Ghostbusters: The Compromise Candidate of Summer Blockbusters

When Sony announced that it would be remaking the rightly beloved 1984 Ghostbusters movie, with women wearing the proton packs and Bridesmaids‘s Paul Feig on board to direct, you didn’t have to look too hard at the galleon being craned up for a retrofit to see the unsavory barnacles of terrified white manboys clutching onto the hull for dear life. Fan entitlement, long rooted in a patriarchal sense of childhood nostalgia that the Daily Beast‘s Arthur Chu shrewdly pinpointed as “‘pickup artist’ snake oil — started by nerdy guys, for nerdy guys — filled with techniques to manipulate, pressure and in some cases outright assault women to get what they want,” once again failed to do a little soul-searching and reflection on what its inflexible stance against the natural evolution of art truly means.

Just as some vocal fans protested the excellent film Mad Max: Fury Road for being “a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their eyes,” the Ghostbusters absolutists knew that the studios wanted their dollars and that they could still get away with voicing their reactionary sentiments through the same cowardly anonymity that allowed Donald Trump to emerge as presidential candidate.

Much as a “silent majority” had propped up Trump under the illusion that a billionaire’s outspoken sexism and bigotry somehow represented an anti-establishment “candidate like we’ve never seen before,” these fans downvoted the new Ghostbusters trailer in droves when it was released online in April. One month later, a smug bespectacled mansplainer by the name of James Rolfe put a human face to this underlying sexism, posting a video (viewed by nearly two million), shot in what appeared to be a creepily appropriate basement, in which he vowed not to review the new remake:

You know what everybody’s been calling it? The female Ghostbusters. I hear that all the time. The female Ghostbusters. Does that mean we have to call the old one the male Ghostbusters? It doesn’t matter. But I can’t blame everybody for identifying that way. Because there’s no other way to identify the movies. There’s no other name for it.

Maybe you’d view movies this way if you’d spent a lifetime refusing to live with your shortcomings, carving the likenesses of Stallone and Schwarzenegger onto your own personal Mount Rushmore when not ordering vacuum devices or getting easily duped by Cialis scams. But the crazed notion that gender isn’t just the first way to identify a remake, but the only way to do so, speaks to a disturbing cultural epidemic that must be swiftly remedied by more movies and television starring women in smart and active roles, unsullied by the sexualized gaze of a pornographic oaf like James Rolfe.

It’s worth observing that Sony — a multinational corporation; not the National Organization of Women, lest we forget — had been in talks with the Russo Brothers well before Feig for an all-male remake, a fact also confirmed in a leaked email from Hannah Minghella. The Hollywood machine only cares about gender parity when it is profitable. It continues to promulgate superhero movie posters that are demeaning to women. It erects large outdoor ads flaunting violence against women. (Deadline Hollywood reported that the infamous X-Men Apocalypse ad featuring Mystique in a chokehold was approved by a top female executive at 20th Century Fox.) And when the studios do flirt with “feminist” blockbusters — such as Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punchthe results are dismayingly objectifying.

Despite all this, I entered the press screening of the Ghostbusters remake with an open mind and the faint hope that there could be at least a few baby steps towards the game-changing blockbuster that America so desperately needs to redress these many wrongs.

carolmarcusI’m pleased to report that the new Ghostbusters movie does give us somewhat reasonable depictions of women as scrappy scientists, at least for a mainstream movie. The film is refreshingly devoid of Faustian feminist bargains such as Sandra Bullock floating around in her underwear in Gravity or Dr. Carol Marcus flaunting her flesh in Star Trek: Into Darkness. We are introduced to Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) practicing a lecture in an empty Colubmbia University classroom, having to contend with an embarrassing pro-ghost book (Ghosts from Our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively) that she co-wrote years before with her friend and academic peer, Abby Yates (played with the expected enjoyable verve by Melissa McCarthy). Erin, who dresses in wonderfully dorky plaid suits that the dean cavils about, is up for tenure and is understandably queasy about anything that stands in the way of her reputation. Leslie Jones plays Patty Tolan, an MTA inspector with a necklace telegraphing her name who serves as a counterpart to Winston from the original film, and has far more scenes to establish her character than poor Ernie Hudson ever did. Screenwriters Katie Dippold and Feig deserve credit for making Patty more than a token African-American, active enough to ensconce herself with the founding trio and provide some New York know-how in a way that Winston, confined to “Do you believe in God?” car banter and doing what he was told, never quite received in the original.

katemckinnonThe sole disappointment among the new quartet is Kate McKinnon as weapons expert Jillian Holtzmann. McKinnon mugs artlessly throughout the film, almost as if she’s channeling William Shatner or Jim Carrey at their worst, too smitten with an impressionist’s toolbox of overly eccentric tics. While McKinnon’s performances have worked in five minute doses (especially in her very funny impressions of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live), this is not an approach that is especially suited for ensemble work on an IMAX screen. McKinnon quavers her bottom lip and enters each shot with a distracting “funny” walk that contributes nothing whatsoever to her character or the scene. The effect is that of an actor exceedingly ungenerous to her colleagues, one that not even the continuity person can track. (Jillian’s glasses disappear and reappear several times during any given scene.)

loripettytankgirlMcKinnon seems to be doing a caffeinated and charmless impression of Lori Petty from Tank Girl. She’s a terrible stage hog throughout the film, whether by her own choice or by Feig’s design. Even accounting for the script supervisor’s absenteeism, one gets the suspicion it’s more of the latter, perhaps shoehorned into this movie because of a studio note. How else can one explain an early moment in the film where McKinnon stands passive before a ghost and says, “You try saying no to these salty parabolas” while chomping potato chips? This line, which sounded more like bottom-of-the-barrel Madison Avenue than a honed sentence written by Parks and Recreation alumni, justifiably did not get much of a laugh, not even among the ringers who were planted in the middle rows at the screening I attended. And when your source text has indelible lines like “Back off, man, I’m a scientist” and “You….you’ve earned it,” it’s probably best to work interactive human behavior rather than commentary upon a snack.

haroldramistwinkieI’ve long maintained a loose theory that you can tell a lot about a comedy movie by the way it refers to food. Weird Al Yankovic’s gloriously underappreciated UHF celebrates its benign strangeness with a Twinkie wiener sandwich (and the original Ghostbusters, of course, features Harold Ramis holding up a Twinkie with some class). Zoolander revels in its splashy flash with an orange mocha frappuccino. Shaun of the Dead features a completely invented snack called Hog Lumps, suggesting the mad invention pulled from cultural reference.

The Ghostbusters remake features a tired repeat gag of Abby constantly complaining about the lunch delivery man not including enough wontons in her soup. And there’s really no better metaphor to pinpoint what’s so wrong about this movie. Because while I loved 75% of the ladies here (and grew to tolerate McKinnon’s annoyingly spastic presence as the film went on), there weren’t enough dependable wontons floating in this movie. Not the dialogue, which isn’t as sharp and snappy as it needs to be. Not the generic CGI look of the ghosts (including Slimer), which can’t top the organic librarian and taxi driver in the original film. Not the story of a bellhop who hopes to unleash a torrent of trapped spirits into New York (although this is better than Ghostbusters II‘s river of slime). And based on the exasperated sighs and silence I heard around me, I wasn’t the only one. It says something, I think, that the Ghostbusters end up fighting a giant version of their own logo at one point.

I really believe that there’s a very smart story buried somewhere within this somewhat pleasing, if not altogether funny, offering. For example, Dippold and Feig have replaced the original film’s EPA as meddlesome government entity with the Department of Homeland Security, which wants the nation to believe that the Ghostbusters are cranks. This is an interesting and timely premise to pursue in a reboot made in a surveillance and smartphone age. (Indeed, there’s even an appropriate selfie stick gag halfway through the film.) It’s moments like this where the Ghostbusters remake wins back your trust after a clunky moment. But there comes a point when the movie decides to throw its hands in the air, becoming yet another loud, boring, and predictable romp featuring the destruction of Manhattan. Again?

And there are cameos. Annoying, purposeless, time-sucking cameos from the surviving members of the original Ghostbusters cast. This not only adds needless bulk to the story, but it isn’t especially fair to the new cast trying to establish themselves, especially in a movie that is already on somewhat shaky ground. Bill Murray as a famous debunker is the only cameo that is fun (and it also buttresses the film’s half-hearted exploration into belief). But instead of confining Murray to a walk-on role, the filmmakers have Murray show up at Ghostbusters HQ (a Chinese restaurant instead of a firehouse), where one can’t help but be reminded of the original’s considerable strengths.

Feig and his collaborators have forgotten what made the first film become a classic. It was the funny human touches of Rick Moranis parroting William Atherton’s pointing as Louis was possessed by Vinz Clortho or Bill Murray wincing as he opened up the lid of Dana’s leftovers or Janine peering around a partition in the back (a shot repeated in the remake, but with tighter focus and less art and subtlety) as Venkman and Walter Peck squared off at the firehouse. There simply isn’t enough of this in the remake. Today’s filmmakers — even somewhat decent ones like Feig — seem to have turned their backs on why we identify with characters and why we go to the movies. And who the hell needs to pay a babysitter and bust out the credit card for a far too large tub of popcorn when there are far more interesting characters on television?

I want to be clear that I am not here to write a hit piece. This remake isn’t awful in the way that Ghostbusters II was, but it’s far from great in the way the original film was. This should have been a groundbreaking motion picture. It damn well needed to be to beat back the James Rolfes and the Gamergate trolls and any other boneheaded atavist with a keyboard and an Internet connection.

We sometimes have to vote for compromise candidates in two party political races. But when the summer gives us several dozen blockbusters to choose from, is the half-hearted Ghostbusters remake really the progressive-minded movie we should accept? Is an incremental step forward in mass culture enough to be happy with? Or should we demand more? I’ve thought about this for the past few days and I’ve increasingly come around to believing that audiences — and women in particular — deserve far better soup and a hell of a lot more wontons.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock

Wait in line for a few hours, saunter into a dark and expansive theater where you’ll be standing anywhere from five to forty-five minutes to take a seat (all depending upon how polite or mercenary you are), and settle onto one of the couches (partitioned in sets of three) once a stranger has had enough. But be careful with the way you spend your time. Because once you leave the area, whether for snack or bathroom break, there’s no coming back unless you stand in the snaking queue again.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock may favor the determined, but it’s something of a rigged game. Supply and demand is carefully calibrated by making the seats precious real estate. It’s a perfect laboratory for behavioral economist Dan Ariely to conduct new experiments. Yet the clips of people standing on train platforms or waiting in sordid rooms may strengthen your resolve to stay on your feet. Still, after a few hours, the impulse to slump into the next free seat only increases.

Inside the room, the projected images are recognizable and faintly exotic, liberated from cinematic sources both pop and obscure, and ineluctably locked into the very minute you are experiencing. At 3:00 PM, Woody Allen shows up for his appointment with Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite and the joke about Sorvino’s prostitute telling Allen that she has “a great sense of humor” after showing him a clock with two fornicating pigs gets a new context. Little changes with Harold Lloyd’s famous clock-hanging moment, but when Peter Parker is fired for delivering a pizza late in Spider-Man 2, his fate at the hands of spoiled materialists is crueler because we are more aware of the temporal qualities.

