Review: Mozart’s Sister (2011)

Classical music is an estimable topic that I feel disinclined to write about. This diffidence has little to do with any shortage of enthusiasm or background knowledge (you’ll find Saint-Saens, Telemann, Cage, and Mozart all in my music collection, often played in rhythmic counterpoint to activities both sinful and innocently quotidian). It may reflect a quiet desire to keep this joyful terrain unsullied by scabrous assaults of the overly examined. It may have something to do with certain upper-class exigencies which I identify as ridiculous – the requirement to dress up and spend a lot of money just to hear a thunderous orchestra play something you love, the paucity of robust alcoholic beverages, the prohibition on spontaneous enthusiasm within dull and often overpraised buildings designed almost exclusively for fuddy-duddies, and the unshakable vibe of being sized up by condescending assholes pegging you as some bumpkin who inexplicably sneaked past the velvet rope. Whenever I have the pleasure of attending a swank cultural affair for something I am genuinely excited about, there remains a small part of me that wonders if I’ll suffer a fate not unlike the poor couple losing the necklace in the Guy de Maupassant story. A decade of my life gone because of a misunderstanding.

That sounds like hyperbole. Maybe I can explain it another way. I can summon words to describe or connote how I feel about tangible experiences, specific people, books, movies, and even pop music –- perhaps because these all feel sufficiently democratic and translatable. But if I am to be truthful here, it’s also because I have little to lose. I don’t wish to suggest that these topics are less significant simply because I can relate them with greater ease and facility. I know that I can get worked up enough by the Dorian mode in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to write about it somewhere down the line, but I can’t see myself writing about well temperament or Pythagorean tuning anytime soon. I can approach Finnegans Wake and The Tree of Life, amalgamating my genuine enthusiasm for these works of art with some detailed theory. Yet for classical music, it’s the emotional experience which counts more than any theory. I leave such expatiations (or perhaps expiations?) to minds greater than mine.

This sharp contrast between privileged appreciation and mass entertainment, which I am admittedly identifying from a highly subjective vantage point, may be one reason why cinema’s offerings about classical music remain, to my mind, fairly lackluster. Perhaps I complain because the music itself is loaded with greater life than some slanderous biography, but this is not altogether the case. The sole exception (indeed, one of the few directors who went well out of his way to claim this turf) may be Ken Russell, the underrated auteur who worked his way from bizarre television docudramas (see this glorious opening for The Debussy Film, if you don’t believe me) to such fearlessly libertine flicks as The Music Lovers and Lisztomania. Whether depicting Tchaikovsky confronting his sexuality on a moving train or Richard Wagner as a reanimated Nazi Frankenstein with a machine gun/guitar, Ken Russell valued eye-popping entertainment over historical accuracy. And if one examines the best classical music biopics (Amadeus, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Hilary and Jackie), one discovers additional resistance to the dry facts of life. Let’s face it: the classical music biopic, perhaps more than any other biopic subgenre, is at its best when the slander runs deep.

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It wasn’t a surprise to see writer-director Rene Féret take silly liberties with Mozart’s Sister, suggesting not only that Maria Anna Mozart (played by Féret’s daughter, Marie) captured the romantic attentions of the kid who would grow up to be King Louis XVI (the monarch who eventually lost his head altogether), but that this Dauphin would ask young Maria Anna (disguised as a boy and singing quite high without skepticism from the heir apparent) for fresh compositions. The Dauphin was shy in real life. And at one point in the film, he remarks upon this shyness. Yet Féret has cast the somewhat vigorous Clovis Fouin in the role. Fouin doesn’t so much as quiver. He doesn’t so much as cower or blush. He’s some hipster plucked from the 20th Arrondissement, waiting for a ripe moment to languorously puff on his nonexistent Gauloise. I hope he was paid well.

Yes, it’s true that the Mozart Family traveled around Europe. But isn’t it convenient that the Mozarts break an axle a few miles from an abbey? And isn’t it convenient that the Dauphin’s sister is there (along with a few sisters more, who happen to be conveniently visiting)? And isn’t it also convenient that Maria Anna becomes an inadvertent messenger between clandestine lovers so as to kickstart a plot that isn’t in the history books and that isn’t even good enough for a trashy potboiler. If Féret had offered us something extremely preposterous along the lines of Russell, I might have gone along for the ride. But Féret has besmirched the Mozarts: not because he has offered us historical horseshit, but because it’s such ho-hum historical horseshit.

Féret’s mythical Maria Anna apparently plays the violin, but is confined to the clavichord by her father Leopold, who insists that women are unfit to be real musicians. Yet if Leopold was such a repressive patriarch, why did he give Maria Anna top billing in the advertisements he wrote for his family? It was Maria Anna reaching a marriageable age that felled her career. And that age was eighteen, not fifteen (as it is suggested here; or perhaps younger, given that we see Maria Anna have her first period and thus “become a woman”). It was also Maria Anna who surrendered control of her life to her father, including choice of suitors. While musical scholars have debated the question of what precisely Wolfgang owes Maria Anna, and it is clear from the documents that Mozart and his sister were very close, Féret’s film isn’t especially interested in using this preexisting information to build an enticing story. And if Maria Anna is such a thwarted feminist icon (so repressed that even her neighbors ask her to stop playing the clarichord when she’s on her own teaching piano later in the film), why doesn’t this film show her teaching young Wolfgang a few lessons (in anticipation of her own teaching) or picking up some of Leopold’s tricks? Well, it doesn’t really suit Féret’s convenient untruths, which establish Maria Anna as someone on backup vocals and clavichord to Wolfgang’s fiddling. In other words, if you’ll pardon my tacky yacht rock comparison, Maria Anna is Michael McDonald to Wolfgang’s Christopher Cross. And I’m pretty certain she was a bit more than this. We see Leopold teaching Wolfgang composition, with Maria Anna trying to listen in behind a closed door. But does this really represent the truth when one considers that, in 1764, it was Maria Anna who wrote down Wolfgang’s first symphony when Leopold fell ill?

Look, I’m hardly a Mozart expert. But when the historical record proves more compelling than the reductionist drama, one has to wonder why these prevarications were offered in the first place. If Féret wanted to make a film about a repressed woman composer, there were plenty of other stories to dwell from. Presumably, Féret settled upon Mozart’s Sister because it was the most dependable title for film financing. While I appreciated Féret’s punkass effrontery in offering Barry Lyndon-like slow zooms (although, to be clear, he is no Kubrick), I was not impressed by his middling efforts to sift and synthesize from the available record in a manner that mostly bores. Here was an opportunity to translate an elite interest for the hoi polloi, but Féret, in flattening the story and avoiding the juicy bits, only furthers the chasm.

The Bat Segundo Show: Miranda July

Miranda July appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #405. She is most recently the writer, director, and star of The Future, which opens in theaters on July 29, 2011.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking further bifurcations between art and commerce.

Guest: Miranda July

Subjects Discussed: People in their mid-thirties who are crippled by their own self-judgment, empathy and resentment, workaholicism, feeling paralyzed, kidults and grups, pursuing a project without seeking a larger sociological reach, hats and gloves, the number of characters in The Future that operate as failed artists, July’s theory that most artists are in a constant state of crisis, moments in life when you don’t know what to do with yourself, entering the space of not knowing, outside forces that compel artists, talking moons and crawling T-shirts, nudges from your own security blanket, the relationship between art and commerce, the dry-erase marketing campaign for No One Belongs Here More Than You, the Internet as a commercial medium, Google+, art springing from boredom, anger and addiction, T-shirt puppeteers, screaming out windows, Howard Beale in Network, yelling out windows in real life, girls who bury themselves in the ground, self-enforced endurance rituals, vital methods that emerge from voicing a talking cat, playing multiple roles, sticking with initial intentions, accidental slips, whether July feels any obligation to speak to her generation or a cultivated audience, and the liberation of writing, directing, and performing in your own sex scene.


Correspondent: I want to discuss the fact that you have two characters in this movie who are in their mid-thirties. They are too lazy to leave the couch. They are unable to get their lives together to pursue their careers. When it comes to keeping track of the calendar, they prove negligent — I don’t want to give it away. And they are crippled so much by their judgment that Sophie is very diffident in the very beginning when she’s making these 30 dance videos and Jason keeps his hand permanently on Sophie’s head. So as a guy who is in his mid-thirties and who works very hard, I was interested in these characters. But I also felt somewhat resentful towards these characters. And I can only imagine, in concocting these characters, that you, who have worked quite hard also may have experienced perhaps some resentment towards your creation. And I was wondering if you could talk about this double-edged sword. What did you do to shake off potential resentment towards people who are really not going anywhere in their lives — at least for the large majority of the film?

July: Well, I didn’t — I felt more understanding of them than that. I mean, yeah, I’m really, really productive. Maybe even a workaholic. But I feel paralyzed a lot of the time. And just cause I work a lot doesn’t mean I feel like always deeply fulfilled or that I always know what to do next. Or who I am. So in a way, I took a lot of doubts and fears and put them into my characters and, in a way, to break out of the patterns of some of like, you know, using work in a kind of unexamined way. And yeah it’s embarrassing. It feels kind of awkward to play that role or to give these people time and space. But at the same time, I don’t really want to see a movie about these fantastic people doing everything right and knowing themselves completely. I don’t relate to that either.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, were you trying to depict a current crisis among many mid-30s types? I mean, some people could make the comparison that it absolutely mimics both the Southern California layabout and also the Williamsburg hipster. That’s one of the virtues of this film. But on the other hand, I’ve been seeing a lot more artists — especially books and now increasingly films such as yours — which are really depicting this kind of kidult phenomenon that was written about in New York Magazine. Was this a concern of yours? Did you study any larger sociological reach along these lines to depict this type of feeling?

July: I never care about the larger sociological reach. I mean, I’m almost entirely concerned with, like, an internal world. And, you know, sometimes I kind of lament that I have to create characters in order to get inside of them. You know, like I just want to start out already in them. And then I hope, if their insides resonate and are through, that I’ll end up making characters that people connect to — whether they love them or hate them, they’ll seem relevant. But I never work from the outside in like that. Yeah.

Correspondent: How do you jump around from putting your hand into the glove versus, I suppose, creating the glove and stitching the sequins and all that? What’s the difference? I mean, do you have to put on two hats? Is it one continuous process?

July: That’s a lot of clothes flying around here.

Correspondent: Yes.

July: Hats and gloves.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, there is a T-shirt in the movie.

July: And there’s a shirt in the movie. I mean, you’re talking about sort of being inside the movie and making it.

Correspondent: Yes. Acting, writing, directing. Especially some character who has this particular feeling.

July: Yeah, I mean, it seemed like if you were going to make a movie that had a lot to do with doubt and fear, like it might not be a bad thing to have a lot of doubt and fear making it? Apparently, I thought that was a good idea. Because I did. I did have lots of doubts. And when you’re in it, you know, that is part of your job. Is to feel all those things and to believe in them and to not judge them. And then when you’re outside of it, well, it’d be nice if you add some distance. But I don’t really. I pretty much am like method directing. Which isn’t that fun for everyone on the set. Especially when it’s a darker movie.

Correspondent: Why not? Why isn’t it fun?

July: Well, with like the first movie, it was more kinda hopeful and innocent in a way. And I think I embodied that as I was making it to some degree. And the second one, I also embodied. Which meant that I was fairly haunted the whole time and kind of a little bit wishing that I could flee it the same way. Very dedicated and yet still having fantasies about just walking away from the whole thing. The way that my character does. Yeah.

The Bat Segundo Show #405: Miranda July (Download MP3)

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Review: Tabloid (2011)

The first thing I was drawn to in Errol Morris’s new movie, Tabloid were Joyce McKinney’s eyes. They darted to and fro, down at her hands, up towards the ceiling, left to right, side to side. But they never faced the camera — or Morris’s Interrotron — directly. Considering that McKinney had quite a story to tell, that of a former beauty queen so enraptured with a Mormon missionary who she flew to London to rescue (or, well, “rescue”) him from that life and convince him through violent means that they must be married, the immediate conclusion on my part was, well, she wasn’t to be trusted. Couldn’t be believed.

That was all well and good, since I knew the bare bones of the Joyce McKinney story. I knew how the FBI’s version contrasted sharply with hers, and how the official — or perhaps “official” — version created a tabloid sensation that, even after almost 35 years, exceeds hyperbole. The UK Fleet Streeters, their dirty laundry credentials aired to full putrid effect throughout the month of July thanks to the never-ending phone-hacking scandal, were well in their element with McKinney, who was arrested and accused of kidnapping her Mormon man Kirk Anderson at gunpoint, squirreling him away to a Yorkshire abode, and raping him repeatedly for three days straight.

But then the camera left McKinney, who is now sixtyish and still a narcissist, to fixate attention on a younger man — raised a Mormon but now removed from the religion — though somehow expert enough to provide color commentary on its supposed cultish activity. And once I realized the younger man, too, did not face the Interrotron and Morris directly, Tabloid lost me. It’s one thing to cast an eye on your supposed subject and make him or her look wholly unreliable. That’s what documentaries do. But when the same techniques for doing so fall down in the face of some outside expert, there’s a serious problem at work.

Unfortunately, once the illusion of narrative coherence broke apart, the reality of how Morris failed in his efforts set in. If tabloid culture and its lurid taste for new content was so important, why did he only speak to two such types? There’s the capable but culpable reporter from The Daily Express, whose claim to fame was being taken in by McKinney’s not-exactly-truthful tale of pious living on the run after she and her accomplice Keith May (who died in 2004) jumped bail and fled London for America. His descendant probably got axed along with News of the World last week. Then there was the more sleazy photographer tasked with finding past dirt on Joyce in the form of bondage photos, among other pictorial delights, his tongue almost involuntarily going to his lips as he recalled the whole exercise.

But what of the larger culture of tabloidism — just eight years removed from Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of NotW and its sister daily paper The Sun? What prompted the relentless pressure for arid scoops like what McKinney seemed to offer with Sex ‘n Chains? Why were the UK public so riveted by the story? Tabloid certainly wasn’t about to tell us. There was also an easily missed note in the credits that McKinney’s old boyfriend — the not-quite-innocent provider of the photos that splashed across the Mirror‘s pages for days on end — “could not be located.” Well, why not? Based on the scant number of people Morris talked to — at least compared to his earlier, more masterful investigative documentaries — it’s hard to shake the idea he didn’t really try very hard, helped by the fact that many of the other principals were dead (like May) or clearly unavailable (like Anderson).

McKinney may be pathologically self-absorbed, or something more complicated, but Tabloid doesn’t really care about her, other than to subject her to the mockery of the audience. There is little in the way of empathy. Worse, there’s a rather nasty undercurrent of misogyny, aided by the fact that McKinney is the only representative of her sex. That’s a bitter pill to swallow when the current fallen Queen of UK tabloidism is Rebekah Brooks, and when the subject of female-to-male rape has only men to rebut it. I was also discomfited by the notion of all these men ganging up on Joyce in a manner not unlike the fictional Lisbeth Salander, whom Stieg Larsson depicts as the anti-beneficiary of a terrible tabloid campaign. Because hey — to be goth and bisexual and weird is to be splashed across the pages as a triple murder suspect and subjected to a punishing smear campaign that can only be resolved through the cathartic trial that brings the Millennium Trilogy to a close.

McKinney’s catharsis, on the other hand, never really arrived. She found refuge in her home state of North Carolina, still pining — or obsessing — over Kirk, but now so devoted to her dogs that the act of cloning them brought her back into the news cycle in 2008. Tabloid doesn’t really indicate what Joyce McKinney is like now, though it certainly judges her, mocks her, and paints her as a cartoon of ridicule. Morris, I suspect, would say that’s the point. Because tabloids do the same thing. But as we’re all finding out this month, there are limits to what behavior can be tolerated. Even sleaze has a ceiling. All Morris has done by engaging with this in the shoddy manner he has is to reveal uncomfortable truths about himself, most notably that he, too, counts among the man som hattar kvinnor.

The Bat Segundo Show: James Marsh

James Marsh appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #401. He is most recently the director of Project Nim, which opens in theaters on July 8, 2011.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering unethical experiments that might slide by today’s authorities.

Guest: James Marsh

Subjects Discussed: States of exhaustion, Project Nim’s purported origins of the 1970s hippie residue, scientific ethics and Columbia code of conduct, attempts to teach a chimpanzee to use sign language, Professor Herb Terrace, the transgressive aspects of ripping an animal from his mother, Skinner, Harry Harlow’s experiments, Terrace’s efforts to seek media coverage, Nim Chimpsky’s attacks on grad students, Terrace’s concerns for insurance issues over harm and suffering to students, Washoe, a filmmaker’s obligation to history, contending with demands from studio executives, when Marsh recreates moments in a documentary, dramatic reconstructions, murdering poodles, the inherent danger in cutting too much, audience imagination and the dangers of being too literal, balancing the needs of individual perspective and audience reaction, having ongoing debates while editing a documentary, some of the qualities that cause a documentary filmmaker to become prickly, the potential conflict of interest of obtaining film clips from the very subjects you’re interviewing, having sexual feelings for a chimp, being faithful to the honest confessions of documentary subjects, viewing documentary subjects as actors, earning trust as a filmmaker, Philippe Petit, whether discomfort is required in the questioning process, asking a question in ten different ways, trying to get a scientist to reveal he committed an affair, why people should trust James Marsh, the moral implications on Catfish, the possibilities that Catfish is a fake documentary, and phony indignation.


Correspondent: You don’t bring up the Washoe project. Allen and Beatrix Gardner and Herb Terrace had a huge rivalry going on at the time. And it’s almost like East Coast/West Coast, Biggie/Tupac…

Marsh: Well, there’s another film to be made about all that stuff. There’s quite a few PBS type documentaries that get into the whole language experiments that Washoe, the Gardners, and that whole debate. That would be a film about science, a film about ideas. And our film is a drama about a chimpanzee and people. So I was aware of that context and many people spoke about it in the course of our interviews. But I thought it was going to be a blind alley for me as a filmmaker to get into that too much. It may be an oversight on my part. But that’s a different film. If you want to go see that film, someone else can make that. That’s not my film.

Correspondent: But don’t you think you have an obligation to present, to some degree, the history…

Marsh: No.

Correspondent: Of all of these animal language…

Marsh: Why?

Correspondent: Why? Because Washoe ended up having 350 words she “learned” of sign language. You can just do a brief mention.

Marsh: Well, you see, here’s my feeling about that. It’s that a brief mention is not good enough. That’s when you’re playing with it. If you’re just trying to flirt with something and say, “Well, I can mention Chomsky and I can mention Washoe and the Gardners.” You may know about that. But my brother watching the film won’t know anything about that. So I’m not trying to be — I’m being a little defensive here. But that wasn’t the film I wanted to make. That’s a different kind of film. And that film? Go online. Nova has done that film. Washoe, the fucking dolphins — you know, the Gardners, signs. But the bottom line is that the experiment failed. And that chimps do not learn language. So I can get caught up in this whole discussion about who was right and who was wrong, and who learned the most words. That’s not a story. That’s a discussion about the practice of science and the nature of these experiments. And so I wanted to focus on a dramatic story as opposed to the issues and the context. And, of course, someone like yourself, who is very….who is familiar with this stuff, probably feels a bit cheated. Because I don’t explain and give you the context you are sort of dimly aware of or know a little bit about. But that’s a very conscious choice on my part. Not to get caught up in things you can’t really fully explain and will, I think, be a sort of sideshow to what I think my interest in the story, which is my interest in the drama of it and the life story of this chimpanzee. Now if you’re a Nim, what does he fucking care about Washoe and dolphins and the Gardners? He isn’t going to know nothing about these things. So I’m trying to put you. You know, his life story is where I’m focused here. Not so much on this whole fascinating internexual climate that you’re aware of and the film doesn’t really get into.

Correspondent: To go ahead and correct your impression that I felt cheated, what I’m actually talking about here is how you as a documentary filmmaker make the choice to not include Washoe. Is it really a consideration of “Oh, well here’s a rabbit hole that will create a three hour film”?

