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"That wasn't terrible."
No question, the trailer was bad. The marketing got a bit too into the "all-female" casting. But in the end, Ghostbusters is at least no worse than your average Hollywood action-comedy zombie; has no moments of truly horrid writing or offensive stupidity like, say, the Huntsman sequel; and enough legitimately funny and clever bits to make the thing worthwhile.
The fact that, at the time of this review, it has gotten 35% 1 star ratings has nothing to do with its quality; it's entirely due to the insane levels of hate that female-led projects receive among hairy palmed cave trolls. Hollywood summer blockbusters aren't my thing, but if you're going to see one, you might as well see this one.
Wadjda is 10. She wants to buy herself a bicycle so she can win a grudge race against a neighborhood boy, but has to find a way to hustle the money while going to a Saudi religious school that takes a dim view of fun and games. "There's your problem right there," as they say on the Internet.
A movie is truly exciting when it shows you something you've never seen before. You'd think this would most often be sci-fi, but it isn't, because they use the same grey metal corridor all the time, in everything. "Wadjda" is, because it reveals a world that almost nobody gets to see even if they want to - and a very large number of Americans won't look at even if you show it to them, because they're scared of catching "stealth jihad."
This is hilarious, because the hard cases who run Saudi Arabia - like Wadjda's head-mistress - ban bracelets, magazines and tapes of love songs for fear that any exposure to those things will infect their students with whorish Western culture. Either one side overestimates the power of the other's influence, or both do, or perhaps the two sides would flip and trade places, with Riyadh turning into Miami on spring break and Burning Man banning women from pedaling their own concept tricycles.
The latter probably won't happen, so if you're not afraid of Islam cooties, watch this movie and you will find an extraordinary treat for the curious. It shows Saudi women in their domestic lives, before and after they put on the "space suit" to head out. It shows how the gender-based class system works in general, while drawing characters who began to feel like my relatives after half an hour. Wadjda was my kick-ass little niece, and her mom was my sister-in-law, and I wished there was a way for me to call them up and say something encouraging. I wished there was a way to send them stuff - I'd give Wadjda an iPod full of Pink Floyd and death metal, and I would give her mom the robot taxi from Total Recall, the one that looks like there's a man driving it.
This movie passes the Bechdel test summa cum laude, as one might expect; its sensitivity and realism means that technically (since this is the first movie ever to be shot entirely in that country), the Saudi Arabian film industry now has a better average track record with female characters than Hollywood does. The relationship between Wadjda and her mom involves some yelling, but is sweet and wonderful through and through.
The movie never criticizes the social regime of its country, but it doesn't have to - even played completely straight, it looks horrendous. This is the most sexist society on earth, and Wadjda's school is like an alien experiment run by creatures that hate joy in all forms.
"Wadjda" itself, however, is pure joy. It works on every level - as drama, slice of life, children's movie, movie about children & an insider look at Saudi Arabia. It's an awesome movie.
Sakasama no Patema (2013)
Flip your brain like a pancake.
I used to be a fan of anime, a huge one too... but the more good live-action movies one sees, the less one is impressed with anime writing, plots and characters. I'm set for life on screaming 15-year-olds, thank you.
Then again, once in a while a concept anime comes along that just completely blows your wig off, and Patema Inverted is one of these. The main characters are a pair of 15-year- old... dang it. All right, it's not completely original, and sometimes even bad, like when it has an obnoxiously evil general right out of Gundam Wing for a villain. Fortunately, the central couple are very modest with tears and histrionics, which is all the more impressive considering the terrifying anti-gravity hijinks they go through (a "69" version of Castle in the Sky, to put it in very general terms).
The movie opens with the sight of a large city over radio transmissions. The voices begin to talk more quickly, then transition into an outright panic, and then, we see the buildings detach from the ground and fall up into the sky, in ruins.
Patema is an adolescent girl born after this tragedy. She lives in an tunnel community deep underground, and likes to explore the "forbidden zone" - an uninhabited area where for some reason, all the EXIT signs are on the floor and railings attach to the ceiling. One day, she finds a colossal vertical shaft and notices that in this shaft, dust motes travel up.
She decides to follow the motes and explore, and discovers a world outside, covered in grass and trees, where the sky is visible and the stars shine at night. It's too bad that gravity here is the opposite of hers, and she's basically clinging to the world's ceiling for dear life, with the sky waiting to swallow her as soon as her grip gives out. Then, things get wild.
Direction and visual design are superb, and exceedingly creative with the possibilities of inverted gravity, especially when two people - one inverted, one straight - clasp onto one another. In fact, maybe a little too good - there were points where I kept imagining streams of vertigo puke spew out of my face and fly into the clouds. If you're scared of heights, you will sweat more watching this than any horror movie.
Did you ever watch Memento and then spend a couple of hours thinking backwards or expecting to forget everything any second? This type of lasting head-job is something I got very strongly watching Patema. Hell, I'm typing this in Notepad right now and automatically wondering how many lines I can write before they come unstuck from the top of the window and crash down.
Without further spoilers, I give Patema Inverted the highest possible grade. I only just have one additional complaint: have any of these people ever heard of a rope harness?
Ang-ma-reul bo-at-da (2010)
He saw the devil, good for him... what did I see?
You know what folks, I think I've reached my limit. Eyes Without a Face, Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Oldboy all told fascinating stories with the use of extreme violence, but sadistic violence - especially against women - has become so commonplace that it depresses me.
Shot of a young woman. The murderer approaches. Realization on her face. Abduction. She's raped or tortured as she begs. He kills her. Corpse disposal.
Shot of a young woman. The murderer approaches. Realization on her face. Abduction. She's raped or tortured as she begs. He kills her. Corpse disposal.
Shot of a young woman. The murderer approaches. Realization on her face. Abduction. She's raped or tortured as she begs. He kills her. Corpse disposal.
I disliked this about Luther, an otherwise very fine series. But none of its depictions even approached I Saw the Devil, which is a parade of brutality without end.
I Saw the Devil is the movie you'd make if you thought The Chaser was good because it had shots of a woman's blood spraying the face of the guy who's destroying her skull with a hammer.
Women don't exist in this movie except to be brutalized. Shot of a young woman. ... Corpse disposal. To its credit, the filmmakers cleverly play on expectations by stopping the process halfway once in a while. A young woman may be approached by the murderer, realize she's being abducted, then get raped or tortured without getting killed because he gets interrupted.
People defend this by saying, "these things exist in our world, and movies are brave for showing them!" Actually, no, they don't. Special agents who bug serial killers to play a catch-and-release game? Don't exist. An advanced nation with no visible law enforcement or mass media? Doesn't exist. Let's get this out of the way - this movie doesn't have a whiff of realism. It's an extremely stylized parable that has confused sadism with profundity. If you want to see people get murdered "authentically," go watch a jihadist video.
Shot of a young woman. The murderer approaches. Realization on her face. Abduction. She's raped or tortured as she begs. He kills her. Corpse disposal. And for 2 and a half hours!
Last night I saw The Raid 2, which is another 2 1/2 hours of mutilation and murder. But at least it was a straight-up action movie about a battle between criminals. Watching a psychopath dominating a helpless person and eventually taking their life is an infinitely sicker experience... and there's so much of it in this movie. So much of it.
I've always liked horrors and thrillers. But I Saw the Devil is so drenched in hideousness, that whatever trite moral point it makes about "becoming the monster," it was not worth watching another young woman tortured as she begs for her life, or the dull sound of her meat as the killer butchers her and throws the chunks into a bin.
The characters in this thing may have immersed themselves in barbarism, but we don't have to.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Hard to love
So... this was like getting a gift basket of 20 totally random supermarket products. And being forced to take one bite of each. Including last-resort foods, like soap and dental floss.
And hey, who doesn't like soap... but I do hate when the waiter yanks a barely- touched Dial away from me before I'm ready for dessert. Every time I was on the verge of liking this movie as something - analog sound nerd porn, fond exposé of bad business practices, a character study in a horrid work environment - it would switch up and go on some tonal shift or experimental freakout.
Until it goes off the rails and starts doing "Persona"-like montages, Berberian Sound Studio is the story of a frowny little British sound engineer who goes to work for an Italian sound studio. The studio is a dark, cruffy box peopled by cash-promising Mediterranean slickos and their shrieking women. And the women shriek a lot. They shriek light–years of decibels. This is because the studio is recording the soundtrack to a 70's horror flick.
You never see any visuals from it, only the actor voice-overs and the sound effects that sound engineers wring out of everyday objects, such as cabbages and watermelons. The vast majority of their effects try to mimic some kind of torture or stabbing, visited upon a shrieking woman.
The British sound engineer - wound tighter than a chicken mummy - starts to lose it when he's forced to participate in the creation of these effects. His mind blurs and goes all Perfect Blue.
