s no retraction at all. The following is every USA Today news headline about Tillman from 2004. Notice how they fed on him until they didn't:
- Tillman killed in Afghanistan (April 23, 2004)
- Moment of silence at NFL draft (April 24, 2004)
- Tillman's legacy of virtue (April 25, 2004)
- Body returns to U.S. (April 26, 2004)
- Army promotes Tillman to corporal (April 29, 2004)
- Tillman posthumously awarded Silver Star (April 30, 2004)
- Items related to Tillman sold on E-bay (May 2, 2004)
- Tillman mourned by hometown (May 2, 2004)
- Tillman memorial service held in San Jose (May 3, 2004)
- Arizona salutes Tillman (May 8, 2004)
- Report details Tillman's last minutes (Dec. 5, 2004)
Not only did Tillman not die the way they said, he didn’t live the way they said, either. “He didn’t really fit into that box they would’ve liked,” Tillman’s mother, Mary, mentions in the doc.
He joined the Rangers to fight al Qaeda but wound up in Iraq and wasn’t happy. “This war is so fucking illegal,” one of his brothers quotes him saying. He had an open curious mind at odds with the incurious absolutism of the time. There’s hilarious footage of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity refusing to believe that Tillman read linguist and conservative bete noire Noam Chomsky. (Because it didn’t fit into their notions of a football player? A soldier? A conservative hero? All of the above?) Fellow Ranger Bryan O’Neal, a Mormon, talks about coming across Tillman, a religious skeptic, possibly an atheist, reading “The Book of Mormon.” He wanted to see what was what.
He swore like a truck driver and loved risking his life. He jumped from high places and climbed to higher places. He was that rare tough guy who didn’t need to show how tough he was. He never hazed recruits. He didn’t yell and get into the face of men who screwed up—as is the Army way. O’Neal recounts how, when he screwed up, Tillman took him aside and told him how disappointed he was. That was it. According to O’Neal, that was enough.
This is straight out of his father’s vocabulary, by the way. In the doc, Patrick Tillman says he’s “disappointed” in Pfc. Russell Baer, Tillman’s fellow Ranger, who was the first to lie to the family about the incident. He tells the Army in 2005 that he’s “disappointed” in them, too. The mother is lauded in the doc but the father dominates it. Thinner than his son, with the same lantern jaw, he seethes with rage. Still. He wants the answer to a simple question: Who lied about his son’s death? Eventually he tells the Army, in writing, “fuck you,” and this—and a Washington Post editorial—got their attention. In August 2005, the Pentagon launched an internal investigation into the incorrect reports of Tillman’s death. In March 2007, the report pinned the blame on a lieutenant general who had already retired. They took away one of his stars. There were some congressional hearings, and joint chiefs and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied knowledge of blah blah blah, and had no recollection of yadda yadda. It all petered out.
“The Tillman Story” is a sad story but it’s not a great doc. It focuses too much attention on the Tillman family rather than on Tillman himself. Like the family, it can’t accept the military’s non-answer, and, panning up the command flowchart to Pres. George W. Bush, spends too much time insinuating who might’ve ordered the falsification of Tillman’s death. At the same time, it’s so vague in describing Tillman’s actual death that a friend, who saw the doc the same time I did, assumed Tillman had been “fragged” rather than killed by friendly fire.
For all the attempts to release Tillman from his box, too, its portrait isn’t as complete as in Jon Krakauer’s book “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.” In particular it ignores an incident during his senior year of high school, when Tillman, thinking he was defending a friend from an ass-whooping, put an innocent kid into the hospital. His life was nearly derailed by this—he served jail time and came close to losing his scholarship to Arizona State—but he came out of it, according to Krakauer, more contemplative and slower to temper. He came out closer to the man he would become. The doc would’ve benefited from this story.
But it’s a good reminder. Just six years ago we were all living through this: Jessica Lynch, WMDs, smoking gun/mushroom cloud, Video News Releases (VNRs), fake White House correspondents, the firing of U.S. attorneys, the outing of Valerie Plame, “greeted with flowers,” “Mission Accomplished,” “a few bad apples,” “last throes.” And Pat Tillman. What company to keep. If I were his family, I’d be enraged, too.
Review: “L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot” (2009)
WARNING: HELLISH SPOILERS
In an episode of “Dirty Sexy Money,” Craig Wright’s short-lived, slightly skewed take on the “Dynasty”s of the world, Nick George (Peter Krause), lawyer to the wealthy Darling family, finally gets around to donating some of his money to charity. That was the reason he took the job in the first place—so he’d be rich enough to help his favorite causes—but money and power have already begun to curdle things for him, and as one non-profit thanks him profusely for the check, saying, “You have no idea how much this will change things,” Nick smiles and responds, “I know. But I’m giving it to you anyway.”
I thought of this scene while watching “L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot,” Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s documentary on one of the great unmade films by one of the great French film directors.
What sinks a film already in production? It’s rarely one thing. In “Lost in La Mancha,” a 2002 documentary on Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to make a modern Don Quixote, with Johnny Depp as his Sancho Panza, the problems are numerous: a tight schedule, crappy weather, and ill health (Gilliam’s aging Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort, had to return to France with an enlarged prostate). But what truly killed the production was an unwillingness to compromise. When Harvey Keitel suddenly seemed wrong for “Apocalypse Now,” Francis Ford Coppola replaced him with Martin Sheen and finished the film. When Jason Robards fell ill during “Fitzcarraldo,” Werner Herzog replaced him with Klaus Kinski and finished the film. But when Rochefort returned to France with his enlarged prostate, Gilliam waited. And waited. And waited. Rochefort was the Don Quixote he wanted and he refused to get another. And he never finished the film.
By 1964, when he began production on “L’enfer,” his tale of insane jealousy between a young married couple in a small, resort town in southern France, Henri-Georges Clouzot was already a legendary director, but a decade removed from his more famous films, “Le salaire de la peur” (“Wages of Fear”) and “Les diaboliques,” and two decades removed from my personal favorites, “Le corbeau” and “Quai des Orfevres.”
More, since his last film, “La vérité” with Brigitte Bardot, in 1960, the New Wave, French or otherwise, had taken hold of the imagination of world cinema; and while the young artistes certainly admired Clouzot, some felt his craftsmanship and storyboarding—everything planned beforehand so he could concentrate on the actors—were at odds with the New Wave’s love of the improvisational. They admired him but felt something about him was... passé.
Clouzot himself had become enamored of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” and its, to him, “new way of using images,” and one wonders if he didn’t feel the need to prove something—either to the upstarts or to himself.
“L’enfer” was being bankrolled by Columbia Pictures, and Hollywood executives arrived early in the process to screen the first shots. One anticipates their reaction. A European director who wants to use images “in a new way” versus American moneymen who are never interested in the new or artistic. They’ll give him dull notes. They’ll whittle him down. They’ll point him toward the obvious.
Instead they did something more disastrous. They gave him money.
They loved what they saw and Clouzot received “an unlimited budget.” Says one of the crew: Clouzot then “went off into a world of tests that were completely new to the camera.”
We see some of these tests—depicting husband Marcel’s descent into the madness of jealousy—and they’re startling and beautiful nearly 50 years later. Lights swirl around the face of star Romy Schneider, playing the wife, Odette, and in milliseconds she switches from dutiful to demonous and back again. Is she smiling at me or laughing at me? What secrets does she hold? Who IS she? I went through a bout of extreme jealousy 25 years ago and these shots brought it all back again.
Most of the movie was filmed in black-and-white, but for these delusional scenes—his “Oz,” as it were—Clouzot used color. He filmed Schneider waterskiing and turned the lake blood red. He filmed her with cold, blue lipstick. He became obsessed with Marcel’s obsession. The plan was for four weeks on location and 14 weeks in the studio, but Clouzot was falling behind schedule and the crew felt directionless. One of his leads, Serge Reggiani, who played Marcel, and for whom Clouzot fought to get on the film, didn’t like this lack of direction—for the movie or his own character—and walked off the set, never to return. Now Clouzot had to find a new lead and reshoot scenes before they drained the reservoir in a few days.
And that’s when he had a heart attack. The fact that it happened while he was filming two women, Schneider and co-star Dany Carrel, kissing on a boat, is amusing sidenote.
Clouzot lived another 13 years, and made one more film, “La Prisonniere” in 1968, but “L’enfer” was never finished.
What might it have been? Let me state outright that I’m not much of a fan of movies where form overtakes content—as in Clouzot’s delusional scenes—or where, as moviegoers, we see the lead’s problem at the outset (he’s a gambler, he’s an alcoholic, he’s consumed with jealousy), and then watch his slow, inevitable descent. All we’re left to wonder is, “Where’s bottom?” and I want more to wonder than that.
That said, what remains of “L’enfer” looks amazing. It’s the maestro showing the upstarts a few things.
Like Gilliam’s Don Quixote film, the problems with “L’enfer” begin with a tight schedule and end with ill health, but in the middle, rather than the bad weather Gilliam encountered, Clouzot found good fortune. One can imagine him smiling as Columbia executives announced his unlimited budget. One can imagine him saying, “You have no idea how this will change things.”
Review: “Zona Sur” (“Southern District”) (2010)
WARNING: THE DECLINE AND FALL OF SPOILERS
“Zona Sur” (“Southern Disrict”) is Juan Carlos Valdivia’s film about the fall of a wealthy, decadent family in modern-day La Paz, Bolivia, and do you see how my words are running to the right, always to the right? How do you feel now that I’ve mentioned that my words are moving to the right, always to the right? Aren’t you paying more attention to the fact that my words are running to the right, always to the right, than to what I’m actually saying?