Marsh: Yeah. Or where is my interest in this story? Where do I think the narrative is in this story? As opposed to — I think you could cram the film with reference points to other experiments and to other thinkers and linguists. And on and on. But that isn’t the film that I think would work for me as a filmmaker, or the one I’m interested in making. And so to distill my view into I want to tell you the story of this from the point of view of the chimpanzee, who would have no awareness of the other chimpanzee lab experiments and no interest in them either, I think.

Correspondent: So to some degree, it sounds to me that when you make a film — especially one that deals with science as opposed to, say, an event that numerous people see such as Man on Wire — your problem, I suppose, is that you’re enslaved to narrative to some degree. Is that safe to say?

Marsh: Well, that’s my interest in narrative. I guess I’m a little prickly about this. Because there’s quite a lot of pressure around the making of the film of this sort. Explaining to people. “Give me more context. Give me more science. Show me the scientific debate here.” And so I’m prickly about it because it caused me a lot of trouble as I was filming it, getting these comments from people — executives involved with the film — that they wanted more of this stuff. And they’re saying, “Well, I want a narrator for the film.” And I began to get quite pissed off about this. Because it wasn’t the kind of film that I was making, nor did I say that I was going to make this film. I was making the story of Nim the chimp. And films tend to not deal with ideas terribly well. It’s not what films are good at doing. I mean, some films do it extraordinarily well. But it’s not what they’re best for. I think film is best as a medium for storytelling. And so that’s where my interest is in this particular story again.

The Bat Segundo Show #401: James Marsh (Download MP3)

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Review: Bad Teacher (2011)

If Bad Teacher is a vocational reworking of Terry Zwigoff’s masterful Bad Santa, with Cameron Diaz’s lazy, money-grubbing, breast implant-seeking schoolteacher filling in for Billy Bob Thornton’s lazy, money-grubbing, alcohol-seeking mall Santa, then it’s a curiously tepid cousin needlessly sanitized by its good intentions. Diaz’s Elizabeth Hasley drinks bottles of whiskey hidden in her desk drawer, bluntly informs a kid who wears his abandoned father’s sweatshirt several times a week that he has no chance with the prettiest girl at school, and embezzles money from the seventh-grade car wash (shortly after using her body to spike up the funds and causing a police car to crash)*. But Hasley isn’t mean and interesting in the way that Billy Bob’s Willie T. Stokes captured our attentions. Instead of having a fast-talking dwarf Marcus as a sidekick, Hasley has the passive Lynn Davies (played by Phyllis Smith, best known as Phyllis from The Office), who looks forward to her three months off in the summer (with numerous trips to the zoo) and sees a surprise milk choice at the cafeteria (“2%? 1%? Chocolate?”) as a high point. What Bad Santa understood was that having a seemingly modest character constantly criticizing a middle-aged loser made us more interested in why the latter lived the way that he did. Hasley has no such luck with Lynn. Indeed, it’s Hasley who is the one to encourage Lynn to talk with two cowboys at a bar. Which works against the idea that her character is supposed to be, well, bad.

Perhaps screenwriters Gene Stupntsky and Lee Eisenberg (both veterans of The Office) should be faulted because they’ve been working too long within the needlessly restrictive limits of American television. They don’t seem to understand that an R-rated movie featuring a mean character really should be dangerous, but their floundering wit is here in spurts. There’s one funny moment early on when Hasley’s man shouts about the need for opera to be passed on to the next generation. And when Bad Teacher was especially irreverent, such as Justin Timberlake’s squeaky-clean teacher making racially insensitive remarks about a new Ethiopian restaurant or an especially aggressive method of getting kids to remember the details of To Kill a Mockingbird, I longed for the film to transcend into additional cringe comedy. But then the film would present another weak or gutless or repetitive moment, not understanding that incriminating photos of a naked administrator or Lucy Punch’s chirrupy Amy Squirrel getting a few comeuppances were mere variations on hackeneyed comic situations we’ve seen too many times before.

Jake Kasdan’s flat direction is also a big problem. I don’t know what has happened to Kasdan ever since his fine work on Freaks and Geeks and his very underrated debut feature, Zero Effect, but I fear that Lawrence’s son is now a lost cause. I’m fairly certain that Cameron Diaz was slightly miscast, but I don’t know for sure. Because she delivers her lines with heavy aspiration on the consonants rather than hitting the vowels hard. And because Diaz’s voice is mellifluous, this disastrous direction causes Diaz to lose the authority she so desperately needs to win our attention, especially because Hasley is rejected by several men when she tries to use her looks and she’s someone who spends cash so wantonly. And while I recognize that Justin Timberlake has about as many dramatic options as a home pregnancy test, a good director will understand that mixing up the only two settings available (as David Fincher did in The Social Network) is better than sticking with one. There’s something deeply unpleasant about seeing a 30-year-old guy who believes he’s in sync with Stanislavsky resort to the same terrible stage-hogging case of the cutes that he used in his twenties. Sure, Timberlake isn’t much of an actor. But can’t he at least pretend to be an adult?

The one actor I can commend here is Jason Segel as an underestimated gym teacher persistently trying to woo Hasley. I liked Segel in Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and he seems to be the only actor in this movie who is having any fun, perhaps because he knows how to use his face to suggest a social awareness that other characters lack. But Segel isn’t a mugger: he knows how to enter a scene without dominating it and he knows how to make his fellow actors look good. If we’re not drawn to Cameron Diaz in this movie, then Jason Segel serves that role.

But enough about Jason Segel, who hardly needs any help from me. In our post-Bridesmaids landscape, the time has come for women to be rude, crude, mean, and dangerous in mainstream comedies without being kept on a leash. Bad Teacher cannot live up to this basic requirement, and, in failing to be even modestly subversive, it becomes an instantly regressive and instantly forgettable offering.

* — A brief note on this movie’s recidivist exploitation of the physical female form: If Bad Teacher has been designed in any way as a double X counterweight to male-dominated comedies, why are the filmmakers here so desperate to use Cameron Diaz’s body like this? Furthermore, why does she seek a breast implant rather than cold hard cash? Still furthermore, in an opening scene, there is one fellow teacher — a slightly overweight (that would be “normal” weight) woman played by Jillian Armenante, whom I remember playing a sensitive therapist from The Sarah Connor Chronicles — who appears, expressing enthusiasm. She raises her arm. We see the sweat spots in her armpits. And that’s it. There is an additional moment when a woman’s breasts are there to be ogled for their silicone perfection by all and sundry. And that’s it. I submit to the reader that a movie that maintains such a superficial interest in women instantly loses credibility, especially when Eisenberg claims in the production notes: “We would see so many funny women on Saturday Night Live and on talk shows, and they’d be hysterical and charming, and then we’d go to the movies and they’d be props to get two guys to become friends or whatever. We really wanted to write a project for a comedienne.” Eisenberg may have wanted to write a project for a comedienne, but the film clearly views much of its supporting women as props.

Review: Green Lantern (2011)

Green Lantern isn’t as awful as The Green Hornet, but if this year’s cinema has taught us anything, it’s this: don’t trust a movie with “green” in the title. There are perhaps seven good minutes of action scattered within a soporific salmagundi of stilted scenes and here-for-the-paycheck performances. Our hero pulls off a few fun feats, such as responding to an energy bolt by creating a catapult in seconds, bouncing it back at his enemy. Green Lantern, famous among shut-ins who spend most of their time shrink-wrapping comics in basements for a fairly impressive party trick that transforms energy into solid matter, is tailor-made for CGI’s fluidity, especially because what Green Lantern creates (chainsaws, two jets attempting to steer him from the sun’s gravitational pull, and, most impressively, wheels attached to a helicopter and a corresponding racetrack) reveals his personality in modest ways.

It’s too bad that this effects-based commitment to character can’t be found anywhere in the lumbering script. One must sit through a plodding 90 minutes, including a murky beginning needlessly complicating a pedestrian origin story, to get to the good bits. And speaking of good bits, Ryan Reynold’s Hal Jordan has a chiseled body born to be ogled by a camera. Even as a straight man, I understood immediately why Scarlett Johansson felt compelled to ride his magic wand. Alas, this mighty chunk of sirloin doesn’t have much of a soul. Reynolds is a top gun firing blanks: a low-rent Maverick who never stops to wonder why Merlin is 25 years older, now answering to the name of Senator Robert Hammond, and playing father to an actor (Peter Sarsgaard) only twelve years younger. Unlike Tim Robbins, Sarsgaard’s Hector Hammond actually has a bit of fun being evil: he sips the rim of a margarita glass with arch relish, looks at strangers slightly askew, and has an adorably ridiculous moustache. For large chunks, Sarsgaard proves more capable of containing this movie than Reynolds Wrap. Alas, this wry fun is curtailed when the filmmakers slather too much makeup on Sarsgaard and ask the poor man to put a little spittle into his cornball dialogue.

Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern (written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, Michael Goldenberg, and who knows how many other script doctors) appears to have pilfered Emerald Dawn (a miniseries revisiting Hal Jordan’s origin story authored by Jim Owsley, Keith Giffen, and Gerard Jones) for its narrative. But the filmmakers have failed to plunder the conflict that counts. Emerald Dawn featured Hal as an alcoholic whose selfish behavior caused his friend Ryan to die in a hospital. Campbell’s Hal, by contrast, merely wakes up late and can’t get over his father’s fiery death years ago testing an aircraft. As internal conflicts for a thirtysomething man go, this is exceptionally feeble material, especially given the insistence on an internal will vs. internal fear conflict that we’ve seen perhaps dozens of times just in the past three years.

This is a film so stupid that it flashes a SIX MONTHS LATER title card in a different galactic sector, not comprehending that time measurement is often determined by length of solar orbit. This is a film so naive that it actually expects us to believe that Hal Jordan can change the minds of the Guardians of the Universe, who are many thousands of years old, with a facile defense of human fallacy (“We’re young. We have a lot to learn.”). This is a film so laughably derivative that the filmmakers have somehow misunderstood Green Lantern’s ring to be easily interchangeable with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sinestro looks suspiciously like Hugo Weaving’s Elrond. There is even talk of forging rings (with an arrogant ending that opens up a sequel). We even see the Green Lantern insignia contained within a giant edifice, yet another Mordor ripoff. Did I mention a circular device seen in the background that looks very much like the Stargate portal but that serves no function at all? One almost believes that the set designer was ordered by marketing forces to include random visual references to other geek-friendly TV shows and movies. A training scene with Kilowog has the feel and bad dialogue of a video game orientation, leaving one to search in the dark for a nonexistent controller.

But most criminally, the film cheats us of spectacular battles, which are few and far between, and a clearly identifiable hero we can root for. We see several Green Lanterns early on, but they never get to use their cool superpowers. They are merely eaten up by a boring marble-mouthed villain named Parallax. It takes a long while for Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern to show up. Indeed, thirty minutes into the film, I heard one very confused and very disappointed six-year-old ask his dad, “Is that Green Lantern?” as another meaningless character soared across the universe.

When multiplexes are saturated with so many superhero movies, why spend $300 million on another flick that means nothing?

BAMcinemaFest: On Tour and Where Soldiers Come From

This is the second in a series of dispatches pertaining to this year’s BAMcinemaFest, which runs from June 16th through June 26th.

I should probably confess from the onset that I’m a sucker for movies that depict show business. Mathieu Amalric’s On Tour, which concerns effervescent burlesque dancers as they play various gigs in France, is somewhat overstuffed (especially when compared against Abel Ferrara’s smooth and sleazy Go Go Tales). But it’s still a delightful diversion, greatly aided by Amalric’s energetic (and sometimes over-the-top, as seen during one moment on a train) performance as Joachim, a disgraced television producer turned low-rent showbiz manager.

Joachim may or may not be capable of dignity or redemption. But that’s a moot point. Because On Tour is at its best when depicting backstage process: the application and removal of pasties accompanied by bubbly banter, rehearsal sessions featuring women wiggling out of coiled rope, and attempts to woo the dancers back to their hotel rooms with bottles of champagne. (Joachim’s insistence that champagne will do the trick more than other methods says much about his management techniques and his understanding of women.) It is not quite on firm footing when investigating what Joachim has given up: the former lover occupying a hospital, his status as prodigal son and brother who has fallen from grace, and Joachim simultaneously looking after his children and the dancers. There is one absurd moment when Joachim asks his kid to hold the phone to his ear as he slobbers down Kentucky Fried Chicken. Amalric might have pursued this decided incompatibility between personal business and show business further.

But his camera is understandably drawn to the dancers, who include the balloon-popping Dirty Martini, the piano-playing Kitten on the Keys, and the alluring and curvaceous Mimi Le Meaux. Filmed burlesque, of course, can’t compare to the real thing. (With this in mind, the good folks at BAM have wisely planned a burlesque show to accompany this film’s June 24th spotlight screening.) And aspirations don’t necessarily translate into captivating talent. There’s one sad moment in Amalric’s film which illustrates this latter harrowing point: a woman working the grocery checkout counter, having seen the burlesque show the night before, lights up when seeing Joachim and one of his dancers purchase some goods. The woman attempts a sloppy and impromptu tease and, when denied, she shrieks at Joachim for being spurned as he leaves the store. It’s a sober reminder that all art, even the seemingly low strains, requires fluency and commitment overshadowing such envious fast track aspirations. The rest of us who understand this can enjoy the dancing.

“I don’t like hippie films where you watch a balloon for an hour and a half,” says one of the soldiers in Heather Courtney’s moving Where Soldiers Come From. It’s a message that may be lost on the film nerd set. This gripping documentary tracks three young men (Dominic Fredianelli, Cole Smith, and Matt “Bodi” Beaudoin) in the Michigan Upper Peninsula fresh out of high school who sign up for the National Guard, serve stints in Afghanistan, and return home permanently altered. Myopic film snobs clinging to desperate cinematic references like stray driftwood clogging up a human river will probably make comparisons to The Deer Hunter. Thankfully, this is an association that Courtney deals with fairly early on.

Courtney is after the bigger and little discussed picture of how sharp young people, attracted by the money and a desire to serve their country, don’t entirely comprehend the consequences until they’re in too deep.

It’s good to see a serious movie like this get programmed in with all the nauseating and forgettable offerings made by talentless hipsters. Courtney has not only skillfully earned the trust of all parties, but her coverage is comprehensive (even following them to Afghanistan) and her editing is highly organized. We see the training officer who can’t pronounce “Hamid Karzai,” bombarding his trainees with a decidedly reductionist overview of the country. Parents smoke sad cigarettes and work long hours. Girlfriends clutch teddy bears and patiently prepare for the shifts in mood and the traumatic brain injury when their men return. There are technical snafus when families try to connect with the soldiers through Skype. Dominic, before he is shipped overseas, is a talented artist. And right before he’s sent to Afghanistan, Courtney strings together a series of visuals where Dominic and his friends tag the interior of a decaying edifice with maps of the country, maps of Michigan, and other depictions of their lives. This ephemeral art wryly (and painfully) mimics how top brass perceives their services as soldiers. When he returns home and he’s flailing around to find a place, it’s a genuinely touching moment when his art teacher gives him a wall to paint a mural.

This film works so well because these young men aren’t mindless automatons. They’re aware of what happens when they single out a landowner to be searched (“I affected that guy’s life for the rest of this life. But the IED wont explode. So it goes both ways.”). They want to believe in the Afghan population, but the hard and thankless slog has caused these men to “learn to hate” them. They’re also aware of how disposable they are. As one soldier confesses, “Pretty much you’re nothing. Unless you rule a corporation, you’re pretty much shit.”

Where Soldiers Came From is a vivid cinematic portrait well worth your time and long overdue for distribution beyond the film festival circuit.

BAMcinemaFest: Weekend, Letters from the Big Man, and The Color Wheel

This is the first in a series of dispatches pertaining to this year’s BAMcinemaFest, which runs from June 16th through June 26th.

After bracing the buckling collision of books, bad advice, and crass commercialism known as BookExpo America, I retreated to the air conditioned confines of the BAM Rose Cinema the following week, where press screenings for this year’s BAMcinemaFest were being held. The hope was that many of these independent offerings would replenish my soul and cause me to dance variegated jigs in the street. While there were several quiet and knowledgeable peeps kind enough to answer my questions about esoteric filmmakers unfamiliar to me, there were nevertheless a few self-absorbed “critics” (in particular, one dark-haired dunce who I had observed before a 92nd Street Y crowd gushing like some junior varsity neophyte and who felt the need between screenings to blab loudly about her remarkably uninteresting life) talking nonstop about film programming gigs that they felt entitled to. (“Oh, is he going to leave?”) Something about persuading a bigshot teetotaler to drive her to some needlessly affluent affair so that she could spend the weekend completely plastered, life presumably passing by like nonbiodegradable plastic. Not my idea of fun. A year ago, I had moved from Manhattan to avoid this unpleasant type. Yet this doddering parvenu, who claimed the sui generis Tree of Life to “have slow spots,” was a sober reminder that, even in Brooklyn, obnoxious and entitled tastemakers have replaced the rough-and-tumble enthusiasts who really count. I report all this in the event that some of my BAMcinemaFest dispatches are declared needlessly sour or mean and so that the reader might understand some of the atmospheric conditions in which I caught these artsy flicks.

The first offering was Andrew Haigh’s Weekend — a film having nothing to do with Godard’s masterpiece and everything to do with the possibility of sustainable romance over a whirlwind weekend. If you’ve lived adventurously enough, you’ve probably experienced a few of these yourself. If not, you’re probably retreating to movies to tell you what it’s like so that you might “program” these feelings in the future. Independent cinema has been curiously reticent in exploring a gay naturalistic version of the Before Sunrise story. And I very much appreciated Haigh’s commitment to capturing the coke-snorting, tea-making, and jizz-splaying-across-chest moments that most purported mavericks steer clear from. What I didn’t know is that Haigh has apparently upset Joe Clark for reasons that, I must confess, aren’t entirely clear to me, but have something to do with Haigh mischaracterizing Clark’s early enthusiasm as “the kind of movie straight guys would like” and assistance that was largely unrequited (an admittedly tacky move on Haigh’s part). What I can say is that Haigh isn’t nearly as talented as everybody thinks he is; he’s more interested in how people look rather than how they behave. That’s a far cry from someone like Lisa Cholodenko, who has escaped being pegged precisely because, if we want to get all humanist about this, she’s an excellent observer and chronicler.

Haigh’s two actors are both very good (especially Tom Cullen as the slightly more squeaky-clean of the pair), but the capable Chris New (playing an artist who is somewhere between David Thewlis in Naked and an aging hunk with lunky billiard balls still cracking around upstairs) is directed to play to the camera like a peacock when he really needs to crackle off the screen like Richard E. Grant in Withnail & I.

A tape recorded confession bookending the romance (along with several shots of surveillance cameras and additional angles that look as if they’ve been captured by surveillance cameras) may very well be Haigh’s own admission that he knows how to capture an early morning postcoital murmur like “I smell of cock and bum,” but that he doesn’t quite have the emotional depth and the true candor to communicate inner torment. Haigh isn’t helped by having his characters spout callow philosophy (“Gay people never talk about it in public unless it’s just cheap innuendo”) when he’s already presented them as much smarter than this. If Haigh’s the kind of guy who would slag off a potential advocate for being straight, that’s probably part of the problem. Yet Weekend stands only vaguely for the Other, but really wants you to like it. That stance may win you points among the sneering film nerd set, but it isn’t really conducive to lasting art.

Christopher Munch’s Letters from the Big Man probably doesn’t stand a chance of nabbing distribution. That’s too bad. For me, it was one of the high points. One doesn’t expect references to Zane Grey and Farley Mowat in a Sasquatch movie, much less incongruously formal dialogue like “I really don’t want the inconvenience of being the last person to see you alive” or a character who addresses the mosquitoes who are biting her. This is also a movie that presents smart people who openly confess that they’re too smashed to follow a Shakespeare production. While it’s true that these moments are buried under a somewhat muddled philosophy, I felt very inclined to appreciate the film for what it was.

Swamp Thing gave us Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts. Letters presents us with Sarah Smith, a hydrologist played by Lily Rabe self-sufficient in the wild and not easily charmed by men. When one smarmy suitor insinuates that he has the mind as well as the meat, I was delighted to see him rebuffed and flailing. I also liked the way Munch didn’t bother to have his Sasquatch (the titular Big Man) occluded in shadows or cockeyed angles. When we see the Big Man for the first time, we see him in full form. Which is just as it should be.