There are fantastic performances here - the characters really come alive, but then unfortunately go nowhere. I promise you I can watch slow movies, but there's just no momentum to this film at all. The sound board pans got so tedious. There are more pans in Berberian Sound Studio than in the Klondike River during gold rush times. Pans of slaughtered vegetables. Pans of Mum's letters from jolly Somethingshire. Pans of tape decks and audiovisual nightmare boxes.
The last one is actually a plus: I've never seen such a detailed portrayal of old-school sound recording tech, I even became educated for several minutes. Slow learners will have plenty of time to catch up, because the camera pans slowly.
I guess you just need to be in the right frame of mind. I suspect that this movie plays better the second time, when you can condition yourself to float along, admire the aesthetics and give a couple of pries at the symbolism. But not if you end up finding the shrieks even more grating, or the longueurs even more deadening.
Under the Skin (2013)
It's OK to be different, it's OK to do your own thing.
Interesting how it worked out for Scarlett Johansson this year: first, a voice-only role in 'Her,' then this one where she's highly visible but says almost nothing. Merge the two, and you have a full-blown talkie.
Under the Skin is the sort of movie that gives critics a bad name, because it's really good and they invariably love it and get perceived as abstract art snobs. I too get annoyed with experimental movies that try to seem profound by dumping a load of nonsense on the viewer and counting on apophenia to do their job.
However, there's a huge difference between deliberate obfuscation and 'show, don't tell,' and Under the Skin is a fantastic example of the latter. It's bleak, quiet and depressing, and most people who see it will probably hate it, but they should anyway, just to help them realize how much redundant clap-trap there is in most of our movies.
Under the Skin may not have a single line of exposition, but is easy to follow. The story fits in a tag line: alien sex siren lures men into its creepy lair and sucks out their essence; but somewhere along the line, begins to have doubts.
Much of it is shot documentary-style, with hand-held or concealed cameras. ScarJo drives a rapevan around Glasgow, trying to pick up stray men. She brings them back to a house, stripping slowly as they hop after her on one foot to get their pants off. Once they're nude, they sink into the ground without a trace.
The movie switches between hidden camera footage, damp naturalistic sweeps of forests and ocean waves, and nice non-representational effects, like the opening where color beams and circles slowly morph into a human eye, over strange disjointed vocalizations that bring to mind a mollusc practicing English.
While we're on the subject of English spoken by creatures it wasn't meant for, the Scottish accents are insurmountable. It's like Britain's Cantonese. And there are no subtitles. Typical dialog:
ScarJo: "Do you live alone?"
Guy: "Elxzap zlflasd opvejcf kljndjk gjsgs csdag."
ScarJo: "That must be hard."
Guy: "Akhadks lklsdgsga erlifsd, h aha."
Luckily, we're not missing much here - most of the talk in this movie is the same kind of noise-making that goes on between couples in bars, to fill up space while the real conversation goes on via body language ("You want to bang?" "Yes.")
Why should you see this movie? Because it's really beautiful, shows you visuals you've never seen before, tells a tragic mystery without burying you in exposition, and holds an absolutely unselfconscious confidence. It shows beauty and ugliness as a matter of fact, without constantly checking to make sure we grasp which is which. It uses special effects to quietly augment reality and paint the fantastic into the corners of ordinary scenes. It may leave you weirded out and uncomfortable, but if you're tired of noise and crave a film experience that's tasteful, minimal and pure like a Tschichold book cover, run and see it now now now.
The difference between what you think you did and what you actually did.
Elysium is the movie District 9 would have been if it had sucked.
Imagine the Tea Party's worst stereotype of a "Hollywood liberal": a phony, sanctimonious poverty tourist who gets his picture taken trying to teach Amazon tribesmen how to do yoga. Now, imagine the movie this person would make as penance for the fact that he doesn't get what it's like to be disadvantaged, doesn't care, and does nothing to help anyone. You'd get something like Elysium.
150 years in the future, the Earth is a wasted working-class barrio, the rich have decamped to a luxurious orbital station that's essentially Beverly Hills in space. No, really. The people that funded and starred in this movie cast themselves and their own lifestyles as the villains, and it's anyone's guess if they even knew that they did it.
In this future, there are Health Care Pods that can fix any disease, but the Space Rich are hogging them all for their own facelifts; during the setup we see shiploads of illegal aliens (illegal earthlings?) trying to dodge missiles in order to get to one of the pods and heal the proverbial Little Girl - the first of a bunch, since that's how you zap the sympathy circuit for cheap.
It's not like you can't make a powerful and authentic message movie about class or immigration - take "El Norte" from 1983, or "Dirty Pretty Things," or hey, even "Gran Torino." But that takes a bit of patience and writing. In Elysium, they must have had an alarm go off on set when the camera stopped shaking for five seconds. It feels like a movie shot by people whose biggest fear was that they weren't making enough noise.
It's a shame, because it's a very nice-looking action movie. Neill Blomkamp is great at making futuristic action visually believable.
Unfortunately, all the action leaves no room for anything like dialogue or plot, both of which come across like a school project where the student copies a textbook sample with his name switched in, and flat-out doesn't get why that's wrong.
The protagonist: boy like girl, dream space station, grow up steal car, work bad job. Get radiation, must heal in Pod. Run, punch, shoot gun. This is the entirety of Matt Damon's character.
The "mini-boss": played by William Fichtner, which is enough to prove he's evil. In case it's not, he's made to say the phrase: "Is his skin going to fall off? Then get him off the sheets." The audience groans before they can ask themselves why the owner of a Bugatti space shuttle is making decisions about sick-bay sheets.
The main antagonist: played by Jodie Foster; proves she's evil by having sharp hair and blowing up immigrant ships first thing on-screen. Gets involved in absurd coup plot against the president of the evil space station, which makes her... evil-squared? The mad-dog muscle bad guy: Sharlto Copley under a dozen layers of beard. Is evil because he always talks about how much he's going to enjoy killing Matt Damon.
Almost forgot: the Little Girl that Matt Damon liked as a kid grows up and has a Little Girl of her own (that's 3 distinct Little Girls so far, if anyone's counting); she's deathly ill and needs some space health care.
The gravest of this movie's crimes is the ham-fisted condescension. You can only be so blunt and manipulative before the viewer checks out, and Elysium contains a moment like this for every one of its characters. The bed-sheet episode for the Fichtner miniboss is as good an illustration as any. We meet him in an evil-boss glass office above the factory floor; he's wearing an evil power-suit, has slicked-back evil hair, is looking at evil capitalist charts on a screen; and, just in case you still don't get which stereotype he represents, comes down personally to the medical bay to have an injured worker thrown off the bed before he messes it up with his hurt-fluids.
He doesn't have flunkie shift supervisors to handle petty cruelty for him, such as the manager who put Matt Damon's life in jeopardy in the first place? How does it make sense for a millionaire to do hands-on bed sheet management? It does if you're trying to mark a check-box and can't spare the time to do it well.
Last year, Jezebel published a compilation of horrible boss tales; one memorable story told of an Applebee's manager who made one of his workers finish a shift while she was having a miscarriage, because it was "too late anyway." We live in a world where this sort of thing happens for real, and the makers of Elysium couldn't even pull off "abusive workplace" with any authenticity? They wouldn't need to go far to find the real thing - read up on Hollywood employment practices if you want to know how to sweat people.
If you want to do a major movie on class disparity and exploitation - go for it. Do one decent scene that shows me how the system perpetuates itself. Show me how money creates a power imbalance in employment. Show me how the working classes are recruited into their own oppression. Show me how management and labor are played against each other. Show me how a climate of unspoken expectations causes low-level managers to take initiative in mistreating workers without explicit orders from above. Show me false hopes of social mobility.
You don't have to be subtle or coy - just don't be so damn lazy.
Side Effects (2013)
This movie is like a mermaid...
...a gorgeous top half tapers into an ugly stinking fish tail. This is a challenge for the reviewer, because how do you talk about a crap ending without spoiling it? (I did it though, you can keep reading.)
While Side Effects is good, it's out of this world. It's always a pleasure when a movie captures your attention without violence or any of the usual jumping around. Rooney Mara is so intense and brittle from the start, it's fascinating to watch just to see if she'll hold it together through the next minute of screen time. Her character Emily Taylor is a 27-year-old former striver of devastating prettiness who spends 4 years visiting her husband in jail, where he is, implausibly, locked up because of something he did on Wall Street. Once he gets out, Emily's courage falters and she can't stem her depression any longer; she tries to make things work, but is always on the verge of self-harm and nervous breakdown, on subway platforms and banker yachts.
This is told in fabulously skillful visuals, such as one memorable shot at the high-society party on the yacht, where a curved mirror makes half her face appear melted like a head of wax and pig fat.
She lands in the hospital, where she comes under the care of a flawlessly reassuring shrink (Jude Law as Dr. Jon Banks). He puts her on a merry-go-round of drugs to treat her depression, and other drugs to treat the side effects of the first drugs, and so on. This is where the movie is at its best - when it shows upper-class psychiatry as some strange and soulless combination of pharmaceutical glossolalia, barely- legal corporate kickbacks and feel-good salesmanship.