That’s what watching “Zona Sur” is like.
The movie opens in a lush garden outside a nice home in La Paz, where Andres (Nicolas Fernandez), the youngest son of family matriarch Carola (Ninon del Castillo), returns from shopping with Wilson (Pascual Loayza), the cook and butler; and as they talk with the family gardener/housekeeper, the camera keeps drifting to the right until it turns in a complete circle, 360 degrees, and winds up where it started. Then the next scene begins in the kitchen, with the camera continuing its rightward, circular drift. “Interesting,” I thought. “I wonder how long Valdivia can keep this up?”
Answer? The entire frickin’ movie.
Every once in a while, when young Andres is in his tree house, or on the terra-cotta roof of the house, where he talks to his imaginary friend, Spielberg (yes, that Spielberg), the camera pans up, but that’s about the only time we’re saved from this rightward drift. Otherwise it’s a slow, dizzying circle of a movie. The family’s drifting? They’re drifting down? Whatever. Just stop.
We never see the family flush. Carola is still wheeling and dealing with whatever relationships she has, but she’s running out of money. She hasn’t paid Wilson in six months, and her bratty kids, Patricio (Juan Pablo Koria), and Bernada (Mariana Vargas), are in college or about to start college. They remain oblivious to their circumstances, however, and obsessed with love (Bernada) and sex (Patricio). Patricio is so spoiled and insular that his mother buys him condoms for his frequent trysts with his girlfriend in his room. He talks of becoming a great constitutional lawyer, but the only time we even hear about him outside the house (because we never actually see him, or almost any of them, outside the house), he loses the family car in a poker game to Iraqis. He’s a dolt. And we know why. Even here he bends his mother to his will. Initially she's furious that he could be so careless, so foolish. Later, while she’s laying in bed, he gives her a foot massage, then kisses her foot. Her rubs her neck. “Do you forgive me?” she asks. “You’re such a ball buster,” he responds. Yes, their relationship is icky.
Meanwhile, Wilson, who hasn’t been paid in six months, is beginning to resent being taken advantage of, and is lax in responding to Carola’s demands. He uses her shower and lotions when she’s not there. As money diminishes, lines are blurred.
The family is virtually fatherless (she’s divorced), and different members often stand for long, somber shots looking out windows. They’re trapped there, you see. They’re insular. They don’t know how to live in the world. The only member who doesn’t do this, and who’s worth a damn, is Andres. He wants to learn how to cook, like Wilson, and he asks all the adults he meets what they wanted to be when they were kids. It’s as if he’s trying to figure out his place in a world where, yes, he’ll need a job.
But we know all of this 15 minutes in. The rest, 90 minutes, is downward drift of a beautifully photographed family that isn’t worth our time.
The kids. She can't meet her lesbian lover outside zona sur; he can't buy his own condoms.
Review: “Restrepo” (2010)
“Restrepo” is the best thing I’ve seen or read about our presence in Afghanistan, and it’s not really about our presence in Afghanistan. It’s about, as the tagline says, one platoon, in one valley, for one year. It goes deep into these soldiers’ lives without telling us much about their actual lives (where they’re from, why they signed up, etc.). It’s an emotional movie precisely because its emotions are restrained. It’s artistic without being artistic. It’s artistic in the Dedalean sense. It doesn’t inspire kinetic emotions but static emotions. The mind is arrested. In this sense maybe Afghanistan itself is artistic. Our mind has been arrested there for almost 10 years.
The directors, author Sebastian Junger (“The Perfect Storm”; “War”) and documentarian Timothy Hetherington (“Liberia: An Uncivil War”), were embedded with Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne, for parts of a year, from May 2007 to July 2008, and an early scene lets us know just how embedded they were. We’re inside a HUMVEE on patrol when an IED goes off, rocking the vehicle. The men stumble out, including the camera, which is our point-of-view. It’s still filming, shakily, while the men engage in a firefight, but it’s crackling, and there’s no sound. You think of war scenes where a soldier gets shelled and the sound goes out because he’s deafened or in shock. Same here. Our equipment is us.
We first see the men of Second Platoon goofing around and trash talking aboard a train before deployment. Then they ride Chinook helicopters into the dangerous Korengal valley, a beautifully mountainous but militarily indefensible region that stretches six miles along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the trash talking stops. In post-deployment interviews, they fess up to their initial thoughts. Specialist Sterling Jones: “What are we doing?” Sgt. Aron Hijar: “We are not ready for this.” Specialist Miguel Cortez: “I’m going to die here.”
Sgt. Joshua McDonough tells the camera, “They’re gathering intel on how to deal with us,” and you think he’s talking about the Taliban, who are trying to kill them, but he’s actually talking about the post-deployment medical personnel in Italy, who are trying to help them. This confusion, this thin line, is what the soldiers deal with every day. Who among the villagers is trying to help? Who is trying to hurt? How do you tell?
The doc keeps doing this. The thing you think we’re talking about isn’t the thing we’re talking about. Information is slowly widened. Clarity, if it comes, comes by and by.
Take the title. “Restrepo”? What the hell's that? Then on that pre-deployment train we discover that the biggest trash talker with the biggest smile is a guy named Juan S. “Doc” Restrepo. “Oh,” we think. “So Restrepo’s a guy. This is a documentary about a guy.” A few minutes later, we find out Restrepo was killed a month into deployment. “Oh,” we think. “So this is a doc about how these guys deal with the loss of this guy.” Then the company moves deeper into the Korengal valley, establish an outpost there, and name it Restrepo, O.P. Restrepo, in honor of their fallen friend. “Oh,” we think. “So this is... Well, this is about all of it, isn’t it?” Our information is slowly widened. Clarity comes by and by.
O.P. Restrepo is deeper into the Korengal Valley than the U.S. has ever pushed before, and four or five times a day, for weeks and months, Second Platoon engages in firefights with the unseen Taliban in the woods. “They’d ambush us from 360 degrees,” Specialist Bemble Pelkin says. “I felt like a fish in a barrel,” Capt. Dan Kearney says. When there are no firefights, there’s digging and fortifying the outpost; and when there’s no digging and fortifying, there’s goofing around to relieve the boredom. Pemble draws and writes. Specialist Angel Toves plays guitar. The men wrestle, or get newbies to wrestle, or goof around with the ‘80s song “Touch Me (I Want to Feel Your Body).” They show off photos of their kids. They hit golf balls into the valley.
The incident with the cow starts out as a joke. A daily briefing, a smile, “we’ll talk about the cow incident later,” laughter from the men. It’s a funny thing. Later, a soldier talks up the day they got fresh cow to eat, saying, “That was a good day.” Later still, three Afghani village elders, with their long beards and taut skin over high cheekbones. enter O.P. Restropo, and it’s seen as a positive step. Hearts and minds are being won. But the elders have come about the cow. It was one of theirs and they want to be repaid. Now it’s a serious thing. The soldiers are apologetic—it got caught in the wire, it had to be killed (then eaten)—but the elders want US$400, which the U.S. higher-ups refuse to give. We’re spending billions on wars but we can’t get US$400 to replace a cow. Instead the owner gets the equivalent in rations: rice and beans. The elders leave. Are we being too tough? Not tough enough? Our information is widened but not enough. Clarity doesn’t come.
This hearts and minds struggle is fascinating to watch. We see Capt. Kearney, with the best of intentions, having regular sitdowns, or shura, with the village elders, but there’s something Business 101 about him. Support us, he tells the elders, and we’ll “make you guys richer.” What about the killing of civilians? the elders want to know. The Captain says it’s all in the past, on another captain’s watch, and insists that everyone needs to put the past behind them. Does this translate? In a later meeting, frustrated beyond measure, he says to the elders, “You are not understanding that I don’t fucking care.” Is this translated? With all of the specialists we have, one wonders why we have no diplomatic specialists. Why aren’t diplomats embedded with soldiers? Why don’t our head honchos speak rudiments of the language? Why, in the soldiers’ down time, don’t they learn rudiments of the language? Why aren’t we adapting?
“Restrepo” is never not fascinating, which is odd, because we know answers to most of the questions that traditionally drive storytelling. We know who survives (anyone interviewed post-deployment), and we know O.P. Restrepo won’t be the turning point of the war (we’re in 2010 and we read the newspaper), so what keeps us glued to our seats? I think the short answer is we begin to care. And we want to know what happens to these people we begin to care about.
Why do we begin to care? John Ford once said the most interesting thing in the world to film is the human face, and that’s what Hetherington and Junger keep filming. Three faces stand out.
First, there’s Pemble, who’s got a calm, bemused way about him, like he’s holding onto an inner joke, and who’s a warning to every parent who thinks restricted access will diminish lifelong interest. His mom, he tells us, “was a fucking hippy” (he says it nicely) who didn’t allow him toy guns, or violent movies, or violent video games. And yet here he is—a soldier in Afghanistan. To mom’s credit, he seems the least likely of soldiers. There’s little that’s gung ho about him. He feels like he should be in a punk bar somewhere.