Then there are the cinematic moments in which one was never especially aware of the time in the original context, even when clocks were heavily involved. Cathryn Harrison throws an old woman’s alarm clock collection out the window in Louis Malle’s Black Moon, but did the actual time ever really matter? Patrick McGoohan secures the electropass watch to escape the Village in “Arrival,” but without the roaring white balloon or Number Two to taunt him, he could very well be confused with a disgruntled bureaucrat. Jack Nicholson’s droll wooing of Ann-Margaret as he sings “Go to the Mirror” in Ken Russell’s Tommy becomes less about seduction and more about a doctor using time as sparingly as possible. When we see Nicholson again in a clip from About Schmidt, waiting for the last moments of 5:00 PM to tick away on his last day in a drab and lonely office, I couldn’t help but wonder if his fixation on time caused him to lose Ann-Margaret.

I had feared that The Clock would be a Wagnerian bauble: a novelty requiring only time and fortitude to embrace its contextual charms. But I discovered that Marclay’s massive opus tinkered not only with my passion for cinema, but upon my temporal prejudices. I experienced an undeniable joy for kitsch upon witnessing a preposterous fight scene from MacGyver and realized that my reverence for a certain period of 1980s cinema was more bountiful than expected. Yet I felt somewhat saddened when the film denied me clips of people fleeing the workplace after 5PM. I have always felt that there was something romantic about people liberated from their daily capitalist commitments to live out the true joys of their lives, but I didn’t feel The Clock properly acknowledged it. We do, however, see a moribund commuting moment on a packed subway. And I did notice that Marclay included a sad quotidian moment from Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing. So clearly the assumptive fault is mine.

The Clock isn’t just about exposing our our enslavement to time. There is an inescapable physical component to this endurance test. If you are with friends, you may end up leapfrogging from couch to couch, slowly traveling back to your dear companions initially stranded in the IKEA archipelago. Because you are among an artistically sensitive crowd, you may find yourself throwing your dark coat over your head with a theatrical whoosh (as I did) to stub out the searing light from your phone as you text your coordinates to the people you came with, hoping that they will find you later. I witnessed some couples squeezing closer together, and I could suss out the degree to which friends wanted to be together by the way they raced to seating that had just opened up. But when a clip from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom played, stretching my mild voyeurism onto the discomfiting canvas of Carl Boehm’s hungry and sociopathic eyes, I become consumed by tremendous guilt in watching other people. If cinema was a communal experience, why should I have to be punished for it? Was there something pornographic in being curious about others? Or was The Clock something of an impetuous tot stomping its feet for attention?

I did feel that The Clock was very much a pleasant narcotic that was difficult for me to resist, yet these social concerns recalled Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a sidescrolling video game art project which confronts the manner in which you parcel out your life and pits individual ambition against love and communion. After nearly five hours inside Marclay’s fish tank, I was confident that I could spend at least four more, despite the fact that I had not slept much. But my companions had maxed out and I did not wish to abandon them.

We went to dinner. I had no desire to look at the time.

Michael Apted (The Bat Segundo Show Special)

This 30 minute radio special serves as a transitional episode between The Bat Segundo Show, which aired its final episode last November, and Follow Your Ears, a new thematic radio program that will be premiering this month. It features an interview with Michael Apted, director of the Up movies. His latest installment, 56 Up, is now playing in select theaters in the United States.

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Guest: Michael Apted

Subjects Discussed: How intimate documentary competes with YouTube and viral video, the creative solidity of a long-standing broadcast guarantee, the Five Guys Burgers review, whether the Up films an appeal to a younger generation, the heightened political nature of 56 Up, why Cameron’s austerity measures affected Apted’s subjects more than Thatcher, pressing Tony on his possibly racist suggestions, avoiding predictability, conflict as the stuff of drama, how Apted’s subjects collaborate beyond being in front of the camera, how Apted is a part of the Up subjects’ lives, self-editing, behaving yourself in front of subjects, efforts to include Peter and Charles, Apted’s anger towards Charles, Charles’s lawsuit against Apted, being transparent with documentary subjects, why the Up subjects didn’t have a choice, persuading the subjects to appear in each new installment, the Up subjects’ sense of ownership, Neil confronting Apted about the filmmaker not knowing anything about his personal life, whether snapshots are fair representations of people, knowing that every grimace or every emotion on camera is going to be dissected by audiences, the ubiquity of the camera (and smartphones) in everyday culture, trust, taking risks, the degree to which people lie, the skill of interviewing, doing a disservice in not being open, why Apted credits himself as researcher, carrying on the legacy of 7 Up, fact checking and corroboration, the difficulties Apted had with 49 Up, passion vs. obligation, and the textures of lives.

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EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So there is a big question I wanted to ask you — and, regrettably, I did not talk with you for 49 Up, but during that particular time, we were in a stage where YouTube and viral videos were mere striplings compared to what they are now.

Apted: Right.

Correspondent: And this has led me to ask you, especially with these Up films, how a movie that deals with how humans evolve over nearly six decades of their lives — does a filmmaker like you compete with something like that? Or reality television? Of which interestingly, Peter, one of your subjects, seems to be using some of the moves normally one would associate with reality television for you, of all people. So what do you do to adapt? Or do you not really change up the setup you’ve had going now for several films here?

Apted: No. You see, I think I’ve got one huge advantage over everybody. I am at least thirty years ahead of the game.

Correspondent: Aha.

Apted: No one’s got what I’ve got. You know, and, uh, I think that’s what’s unique about it. That’s why of all the work I’ve ever done, this is to me the most precious. Because it is entirely original. And people have only copied it. No one has really come anywhere near to equaling it in longevity, nor do I think will they ever. Because as much as you talk about modern media, modern media is nothing as unpredictable, on marshy ground, can sink and dive and whatever at the drop of a hat. There’s about seven mixed metaphors in there. But the solidity which was in the broadcast world when we started, which guaranteed it at least into, say, 35 Up without any question about “Should we do this? Can we raise the money to do this in particular version of it?” has given me a running start. And I don’t think that anybody will ever catch me up. So I look at these newcomers with sort of a blase way and say, “Off you go.”

Correspondent: But aren’t you concerned with — for example, there’s — I’ll give you one example. There’s a viral video going around. It’s amusing enough. It’s a guy who is reviewing Five Guys Burgers in the back of his car. And he goes, “DAYM!” And this gets remixed over and over. And then weeks later, we see that he’s now a fixture on Jimmy Fallon.* And then he’ll be forgotten. And whatever natural exuberance he had is almost stifled instantly. And so, yes, I grew up on the Up movies. I watched them throughout my life. And it’s always a pleasure to go back every seven years. And it’s sort of like going to church, except on a seven year schedule. But simultaneously, I mean, doesn’t this bother you? I mean, how can you woo, for example, a younger generation of viewers when presently it’s really all about reducing human behavior to novelties, to something that’s kind of an ephemeral indulgence as opposed to really exploring the depths of someone?

Apted: (laughs) That was a bit of a mouthful. I don’t know. I suppose you’re right. I’ve never lost the audience. I always thought I’d give the series up if the viewing figures dropped away. And they don’t seem to have done. So whether young people are attracted to this, I don’t know. It’s almost staple stuff in teaching, you know, all sorts of sociology and whatever. You know, I don’t believe everything just disappears with the bathwater. I think people do have a sense of the past and a sense of history, especially when they cease to be teenyboppers and then become people with children and people with mortgages and all this kind of stuff. And this is the drama — this is, I call it, the heroism of everyday life of this series And I think everybody responds to that at some point. I mean, maybe nobody between the age of 11 and 25 will want to watch this. But there will come a time when they’ll discover it later on. And because it’s in a sense, without boasting, so rich because it covers so much of people’s lives, which no one else has ever covered, you know, I’m optimistic that it will stay around. So I don’t feel threatened by it. I know what you mean. About how can I attract a young audience, competing with Youtube. I mean, this is all over YouTube from the minute I practically finished editing it. So anyway, it’s a good question. But I’m not worried about it.

56 Up

Correspondent: So this seems to me a far more political installment of the series than previous ones. I mean, we have Jackie, who is on disability, and she excoriates [Prime Minister David[ Cameron at one point. You have Lynn, who we see after she has lost her job as a school librarian. There seems to be a great concern, at least on your part or on the camera’s part, on capturing the consequences of various austerity programs. And I’m wondering why the film tended to shift this way. I mean, these were going on under Thatcher. These were going on under a variety of…

Apted: You’re missing the point. The point is that how does it affect their lives. I’ve never been interested in any of the series of objectified politics. Politics only appears in issues when it affects their lives. Now certainly Thatcher was doing all sorts of bloodthirsty work. But these people were very young then. And it didn’t affect them. These people are now 56 years old. Their pensions are going out the window. Their salaries are going out of the window. The future of their children and their grandchildren is going out of the window. So that’s why it’s in this film. I don’t ask them political questions. They talk about it. Because I gave up asking politics in 42 Up when I foolishly asked them about Princess Diana, who had just been killed, and I threw it out, threw it away, because I was asking them their opinions on something that weren’t organic to their life. I’m not interested in their political opinions. I’m interested in how politics determine their life. And in this generation of people living in the United Kingdom, which is going through a worse time than here and will go through an even worse time and you’ll go through an even worse time, it’s of profound importance to people’s lives. And so my films — this generation from 56 — reflect the personal effect of this political kind of fallout that’s going on. But this is the first time this has ever really happened in the series. Because I haven’t found that politics has so interested or determined or, you know, concentrated itself in people’s lives as it is now.

Correspondent: Politics is only a concern for the Up series when it is personal.

Apted: Yes. Because the politics of the film are their lives. They are the political statement of the film. They’re not objective opinions. I’m not interested in opinions. I’m interested in the organic manifestation of politics in people’s lives.

Correspondent: I’m glad you brought up the Diana moments in 42 Up, which…

Apted: I thought I cut them out. Are they still around?

Correspondent: I’d heard about this. But you do leave the moment with Tony here where he’s very defensive in relation to certain racist connotations of immigration. So in a situation like that, that’s kind of a political..

Apted: Yes. But again, it’s organic. It’s about the culture he grew up in. It’s about the society that he feels has been degraded. Where he grew up, his roots have been degraded by immigration. And, you know, I called him out on it basically. And, you know, it was a pretty scary moment for him and for me. Should I ask the question? I thought, “Sod it. I will ask the question.” I think it’s the question everybody was asking. Is he racist? Or was he not? Does he have a fair point? Maybe he does. He has a right to express it. He was. People were turfed out of their habitats by a great invasion of people from other countries and whatever. And maybe he has a point. So with him, you know, the whole idea of racial integration is very, very crucial. Because it did transform the whole community that he grew up in.

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Correspondent: How do you decide what questions to ask of the subjects? Is it largely intuitive?

Apted: Yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, clearly, you’re still getting into trouble after all these years.

Apted: It is intuitive. And it’s…it’s…I wish I could think of an amusing way to express it, but basically I assiduously do not prepare for it. I do not go back into the old films. I do not say, “Oh my god! They’ve said this in 49. What are they going to think about it in 56?” Because I’ve noticed over the generations that the films change tone. They’re not the same films. And I thought the only way to preserve that is to make each episode as fresh as I can. To sit down like we are now and talk and not know which way the conversation’s going to go and what you’re going to ask me, what I’m going to answer you. I’ve no idea. And that kind of spontaneity, I think, is kind of crucial. Because it’s not predictable. Once this series becomes predictable, then I think I’m sort of dead in the water. There’s an element of predictability built into it — i.e., the whole idea that from the minute you’re born, you know what kind of actions you have. But given that, and that’s become kind of less important — again as the series has gone on. Because English society, the society of Great Britain, has changed a lot. Social mores are much more flexible. Education’s much more flexible and all this. These people came into life at a certain period in time in the English class system, seem to be very, very strong. And there’s still a class system. But it’s changed. It’s become more Americanized. It’s more to do with money than it is where you were born and whatever. So I’ve forgotten what the question I’m answering is about.