Psychiatrists in fancy offices recite the names of drugs like a Don DeLillo incantation of trademarks. Effexor, Lexapro, Surmontil. Everyone is pilled up, including the shrinks themselves, because it doesn't change who you are, it just lets you be yourself more efficiently. Wellbutrin, Ritalin, Adderall. And yet, nothing helps Emily, who is so close to cracking right down the middle that it's hard to even get mad, as one often does at these movies, when rich and beautiful people start to complain about their lives.
Quiver empty, Dr. Banks puts her on a new drug called Ablixa. It works well until it causes a horrible side effect, and then, it's suddenly a scramble for self-preservation among the various parties involved. At this point, "Side Effects" is so good it hurts. Like Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret," it shows how bureaucratic societies decide who to blame, and how. In tense, realistic conversations, it shows the difference between responsibility, liability and culpability; it shows how easily the bottom can fall out from under the most assured careers, and how patient, drug company and doctor, who were previously on the same side, find out that someone has to be left holding the bag.
Consumer behavior, especially when it comes to mental health, is under no obligation to be rational. It turns out that the appearance of impropriety can sink someone in modern New York just as surely as in Victorian England. To this, add an increasing uncertainty about what Ablixa actually does, who knew what about its effects and ignored them, and we have a fascinating and murky mystery.
And this is where, in the blink of an eye, the movie turns into a third- rate Joe Eszterhas schlock-fest. It's rated 84% on the Tomatometer, which makes me think of those restaurant ambiance experiments where low lights and classical music dupe a food critic into taking a $4 steak for bronze-statue Kobe.
Without spoiling any specifics, the plot hurtles into a tawdry conspiracy involving stock trading and a cringe-inducing sex side-show. And to be sure, I crung. It's exciting on a primitive level, and there's nothing wrong with a lukewarm and ignorable thriller, but not when it pretends to be the rightful second half of something so much greater. It's like scoring the biggest Christmas box under the tree, only to open it and discover that they screwed up and handed you the department store mock-up. Sure, it unties neatly, but there's jack inside.
Running Scared (2006)
An orgy of stupidity and sleaze
Two corrupt policemen are dead after trying to rip off a drug deal in a hotel room; the top gangster's lieutenant is told to DISPOSE of the murder weapons. He goes home. In his basement, Dumb Lieutenant hides the guns behind a false plywood wall that doesn't lock and isn't attached to anything - seriously it looks like it's just leaning there, waiting to blow over in a draft. He is seen by his ten-year-old son Nicky, because he didn't think to check behind some boxes.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves - before Dumb Lieutenant goes downstairs, he corners his woman somebody in the laundry room for some hot character development. The first thing we see of her is ass; it takes about 12 seconds before we see her face.
The face belongs to Vera Farmiga, who is a fine actress and the only character who wasn't crippled by stupidity, but I could feel fake enthusiasm emanate from her.
Their lovemaking pauses, as he looks up and meets her gaze. Her fingers rest lightly on his cheeks, as her eyes say, "We're gonna get through this scene."
(He eventually calls her "Mrs. G," clearing up her status. Unless you missed the fact so far that his last name is "Gazelle." "The name is Gazelle. Joey Gazelle.")
Back to hiding the guns -
Dumb Lieutenant's about to impregnate his wife with his designer stubble, when she stops him abruptly, saying "No no no, Nicky is here." Where? "Oh, upstairs with his creepy friend Oleg." Dumb Lieutenant goes to the stairs and calls out to Nicky, hearing no reply or any sound of any kind. He draws no conclusions from this. Maybe he's still got hearing damage from the shootout. This would explain why he misses a loud crashing sound from the basement as he's opening the door. He goes downstairs and sees cans of paint stacked like goalposts, and two hockey sticks lying on the ground. Then he sighs, and doesn't look around to see if the boys were still there before popping the lid off his hiding place, where a mound of guns is just literally sitting there. He stashes the new guns without unloading them.
Other people are stupid, too.
Nicky's creepy friend from next door has an abusive Russian dad who sits and rewatches a John Wayne movie and flies into a rage over John Wayne getting shot, and talks about how awesome John Wayne is and how Duked The Duke is Duking. The dad is photographed in the dark, in mad flickering edits, with a hollow grin and bugged-out eyes. He could almost be menacing, but then he rants about how no one disrespects The Duke, not in my house! Who get money for this family, who put food on table? Oleg's dad has an inexplicable boner for John Wayne, and he can't pull it off. Every time he gets close to being genuinely scary, he true-grits his teeth and delivers another line about John Wayne.
It's not just people or the plot - dumbness infects underlying fabric of the film itself.
It looks like it was made by the Wachowskis' slowest student. It's over-cut and over-edited. Everything flickers, zooms and shakes. There are reenactments of things like gunshots where you follow the trajectory of the bullet, really fancy. However, they often immediately follow a scene where the trajectory is already made totally clear. It's hard to know if these recaps are there because they thought we wouldn't otherwise understand what happened, or because they felt that it's just how they shoot movies these days.
Did I mention how badly the character-building went with Oleg's dad? The abused wife brings him a pizza to the TV room. He stares at her with giant vicious crazy eyes and says, "IT'S THICK CRUST" He then starts talking about John Wayne.
These aren't spoilers. These are only the first 20 minutes.
I wrote this far with the movie on pause at 24:20. I will now resume it, watch it to the end and write, below, if it gets better.
It got worse.
Minyeo-neun goerowo (2006)
If you thought Bill Maher did fat jokes...
"200 Pounds Beauty" is the story of Kang Hanna, a talented pop singer whose life is void of purpose because she is a sickeningly obese, nightmarish grotesque of a cow (a size 16). She hits the pit of despair (literally, falls through the floor because SHE'S REALLY FAT) and goes in for a full body hack-and-slash makeover that brings her money, respect, love, preferential treatment by traffic cops and general good fortune, so she can realize that true beauty lies on the inside. Overweight people don't come across too well in any movie industry, but this is some of the most relentless fat-bashing I've seen outside of a middle school.
First, for reference, google an image of Queen Latifah in 2006, where she's about the size of Pre-Op Hanna. You may notice two things - she looks pretty sexy, and she has a visible jaw line. The Korean art department, on the other hand, stuck the actress inside a fat suit that made her head and neck look like a swollen thumb, a la Mama June of Honey Boo Boo fame. The immense, distended face bottoms out in a rolling sac of flesh that only makes anatomical sense on someone the size of Gilbert Grape's mother. From the first scene, Hanna is a human wrecking ball, a disaster on legs that crashes through man-made environments like a grizzly bear in ballet flats. Other characters react to her weight with either disgust or astonishment, when they're not ducking for cover.
This is the unchanging tone of the movie until Hanna goes under the knife, and it's an incredibly alienating experience. A woman who barely rates as obese on the BMI chart is treated like a freak of nature that society isn't even equipped to handle. Floors can't support her, paramedics can't lift her onto a gurney, and her dementia-riddled father only goes lucid to tell her that she's fat.
To all this, add the sexism, aggression towards subordinates and mistreatment of lessers that seem to be the bedrock of social relations in every Korean movie, and you have a downright abusive piece of work.
After the bone-crushing overhaul, Hanna suddenly finds herself desired and popular. The rebuild allows her to get the attention of her previously unrequited crush, who is a K-pop producer. Hanna's big late-movie dilemma is how to hide her "work" from this guy who sternly tells her that he only dates all-natural women, even though his whole career is built on shilling the same beauty standards that drive women to get plastic surgery in the first place. It's like Donald Trump coming out against tacky casino decor.
Post-Op Hanna is plagued by the usual crises, but who can stay mad at someone that skinny and pretty? I'll leave you to guess whether she manages to triumph in the end and win the devotion of the man who had to choke down barf to hug her when she was fat.
But the important thing is that she learnstoloveherselfforwhosheis. Boom.
People call "200 Pounds Beauty" touching and cute because it makes a last-minute, barely detectable feint to talk up "true inner beauty" and wag a finger at shallow pop body standards, but it's undercut by the fact that the movie is, start to finish, a meretricious celebration of those standards. The main take-away here is forgiveness for people who used to look ugly if they currently look pretty. It's about as romantic as American Psycho, and perhaps even more depressing.
Man of Steel (2013)
A loud, brutal slugfest
Man of Steel is a merciless bludgeoning, and nothing more. Superman keeps getting told that he's conflicted and torn between two worlds, but the plot provides no moral dilemmas for him other than "bash things." He is humanity's Jesus of punching.
The action is staged beautifully and looks great, and this from someone who hated Watchmen for every reason there is. Zack Snyder came through! If you haven't seen Man of Steel, you've never seen someone throw a person through a skyscraper and believed it. There are some moments that approach awe, such as the austere architecture and landscape of Krypton (where we spend about half an hour but which we never see not blowing up) and the famous shot of Superman breaking the sound barrier. The only problem is that it's followed by 5 more shots of Superman breaking the sound barrier. This applies to every stunt and action set-piece in the movie.