Then there’s Hijar, who’s got huge, tattooed arms in the footage, and an intense, haunted face in the post-deployment interviews. He and the others are talking about Operation Rock Avalanche, a three-day tactical walk-though in a Taliban stronghold, which all agree was the toughest part of the deployment. During the operation, Staff Sergeant Kevin Rice was injured and Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle, generally considered the platoon’s best soldier, was killed, and trying to describe it all, Hijar disconnects. His eyes get lost and he stops talking, and after 10 seconds of silence he looks at the cameraman: “Timeout, alright?” Later he talks about needing a different way to process everything that’s happened. He doesn’t want to forget it, he says; he just needs to process it differently.
Finally, there’s Cortez, who’s smiling, always smiling in the post-deployment interviews. One wonders: “Why is this dude smiling?” Then you realize there’s a disconnect between the look on his face and what he’s saying. Near the end, he talks about how he can’t sleep.
I’ve been on four or five different types of sleeping pills and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep, and not dream about it, than sleep and see the pictures in my head. It’s...pretty bad.
The smile never leaves his face.
“Restrepo” should get nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature, and, unless it’s a helluva year, it should win. It’s already got my early vote for one of the best films of the year. There’s not a false moment in it, not a dull moment in it, and in a serious country it would be released into over 4,000 theaters and everyone would see it. But we’re not a serious country. We haven’t been a serious country for decades. A Roman helmet is painted on a wall at O.P. Restrepo, because it’s cool, I suppose, to remind the men of gladiators, I suppose, but it merely reminded me of the fall of the Roman empire, of the fall of all empires, and it made me wonder where we are in that fall.
“Restrepo” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and played the Seattle International Film Festival in May. It will get a wider release June 25. It's re-scheduled for Seattle on July 2.
Review: “El Secreto de sus Ojos” (2009)
WARNING: EL SECRETO DE MES SPOILERS
How do you keep the lovers apart? Dramatists have certainly come up with inventive answers over the years: Our families fight, it’s taking forever to return from this war, frankly my dear I don’t give a damn. The Argentinian film, “El Secreto de sus Ojos” (“The Secret in Their Eyes”), comes up with a more mundane and thus universal answer: fear, doubt, passivity. Our eyes may dance but our bodies continue in the dull directions they’re going.
The movie opens with a pivotal scene. A woman at a train station. A bearded man walking away. It feels like the 1970s. He gets on the train and as it’s pulling out she desperately runs alongside and presses her palm to his window. He does the same. She keeps running. He stands up and hurries to the caboose so he can watch her one last time as the train gathers speed and takes him away, away, away from her.
Cut to: a writer, cursing, and scribbling out that scene. Good for him.
He tries again. June 1974. A breakfast on a veranda between a young, handsome couple. They drink tea with lemon—for his sore throat. One gets the feeling it’s the last time he’ll see her.
Bah! Crumpled up.
Then a flash of memory. That same girl, bloodied, raped. The writer bows his head and closes his eyes. Is he the young man on the veranda? The rapist?
Neither. The writer is Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a gray-haired, retired, federal agent in Buenos Aires, who is having trouble writing a novel based upon an old case, the Morales case. We see him walking into his old digs, flirting with attractive women there (“The gates of heaven have opened...” he says), then entering the chambers of an old colleague, his superior, Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Her pretty eyes dance when he enters but stop dancing (and go sit in the corner) when he brings up the Morales case. That thing again? she seems to be thinking. Nevertheless she brings out an old Olivetti typewriter with a busted “a” key for him to use. We’ll see this typewriter more often, as a running gag, as the movie progresses into the past.
It’s 1974 and Esposito, a federal agent, but more bureaucrat than Bond, argues with colleagues over who gets a new case. No eager beavers here. He and his colleague, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), an offhandedly smart man with a drinking problem, draw the short straw, but as soon as Esposito arrives on the crime scene and sees the woman cold and naked on the bed (“Liliana Coloto, 23,” he’s told. “Schoolteacher. Recently married”) he can’t let go of the case. His turnaround is immediate but unexplained. Because the woman is so young and beautiful? Because it’s such a horrible crime?
When informed, the husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), seems stunned and talks about how she liked to watch the Three Stooges. Is he a suspect? There are two construction workers working on the building. Are they suspects? It’s not until Esposito sits down with a photo album—which charmingly includes a vellum overlay that identifies all of the people in the pictures—and spots, in shots from her hometown, the same man, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), staring at her, that he has something tangible to go on. It’s the secret in Gomez’s eyes that’s not really a secret. As with most secrets in the movie.
From Gomez’s mother, Esposito and Sandoval learn that Gomez recently moved to Buenos Aires (ah ha!), and is working on a construction site (ah-ha-er!), but he seems to have vanished. They steal letters he sent his mother but they hold no clue, and superiors within Esposito’s office close the case. At the train station, a year later, Esposito runs into, of all people, Morales, who shows up several times a week, after work, waiting for Gomez. This dedication, this passion, reignites Esposito’s, who convinces Hastings, against her superior’s wishes, to reopen the case. But it’s Sandoval who figures out the clue in the letters. (Because there’s always a clue in the letters.) The men Gomez references are not from their hometown; they’re futbol players; and following the movie’s proposition that a man can change many things—his name, his hair—but not his passion, they stake out stadiums. It’s like needle-in-a-haystack, but on the fourth try they find the needle.
Gomez, under questioning, gives up nothing, and Sandoval is off drinking so the good cop/bad cop routine won’t work—until Hastings notices Gomez staring at her blouse and plays bad cop by impugning his manhood (in fairly obvious ways). He falls for it, slugs her, and confesses to the rape/murder to regain his manhood. Case closed. “He’ll get life,” Esposito tells the husband. “Let him grow old in jail,” Morales says. “Live a life full of nothing.”
A year later, Gomez is spotted, not only not in prison, but guarding the president of Argentina, Isabel Peron. Seems in prison he became a snitch for the fascists and was rewarded. Now the fascists are coming for Esposito. They kill Sandoval by mistake and Hastings takes Esposito to the train station so he can get away. It’s there that, embracing, all of their feelings for each other, the secrets in their eyes that aren’t really secrets, spill out; and it’s there that the opening scene—woman running alongside train—is replayed in all of its melodramatic glory.
And that’s pretty much it in terms of backstory. The passion they feel for each other—which, within the story’s construct, can’t change—is put on the back burner. Esposito leaves, lives elsewhere, gets married. Hastings gets married. Question: When they meet at the beginning of the movie, in her chambers, is this the first time they’ve seen each other since the train station? Either way, they continue to tamp down their passion. They pretend otherwise. Like most of us, I suppose.
“El Secreto” is both love story and mystery, and the two are connected in different and not always comfortable ways. The looks Gomez gave Liliana Coloto in photos? Esposito gives Hastings the same looks. Esposito also seems to channel his passion for Hastings into the investigation—which may be why Hastings is always disappointed that he’s still obsessed with the investigation. Me, she seems to be thinking. You should be paying attention to me.
Writing the novel about the case is actually Esposito’s way of continuing the investigation, of finding out what exactly happened to Gomez, and in this regard he visits Morales, now living deep in the countryside. He’s older now, bald, suspicious, but he admits, to this former federal agent, that decades ago he kidnapped Gomez, took him by a railroad track, waited for the noise of a passing train, and put four bullets into him. Case closed! Except as soon as you see his circumstances (living far away from everyone else), and as soon as you recall his earlier lines (“Let him grow old in jail. Live a life full of nothing”), you assume he didn’t kill Gomez; you assume he’s imprisoning him. Which turns out to be the case. Esposito returns at night and finds the old murderer/rapist imprisoned, and a ghost of a man. “Please,” he says to Esposito. “At least tell him to talk to me.” It’s exquisite revenge ruined by how easily we anticipate it—and by the fact that, Morales, in guarding Gomez, is wasting his life, too.
But what now? Esposito had channeled all of his passion into this one case, and the case is closed. He’s also spent the movie keeping his own passion imprisoned. Has he learned? Of course he has. A note he wrote to himself earlier reads “Te mo” (I fear), but now, at the end of the movie, he adds an “a,” making it “Te amo” (I love you); and with that he runs to Hastings’ chambers, where she sees, finally sees, the unguarded look of love in his eyes, and cuts to the chase. “There will be difficulties,” she says. “I don’t care,” he says. They close the door. La final.
“El Secreto,” which won the best foreign language film at the 2009 Academy Awards, is both complex in structure and crowd-pleasing (it’s about love); and, as a writer, how could I not like the early, crumpled-up scenes? At the same time, it feels like the motivations of the characters are too big and clunky to fit into its intricate plot structure. Why, for example, does Esposito get so obsessed with this case? And if Gomez is a man obsessed with one girl, Liliana, as the photos imply, why does he quickly become just a generic creep?
But the bigger problem—besides seeing Gomez’s end far in advance of Esposito—is, sadly, that crumpled-up first scene, the farewell at the train station. The moment Esposito is fleeing the fascists is the moment he realizes Hastings loves him back. But he lets her go. He leaves for 10 years. He never gets in touch with her. Why? Because he’s afraid for himself? Because he’s afraid for her? Because he doesn’t want to implicate her? But she’s already implicated. She was the one who played bad cop to Esposito’s good cop, after all. She humiliated Gomez. If Gomez and his goons are going after him, why wouldn’t they go after her? Because of her social standing? Does that really make her safe? Let’s quote Michael Corleone: “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”
What keeps the lovers apart? Fear, doubt, passivity. At the train station, doubt is removed to double-down on fear, but that doesn’t excuse the passivity. In true love stories, both real and imagined, men must go through hell for their love, to prove their love. Esposito? He can’t even be bothered to get off the train.