Sarah is also an artist, sketching images both real and subconscious. The Big Man possibly inhabits our world and possibly does not, but he does make his way to Sarah’s sketchpad. At one point, Sarah says, “I can feel you nearby. Thank you for being here.” Some East Coasters may be put off by this New Age vibe, but as a native Californian, I didn’t mind this so much. If cinema can’t present us with off-kilter introspection every so often, then what’s the point of making movies?

To take the edge off some of the forthcoming vitriol, I have included an image of two happy dolphins. The next film I saw was so terrible that I can state with fair certainty that one would be better served locating two dolphins, such as the very nice ones pictured above, and spending 83 minutes with them instead.

Before watching The Color Wheel (shot in black-and-white: how eye-roooooooooooonic!), I had no idea who Alex Ross Perry was. Now I wish I had never learned his name. Perry is a filmmaker so incompetent with comedy that he presents us with a stock situation in which a young man named JR (naturally, played by Perry and far removed from the great Gaddis novel) accidentally breaks a vase. He is told by the shopowner that he must pay for it and that it’s worth $500. JR doesn’t have the money. Instead of Perry finding a solution for this, he abruptly cuts to the next scene. In other words, Perry can’t be bothered to resolve the scene. Is this laziness or someone “hip” and detached? Either way, this is a technique one expects in 1991, not 2011. And it makes me wonder if The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody (and, hey, I’ll even give Brody Ishtar) was off his fucking rocker in commending this film’s alleged “exquisite comic timing and incisive comic framing.”

In this way (and many others), The Color Wheel plays like the mentally handicapped love child of Kevin Smith and Diablo Cody. The film, shot in 16mm. is so grainy that I truly believed all of the actors were experiencing bad cases of dandruff. And that’s hardly the least of Perry’s witless amateurism. There is also a very long take of perhaps twelve minutes (was Perry running out of film stock?) in which Perry consummates the incest that we knew would go down from the beginning and in which moments that are intended to be spontaneous are revealed to be amateurish rehearsal.

As an actor, Perry has a high-pitched voice that is so monotone that it makes Michael Cera appears as if he has the range of a Mel Blanc or a Frank Welker. Despite such clear limitations, Perry has the effrontery to offer something vaguely approximating a Buster Keaton look. But where Keaton’s face invited mystery, Perry’s face only encourages anger.

A dolphin’s face, by contrast, does not encourage anger. And I will be spending a good chunk of the time between this BAMcinemaFest installment and the next watching this pleasant dolphin video to remind myself that there are at least 25 million better things that one can do than consider or acknowledge Alex Ross Perry.

Review: Puzzle (2009)

Narratives featuring older women are in short supply these days. But writer-director Natalia Smirnoff’s marvelous debut, Puzzle, arrived this weekend to cure this needless deficit.

Puzzle introduces us to Maria, subtly underplayed by Maria Onetto, a suburban housewife. The film’s first shots are handheld, following Maria as she serves canapés and cooks and cleans up at a party. We learn that this is her own party, and that this is the manner in which she is celebrating her fiftieth birthday. I know that, if you are an Englishman, it is customary to buy everybody drinks. I have no idea if this practice has escalated further in Argentina, whereby not a single soul thinks to help the birthday girl out. But the failure of Maria’s husband and her children to chip in for such a once-in-a-lifetime occasion suggests very highly that there’s a problematic power balance in her marriage. Thanks in large part to Onetto’s incredible performance, which telegraphs Maria’s complexities even in the way she walks, it would be wrong to characterize Maria as completely meek. There is clearly an intelligence within her as she listens to one son attempt to embrace veganism. Yet it’s also clear that she’s chosen a life in response to her husband, an entrepreneur who runs a small business but who expects Maria to remember to replenish his favorite cheese (rather than going to the store and getting the groceries himself). The reason she’s stuck with her husband so long may be temperament. It may be that she simply hasn’t found the right angle in life.

Then Maria opens a present. It’s a jigsaw puzzle. With the family away, she starts putting the puzzle together. And the look in her eyes as she’s doing this (accompanied by musical thumps suggesting, quite deliberately, a quasi-Egyptian tone) suggests that this is one thing she’s very good at and that makes her very happy.

As someone who listens a good deal and observes much and remains frustrated by the failure of film (and books) to capture such quiet and magical moments occurring so very often in life, I can’t possibly tell you how rare and wonderful it was to see a filmmaker like Smirnoff surprise us like this. Like many of the game critics cracking vodka jokes (because, hey, nobody knew who Smirnoff was and the notes were nebulous), I had expected some goofy movie about jigsaw puzzles. But what I discovered was a deeply poignant movie about what it is to stick at some idiosyncratic interest that everybody tells you is wrong.

Maria wants more puzzles. “What’s the point of this?” asks her husband. “I like it,” responds Maria. Shouldn’t this be enough? When Maria’s husband denies her a new puzzle when they are out shopping, the moment is truly heartbreaking — especially because we know that her family doesn’t appreciate the nuances of her cooking. But when Maria finds a store that specializes in nothing but puzzles, the look of bliss on her face just killed me. Especially when she sees a 20,000 piece puzzle. One might argue that Maria is committing a form of adultery with her puzzles (and, as we see very subtly later, there is a sexual charge Maria gets from these puzzles). As she constructs more puzzles, she has to hide the puzzle-in-progress on a board underneath the couch. But surely Maria’s husband (who so upset me that, even in writing this quick essay, I cannot compel myself to name him) can spare a few minutes to encourage her hobby in late bloom.

But Maria is undaunted. She answers an ad reading “Seeking Companion for Puzzle.” But the way she answers it is complicated. For the man on the other end has an email address. And she has never touched a computer. Is it Smirnoff’s suggestion that giving into a quirky passion like puzzles is almost a pre-Internet idea that we can no longer talk about? Or is this a smart dramatic device that communicates just how much Maria has not been allowed to learn during her marriage? Whatever the case, the scene in which Maria is patiently trying to comprehend email as another woman tries to help her is expressed as a valiant struggle to move forward. Maria may be slow and quiet, but her passion will find fruition.

I’ve suggested that this film plays like a low-key version of Madame Bovary, with a sexual tension contained within Maria’s pursuit of the puzzle. What’s admirable about Smirnoff’s direction is the way she broaches this issue without pushing it too fast to the surface. The man that Maria meets, who does indeed want to take Maria to a puzzle championship in Germany, does make more than a few passes at her. But for Maria, it is the puzzle interest first and foremost that she’s lying to her family about. And when they do not entirely respect this singular pursuit, Maria’s decisions become more justifiable. In a late moment in the film, she orders the family to help her clean out a spare room. Again, it does seem the least that they can do. And in this act of cleaning, the family begins to dance in a rather spontaneous way after finding an item. So Smirnoff’s optimistic suggestion is that the fun moments in life often happen when you help those who are closest to you with their interests, however crazy or ordinary they may seem. The incurious counterpoint is a relationship founded on another person’s will.

Like any art investigating a subculture (and there’s certainly one here, complete with specific puzzle building techniques and some modest intensity), Puzzle reveals that there’s more to the ordinary if you know where to look and if you stick it out. As someone who has seen many of his friends and acquaintances sacrifice their voices and their spirits for crass materialistic gain, I’m grateful to this film for demonstrating that it’s never too late for anyone.

Review: Hey, Boo (2010)

Hey, Boo, a largely hagiographical overview of the great Harper Lee, has the finest cinematic aesthetic that 1986 has to offer. Or maybe with all of the talking heads, it’s the finest television aesthetic. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the film’s director, Mary McDonagh Murphy, worked at CBS News for twenty years. Unfortunately, this experience has translated into a indolent, superficial, and largely unhelpful film in which we get to see Oprah Winfrey tell us how she “devooooooooooooooured” To Kill a Mockingbird when she first read it. We must endure the unctuous Scott Turow, who has resembled an empty oil barrel both in look and intelligence since his divorce, commending Lee’s “bravery” in writing about race in 1964. But given the novel’s quiet and diligent origins (Lee given a check by her friends Joy & Michael Brown to write anything she wanted for a year, nervous first editorial meeting at Lippincott, two years of vigorous editing), wasn’t Lee’s purpose less about shaking up the social landscape and more about writing the best novel she could? Hasn’t Turow been around the block enough times to comprehend that writers, even those who pen masterpieces like Mockingbird, often become blockbuster successes by fluke?

You’d think that Murphy would question her subjects. After all, there’s no point in including big names unless they have something to say. (Even Wally Lamb, while offering quasi-generalizations about Scout being “an extension of a Huck Finn character,” comes across as fairly thoughtful.) But Murphy isn’t especially interested in nuance. Her narrative is damaged by her editor’s tendency to kill the mood, lopping off crackling moments just as they’re catching fire. When Murphy’s camera briefly escapes the studio and enters the field, I was genuinely stunned that the filmmakers had managed to get off their sedentary asses. Talking with kids about what Mockingbird means to them is a foolproof method of investigating Harper Lee’s durability. But just as these future readers are getting jazzed up, the editor then cuts back to the literary luminaries (which include Tom Brokaw, for some inexplicable reason) sitting in chairs, doing their best to sustain excitement as their collective wisdom is reduced to audience-friendly platitudes. Richard Russo begins telling an interesting story about his father, only for the tale to be killed at press of a button. (You don’t give Richard Russo the cane. You let the man talk. Especially when your “feature” documentary is only 82 minutes. If this is Murphy’s idea of inclusiveness, why did she bother to include it?)

Murphy is also fond of simplifying her story, perhaps because she is terrified by the prospect of challenging an audience. When Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote is brought up, he is, of course, portrayed as an inveterate wastrel. But even accounting for Capote’s jealousy (which involved spinning prevarications that he had secretly written Mockingbird and that Lee’s mother was mentally unbalanced, even attempting to kill the young Lee twice), one cannot easily ignore that Capote was Lee’s best friend during a significant period of her life and that, contrary to the film’s insinuations, Capote and Lee reportedly stayed in contact up to the former’s death in 1984.

Lee, by contrast, is an angel who can do no wrong. It never occurs to Murphy (or her subjects, at least as they appear on camera) that Lee had her faults: her failure to complete books (including an In Cold Blood-like project she abandoned in the 1990s, never mentioned in the film), a refusal to suffer fools, and a sensitivity to anybody bringing up To Kill a Mockingbird in person. Efforts to reveal some of these complexities, an admittedly difficult proposition, can be found in Charles Shields’s Mockingbird. There are faults with Shields and his book, but the man has pounded the pavement. You’d think that Murphy would enlist him to be part of this project, but, rather tellingly, Murphy hasn’t interviewed him.

While we aren’t privy to Murphy’s questions, one senses that she has fired little more than softballs at her subjects. For fascinating figures such as Lee’s lively 99-year-old sister, Alice Finch Lee, this isn’t a problem. Alice speaks her mind, irrespective of the interlocutor’s deficiencies. But it does become a thorny issue when Murphy elicits answers from one especially sheltered Caucasian writer (“to be crying for a black man was so taboo!”) and when James Patterson, with typical hubris, compares his own hackwork to Lee’s (“Lee kept building and building and building. Obviously, I try to do this with my work.”). Such crass remarks demand that an interviewer call bullshit. But Murphy is a head nodder rather than a listener. When the distinguished Andrew Young says “not a lot of black people read” Mockingbird back in 1960, one wishes that Murphy had the capacity to pursue the bigger picture instead of waiting around for the power quotes.

BAMcinématek: Hal Ashby

I don’t know if Hal Ashby is in serious danger of being forgotten. But judging by the scant attendance at two recent press screenings for an ongoing retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (now playing through May 24th), I suspect that the cineastes are tired of talking him up. And that’s really a goddam shame. I certainly don’t know anybody under 40 who speaks of Hal Ashby with the same gusto devoted to such active 1970s directors as Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, or even William Friedkin and Walter Hill. (They’re certainly not going to bring up Joan Micklin Silver or Gillian Armstrong. But I’ll save comments on this regrettable gender disparity for another essay.) But like Alan J. Pakula, the recently departed Sidney Lumet, and Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby often gets taken for granted.

Ashby began his career as an editor, winning an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night in 1967. Three years later, Norman Jewison told Hal Ashby that he was a director. Jewison produced Ashby’s first feature, The Landlord — an iconoclastic, hard-to-find, zany, and one-of-a-kind satire written by Bill Gunn in which a Southern gentleman (Beau Bridges) becomes the landlord of a tenement building (in the now gentrified Park Slope) and has an affair with one of his tenants. (Her boyfriend is involved with the black power movement.)

The Landlord is filled with scenes (starting at around the 0:50 mark in the above clip) where the wild premise, which deals with race, white guilt, and false notions of entitlement, is topped by something out of left field. In this case, the kid not only blackmails Bridges’s milquetoast landlord for two dollars, but, after securing the two bucks, he offers the landlord a cigarette and lights up one for himself. Yet Ashby stages the scene so innocuously — complete with the kid ordering, “Home, landlord!” — that it deflates any potential discomfort and allows the audience to confront and enjoy the behavior.

Ashby’s third film, The Last Detail, continues in this vein. The film follows two US Navy sailors played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, escorting the young sailor Randy Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a naval prison. Meadows has received a harsh eight-year sentence for the minor crime of stealing $40. So the two sailors decide to show Meadows a good time. Ashby decided to direct Robert Towne’s razor-sharp and beautifully profane script in chronological order, traveling the same route as the sailors. This not only allowed the inexperienced Quaid and Young to get their sea legs over the course of the production, but it encouraged the magnetic naturalism that we see in the moment above. Watch the way Ashby neatly aligns the sailors by height or the way Nicholson slaps himself on the side of the head, foreshadowing the great explosive moment.

To some degree, you could call Hal Ashby a faithful chronicler of very recent history. Bound for Glory, his faithful biopic of Woody Guthrie, is his only real period piece, but it’s also the first movie to use the Steadicam. But Ashby was very concerned with recent events. Consider the way in which 1975’s Shampoo reckons with 1968’s sexual politics or the manner in which 1978’s Coming Home approaches the same year from the vantage point of the Vietnam War, taking the interesting step of casting Jane Fonda (who protested the war) as a very believable military wife who sees her world change when she meets a disabled Vet played by Jon Voight. It’s possible that The Social Network‘s recent success had much to do with similar revisitations of recent history. But is there any director working today capturing the last ten years the way that Ashby did?

Ashby worked so close with his actors that he often had them work on the scripts. Warren Beatty co-wrote Shampoo. No doubt his womanizing added some authenticity to the hairdresser juggling numerous paramours. 1982’s Lookin’ to Get Out, in which Ashby fought the studios for final cut, was co-written by Jon Voight. The original version of this film, as cut by Hal Ashby and as discovered in 2009, is playing as part of the retrospective. While there’s a gripping showdown in a casino club room, and some thespic chemistry between Voight and Burt Young (including one great early moment where Voight plays the scene spooning soup from a can as his character confesses losing a great deal of money), the film suffers from an implausible storyline and too many incoherent moments.

Did Hal Ashby lose his artistic chops in the Reagan era? I don’t think so. The above confrontation between Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia in 1986’s 8 Millions Way to Die (this underrated film has become so maligned over the years that I was truly shocked to see it in the BAM lineup) demonstrated that Ashby could take something as innocuous as snow cones and turn it into a quirky tension builder. It’s the little tics that build this scene: Garcia moving to straighten his tie, Garcia’s lieutenant hovering in the back, and Bridges curling his fingers just after taking a bite. But when Garcia explodes at Bridges, the moment is especially startling because of how tightly framed the three men are, along with the overlapping chatter. I also love the way Garcia dispenses with his snow cone (similar to the way he kills the cigarette at the beginning of the scene; this is a character who always needs to have something in his hands to destroy). Oliver Stone’s dialogue in this scene is a bit silly (“My fault. I’m sorry. I didn’t get laid today.”), but can one imagine such blocking and gestures in movies today? Every time I see this juicy scene, I want to tear every goddam kid away from making CGI movies on his computer and force them to work with the nuts and bolts of human nuance.

Review: The Beaver (2011)

When it comes to neglected narrative subjects, there’s no better figure than the middle-aged white male with disposable income and psychological problems. At least that’s the attitude a regressive moviegoer might have had in 1976, the year Jodie Foster appeared on screen as two altogether different characters using their bodies for altogether different purposes: Taxi Driver’s Iris, a teenage prostitute, and Freaky Friday‘s Annabel Andrews, whose body was occupied by her mother. Thirty-five years later, Jodie Foster has now directed a film called The Beaver that takes this dysmorphic approach to drama much further.

One morning, Walter Black (Mel Gibson), a depressed man who has run his toy company into the ground, begins speaking to his workers through a hand puppet. The voice is that of an apparent beaver, somewhere between Cockney and Australian. We are told that this is experimental puppet therapy, although nobody in the film considers Googling it. (Even assuming that these people are technologically illiterate, you’d think that the human resources manager or the insurance people would at least make a few phone calls when the CEO starts disseminating a dubious card. Given the film’s lack of logic, it’s almost as if this was set in….well, 1976. Which makes the appearances of Matt Lauer and Terry Gross in this film that much weirder and that much funnier.) We hear the beaver’s voice for the first time just after Black tries to kill himself in a hotel room.

Madness appears to run in the family. Walter’s son Porter (played by the excellent Anton Yelchin) is also something of an impostor, although he doesn’t require a hand puppet to uphold his craziness. He ghost-writes high school papers so that he can save up for a cross-country road trip to find himself before attending Brown University. But Porter also has this tendency to bang his head repeatedly against the wall. In one of the film’s many heavy-handed metaphors, Porter hides the hole with a map. In another heavy-handed metaphor, we see that the Black home contains numerous leaks. Walter’s wife Meredith (played by Foster) seems to accept all this without so much as a bat of the eyelash. I presume that her neglect has something to do with the fact that she is some kind of a structural engineer for rollercoasters. But this is rather spurious logic. I have known seemingly hippie mothers irresponsible in matters beyond the family who have stopped everything to repair a decaying home or take care of their children. And they have done this with meager income. Yet The Beaver isn’t quite brave enough to pursue this blatant hypocrisy. And that’s because, when it comes to women, this odd and creepy movie is also stuck in the 1970s, adopting the Diana Trilling position in Town Bloody Hall.

Women have two choices in this film.

(1) They remain quiet nurturers waiting for the men to relinquish their positions (such as Walter Black’s Vice President, played by Cherry Jones, who agrees to Black’s crazy plans without question, much like a glorified administrative assistant). They say absolutely nothing when men do stupid and crazy and reckless things. They are even willing to give up their bodies to men as they do stupid and crazy and reckless things, as we see during a sex scene in which Walter bangs Meredith in bed and in the shower while wearing the puppet.

(2) They must wait for the right moment to express some minor and only slightly fulfilling moment of rebellion. Meredith may think that she’s a “rebel” by designing rollercoasters, but it’s worth pointing out that we only see her doing this on her own time, when Walter is away. Likewise, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) is a student who hires Porter to write her paper. Porter discovers that she was once a graffiti artist. But Norah has seen her younger brother OD. Crippled by grief, she is denied the ability to commit a rebellious act of artistic expression. She is understandably upset when Porter pushes her into tagging a building. But it is ultimately Porter’s grief that causes Norah to become the “rebel.” But if Meredith and Norah’s acts of “rebellion” are related to patriarchal encouragement, are they really acts of rebellion? In committing “rebellion,” aren’t they in fact doing so to nurture the men?

As a man who considers himself to be modestly enlightened, I believe this false dichotomy to be an unacceptable position in the 21st century. That this narrative worldview comes with psychiatrists and psychotherapists out of the picture is also strangely suspicious, more reminiscent of a Scientologist training video or a batshit circular disseminated by Jenny McCarthy. It’s certainly something you don’t anticipate from the seemingly wise mind who directed the not bad Little Man Tate and the astutely observed Home for the Holidays.

On the other hand, The Beaver is fairly entertaining as failed art. The movie is a curious blend between Lawrence Kasdan’s greatly underrated Mumford, in which an alleged psychologist moves to a small town and becomes popular just by listening to people, and Hal Ashby’s* Being There, in which a man becomes a media sensation by simply making the rounds. When Walter becomes a hit on the talk show circuit, and a toy product involving using one’s hands to construct wood becomes momentarily popular, the film shows a brief flash of sinewy satirical muscle. Unfortunately, because the film’s philosophy is so muddled, it never quite flattens the flab.