Correspondent: No, no. I was very curious about forgetting the previous films.

Apted: Ah yes!

Correspondent: I mean, there’s this aspect too. Do you carry enough of a reliable familiarity with the material? Or do you find that the relationships, both positive and fractious, are enough to steer you into the next installment?

Apted: No, it’s both. I mean, I have a huge amount of information in the back of my brain. I mean, I know what the great iconic moments are. What each character, what’s been there, kind of a few key moments. And I know that without having to think about it. But, you know, the provocative fractious stuff that I have with them, I think that’s what gives it life. And that — you can only approach that by having a genuine conversation and surprising each other.

Correspondent: Because conflict is the stuff of drama, it should be the secret ingredient of your relationship with your subjects for the Up movies.

Apted: Yeah. It is. And, you know, there’s lots of ground for conflict. There’s an overwhelming sense of trust, which is why they’re all in it pretty much and how it continues. But on the other hand, there’s also conflict. There’s a residual anger from them, I think. Because they were — they were press ganged into it. They didn’t make a decision at seven to do this. They didn’t make a decision at 14 to do this. And then when they became adults, suddenly they were in the middle of this rollercoaster and sort of stuck with it. So there’s still an anger, I think, which I still find with them about that. But generally I think that’s been kind of now overtaken with a sort of a sense of a trust. And the trust they have in me is that if they’ve got something to say, I’ll let them say it. And I’ll answer it if I can. Or acknowledge it if they’re right and I’m wrong.

Correspondent: But Nick in this movie, he says, “This is not a picture of me. It’s a picture of somebody.”

Apted: Yeah.

Correspondent: He complains that he doesn’t have any control over how he is actually being presented. Suzy says, “Well, I don’t think this is presented as a well-rounded picture of me.” So it’s very interesting that your subjects seem to complain or, at least, I noticed their complaints more this time than I did in previous ones, although you have had skirmishes with them in the past. I mean, what do you do to placate them? I mean, do you allow them to see elements of the film or how it’s actually taking place? And, of course, Charles, he threatened to sue you. And he’s….there’s no trace of him in this movie. I was sort of surprised.

Apted: And do you know what his job is?

Correspondent: He’s a TV producer. I know.

Apted: Documentary filmmaker.

Correspondent: Yeah. But does that recuse him from…

Apted: No. Of course not. It makes it unforgivable. If you live by the sword, you have to die by the sword. But you’ve asked me about a thousand questions in the last twenty seconds and I’m trying to figure out — I mean, what you missed out is the point that Nick is making. He’s saying, “No, this isn’t a proper representation of me. But it is a representation of somebody.” I.e., it isn’t the details of him. But it’s some iconic representation of what he stands for and who he is. Which is what all these things can be. Of course. How can I put people’s lives into eighteen minutes? Or whatever, however long I give them? Of course it’s my judgment. It’s my taste to decide what goes in. That’s true of any film ever made. Whether it’s a documentary. The only film that doesn’t qualify is Andy Warhol pointing at the Empire State Building for 24 hours without changing the film. Everything is a cultural or judgmental decision and I make those and, if I”m wrong, I’m wrong. But all I can say is they’re all still here. They haven’t been so offended by it that they’ve gone away and dumped me, as it were.

The Bat Segundo Show Special (“#498”): Michael Apted (Download MP3)

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* — Note: The broadcast erroneously referred to “Jimmy Kimmel” rather than “Jimmy Fallon.” The transcript reflects the facts, but we apologize for the on-air error.

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Imagine a pop-up book mating with a crisp high-def image. Throw in occasional jerky motion resembling undercranked Mack Sennett moments when actors move too much, overly defined planes along the Z axis suggesting a View-Master brightened by the heat of a thousand suns, noses and ears sometimes revealed to be pellucidly prosthetic, and overhead shots of landscapes looking more like a cut scene crunched through an overclocked Nvidia card five years from now. To my eyes, this was what 48 frames per second looked like on a fifty-foot screen. I had heard reports that one was “supposed to get used to this” after a period lasting somewhere between five and twenty minutes. Unlike other 3D films, I did not get a headache. On the flip side, I couldn’t believe in the aesthetic.

But then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is “fantasy” — not the thoughtful form from the adept hands of Michael Moorcock or Mervyn Peake or Kelly Link, but the inoffensive offerings from J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a fantasy which opts to swim in the shallow end of the pool. The covenant is that, if the fantasy short-changes on human scope and capitulates to escapism, then the fantasy must inspire new awe and fresh wonder.

We come into The Hobbit familiar with the Shire’s round doors and verdant pleasures from years before. We have seen Middle Earth’s eco-porn greens and Rivendell’s gables and gazebos. So why exactly should we return to the theater and hand over our hard-earned shekels if it’s more of the same? Are we here for nostalgic purposes? Do filmmaker and audience alike prefer stagnation? I didn’t mind being there and back again, but the too clean 48fps technology had the strange effect of cheapening my middling affinity for Middle Earth. Like George Lucas before him, Peter Jackson has returned to the beginning, motivated by technological tinkering and the considerable dollars he will collect from feverish and unquestioning fanboys rather than any real need to spin a good yarn. At least there is nothing here as terrible as Jar Jar Binks.

For long stretches, this first film in Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien trilogy failed to seduce. This is largely because its source material only has enough material for two films. By my calculation, it takes Jackson 168 minutes to dramatize about 82 pages of material, which seems needlessly profligate. The Hobbit is many things, but it is neither Ulysses nor Gravity’s Rainbow. There is no doubt in my mind that we will see an extended version and supplements on DVD ensuring that nobody leaves the house for the next ten years.

The film opens with a lengthy flashback distressingly close to the confusing monologue which opened David Lynch’s ill-received Dune adaptation. But why? “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” is a straightforward first sentence requiring no additional mythology. But Jackson and his writers (which include Guillermo del Toro, who was originally supposed to helm this movie) feel compelled to throw in any stray flashbacks that they can to pad out this movie. I don’t wish to diminish the need for dwarf kingdoms, but there’s nothing in the film’s first hour even as remotely alluring as the Nazgûl, which provided The Fellowship of the Ring with an immediate threat to jump-start the narrative and set our heroes on an adventurous path.

Without something as big as Mordor threatening to engulf Middle Earth driving the story, Jackson’s métier as a Wagnerian filmmaker is undone by a cinematic experience that feels more like a game on rails, especially during a climactic goblin chase scene with a constantly moving godlike camera, but a paucity of closeups or medium shots. It also doesn’t help that Martin Freeman, cast as the younger Bilbo Baggins, really should have been hired ten years earlier. Having grown from the young and neurotic comic archetype into a more subdued and interesting middle-aged actor (best exemplified by his portrayal of Watson in Steven Moffatt’s Sherlock), Freeman is curiously unpersuasive in this film when he complains about wanting to be back home among his books and fellow hobbits. Ian McKellen is okay as Gandalf, but one longs for the gravelly gravitas he displayed so eminently in the last trilogy. However, I very much enjoyed Ken Stott’s fresh and feisty portrayal of Balin. But I do have a weak spot for any character with a massive bushy beard.

This lack of focus causes the first half to feel like a tenuous string of loosely connected sequences: dwarves show up at Bilbo Baggins’s hobbit hole, on Dori, on Nori, on Gloin, on Oin, on Blitzen, orcs, wargs, is Bilbo up for the journey, knowing look from Gandalf, walking, walking, orcs, hidden swords, is Bilbo up for the journey, complaints from Thorin, elves, orcs, knowing look from Gandalf, mention of arcane Middle Earth reference to appease fanboys, orcs, orcs, is Bilbo up for the journey.

You get the idea. But when the mountain trolls show up halfway into the movie, An Unexpected Journey starts to become fun for those, like me, who were fatigued by the bloodless and cutesy bullshit calculated to make this Fun for the Whole Family™. These trolls are lumbering, mumbling, ass-scratching giants who hock loogies into pots loaded with the carcasses of dwarves and elves. In other words, they’re a nice throwback to the visceral films Jackson made early in his career before going Hollywood, serving as a reminder that Jackson is at his best when he lets his inner six-year-old come out. Casting Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown is also a brilliant move, for McCoy taps both his Roadshow days and the dark command he brought to his brown-coated Doctor Who incarnation to enliven the eccentric wizard who plows through terrain with a rabbit sleigh. It is also hard to go wrong with good ol’ Gollum, arguably the most enthralling CGI villain of the past fifteen years, during the highly compelling game of riddles sequence. Why hasn’t anybody created a Ball-Arnaz inspired sitcom called I Love Precious?

But An Unexpected Journey is felled by its zestless commitment to the well-trodden path. Make no mistake: this is not Pan’s Labyrinth, Labyrinth, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, The Wizard of Oz, Princess Mononoke or The Princess Bride. Did we really need subtitles when the orcs don’t say anything especially interesting? Do we really need narrative digressions when the meat on the bones is so sparse? There are a few inspired ideas, such as the aforementioned trolls and a goblin stenographer traversing along a pulley cable on a chair. But if you spend years of your life working on a fantasy trilogy, shouldn’t it contain more imagination? Shouldn’t you wait as long as it takes to read the secret moon runes embedded in the map?

Ross McElwee (The Bat Segundo Show)

Ross McElwee is most recently the director of Photographic Memory.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stepping away from the memories.

Guest: Ross McElwee

Subjects Discussed: Walker Percy’s “certification,” Heidegger’s Alltäglichkeit, whether social media and YouTube can capture the essential quality of “everydayness,” patterns and layers of meaning discovered through the act of filming one’s life for decades, whether or not people have the patience to sit through a two and a half hour movie these days, how McElwee’s cinematic voice has altered with Photographic Memory, the use of Ken Burns-like music for a photographic montage, why McElwee decided to look backwards instead of tackling the present, problems in passing on the McElwee legacy, Adrian McElweee plugged into technology at the expense of conversation, patriarchal dissing, the imprecision of father-son parallels, the godfathers of the cinéma vérité movement, recreating the moon shot from Sherman’s March, the pernicious influence of the YouTube confessional, Time Indefinite as the obverse of Photographic Memory, filming a tumor for 72 seconds, why Marilyn Levine was not included in Photographic Memory, whether removing a family member from a film offers the truth about a dynamic, divorce, preserving privacy while remaining transparent, meeting Josh Kornbluth in Six O’Clock News, McElwee making “fiction films,” the middle ground between fiction and truth, Tolstoy’s maxim about novels not revealing everything, Andy Warhol’s Empire, why Charleen Swansea hasn’t appeared in McElwee’s recent films, a rare McElwee complaint about irrelevance, compartmentalizing the home environment and France, an adamant yet insignificant moment about a dish which caused Our Correspondent to question its significance, the future of documentary filmmaking and reality TV, Catfish, whether the marvel of the everyday will be informed by seducing the audience over questions of truth, the hidden rat at the motel in Bright Leaves, marveling over quotidian details, Steve Im in Six O’Clock News, conversation vs. dramatic evening news elements, when it’s easier to have conversations with strangers, the virtues of sitting still in one place, apocalyptic elements in McElwee’s films, being informed by lingering anxieties about the end, the harmful effects of smoking, confronting your own mortality, how Adrian’s presentation has transformed in McElwee’s films, fishing, the world divide between those who have kids and those who don’t, periods in life when kids are delightful, whether most people remember the last names of all their lovers and roommates, McElwee’s early attempts to write fiction, being inspired by limitations, how libertine digital shooting has impacted documentaries, and the dangers of not being selective enough when making am ovie.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m sorry I didn’t wear my Opus shirt. I couldn’t find one. I don’t think they even make them anymore. I was expecting you to come in and film me or something.