Review: “Iron Man 2” (2010)
WARNING: HEAVY METAL SPOILERS
I thought it wouldn’t work. I thought too many villains and partners (Whiplash and Black Widow and War Machine and Nick Fury?) would sink the thing, like they sank “Batman Forever,” and “Batman and Robin,” and “Spider-Man 3.” Instead the movie plays like a good three-issue arc of a 1970s comic book. Plus we’re teased with more Avengers stuff—a little Captain America here, a little Thor there—but, FYI, you have to stay through the credits for a peek at some aspect of the Son of Odin. (Psst: it’s not Chris Hemsworth.)
The movie opens with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) on top of the world but with a “Top of the World, Ma!” quality to him. He’s rich, powerful, and as Iron Man he’s brought about world peace, but he’s more self-destructive than ever. Maybe because he’s self-destructing. His blood is slowly being poisoned by the whatchacalm in his chest that turns him into Iron Man. He tests himself. Blood toxicity: 19%. Then 24%. Then 53%. Oops.
Meanwhile, three other things threaten to take him down:
- In Russia, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of his father’s former business partner, who blames the Starks for his father’s boozy death, uses age-old blueprints to come up with his own whatchacalm in his chest and turns himself into the supervillain Whiplash;
- In Washington D.C., a U.S. Senator, aptly named Stern, but played comically by Gary Shandling, demands that Tony Stark turn over the Iron Man outfit to the U.S. Army in the interests of national security; and
- Stern’s military-industrial-complex partner, Justin Hammer of Hammer Industries (Sam Rockwell), jealous to the max, tries whatever he can to outdo his rival.
All of these threats coming down on him at once actually play to the strengths of the lead actor. Downey, Jr. has always felt like a pursued man to me, as if he were racing, physically and psychologically (mostly psychologically), to stay ahead of everything that wants to overcome him. So it makes sense to make Stark a pursued man, too, who keeps distracting himself with the next big thing. He begins a year-long Stark Expo in Flushing Meadows, NY, he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee and refuses to share his toys, he gives control of his company to his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and he races cars at the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo. This last is where Whiplash appears and takes out two cars, including Stark’s, and then strolls menacingly forward. You can only run so fast, Tony. Things always catch up. Even when they stroll.
Can I pause here to thank Darren Aronofsky? Without Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” Rourke’s career wouldn’t have been resurrected enough for studio execs to allow him to play an A-list role in an A-list movie, and he’s a perfect counterpoint to the star. Stark/Downey, Jr. is a babbler, whose mouth, working overtime, still can’t keep up with his mind. Rourke/Vanko is the opposite. Everything he does is slow. He walks slowly, talks slowly, shifts his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other slowly. He serves his revenge cold. If Stark’s pace is the result of frenetic intelligence—one thought pushing out another—Vanko’s leisurely pace almost feels like wisdom. When Stark visits Vanko in his Monte Carlo jail cell, he talks shop, “Pretty decent tech,” etc., but Vanko has the bigger picture in mind. “You come from a family of thieves and butchers,” he says, with that deliciously thick Russian accent. “And like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” He is exactly what you want in a villain. Not someone to boo and hiss, but somebody almost more admirable than the hero. Someone to make you consider switching sides.
He's smart, cool, slow, and likes birds. Who wouldn't root for him?
As Stark’s enemies get closer, his self-destruction gets worse. He whoops it up at his birthday party—his last, he believes—and skeet-shoots with his Iron Man blasters to the delight of half-naked girls. He battles his friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over, for some reason, from Terrance Howard), who steals one of his Iron Man suits and delivers it to the U.S. military, who delivers it to Justin Hammer. Nice friend. Nice military-industrial complex. It’s the second time Rhodes has played sap for Hammer against Stark. To be honest, it’s not much of a role.
There’s other silly stuff. Apparently Pepper and Natalie don’t get along...until they do. When Tony is ready to tell Pepper he’s dying is the exact moment she’s unwilling to listen to him. There are father issues—because there are always father issues these days—and the old man (John Slattery of “Mad Men”), via a scratchy film from the 1960s, gives his son a 40-year-old puzzle that provides...wait for it...the key to curing the toxicity in his blood! That’s some foresight from Daddyo. Not to mention a vague ripoff of “Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure.” Note to Hollywood: The world isn’t a puzzle. Everything doesn’t fit together. Your usual lies are lies enough.
I thought the casting of Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow was silly, too, but thanks to personal trainers and special effects it works. And lord knows she works that suit. There’s a scene where she enters a diner from behind that’s just... Mercy. At the same time, is there too much blankness in her eyes? Something passive and uncalculating? Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t seem to be having as much fun with Nick Fury as he should, while Cheadle, ever dour, looks positively trapped when his visor rises in his Iron Man suit. Gwyneth? Another thankless role. She’s an assistant turned CEO, and love interest to a man who doesn’t seem interested in love. At the end of “Spider-Man 2” we want, almost desperately, for Peter Parker and Mary Jane to get together, but there’s so little chemistry between Stark and Potts that when they kissed I thought, “Oh, right. He’s supposed to love her.”
Rockwell as Hammer is a delight: all bullying CEO bluster. He's the hollow man, as hollow as an Iron Man suit. The screenplay by Justin Theroux isn’t bad, either. There’s a nice play on the words Google and ogle, Stark dismisses Fury’s “Avengers” overtures thus, “I don’t want to join your super-secret boy band,” and when Hammer introduces a sexy Vanity Fair reporter to Tony, we get this exchange:
Justin Hammer: Christine's doing a spread on me.
Pepper Potts: She did a spread on Tony last year.
Tony Stark: Wrote an article too.
Director Favreau, also playing the hapless Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s chauffer, gives us a sense, more than in most superhero movies, what it’s like to be a civilian in the midst of a superhero battle. Gods battle above you. Buildings fall around you. It's scary stuff. It works. The movie, mostly thanks to Downey, Jr. and Rourke, works.
But where to go from here? How about away from the East-West dynamic (too Cold War) and toward a greater Mideast-West dynamic? Or instead of the cartoonish jealousy of a Justin Hammer, why not have genuine worry from the military-industrial complex about the money and influence they’re losing in the age of Iron Man? Along with their misconceived attempts to get it back?
Of course I’d happy if the next movie simply went in the direction of one call...
Review: “Robin Hood” (2010)
WARNING: IN TIMES OF TYRANNY AND INJUSTICE, WHEN LAW OPPRESSES THE PEOPLE, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS
Last month, in touting “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn, I wrote:
I kept thinking of this line while watching Ridley Scott’s new, updated “Robin Hood.” Because how long does it take Scott to get us to the point in the story where we want to be? Five minutes? Forty-five? An hour?
How about the entire frickin’ movie?
You know those scenes from the trailers? King John: “I declare him to be an outLAAAAAAAW!” Sheriff of Nottingham: “Nail, please.” [Cue arrow splicing between his fingers.] Those aren’t from the middle of the movie. They’re from the last three minutes. This is an origin issue. It’s a prequel. It’s “Robin Hood Begins.” You have the oldest Robin Hood ever (Russell Crowe, 46) playing the youngest Robin Hood ever.
Here’s the question: Is this a bad thing?
The movie begins in France, where King Richard (Danny Huston), returning from the Crusades, stops to sack a castle and get some dough to make up for all the money he lost in the Crusades. Among his men, some common archers: Robin Longstride (Crowe), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes, Malarkey in “Band of Brothers”) and Allan a’Dayle (Alan Doyle).
At the end of a day’s battle, this Robin apparently likes nothing better than making a little money with the old shell game, but Little John (Scott Grimes) thinks he’s cheating. He’s not. They get into a brawl anyway. At that same moment, King Richard, with his right-hand man Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), is walking disguised among his troops, searching like Diogenes for an honest man. He finds one. “What is your opinion of my Crusade?” he asks Robin. “Will God be pleased with my gesture?” Pause. Pause. “No, He won’t,” Robin says in Crowe’s quiet, firm voice. Robin talks about the massacre at Acre, about the killing of women and children that Sean Connery’s Robin Hood referenced in “Robin and Marian.” He talks about the look a Muslim woman gave him before he beheaded her. It wasn’t anger; it was pity. “She knew when you gave the order,” he adds, “we would be Godless. All of us.”
Honest answer. Cut to: Robin and his men in the stockades.
The next day Richard is killed by a common French archer, and Robin gathers his men so they can attempt to cross the channel before the three thousand now-kingless soldiers try to get back on their own. On the way, they encounter the king’s horse, riderless and carrying the crown in a satchel, and discover the king’s men, including Loxley, ambushed. Ambushing the ambushers, Robin’s arrow cuts the cheek of the fleeing and treasonous Godfrey (Mark Strong), who has secretly allied himself with King Phillip of France against his old friend Prince John. Then Robin hears the dying words of Loxley. The nobleman asks the commoner to deliver his sword—with the words, “Rise and Rise Again. Until Lambs Become Lions” on the hilt—to his father. Robin nods. Loxley dies. Then Robin adopts Loxley’s identity. Few will question knights and noblemen carrying the king’s crown. Commoners would be lucky not to be hanged.
All of this, thus far, is pretty smart. The longer the legend of Robin Hood has endured, the more names he has been given. So why not have the confusion begin during his lifetime? Later versions of the tale, too, turned him from a commoner/thief to an aristocrat wrongfully dispossessed of his lands, and Hollywood, in its umpteen versions, has played along. So why not, in our more democratic time, explain it all away? Robin is a commoner. He’s merely disguised as a nobleman. The first of his many disguises.