Production design is outstanding, my favorite being the Pinscreen-inspired alien computer interface. Sounds silly, but the history of Krypton told in gunmetal and graphite pixels is an inventive and lovely visual.
Unfortunately, the things that aren't alien ships, fistfights or explosions aren't interesting or good.
The music is standard Zimmerklang: brass and drums. It's monotonous and obnoxious.
The writing is... You know how trailers chop in snippets of dialogue between the cool music? "Welcome to the FBI. - His methods are... a little unconventional. - Bank of Luxembourg - twenty million dollars - stolen. - He hasn't been the same since - killed his wife." Imagine a whole movie done this way. I can barely think of an actual conversation in this movie - everything is either an order, an instruction or a threat.
The plot is easy to follow and hard to get invested in. The Badass General Zod comes to Earth from Krypton because the phantom dimension gate was disrupted by the codex DNA which became unstable when the planet core was mined for energy that was transcribed in the cellular matrix of the genesis probe that the supreme council rejected after the coup attempt which caused the distress beacon to go off in the consciousness hologram - basically, to give Superman something to chew on. Zod has henchpeople, and they all get into loud, massive fights with Superman while Earth soldiers surround them and shoot impotent blanks.
That's the common problem to watching godlike aliens fight - humanity comes off as totally useless. Lois Lane is briefly relevant once, when she plugs in an alien flash drive. And in the end, the movie gets humans to deliver a thing to a place, like a mother letting her idiot child carry a bag of chips so he can feel like he's helping.
Naturally, aside from crouching victims, the Superman canon has use for earthlings as teachers, parents, colleagues and love interests, none of which comes through in this movie. Clark Kent's entire earthly backstory comes down to: being told how historic he is by Ma and Pa, and saving people from disasters in flashbacks. All this happens in short, out-of-order clips that play like a badly-organized family slideshow. The romance with Lois Lane is non-existent, since about the only time they're on screen together is when he's catching her in mid-air.
Positive characters who die do it with such serenity that they almost look bored.
A huge battle takes place in Metropolis and results in several dozen 9/11s. Nobody dies on screen, because PG-13.
General Zod and his people could probably achieve their goals on Mars or Venus with equal success and don't have to try and kill everybody, but they can't be reasoned with because they're genetically like that.
So there it is. See this movie if you want to see Superman and his enemies punch things, punch through things, punch people, punch things through people, punch people through things and punch things through other things. But who punches the punchmen?
In hindsight, the promotional videos ended up as an excellent predictor. The short "viral" film about David the Fassbender was brilliant, and his parts in the movie were great. Guy Pearce in the "TED talk" video came off as Eldon Tyrell's phony, pompous kid brother - and that's just how his whole plot line played. The trailer was visually spectacular, but sounded pretentious without much to back it up. We hoped it wouldn't be so, but it is.
First things first, Scott knows how to direct, and Prometheus may be the best-looking movie of the decade. Just for that, I don't regret putting down $15 for a 3D screening. After all the weak CG and derivative action we've been watching for years (orcs on jet-skis in Avengers, anything by Bay or Snyder), it's good to see amazing practical sets, tasteful computer graphics, and effects that FEEL REAL.
It's just too bad that the screenplay is murky, overwrought twaddle without a single memorable line or character. Fassbender is good. Noomi Rapace is good in distress, although, after a certain point, one has to wonder how she could run and jump without massive bleeding and hemorrhages. Almost everyone is flat, disposable, irrational and stupid.
The biggest bubble of them all is when people praise the movie for "raising questions." We're science fiction fans. We've read Wells, Asimov and Clarke. All these questions have already been raised long ago, we've been thinking about them for decades. Clarke did panspermia in "Cradle," Sagan did theology in "Contact," and Scott himself did gooshy monsters, evil androids and space ruins in "Alien." What Prometheus should have done was explore these questions, and it didn't.
There are dozens of reviews here right now from furious Brits who list the flaws, the plot holes, the perfunctory theology, the pointless twists, the stupidity of every character. There's not much I can add to that, but I would like to tie the awful science of it together. Man, the biology was bad. For a movie about genetic engineering, holy Christ was the biology bad.
So check this out. In the beginning, Earth appears barren. Giant, pale alien humanoids seed it with life. In the first inexplicable move, one of them has to drink some goop and disintegrate into a waterfall. But why?? If they can travel through the galaxy and create biospheres from scratch, surely they'd have found a way to do it without killing off one of their own guys.
OK, now DNA is in the water. Now what? Do we start out with microorganisms that diversify and organize themselves into multicellular life? Do they radiate into plants & animals, fungi, extremophiles, occupy every niche on Earth and and go through the evolutionary history that we know and love? Does this process take 3.8 billion years, and leave fossils in every geological strata? In that case, the DNA that ended up in the water must have been chopped down into really small, basic chunks. After all, if humans and holothurians have a common ancestor, it must have been pretty simple. Then how, after billions of years of mutation, did Earth produce bipedal humanoids that look incredibly similar to the ones who seeded it in the first place, down to six-pack abs and everything? Wouldn't that be vanishingly unlikely?
But wait. In the movie, they run a DNA scan on one of the aliens... and it matches human DNA exactly! But how? Didn't we evolve from goop on planet Earth? How in the world did we end up with the exact same genetic code as the beings that poured some DNA into a river billions of years ago? Even two populations of the same species, if they are split up, will begin to lose their similarities due to genetic drift.
Maybe, somehow, the Engineers programmed Earth's biosphere to produce, among millions of species in every conceivable environment and niche, with every conceivable body plan, chemistry and life cycle, something that had their exact DNA. However, those guys are nine feet tall, completely hairless, and pale like cave slugs. Wouldn't there be some differences between their DNA and ours? How come we aren't nine feet tall? How is there a genetic match with so many phenotypic differences?
You can either bash nitpickers and use the generic IMDb response, "But it's just a movie! It's entertainment!" Or, you can try to defend Prometheus as intelligent science fiction. But intelligent science fiction can't have dismal junk science. You can't break biology, then try to ride out on "raising questions."
Sometimes, it feels like we've entered the Age of People Losing their Touch. Indiana Jones 4... The Star Wars prequels... Now this. Ridley Scott... you sure know how to shoot movies, but please, get a decent writer next time...
I missed the theatrical release of Watchmen in 2009, and just saw the Ultimate Cut on video. It is 3 1/2 hours long. It wouldn't have run a minute over 2 if all the slo-mo played at normal speed.
By the way, don't watch the Ultimate Cut. It's worse than the Director's Cut, because it includes Tales of the Black Freighter in the film's runtime instead of as an extra. The Tales in the graphic novel were a nice parallel narrative of gathering darkness and insanity. In the movie, they're badly animated, badly integrated, break the flow and lack all sense of visual style, dread and foreboding. The comic uses greens, reds and yellows to convey a look of runaway putrefaction, and shows the protagonist's mental degradation by always playing with the color scheme. The movie version has flat sand, flat blue water, flat green corpses, flat shadows. The protagonist looks like Nathan Explosion, and voiceovers everything he does in a mildly distressed monotone. In the comic, the Tales end simply, with hands stretching out to grab a rope, and yet the horror is suffocating. In the movie, they end with grinning demon pirates with glowing red eyes, straight out of second-rate 80s Disney.
So, what about the live action film? Well... It's faithful. It tracks the source material like a dachshund tied behind a bicycle. The only major change has been the ending and, mirabile dictu, it's better (well, the concept is better – they ruined it with song, but more on that later).
Jackie Earle Haley is about as good a Rorschach as we could hope for. Danny Woodburn has a sweet scene or two. Patrick Wilson is a sad nerdy lump in tweed. That's the performances.
Visually, the movie is a treat for aficionados of glowing blue penises. Credit where it's due, Zack Snyder doesn't tend to soft-pedal violence, nor did he nerf Dr. Manhattan's nudity. It's good to see a major motion picture that doesn't think seeing a dong will destroy my mind forever.
Unfortunately, that's about all that can be said about the visuals. The idea of special effects is to make the impossible or nonexistent look real. Snyder has kind of a reverse Midas touch, where even his real sets end up looking phony. Every surface in the whole movie looks like it was rendered with the Doom 3 engine. The worst is the glass clockwork thingamabob on Mars – I almost want to donate some CPU time on my video card, so they can add some radiosity to it or something.
On top, they added a green Matrix tint to almost every scene, except for a flashback to green Vietnamese rice paddies, which are tinted orange.
The music. How can you take so much good music and make such trite and horrible use of it? The opening montage –the only good use of slow-motion in the movie – is set to "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Flying to an Antarctic fortress? "All Along the Watchtower." Not obvious enough? How about a burial set to "The Sound of Silence." The solemn, dark ending? Mozart's "Requiem," bringing you schmaltz since Bunny Lebowski's kidnapping.