McElwee: Well, that can be arranged. I’ve got a little camera right here. (picking up iPhone)

Correspondent: Oh, I see. Well, I’ve got mine right here. (picking up Galaxy) So I know you wrote an essay on Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, which is very interesting. Because I’ve seen your films and they really make me think of what Percy said about “certification” in The Moviegoer, which of course is taken from Martin Heidegger’s notion of Alltäglichkeit, “everydayness” in Being and Time. This idea where we go about our lives, we’re always sort of reflecting on what the meaning of this is. And he said that it was essential. So I’m wondering. How can the video medium, which you have actually gravitated to for the first time with this film, and social media in our present landscape take into account this notion of everydayness? I mean, this film almost seems to be an argument for and against it. So what of this?

McElwee: That’s a question? That’s an essay! (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, we do essay questions and answers here. It’s sort of similar to your films, I think. (laughs)

McElwee: It is. It actually perfectly complements my whole way of making films. Because it’s a very complex thing that you’re asking of me. And to me, filming the everyday, filming little moments from everyday life, is totally essential to understanding what life as a whole is about. I think it’s somehow not recording of any specific moment of life that leads to a richer understanding or a deeper presentation of the meaning of that particular life. But it’s the accretion of all of these things and the overlapping, the patterns, the resonances of daily moments filmed that resonate with things you’ve already seen before. And I find as I get older, as I film my friends and my family, that I see patterns and layers of meaning that would not have been there if I had just filmed them one time. So I think it’s partially that curiosity about the moment of being in the present. And that’s very, very important to my filmmaking. And yet now there’s also a kind of layering that seems to be happening de facto, which is because I’ve been filming for a long time. I’m led to putting together combinations of shots and scenes and moments that span decades. And I have the luxury of doing that now. Because I’m getting older. One of the few benefits of getting older.

Correspondent: The films have gotten shorter, however. Interestingly.

McElwee: Yeah, that’s partially because people don’t have the patience to sit through two and a half hour films anymore.

Correspondent: I do.

McElwee: Well, you’re not the typical viewer.

Correspondent: Well, the interesting thing, aside from the fact that this is shot on video, is that there are a number of surprises about this film, aesthetically speaking, where it just does not seem like a Ross McElwee film. We have, of course, the photos with the music. And I was like, “Am I watching a Ken Burns movie or am I watching a McElwee movie?”

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: Or even the fact that you gravitate more towards the past instead of the present.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: You know, if you are altering your voice to fit the needs of what is required today, is it truly a genuine McElwee movie?

McElwee: No. Well, I’m not altering the voice because of marketing. There’s no way that I’m doing that. But I think it really is a matter of becoming older. I know, for me, for having kids or at least a son who’s a different generation, I’m starting to wonder, “What is this tension that I feel with my son? And why does this seem so extreme?” And that led me to go back to my own past. And I think in doing so, I did fine. I wasn’t shooting film back then and I don’t have images, moving images, to call upon, to represent what was happening at that point in my life. But I do have still photographs. And so, yes, there’s still photographs in my film and it is the first time I’ve used them this extensively. You’re absolutely right about that. And it’s the first time I’ve used stretches of music the way that I have in this film. Music has been in all my films. It’s diegetic. It comes out of the filming itself and the filming environment.

Correspondent: But the music comes before the voice. Whereas in previous films, the voice has ushered in the music.

McElwee: Yes, that’s true. Although I do….yes, you’re right. You’re right. That’s a different way of using music. But I think I felt that these were raw materials that I had available, which represented what my life was like at that time. Therefore, I had to draw on them. And it did make a different kind of film. Of course, the other large difference was that I’m much older now. And so there’s much more to look back on. So that way does become more “historical.”

Correspondent: Much more to look back on? What about looking forward? I mean, literally. I was shocked watching this movie. Because I was expecting the cross-country quest of some kind. But, no, it really is going backwards towards events that are half a lifetime ago. I mean, why should they define who you are in the present? They certainly haven’t in other films that you’ve made.

McElwee: No. And I think it may be a one time departure. But I feel that I have now earned the right to make whatever film I wanted to make and that was the film I wanted to make. And I think it’s mainly because of what I say in the beginning of the film. It’s that I’m a little stymied by my relationship to my son. And I’m confused by the directions he’s going in. And those directions are somewhat representative of his entire generation. But I’m also smart enough to realize that my father had the same questions about me. I didn’t go to medical school. That’s so puzzling. “Why would you not want to do something that would guarantee you a comfortable and fulfilling life?” No, I wanted to become a filmmaker. What is that all about? He must have really wondered about those things.

Correspondent: But the difference between you and your father, and Adrian and you, is that we have this image you have throughout your films of your father showing how to suture up something and your brother going ahead and participating. You’ve used that repeatedly.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: In this, it’s almost like you’re the hired cameraman for Adrian’s movies.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: It’s not necessarily like the passing of a legacy that Adrian rejects, although Adrian also adopts the filmmaking guise. So is there really a parallel here?

McElwee: Not a precise parallel. But there’s some irony too in there. I become Adrian’s camerman at the end of the film and I think that’s meant to be somewhat humorous. People understand that. I’m doing documentaries and determined to do fiction. Not only that, but I become his cinematographer. So, yeah, it’s clearly a departure for me to go in some of the directions I’ve gone in too. But I think it’s very healthy. Why not try something you haven’t tried before? And I’ve done it. Whether I’ll do something similar again remains to be seen.

Correspondent: Going back to adjusting to recent developments of the last five or six years — smartphones, social media, and so forth — one of our first images of Adrian. He is plugged into his laptop, quite literally. He has the laptop in front of him. He has the headphones. He has this massive cafe drink with a bright blue straw. And you’re trying to say, “I need your full attention.” And he refuses this. And this to my mind — because I saw your film twice. The first time, I was horrified by this. The second time, I actually came to sympathize with Adrian a little bit more.

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: But I initially thought, “My God, he’s a spoiled brat. Here he is. The great Ross McElwee is being dissed by his own son!”

McElwee: But that’s his job as a son. Is to diss his dad.

Correspondent: Yeah, but diss in that sort of way? I mean, not have a meaningful conversation with you? Because it seems that you clearly establish, especially when you drag out all of your old notebooks and all of your old photos, there’s meticulous ideas that you set down in your youth and he’s frivolously typing away on his computer.

McElwee: Well, see, my father through I was frivolously scribbling away in my notebooks. It’s like so judgmental of fathers to be that way about their sons.

Correspondent: Or viewers to be that way about patriarchal relationships.

McElwee: Exactly. And the other thing that you can say is, “Well, yeah, he’s busy texting and listening to some conversation at the same time. He’s multitasking and he doesn’t even hear me when I ask the question or acknowledge that he’s heard me.” But what am I doing? I’ve got a digital camera on my shoulder. Who am I to criticize him for being wrapped up in his technology when I’m also wrapped up in my technology?

Correspondent: Well, you weren’t in the camera shot. But I’m pretty sure you weren’t holding a beverage. I’m pretty certain.

McElwee: That’s true.

Correspondent: He had more distractions than you going on.

McElwee: Or he’s just more ambidextrous than I am.

Correspondent: (laughs) Ambidextrous. But I mean, you say that it’s pretty much the same thing. But I would argue, given all the additional impediments from Adrian, that it’s not. That your quest into France was a quest for the usual frivolities of falling into weird relationships. I mean, you have the image of your son next to his girlfriend and there are two laptops there. I mean, that’s a fundamental difference that disrupts the parallel. So what of this? Is there? Can you actually adopt a parallel between your own life and Adrian’s?

McElwee: No, of course. It’s never precisely the same from generation to generation. We all know that. And I think the things that you point out visually were stunning to me when I actually saw them through the viewfinder. The two laptops opened at right angles to each other at a cafe table.

Correspondent: You didn’t notice when you were filming? It’s sort of like the rat in the motel [from Bright Leaves].

McElwee: Well, I did notice when I was filming. Because I thought, “Ah! This is the image I’m looking for.” I didn’t tell them to do that. But from the minute I saw this, I said, “I’m going to film this. Because it just seems so appropriate.” But I think it’s unfair to be too critical of Adrian and his generation for being so wrapped up in this technology. Because it’s available. And I was shooting 16mm film because it was suddenly available in a portable sense. You could put these cameras on your shoulder and go into the world for the first time. That was the whole cinéma vérité revolution. You know, my dad didn’t understand any of that. He thought it was crazy. In fact, at the very beginning, so did most funding agencies. Public television. Arts agencies. Nobody got it. That this was going to be something significant. That you could take technology into the world and interact with it on its own terms. As opposed to bringing people into the studio and interviewing them. Or recreating things the way Flaherty did. Directing it as if it were a fiction film. Using people from real life. And, in fact, it took a while for people to understand the possibilities of cinéma vérité. This was before I began making films. Those guys. [Richard] Lecock and [Albert and David] Maysles and [D.A.] Penebaker. They had to fight to get their kinds of filmmaking seen and shown and produced. So there’s always a learning curve for the rest of them.

Correspondent: And I dig all those guys. But the one commonality throughout all that early cinéma vérité is that there is a concern for capturing the human as opposed to cutting reality up into a stylistic mélange that gets in the way of really grasping with life. I mean, you try to recreate that famous moon shot from Sherman’s March in this film, but we see that we have all these buildings and your monologue is there. But the moon is more insignificant on video and it’s populated by all these buildings and so forth.

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: Clearly you’re aware that this is either fading or this is in competition with the YouTube confessional/YouTube star movement. And so forth. I mean, where do you fit in? Is there a place for you, do you think?

McElwee: In this? Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not really trying to tailor my films for any particular generation or any particular venue. I didn’t know where this film was going to end up. It was commissioned by French television. But aside from that, I had no idea where it would end up. And even that was an obscure presentation and platform. It was a late night experimental television series. And I was very happy to accept their commission and make this film. But I didn’t know what kind of film it would be. And I didn’t feel like I could tailor it to suit any particular category or any particular audience. And so there’s a way in which perhaps I’m shooting myself in the foot by not really thinking more about where these films are destined and is there a way I can make them more accessible to the younger generation who will then download it from their computers. I just…I can’t think like that. For whatever reason, I’m just driven to make a film because I want to make it on my own terms.

The Bat Segundo Show #491: Ross McElwee (Download MP3)

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NYFF: The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

His name came from a tough tumble down Baltimore stairs. They called him “Chicken” because that was the way he walked: wobbly and hunchbacked and sometimes a little alone around the schoolyard. They shortened the name to “Chick” because the single syllable rolled faster off the tongue. But Chick Webb had the grit to hawk newspapers and saved up enough dough for a drum kit. They figured he might build up his upper body strength if they kept him hammering young and long and hard on the drums.

They could not know he would become a big draw at a very big venue: the legendary Savoy Ballroom, immortalized in music with an indelible stomp, the rare place where blacks and whites hopped together on the same hard floor. They could not know how he would woo and shape Ella Fitzgerald’s talent shortly after her fateful appearance at the Apollo. They could not know how Chick would rehearse new arrangements from new composers, the band fueled by mescal and Mary Jane, into the sunrise. They could not know that if you hung around the Savoy long enough, you would have Chick’s respect. Because sticking around was how Chick had made it this far and this good. They could not know he would lead the first black band to host a national radio show. They could not know he would be dead only four months after his 34th birthday. Or maybe it was his 30th? Why not print the legend?