What’s not smart is the way the 72-year-old Scott handles the early deaths. Richard is allowed final words and rising choir music. How much more effective if he’d just died. From king—ffftt!—to corpse in a second. Loxley needs to say his final words, to further the plot, but both he and Richard don’t need the rising choir music. They’re godless now, remember? Move along, Ridley. Move along.
That said, the scene where the crown is returned to London is surprisingly touching. The royals wait at the end of a long dock for Richard to emerge from his ship; instead there’s this Loxley man with the crown. No words are spoken. Everyone knows. Then Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), accepts the crown with gravity, and with greater gravity, knowing the disaster that awaits, puts it on the head of her ne’er-do-well son, John (Oscar Isaac), while his French pastry of a girlfriend, Isabella of Angoulême (Léa Seydoux), trembles with excitement at becoming queen. The scene turns amusing as John, overcome, is about to reward Loxley, until he realizes, essentially, “Wait a minute. Loxley? Your father owes me back taxes,” and pockets the reward.
Robin, still pretending to be Loxley, plans on returning the sword to the father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), and tells his doubtful men, “We can’t repay good luck with bad grace.” Great line. Also good move. His good grace winds up being repaid with even better luck. At the Loxley estate, Sir Walter asks him to continue a ruse the old man didn’t know he’d begun. He asks him to play his son. He likes the cut of Robin’s jib, he has no heir, and when he dies, Marion, Loxley’s wife (Cate Blanchett), will lose it all. It’s win-win for everyone. Robin accepts, and, for a time, the movie becomes a kind of “Return of Robin Guerre.”
Unfortunately the plot thickens and thickens. King John sends Godfrey to collect taxes from the northern Barons to pay for Richard’s wars, but Godfrey’s plan is to burn and pillage so that, when Phillip invades, the country will be divided. Meanwhile, Robin learns his father, a stonemason, was put to death when Robin was six for, in essence, creating one of the greatest documents in western civilization, the Magna Carta, giving rights to noblemen and binding the king to law. Thus when Godrey’s perfidy is discovered and Phillips’ intentions known, Robin, still playing Loxley, and still riding the king’s white horse, breaks the impasse between barons and King John by resurrecting his father’s old idea. The barons will fight for king and England, but John will grant them rights and bind himself to law. And off they go, almost two hours into the two hour, 20 minute movie, to the southern coast of England to fight the French. With nary a sign of Sherwood Forest in sight.
Going against expectations isn’t a bad thing—and in Hollywood, with its love of formula, it’s normally applauded—but “Robin Hood,” from title to trailer, feels like false advertising. Even “Batman Begins,” with “begins” in its title, gives us Batman halfway through. This thing is called Robin Hood, for god’s sake, and the opening title card tells us, “In times of tyranny and injustice, when law oppresses the people, the outlaw takes his place in history.” But Robin isn’t made an outLAAAAAAAW until three minutes before credits. Is it setting up another movie? And has that one been filmed yet? Because Crowe, bless him, isn’t getting any younger or thinner. It’s as if we were promised sex, but the girl frittered away the evening and left us with the mere hope, that maybe, in two years time, we might finally have that sex. We can’t help but leave her place confused and dissatisfied.
Listen: I love Crowe in these roles. Costner’s Robin Hood failed, in part, because he wasn’t much of a leader. Crowe is. One can’t imagine not following him into battle, and not because he gives this or that speech, but because there’s a stillness to him, a toughness, an honesty. The quieter his voice gets, the tougher he reveals himself to be. I go back to that early scene in “L.A. Confidential” when he confronts the wife beater. Standing on his lawn, hands in his pockets, relaxed and not, a conversational voice: “Why don't you dance with a man for a change?” He has that quality here. He can reveal his authority in acquiescence. “Ask me nice,” he says to Marion, as she, in their ruse, divvies up sleeping arrangements. Robin gets to sleep with the dogs. Others might be mad, but he’s half-amused, accepts it as a given, and charmingly seems at home on those dirty blankets. He rubs the belly of the mutt closest to him like it’s an old friend. I was reminded of Brando with the cat. Apparently great actors can act with animals without being upstaged.
But because Crowe works doesn't mean the movie isn't dry and overlong. Remember the thrill watching the guy become the guy in other recent origin tales, such as “Batman Begins” and “Casino Royale”? We don’t get that here. Maybe because it’s telling a different tale than the one we know.
For that, at least, give Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland credit. They are fixing what’s wrong with the Robin Hood legend from our more modern perspective. Generally the story’s about a nobleman surreptitiously fighting a corrupt usurper until the real ruler, a wayward, warmongering king, returns. You have to bend the language pretty hard to make anyone care about that these days. So they’ve given us a commoner who will force the king, the legitimate but corrupt king, into recognizing the legal rights of his subjects. Much better, thank you.
But a “Robin Hood” movie still needs a Robin Hood.
Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009)
Despite its calm, sympathetic main character, an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist), it’s hard, as a man, to walk out of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and not be disgusted with your gender.
Of course I’m one of the few people who walked into the movie not knowing the story. “Dragon Tattoo” is based upon the first of three books, the Millennium trilogy, that journalist Stieg Larsson wrote before he died in 2004. Worldwide sales of these books have now topped 20 million, while the second in the series, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” became the first translated work since Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” to top The New York Times bestseller list. The film, with little help from the U.S., has grossed nearly $100 million worldwide, and it’s particularly big in Denmark, where, from a population of 5.4 million, US$17 million has been made (a ratio that if applied to the U.S. would mean a domestic box office take of $957 million), and while I was aware of the phenomenon, I wasn’t aware of the story. I certainly didn’t know the original, Swedish title contains no reference to either girls or dragon tattoos. It’s “Män som hatar kvinnor”: “Men Who Hate Women.”
The movie, indeed, opens with a man with a knife. But he’s a benevolent man, an old Swedish industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), who is using the knife to cut open a package. It contains a flowery white plant under glass. He looks at it, sits down at his desk, and weeps.
These early scenes can be confusing for neophytes because they contain three separate storylines: there’s Vanger and that flowery white plant; there’s Blomqvist, a crusading journalist for a progressive magazine, “Millennium,” who is convicted of libel against another industrialist; and there’s the titular character, the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), whom we first see, hunched and hooded and seemingly hunted, walking through Swedish subways. How do these characters connect?
Turns out Vanger has hired a research company that employs Salander, a computer hacker, to look into Blomqvist’s life. She does, during his trial and conviction, and comes away with her own conviction that Blomqvist is “totally clean.” She’s also intrigued by him—in the way that she’s intrigued: from a distance—and continues to spy on him after the job is done.
Vanger then hires Blomqvist, who has six months before his prison sentence starts, to look into a case that has haunted the old man for 40 years. In September 1966, his beloved niece, Harriet Vanger, whom we see in a beautiful black-and-white portrait, and who was Blomqvist’s babysitter back in the day, disappeared from Hedeby Island, the site of the Vanger estate. Everyone assumes she’s dead. Henrik assumes someone in his family killed her, and, on his birthday, sends him a framed flower, as Harriet used to do, to taunt him.
The Vanger family is certainly a piece of work. Two of Henrik’s brothers were Nazis: Gofffried, Harriet’s father, who, in 1965, fell into a nearby lake and died, and Harald, mean and rotten, who still lives on the estate.
Two other Vangers live on Hedeby as well: Gottfried’s son (and Harriet’s brother), Martin, who had once been a member of Hitler Youth, but is now older, jollier, and offers Blomqvist 21-year-old malt whiskey; and Harald’s daughter, Cecilia, who offers Blomqvist her bed.
In Stockholm, meanwhile, Lisbeth, still hacking Blomqvist’s computer, is forced to undergo a change in guardians. Since she’s 24, of legal age, I assume guardians in Sweden are similar to parole officers in the U.S. but with legal degrees and more power. Her new guardian, Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), turns out to be no guardian at all. Initially he just seems like a dick: He takes greater control of Lisbeth’s bank account and her comings and goings. Then he asks her questions about sex. Then he forces oral sex on her. When she shows up at his place one evening because she needs emergency money, he punches her, handcuffs her to his bed and rapes her. At this point we already know Lisbeth is smart and tough so we’re a little disappointed she gets to this point—realizing she’s trapped, there’s something almost feral in her reaction—but we’ve also seen the small red light in her purse and assume she’s taping the whole, horrible event, which she is. The next time they meet, also at his place, she turns the tables. She tasers him. When he awakes, naked and handcuffed on the floor, she shows him the tape, lists her demands (basically: stay out of my fucking life), then sodomizes him with a dildo and tattoos the following words on his chest and stomach: “I’m a sadist pig and a rapist.”
These are tough scenes to watch, particularly the rape, and at some point I wondered how much of the subplot was necessary. What does it have to do with Harriet Vanger? Couldn’t the filmmakers have excised it cleanly? Answers: “Not much” and “Yes.” Yet I’d still keep it. The subplot complements Larsson’s overall theme—men who hate women—and gives us a clearer view of the title character. This is someone you do not fuck with.
Back on Hedeby Island, Blomqvist rummages through 40-year-old evidence. There’s film footage of a tanker accident on the day she disappeared. (Is that her in the window of a building? Talking to someone? Already looking ghostly?) There’s a newspaper photo, that same day, of Harriet in the crowd at the annual Children’s Day parade, looked to her left, seemingly stunned, while everyone else is looking to their right. (“What are you looking at?” Blomqvist asks the photo.)