Part of this may have something to do with the privileged feel of the movie. I realize that I’ve spent a good deal of time railing against the film’s strange anti-women slant, but I should point out that I only developed such indignation after thinking about the film for a good week and a half. Still, when I saw the movie, it didn’t feel especially dangerous to me.

Even so, The Beaver does make you feel embarrassed for Mel Gibson, who, never mind the psychotic telephone conversations, doesn’t seem to understand that his day is now over. Earlier this year, Julie Klausner and Natasha Vargas-Cooper served up one of the best explanations for why this kind of man should no longer be depicted in present cinema. Klausner noted quite rightly that, viewed within the context of 2011, Warren Beatty is “a semi-soft erection of a towering skyscraper.” It’s too bad that Klausner hasn’t seen The Beaver. To jump off from Klausner’s metaphor, Mel Gibson can’t even get it up after downing five bottles of Viagra. He’s lucky that he still has friends like Jodie Foster, who seem to have no idea that they are closet enablers.

* — I feel compelled to point out that there is a Hal Ashby retrospective playing at BAMcinématek between now and May 24th. An essay on why Hal Ashby is important and why you should see him on the big screen is forthcoming, but I’m slightly behind on film coverage, largely because I am preparing for a 32 mile walk around Manhattan’s perimeter. Because the good folks at BAM were kind enough to let me sample some of the goods, I hope that this notice will suffice in the meantime. For the moment, I hope you will take my word that this is indeed a cool thing.

BAMcinématek: De Palma Suspense

If all De Palma films come from Hitchcock, then all words written about De Palma must originate from Pauline Kael. Kael once identified De Palma’s style as “a perverse mixture of comedy and horror and tension” that came with “a lulling sensuousness. He builds our apprehensions languorously, softening us for the kill.”

That’s a highfalutin and reserved way of ignoring one possible takeaway: if Brian De Palma were not a filmmaker, he may have ended up as some kind of felon. Indeed, so subtly disturbing is his imagery, murderously more so on the big screen, that one is tempted to give the man a movie camera before he hurts someone. I’ve had conversations with film buffs over the years and I’ve been relieved to learn that I am not alone in having these momentary thoughts. But “softening us for the kill” or speculative homicidal impulses don’t really permit us to understand De Palma.

Now thanks to a retrospective series that you can still catch at BAMcinématek, there’s an opportunity to see just how potent the man’s films are. There are three films left in the De Palma Suspense series. There’s Raising Cain, a somewhat unfairly condemned late period movie that Peter Travers once described as a “De Palma movie made by a forger who can barely conceal his contempt for the artist he’s copying.” But was De Palma mimicking Hitchcock or the Hitchcock pilferer he was always being pegged as? More promising than Raising Cain is the vibrant and elegant Femme Fatale, in which De Palma more successfully embodies homage into homage, including a brazen “seven years later” flashforward, a film festival within the film, and numerous cinematic archetypes.

But the last film still playing is Dressed to Kill, one of De Palma’s masterpieces. Its mixture of sex and violence proved to be too much for some audiences in 1980. It was protested by at least one group that declared in its circular: “DRESSED TO KILL ASSERTS THAT WOMEN CRAVE PHYSICAL ABUSE; THAT HUMILIATION. PAIN, AND BRUTALITY ARE ESSENTIAL TO OUR SEXUALITY.”

This is a misread, I think. One only needs to discern the manner in which the camera cranes in on a closing elevator door, catching the reflection of a woman being murdered, to see that voyeurism has much to do with this brutality. As the grisly scene plays out, we see (above) a connection to Un Chien Andalou. Yet while Dali and Bunuel were eager to slice the eyeball, De Palma does not. He leaves the razor there and slices the cheek. Is all violence equal in cinema? Or is De Palma’s razor the new tongue? If the latter, it’s a very twisted joke.

There is something valiantly creepy about De Palma’s films before Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s probably a mistake to ascribe some ethical code, whether religious or not, to movies that have the effrontery to depict atavistic human emotions. (I especially admire this attempt to comprehend De Palma through his lack of religious affiliation: “There is no indication that De Palma was an active churchgoer or member of an organized congregation or denomination as an adult.”) But the boldness cuts both ways, so to speak. One can feel unsettled by the needless punishment that Angie Dickinson receives for having an affair in Dressed to Kill (even as one remains dazzled by that movie’s museum scene), while also applauding the bravery in broaching intense father-daughter relationships in Obsession.

To some degree, this willingness to depict the unpleasant aligns De Palma with such iconoclasts as Lina Wertmüller (declared misogynist by many for Swept Away) and Dario Argento (whose hands have always portrayed the hands of any male murderer he depicts on screen). But by cementing human behavior in cinematic history, he’s suggesting something more dangerous and intriguing. In cinema, all emotion is valid. Cinematic language permits us to confront our darkest emotions in the smoothest of terms. If that is one method of appreciating his films, then it seems incumbent for any serious filmgoer to see his work on a movie screen. From what I understand, this is becoming an increasingly dicier situation. I am informed that Sisters requires forty to fifty thousand dollars worth of restoration work and that most of the prints, save two (owned respectively by producer Ed Pressman and MOMA), are largely faded.

Review: Arthur (2011)

Let’s say you’re a billionaire in your mid-thirties. You spend one evening banging three princesses, but you have no recollection of the orgy that transpired. In fact, there are many fleeting women in your debauched and privileged life. You even describe yourself as a metrosexual. Your image is frequently in the tabloids. You drink. But for the purposes of this scenario, that’s not important. What’s important is this: One night, you have a choice.

Option (A) You can spend the night with a woman who is dressed in a metal outfit, and who is somewhat drunk but lucid. She’s hiding in your bedroom, and your bed incidentally is a magnetic platform. She would like to give you a night of carnality, one that you didn’t expect. She has a whip. She declares herself a cat.

Option (B) You can spend the night with a woman who dresses in a childish polka dot dress, one whom your butler Hobson (played by Helen Mirren, who is phoning it in here) rightfully describes as “Minnie Mouse.” The second woman is nothing less than timorous. She marvels over the Pepe Le Pew cartoon playing in your private screening room. This woman, unlike another woman once played by Liza Minelli who stole ties and smoked cigarettes and encouraged mischief and dressed interestingly, is about as hot and dangerous as a dying titmouse squiggling in a glue trap.

Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that most men – unless they are gay, shy, highly introverted, or celibate – would choose Option (A). But Arthur, played by Russell Brand in his 2011 incarnation, chooses the second option.

Why doesn’t the Arthur remake work? Well, we can accept toothless director Jason Winer’s complicity in this implausible story logic. After all, Winer cut his teeth directing episodes of Modern Family, a television series so toothless that it did not included a moment in which its gay characters, Mitchell and Cameron, kiss on screen during its first season.

Yet when one considers that screenwriter Peter Baynham — a man who has worked alongside such accomplished comedians as Christopher Morris (The Day Today), Steve Coogan (It’s Alan Partridge), and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) – was involved, then it becomes necessary to pinpoint the insufficient hackwork of these scabrous sellouts.

Let’s say that you’re a calculating studio executive who misunderstands human nature (or a craven screenwriter known named Peter Baynham bending at the knees when offered a large bag of cash). Your mind is likely to come up with sentiments along these lines:


Unfortunately, in your pursuit of money, you fail to comprehend that none of your reworking makes any fucking sense. Your decision to rethink the elements of the original Steve Gordon script that worked so well (an alcoholic wastrel discovers that love encourages his dormant empathy and pro-active behavior; he is more true to himself and doesn’t feel as alone) becomes something illogical (a wastrel, who is kinda alcoholic and not terribly active at anything, discovers that people will do his bidding with or without money).

Consider the beginnings of the two films. In the original, a drunken Arthur (Dudley Moore) rudely accosts two prostitutes from the window of his Rolls-Royce. We see that his chauffeur Bitterman also has to suffer through his terrible jokes, but isn’t merely a doormat. He actually resists Arthur’s commands. (Indeed, this inversion of class expectations was one of the reasons the originalArthur was such a hit.) Director Gordon is careful to instruct Moore to have his glass of scotch arched upward during his exchange with the prostitutes. Visually, we understand that this man has a drinking problem. Emotionally, based on Bitterman’s actions, we understand that he may be a decent guy when he’s away from the hootch. In the remake, Bitterman is seen squeezing into a Robin costume, with his paunch pushing out (thus, unlike the original film, establishing a lack of dignity). Arthur is dressed as Batman. The car that Bitterman drives isn’t a Rolls-Royce, but the Batmobile. What does this say to the audience? Visually, we have no clue that Arthur is an alcoholic. He comes across more as a spoiled brat and we can only find sympathy in the character through Russell Brand’s enormous energy. Emotionally, we are invited to laugh at Bitterman’s willingness to do anything to appease his master. (Just imagine the comic potential of Luis Guzman, the talented fast-talking character actor who plays Bitterman in the remake and who is needlessly wasted, upbraiding Arthur in ways that only the audience can perceive!) And because the character relationship is so predictable, we have little reason to care.

Russell Brand shouldn’t be blamed here, but he will if this movie tanks hard at the box office. The wild anarchy that made Brand such a draw as Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek is only here in spurts. Consider one moment in a prominent candy bar (deliberately unnamed to discourage product placement), where Brand, dressed in a gummy costume, is briefly seen swigging a flask while entertaining children. That split-second moment might have inspired some inappropriate comedy, but company man Winer (the Zack Snyder of comedy?) doesn’t want to upset his soul-sucking overlords and keeps Brand on a leash.

Even accounting for these limitations, Baynham’s script and Winer’s direction just isn’t capable or courageous enough to give the talented Brand an opportunity to develop a character. In the original film, Moore’s overbearing laugh always signaled to the audience that Arthur was drunk, and how Moore often drifted into lucidity. This careful telegraphing suggested a good-hearted man beneath the excess. The 1981 Arthur was brazen enough to drive to Queens while drinking from a brown bag. No such disastrous pro-active behavior from the 2011 Arthur, who has to be driven everywhere and doesn’t even know what Outlook is.

Yes, both films feature a moment in which Arthur hands his love interest a check and she rips it up. But the 1981 Arthur learns from that moment, while the 2011 Arthur does not. It’s understood in the 1981 version that Arthur will let Linda (the Liza Minnelli character) pursue her acting ambitions through her own initiative (the underlying assumption is that both Arthur and Linda will love each other outside of Arthur’s wealth, because they accept each other; Arthur is still a drunk at the end). But in the 2011 version, Arthur actually purchases Naomi’s dream, which is to become a published writer. I won’t even get into the film’s laughable ignorance of the publishing world, which had my moviegoing companion (a publishing reporter) and I howling. Let’s forget all that. If you’re a woman who has worked long and hard on a manuscript and has seen it accepted rather swiftly for publication, and you discover that the man trying to woo you (a man, incidentally, who has lied about having a fiancee) has had his company purchase your manuscript, can you honestly forgive him for deflating your shaky sense of meritocracy? (It doesn’t help that Naomi is played by the thespic cipher Greta Gerwig. She’s nothing less than a smiling doormat expressing nothing less than enthusiasm, even as Arthur downs loads of alcohol. She reminded me just how annoying Bonnie Langford was as the chirpy and clueless companion Melanie Bush on Doctor Who.)

Class, which guided the original Arthur, has been largely dispensed with. In 2011, “working class” means visiting a woman who lives off the elevated subway line. (The beauty of the original Arthur is that the rich only needed to mention the subway to taint it.) The 1981 film also allowed Bitterman to drop Linda off in front of her apartment complex, so that she could fool her neighbors and Bitterman could play mock chauffeur. This moment allowed both Linda and the audience to parse the frivolous nature of wealth. By contrast, the 2011 remake uses inflated excess as the basis for its romance, with Arthur wooing Naomi by closing off Grand Central and having a dinner at a table surrounded by rosebuds, with acrobats bouncing around on another level. What’s for dinner? Dispenser candy. If that isn’t romantic enough for you, then consider the many permutations of SpaghettiOs (never named, presumably because the studio couldn’t get Campbell’s to agree to shell out the chowder for product placement) that Arthur and Naomi eat for dinner.

The original Arthur offered a perfectly reasonable fantasy that one may find a comfortable adulthood while also keeping the inner child alive. By contrast, as the childish menu options I’ve cited above suggest, the remake is about how one’s adulthood is defined by being nothing more than a passive and entitled child. It’s a troubling sign that the Comic-Con geek mentality has crept into mainstream romantic comedy. What the filmmakers don’t understand is that fantasies must have some element of reality in order to persuade. But Arthur, much like its protagonist, gives nothing to the audience. It is a spoiled movie written and directed by spoiled people who deserve to be sent to the poorhouse.

Review: Super (2010)

If you are sending up a very specific genre – in this case, the vulgar vigilante superhero movie that tends to be based on material written by Mark Millar – are you creating successful satire if you’re upholding the same anti-human values? Judging by the mirthless comedy Super, it appears that writer-director James Gunn never bothered to ask himself this pivotal question. Gunn is a man who, by including a joke about double negatives in his films, may very well be more astute than the digital Neanderthal Zack Snyder. (It’s worth noting that Gunn wrote the script for Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake.) He certainly seems to be channeling Snyder’s 300 in several flashback sequences filmed in muted color and near black.

But with Super, Gunn shoots blanks.* A cinematic comedy that includes violence is one thing, but Gunn has seen fit to include two rapes (and another indirect one in a car) in this film. Rape is a tricky topic for comedy, but, as The Atlantic‘s Sady Doyle has recently pointed out, rape is showing up in comic book movies with increased frequency. In order to make rape work, you either have to be a bona-fide iconoclast like Alejandro Jodorowsky, who featured a brazenly ironic moment in The Holy Mountain where a tourist takes a picture of his wife as she’s being raped by a fascist soldier, or a blithe mischief maker like Pedro Almodovoar in Kika. In Gunn’s hands, rape isn’t funny and it doesn’t contribute much to the story. At least Gunn can be commended for keeping the rape gender balance right. Rainn Wilson’s character Frank is raped. And so is Frank’s wife Sarah (Liv Tyler).

Frank (last name D’Arbo, not Castle) is a short-order cook living a short order life. Shortly before a noisy animated titles sequence that forces its “fun” on us (no animated rapes included), we’re informed that Frank has experienced two great moments in life: his marriage to his wife and a time in which he pointed out to a cop the direction in which a criminal sprinted. Frank has seen fit to memorialize these moments through crayon drawings. When his wife reports that the hands are too big, he applies white-out to make them smaller.

This is a fairly promising beginning. But Super never finds a fresh or lively angle, either as a bona-fide vigilante flick or a parody of one. Kevin Bacon plays Jacques, a nebulous drug pusher (owner of the nightclub Bare Assets) who gets Sarah (later revealed to have been involved in something resembling a Narcotics Anonymous program) hooked on the hard stuff. When the cops tell Frank that there’s little that they can do (Jacques doesn’t have a record? The cops aren’t staking out his club when he runs a flagrant operation?), Frank takes the business of getting his wife back into his own hands. He attempts to confront Jacques in front of his club and is beaten by his goons (which include the gravelly character actor Michael Rooker, whose main purpose in this film is to have his head beaten against the floor near the end).

Since Frank is a quietly pious man, he sees a television show called The Holy Avenger and experiences a Christian vision that involves getting his head carved open with very bad CGI and his brain sprayed with what appears to be the holy answer to special sauce. (Later in the film, Gunn has vomit shift around in a toilet and form a face. These conceptual deficiencies, whereby something scatological is rearranged into some fixed perfunctory image, truly reveal Gunn to be a fauxteur.)

From here, Frank starts reading comic books, beginning with The Holy Avenger. He is determined to become a superhero, even if he knows little. He meets Libby (Ellen Page), a 22-year-old exuberant working at a comic book store. He stitches his own costume – a red uniform containing the obvious joke of zippers dangling on the front – and becomes The Crimson Bolt. He wears a fake beard to a college library and asks where the hard crime is. Then he heads to Euclid Street and tries confronting these criminals. He is unsuccessful. He returns to the store, asks Libby about superheroes without weapons. He then begins to beat the heads of anyone he deems criminal with a large wrench. This includes people who key cars, who tempt children into cars, and people who cut in lines.

As Frank says in a flashback, “Happy people are kind of arrogant.” So, for that matter, is James Gunn. The story here is so sloppy that, after a detective following up on the Crimson Bolt’s activities is shot, the film never returns. The police also do not arrive as dynamite, gunshots, and various other nihilistic sounds go off near the end. (Gunn might have had a funny joke here about ineffectual police, thus justifying the need for vigilantes. But given how these plot threads dangle like long white shoelaces in search of anglets on the blackest boots, it becomes very evident that Gunn’s merely a colossal incompetent.)

However, the movie does have one redeeming factor. Ellen Page, whom I originally (and wrongly) pegged as some thespic XX answer to Michael Cera’s limited hipster archetype, offers surprising range for such a throwaway character. When she enlists herself as the Crimson Bolt’s sidekick, Boltie, and demonstrates gleeful excitement after a man has been maimed, the moment is executed with baleful fright – the only bona-fide feeling this movie successfully delivers. And that emotional truth exists because Page is smart enough to comprehend that, because Gunn’s material here isn’t especially funny, she has no alternative but to play her character as real as possible. “It’s called internal bleeding, fucker, and then you die,” she shrieks after a car has plowed a man against the wall. Yet moments later, she’s contrite. Later she’s desperate. Later she’s oblivious. These flighty flits between emotional states give Page’s character a resonant psychology that this blasé film doesn’t deserve.

Page’s strong performance also has the unintended consequence of revealing Rainn Wilson to be a spent force who has played Dwight Schrute for too long. (If Wilson was looking to escape being typecast, why did he sign on for a somewhat misanthropic character who, like Schrute, is into weapons and fundamentalist values?) Page even manages to perform better physical comedy than Wilson during one moment where Libby is attempting to prove her gymnastic worth before Frank. This is a shame, because Wilson does have a deep voice that might have pulled off some jocular response to Kevin Conroy’s Batman.

If comic book movies (or their satires) are to stand any chance of evolving, then the time has come to reject anything involving Zack Snyder or the dimwitted writers he’s happened to hire. We must demand better movies, whether comic book or not, for women. Let the corpulent Comic-Con slugs choke on their own Cheetos-soaked vomit.

* It seems fitting to ridicule James Gunn’s name, seeing as how he has done the same to Rainn Wilson’s character. But perhaps I’m just sour because I will never get my 95 minutes back.

Review: Source Code (2011)

If you grew up watching time travel trash like 1994’s Timecop, 1989’s Millennium, or 1991’s Freejack, or you forgave the execrable television series Sliders because you hoped that the show’s incompetent writers could serve up some half-interesting angle on the parallel universe, then chances are you will enjoy Duncan Jones’s little thriller, Source Code. I am pleased to report that there is something more here than VHS nostalgia. The movie doesn’t have the ambition of Shane Carruth’s Primer or Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, but it does share in part the anarchistic exuberance seen in Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes – especially when Source Code‘s protagonist starts hitting people.

The story involves Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), an ostensible soldier who flew helicopters in Afghanistan but who has no hard memories of his last mission. His spirit is beamed into a man on a Chicago commuter train during the last eight minutes of his life. At the end of each existential installment, he is blown to bits by a bomb. Before this, I had thought a shaky theatrical act getting assailed by rotten fruit was the height of humiliation. (And it seems that Jones has anticipated my worldview. One of the train passengers is a television comedian.) Shortly after Stevens is “killed,” he is then pressed for details by a woman (Vera Farmiga) who doesn’t seem to comprehend that being repeatedly subsumed in an explosive fire is likely to cause a touch of disorientation, to say nothing of PTSD.

This is all part of an experiment called Source Code. Later in the film, we are given some adorably dodgy science about the brain’s electromagnetic field, curiously similar to Johnjoe McFadden’s theories. Just before death, the brain has the ability to take an eight minute memory of its final moments. And this is why Stevens can wander about a train. Who knew that the mind was a 7-11 security camera? The vital question of whether Source Code can be used to recall some of humanity’s most inebriated evenings is never pursued.