The biggest surprise about Jeff Kaufman’s documentary, The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America, is how Chick Webb’s mesmerizing life is diminished by the clumsy collection of stray biographical tidbits (Chick liked motorcycles, Chick was a snappy dresser, Chick had a German Shepherd), which don’t quite coalesce into a true narrative trajectory until the film stretches itself across a more expansive canvas. The film serves up many prominent voices (Bill Cosby as Webb, Janet Jackson as Fitzgerald, Jeff Goldbum as Artie Shaw, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauzá, and so forth) as profound movers and shakers in the 1920s and 1930s swing scene. But when we know Chick argued with Jelly Roll Morton, why do we need the former Jello pitchman? This minor dissonance also hinders the film from fully portraying or explicating Chick’s innovative drumming (“He sounded very different from any of the other drummers,” says one subject, to which one must ask, “Care to elaborate?”).

Chick Webb was so legendary that the Harlem streets were congested with more than 10,000 people on the day he died. Gene Krupa said that Webb was the only other drummer who “cut” him. In light of these vital details, it’s surprising that Kaufman races too fast over such details as Chick’s loyalty to his longtime guitarist John Truehart, the only member of Chick’s band who kept with him all the way through, and is sometimes too willing to buy into the Webb myth. (For example, Charles Linton told biographer Stuart Nicholson that Webb only said that he adopted Ella Fitzgerald “for the press people,” yet Kaufman is quite willing to go on with the mythos of Webb as Fitzgerald’s legal guardian.)

When many of the charming survivors (especially the ebullient choreographer Frankie Manning, captured here in his final years and in remarkable shape) are happy to spill Kaufman the story, why have other people get in the way? The Savoy King has greater success with dodgy-looking visual aids (such as the Indiana Jones-like map depicting Chick’s relentless touring schedule across the States in 1937) than the high-profile vocal cast.

But when the film shows the Savoy’s impact on American culture, displaying its contours with a computer simulation of the Savoy’s interior, it becomes a more meaningful exploration of the swing scene. The film obviously worked on some level with me, because I am playing Ella Fitzgerald as I write these words and I have a great desire right now to time travel back to the fateful evening of May 11, 1937, when Chick Webb and Benny Goodman duked it out in a battle of the bands at the Savoy. When the film reminds us that there were clubs in which a racist rope separated the dance floor down the middle and when it tells us that, in other clubs, blacks had to pay the same admission as whites to watch an act from the balcony (and weren’t allowed to dance) and when we recall that even the much vaunted Cotton Club would not admit African Americans, the Savoy’s pioneering efforts, taken with what others remember of Chick’s great generosity and energy, feel like a forgotten historical chapter that can’t be reread often enough.

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man, a completely unnecessary reboot of a perfectly wonderful Sam Raimi movie that was released only ten years before, expects us to believe in remarkably unpersuasive and tepid lies.

It is a movie that expects us to believe that one can walk into a 100-story skyscraper situated in Columbus Circle run by an apparent multinational corporation, catch a look at one of the badges behind the desk, and assume one of the names. (Only an hour before the screening, my photo had been taken for a temporary badge so that I could participate in a twenty minute meeting in a building that had fewer stories than Oscorp, which I much preferred as a sprawling industrial complex in the Raimi movies.) It is a movie that expects us to believe that an impostor can enter a top secret facility standing thirty feet away from the door leading in and observe a scientist, who just happens to be there, tracing a pattern-sensitive code into the panel with his hand (no thumbprint or retinal scan or surveillance cameras?).

It is a movie that expects us to believe that a hero, unable to use his considerable strength just after being bitten by a spider, will be curiously inconsistent in how he destroys things. Peter Parker clicks on a mouse without incident, but the keys rip off the keyboard as he types. He destroys the bathroom sink, but his skateboard is remarkably preserved. It is a movie that expects us to believe that a kid possessing reflexes beyond the pale would not be recruited by a sports coach (Studio Executive to Producers: “We can’t do that because of the wrestling element in Raimi’s first movie. That bastard! Why did he bolt on us?” Producers: “Because he wanted more time to develop the script!?”) and would not be examined by scientists or specialists for his off-the-charts ability. The movie simply assumes that a preternatural ability to warp a goal post with a football (is that even physically possible with cowhide?) is par for the course among high school teens. (“We’re very excited about the creative possibilities that come from returning to Peter’s roots,” said Amy Pascal in a statement when Sony put the kibosh on Spider-Man 4. Apparently, “creative possibilities” involve a remarkably unprofessional failure to work out story logic.)

It is a movie that expects us to believe that an especially carnivorous rat (mutated, of course) running around a scientific facility would not be noticed by the many attentive professional minds employed by Oscorp. It is a movie that expects us to believe that the television cameras closely following an injured Spider-Man crawling up a building with some difficulty would not also roll as Spider-Man rips his mask off (in fact, Parker reveals his identity more times than one would think during this film; presumably, superheroes have become so commonplace in the Marvel universe that one need not bother with sub rosa). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a teenager can spend long hours fighting crime and collecting bruises and not be grounded or sternly disciplined by his guardian, who also does not follow Parker when he takes up a large and vertiginous stack of food up to his room (including frozen macaroni and cheese, which is not especially edible unless you nuke it). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a seasoned cop would not notice the numerous bruises upon his daughter’s date and would neither remark upon said contusions, much less the fact that this date has seemingly materialized out of nowhere into his daughter’s room and not shown up in a suit (as agreed upon in advance by the Stacy family).

I put forth the modest proposition that a movie containing this much paralogia should be rejected by a mass audience. It is one thing to accept a webslinger sailing through the Manhattan skyline on threads that couldn’t possibly be tensile enough to hold a 160 pound man. One must, after all, suspend some disbelief for a film of this type. But we are not dummies. And it is the job of the Hollywood professional to make us believe in the impossible for a few hours.

It is also the responsibility of the professional to give the protagonist an interesting antagonist: ideally, someone who shares similar qualities and who is just as dimensional as the hero. What have screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargeant, and Steve Kloves given us? The Lizard (aka Dr. Curt Connors), who was capable of telepathic communication with other reptiles and was nuanced enough to help Spidey a few times in the comics, is a dull and plodding villain barking ho-hum soliloquies into his video camera and booming loud and not especially inventive three-word threats to Peter Parker. In this cinematic manifestation, he is such an underwritten and bland character that director Marc Webb, who seems to have carved out the inventive eye he brought to the marvelous (500) Days of Summer for the money men, constantly has his camera fixated upon Connors’s missing arm even after we have a pretty good idea that the experiments at Oscorp will cause it to grow back. I became so distracted by this that I was able to figure out where Rhys Ifans’s pre-CGI arm was with little effort. But as we have already established, Webb and his army of hacks aren’t especially interested in believable magic tricks.

* * *

“Don’t break promises you can’t keep,” says an English teacher at Midtown Science High School to Peter Parker, as he stumbles late into a classroom near the end of a broken cinematic promise. “Yeah,” Parker replies, “but those are the best ones.”

Actually, the best promises were fulfilled by Sam Raimi. Even Spider-Man 3, which had its share of problems, was free enough for Raimi to stage that gloriously cheesy scene in the jazz club. There isn’t a single scene in Webb’s hacktacular reimagining that comes close. Raimi understood that Spider-Man was the most endearing of Marvel’s superheroes: the bullied geek finding integrity through his superpowers. While Andrew Garfield is a handsome enough lead man, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would be beaten by schoolkids in a previous life. He’s too jittery and bewildered and spastic in his delivery to tend to a friendly neighborhood. It doesn’t help that he has a vague Jersey dialect which flits in and out, out of character for a guy ostensibly from Queens. But then the New York in this movie is some bizarre hodgepodge of the seedy Abraham Beame days (people apparently drink beer on the Q line and it’s too dangerous for a fit older woman to walk twelve blocks to a subway station at night) and something vaguely approximating a period that could be now or could be the 1980s (how else to account for the Rubik’s Cube that Uncle Ben picks up in Peter Parker’s room or the curious lack of texting among teens even as they are using smartphones?). While I accept that a comic book movie is going to stylize a city however it wants (Raimi was audacious enough to include an elevated line running through Manhattan), should it not be rooted in true imagination rather than careless what-the-hell incoherence? (On this point, the movie seems curiously self-aware of its fallacies. Not only does The Amazing Spider-Man lack the guts to utter the famous line “With great power comes great responsibility,” but an Einstein poster appears in Parker’s bedroom with the immortal quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” If ever there was a filmmaker who misunderstood Einstein, it’s director Marc Webb.)

That slipshod quality extends to Peter Parker, who inexplicably clings to an analog camera in an age when nearly every aspiring photographer his age is likely to be using digital. Hilariously, Parker’s camera has PROPERTY OF PETER PARKER in embossed tape on the back, which conveniently allows a villain to find him not long after he tries snapping a few secret photos. (By comparison, notice how our first introduction of Raimi’s Peter Parker as photographer involves Parker asking permission at a museum just before he snaps a spider for the “school paper,” only for a bully to push Parker and mess up his shot. In a matter of five seconds, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp established that (1) Parker is polite and destined to work for a paper to expand his scientific and journalistic interests and (2) he is also doomed to face bullies who will mess his vocation up, whether as crime fighter or photographer.)

And how can you have a Spider-Man movie without J. Jonah Jameson? Then again, after J.K. Simmons, why would you dare to cast another actor in the part? Jameson’s disapproval of Spidey is passed off to Captain George Stacey (played by Denis Leary, who seems to have turned into a poor man’s David Caruso, just as he was once a poor man’s Bill Hicks). But here’s why Jameson is so important. Peter Parker was able to work at the Daily Bugle trying to impress Jameson with his photos, while simultaneously facing Jameson’s smear campaign against Spidey. In light of the fact that he has no father figure, Jameson almost serves as an intriguing surrogate. Webb’s film has Captain Stacey insisting that Spidey is a menace, ordering the cops on his side. But we don’t believe it — in large part because Captain Stacey also views Parker as a kid with “psychiatric problems.” Yet it’s clear that Spidey is working on the side of good. However, we can believe that a media mogul would want to manipulate public opinion for his own selfish ends. Sure enough, Webb and his writers lack the deft hand to see Captain Stacey’s resentment through to the end.

I haven’t even brought up the Gwen Stacy story — in large part because Stacy, who was such a central figure in the comic books (memo to Mr. Webb: not especially wise of you to feature a prominent NYC bridge in your Spider-Man movie because it spells out how risk-averse and how out of your league you really are), is little more than a head-bobbing, limb-shuffling, one-dimensional, big-eyed love interest for Parker. In Raimi’s version, Mary Jane lived a few houses down from Parker. There were hints that a troubled family lived inside. Raimi even had the courage to have Parker mutter his feelings for Mary Jane while walking behind her: an uncommonly sincere moment that made us relate to Parker’s wistfulness in human terms. What does Webb offer us? Gwen Stacy’s photo on Parker’s computer.

I suppose I’m dwelling upon the many human elements that went awry because the comic book story here is boring and unsatisfying. While this movie is not as bad as any comic book movie with “green” in the title, I did not feel a single second of awe or excitement during The Amazing Spider Man‘s 136 interminable minutes. Once again, there was no real justification for the 3D: not even the ridiculous Spidey POV shots that Webb desperately introduces as a personal stylistic flourish. There also needs to be a moratorium on Stan Lee cameos.