Then there’s Harriet’s diary. On the back page, Harriet has listed five sets of names/initials and numbers, such as “Magda 32016” and “BJ 32027.” But they don’t correspond to names anyone knows or numbers that have ever been listed. What are they?
It’s up to Lisbeth, still hacking Blomqvist’s computer, to decipher them, and it’s a deciphering reminiscent of “The DaVinci Code.” (Just as the ghostly portrait and diary recall “Twin Peaks.”) The numbers are Bible verses, all from Leviticus, the third book of the Pentateuch. “32016,” for example, stands for Leviticus 20:16:
“If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.”
The other verses are similarly cheery: burned with fire, cut to pieces, stoned to death. Lisbeth anonymously emails Blomqvist these answers, but he tracks her down, and the two wind up working together on Hedeby. The names and initials, they realize (too quickly), correspond to women who were killed, in the manner articulated in the Bible verses, at different periods: 1949, 1954, etc. But who did the killings? A big hint: All the murdered women were Jewish.
Up to this point we’ve mostly seen Lisbeth by herself, high-strung and tight-mouthed, but it turns out she’s much the same working with Blomqvist. Instigating a sexual relationship doesn’t open her up, either; it reveals how closed-off she is. She’s intimate without intimacy. Something about her suggests a wounded animal, or an animal that was once abused and is now forever skittish and ready to strike back. She also has a kind of super power, a photographic memory (an unnecessary addition: she’s fascinating without it), but when Blomqvist casually mentions this to her, she flinches, startled, and he has to calm her down. He says he didn’t mean anything by it. He says he wishes he had a photographic memory. In her silence is a kind of response: No, you don’t. Or: There are some things better forgotten.
“Dragon Tattoo” is directed by Niels Arden Oplev, a Danish TV director, and it’s pretty straightforward storytelling: this, then this, then this. He juggles (well enough, if unremarkably) three separate storylines, and he presents (well enough, if unremarkably) all that dusty backstory inevitable in a 40-year-old mystery.
It’s the characters, Blomqvist and Lisbeth, that recommend the movie, because they turn certain thriller conventions on their heads. One knows that a man and a woman solving a crime together, particularly a serial crime, particularly a serial crime against women, should never split up as they get closer to a resolution. It’s just asking for trouble. And it happens here. Except the serial killer (Martin, by the way, the former Hitler Youth with the malt whiskey) doesn’t catch the defenseless Lisbeth; he catches the defenseless Blomqvist, whom he ties up, tortures, and is about to kill. It’s up to Lisbeth to arrive in the nick of time and take a golf club to Martin’s back.
But Martin is allowed to escape, and one expects, anxiously expects, as Lisbeth leans down to free Blomqvist, that Martin will return, because the serial killer always returns. Martin’s been at it for 40 years. Inculcated by his father, Gottfried, who sexually abused women, including his own daughter, Harriet, Martin has kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed dozens of women since 1966. He shows Blomqvist a small cage. “I had one in here while we were upstairs sharing malt whiskey,” he says matter-of-factly. He brags about showing these women some small act of kindness, giving them, say, a drink of water, and seeing in their eyes some small hope that they’ll survive; but he does it only for the thrill of extinguishing that hope.
This is the kind of movie villain that never dies, or takes a long time dying, so one anxiously expects him to come roaring back into the room when Lisbeth’s back is turned. Doesn’t happen. Instead she goes after him. She hops on her motorcycle and chases him down. He’s no longer the hunter; she is. It’s a truly thrilling cinematic moment.
Interestingly, the revelation of Martin and his subsequent death doesn’t solve the case. Martin may have been a serial killer, responsible for the deaths of dozens of women, and he and his father may have raped Harriet back in 1965—causing Harriet to kill her father while fleeing her father (remember: there are no accidental deaths in crime fiction)—but Martin didn't have anything to do with Harriet's disappearance. So what happened to her?
Answer: She’s alive. She escaped her family and its crimes and has been living in Australia all of these years. Blomqvist tracks her down, brings her back, and presents her to Henrik Vanger. And the music wells up as these two sweet people have a sweet, tearful reunion.
Me in the audience: Wait a minute. She just left? Allowing her brother to rape and torture and kill dozens of women? How awful. How awful, too, that the movie doesn’t even acknowledge it.
The book does. Or Lisbeth does:
During the drive [Blomqvist] told her about Harriet Vanger’s story. [Lisbeth] Salander sat in silence for half an hour before she opened her mouth.
“Bitch,” she said.
“Harriet Fucking Vanger. If she had done something in 1966, Martin Vanger couldn’t have kept killing and raping for thirty-seven years.”
In the end “Dragon Tattoo” is a fairly conventional movie that saves itself with its unconventionality. We start out caring about the conventional girl, Harriet, with her long blonde hair and secret smile, who plays the victim, and finish caring about the unconventional girl, Lisbeth, with her chopped black hair, tattoos and nose rings, who refuses to play the victim. We want to protect her—this girl who doesn’t need our protection.
Review: “Kick Ass” (2010)
WARNING: NOT-SO-SUPER SPOILERS
There always seems to be an audience for this kind of thing: people who buy into the very thing they’re viewing ironically. We’re never as hip as we want to be.
“Kick Ass” is a step removed from superhero movies, since it’s set in a world without super powers, a world more or less like ours, where geeks hang out at comic book stores and talk about superheroes. At the same time it gives us a superhero storyline: the story of an ordinary kid, Dave Lezewski (Aaron Johnson), who one days asks his geek friends: Hey, how comes nobody tries to be a superhero? Then he can’t dismiss the idea. He fantasizes about it, and, as with serial killers (he says in a voiceover—nice comparison), it’s no longer enough to fantasize. He has to act out his fantasies. So he dons a green-and-yellow wet suit, reminiscent of Scorpion’s without the tail, and calls himself Kick Ass. But the first time he tries to stop a crime, involving the same two New York City street toughs who took his money and comic books a few weeks earlier, he gets stabbed in the stomach. The second time, while trying to rescue a missing cat, he stumbles upon a guy getting beat up, and, in the process of holding back his tormenters while getting his ass kicked again, he’s filmed by an Asian dude with a cellphone, who says of the whole affair, “This is fucking awesome!”
That Asian dude is us, by the way. Viewing the world at a remove, through a filter.
Of course the video winds up on YouTube, then in the mainstream media since it’s an “Internet sensation” with more than 20 million hits—or 160 million hits less than Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” One anticipates a storyline of copycats, of people getting involved, since Dave/Kick Ass is someone who, despite having no superpowers, is getting involved. But the movie thankfully doesn’t go in this direction.
It goes in a worse direction. Turns out there’s already a superhero in this world: a secret Batman wanna-be called Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), whose sidekick is his explosive, 11-year-old daughter, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz of “(500) Days of Summer”). These two actually have superpowers—in the way that Batman has superpowers. They’re so expert in martial arts, etc., they can take on mobs of bad guys single-handedly. Unlike Batman, though, they use guns and knives and kill people. Even when the bad guys are running away, they chase them down and kill them. They leave a wide trail of blood.
And that’s the problem I have with the movie. No, not the trail of blood. When Hit Girl first appears, just in time to rescue Kick Ass from, well, dying, from getting cut head to sternum by drug dealers, and then uses her many blades to chop up the bad guys as expertly as a Japanese chef chops up sushi, I wondered, “Wait a minute. Isn’t this supposed to be an ironic superhero movie? The non-super-powered superhero movie?” But it’s not. Hit Girl is basically Robin, except female, foul-mouthed and sushilicious. She’s basically Batman. We still want the wish fulfillment, in other words, the easy cutting down of bullies and bad guys, we just want it in an ironic, hip form so we can pretend we don’t want it. There’s great dishonesty here.
Hit Girl and Big Daddy are gunning for mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), who, 11 years ago, framed Big Daddy, then a cop named Damon Macready, and put him in the slammer. While incarcerated, his wife became a drug addict and died during childbirth. Macready blames Frank, and, when he gets out, he trains both himself and his daughter to combat the mob. They begin to do this about a month before Kick Ass appears. Nice coincidence.
Cage is good, in his good off-kilter way. He plays Macready as a gun-totin’, spooky, psychopath of a loving father, while his Big Daddy borrows the cowl of The Owl, the armor of the Dark Knight, the yellow utility belt of 1970s-era Batman, and the puffed-up cadences of Adam West’s (satirical) Batman. Moretz is good, too, but... I remember when the red-band trailer appeared a few months ago, there was a minor uproar over some of her language. “How will I get a hold of you?” Kick Ass asks. She tells him to contact the mayor’s office. “He has a special signal in the sky?” she says. “It’s in the shape of a giant cock.” See? It mocks the very thing (Batman; superheroes; wish fulfillment) that it’s selling, while pushing the envelope of good taste. Some of us laugh. Me, I just sit in the audience wondering, “Would Macready/Big Daddy be the type of guy to teach his daughter this kind of language? Knives, yes. Guns, yes. But cock jokes? That doesn’t fit with the Adam West voice of propriety.” But I know I’m in the minority.
So Frank the mobster blames all the hits on his men on Kick Ass, and enlists his son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, McLovin from “Superbad”), to become yet another superhero, or supervillain, Red Mist, to lure Kick Ass out where he can kill him. It almost works. But Big Daddy gets Frank’s men first. A deeper betrayal is necessary, with more violence and bigger guns.