The worst was the Vietnam flashback. Quick, what music do you think they picked for that one? That's right. It was "Ride of the Valkyries." God, did I hate this movie at that moment! About the only good use of music was Philip Glass's sublime "Prophecies," during Dr. Manhattan's transformation.
Sound effects... It's the Hollywood thing, where every object visible on screen needs to make some sort of a clank or a clink or a shwing, otherwise the stupids won't notice that it's there. Snyder seems intent on doubling even the usual excessive sound environment, just to make absolutely sure that people notice that THERE'S A HAT TUMBLING THROUGH THE AIR!! When a character flicks a smiley-face badge into an open grave, it's the only thing happening on screen. There's no way to miss it. But just in case, they'll make it sound like a Russian helicopter as it falls: "PLINK!... whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-WHOOSH-WHOOSH." The action is just as subtle. Everything is in slow motion. Fight sequences are in slow motion. Punches are in slow motion. Rorschach's improvised flamethrower is in slow motion; the Comedian's Army-issued flamethrower is also in slow motion. Silk Spectre walks down a flight of stairs in slow motion. Twice. Getting into a car – slow motion. Getting out of a car? Slow motion. Elevator doors open in slow motion. A blue energy weapon explodes in slow motion. An assassin aims his gun in slow motion, fires it in slow motion, misses in slow motion, and gets his ass kicked in slow motion.
What if we still don't get it? Break the action down even more! Remember the hallway fight in Oldboy, how fluid and awesome it was? Here's the Watchmen version: a bad guy runs towards the good guys. Cut to his face, centered in the frame for a second. It gets punched (with a whoosh before and after). Cut to another static bad guy. He gets kicked. Cut to static body part. It gets broken/blown off/whatever. There is no flow, no sense of motion.
It's like Snyder thinks the only way to make people actually notice what's happening on screen is to center and pause on the action, and maybe also shake people by the lapels. It's like a four-year-old trying to get an adult's attention. "Mom look. Mom, look what I got. MOM, LOOK. Mom, you aren't looking. LOOK MOM!!!" Yeah. Watchmen is Ambitious, Personal and Faithful to the source, for all that's worth. It's just not really all that good.
Too bad, because the money people probably looked at the numbers and decided that mature, uncomfortable science fiction doesn't sell, and they shouldn't make any more. The real lesson is that they should; just put it in the hands of Alfonso Cuaron.
The Interrupters (2011)
Profiles in courage
Chicago, Baltimore, Oakland, Detroit – synonyms for American crime, places where young men kill one another in the streets. Bleak background noise in the national news, with dim flares of outrage at especially gruesome killings.
On the subject of solutions, our imaginations are dismally poor and usually limited to applying money or violence in some form. More police, more arrests, longer sentences, talk of the National Guard on the streets.
The Interrupters seem to have a better gimmick. The violence prevention group CeaseFire recruited a group of tattooed ex-gang-members in Chicago, most of whom turned away from crime after cooling off in hospitals or prisons. They know the locals, and they have credibility where cops, teachers and politicians don't.
The film follows several of them: a tough gang heiress turned devout Muslim, an imposing man with several prison terms for drugs and violence, and a soft-spoken Latino out after serving 14 years for murder. Interrupters are, in effect, roaming street counselors; unlike the armchair type, they usually find themselves between two or more people who are about to begin stabbing one another. They are to ordinary counselors what BASE jumpers are to people who feel proud of taking stairs.
The rare and valuable insight of the film is how, over the course of a year, the counselors manage to talk down people who're about to do horrible things, and how these people arrive at such a place to begin with. None of them are remorseless sociopaths, and none of them appear to want or relish violence. They want the best for themselves, they value their families, and yet some have come to the verge of actual fratricide. Why? Hopelessness, poor impulse control, lack of role models, a gang tribalism that feeds on vacuum and anarchy.
It's amazing how many fights and murders aren't motivated by gain. They're essentially the result of undereducated boys applying the Cheney Doctrine every day on street level – "get them before they get you." On these streets, nobody trusts each other, everybody is armed and nobody is willing to back down from a fight. Tempers can flare instantly, and the killers are often as baffled by their own crimes as anybody else.
Somehow, the Interrupters pull young people out of this mindset. It takes a heroic amount of trust and patience. It doesn't work all the time. But it works way more often than one imagines it should.
There is a large and influential contingent in our country which holds that the only solution to inner-city violence is to tighten the screws even further. To their Klingon eyes, the CeaseFire approach probably looks like so much liberal mollycoddling of people who just ought to have their heads busted on the pavement more often. One of the thicker ironies of "The Interrupters" is that this Old Testament law enforcement mentality comes from precisely the same place as the bloody retaliations and preemptive violence by South Side gang-bangers.
I listened to the young ruffians, and heard the words of steely-eyed Giulianis: not backing down, not showing weakness, getting tough, getting serious, showing them who's boss. Once you realize that "tough on crime" politicians count on the same tactics to intimidate gangs that gangs use to intimidate one another, you may recognize the same lustful rage in yourself as well, and subside to embarrassed head-scratching.
The Interrupters talk about the legal trickery of being involved in potential crimes, and sometimes the organization has no choice but to get law enforcement on the case. However, their strength is not in meting out punishment, but understanding – and it's astonishing to see violent young toughs respond and open up. Even with all the money, cops and technology that America can scratch together, maybe the best way to solve social problems is still through one person talking to another.
Tomboy is a feel-good movie of a type we're unaccustomed to seeing: it doesn't end with killings or sex or a pile of money. It's a movie about children where the children aren't effigies of the adult audience, with knowing wrinkles and smart-aleck sneers carved on ten-year-old faces. It is the opposite. It's a movie that can help the hardened and scratched-up adult carapace melt away for 80-odd minutes. Through layers of paperwork and grime, we watch and we imagine remembering what it was like to feel protected and loved by two tall and wonderful beings. What it was like to come home to dinner. What it was like not knowing who you were.
The Tomboy is Laure, a 10-year-old girl whose family just moved to a leafy suburb. She has a summer to spend before school starts, and for reasons unclear even to herself, decides to fake it as a boy. Zoé Héran, the actress, is a remarkable performer and will be a remarkable French beauty in another decade, but in the film appears as a wiry, scrawny child who wears feminine clothes only on pain of motherly torture. She runs in the forest, scraps around with boys, and can get away with being on the "shirtless" team in the soccer game.
Here's something amazing about Héran's performance: I kept having to remind myself that she speaks. In fact, she probably has more lines than anyone else in the movie, but they seem ephemeral compared to the great work that silently goes on in her mind. The camera watches her think with such intensity and expression, and since this is not a dumb movie, we don't get a voice-over that explains the obvious. We know what she's thinking: how will I continue the deception on the field and in the lake? How will I prevent my family from finding out? And, in quieter moments, other thoughts, other sensations, attempts to understand things that she can feel but hasn't yet learned the words for.
Her self-discovery is framed by a supporting cast that includes tender and attentive parents, a cute little ball of energy for a younger sister, a neighborhood girl who's attracted to the mysterious stranger, and a colorful group of rambunctious but good-natured boys.
Tomboy was made for peanuts, and there's no telling what it would have looked like with a few million dollars to spend, but the feel and sound of it are perfect. In the day, the hiss and rustle of trees; at night, the taps and groans of the house in the wind. I watched it in a dark, dusty room on a New England January, and I could almost feel the sunlight on my own skin.
In the end, despite Laure's anxieties, this is a movie that shines with joy. A wide-open world of familial love, summer play, first romance, none of which is packaged to be bought or sold. None of that first-world paranoia, no fences and kidnappers and card readers and metal detectors. It's a picture of the days when half an hour of homework was a jail term, three months of summer were a lifetime, and childhood itself was a sky-blue eternity of invented games, skin-deep catastrophes and ineffable comfort at the steady hands of the people who wish us best.
P.S. Then again, we adults have our own joys, such as the dismal, acrid laughter at the stupidity of others. This movie didn't go unnoticed on the arch-conservative website The Free Republic, which claims that the main character is a lesbian (the word doesn't actually appear once in the script, and the director is on record saying she specifically wanted to avoid pigeonholing her protagonist). Of all the extraordinarily strong opinions expressed in the forum thread, not one appears to be informed by an actual viewing.
The discussion starts out by claiming that the movie "exploits small children to advance progressives' bizarre sexual agenda;" it takes a detour through gender reassignment surgery, underage sex and ends in a starkly pornographic debate about bestiality.
It's a trope that guardians of morality often have infinitely filthier and more disturbing minds under their helmets than the people whose work gives them shrieking fits. The debauched French have made a serene and charming movie about family and friends, whereas our self-anointed protectors of children's minds and bodies used it as a springboard into bottomless perversity. The moral: if you have a choice between reading a dour political site and watching a French children's movie, go with the movie.