We have seen origin story after origin story, and, after two Hulks (2003 and 2008), Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, it’s all becoming wearisome. At least with The Avengers, the spandex ass kicking began fairly early and there was decent acting and a few good lines and a rousing Alan Silvestri score and an endearing Hulk. But the comic book movie has become a drag. Nobody says “fuck” or fucks or drinks or does drugs or gets into serious trouble. Nobody really lives. Imagine how truly amazing these movies would be if somebody took a human chance.

Review: Dark Shadows (2012)

Tim Burton is little more than a soulless businessman who makes movies as cutting-edge as crucible steel. His films haven’t been fun or worthwhile in quite some time, an especially astonishing accomplishment considering the eye-popping work that came before. He’s been lurching around like a creatively bankrupt whore for at least sixteen years and his chief skill seems to be taking very fun films from decades past (Planet of the Apes, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, et al.) and adulterating them into tepid remakes which rival Sátántangó in sheer soporificity. Tim Burton is not a man who dazzles, but he is very keen on taking your money and boring you to tears.

With his latest disaster, Dark Shadows, Burton has once again butchered an engaging antecedent. He has hired Seth Grahame-Smith, an in-it-for-the-money mashup charlatan who wasn’t even alive when the first Dark Shadows series aired, to write a porous screenplay built upon gags so bad that even a Marmaduke fan is likely to go postal.

Instead of establishing Barnabas Collins’s striking qualities as a tormented vampire, Burton and Grahame-Smith cheapen him by having Barnabas react to cultural developments (“They tried stoning me. It did not work,” replies Barnabas when someone asks if he is stoned: no one in the theater laughed), having Dr. Julia Hoffman (played here as a clueless chain-smoking drunk by Helena Bonham Carter) go down on Barnabas because Burton and Grahame-Smith couldn’t ken the character (played by Burton’s real-life wife!) in any other way*, and having Barnabas quote from The Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” (which actually came out in 1973, one year after the movie’s setting) and Erich Segal’s Love Story in an effort to relate to hippies.

This is Dark Shadows‘s idea of character development, and it extends to the acting. A distressingly plastic Michelle Pfeiffer, unable to express anything with her face, resorts to eye blinking in her role as the Collins matriarch (and cannot compare to the classy Joan Bennett from the original). For some inexplicable reason, Burton has directed nearly every woman to talk with a gravely two-packs-a-day timbre. And this became so distracting that I had to do a double take to make sure that Eva Green (who plays Angelique, the witch who ensnares Barnabas) wasn’t Helena Bonham Carter. Bella Heathcote tries her best (and is an excellent Kathryn Leigh Scott mimic) as Victoria Winters, the woman who looks like Barnabas’s lost love, Josette du Pres. But with such a middling script (and a really awkward backstory about being institutionalized as a child reflecting the desperation of artistic cretins sandwiching Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters into one character), Heathcote’s talents fizzle before they are allowed to catch fire. As for Johnny Depp, he’s in full paycheck role somnambulism here, offering little more than a not particularly precise Liverpudlian dialect and spastic presence. It is now clear that Johnny Depp, who was once one of our more interesting and daring actors, can no longer be trusted to put his name to anything even remotely daring. (His next film is The Lone Ranger.)

And I put forth to any self-respecting moviegoer that when a character is forced to exclaim “You’re way too weird!” to another in a movie, as one does to Barnabas, this is probably happening because the writer and the director are incapable of establishing the weirdness through action.

The Jonathan Frid and Ben Cross incarnations of Barnabas Collins didn’t require external prodding from others to establish their on-screen gravitas. Producer Dan Curtis, faced with a miniscule budget for his daily soap opera, relied on two dependable qualities that have escaped Burton’s feeble attentions: (1) go-for-broke writing and (2) theatrical acting. So he had his writers scavenge ideas and narrative angles from Poe, Lovecraft, Wilde, Stoker, Shelley, and countless other classics to create what was surely one of the most ambitious and quirky daytime shows ever produced on television, including everything from vampires to werewolves to gripping court trials to a wealthy family to parallel universes to immortal figures to Gothic intrigue. It proved so strangely addictive — almost the American answer to old school Doctor Who‘s endearing combination of wobbly sets and high concept — that I ended up renting the first 52 volumes on VHS at a Sacramento video store around 1990, managing to hook a number of friends and family members into my surprise find, and was crushed when I learned that there was no 53rd volume. (Later, I discovered that the Sci-Fi Channel was broadcasting Dark Shadows every morning, and I waited patiently for the series to catch up to where I had left off.)

So if you’re going to compress a series this complicated and this distinct into a two hour movie, you need dedication and finesse, especially if you hope to attract a new audience.

But Burton and Grahame-Smith are so laughably amateurish that Barnabas walks around town in open daylight with little more than a hat and an umbrella to protect him. (Indeed, after the fifteenth time I noticed some stream of sunlight that should have killed Barnabas, I stopped counting.) And unlike the Frid or Cross exemplars, who both used their innate charisma to persuade, Barnabas relies mostly on his hypnotic powers to coax others to do his bidding. As the wonderful bar scene from Near Dark demonstrated, a vampire is only as badass as his actions. Tim Burton’s Barnabas comes from a soft, privileged, and unlived place.

In addition, the movie is needlessly aggressive in its use of obvious music cues — The Carpenters’s “Top of the World,” The Moody Blues’s “Nights in White Satin,” Barry White’s “You’re the First, My Last, My Everything,” many others — to telegraph its hackneyed moments. One almost expects Casey Kasem to show up. Instead, we get Alice Cooper performing at Collinwood, the Collins family manse that was so enticingly mysterious in its two television incarnations. For Burton, Collinwood is merely a place where you stash your badminton and macramé supplies in the secret rooms.

If turning a secret room into storage space for a Veblenian haul is Burton’s idea of imagination, then it’s clear that this rabid bore should be taken to the woodshed. The man contributes nothing of value to the American cultural landscape. He may look like Ichabod Crane, but he lost his head for fun a long, long time ago.

* — To give you a sense of how Burton and Grahame-Smith have diminished Dr. Julia Hoffman, here’s an extremely abbreviated character history from the original series. She was the head of a sanitarium, pretended to be a historian to infiltrate her way into the Collins family, and discovered Barnabas to be a vampire through her own initiative. Barnabas and Julia developed an interesting relationship that was built on trust, hypnosis, blackmail, and near murder. Should such an intriguing character really be little more than a drunk?

New Directors/New Films: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 21, 2012 and April 1, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Vol 01 — Slightly Eccentric Lede Intended to Mimic the Film’s Structure, Offering a Knowing Nod or a Tedious Longueur Depending Upon What You Prefer

You’re not supposed to begin an essay with a digression, but since the film I’m about to write about is a deceptive concatenation of digressions, it somehow seems appropriate to break the unspoken rule.

Vol 02 — Impertinent Observations Reflecting the Essayist’s Eccentric Mind

Upon seeing “ambivalence” misspelled on-screen during An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, the wordsmith in me wondered if this may have been deliberate. After all, filmmaker Terence Nance does have the woman of his real-life and cinematic affections read what appears to be a lengthy (though modified — but I am trusting my memory and I am not Googling it, so I could be wrong) passage from Louise Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace. And Nance’s film is fascinatingly verbal, with words displayed and heard at nearly every point: filling in every stray gap (thanks in large part to Reg E. Cathey’s smooth narration, which intersperses at times with Nance’s — the effect works, the competitive voices suggesting some internal dialogue between a boy and a man, but I wondered at times if the actor from The Wire had to stick to a mere 80% of the film’s narration, rather than the full order, in order to fit his great velvet-voiced services into the low budget), complicating and reviving and reforming and mimicking a long-dead relationship that is also the very subject of this film. So why would Nance misspell the very word that may signal his true and present feelings about what he’s documenting?

It was at this point — perhaps an hour into the movie — that my mind suggested that Oversimplification could be a clever reply to The Americanization of Emily. In the 1964 film (written by Paddy Chayefsky, based on a William Bradford Huie novel; I won’t mention the director because it runs the risk of another 500 words I don’t really want to write right now), Emily is both attracted and repelled by a soldier’s lifestyle. She’s lost many of the men she’s loved during the war and she doesn’t want to see this new guy she’s fallen for, Madison, die either. And then it appears that Madison is dead — the first man to make it on Omaha Beach. And Emily is crushed. But Madison is not dead. He’s living it up as a hero, which is something of an understatement. Because he was actually a coward. Emily says that he should accept his role.

Vol 03 — Oh, Get to the Film Already!

Now let’s take a look at Nance’s film. We are informed that Nance is a young twentysomething who has had a family upbringing without injury or incident (described as “the Cosby effect”). He works twelve hour days, but most of his money appears to be going into his rent and his Metrocard. He has to construct his own bed, relying on Japanese joinery, carrying slabs on the subway, and not getting the bed right because he is not the greatest carpenter and he has used pine instead of sturdier wood. It can be argued that this is a lifestyle: certainly many of today’s artists soldier on in an American climate increasingly hostile to art. And Nance’s choice of inferior wood may indeed suggests that he is beguilingly clueless in some sense. This was the big tip-off for me, in any case, that Nance’s heavily verbal, multitiered film was just as much of an imperfect bed that he would have to lay in for some years.

So Nance meets Namik. The details are imprecise, even as there is the illusion of precision contained within the film’s ongoing narration and structure. (At one point, we are helpfully informed that one section of the film is “up to date as of 2006.”) They sleep together, but they don’t necessarily make love. The nature of the relationship is imprecise, as befitting two confused but amicable young people in some kind of love or lust. It is imprecise even as Nance offers a timeline of events late into the film. We learn that another man has asked Namik to be in an exclusive relationship, which means the end of her involvement with Nance.

Or so we think. Because Nance, crushed by this, decides to dwell on the relationship anyway — even after it is over. He somehow persuades Namik to respond to a letter that he sent her long after the fact and records her response on camera. What starts off as a young man’s friendly and humble self-examination becomes a little creepy for a time. I mean, can you imagine asking some person you slept with several years ago to respond to something on camera for a project that reflects your own personal truth? Especially after both of you have moved on? That Namik does all this without filing for a restraining order speaks to Nance’s strange charm. Or maybe it’s the key ingredient for this film’s weirdly appealing conceptual thrust. In an age of increasing documentation of the self, are we meant to carry on chronicling the very emotions that might be harmful towards us or others? Especially when we’re ushered to shift our Facebook profiles onto a timeline and relive our worst moments? Nance seems game for endless self-examination. He didn’t come off as a narcissist to me, although, given the walkouts I observed, I know his willingness to push into his own seemingly common complexities won’t be for everyone.

Vol 04 — An Attempt to Find a Conclusion

Like Nance, I seem to have drifted in the immediate emotional residue and haven’t even consulted the many notes I took. Many of them are indecipherable. But I’m sure that many of them are readable and profound. I have opted for memory instead. Yet in considering my feelings (which are genuinely positive) for Nance’s film, it’s interesting that I haven’t mentioned the animation. And this isn’t fair. Because there is one past fling which Nance chronicles quite well through animation, where all parties are naked and Nance’s stature waxes and wanes as the giant woman he is describing transforms into a ripe tomato as she gets it on with another lover and Nance begins to comprehend the great pain of trying to stay platonic with a woman you still have feelings for.

This film is Nance’s truth, and nothing but Nance’s truth. Even as Nance includes a trailer for Naink’s possible cinematic response, and even as Nance includes a hazy video clip from a Q&A session just after an early version of the film played a theater, this is still Nance’s truth. It’s worth pointing out that Oversimplification emerged from the bones of an earlier short film called How Would You Feel?. That both films are, in turn, evolved from Nance’s real-life experience leads one to wonder where the original emotional kernel can be found, or whether it’s even worth pursuing.