There’s nothing super here. “Kick Ass” feels like it was made by the stupid stepchildren of Quentin Tarantino. It’s not just substituting crudity for humor, and hipness and self-referentiality for plot and character development; it’s a soulless film. At one point, in a back alley, Frank kills Kick Ass, plus a witness, but it’s actually a kid going to a Kick Ass party. No one gives this kid (or the witness) a second thought—not even Dave/Kick Ass. And why should he? Dave’s own mother (Elizabeth McGovern, believe it or not) died of an aneurysm at breakfast two years earlier, and it’s treated as a sight gag. We see her head flop into a bowl of Honey Puffs cereal. In voiceover Dave tells us, more or less, that life goes on, but it’s less “Life goes on despite the pain we feel from irretrievable loss” than “Life goes on because we feel nothing.”
This is a movie for people who feel nothing but the world at a remove.
Review: “Green Zone” (2010)
WARNING: SMD (SPOILERS OF MASS DESTRUCTION)
Because “Green Zone” is set in Baghdad in March, April and probably May of 2003, and that’s gonna be a sore subject for a while, we have to ask the question we don’t normally ask of an action-adventure movie: What does it get right?
Well, the U.S. Army can’t find WMD. That's a start. Various American agencies are working against each other rather than with each other. The press is duped by an unmentioned high-ranking official (Cheney!), while an unseen Paul Bremer disastrously disbands the Iraqi Army and more-or-less starts the Iraqi insurgency. Finally, it’s suggested that officials in D.C. believed the false intelligence about WMD because they wanted to believe the false intelligence about WMD; because they wanted war.
That’s not bad.
What does it get wrong? It doesn’t suggest this last item forcefully enough. It also implies a lowly Pentagon official was the source of the false intelligence. Basically it implies that a few bad apples spoiled the whole bunch, girl. I tend to agree. But my bad apples were cabinet officers and vice-presidents and presidents. “Green Zone” tries to avoid being overtly political, but you can’t do this shit without being overtly political.
Matt Damon plays Roy Miller, an Army captain whose team is sniffing for WMD a month after shock-and-awe, and at the start he’s perplexed, genuinely perplexed, that the intel he’s getting is leading to pigeon shit and toilet parts. He brings it up at a meeting, but is assured by Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a Pentagon special intelligence officer, that the new intel is solid and current. Afterwards, a CIA officer, Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson, doing a sometime-Chicago accent), buttonholes Miller. “Something’s wrong here and we’ve got to find out what it is,” Brown says.
At the next WMD site, Miller’s team is digging purposeless holes in the ground when a limping Iraqi named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla of “The Kite Runner”) tries to get through with real intel and has a knee put to his neck. But Miller reluctantly listens, then forcefully acts, and in the process gets a glimpse of a fleeing Iraqi general, Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, Saddam Hussein in “House of Saddam”), who, in those playing cards developed by the U.S. military, is the Jack of Clubs. He gets away, but Miller and company capture his assistant, Seyyed Hamza (Said Faraj), along with a small black book filled with safe-house locations. They’re just about to turn Hamza when special forces, led by the mustachioed Briggs (Jason Isaacs, Lucius Malfoy himself), swoop in, black-hood Hamza and take him away. They would’ve taken the notebook, too, if Miller, in the middle of getting his nose bloodied by Briggs, hadn’t planted it on Freddy, who flees. “Why are you running!” Miller demands when he catches up to him. “Why are you chasing me!” Freddy demands back. Freddy’s limp turns out to be the result of a prosthetic limb. “My leg is in Iran,” he says. “Since 1987.” He insists that Miller trust him. “Whatever you want here,” he says, “I want it more.” All good lines.
Because of its time and place, parts of “Green Zone” are inevitably roman a clef—or, I suppose, film a clef. Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a reporter who adds little besides hand-wringing over her pre-war WMD coverage, is obviously Judith Miller. An Iraqi politican returning to Baghdad to mostly U.S. fanfare is obviously Ahmed Chalabi. Since much of Dayne’s bad intel came from someone code-named “Magellan,” I immediately assumed Magellan was this Chalabi-type pol, since Chalabi himself, once dubbed the “George Washington of Iraq” by the neocons, was the source of so much of our bad pre-war intel.
Nope. Magellan is Gen. Al Rawi, who met with Poundstone in February 2003 in Jordan, and told him Iraq had no WMD, no programs. They’d dismantled everything in 1991.
And Poundstone went back to D.C. and lied about it.
Now Poundstone, via Briggs, wants to kill Al Rawi to cover this up. And so it’s a race between the two men, Briggs and Miller, to see who can get to Al Rawi first. Miller wins, but from a disadvantaged position. “Why are you here?” Al Rawi asks Miller, who’s tied to a chair. “I came to bring you in,” Miller says straight-faced. After Miller informs him that Poundstone lied to everyone about the meeting in Jordan, Al Rawi dismisses the excuse. “You’ve got to want to believe the lie, Mr. Miller,” he says.
This is a great line, a necessary line, but the film still lays too much blame at the feet of Poundstone. He lies, so we go to war. He covers up, so we get an insurgency. If it weren’t for little Greg Kinnear, the movie implies, the Bush years might not have been so bad.
And what’s with the leap in logic? So in February 2003 Al Rawi tells Poundstone there aren’t any WMD. Why, from that, assume Poundstone lied to officials in D.C.? Why not assume that Poundstone reported these very facts to his superiors, who decided not to believe in them or act on them? And why would they believe in them? Al Rawi tells them, just as they’re about to invade his country, that the reason they’re about to invade his country doesn’t exist. I’d have trouble believing him, too.
“Green Zone” makes it all about the conspiracy, all about the lie, but the problem isn’t the lie; it’s believing the facts you want to believe until they become the lie. The problem isn’t a cover-up; it’s the self-delusion and gross incompetence that make a cover-up necessary. Conspiracies generally aren’t born fully-formed and armed like Athena from the head of Zeus. They need time to mature.
Some critics have called the film “The Bourne Zone,” because it shares star and director and shaky camera movements with that series, but this is a misreading. Jason Bourne is three steps ahead of everyone. Roy Miller is three steps behind even us. He spends half the movie realizing what we know going in. Plus he gets his ass kicked in his one fight. This is not wish-fulfillment, kids. This is Iraq.
More verisimiltude. Director Paul Greengrass has real U.S. soldiers play U.S. soldiers, he gives us chilling hints of Abu Ghraib, and he doesn’t use the Iraqis merely for background music. Several Iraqis come to the forefront as main characters. In the end, Freddy gives Miller, and by extension us, the lesson every American generation apparently needs to re-learn. “It isn’t for you to decide what happens here,” he says. Not bad for an action-adventure movie.
Final thought: Since most of the movie takes place outside the green zone, why call it “Green Zone”? A possible answer, possibly in the source material—Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone”—is the idea that the green zone isn't just a location but a state of mind. It’s the safe place you go when unpleasant facts and realities become overwhelming; where you believe what you want to believe. Many Americans spent the eight years of the Bush administration there. Many haven’t left.
Review: “The Ghost Writer” (2010)
WARNING: THROWBACK SPOILERS
Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is an expert piece of filmmaking that doesn't matter. It’s fun, smart, adult, and certain shots are stunning, but it’s also a throwback, and the elements of its throwback don’t completely mesh. In tone it’s a throwback to the moody Hitchcockian thriller of the 1950s, in content it’s a throwback to the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s, but in setting it’s a throwback to just a few years ago, to the suffocating stupidity of the George W. Bush years, and this is the part that doesn’t mesh. Or maybe nothing feels as old as that which has just left us—like Condoleezza Rice. Or maybe I was merely disappointed with the ending.
The film begins in the rain and never loses its chill. A ferry docks in a downpour and cars file out. Except one. It remains ominously unclaimed. Eventually, car alarm ringing in protest, it’s towed away. Great cinematic shorthand. Something’s amiss. Someone’s missing.
Turns out a writer has died and needs to be replaced. He’s been ghosting the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the Tony Blairish, former British prime minister who sided with the U.S. in all of its ill-conceived foreign adventures, and is now living out his days in disgrace in a Martha’s Vineyard-type island off the coast of Massachusetts. But he’s been paid $10 million for his memoirs, and the publishing house needs to get something out, and so another ghost, known in the credits simply as the Ghost (Ewan McGregor), is hired.
He takes the job reluctantly—because a slick publishing-house friend, Rick Ricardelli (John Bernthal), wants him to, and because an editor who rejected one of the Ghost’s previous books, doesn’t. But he gets the job, truly, because he’s an honest man in the dishonest world of business and politics. There’s a great, early scene where he tells the publishing house president, John Maddox (a shockingly good, shaved-bald Jim Belushi), that not only doesn’t he read political memoirs but no one reads political memoirs. Which is exactly why they need him: to appeal to all of those readers who don’t read political memoirs. Which is everyone.
Things go downhill quickly. Ten minutes after the meeting, he’s mugged. At Heathrow, still smarting, he watches news reports about how Lang, as prime minister, authorized the rendition of four British nationals, Muslims, who were subsequently tortured, and one of whom died, in U.S. custody. He phones Ricardelli: “What have you gotten me into?”
The Lang complex on the island, run by Lang’s assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall), is gated and guarded. There are disapproving Asian housekeepers and an air of officiousness and unreality. The Writer is allowed this space. He must sign these NDAs. Then he’s placed into a room that includes, on the right half of its outer wall, a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over bleak, grassy dunes. It’s as if the room is half inside and half out. It’s like something out of a dream.