New Rose Hotel (1998)
The Future is Blurry
Abel Ferrara found himself in a MacGyver situation: to improvise a cyberpunk film with a) several very good actors, b) a camcorder, c) an impressive but extremely short and sketchy story by William Gibson, d) futuristic props consisting entirely of a PDA (google it, kids) and a half-bitten circuit board, and e) $600 bucks for expenses.
This is all conjecture on my part, based on nothing more than having seen New Rose Hotel. Can you blame me? After hacking off all the stylistic coir, the story is as such: it's the Future. The most profitable form of industrial espionage is stealing human talent. Two threadbare hijack artists, played by Walken and Dafoe, will lure a brilliant scientist named Hiroshi from Evil Megacorp to Mega Evilcorp. They will use a magnetic temptress that they pick from a squirming Shinjuku flesh pit based on her skill at fellating a karaoke mic.
Asia Argento is the girl – the actress has, the rarity of rarities! not only sex appeal but enough charisma and acting ability to work the part. Unfortunately, the singing is bad, and the songs are bad, and the sexy bar where they are performed is not very sexy at all. While we're at it, the future is not all that futuristic. The sex, of which there is plenty, is made up of cuts, quick pans and motion blur. The seduction and abduction of Hiroshi is talked about exhaustively, but would have been pedestrian even if it didn't entirely take place off-camera.
In brief, the amount of abstraction and suspension required to enjoy – if I may use such a bold term – "New Rose Hotel" hangs some serious lifting on the viewer. Discounting the bland nudity, the only distinct pleasure is watching Christopher Walken's line delivery. The one other actor who gets to do anything of note is his partner in crime, Willem Dafoe; unfortunately, his arc comes down to getting warned severely against falling in love with Argento's character, then falling in love with her like a man taking a headfirst dive on a concrete slab.
Some people have called this movie confusing, but they are dumb. The plot is crystal clear. It's simple as a triangle. Others have called it a boring, flickering mess, which is a much harder charge to beat. You know those "reveal" montages where the main character figures out the horrible secret? They're all made up the same way, with ominous music getting louder in the background, snippets of flashback picked half-second at a time from various parts of the movie, and key lines of dialogue played over and over, with an echo effect added on top.
The entire movie plays like one of those. A relatively simple story is packed inside a fifteen-layered rebus of headache, eyestrain and tinnitus as you squint to figure out what's on screen. If this is how the regular narrative plays, then as a parting fillip, the entire last half hour of the movie is made up of an actual flashback montage as one of the characters, soon to be found and killed by his enemies, is reliving past mistakes and pleasures in a dinky hotel room.
Some have complained about this sequence because it goes on for about 20 minutes after even the densest of us have figured out every plot secret. I think they're missing the point – the scene isn't a reveal, but the fevered, looping memories of a man who's about to kick off the chair. As such, it has a good deal of pathos. However, in the end, it's not really all that interesting, good-looking or original. And way, way too long.
The central question of New Rose Hotel is as follows: is there any reason at all to watch this dizzy 90-minute montage, when you could read the original short story in 15 minutes? None, actually. Unless you are enough of a stim addict to prefer watching any sort of dull video to reading any kind of engaging prose.
Boom! Zoom!! Clang!!!!
Quick capsule summary of Redline: It's an animated, intergalactic "Death Race 2000," on buffalo steroids and with a jalapeño up its a$$.
An illegal and absurdly violent drag race occurs once every five years, each time on a different planet. This may be for reasons of secrecy, or just because the old planet is rendered unusable. The main hero, J.P., is a racer who tends to explode and wipe out before the finish, but feels destined to win the big one. Things go fast, crash into each other and go up like the Hindenburg.
In this world, men are men; women are women; squishy purple aliens are purple and squishy; and everything is blown completely out of proportion. If you want to see what animation can do better than live film, Redline is a good start. Michael Bay and his lesser followers can use all the CG and shaky-cams they want, but no live-action movie will ever be able to whap the viewer in the face with unhinged chaos that buckles the frame and yet stays somehow comprehensible. It's been attempted, and has usually led to legendary failures like Speed Racer. A pack of nerdy Asians with paintbrushes do Hollywood like punks, and all the render farms in the world wilt and run barren.
The movie opens with a race that is merely impossible, and introduces J.P., who almost wins it until a Mafia bomb takes out his front wheel. The crown goes to Sonoshee, his childhood crush and next best racer. They are just two of the weird characters who qualify for the ultimate landscape-altering contest. This year, the Redline race committee feels that equipping the cars with rockets and grenades doesn't make for nearly enough mayhem, and decides to hold the race on Roboworld – a planet run by Nazi cyborg generals who are willing to do absolutely anything to avoid the honor. Roboworld appears completely barren except for some of the most destructive weaponry in the known universe, and by golly, is the government ever determined to use it all.
The movie would be hilarious without even trying for humor, simply because it's so preposterous; however, it does try in its odd way, and pulls it off. The base camp for the final race lies on a refugee world. The place is just as anarchic and badly-managed as one would expect; upon arrival, JP is accosted by a gang of knee-tall aliens who look like Tweety's sketchy, mutated fugee cousins. He runs into inconceivably bad service at the money-changing window, and gets ripped off in an ungodly way while buying cigarettes. Complaints don't help.
Soon, the tobacco troubles are forgotten, as it's time for the big race. Words can't describe it, so you'll have to see it for yourself. If you need any further motivation, it somehow involves a "bio-weapon" called Funky Boy that could give Akira himself a couple of pointers in indiscriminate destruction.
Redline is pure lizard-brain pleasure. The remarkable thing is that, at the same time, it isn't offensively and painfully stupid like, say, Armageddon. If you like cars, spaceships, guns and explosions, watch it as soon as you can.
Tous les matins du monde (1991)
Water Under the Bridge
A person wishing to see the stamp that imposture, venality, perfidy and lies put on a human face should only watch French historical dramas. Corrupt sybarites tiptoe around royal courts, wheezing under the weight of their wigs and lifestyles. Theirs are faces that sag with a permanent combination of distaste and craving; their very eyes can seduce and pollute with a single glance.
This is one of the faces we see, in a long close-up, as the opening shot of this movie. Marin Marais is a greatly respected musician at the King's court, but he's seen better days, and dozes fitfully while his viola students argue about technique. He wakes and critiques every one of them pitilessly, then turns the lash upon himself. He tells them of a life spent in self-aware mediocrity next to an artist who possesses a purity and passion that can't be learned.
This man is Marais's teacher – a fictionalized version of 17th-century musician Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, who wrote great music for the viola. His beloved wife dies of an illness while he's entertaining nobility. Sainte-Colombe returns home, looks at her body and walks out of society with his two young daughters. They live cold and silent lives in the countryside, until a young man shows up for an apprenticeship and won't leave. He's capable enough on the instrument, but does he have the soul of an artist? Sainte-Colombe decides to teach him.
The master doesn't speak in comprehensible sentences. The metaphors that make up his speech are disjointed dabs of emotion and color, like flat projections of an immeasurable and many-dimensional shape. His disciple certainly doesn't understand them, and has no adequate response.
For Sainte-Colombe, words are a paltry and clumsy thing; music is the only way to express the ineffable – endless grief, impossible to describe, impossible to write about, impossible to film, finds an outlet in music. His bow cries and tears across the strings, and all the world's sorrow pours out. There's a good reason this soundtrack became one of France's best-sellers.
Marin Marais is played first by Gerard Depardieu's son, and as he grows from a limber young man into a fat and powdered courtier, by Depardieu himself. He sincerely wants to live up to his master, but there are so many girls to chase, so many ladders to climb. He is a man of quick and shallow passions, and once he moves on, his old attachments become nothing but mild embarrassments. He is not an evil man, but his indifferent cruelty ends up leading to appallingly tragic results. "He didn't want to be a shoemaker" is one of the most heart-rending lines I've ever heard. In the end, which is the film's beginning, Marais is left with a life spent in pursuit of easy applause, asking his master's ghost for forgiveness.
Tous les Matins du Monde is a rare film – capable of drawing us into a different consciousness, and helping us understand and appreciate something we had never contemplated before. It's a torrent of music and feeling, and there are no protective walls of irony around it. Whether you're interested in Baroque music, or merely the power of cinema, this one is worth seeing.
If She Only Had a Beard
I watched Agora and The Last Temptation of Christ over one weekend, and ended up vastly preferring the movie I disagreed with. The Last Temptation is an earnest, though unorthodox, treatment of the Christian messiah. It's a brilliant and powerful film. Agora makes a similar attempt for a secular saint – Hypatia of Alexandria, a remarkable woman scientist and philosopher who was killed by a misogynistic Christian mob in the early 5th century. It's a competently-mounted story of an important personage, at an interesting time in history, with a rare and compelling glimpse of the early Christian church. It works well enough as a "biopic," but in the end, this Peristera doesn't quite have the muscle to take off.