Stevens’s purpose is to find out who the bomber is so that a much larger explosion, purportedly prepared by the same individuals and threatening to take out the Windy City for good, can be stopped so that Uncle Sam doesn’t have another pretext to strip away more civil liberties. Every entry into this eight minute universe involves Stevens (or, rather, the man he’s leaped into) dodging a woman spilling a cup of coffee, responding to his fetching coworker Christina (Michelle Monaghan) while she’s telling him, “I took your advice. It was good advice. Thank you,” handng his train ticket to the inspector punching holes, and listening to a boorish bourgie man across the aisle complaining about the train being late. Given these limitations, the filmmakers are successful in constructing a universe that generates interest through slight alterations. What happens if you get off the train? Or if you disarm the bomb? Or if you just start hitting people? Or if you frighten a poor woman on her way to work?

If this sounds as if I’m damning the movie with faint praise, I’m not. I enjoyed the flick quite a bit. But in light of a recent publicity fiasco, I feel that some modest corrections are in order. Director Duncan Jones has repeatedly mentioned in interviews that JG Ballard is one of his favorite writers. And it has reached the point where some of my friends – the kind of smart people who have “JG Ballard” set up as a Google News alert – have expressed interest in the movie. These Ballard soundbytes suggest that Jones is either somewhat literate or wishes to cultivate a potential audience who reads. But Ben Ripley’s screenplay has no great philosophical ambition, much less any suggestion that he (or Jones) is even vaguely familiar with Ballard. The movie actually owes more to the supremely underrated television series, Quantum Leap. (Jones, to his credit, has honored his inspirational influence by including Scott Bakula’s voice in a cameo.) Nor can the movie, despite its Linux-friendly name, be said to be very tech-friendly – especially when you start considering the preposterously effortless manner in which the phones inside the movie can access military information.

This is mass entertainment, folks. But it’s old school mass entertainment. Source Code is the type of small concept-driven movie that was fashionable fifteen years ago and that very much needs to be part of the regular crop of releases again. Like a dependable pulp novel kept on the nightstand as dutifully as a gun under the bed, Source Code comes stocked with some unexpected ammunition. Who is the eccentric and handicapped scientist played by the great Jeffrey Wright? Why is our hero trapped in a room that is getting very cold? Why is he not allowed to leave? Why is he asked to recall the Queen of Spades as if he’s a shark counting cards at a Vegas blackjack table?

In our present epoch of hollow CGI spectacle, we’ve taken the art of basic narrative questions very much for granted. So a movie like Source Code, which would probably merit ho-hum reviews if it had been released in the mid-1990s, becomes a rare lily to be plucked from the top of a dunghill. I hope that the film is commercially successful so that the business of telling real stories becomes a higher priority among the amental Hollywood thugs who believe that three reboots of the same comic book franchise over ten years is the way to win audiences.

Review: Circo (2010)

When it came to the circus, even the great Federico Fellini could not resist the personal myth. Fellini’s 1970 quasi-documentary, The Clowns, opened with the young director (portrayed by a child actor) watching workers hoisting a circus tent outside his bedroom window, with each series of grunts producing another incremental rise of the top in the magical night. Ambrose Bierce may have defined circus as the “place where horses, ponies, and elephants are permitted to see men, women, and children acting the fool.” But name another venue where professional fools – especially those who act before more human animals – cause a cinematic genius to reimagine the beginnings of his own allure. The modern circus has endured quite well after Philip Astley. Assuming that you haven’t handed over all four of your ventricles to the great capitalist sham, it remains difficult for any vaguely mischievous soul to countervail the circus’s great charms.

Aaron Schock has largely resisted Fellini’s understandable tendency to reinvent with his striking and quite magical documentary, Circo. The movie depicts a vibrant second-string circus in Mexico – one that has been in some form of existence since the 19th century, but which lacks the resources in the 21st to play the big cities. Nevertheless, you will find motorcycles rolling in the “globe of death” and performers giving it their all as a recording of Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future theme plays over dim makeshift speakers.

We are told that you never need a house in the circus. And the maxim appears to be largely true. Home is where the heart is. While the family here appears close-knit, despite evidence late in the film revealing interpersonal fissures, those who stay in the circus work very hard, sacrifice vital aspects of their lives for their art, and face increased taxes and costs so that audiences can have a good time. There are some performances where hardly anybody shows at all. But the family still shrink wraps tasty snacks and they give it their all. After all, the show must go on.

Sick days are not an option. Money needs to be produced. When we see one of the trucks containing llamas and tigers break down, we know immediately how unforgiving the economy and the operational expenses will be on the family. It is something we can never truly understand through the film medium, except for those who try to leave the circus and can’t always adopt to the nine-to-five jobs and come back. But coming back is not without its difficulties. The circus life is one where, if you don’t convince a girl to get in the truck when you’re about to leave a stop, romance is a concatenation of ephemeral encounters.

“Without children,” says one man, “there is no circus.” And sure enough, the vehicles carrying the booming announcers roll through the streets of distant domiciles. It draws the enthusiasm of kids who run along the side and beg for tickets and try to schmooze the man at the wheel for a few more.

It’s difficult to walk away from this film without being deeply affected by the iridescent streaks that the circus manages to paint upon the most colorless crannies of Mexico. It remains a mystery how much of this is clever cinematography and how much of this is a bona-fide collision. But I don’t think it matters much. Beyond this rich visual charm, Circo movingly puts human faces upon the families who work long days for a few hours of grand entertainment.

For the Ponce family running the Gran Circo Mexico, being a kid means learning gymanstic tricks at every spare moment, and scarfing down tortillas and beans after a hard day of wrangling animals and performing chores and enduring the educational instructions of an uncle sitting on the steps of a trailer. As one family member says, “You have kids to give them everything. And they work too much.” But what kid wouldn’t want to tame a tiger? What kid wouldn’t want to put on a mask and entertain a crowd? There is also Naydelin, one very adorable five-year-old girl who, when leaving the circus for school, still finds delight in learning grammar – even though we know that she’s giving up the rarest on-the-job training imaginable. She feels genuinely apologetic for the young girls who will never know such a world.

Circo comes about as close as a film can get to knowing such a world. The film’s great sense of wonder comes in knowing that nothing here needed to be reinvented. This could not have been easy for the filmmakers and it’s certainly not easy for the audience. Because the people in this film chose the circus life and, against all odds, remained determined to walk on water. And if you can’t get behind that, it’s very possible that you’re not really living.

Review: Rubber (2010)

Quentin Dupieux’s latest film, Rubber – not to be confused with a effervescent sex education film – is not for the uptight analytical type who needs to know the precise motivations of a sentient tire (credited here as Robert) emerging from dead detritus in the desert, rolling over spiders and scorpions in the early minutes of his revitalized life, developing telekinetic powers that involve vibrating its body piles violently and causing distant objects to explode, and then using these same powers to go on a murderous rampage. But don’t let these eccentricities fool you. Rubber is a quite pleasant and deceptively pointless picture that did have me wondering why Dupieux – an electro musician turned filmmaker – did not attempt to get Goodyear to bankroll the whole of his meager budget. (Perhaps Dupieux has issues with product placement. I did notice Mountain Gust enjoyed by one character.)

When Robert (actual name for the tire or name for the character?) isn’t enjoying these homicidal activities, the tire watches television, stares at nude women taking showers, plops over sideways every so often for a nap, and rolls into a swimming pool. Discounting Robert’s need to kill people, such behavioral range suggests that Dupieux has closely observed the average American male. Lacking the orifice to enjoy a cerveza in the desert, Robert instead uses his considerable energies to cause human heads to explode. Rather curiously, Robert doesn’t require an air refill at the gas station, presumably because there is enough hot air contained within the film’s story to sustain him.

If the film’s premise recalls the sack awakened by a long pole in Samuel Beckett’s Acts Without Words II, then the presence of spectators within the film, all observing the tire narrative from afar and gradually starved by the folks putting on the show, suggests an homage to Augusto Boal. I don’t believe the Theatre of the Oppressed was especially keen on turning its audience into a bunch of starving animals wolfing down a turkey – a suitably carnivorous image we see midway through the film. After all, if we’re going to be equitable about the artistic experience, shouldn’t we have starving audiences in addition to starving artists?

Forget the theory. Forget the influence. Dupieux would rather have his audience believe that much of this is fun and absurdist bullshit. And it is. Before the tire comes alive, we are introduced to chairs placed meticulously in the road, which are then plowed down by a car. The car’s trunk is then opened, and a sheriff named Lt. Chad (Stephen Spinella) gets out, is handed a glass of water by the driver, and then addresses the camera. Lt. Chad informs us that there is “no reason” that the couple is mad about each other in Love Story. Why doesn’t anybody in The Excellent Chainsaw Massacre [sic] wash their hands or go to the bathroom? “No reason.” Why does Adrien Brody in The Pianist have to live like a bum when he has such remarkable piano skills? “No reason,” says Lt. Chad, conveniently ignoring the Nazis.

“Life itself is filled with no reason,” continues Lt. Chad. And we are informed that the film we are about to see an homage to “no reason.” In other words, this glorious fuck you gives Dupieux liberty to let loose countless what the fuck moments in the next 80 minutes. But we soon see that Lt. Chad is addressing a number of spectators, that binoculars are being disseminated to them so that they can track the tire. Never mind that they never really seem to have a great view or that the range of the binoculars extends for several miles, beyond any and all obstructions. Is Lt. Chad’s prologue directed at us or them? Does a participatory reference point even matter for a film like this? Later in the film, Lt. Chad, locked into one stubborn spectator’s need for the story to continue, dismantles the tire on his own car and announces to everybody, “That’s our suspect!”

To call Rubber postmodern is something of a mistake. You can’t take a film like this seriously. In fact, it’s more fun and more rewarding if you don’t. For my own part, my entertainment value greatly increased as I watched one self-important tool, who had offered a feeble intellectual defense of Sucker Punch just before the movie, fail to appreciate the glorious batshit madness before him.

Yet Rubber works beyond mere free association or curious cult offering. There are scenes in which the spectators remark upon the fact that they can be arrested for piracy, in which they quibble with the T&A moment, and in which they question the logic of the scene (and even question whether they should be offering commentary in the first place). There’s even a moment in which our guide Lt. Chad asks his fellow actors to shoot him with bullets to prove how artificial the environment is.

The film has a healthy contempt for what moviemaking has devolved into in recent years: namely, a process so mechanical and soulless that the latest forgettable $200 million 3D CGI extravaganza may as well be as a spare tire dropped into a pyre. Sure enough, Rubber‘s final moments features an army of derivative tires storming Hollywood. Who knew that it required a bloodthirsty tire to get us to reconsider our relationship to movies?

Review: Potiche (2010)

Catherine Deneuve — now 67 — is one of the few actresses in the world who will still stop a man in his tracks in her seventies and eighties. Yet François Ozon, having worked with Deneuve before in the comic murder mystery 8 Women, has rightly comprehended, much like Jacques Demy, the effervescent appeal beneath the sexy sheen.

Potiche, based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, is certainly a pleasant enough vehicle for Deneuve and her costar Gerard Depardieu. The older and middle-class critics at the screening I attended laughed at the right moments, perhaps not entirely aware that Ozon has been kind enough to toss a few goofy Molotovs over the years. For those who enjoy the more provocative side of Ozon, Potiche signals a retreat from the eye-popping fare that established this intriguing director’s career.

Whether the condition is permanent is anyone’s guess. But the gleeful assaults on bourgeois marriage, seen in such films as 5×2 and the glorious Sitcom, that imbued Ozon’s work with such mischievous zest have been replaced by a comparatively stale story involving Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) as the titular “trophy wife” to Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini), an umbrella manufacturer (a nod to Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) who enjoys balling his secretary Nadège (Karin Viard) on the fly (when, of course, an altogether different fly is unzipped). Robert is a man who cannot remember his wife’s birthday. Which begs the question of why Suzanne has stuck around for so long. (There’s an answer late in the film, but, alas, it’s something of a contrivance.)

It could be because this is 1977, a year when France is a paradise for labor strikes. Sure enough, the umbrella factory run by Pujol finds itself facing the kind of progressive resistance that seems to elude 2011 America. Leading the strike is Maurice Babin (Depardieu), who happened to have a fling with Suzanne back in the day. He may be a man of the people, but he knows how to respect a lady — a sentiment that the film is careful to heed by featuring needless flashbacks with younger actors. (I felt sorry for the the largely mute thespians playing younger versions of Depardieu and Deneuve in these scenes. With classic French cinema to be compared against, how can they compete?)

You’d think that all this political intrigue would permit Ozon to expand his cheerfully irreverent approach. One promising joke of copulating rabbits suggests that the Ozon we know is here. But he’s hamstrung by the somewhat passe and toothless material he has to work with. What’s odd about Potiche is that the Suzanne/Maurice affair — that vital subplot that’s pretty much the linchpin of good farce — doesn’t have nearly the same narrative traction as the Babin family taking over the factory while dad is occupied. Suzanne’s daughter Joelle (Judith Godrèche) faces a dwindling marriage and an augmented belly, but despite these conflict, she’s quite the reactionary little minx — especially when asked to vote during the board meetings. (Is this a joke relating to France being behind the women’s suffrage curve? Remember that France didn’t give ladies the municipal elections until 1945.) But I was especially fond of Jérémie Renier’s subtly mannered performance as Paul, Suzanne’s son. His artistic background is applied to the factory with humorous effect. And perhaps that’s because Ozon delights in decorating the Pujol house with green drapes with a sofa to match.

Potiche doesn’t quite have the retro pizzazz of an American movie like Down With Love, much less Ozon’s fashion-conscious world in Time to Leave. Watching this latest movie, it’s difficult to fathom that, only a few years before, Ozon made a movie about a baby with a working set of wings.

One sign of an interesting filmmaker is how well he can stay himself when asked to work in the mainstream mode. In Potiche, there’s one moment when a man shoves whole potato chips in his mouth. This may very well mimic what the audience is being asked to enjoy here. Or perhaps it’s a strong indicator that Ozon is better off commenting upon conventional narratives through the unconventional. Why stick with trophies when you can raise hell and get away with it?

New Directors/New Films: Pariah (2011)

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Last September, in response to Floyd Mayweather’s homophobic rant against Manny Pacquiao, Stanley Crouch wrote an essay suggesting that African Americans “exemplify the modern age in their contradictions as thoroughly as any other ethnic group.” Yes, black voters showed up in California to vote against same sex marriage. But Crouch observed that, thanks to Amiri Baraka, homophobia had been part of black nationalism as early as the 1963 March on Washington. (In a 2009 interview with 3AM Magazine, Baraka claimed that his words emerged from anger that “was part of the mindset” created by numerous political assassinations, but he didn’t apologize for his homophobia.)

Since black homophobia is often too easily portrayed as a symptom of race rather than a symptom of class, it’s a relief that writer-director Dee Rees has arrived to investigate the matter. Her debut narrative feature, Pariah — an extension of her 2007 short — finds its best footing when illustrating how middle-class aspirations and the desire for stability are often responsible for this lingering atavism. Late in the film, when Audrey (Kim Wayans) reacts to her 17-year-old daughter Alike (Adepero Odeuye) after she defiantly shouts, “I’m a lesbian, I’m a dyke,” the moment’s true horror comes from understanding how Audrey’s materialist desires for a Fort Greene brownstone (rather than a place in Queens, an early life of struggle hinted at throughout Rees’s film) and her efforts to stick with the “right people” at church have permitted a few dormant prejudices to explode within this apparent domestic bliss. (And by making Alike’s father a cop, played by the excellent Charles Parnell, Rees neatly aligns Audrey’s Christian virtues with Alike’s father’s concession to an authoritarian vocation. It isn’t a surprise when we learn that this isn’t a happy marriage.)

Crouch suggested that “consenting adults will win out over all the blather,” but, in his otherwise thoughtful essay, he didn’t answer the equally important question of how children, still struggling to find identity, might cut through this noise. In Pariah, Alike isn’t a terribly rebellious teenager. She sneaks into nightclubs in drag with her friend Laura (Pernell Walker), but spends most of her time inside shyly occupying red velvet couches and struggling with her sexuality. Does she shove a dildo down her pants and pretend to be a man? Does Alike have the “right people” to go to? Even in seemingly civilized Fort Greene, Rees has the courage to suggest that plentiful community resources aren’t always allocated to answering the right questions.

One night, Alike returns home later than curfew and Audrey yells at her. Rather than trying to understand her daughter, who is also a blossoming creative writing student getting good grades, Audrey would rather blame Laura, “that young lady you run out with,” for Alike’s apparent confusion. But surely the mixed signals at home (dad calls her “Allike,” mom calls her “Lee”), buttressed by Alike’s parents trying to squeeze their daughter into their cannibalized notions of success, are the main problem.

Audrey sets Alike up with Bina (Aasha Davis), a girl from church who appears to be a model teenager. Someone who dresses nice, who isn’t likely to corrupt Alike with that Reema Major trash, and who quickly subsumes Laura’s role as regular friend. What Audrey and Alike don’t realize is that the world isn’t nearly as neat as they realize.

Rees is greatly helped by her cast. Oduye, Davis, and Walker all play their teenage roles as if they’re just close enough to self-sufficiency to grow beyond many of these invisible shackles. And this makes it especially painful when some unanticipated development sets their slow progress back.

Unfortunately, the film sometimes tries far too hard to be natural. The handheld camera work, striving for a docudrama approach, sometimes intrudes too much on an organic moment. One scene in a store, in which the question “How does pussy taste?” is presented in front of a few old timers, contains streetcred that is just too forced to be believed. However, one of the film’s best moments is a late night bonding session between father and daughter, where Elika comes very close to telling her dad how she feels. The dialogue itself is okay, but Charles Parnell, who is probably best known for his voiceover work on The Venture Bros., is a very generous actor and sells the scene so that it resonates.

Rees deserves credit for exploring social issues that few American filmmakers are willing to touch. Once she figures out the right balance between realism and drama, she’ll be a very formidable filmmaker. I certainly hope that she isn’t seduced by the less nuanced Hollywood machine.

New Directors/New Films: Curling (2010)

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

If Kingpin and The Big Lebowski (or, heck, even Dreamer – a silly movie starring Tim Matheson as a bowler from 1979 that nobody remembers) portrayed the bowling experience from the bowler’s vantage point (natch, given that this is the way most of us comprehend that lengthy lane with the nine pins we hope to topple down in half-drunken triumph), then Curling dares to see it from the middle-aged folks toiling in bowling alleys. This may be because writer-director Denis Côté was born in New Brunswick. In fact, what you may not realize is that five pin bowling, which is quite popular in much of Canada, isn’t nearly as much of a draw in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. And that is because in some of the French-speaking territories, petite quilles (or duckpin bowling, which is ten pin bowling with fat little bastards replacing the slim pins most of us know in the States; perhaps this is why the obesity epidemic is writ larger south of the 49th parallel) is more the order of the day.

I didn’t intend to write a silly essay about the many variants of bowling, although they certainly excite me. (In fact, my discovery of candlepin bowling upon moving to the East Coast made me both very surprised and very happy.) I am, after all, supposed to tell you about this movie, Curling. What I can say is that Denis Côté isn’t terribly interested in the bowling alley’s culinary offerings, which you’d figure that anyone who speaks French or who enjoys chilli cheese fries (does Côté?) would be keen on investigating. However, as the film’s title suggests, the film itself isn’t about bowling. It also involves a pastime that is insufficiently defined by Wikipedia as “a sport in which players slide stone across a sheet of ice towards a target area.” I don’t wish to come across as overly querulous, but this clinical sentence certainly doesn’t insinuate what makes curling a draw. Having not curled in any meaningful capacity outside of the boudoir, I can safely report that Curling‘s curling moments did fill me with the sense that I had missed something – even if most of the curlers were advanced in years and looked as if they had taken up curling to alleviate the gloomy boredom awaiting them outdoors. Since the Will Farrell comedy Dodgeball is held in high acclaim, I would not be surprised if some crass Hollywood crew appropriated this sport too. After all, like golf, curling did originate in Scotland.