Nance hasn’t so much oversimplified Namik’s beauty, as he has complicated it into a distorted view that no longer bears any resemblance to the original lived moment. And while another older person (especially one with several failed marriages) might find this annoying or horrifying, I found this oddly enthralling. Nance confesses that he doesn’t really possess the emotional memory of his moments with Namik, and that her motion in the clips edited on his laptop somehow actuated these false highlights. Does technology debilitate the romance or the inherent truth of our memories? Probably. And I think, given the defiant iPhone-centric manner in which he ends his movie, Nance does too. Yet here is a man who, not long after showing a version of his film to Namik, puts the microphone in her face and presses her on how she feels, curling it around her (while sitting behind her) like an arm. I’ll be hard-pressed to find a better epitomization of 21st century life (especially among those who document it) in any film I see this year.

Is this thing on?

BAMcinématek: Red Desert (1964)

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, which begins a ten day run at BAMcinématek this afternoon, is surely one of the most beautiful ugly movies ever made. The colors are largely gray and murky, and the apparent progress of red radar masts transform communication into something which looks more closer to derricks. Water isn’t just dark and polluted; it is oily and smoky, very much living up to its Lethean role. Sickly yellow enters near the end with a resigned acceptance. Rooms, painted with bright red, are cold and subject to random destruction. State-of-the-art robot toys crash around dark rooms over and over and over. Spoiled children don’t feel any special desire to get out of bed. They even willfully fool their mothers into believing that they have a serious illness. Large areas are filled up with endless bric-a-brac, with one wondering how it all got there in the first place.

Given all this bleak imagery and given the seemingly slim story (Giuliana, a young mother married to an engineer, is suffering mental breakdown), why then would anyone want to see Red Desert? Why then would anyone be so drawn to Monica Vitti’s miserable face, which seems equally tortured by environment and filmmaker and often dons a very sad smile for protection? Largely because of Antonioni’s audacity and largely because everything here is not as it seems. This was his first film in color and he was determined to paint nearly every building around him. Pipes, walls, the insides of a vacant cottage? Chances are that it was painted. Chances are that the actors were positioned not to show off their talent, but for Antonioni to show off his brush strokes. And it all makes Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s modifications of Paris by CGI look outright lazy by comparison. It’s hard to imagine anyone going to such trouble today, and I wish that they would. Red Desert reminds us of those halcyon days when filmmakers strewed their streets with serious trash and rolled up their sleeves to accentuate abject locales.

The other reason to see Red Desert is largely as a test in mood. Because Red Desert may be a depressing film, if you can still find something cheery about the world afterward, you may very well be an optimist. But in your quest to find beauty within the abject, does your soul become abject? Like anything in life, it’s all a matter of perspective.

The above sequence is about as alienating as art house cinema gets. Giuliana wishes to escape her increasingly populated environment. But instead of offering help or providing some fun aside from eating eggs (augmenting your fertility: is this really what frivolity is all about in the Antonioni universe?) or wanton destruction (red wooden walls destroyed, along with a chair), her friends can only stare into the world around them. They are statuary dissipating into the fog. Should Giuliana be blamed for this? Is this merely the way that she looks at the world? She decides to act by nearly driving a car into the watery abyss (an attempt at suicide or a response to this miasma?). She says, “Forgive me. A mistake.” She claims not to have seen the ship. All she wanted was to drive home. But what is home? And is what we are seeing here a mistake?

A 1965 review published in Life suggested that Antonioni was “getting to the point where he has nothing new to say about nothingness.” But this assumes that experiencing Red Desert is merely accepting “nothingness” without considering that it may be something else or that mood or style can suggest other emotions. Antonioni is all about confronting our perceptions about the way people live with colors. Giuliana commits an act (or does she?) near the end of the film — just before saying “Why do I always need other people?” and just before she seems to transform into a piece of human furniture (while clutching a chair, match) and just before tracing her fingers on a map that doesn’t have the place she’s looking for (home?). Much as Jack Nicholson’s David Locke assumes a dead man’s identity in The Passenger to atone for the rebels he can’t seem to locate, Giuliana’s response to malaise is to do something instead of nothing. And it takes observing a dark and slightly bent figure from a window — perhaps some future version of her — to understand that nothingness is a state of mind. What’s especially interesting is that her act causes the room she is in, and all of its objects, to shift into a fleshy pink. So did she actually commit the act? Or did she merely think it? And is thinking a form of doing? Whatever it is (and Antonioni is considerate enough of his audience to leave this open-ended), it does allow Giuliana to return to the world, with great pockets of steam pushing beneath her, and walk away from what seems poisonous without fearing it or worrying about it.

In a year that has given us revolutionary upheaval, natural disasters, and economic uncertainty seemingly without letup, Red Desert is fresher than ever in what it has to say about living.

Review: Love Crime (2010)

There are few thespians more capable of playing first-class bitches than Kristin Scott Thomas. Most good actors are considerate enough to open up windows into their souls, but Thomas’s eyes are haughty saucers that take in a room in the way that a professional assassin snaps a neck. It isn’t especially difficult to imagine Thomas’s blue orbs popping out of her head, perhaps running at you with plans for a murder weapon.

So it’s no surprise that Love Crime‘s best moments are when Thomas appears on screen as the appropriately named corporate executive Christine (did co-writer/director Alain Corneau have any other actress in mind?). Christine plucks ideas from her underlings without credit, humiliates her coworkers at a party by playing security camera videos that reveal their private emotional moments, and digs in the heel after a nasty betrayal by telling her opponent how easy it was to fool her. In other words, Christine is a woman you never want to cross, the kind of chilling villain that keeps me coming back to French cinema. I should probably confess that I experienced great pleasure in seeing Christine order an associate to clean up two to three months of financial chicanery in a mere week and that I further enjoyed the way that many of the women in this film were surrounded by weak and easily crushed men. When it comes to corporate intrigue, the truest films of this type are decent enough to give us jackals who go for the jugular. It certainly wasn’t a surprise to learn that Christine’s previous assistant had cracked.

Against such a compelling heavy, how then can Ludivine Sagnier compete? Sagnier, playing Christine’s assistant Isabelle, is a striking blonde who looks especially good running on a treadmill. (We’re told in the film’s early moments that Isabelle runs because it “blanks everything out.” I don’t believe this is why most people run, but it does explain why Isabelle would put up with Christine for so long.) But in this film, Sagnier doesn’t have the gravitas or the complexity to match Thomas. That’s somewhat surprising, given the way Sagnier held her own with Charlotte Rampling in Swimming Pool. When Isabelle pops pills as the fissures start forming and she confronts Christine over a threatening email, we can’t really speculate on her character or relate to her because of Corneau’s melodramatic direction, which works well in other places but, in Sagnier’s case, relies too much on the shattered static look and a doelike gaze. I mean, if Sagnier is such a naif, how then did she make it this far in the company? For that matter, why does the company include so many agreeable Americans saying things like “Thanks to you, our expectations were shot through the roof” and giving away jobs and trips to Cairo with the profligacy one expects from a pediatrician dispensing lollipops after an appointment? (To be fair, I actually enjoyed these cheeseball Yanks, who represent a fairly ridiculous fiction in a post-2008 economy. It’s amusingly easy for various characters to screw the company out of millions. On the other hand, this skewered logic does cause one to see gaping holes in the plot.)

Given that Love Crime relies on an intricate ruse and boardroom perseverance to hold our interest, this failure to give Sagnier much more than an apparent victimhood quality needlessly simplifies an otherwise entertaining thriller. It’s worth pointing out that mysteries which include a police investigation really need to make sure that they are ten steps ahead of the audience. Because by inviting the audience into vicarious inquiry, the audience is also encouraged to poke around. And if the audience feels smugly superior to the police, catching on to certain details well before they do, it invalidates the criminal horror, reducing it to comedy or camp. That’s perfectly fine. Murder and bumbling detectives can be very funny. But since Corneau spends so much time building up to the crime, I’m thinking that he wanted us to take the act seriously.

On the other hand, modest kitsch may have also been Corneau’s intent. If the film didn’t spend so much time trying to be smart, it may have found more confidence in its exuberance. There’s one amusing moment in front of a movie theater when Isabelle offers candy to everybody, suggesting a whimsical direction perhaps more natural for Corneau. I also liked the silly paranoia contained within the film’s finale, which suggests that, no matter where you rest on the corporate totem pole, there’s always someone out to get you.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Love Crime, but it was clear to me that it could have been something more than a conventional thriller. On the way out of the screening room, I overheard two people calling the film “cute,” a modifier better assigned to an effervescent romantic comedy. Why couldn’t this film have been more dangerous?

Review: Special Treatment (2010)

Prostitution and psychiatry both cater to a privileged class, where a considerable sum of cash is handed over to a specialist for one hour of release. Over the course of numerous sessions, one’s mental health or sexual desire may be sufficiently restored to its former levels. But it takes time. And it takes the right specialist. The client understands that remedy isn’t going to happen overnight, but there remains the dependable oxytocin rush of each discrete session. The client can count on trusting the psychiatrist to unload emotional catharsis or trust the prostitute to fire his load into the appropriate orifice and with the appropriate satisfaction. Both professions involve finding a specialist who must remain objective. The psychiatrist or the prostitute may “care” for the client in a purely professional way, so long as the client understands that he is merely one of many. So there’s no need for the client to consider his quirks or his perversions and his hangups especially special. So although the client’s ego (and his wallet) may be tinkered with during release, it is suggested that the client check his hubris at the door. The specialist has seen it all. In both cases, there may be a certain shame when confessing to certain friends that the client is seeing someone to fix something vital. Sometimes, when you run into a client just before one of these sessions, the client will have a worried and somewhat nervous expression on his face, much like an inexperienced actor enlisted at the last minute to appear in a community theater production. He just wants to get it over with. So the only way for the client to cure his unsated need is to see the specialist again. It’s always best to call ahead, even though last-minute appointments are dicey.

Given these parallels, it’s a wonder that a film like Jeanne Labrune’s Special Treatment didn’t come earlier. We might look to Alan J. Pakula’s Klute as one of the first films depicting a prostitute confessing how much she wants to leave the business to a psychiatrist, and 1987’s Nuts, which features Barbra Streisand as a high-class callgirl who must prove her sanity. But both films involved murder, suggesting that the simultaneous moral investigation of psychiatry and prostitution inevitably led one into gripping pulp narrative. (It’s worth noting that Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, which didn’t deal with psychiatrists but certainly looked into dormant bourgeois desires and prostitution, also involved murder.)

It was surprising to discover that nobody dies in Special Treatment, although someone does pull a knife. Labrune’s film isn’t especially interested in depicting the act of congress, suggesting a firm commitment to the more pivotal actions occurring just before release. This refreshingly adult (as opposed to, ahem, adult) approach gives Labrune liberty to depict the two practices as procedure rather than prescription, dutiful vocation rather than spiritual translocation. We see numerous scenes of 43-year-old, high-class prostitute Alice Bergerac (Isabelle Huppert), committed to schoolgirl fantasies with one client (even recommending somebody younger when his rocks prove less fluid than anticipated) and submissive housewife with another, with lengthy stretches of Alice setting up her room in advance or catching a cigarette between johns. This boredom of routine can’t be perceived by Alice’s clients. Likewise, as the camera cranes in close on his face, the psychiatrist Xavier Demestre (Bouli Lanners) couldn’t be more disinterested with the visceral confessions of his clients — even when they are men who dress up in women’s clothes and make efforts to flirt with him. So when the emotionally crippled Xavier expresses a desire to leave his wife, one can’t help but feel that he’s more than a little of a shit.