Why not? Many things are done well – Rachel Weisz was born to play intelligent and tragic women. Max Minghella is intense as one of Hypatia's domestic slaves, and her admiring quasi-Judas (his conversion to Christianity is one of the standout scenes). Michael Gambon is a confused patriarch who's losing his political instincts just as his city needs them. The canvas is crawling with bearded and snarling holy warriors, both on the side of the pagan establishment and the scruffy Christian upstarts. The production values are excellent, and the action is set in believable temples and loud marketplaces.
The bits of politics may be too dry for most, but I relished the close look at the days when the Christian church first showed itself as a force, and polytheism began to disappear from Mediterranean culture. The plot gets moving when Alexandria's idol-worshipers unleash a pogrom against the Christian church, and are promptly handed their asses by the vast underclass of converts. The Romans send troops to restore some semblance of order, but only succeed in delaying the inevitable blood-letting.
Hypatia wants none of this, and rejects both politics and marriage proposals to content herself with fictionalized discoveries. Unfortunately, "the nearer blood, the nearer bloody" – as power-hungry priests hurl chunks of dogma at each other like rocks from catapults, her gender and intellect mark her as a particularly soft target. The emotional arc of Agora is a progressive tightening one gets most often from Holocaust movies.
Now, the bad: the debates and science here are rather skeletal, and the dialogue is bread-and-potatoes prose. The plot is somewhat unfocused, attempting to follow local politics, Hypatia's personal life and her research at the same time, and not doing too profound a job of either. A great failing of the movie is that it literally lets you see the framing device – occasional Google Earth shots of the Mediterranean, set to generic Middle Eastern wails. While it fits with Hypatia's astronomical interests, yanking the viewer into near orbit ranks with clown noses as a concentration-killer. The characters are also too self-aware and modern – one can almost see a cultural studies professor grimly shaking her head.
Agora is a good, straightforward movie that deals with topics American films don't usually touch. It could have been better than it is.
Four Lions (2010)
I felt odder and odder as this movie played along. I've enjoyed some sick films, and I'm a happy diver into the depths of Internet humor, with its twisted grossouts and nihilism... but somehow, the laughs in Four Lions most often turned into winces.
This is a movie about five Muslim friends in Britain - Omar, Waj, Faisal, Mahmood and local convert Barry - who have decided to blow themselves up for the noble cause of killing infidels. Their moral journeys to the idea of martyrdom have taken place long before the camera rolled, and they discuss blowing up drug stores and marathons throughout the movie in the same terms as several incompetent and opinionated males planning a weekend boat trip. They are extraordinarily bad at what they do, with most of the comedy in the movie deriving from their cluelessness; there are even slapstick pratfalls involving rocket launchers in a Pakistan terror camp. The rub is that these men very seldom show anything approaching what we would call common human scruple. Watching scenes of off-kilter comedic crosstalk suddenly slip into stark inhumanity was uncomfortable, to say the least.
If it was difficult to relate to the five men's glibness, watching Omar's family was simply an ordeal. Throughout the movie, he discusses his death-wish with his beautiful, coltish wife, who is never less than cheerfully supportive. His intentions also filter into an awry rendition of The Lion King he tells his young son at bedtime. There was another British movie called The War Zone, about a ruddy old country Dad who had taken to raping his teenage daughter. Watching Omar with his family made me feel the same way as the rapes in that film – scenes of utter perversity, where characters in human aspect performed human activities and talked as humans do, but turned it all on its head. It was like a chipper household sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner where the main course is a cooked human baby.
The movie reserves its most savage digs not for terrorists but for British law enforcement, which seems to conduct terror arrests purely based on beard length and fails to move on a group that is responsible for pro-jihad outbursts during debates, suspicious purchases of chemicals online and in physical stores, trips to Al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan, numerous explosions in the English countryside and loud arguments about terror tactics that can be heard by passersby on the street. In fact, not a single action is performed by a police officer in this movie that makes anybody safer or saner.
I don't know what it is about this movie. I have seen and enjoyed some extremely dark comedies – Wag the Dog, Thank You For Smoking, the gruesome Belgian serial killer comedy Man Bites Dog – and none of them have sickened me this way. I think it's because all of those films were exaggerated blowouts about amoral people who knew what they were doing and did it with a sick, manic glee. The characters in Four Lions are gimlet-eyed, eager boys looking to die with a smile; they are surrounded by passive, slack-jawed English sheep incapable of defending themselves from the starkest threats. The police haven't been taught to run for a hundred yards without tripping over their own shoelaces and blowing the head off an innocent bystander.
The poster for Four Lions has a giant block of fifteen one-word blurbs from various publications that all say: "FUNNY." I beg to disagree. I would like this movie much more as a drama about human depravity with some uncomfortable laughs than a comedy with a dramatic topic. Maybe it was a marketing miscalculation that pushed it as a laugh-riot, though I don't think so – the slapstick "three men in a boat" bits wagged their tails a bit too earnestly. It was well-made, well-acted and Brave, but I didn't like it one bit.
The Karate Kid (2010)
I spent time in Beijing in the late 1990s, and let me tell you, that was some kind of culture shock. Did you know that before Pampers landed on Asian shores, all Chinese infants were traditionally dressed in open-crotch onesies, so they could go where they wanted? I didn't. One of the most indelible memories from my first week was watching a kid do his business on the sidewalk, after which a smiling uncle turned on a hose and sent it all flowing under our shoes.
This doesn't happen to Dre, the 12-year-old protagonist of the Karate Kid remake, but he's still in for a rough ride. The heartwarming story of a youngster who finds his inner self by learning to beat ropes of bloody snot out of his tormentors gets a fish-out-of-water revamp: in a nice dig for the grownups, Dre's mother moves to China for her unspecified automotive-related job, since "there is nothing for us in Detroit." Dre hates Beijing from the first five minutes, and it doesn't help that he gets pummeled into the dirt by an Enisatzgruppe of psychotic local bullies.
But wait, it's China, where everybody knows kung-fu! After a week of beatdowns, Dre is rescued by Jackie Chan's Mr. Han, a local Mr. Fixit who also happens to be a martial arts master. One thing leads to another, and after a surprisingly tense scene at the bad guys' dojo, Mr. Han wins Dre a reprieve from schoolyard torment by enrolling him in a massive kung-fu tournament. As the other Dre used to sing, at this point it's do or die, and our young hero only has a few months to get good and beat the locals.
This movie is about as good a genre picture as I've ever seen. Many negative reviews say that it was too long, but I think that was one of its strengths. The movie displays that rarest of virtues – patience, as dramatic tension gets a chance to build up, characters can develop and a sense of place is established. The amount of abuse Dre takes at his school and the humiliation of having to hide from his bullies are painful and raw. Instead of a slick and precocious showbiz brat, Jaden Smith comes off as small, unguarded and very real. Jackie Chan shines in a dramatic role, especially the scene where he tells his young pupil his life story. The bullies are pitiless jerks, but are given good reasons to be that way. The love story, though utterly contrived and perfunctory, is still charming and fun.
The movie is ultimately something of a puff piece on the Heavenly Kingdom, but who cares, if it shows such genuine engagement with its subject? It's full of Chinese characters that are played by Chinese people! They speak to each other in actual Chinese and not English with fake accents – even with Americans present! Mr. Han's shack looks so authentic, some old handyman probably went right to back to work inside after filming wrapped up (though his home was uncharacteristically huge – I've yet to see a real Chinese living room that could fit a motorized rickshaw, let alone a four-door sedan; a handyman's job won't buy you a yard in Beijing, either).
All in all, it's an accomplishment to imbue a story that's as familiar as a passion play with personality, interest and a good amount of realism. By the time the resolution came around, I didn't even mind that in the final tournament, Dre pulls off a flip-kick on one foot that Jackie Chan himself might have snagged on. His mother also breaks the spell a bit when she loudly cheers for her son from the bleachers. A real American mom would have gotten up halfway through the first round of face-bashing, rushed to the stage over a trail of broken, moaning martial arts masters, and snatched her precious darling away from harm before storming home and filing 1,336,718,015 lawsuits.
It's interesting to note that The Karate Kid rode the globe and made 350 million dollars on the shoulders of a little black kid and his Chinese mentor, with half the movie in subtitles. In fact, there was one single Caucasian actor in the whole film, with about 10 lines of dialogue. Things have definitely changed.
How does a soft, liberal-arts civilian like me even approach a document like "Restrepo"? I don't give myself to blind, reflexive worship of the military; before, I have reviewed "Taxi to the Dark Side," an investigation into some chilling crimes committed by individuals in the armed forces, almost surely with the knowledge and approval of their superiors. This, however, is a film, shot by two insane journalists who spent a year with American Army troops in Afghanistan's Korangal valley, and it portrays men who are different from the rest of us in that they have faced and survived the impossible.