For one unsmiling man with a mustache, Jean-Francois (played by Emmanuel Blidodeau), bowling isn’t so much a joy, as it is a low-paying part-time job in which he sometimes loses bets with his co-workers to clean the bathroom or dress up in preposterous costumes. Jean-Francois’s other gig involves cleaning a motel and, one morning when he discovers a bloody mess in Room 9, he is informed by the owner that his services are no longer required. Of course, it isn’t Jean-Francois’s fault, nor even the fault of the “big Accordion trucker” who stayed the night before who either killed somebody or died bleeding in the wilderness. The owner had planned on closing down the motel anyway. “I don’t have the energy,” says the owner. Well, who can blame the owner when the guests die like this?

Did I mention the fact that some tiger is running loose and that various people are being mauled down in the wintry wilderness? Did I also mention that Jean-Francois is a single dad home-schooling his daughter Julyvonne because it’s so dangerous outside? Jean-Francois takes care of Julyvonne because his partner is locked up in a mental institution. “If you touch a hair on her head,” she shrieks, “I’ll rip your fucking heart out.” Such is the promise of domestic tranquility in this family’s universe, but, in Côté’s defense, I should point out that I grew up in an environment in which such lines were shouted around the dinner table. In fact, the situation here is so bleak that Julyvonne begs her father to play Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” through a crappy stereo so that she can dance in a vague manner as Jean-Francois sits on the couch in a moribund manner.

And you thought some of your nights were pathetic. In seeing these scenes, I wondered if the film was set sometime around 1989. Later in the film, when there was talk of cell phones and video games, I felt a genuine sense of shock that this time capsule of a town in the middle of nowhere could be penetrated.

These cinematic results, depending upon your temperament, are either relentlessly bleak or mostly depressing with occasional bright and quietly hilarious spots. At times, Curling made me feel like I wanted to kill myself. And yet I can recommend this mumblecore opus from Quebec. Because the melancholy often functions in a peculiar comic mode. Any film featuring a man dressed up in a bowling pin costume, hassled by a ten year old kid who wants to wear the top portion and who then reveals rudimentary erudition that eludes Julyvonne, can’t be entirely humorless. And any film featuring a fetching employee who has a new hair dye color for every fresh screen appearance is probably suggesting that iridescence can be located in a bleak landscape if you know how to change your stripes. (In fact, chances are that maintaining a silly moustache may be part of the problem.) Then again, this is also a film in which Julyvonne, precluded from painting the town red, humbly requests that her dad paint the bathroom red. Jean-Francois insists that green would be a better shade. Julyvonne is later briefly abandoned because, in Jean-Francois’s view, this contributes to the possibility of him going insane like his partner.

What I enjoyed so much about Curling is that it doesn’t give up its mysteries. We never quite learn why the mother has gone insane. For all I know, it could be a rite of passage in this village. I mentioned earlier that a large cluster of the local population seems to be getting killed or mauled. It could be the tiger. It could be the truck driver. It could be what some folks call cabin fever. I don’t believe the Quebec community is this violent in real life, although I don’t have any fresh crime statistics at my side. Curling presents enough ambiguities to make you wonder whether its village represents some parallel universe occupying Côté’s inventive mind or some part of Québécoise equipoise that just isn’t talked about. It is the rare film that is both a downer and a winner.

Review: Win Win (2011)

Can a woman seeking a $1,500/month guardian stipend truly afford to stay at a New Jersey motel for several weeks? (The Quality Inn in Toms River, New Jersey has kindly informed me that they rent rooms at $39.95/night. Discounting tax, that’s $279.65/week. At three weeks, that’s $838.95.) I suppose she could put it on her credit card, even though she’s just spent a considerable amount of her money in rehab and doesn’t appear to be gainfully employed. But can this same woman also afford to retain an attorney who makes at least three public appearances?

If a pack of cigarettes cost about eight bucks in Jersey, and you are a spendthrift like Mike Flaherty (played by Paul Giamatti), does it make any sense to buy a fresh pack, throw the other nineteen cancer sticks into a dumpster, and then smoke the remainder whenever you need to relieve stress? (For that matter, why are you spending your money on mid-grade scotch you keep in the office? And if your cigarette intake is that why aren’t you relieving stress that way?)

Such story problems emerge up with troubling frequency during Win Win, which isn’t just a subpar mainstream comedy, but a fallacious fantasy. The vastly overrated writer-director Thomas McCarthy (not to be confused with the very smart British novelist Tom McCarthy, who gave us Remainder and C) hasn’t bothered to ask or answer these basic questions. Perhaps it’s because McCarthy lives in a privileged bubble which prevents him from researching or investigating the very people he wishes to depict.

If we are to (rightly) condemn the Tea Party for perpetuating the view that some mythical age of prosperity occurred under Reagan, then we should also (rightly) condemn any huckster who wishes to perpetuate a roseate view of the middle-class instead of one that accurately presents its ongoing erosion (yet still manages to get us to walk away with some faith in humankind: Stewart O’Nan’s novels or Mike Leigh’s films come very much to mind). Because of these problems, Win Win is more feel-good propaganda than respectable entertainment. It’s the kind of movie that a clueless centrist, the type who doesn’t know how to live and who arrogantly claims comprehension of the hoi polloi without actually talking with them, will enjoy without question. I know this, because the film’s generic and gutless humor (1980s rock stars, games called Secret Apprentice, signs on ceilings that read “If you can read this, you’re pinned”) caused the middle-class types I was sitting with to laugh at the carefully engineered, preprogrammed moments.

The problem here may be that Win Win is actually two movies awkwardly sandwiched into one. Does it want to be a film about how Mike Flaherty survives in an increasingly unforgiving economy as a sole practitioner who takes up the causes of the elderly and as a part-time wrestling coach? Or a film about how a man who cannot relax finds a new cause to take up with Kyle (Alex Shaffer)? Kyle, a troubled boy, reveals himself to be a very capable wrestler who can shake the wrestling team from its losing streak. (Some hint of Kyle’s troubled past is seen late in the film, where Kyle’s violence shows signs of surfacing to the edge. Between this, and one joke that has Mike hitting Kyle in the face just before a wrestling match, there’s the possibility of a richer film buried beneath the crowd-pleasing claptrap. Alas, McCarthy would prefer to collect the check.) He’s landed into Mike’s life not long after Mike has taken the aforementioned $1,500 monthly guardian stipend from Kyle’s grandfather to help keep his family afloat.

Because the film’s story is so overstuffed, supporting characters who should matter aren’t given the chance to breathe. Amy Ryan, for instance, plays Jackie, Mike’s wife, revealed to be nothing less than a former Jersey girl (with a JBJ tattoo on her ankle: JBJ, of course, being shorthand for Jon Bon Jovi, a shorthand that also condescends to the audience) who now nurtures. The Flaherty family may be having financial difficulties, but why doesn’t the family chip into pick up the slack. Why doesn’t the film give Jackie a chance to get a part-time job? Or even offer us a dramatic moment in which Mike finally cops to Jackie about his inability to make ends meet? Surely, a woman who has observed her husband cheaping out (not fixing the creaky pipes in the office, not sending in the health insurance check on time, not hiring a tree surgeon to cut down the diseased tree) would notice. Even Mike’s office assistant, a woman confident enough to announce her hangovers and carefully tallying the expenses, would probably have some modest clue that the arithmetic doesn’t add up. Presumably, these women don’t confront Mike with these financial issues because they are aware of Mike’s health (he hyperventillates after too much stress). But if Mike has the time to work two jobs, and he’s spending nearly all of his spare time playing Wii tennis and bullshitting with his somewhat loutish friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), surely he should take some personal responsibility or would at least be called (gently perhaps) on the way he evades what he needs to do. I mentioned a woman earlier who also cannot do the financial numbers. That woman is Kyle’s mother. So that’s three women McCarthy offers who are incapable of understanding basic personal finance. In a world in which The New York Times claims gang rapists to be the victims, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call Thomas McCarthy a sexist pig.

Review: Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the Battle: Los Angeles screening I attended was Danny DeVito’s presence. Danny DeVito – a supremely underrated actor and director – is just about the last name that comes to mind when I think of derivative science fiction – especially the kind of derivative science fiction that makes Roland Emmerich look like Aeschylus and Battlefield Earth look like Kitchen Sink realism. But there he was, walking out the doors just behind me and archly humming the theme song – his response to this remarkable cinematic travesty. Since Danny DeVito is a professional, and cannot speak ill of a terrible movie, I don’t wish to suggest that Danny DeVito didn’t enjoy the film. But I put forth to you that when a man of his talent reacts like this, this is probably not a sign that Battle: Los Angeles is the 2001 of our time.

What the hell was Danny DeVito doing at the screening? What the hell was I doing at the screening? I obviously can’t speak for Danny DeVito, but I suppose I was there for the cheese. Then again, the closer I get to forty, the less this answer feels legitimate. Even though I still enjoy laughing at terrible dialogue, which Battle: Los Angeles has in droves. “No promises in combat,” barks Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (played by Aaron Eckhart as if Nantz were more of an easily ignored plastic chair rather than a flesh-and-blood character). “This is insane,” says another marine, who has not been given adequate dialogue to express what we already fucking know is insane. “I miss him….every…,” wails Eckhart later in the film. He may have been referring to Neil LaBute. “They ambushed us like they knew our frickin’ addresses,” says Tech Sergeant Elena Santos (played by the now officially typecast Michelle Rodriguez). Santos, by the by, is the only woman soldier here. And she’s not even an interesting soldier like Private Vasquez in James Cameron’s Aliens. (In fact, being a tech sergeant, she doesn’t even get to gun anybody down until the end.) If that gender disparity isn’t troublesome enough, consider that Nantz gets to say “fucking” while poor Santos only gets “frickin’.’ Where I come from, real women say “fuck.” Alas, this is a 21st century reality lost on writer Christopher Bertolini and director Jonathan Liebesman, who seem to have confused a relentlessly shaky camera for authenticity.

I pretty much lost it when Aaron Eckhart shouted, “Marines never quit,” in his gruff, here-for-the-paycheck bark. But, hey, I had to find my pleasure somewhere. The pleasure certainly wasn’t there in the explosions, which grew tedious, or the characters, which proved to be forgettable despite the X-Files-like captions, or the feeble explanation for the alien invasion, which involved using fuel for water, or the weak military system the alien race sets up, which involved a laughably stupid command center to generate power, or the dialogue, which only served to repeat obvious points.

Given such wretched qualities, cheese is a decidedly immature draw. I should know better at my age. But Danny DeVito is well over forty and he probably came for the cheese too. I was sitting too far away from Danny DeVito to hear if he was laughing. But when I started laughing, during a remarkably terrible and long Eckhart monologue attempting to rally the survivors, I noticed that others started laughing. Perhaps I gave a few audience members permission to laugh. Sony certainly did its best to pretend that this was a worthwhile film, being somewhat more aggressive with confiscating phones (who would pirate this piece of shit?) and even employing a warmup guy to get the audience to reply back “All right” before the screening. Since I had come to this screening as a reviewer, I felt that replying “All right” was inappropriate and not especially journalistic. Still, I can’t blame the studio for doing everything in its power to salvage a turd. On the other hand, a turd is still a turd. As turds go, Battle: Los Angeles is probably one of those turds well on its way to the sewer system by now. So it was probably an unwise decision for the filmmakers to include a plot point involving the Los Angeles sewer system, which only served to remind the audience that they were wading through shit.

Can I find one good thing to say about this failed hodgepodge of Predator, Independence Day, and Assault on Precinct 13? Well, I’ll certainly try. At one point, Nantz cuts away at an alien’s anatomy, trying to find the weak spot. My vast steadfast boredom dissipated for a few moments, and I wondered if the filmmakers would come up with something fairly creative. Maybe the aliens might have a unique digestive system. Perhaps a tentacle might emerge from the carcass and attack the humans. Perhaps the humans could morph into another form. But the only thing these hacks could come up with was a position to shoot at and weapons that were surgically attached to their bodies. And if you can’t be fucking bothered to come up with even some half-assed idea of an alien culture, then why go to the trouble of making the film in the first place?

If this movie had any real courage, it might have killed off its kid characters or shown one of the felled aliens genuinely suffering. Real war is more complicated than the simple-minded malarkey of blowing shit up. Is it too much to ask for even a small dose of All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, or Platoon in a movie like this? These days, it is.

Jane Eyre (1990 : 2011 :: Reality : Film Adaptation)

I was a teen when I first read Jane Eyre from beginning to end. The decision to read this Charlotte Bronte classic wasn’t prompted by any authority, but sprang from personal shame. An English teacher had assigned Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, pairing me up with two other students to write a collective essay in response to the book. I didn’t read the book. It wasn’t because I didn’t try. I just couldn’t read the book. And when I went to one of their comfortable middle-class homes to huddle around one of their computers, the jig was up. I was considered an impostor, with the calumnious sigil embedded invisible on my forehead for weeks.

These two other kids were right. I am still very much an impostor. I grew up in a home sullied by blows both violent and verbal, where shrieks from other family members careened around corners and mice scurried and scratched in the walls. The garage was nothing less than a shelter for junk that my parents lacked the effrontery to throw out, and I would have to climb over all manner of bric-a-brac to get the mail (which included a clandestine Playboy subscription addressed to my name, which I read for the pictures and the articles). Embarrassed friends would telephone me, hearing screaming and saying nothing and sometimes offering their homes as momentary refuge. This made it very difficult to read or concentrate or think or feel or write.

I didn’t have a computer; just an ancient electric typewriter with a highly unreliable ribbon and jittery keys. I had learned how to type 100 words per minute in eighth grade, but the contraption made my skills useless. I would type essays on this baleful beast late at night, when the chances of shouting and interruption were slimmer, often needing an hour to hone a paragraph to make sure that the ink didn’t smudge on the liberated bond and the characters hammered to the paper properly. Even one of these very patient hours, which could only come when I was holed up in my bedroom, still required the dutiful applique of white-out (mostly stolen, not purchased; there wasn’t much money). One of my English teachers – a man named Jim Jordan fond of leaving a tally on the blackboard with my name under the heading INANE COMMENTS (he did the same thing to a nice kid named Nick Hamilton; who knows how many aspiring jesters this man tormented over the years?) and who added a horizontal slice every time I overcame my shyness, announced my associative mind, and got the classroom to laugh — decided to condemn me further when I would turn in papers labored over into the early morning. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t the content, but the pockmarked presentation, something I couldn’t help due to the poverty of my instruments, that offended this Murphy Brown watcher’s sensibilities.

Factor in all the ruthless ribbing, and this was a tough time for me. Misery at home, misery at school. But I tried my best to see the positive side of things. One needed to develop a thick hide to survive. I figured this neoliberal teacher just hated the poor kid with the wild and crazy hair and the trenchcoat and the hat and the Looney Tunes tees (found very cheap at Marshall’s and treated with some care, given that shopping for clothes was a rare occurrence) preventing him from charming a largely middle-class group as patriarchal pedagogue. It was a wonder, years later, that I ended up finding some dodgy living as a guy who wrote about books and that any page in literature spoke to me more than anything Jim Jordan, who hated genre and hated Stephen King and rebuffed my interest in HP Lovecraft and always let the class know all this, had to say over a semester.

I felt bad about not reading Robert Penn Warren. (Years later, I read the book in its entirety.) I also felt bad when I learned that the two students, whom I thought my friends, ridiculed me to another friend, figuring that I had to be a stupid son of a bitch for not reading Warren. (This third friend defended me, in part because he was also not quite in their class bracket and had some tangible understanding of what I was going through. Vice versa. We’re still friends to this very day. Old soldiers who fought many wars together.) And so I decided to prove to myself that I could read a big book that wasn’t science fiction or fantasy. I plucked a copy of Jane Eyre from a box in another classroom and I brought it home. (I would later do the same thing with George Orwell’s 1984 and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, both of which I was not required to read but did.)

For obvious reasons, I could relate very much to Jane’s early plight in the Red Room and at Lowood. Psychologically abusive family members, teachers who tormented me because I didn’t fit into their suburban idyllic fantasy, feeling stupid and plain – what here wasn’t there to relate to? I had no kind teacher equivalent to Miss Temple at the time, although I would later encounter a marvelous teacher named James Wagner, who not only encouraged me to write by looking upon every essay as an opportunity for fun and mischief, but who paid attention to the prose style contained in my DNA. When my sister took Mr. Wagner’s class a few years later, he said to her, “That’s what I like about you Champions. Short and snappy sentences.”

But once Jane hit Thornfield, I began to despise her and the book. I didn’t like this Rochester fellow who was trying to control her. He reminded me of too many paternal figures who wanted to correct me rather than accept me. And I didn’t like the way that Jane (or Janet, as Rochester called her; a modest corruption of her name that Jean Rhys was to investigate further in Wide Sargasso Sea) wasn’t honest about her feelings. I didn’t like the convenient fortune that Jane encountered later in the book, which seemed a terrible contrivance, and I didn’t like the way that Jane heard Rochester’s voice and how this conveniently urged her to return to Thornfield. Life just didn’t work like this. But I read it to the end and returned the book back to the box, grateful that my fury towards the book would not have to be voiced and shot down by an English teacher who didn’t like me. However, before an eccentric drama teacher (Mr. Cody), I dismissed Jane Eyre as “a Harlequin romance.” I was very surprised when Mr. Cody replied with approbation and enthusiasm.

Still, as much as I hated the book, I have to credit Jane Eyre for giving me a reading discipline I had never known before that time. It hadn’t occurred to me to look at the novel again until there came a time later, more than twice a lifetime later.

* * *

January 10, 2011. I publicly pledge to read the top 100 novels of the 20th century, as decided upon in 1998 (about eight years after I read Jane Eyre and about thirteen years before I made the promise) by the Modern Library of America. What I don’t quite comprehend at the time is that Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea -– a prequel to Jane Eyre -– is #94. (April 22, 2011 Interjection: Essay on Wide Sargasso Sea now here.) What I also don’t quite get is that there’s a new film adaptation of Jane Eyre set to be released on March 11, 2011.

A few weeks later, I make the connections. I receive an email from Russell Perreault (I’m on one of Random House’s mailing lists) about the movie tie-in edition. After my high school experiences, there’s no way in hell that I’m going to obtain a fresh copy of Jane Eyre on my own. Not from a bookstore or a library. Yet somehow I cannot resist. Through sheer folly and laziness, I send Perreault an email. Much to my surprise, Perreault humors me and a copy of Jane Eyre shows up in the mail days later. My fate is sealed. I can’t exactly ignore this polite gesture. I must reread the book. Who knows? Maybe my adult self will appreciate what my kid self did not.

I arrange to attend a press screening of the movie, with the idea that I’ll have the book reread before I hit the movie. (What I don’t count on is that all this industry triggers thoughts and feelings outlined in the first part of this essay.) I reread the book. I bang out the following Goodreads review:

It shouldn’t be thoughtless to condemn this terrible book, which I read for the second time in my life. The first time was in high school. I hated it then, but I read it to the end — unprovoked by any force in particular, aside from my own flowering self-discipline. I despise this book slightly less now. But I am now most anxious indeed to read Jean Rhys’s corrective prequel, which appears to be much shorter and has the temerity to condemn such terrible characters. Jane Eyre is almost smug in the end, after 600 pages of near helplessness (especially the unintentionally hilarious chapter of her asking around for food and a job: if she were truly smart, she would have contrived the damn escape over time; what does it say about this diabolical doormat that I longed for her to take up prostitution, hoping in vain that my memory of the book was wrong, but knowing the chirpy fate of this dimwitted damsel in distress, who requires an extra-strong dose of feminist enlightenment). Rochester and St. John are two male specimens whom I would not only outdrink, but out think and out act. When Rochester begs Janet to save him, an image of castrated Williamsburg hipsters beating him to a pulp entered my mind. Alas, such a deserved fate was not to be. Don’t get me started on the doddering St. John.