The Writer, poor bastard, groans over the 600-page manuscript his predecessor left him: its long, dull beginning on the history of the Langs in Scotland; its facile observations on recent, tragic events (“The American president was much taller than I expected.”). When Lang finally arrives, via private Hatherton (read: Halliburton) jet, the Writer tries to cut through the bullshit and make him understandable. At Cambridge, in the 1970s, Lang wanted to be an actor. Why suddenly politics? Because, Lang says, his future wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), appeared at his door one day, politicking, and he fell in love. Ah ha! The Writer has his lead. But Lang keeps shooing him away from more interesting areas of the story and back toward the bullshit. He wants the book to be noble and empty. Brosnan gives Lang the air of someone who was once important and respected, and is now unimportant and disgraced, and he doesn’t quite know why. He gives him the air of someone who has to pretend too much in public and too little in private.
Even as the Writer is trying to decide what Lang’s story is, the story keeps changing. A former British secretary, Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh), whom Lang once fired, is bringing charges against him before the Hague on the rendition matter, and the Writer is corralled into drafting a response, which, with a mixture of vanity and horror, he hears Lang repeat that night on TV. Protesters and picketers arrive outside the gates. The press descends and takes over the local Inn, where the Writer has been staying, and he is forced to take his predecessor’s room at the Lang estate.
All this time, in a nice touch, he’s been treating anything belonging to his predecessor with the held-in-breath of the hypochondriac. He doesn’t want to catch what his predecessor caught. But he does. He discovers photos indicating that Lang lied about when he entered politics. He discovers a phone number among his predecessor’s effects: Robert Rycart’s. An old timer on the island (a nearly 100-yearold Eli Wallach!) tells him that, given island currents, the original ghost writer’s body could never have washed up where it did. And, in one of the greatest uses of modern technology in a traditional genre, the Writer tracks his predecessor’s last visit via his car’s GPS. It takes him to the mainland and the home of a Harvard professor, Paul Emmett (a gloriously insufferable Tom Wilkinson), who knew Lang at Cambridge in the 1970s but denies he knew Lang at Cambridge. Online, he reads rumors that Emmett has ties to the CIA, and, coupled with Lang’s acquiescence to U.S. policy, he puts two and two together. The former British PM is a CIA mole! But where’s the evidence? In a clandestine meeting, Rycart tells him that the original ghost put the answer in the beginning of the memoir; the Writer can’t find it. Meanwhile, the closer he gets to an answer, the closer an answer gets to him.
This is a movie about as well-made as movies can be made. The script, by novelist Robert Harris and Polanski, is wonderful. At one point Amelia asks the Writer how the Inn is and he responds, “Monastic.” “That’s alright,” she says. “No distractions.” Then he follows her ass upstairs to his workroom. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment but this is an altogether unsexy film. Lang is obviously having an affair with Amelia, and everyone, particularly his long-suffering wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), who compares her husband’s banishment to Napoleon’s on Elba, knows it. One evening Ruth winds up in the Writer’s bed. It’s positively icky. It may be the least sexy affair between two good-looking actors in cinematic history.
Polanski, master of the off-kilter and unnerving, who partly edited the film from his prison in Switzerland, gets all of the details right. I’m still thinking about the sense of vulnerability McGregor displays as he’s being frisked by a government agent, ultimately benign, in a tiny hotel room. But the ending does disservice to the rest. The big reveal after Lang is assassinated by a protester? Prof. Emmett did recruit a mole at Cambridge in the 1970s: Lang’s wife, Ruth. The clues are in the first word of every chapter of the original manuscript, which the Writer figures out at the book party for his scaled-down version. And what does he do with this information? He tells Ruth, of course. Who, of course, tells Emmett. The Writer then walks outside, clutching the original manuscript, and can’t hail a cab. He walks out of frame and a car barrels by. Polanski holds the camera as we hear a crash, and, after a moment, papers, the last evidence of Ruth’s duplicity, and the real reason for Great Britain's poodleish behavior, flutter by like snowflakes and are scattered to the four winds.
That’s a great final shot. But how stupid can the Writer be? He tells Ruth? And no one else? And isn’t that reveal, via the first word in each chapter, rather facile?
In the 1970s, and in the political thrillers of the 1970s, such as “Three Days of the Condor,” the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the left for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in everything. In the 2000s, the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the right for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in nothing. Bushies outed CIA agents. That’s how crazy things got.
Here, the CIA, FBI and the faux-Bush administration all work together in super-smart, super-efficient fashion. Thought becomes action. As soon as perceived enemies appear they are struck down. One ponders the sad history of this past decade, particularly before and after 9/11, and thinks: Right.
Review: “The Spy Next Door” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILED-ROTTEN SPOILERS
I went into “The Spy Next Door” thinking that Jackie Chan, at 55, wouldn’t be able to perform the stunning moves he’s given us for over 30 years but hoped the story around him would make up for the deficit. It’s the opposite. He still moves with more grace than any action star in Hollywood. But the story around him?
Jackie plays Bob Ho—a take-off on “Bob Hope” as his Chon Wang in “Shanghai Noon” was a take-off on John Wayne. He's a Chinese spy on loan to the CIA who pretends to be a pen salesman in southern California, and he’s living next door to, and romancing, a woman named Gillian, the mother of three, played by fashion model Amber Valletta. One wonders which is the bigger fantasy: the international spy next door or the international supermodel (with three kids) next door. I’ve got my pick.
Bob would like to quit the biz and marry her. Smart man! Four things are getting in the way: 1) She likes how ordinary and honest he is, when he’s been dishonest about how ordinary he isn’t; and 2)-4), her three kids hate him. He’s boring, they complain. So when Gillian’s father winds up in the hospital because of a senior softball accident, Bob volunteers to babysit while she flies to his side. He’s going to win them over.
The kids are the usual mix of Hollywood stereotypes and impossibilities. Farren (Madeline Carroll), verging on adolescence, wants to dress in short skirts and bare mid-riffs, and takes forever in the bathroom. Ian (Will Shadley), the middle child, has the vocabulary of a Harvard freshman but wants to be “cool,” even as he feeds girls twice his age lines like, “If I said you had a nice body, would you hold it against me?” Finally, there’s Nora (Alina Foley), who’s cute and runs away a lot. Together they conspire, as Farren says, “to deep-six Bob.” While searching for evidence against him, Ian downloads sensitive material that gets the bad guys, Russian terrorists, on their trail.
But first Bob has to screw up making breakfast while the kids sit at the table and roll their eyes. Then he drives them to school while they roll their eyes and argue about who gets the front seat. Then he loses Nora at the mall and has to perform a Jackie Chanesque stunt to get her back. Eventually he uses the tools of his trade to keep them in line, and he has heart-to-hearts with Farren and Ian, but they always get back to rolling their eyes.
“The Spy Next Door” is billed as a family comedy but one wonders how good it is for families. Not because Gillian is a single mom and Farren isn’t her child—it’s her ex-husband’s child from his first marriage—but because it takes a “kids being kids” attitude toward the brattiest behavior. It smiles and shakes its head lovingly at impossibly smart boys booby-trapping their sisters’ hair-dryers and 11-year-old girls dressing like sluts. When Ian complains that he wants to be cool, Bob tells him “You are cool,” rather than, “Why do you want to be cool?” or “Isn’t cool boring?” or “Isn’t the whole point of being cool to be disinterested? And aren’t you interesting because you’re interested?” I’m not saying the conversation would’ve worked, or should’ve worked, since it doesn’t really work in real life (I’ve tried), but at least it would’ve been said. Better that than to tell Ian to brush back his hair and flip up his collar so he looks like a kid’s version of the worst preppy asshole from 1985. Which, of course, gets him noticed by the older girls at school. Because girls like preppy assholes from 1985.
Jackie isn’t completely innocent in this, either. Like Paul McCartney, he’s always had a cutsie thing that needs controlling, and director Brian Levant, who's made a career out of ending the careers of tough guys by directing them with kids (“Jingle All the Way”; “Are We There Yet?”), doesn’t control him, or the movie, enough.
English, too, will always be a problem for Jackie—particularly in comedies. He’s much funnier in Cantonese or Mandarin. At one point Bob is supposed to say, “Maybe you write her a poem”; but Mandarin, and I assume Cantonese, has no closing “m” sounds, only opening “m” sounds (example: “Mei-guo” for “America”), and he can’t quite get his mouth around “poem.” During the closing-credit “blooper” reel, he says the line over and over before shaking his head and declaring, “I hate English.” That ad-lib made me laugh harder than any scripted line in the movie. Maybe because there was honesty behind it.
There are some sweet moments. When Nora has trouble sleeping Bob sings her a Mandarin lullaby. And when Farren complains about not really being part of the family, Bob talks about growing up an orphan—which is what happened to Jackie (his parents abandoned him to a Peking Opera school)—and adds that family isn’t your blood but who loves you and whom you love.
Then the Rooskies come, Bob’s cover is blown, and, despite the heart-to-heart about family, Farren deep-sixes him—not because he’s boring, her original objection, but because he’s exciting. Gillian is unable to forgive him—twice—for lying to her and putting her kids in danger. Even though her kids are brats and put themselves in danger. And even though the lie was in the interest of international security. And even though his lie is nothing next to the lies the film propagates.
Ni tzi na-lie, Wong Fei-hung?
The Mom next door.
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