Outpost Restrepo was named after a beloved comrade killed in action, and it was dug and fortified under constant enemy gunfire. The Taliban just hated giving up the position, and the men describe how they would dig for several minutes, then be forced to pick up their weapons and return fire, and after the gunfight died down, go right back to digging. The outpost is only several hundred meters from a larger base, but in case of an attack, support might as well be stationed in Germany.
The all-seeing documentarians capture the men's brutal physical labor under a constant state of siege and barely-adequate resupply, until violence and discomfort become life's permanent background. The soldiers are forced to go on regular patrols through the countryside, tracking the progress of development projects and trying to build trust among the locals, whose allegiances are never clear. If they are only listening with one ear, if they're only out to hedge their bets between the fighting sides, who can blame them?
The film culminates in an account of a firefight during an offensive called "Rock Avalanche" – words that the testifying soldiers cannot say without a shudder. The mission consists of the men being loudly airdropped on a hilltop and moving around valleys and mountains until attacked by the Taliban. They push onwards, trying not to think which step will finally trigger the inevitable ambush. The ambush occurs; the live footage cuts out, and for several minutes, we follow the brutal firefight only through the soldiers' testimony. It is gut-wrenching. The pain and terror of the men who return fire without knowing which of their fellows are still alive and if they themselves will live for another minute are suffocating. Then, the footage is back, and we see a private wailing like a child over the dead body of the unit's favorite commander. If this can happen to the best among us, he says, what chance do the rest of us have?
It is an astonishing thing to contemplate, but even at the end of so much hostile fire, the Americans have the better deal. The young men who passed through the trials are scarred and damaged by their experience, but they knew the date when it would end, and the bird was there to take the survivors back to a better life. The local Afghans' pain has no end. Frightened, grimy faces peer out of gashes in dirt walls. Children hide their eyes, dressed in scraps of their grandparents' clothes. The doorways of their mud shacks open into black pits – even in midday, the sun is unable to dispel the darkness. The village elders are a sight from another millennium – gnarly, weather-beaten, half-decayed faces that seem to have been chopped out of rotting tree trunks. You could easily give every one of them a couple of centuries, but who knows? They may still be in their thirties. I've had some rough years as a child of the third world, but I can't imagine even a tenth of what these people go through in their lives.
So many excellent films have come out of our latest painful conflicts – "Restrepo," "Generation Kill," "Taxi to the Dark Side," "Gunner Palace" Almost all of them have been financial failures. Who wants to spend ten dollars to get depressed and emotionally drained? What exactly are we supposed to feel at the end of "Restrepo"? Not hope. Maybe futility, weariness and an incredible desire to think about something else.
I wondered if the place I saw in "Restrepo" really exists on the same planet as the Metropolitan Opera. Will its misery ever end?
The King's Speech (2010)
I did bring a lot of baggage to this movie, not least a conviction that another movie is way too good not to win the Best Picture Oscar, as well as a couple of savage takedowns by Christopher Hitchens for being an ahistorical, monarchist fairy tale. Of course, historical accuracy is not the greatest contributor to the quality of a film, and in fact, that _other_ film stapled some rather fanciful extrapolations on the bare skeleton of known facts, and came out pretty well for it.
So does The King's Speech, but less as a historical epic and more as something akin to a sports movie. The whole story is about how the future George VI overcomes a show-stopping stutter and manages to deliver a rousing speech at the outset of World War II that inspires the underfed British masses to fight Hitler on the beaches, and in the fields, and no, wait, that was a different guy. The King's own big speech came across as remarkably less memorable, unhelpfully pushed to the background by the man's straining features and the music, as it swelled with pride in the logopedic conquest. In fact, I barely caught a word of it.
But back to the sports movie analogy. Colin Firth sweats, gasps and bulges in various directions no worse than Sylvester Stallone, and in all seriousness, does deserve shiny trophies for his performance. So does Helena Bonham Carter, as a heart-breakingly supportive Elizabeth, Geoffrey Rush, as the wise but unorthodox speech therapist, and Michael Gambon as the inflexible, old George V. The costumes, sets and scenery are beautiful, with a couple of scenes coddled in impenetrable British fog looking especially good. The particulars are well-handled, the movie is touching and amusing and sad in the right places.
The achievement is somewhat diminished by the fact that from the first 5 minutes, it's possible to predict the entire thing. The football template is immutable: a protagonist who thinks he's destined to be a secondary character due to a lack of Faith In Himself. The woman by his side who will support him through his defeats. The genial mentor with an offbeat training routine. Sibling rivalry and a history of bullying as a child. Several setbacks on the way to the Big Game er, speech.
You will know when George will bungle his non-essential speeches. You'll see it coming when he initially refuses the "one last treatment," and what will happen to change his mind. You will hardly be surprised when he has a falling out with his therapist, or when the latter makes an attempt to reconcile that fails, or that a second attempt will succeed. You will positively yawn through the intrigue with his elder brother Edward VIII, Hitler's odious lickspittle. If you're going to stand history on its head and involve real people in imagined situations, why not make the plot a little less implacably canonical? Anyway, the king aces his big speech, and everything ends on a note of inspiring and hard-won triumph. Followed, off-screen, by a genocidal war that leaves two continents in ruins, countless millions dead and entire nations rendered mad with horror.
This movie is splendidly put together, but in five years, it will join the somewhat dusty procession of mannered tales of self-triumph and not really be thought about very much. The Social Network has all the energy this season. Every line spoken in that movie is on fire. Every scene is sharp and unpredictable. The King's Speech seems to be the favorite to win, but if there's any justice, it will be the more modern film that carries Best Picture.
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
Heart of Darkness
A bomb went off, and we looked away. The medieval tableaux of Abu Ghraib did manage to shock us for a while. Then, some people were punished, and we convinced ourselves that was all of them.
According to the Global Views survey, in 2010, 42 percent of Americans were in favor of "using torture to extract information from suspected terrorists." This is 6 points higher than in 2008; 12 points higher than in 2004. Could this become a majority soon? Are these people who have seen and remember those photographs? Have they reconciled themselves to such scenes? Could I? "Taxi to the Dark Side" is an exceptionally meticulous documentary that takes the case of an Afghan taxi driver who was beaten to death by interrogators at Bagram base in 2006, and puts it in the context of American anti-terror policy. It shows young soldiers with no training in interrogation, given vague instructions and strong expectations of results - and when the story goes public, they are hung out to dry. One interview, one document at a time, the fog of legal and moral ambiguity is dispelled, until televised denials by administration officials shrink to nothing next to a stark red pillar of human suffering.
Maybe our culture won't let us believe that the good guys can do such things to innocent people. The detective throws down his badge and solves the case outside the system. He hits a man in the face; he gets a name. He pistol-whips another man; the man is reluctant, and he gets shot in the leg. A bartender gets dunked into dishwater. He almost dies, but gives up his contact.
There was ambiguity in movies like The French Connection, but at some point, the detective stopped ever being wrong. This documentary makes a compelling suggestion that popular entertainment has helped spread the idea of justified and reliable torture.
Taxi to the Dark Side won the Oscar for best documentary, and nobody saw it. It barely made a quarter of its budget. That's really too bad. It's a good idea for citizens to see it, then think about whether they believe that everything's OK.
The Social Network (2010)
The Internet is forever
Two people are sitting on a park bench, her head leans on his shoulder. She thinks he's cute and funny after he spent a week flicking her sweet nothings with his thumbs; she hides a screen under the counter at her workplace.
Neither of them have ever given a minute's thought to who invented the cell phone, but things are going to work out for them because of it. "The Social Network" is a movie about the inventors and the programmers, and the things that make them bother to program and invent.
Margaret Atwood put interesting words in the mouth of her protagonist in "Oryx and Crake." "The male frog in mating season makes as much noise as it can. ... Small male frogs -- it's been documented -- discover if they position themselves in empty drainpipes, the pipe acts as a voice amplifier and the small frog appears much larger than it really is. So that's what art is for the artist, an empty drainpipe. An amplifier. A stab at getting laid." Mark Zuckerberg, brilliantly played as a borderline Asperger's case by Jesse Eisenberg, is the very incarnation of this energy. His art is programming. He uses it to get back at the people - women - he feels have given him short shrift. He uses it to gain attention, and perhaps secretly hopes to be loved for it. His frustrations lead him to build the road that half a billion people travel along, on their way to each other. For him, it may be a dead end.
The movie gets everything right. The screenplay has been exalted in many words; I'll only say that if you enjoy hearing intelligent conversation, the first scene is all the encouragement you need. As a place where people could plausibly have these kinds of conversations in real life, Harvard is the perfect setting - and justice is finally done to an Ivy League school, after years of nerf visions like "The Skulls." The pacing of the movie is relentless - no slow second act, and a big exhale after two hours. Fincher's direction and cinematography are good because they're never not good, with the rowing race scene one of the most memorable and outstanding moments in a career that has included "Seven" and "Fight Club." Actors - fantastic. Score - wonderful.
You really should see this movie.