But of course, being very stubborn-minded, I read this damn book to the bitter end. My partner asked me to leave the room because I was talking back so violently to the book, making sounds resembling “Wah wah wah” or something like that when I had to endure pages upon pages of angst. A critic friend says that he never made it past the first half of this book and suggested that I read Wuthering Heights. He may be right, but I think I’m done with the Bronte Sisters for at least a year. I don’t care how groundbreaking this book was on the Gothic front. It’s just plain hokey. Convenient windfalls from dead relatives, hearing Rochester’s voice from afar. Contrived! So you can’t take responsibility for marrying the crazy woman in the attic? Cry me a river. Man up and deal. Don’t take out your problems on your poor servants, illegitimate children, a governess, and so forth. Hey, Rochester, didn’t you see the sign on the boat to Jamaica? YOU BROKE IT, YOU BOUGHT IT. The fact that you view humans as hairy beasts, sir, is part of the problem. Bronte’s understanding of people, even accounting for the centuries, leaves much to be desired too.

* * *

In high school, I understand that many people consider the book to be a masterpiece. And while I don’t share this viewpoint, I do find myself in high school obtaining a VHS copy of the 1943 film starring Orson Welles as Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane. I love every damn minute of it. Maybe it’s the melodrama. Maybe it’s the black-and-white. I am familiar then with Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil and the wine commercials and am only just starting to understand what a great cinematic genius Orson Welles was. (My friends only seem to know him from Transformers: The Movie.) There is clearly no better man who can channel Rochester’s oily charisma and convince us why Jane Eyre would fall victim to what would now be very serious sexual harassment in the workplace.

There is, in 1996, a lesser film adaptation with William Hurt in the role. And I learn that George C. Scott has also played him, although I still haven’t seen that version. In college years, I also discover that there’s a 1973 version with Michael Jayston in the part. (I know Jayston as the Valeyard in the 1986 Doctor Who serial, “Trial of a Timelord.”) I track some of these dramatic versions down (not an easy thing to do in the pre-Internet days of video stores and tape trading by mail), but I don’t tell anyone about this adaptation fixation until March 2011, when I write and publish this essay. Perhaps in my secret watching, I am trying my best to find ways of appreciating a book I don’t care for.

“My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth, — all energy, decision, will, — were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me; they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me, — that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his. I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously arrived, green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.”

Why is Rochester the entry point? Is it because I’m a man? Is it because of this idea of loving someone without the object of your affection looking back at you? I don’t think so. I think it’s because I’m trying to understand why Jane would be so attracted. That’s one of the great narrative mysteries sticking at the back of my mind for years. Even if she doesn’t have much experience with men, and even if the times weren’t exactly friendly for women, it doesn’t make sense that someone brave enough to stand up to the abuses at Lowood would fall for some of Rocheter’s dull philosophy. Yet Rochester, plainly described in that above passage, is charming in these dramatic versions in a way that he isn’t charming in the book.

* * *

March 8, 2011. I’m in the Dolby 88 screening room. I know within a minute of first seeing Michael Fassbender in this movie that he doesn’t have what it takes to be Rochester. And it gets worse as the film goes on. He isn’t fierce enough. He doesn’t have the eyes that men like Orson Welles or Oliver Reed had; the eyes that somehow convince you to jump into an abyss before you know you’re falling. When Rochester sits in a chair, the chair has more screen presence. Poor Fassbender looks as if he’s been asked to do nothing but stare intensely at the camera. His arms and legs have pinioned by bad direction.

It doesn’t help that screenwriter Moira Buffini (responsible for Tamara Drewe) has restructured Jane Eyre so that a good portion of the St. John episode comes first (i.e., the movie begins with Jane’s escape from Thornfield, which in itself is a ballsy and interesting choice), followed by a surprising extension of the early business with the Reeds, with the Lowood stuff getting cheapened into what appears to be digital cardboard decor, which results in Rochester’s first appearance getting postponed and the narrative structure collapsing in on itself.

The “pedestal of infamy” mentioned in the book, which is a metaphor, is mentioned directly by an evil teacher in the movie. That’s how literal-minded the script is. The script also includes numerous moments where characters tell each other what they’re feeling, as if Buffini doesn’t understand that this is a visual medium. “How very French,” replies Fairfax after Adele sings a song. “You’re depressed,” says Rochester to Jane Eyre, who doesn’t look depressed. “Your eyes are full,” he also says when they’re not. “You’re blushing,” he says, when she’s not. This technique certainly worked for Lev Kuleshov, whereby Kuleshov cut a blank expression of a man with a bowl of soup (he’s hungry), a girl’s coffin (grief), and so forth – with audiences praising the blank man’s great acting. But that was almost 100 years ago and it relied on visual cues rather than oral ones. You’d think that such bad narrative dialogue would have the simple explanation of lines cribbed directly from the book. In other words, that essential exposition which works in text was simply plucked wholesale and put into the script. But that isn’t the case at all. Because none of these lines are in the book. Buffini (or some tampering studio executive) has added them. Because she (or someone) believes that the audience is a collection of morons.

There is no Miss Temple in this movie. Indeed, the movie cannot afford to offer us any nuances, anything that strays from the cliches. The red-maned Mia Wasikowska is too luminous to be so plain. The movie’s real “machine without feelings” here is cinematographer-turned-director Cary Fukunaga, who comprehends how to capture a world by lantern and candlelight, and even manages a moment of battledore and shuttlecock. But he doesn’t know that cobwebs and dust and flies often clutter up a dark and expansive mansion. Fukunaga isn’t much interested in creating visual atmosphere. He’s into fake scares through an aggressive sound mix, such as a bird flying up into the air. It doesn’t really enhance the story or the mystery or give us a reason to care.

* * *

I was an adult when I reread Jane Eyre from beginning to end, and when I realized that my feelings for the classic were just as needlessly prejudicial as the teacher’s enmity towards me. I gave it a try anyway, devoting many unknowing hours trying to reconstruct something that I had locked away in the attic of my mind. My own private Bertha was not insane and would not stay caged and would not set the place on fire. I resolved to approach Jane Eyre again in ten years, when the associations were less fresh and I was presumably more human. The next time around, I will judge it not through the prism of its dramatic iterations, but on the very novel itself. After all, wasn’t it Jane herself who said that repentance is said to be its own cure?

In Defense of Jaume Collet-Serra

It’s been two weeks since I attended a press screening for Unknown, and I am dilatory with my dispatch. But there’s been some distinctive quality about director Jaume Collet-Serra I’ve been trying to pin down. The hope here was that a few extra days of thinking would get me closer. After all, The Stranger‘s Paul Constant informed me that he received “drunken hate mail for weeks” after he praised Orphan – a movie that I also found to be fun and stylish and needlessly maligned by a few uptight critics.

But my interest quickly got out of hand. Now that I’ve seen all of Collet-Serra’s previous films (House of Wax, Goal 2, and Orphan), and I liked them all, I’m going to put forward the brazen suggestion that Jaume Collet-Serra may be another John Frankenheimer in the making. Like Frankenheimer, Collet-Serra includes several gradients of realist acting in his movies, however half-baked and unrealistic the scripts may be, to accentuate his more tasteful visual balance. Many of the complaints against House of Wax, for example, were leveled at Paris Hilton’s one-note acting (and I suspect that her overfrequent media presence in 2005 didn’t exactly help matters), but this severely discounted Elisha Cuthbert’s more realist performance and Brian Van Holt’s melodramatic double role. These complaints also weren’t especially fair when one considers Collet-Serra’s eye for the camera.

House of Wax: Certainly Collet-Serra’s background in commercials and music videos are largely responsible for this marvelous and unsettling opening sequence, in which we are introduced to a psychotic family. Notice the fine details contained within this montage. In the first shot, we see an older woman smoking her cigarette, the jasper angled askew and matching the wax bowl on the right. The table’s octagonal nature accentuates this psychology, especially since none of the hands or the cigarettes approach the table at a perpendicular angle. Then in the second shot, we see that the domestic scene is quite orderly. We see cereal poured into a bowl in a manner we might be familiar with. What’s unfamiliar here is the cigarette angled up in the air, neatly matching the arm clutching the cereal box. The milk bottle, with its smiling diagram, is also a nice touch, suggesting that some comical order or tranquility might be possible if you stick around long enough.

House of Wax: The camera, positioned very low, demonstrates that human life doesn’t matter much in Ambrose, the ghost town revealed to be a disturbing museum. We see a woman crawling beneath a pool table (underneath Ambrose’s “game”) in an effort to escape a mechanic who wants her to be part of this “museum.” Collet-Serra, who likes using shallow focus, makes the chair more prominent than the young woman. Even the lamp on camera left registers more than the woman.

Orphan: Believe it or not, this striking visual is a throwaway shot. Like Tony Scott, Collet-Serra has this tendency to offer a magnificent composition and cut it into a sequence for less than a second. It’s almost as if he doesn’t want people to know that he’s got the chops. Or perhaps we’re meant to investigate further with the pause button. What we see here is the Coleman family before Esther’s arrival. Daniel runs from camera left to camera right towards Max, deaf and holding a basketball. Aside from the clever way in which Collet-Serra intimates that this family is as solid as the house itself (with mom hidden behind the car and Max very slightly occluded by the column), there’s also the muted burgundy (increasingly darker) from left to right: the car’s tail light, Daniel’s hood midway, and the basketball that Max is holding.

Orphan: Once Esther invades the family home, we see that, unlike the previous shot and unlike the Coleman stability, her face cannot be hidden by any architectural detail. She stares at the piano with materialistic delight. The back window tries to illuminate the situation to the Colemans (“Hey, family! You may have taken in a murderous little girl! Look around”), all clustered in the dark and too ensnared by domestic bliss to see what’s in front of them. And just as Collet-Serra placed the milk bottle on the table in the House of Wax opening sequence, we see that he’s placed an almost hexagonal vase on camera left.

Orphan: This is one of my favorite shots in the movie. Who knew that Rock Band could portray a fragmented family? We see the boys having a grand old time tapping notes on the left. Meanwhile, the Old World girl with the old dress is inveigling her way in at the right. Again, Collet-Serra is careful to include a window near center frame, with its shaft of light trying to convey to the family that Esther is bad news. You wouldn’t know from the jagged diagonal staircase and the slightly incongruous textures that the production designer here was the same guy behind Blue Crush.

* * *

Unknown, Collet-Serra’s fourth feature film, from a screenplay by Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell, based on a novel by Didier van Cauweleart, is well directed. Like Collet-Serra’s previous films, the cinematography is symmetrically stellar, its use of split focus reminiscent of early Brian DePalma (there’s one great shot where a body is being dragged away on camera right, while another body stays recumbent is on camera left) and a car chase shot with an idiosyncratic claustrophobia (many of the shots are confined inside the vehicle, but we don’t get too many driver’s perspective angles). The acting, especially by Bruno Ganz as a former Stasi man, is surprisingly realistic. The script contains an improbable series of coincidences (nearly every character is part of the conspiracy!) and a very forgiving German police force (if you carjack a taxi from an airport, I’m pretty sure the authorities aren’t just going to let you drive away). But Collet-Serra’s pacing is, for a good stretch of Unknown, so classy and so relaxing that I became more forgiving with these lapses in story logic.

Before seeing Unknown, it had never occurred to me that Liam Neeson was filling in the role once occupied by Harrison Ford. Ford, now a doddering and growling caricature of his former self, once charmed movie audiences as the forceful Everyman we could relate to. The whole “Get off my plane!” business was the point of no return for Ford. But before that, Ford was the star of The Fugitive and Frantic, playing a very believable middle-aged man on the run.

I’m certainly not the only person to have found Neeson’s recent reinvention as an action star to be somewhat peculiar. While this very tall slim actor can’t drift from his slightly Americanized Irish brogue to save his life, he has carried notable authority in Schindler’s List, Michael Collins, and Rob Roy.

But Neeson is also very good at melodrama. Most people forget that Sam Raimi made a marvelous comic book movie called Darkman starring Neeson in the title role. There’s a very fun scene in which Neeson is confronting a carnie over a pink elephant, and Neeson plays it so perfectly over-the-top: his voice grating with a gravelly bark, his face spasmodic (thanks to the limited time Darkman has wearing the “Neeson face” in daylight). While Collet-Serra doesn’t quite go off the glorious deep end the way that Raimi did in Darkman, one sees something close to this quality in Unknown, when Dr. Martin Harris is trying to persuade people that he is the genuine article.

Consider this question. Twenty years ago, if you had been told a video store clerk that Sam Raimi (director of Evil Dead 2) and Peter Jackson (director of Dead Alive) would be directing some of the most successful Hollywood movies of all time, you would have been laughed out of the store.

Unknown is enjoyable, but it does see Collet-Serra playing it a bit safe. But if Sam Raimi can serve us the gloriously vivacious jazz club scene in Spider-Man 3, then perhaps Collet-Serra’s visual panache will branch out in intriguing directions.

Review: Of Gods and Men (2010)

Xavier Beuavois’s Of Gods and Men is a film so boring that it threatened to put me to sleep at least three times during its interminable 122 minutes. I have nothing in particular against the monastic life or unexpected political collisions or trying to understand why people remain inflexible when given clear mortal consequences in resisting common sense or the Trappists or the Algerians or films that are slow and long and, yes, even boring. Indeed, the film’s premise — based on the real-life assassination of seven monks who refused to leave Tibhirine in 1996 when terrorists entered their inner sanctum — is a fascinating one.

But this film ain’t Tarkovsky or Antonioni. The problem here — and I do realize this snoozefest has won the Grand Prix, along with unchecked fellatio from the film snob brigade; knock yourselves out — may be that Beuavois has so insisted on uncompromising authenticity (even going to the trouble of basing one shot around a shaky home video), of lining up every damn narrative moment to some scrap of a fact, that there’s little wiggle room to explore any discrepancies. These people lived, for fuck’s sake. And they were braver and more committed than most of us. I’m not necessarily against such orthodox recreation of reality, but it’s often most interesting when given a new context or a new framework that permits us to feel something. When Christian Marclay asks us to rethink images of clocks, as Art Fag City’s Will Brand recently suggested, he’s asking us, in breaking his own rules, to wonder if the viewing experience is too easy. What the hell is Beuavois asking us to do? By producing such a tepid timewaster, he encouraged me to walk out at several points and read a book on the subject. Alas, it was only my own stubborn self-discipline to sit through every damn minute that compelled me to stay. I am now writing a bitter review that vitiates the noble obduracy of the Trappist monks. And I feel terrible about it. But I cannot give this film a fair pass. It feels so trite in comparison to Wisconsin or Algeria or Libya or any other clusterfuck I could get sucked down when chasing the headlines.

The problem may be that I’m a reader and many of the film people who accept this malarkey as art are often not seen holding a book. I mean, even Ann Patchett’s melodramatic novel, Bel Canto, has more going on than Of Gods and Men. Beuavois seems to have avoided any deep or insightful investigation of the kind of temperament it takes to carry on with your low-key existence as terrorists abscond with your provisions and beat up on the people you’re trying so desperately to help. That kind of moral predicament should contain some element of horror. Is that too much of a concession to conventional narrative exigencies? Perhaps. While there is certainly some resistance to the decision to stay, and there is definitely a united front on the question, if the narrative intent here is to mimic what it feels like to be bullied, then I submit to the filmmakers that, no matter how tough or committed you are to a life of avoidance, you will still feel some modest trauma or shock. It’s certainly interesting that the monks here choose ritual as a panacea.

The film does looks beautiful. Shafts of light cascade against crumbling walls in need of new paint. There’s a quiet dignity in the way these monks share a meager meal — with one remarkably indigent celebration just before the monks concede to the inevitable, Swan Lake playing in the background and tearful eyes, that achieves a cinematic poignancy I’d be hard-pressed to dismiss. And I very much liked the way Beuavois shot many of these monks with the backs of their heads to the camera, a subtle visual suggestion conveying to the audience that we may very well be invading their holy lives.

But to get to these moments, one has to sit through a squirm-inducing concatenation of slow stretches. Endless and not especially sophisticated dialogue about how a love for God replaces a love for women. And so forth.

With so much attention to ornate aesthetics, I kept wondering why I felt damn near nothing for these monks. They receive letters and visits from the concerned. But they answer that they didn’t come to Algeria for personal interest and that there remains some circumstances in which men will not carry out evil. Stubbornness is an intriguing quality to contemplate, but up to a point. These dead monks demand more than technical recreation in order for us to feel.

Review: We Are What We Are (2010)

Last March, the intrepid crew behind The Barnes & Noble Review asked me to watch an extraordinary number of cannibal movies within a very short period of time. This exercise resulted in a rather pleasant throbbing in the head, a need for lengthy perambulation after all this sensory overload, a momentary recalibration of my carnivorous intake to ensure that I could sustain my passion for carne asada after seeing so many (virtual) people eaten, and this essay, in which I revealed that a cinematic genre of apparent last resort had more going for it than some of the humorless film snobs had suggested. One of the genre’s key touchstones, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), dared to balance bona-fide animal slaughter with the juicy theater of people having each other for dinner. And many of Deodato’s followers carried on in this bountiful spirit of authenticity, with film crews and fake books offering heft to all the baleful gustation. While mainstream cinema continues to remain comfortable with the removed feel of zombies, a decidedly more class-conscious approach to cannibalism in which one has to be bitten (a lack of personal responsibility? just one of the common rabble?) to give into these baser impulses, one wonders if we will see more knowing acts of cannibalism in multiplexes. Despite the fact that human beings are very often kind and noble, don’t we all have the capacity to be savage and vicious? And does not cannibalism offer us the most ideal narrative framework to oscillate between these two extremes? Is this not fun for the whole family?

Since money remains one of the dominant reasons that movies are made, the recent success of two Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies (a reboot that netted a $150 million worldwide gross) suggests this to be likely. But forget these crass men with the moneybags. Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are offers an unexpected alternative route for the cannibal movie’s future.

What’s quite interesting about this moody offering is that we see very few acts of chopping and cannibalism on screen. Some onyx bile regurgitated in the early minutes upon a shopping pavilion’s tile (and, with mordant wit, mopped up within minutes after the dead man is dragged away). A good deal of punching. (If you live among a family of cannibals and your dad has been dragging in a fresh body for a nightly ritual and you’re wondering when dad will kick the bucket so that you can be the paterfamilias, then it makes perfect sense that you would develop a few thuggish attempts at rabbit punches, testing them out on obnoxious guys who are trying to reclaim their broken watches.) Clumsy efforts to grab vagrant kids from beneath overpasses.

But cannibalism? Not until the very end.

I have to confess that I experienced some impatience in the film’s first hour, waiting eagerly for the dependable imagery of molars grinding human flesh and strings of meat being ripped from a flailing torso. The chops of the axe. The screams. All this reassures me! But I must greatly commend Grau for making me wait. It takes some serious guts to serve up a cannibal film prioritizing atmosphere over grindhouse. Grau is very good about balancing the frame, often pushing his subjects to the hard left or right (or occupying certain sectors in groups: see the above still) and leaving a dismaying blankness reflecting their empty future (and perhaps their empty bellies!). His interiors are often saturated with sickly shades of green, with a goopy Gordon Willis-like approach giving the movie a surprisingly dignified mien amidst all the dinginess.

The family business, as I intimated earlier, is the dying art of watchmaking. Dad, dead within the first few minutes, has been earning the bread by heading to a street vendor market and chomping on whores during his lunch hour. So there’s something of an Old World masculine vibe here. The film is often nebulous about how this strange system of providing for the family, of putting food on the table and so forth, works out. It’s implied that Dad has been providing fresh bodies, but are these bodies Dad’s whores? Mom seems to know about Dad’s whoring around, but she is strangely furious at her two boys for picking up the slack. The exact nature of the “ritual” is never entirely spelled out in the first hour. But when it is revealed, it’s somewhat of a predictable letdown.

Indeed, one frustrating aspect of Grau’s film is its behavioral incoherence. Grau has plenty of enticing visuals in his cinematic entrepot: a brother and a sister looking out the window, their entire forms beneath the drapes, as if protecting themselves from the unseen barbaric activities unfolding within; the ominous ticking of the clocks; the false sanctuary of a bathroom. But when it comes to synthesizing these visuals into character motivation, it often doesn’t pay off. Take, for example, a fifth-rate cop investigating a rash of disappearances and having some clue that will bring him to the family. This character is initially interesting in his drive for cash and his need to be famous, serving as a savage parallel in the “real” world to the “unreal” rituals in the family home. But when he is tempted too easily by an underage prostitute, these early impulses are flattened into your typical corrupt cop archetype. Or consider the sexual confusion of one of the sons when he ventures into a gay nightclub, initially distressed by some pickup grabbing him around the neck and making out with him. The son then attempts to corral his sexual ambiguity with his eating ambiguity, and his additional ambiguity over whether or not he has what it takes to take over as head of the family. Another fascinating parallel, right? Again, Grau throws this intrigue away by presenting this behavior, but not wishing to pursue its dimensions.

Of course, when one looks at the film’s title, this may be part of the point. Perhaps the audience is meant to reckon with bad behavior with only superficial context, thus stubbing out judgment before it can bury its barnacles into our being. But if you have the chops to present a subhuman impulse with visual nuance, why stop there? I’m definitely going to keep my eye out for Jorge Michel Grau’s work in the future. But I hope he has the courage to be more than what he thinks he is.

Review: Certifiably Jonathan (2007)

Jonathan Winters has an inviting interstate of a pure American face etched in pure pouches and clover dimples that, aside from the inevitable swelling of age, has changed very little in the past fifty years. He conveys jokes with the deceptively leisurely delivery of your grandfather telling you a tall tale. These two qualities, also shared by the great actor Walter Matthau, may have taken you far as a comedian or a light entertainment actor in the 1950s or the 1960s. But the 21st century’s less elastic notions of masculinity and comedy no longer allow for such talents to persevere.

This is a great shame. Because James David Pasternak’s flawed but fairly entertaining mockumentary Certifiably Jonathan (only just being released in New York, despite being in the can for four years) shows that the old man still has it.

The film opens with Winters sitting in a makeup chair, preparing for a talk show appearance. He asks the makeup lady how long she’s been married. “Twenty years,” she replies. “Well,” Winters improvises, “there’s no sense in getting out if you’ve been in that long. It’s a disease that doesn’t go away.”

Now if you laugh at that answer (and I certainly did), you’re probably over the age of 35 and you’re probably going to enjoy Pasternak’s little movie for what it is. While Certifiably Jonathan makes several disastrous attempts at low-rent improvisational Curb Your Enthusiasm-style scenes featuring Winters refusing to leave Jeffrey Tambor’s home, Winters golfing with Ryan Stiles, Winters with Sarah Silverman at the video store, and every member of the Arquette family who has ever worked in the acting business, it does succeed as a somewhat accidental chronicle of changes in contemporary comedy.

Winters, incidentally, was married to Eileen Schauder for 61 years (until her death in 2009). She’s seen in the film twice: young and dutiful in an archival clip and, in recent years, where she and Winters are sleeping in different rooms. “She snores,” quips Winters, who then commends the many pictures of himself in his room and the fact that they can both appreciate different Presidents this way. Much like his face, Winters’s comedy before the camera is like a familiar friend who hasn’t changed too much over the decades. His wife, on the other hand, wants the cameras to go away by the time Pasternak comes around.

The film’s “story” is about Winters trying to pursue a late-life art career. But as Winters’s website reveals, he’s actually been painting for quite some time. His art, featuring frequent coat hangers and neatly aligned bunches of blunt metaphors, has been making the rounds since the 1970s.

When the film forces Winter to be funny, it is uninteresting. Pasternak, a man who cannot carry a convincing screen moment to save his life, has this obnoxious tendency to want to “act” with Winters. And one greatly wishes that Pasternak had blown his vanity on a midlife crisis Camaro rather than taking the spotlight away from an underrated comedic legend.

What Pasternak does not understand is that Winters is simply funny, and especially funny when Certifiably Jonathan enlists old television clips. There’s one clip featuring a series of improvisations with a stick that uses the same comic science that Robin Williams famously employed with a pink scarf on Inside the Actors Studio. Both Winters and Williams are funny. But Winters came first. I can’t find the specific Winters clip Pasternak uses on YouTube, but this marvelous clip of Winters monkeying around with a pen and pencil sit should give you an idea just how much debt Williams owes Winters. At one point in the film, Winters confesses that Williams gave him an $8,000 watch as a gift. “He should,” says Winters. “He stole a lot of my material.”

Pasternak does manage to get Williams and Winters together for a number of scenes. But strangely enough, Winters has better chemistry with the tremendously underappreciated Howie Mandel when the two men are running around a Target. The footage appears to have been shot shortly before Mandel sold out to become a game show host (and who can blame him? Mandel almost quit showbiz in 2004), but Mandel squeezes his entire body into a shopping cart and is just as quick with the quips as Winters. These two men want to make each other look good. And that’s what great comedy is about.

Jonathan Winters certainly deserves a first-rate documentary. I don’t think this one entirely cuts the mustard, but better Certifiably something than nothing.

The Bat Segundo Show: Gregg Araki

Gregg Araki appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #377. Mr. Araki is most recently the writer and director of Kaboom, which opens today in theaters.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Staring at the canvas from a low angle.

Guest: Gregg Araki

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: Gregg, how are you doing?

Araki: (with some irony) I am doing fantastic.

Correspondent: End of the day. Uh, no visuals. But anyway…

Araki: In other words, “you don’t look fantastic.”

Correspondent: You do look fantastic! You look like…

Araki: Can we say “shit” on this?

Correspondent: You can. You can say “shit.” We can talk Totally Fucked Up. Whatever you want.

Araki: Okay. Good. Yeah, I look like shit.

Correspondent: You have exacting standards. I wanted to talk about your aesthetic. I noticed that over the course of twenty years, the camera’s position has actually grown. It started off as being very much on the floor.

Araki: (laughs)

Correspondent: Very on the ground. You would see giant billboards. Chevron gas stations. And as we’ve seen you evolve as a filmmaker, we’ve seen the camera actually rise up from the ground.

Araki: Interesting.

Correspondent: And I’m curious about how this aesthetic built.

Araki: In this film [Kaboom], there’s that crazy crane shot.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Araki: Interesting. That’s an interesting metaphor for my filmmaking style. It’s gone from underground to above ground.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly. Well, actually, roughly, the camera’s waist-high.

Araki: Yeah, I used to use a lot of what’s called a hi-hat. It’s just a plank of wood with a tripod head. And I was concentrating on the hi-hat a lot.

Correspondent: Was this more your way to look distinct? Because you had pretty much nothing but a hi-hat?

Araki: I think it was also just aesthetically appealing to me. And I think it’s partly — you know, my movies are about these characters who are in this vast, hostile universe. And I think that you get that — particularly with a wide angle, a wide low shot, you get a sense of this universe being this vast and dangerous place. I think that sense of space comes a lot from that angle. You get a sense of that openness.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about space. I was mentioning the Chevron gas station. And we see, for example, the Vermeer in Mysterious Skin. In this movie, at the cafe, there’s the big space in the back where we see WELCOME TO THE ONTOLOGICAL VOID. I’m curious as to how this also developed. This large widescreen environment for characters to often walk into and go ahead and bitch and moan.

Araki: You brought up many interesting things that will be in dissertations done on my movies after I’m dead, I’m guess.

Correspondent: Ah.

Araki: Because a lot of my movies — particularly the early, early ones, the black-and-white, the two ones that were before The Doom Generation — is frequently characters walking at night against these phantasmagorical backdrops of Los Angeles landscape. Usually talking about the meaningless of existence. And it’s something that’s been in a lot of my movies. There is still that sense, even in Kaboom. There’s a shot in particular that’s very, very similar to one of those shots. Because I remember we were on the hi-hat. The shot where Smith is being chased by the animal men, and he runs into that crazy weird stairwell that’s almost something out of a nightmare. That shot is very reminiscent of those shots. Because it’s also so much about the location and its natural light. It’s this weird lit-up stairwell, but the DP did light it. Most of the stuff is actually from the structure itself.

The Bat Segundo Show #377: Gregg Araki (Download MP3)

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Review: The Green Hornet (2011)

A few weeks ago, Patton Oswalt wrote an essay for Wired in which he suggested that the time had come for geek culture to meet its maker. Oswalt bemoaned “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells” and the sudden hip qualities of outsider geek culture, which had previously celebrated oddball nuggets hidden in plain sight, those precious tidbits misunderstood by all except a loyal few. The time had come, Oswalt wrote, to “make the present pop culture suck, at least for a little while.”

I’m not sure if I entirely agree with Oswalt’s thesis. The idea that culture has to kill itself, rather than adopt qualities that are playfully defiant, is something of a capitulation to the free market system. But that essay made the rounds for a few very good reasons. Oswalt was really writing about the ubiquity of everything. In antediluvian pre-Internet times, that alternative ending to Army of Darkness was once only available on a Japanese laserdisc. Now you can find it on YouTube. That obscure early Yello mix? Before CD burners, you tape traded. But now it’s on YouTube too. In fact, why not just download Yello’s entire discography from a torrent?

This omnipresence allows culture to thrive. And this is the reality from which we now operate. These developments may concern you if you feel a need to remain an outsider or if you wish to identify yourself by the obscurity of your tastes. As we have seen from some of the unintentionally hilarious anti-piracy videos making the rounds, these are market concerns rather than cultural concerns. And if you’re thinking about whether you’re inside or outside, chances are that you’re already part of the problem. Such capitalistic exigencies are now actively interfering with the advancement of culture. To offer one absurd example, we now live in a world in which Peter Serafinowicz, a hilarious comedian who deserves a bigger break and who may or may not be the Peter Sellers of our time, is now forced to steal his own movies in order to appear and perform in new material.

The ideal cultural state is simply liking what you like, without hip, square, geek, or cool dictating your existence. Labels aren’t how culture evolves. It isn’t how humans live and innovate.

Vile mainstream forces will always find ways to pluck, profit, and destroy original voices. The great irony is that they’re doing all this as their big box stores collapse and mass culture as a whole is fragmenting. Gone are the days where you’d find a Bloom County strip sitting incongruously next to Family Circus or a comedy program as wonderful as Monty Python’s Flying Circus getting aired on the BBC as a fluke. The people sitting atop the coffers aren’t going to let that happen again. Because for them, it’s about the short-term, the bottom line. Play by the rules. And just maybe, maybe you might have your personal project once you ensure that the investors buy the minimum six McMansions. Of course, by then, you’ll be a soulless burnout.

So the problem with variegated subcultures, whether geek or otherwise, is actually much worse than what Oswalt suggests. Much as we don’t want to talk about how the richest 1% horde a vast majority of the wealth and are willing to profit off of your inevitable bankruptcies and foreclosures, we don’t want to talk about the way New Geek culture has been co-opted by money and power.

Geek culture before the Internet was about people who genuinely liked Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, Skinny Puppy, and other “fringe” items, but who weren’t recognized by the mainstream for their tastes. Acts that operated in such conditions were a bit like small businesses. They couldn’t always make payroll, but they operated in the spirit of truth and passion. We see this today in independent bookstores that serve the community.

Unfortunately, the men with the money discovered (much as Werner Erhard and self-help gurus exploited the emotionally sensitive back in the 1970s) that they could profit off of the geek demographic and exploit them with Bernaysian glee. And you’ll now find these profit-oriented types — who like money but don’t really like culture — attending ComicCon and E3 to poach talent and control geek spin (or hiring people to do so; the E3 Booth Babes are among the most vile and misogynist approaches). There is now a great effort to woo anyone who is perceived as a tastemaker. Someone who has a blog or a prominent Twitter following.

This is hardly a prototypical move. Back in 1993, OK Soda was a desperate effort by the Coca-Cola Company to court the Generation X demographic. Coca-Cola hired alternative cartoonists. As Charles Burns recently told Martyn Pedler in an interview: “I kind of know what they were after – but I don’t know what they were thinking. They were going for this kind of ironic humor, for the 20-something audience. Instead of having that iconic Coca-Cola logo, the can would be different every few months or so.”

But the results backfired dramatically. Nevertheless, the corporate forces become self-aware and more ambitious after that hilarious little episode.

As the Internet began its great leap forward in the mid-1990s, marketing people located “geeks” who were mostly illiterate with an online audience. Even during these We’re Not Really Living in a Recession times, movie people fly unethical hacks like Harry Knowles off to junkets. And they invade legitimate geek space on the Internet — much of it generated in an initial burst of genuine geekdom until the inevitable question of money spoils everything.

Most of these efforts to network are an extension of advertising and crass PR. B-list celebrities reply on Twitter and “friendship” becomes just another word for something left to cash in on. And, hey, while you’re at it, why not collect private data and track their tastes so that we can refine the profit machine? I mean, the fucking fools are giving it to you!

The New Geeks who are part of this despicable capitalistic food chain often never stop to think that they may just be getting used. Or if they do know that they are getting used, they welcome being in close proximity to people they revere. And that collective dynamic of geeks quietly getting together to find culture that others can’t understand becomes drastically altered. For like anybody suddenly handed the keys to the executive washroom with little explanation, they want to use this power. They don’t want to sell out; they want to buy in. And it’s often for so little.

What these New Geeks never stop to consider is that maybe their legitimate tastes might actually be used to fuck with the money men or to stand for some corresponding set of virtues that don’t involve this geek groupthink. Their previous cultural tastes, now derivative courtesy of the natural expiration dates that come with every cultural cycle, suddenly become part of a new mainstream homogeneity that exists perhaps most predominantly in endless comic book movies. Rehash after rehash after rehash.

Take Matthew Vaughn, a sleazy filmmaker who worked tremendously hard to bamboozle undiscerning movers and shakers within the online geek cluster for Kick-Ass, a self-financed movie that needed to dictate how the audience had to feel. Blast The Dickies’s “Banana Splits” when Hit-Girl begins killing people so that you can understand with the “La La Las” that it’s meant to be ironic. Have Nicolas Cage rehash his backstory in a sarcastic tone. Don’t give the audience anything close to an ambiguous or an organic moment. Because we’re trying to make a shitload of money here.

Lest I be accused by the fawning fanboys as someone who is out-of-touch with mass entertainment, compare Vaughn’s approach with Michael Davis’s marvelous action movie, Shoot ‘Em Up. Shoot ‘Em Up is tremendously enjoyable. It wallows in corny puns, a wonderfully over-the-top gunfight that takes place in coitus, and the gloriously flamboyant moment of Clive Owen spanking a mother in retaliation. These moments don’t dictate; wild associations are thrown out for the audience to interpret and enjoy. Because of this, Shoot ‘Em Up is, unlike Kick-Ass, legitimate low-class art, and I love every damn minute of it.

I won’t go as far as Roger Ebert and claim that Kick-Ass was “morally reprehensible.” That’s a reactionary stance. The fact of the matter is that Kick-Ass bored the fuck out of me. It was no different from some overwrought movie made by cokeheads. Vaughn’s film was so motivated by appearing to be clever that it lacked the courage to inhabit a nascent spirit or pursue the truly bugfuck. It was a film that preferred to pander to its audience rather than trust its subconscious. Shoot ‘Em Up, by contrast, featured ridiculous gunfights that were inspired by Rube Goldberg-like invention and simply trusted its gut. A protagonist who subsists off of carrots? Check. Paul Giamatti playing an Elmer Fudd-like antagonist who takes calls from his wife? Check. Shoot ‘Em Up‘s willingness to pursue such wild ideas is, I suspect, one of the reasons it will be remembered as fondly as John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is today. And the difference between Shoot ‘Em Up and Kick-Ass fleshes out Oswalt’s thesis. The former is a movie made from sheer passion that is hidden in plain sight; the latter is a movie that wishes to calculate its geek demographic.

* * *

The Green Hornet is your typical New Geek superhero movie. This is a vastly vile film written by joyless twentysomething cretins. It contains few pleasures. It is deeply misogynistic and ageist in the way that it ridicules a 36-year-old woman played by Cameron Diaz for entering the job market in her “twilight.” It is also astonishingly revisionist in the way that it has altered the 28-year-old Seth Rogen, a naturally fat man who has slimmed himself down for the role. In manipulating Rogen’s innate physicality, the filmmakers have made him look a good decade older than his years. It doesn’t help that Rogen has the thespic range of a thimble. Yet it’s hard to feel much sympathy for this starving baboon. For he was one of the two hacks who wrote this piece of shit.

The Green Hornet is a movie upholding the capitalist con. The 3-D was clearly decided upon at the last minute. Aside from a bottlecap flicked into the air by Kato — a cap looking as chintzy as some penny squished through a souvenir machine — there is very little in this movie that couldn’t be confined to 2-D. It doesn’t help that Britt Reid, the man who becomes the Green Hornet, is an incredibly obnoxious and tremendously stupid character. I’m all for assholes on film. Vince Vaughn (the good Vaughn to Matthew’s evil one) has eked out an interesting career playing assholes. But if the asshole doesn’t have dimension (such as Kevin Spacey’s Buddy Ackerman in Swimming with Sharks) or if you don’t make him a funny side character (such as J.K. Simmons’s J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies; just enough screen time to make an impact), then there’s no purpose in serving up the asshole on screen.

You know that you have a problematic movie on your hands when the most interesting scenes don’t involve the title character. Take a moment featuring an unbilled James Franco playing an emerging crystal-dealing nightclub owner trash-talking Christoph Waltz’s Chudnofsky, the movie’s main villain. Chudonfsky says to the nighclub owner, “I’ve wanted my entire life to achieve the goal to be in charge of all the crime in Los Angeles.” The nightclub owner replies that the crime world now operates upon charisma, not hard work. We see how one line announces Chudnofsky’s motivation. And Franco’s response establishes an interesting thematic question for the movie to pursue. Will Britt Reid be able to eke out a crimefighting existence through charisma or hard work? Will the movie invert or demolish this dichotomy?

The problem, of course, is that Reid has neither quality. He’s merely an obnoxious buffoon with money who has to reiterate what’s going on to the audience every time there’s an action scene (“Hey, they’re really organized,” “This is cool,” “Whoa,” and other Mathew Vaughn-like ADR dictating to the New Geek audience what is clearly happening on the screen before them; the filmmakers clearly view the audience with great contempt). So the movie immediately becomes pointless. Yes, Reid has his manservant Kato (Jay Chou) to help him out. Kato makes a coffee with a colorful swirl pattern on the top, designs cool vehicles equipped with puncturing tires and machine guns, and knows marital arts. And when Reid becomes The Green Hornet, it is Kato who does all the work. The movie is too incompetent to establish an interesting conflict between Reid and Kato. For example, if Kato is so smart and Reid is cockblocking Kato’s efforts to woo Lenore Case (the female doormat I mentioned above played by Cameron Diaz), wouldn’t the film be more interesting if Kato began exploiting Reid by getting him to do his bidding? If you’re a smart Asian man in the 21st century, there’s no real incentive to be a white boy’s bitch unless you’re getting paid or he’s getting played.

But I’ve only been discussing the crude formulaic problems. Let us be clear. Seth Rogen is an avaricious man no different from a middle-aged investment banker. He only wants your money. The Green Hornet is Seth Rogen’s subprime loan. Read the goddam agreement. He has even persuaded the great Michel Gondry to sell out. Gondry may offer Kato-Vision, but it’s hardly worth the effort. Frankly, it’s astonishing that a man who was smart enough to collaborate with Charlie Kaufman (twice!) would settle for tenth-rate material.

What Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg have done is take an interesting character that wowed audiences on the radio (an audio collection of the original program is available here to make your comparisons) — something fun and magical that was “hidden in plain sight” — and turned it into a lifeless and derivative movie very much designed for the New Geeks. Already, the New Geeks have scarfed down The Green Hornet like starving dogs burrowing their vanquished muzzles into open cans of Alpo. “It was charming, very funny, and worthy of repeated viewings,” writes The Beat in an uncritical, sycophantic, and embargo-breaking review that reads like someone at PW was given a big bag of cash. The New Geek hacks at Cinema Blend offer “5 Reasons You Should Be Excited About The Green Hornet,” as if there couldn’t possibly be a single reason to reject the hype.

If mainstream audiences reject The Green Hornet this weekend (as they did last summer with the more distinctive and less compromising Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), then the New Geek influence may at long last walk the death march. About fucking time. No self-respecting geek of any stripe has any business aligning herself with a sexist, racist, and patriarchal set of values. Seth Rogen is not the geek’s friend. He is a fleeting figure and slobby sellout to be thoroughly rejected. He is a loathsome “talent” hiding in plain sight.