But since Alice shares some of these professional qualities, why then did I feel more sympathetic towards her? The film does stack the deck towards Alice by having a particularly creepy client pull some sleazy moves on her and by having a mentally disabled man follow her near the end of the film. But is Alice’s own indecision — her desire to seek help without much of a plan — any worse than Xavier’s failure to state any specific ideas about what he wants when he sets up a preliminary consultation appointment with her?

Part of me wished the film didn’t play into conventions and ask me to choose sides like this. If Alice’s character had been a little less wholesome and a little less victimized, then this perilous proximity to the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope might have been avoided. By giving Alice and Xavier too many eccentric clients, the film detracts from its exploration of midlife ennui. Special Treatment is better when the people who Alice and Xavier have affected stand up and respond to their actions. When one of Xavier’s clients calls him out on his lack of professionalism and announces that he’s not coming back, it’s fascinating to see how this client has his life together (and his ability to recover) more than Xavier.

The film is somewhat entertaining, but its slow spots had me wondering what might happen if Labrune had thrown in a murder. Sure, it would have cheapened the film. On the other hand, if Alice and Xavier had been presented as more emotionally complex individuals, Special Treatment might have been, well, more special.

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.

* * *

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.

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?

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: 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.

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:

ROMANTIC COMEDY = WOMEN AUDIENCE
WOMEN AUDIENCE WANT NICE GIRL TO WIN
1981 SCRIPT HAS FEMALE CHARACTER
FEMALE CHARACTER IS APPEALING, BUT NOT ENTIRELY NICE GIRL
GEEK MOVIES = MONEY
WOMEN AUDIENCE = MONEY?
NICE GIRL + GEEK STEREOTYPE = MONEY + MONEY
SANITIZE ALL QUALITIES THAT NOT = NICE GIRL
????
MAKE MONEY MAKE MONEY
$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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: 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?

New Directors/New Films: Margin Call (2011)

[This is the first 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.]

“The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” — The Grapes of Wrath

It’s easy for anyone with anything half-approaching a conscience to condemn the scummy vulpine gamblers who led us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But Margin Call, which takes place during one very dark night in 2008, has a surprisingly nuanced portrait buried beneath its zesty dramatic intrigue. Yes, it takes a certain chutzpah to live a life (as one character does) where one claims want when the after-tax take of a $2 million annual salary is gobbled up by prostitutes and restaurants and cars and clothes. Yet the men and the women of Margin Call‘s unnamed firm (which bears striking similarities to Lehman Brothers) aren’t entirely without feeling. They’re just very good at compartmentalizing their emotions, which have been perfected after many years of greasing the wheels. That reality may very well be the true horror.

Our introduction to sales manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is just after he’s received the news that his dog is sick. A few minutes later, he’s rallying the troops after a corporate bloodbath, saying, “80% of this floor was just sent home forever. But you were better.” He tells his salesmen that the downsized employees are “not to be thought of again.” How does he survive? One clue comes later in the film when Rogers is asked to take in some very bad news. He replies, “I don’t want to hear this. How do you think I’ve stuck around this place so long?”

But then it’s that failure to listen, that disinterest in what came before or what’s coming next, which is part of the problem. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is one of the firm’s downsized casualties. He’s an analyst who we later learn helped design bridges that has saved thousands of commuter hours. And just as he’s working on some minatory projections showing serious volatility, the kind of financial Nagasaki with casualties exceeding the firm’s total value. But he isn’t even given the time to finish or explain his work. He’s escorted out of his office. And he’s informed by the icy HR people that he won’t have access to his computers again. He’s given a pamphlet (complete with the title LOOKING AHEAD and a preposterously sunny sailboat on the cover) that will provide “assistance with this transaction in your life.” And as he’s holding his banker’s box in the street, he discovers his cell phone is shut off. But just before heading from The Street to the streets, he does manage to get a flash drive with this data into the hands of the 28-year-old Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), and that’s only because Peter has thought to accompany him to the elevator. Sullivan continues with Dale’s work and discovers the inevitable.

Sullivan is an analyst who, like many of his fellow employees, came to the firm for the money. He doesn’t seem as put out as his 23-year-old coworker, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), who can’t comprehend life without a job at the firm. (Bregman is later seen sobbing in the men’s room, an image that somehow feels worse than a stockbroker throwing himself out the window, because of the terror he must hide to show that he’s a team player.) But Sullivan does represent some missing link in the devolutionary masculine slide from ethical geek to thuggish lucre. Quinto here is terrific, playing the part with slight bites of the lower lip, rolled up shirtsleeves, and eyes that take in his increasing responsibilities with a reluctant professionalism that could, in the next decade or two, transform him into the ladder-climber wanting it all. Or maybe he’ll end up like Eric Dale: a risk management analyst let go for doing the right thing.

Margin Call features plentiful shots hinting at this blindsided mode of survival. One extraordinary moment occurs in an elevator as two executives argue over ratting each other out during the fallout, with a cleaning woman occupying the center of the frame, staring almost directly at the audience and seemingly not listening to this language. Another moment sees Sullivan and Bregman sitting in a gentleman’s club, the camera parked at a static shot quite far away, contemplating a stripper’s take home pay. Like many young men who are arrogant before their prime, they are so sure they know the numbers. And these fixed camera angles give us some sense of what they cannot see before them.

To some degree, Margin Call is working in the old school storytelling tradition that, in the wake of The Social Network, appears to be looking for a modest comeback. The film isn’t so much interested in the dry theoretical details, but it is concerned with the desperate emotions that force these people to scheme and capitulate. That ineluctable narrative decision may very well cause the picture to be declared by naive by its naysayers. But as someone who once silently observed the young and the hubristic (while also very young, which made the whole thing very odd) while working three months at Morgan Stanley, I can tell you that Margin Call is right on the money.

The graying Spacey – who is looking closer to his mentor Jack Lemmon as he gets older – forms something of a bridge between this film, Swimming with Sharks, and Glengarry Glen Ross. But his role is somewhat more understated. He’s been around the block so many times that he knows how to marshal his energy. And Spacey likewise cedes many of the scenes to Jeremy Irons, the firm’s head who shows up in a helicopter, asking the bright young analysts to explain the intricate data “as you would to a small child.” Margin Call‘s stress comes from the Nicorette chomping and rooftop smoking instead of the anxious indoor smoking, and overhead shots of New York replace Glengarry‘s cutaway shots of rattling Chicago subways.

The dialogue here isn’t just witty and wry. Care has also been taken to give Sam Rogers some grammatical gaffes. He describes “a very unique [sic] situation” when he’s asked to persuade his floor to perform the impossible and he often elides verbs such as “has” from his dialogue when speaking among the top executives. It’s almost as if Spacey came into the firm straight from high school. Or maybe he wants to appear stupid.

If the film has a liability, it may very well be Demi Moore playing the cold Sarah Robertson. Writer/director J.C. Chandor does make enlightened efforts to show that an anthracite heart isn’t limited to either of the two genders. (For example, the HR people at the beginning are all women and are all colder than the men they let go.) But the Moore character, aside from some predictable scheming, doesn’t really contribute much to the story.

Still, Margin Call is a very impressive debut from Chandor, who, if Hollywood gives him several films to flesh out his talents, may just be another Sidney Lumet in the making.

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: 127 Hours (2010)

I’m relieved to report that 127 Hours, a very pleasant movie about mountain climber Aron Ralston quite literally giving up his right arm, cuts straight to the point. The early moments see director Danny Boyle slashing the screen, De Palma-style, into three partitions. Our introduction to Ralston (played by James Franco) involves a spastic man fumbling about for his Swiss Army knife (with the camera staying inside Ralston’s cabinets, much as it will later inhabit the inside of Ralston’s water bottle, where we will see the inside of James Franco’s throat, which is quite possibly an image that is more disturbing than the bloody hackwork to come), surreal shots of cyclists shooting past Ralston’s car in the dead of night, and James Franco leaping across canyons like some video game character unaware of real world physics.

At the risk of shortening my flourishes, Danny Boyle’s latest movie is a cut above Sean Penn’s Into the Wild – in part because, unlike Penn, Boyle has a rapier wit. He stabs at the regrettable inconvenience of getting one’s arm caught by a boulder from several points, approaching it as a laughably common Gordian knot, a psychotropic experience, and a wounding nightmare. But these methodical slashes into the predicament also inspire astonishing momentum. Like David O. Russell’s Three Kings, Boyle’s camera enter the very body itself. Like the final moments of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Boyle blurs out the soundtrack with distorted tones as Ralston has the nerve to feel his nerves as he saws away to the bitter end. I can also report that Boyle even has the balls to quietly broach the subject of how Ralston will jerk off without his dependable right palm. But I don’t want to give Boyle’s hand away here.

It helps that James Franco has the chops for the part, imbuing his Ralston with a crazy edge. This lacerating insanity comes in handy when Ralston slices through the last of his rational equanimity, concocting a radio show (with a laugh track added to the film) to pass the time when he’s not guzzling down his own piss. But it also slays at the truth: Ralston is a solitary man. (“You’re going to be so lonely,” says a prophetic ex-girlfriend as Ralston relives a lost relationship from the comfort of a shitty situation.) Our hero has driven himself to his sticky predicament because he didn’t bother to tell anyone where he was going. That has to hurt. And even though we know that Ralston will be saved in the nick of time, Franco arms his performance with enough ambiguity so that we wonder what torments are stabbing away inside, when we aren’t subjected to intriguing hallucinations of family and friends watching the proceedings unfold from a comfortable couch (much like the audience!).

One never feels strongarmed by this approach, although some audiences have reportedly fainted because they expected a shot of morphine or something. They are wrong. For Boyle has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. A raven always flies over the cliff at the early morning hour. For a brief period, even Scooby-Doo serves as an way to greet the possibilities of living with open arms.

I was almost determined to cut my losses just before the blood spurted, but, thankfully, the moment is almost anticlimactic when it arrives. I appreciated the way in which Boyle had caught me redhanded in my anticipation.

The upshot is that this is a bloody good movie – a handy reminder of the creature comforts we take for granted. Should I ever lose my hand, like Ralston, I’ll stay a betting man in the great game of life.

Review: Due Date (2010)

A comedy featuring a masturbating dog certainly hits the right stroke. Thankfully, there are capable hands behind Due Date, a gutsy and often side-splitting movie that further cements Todd Phillips’s rep as a comedy auteur far more interesting than Adam McKay and Nicholas Stoller. Like those two directors, Phillips often relies on stock situations – predominantly featuring men – to propel his unapologetically adolescent anarchy. Men in early middle age start a fraternity in Old School. Four men celebrating a bachelor party in Vegas can’t remember what happened the night before in The Hangover. And in Road Trip, The Hangover, and Due Date, it often takes a long drive to work out these lingering issues of rootlesness.

Despite all this late stage wandering, one detects a grown-up somewhere within Phillips. With his two most recent films, Phillips seems to be working the territory somewhere between Terry Zwigoff’s hilariously bleak assaults on the American climate and Seth MacFarlane’s free association. In The Hangover, Mike Tyson (playing Mike Tyson) factors into the plot. We see Carrot Top and Wayne Newton in the closing credits slideshow. In Due Date, the sitcom Two and a Half Men becomes a part of the story.* RZA turns up as a TSA man. .

Given such attention to the real and the imaginary, Slavoj Zizek could very well host a Lacanian kegger after taking in the Phillips oeuvre. (It’s worth pointing out that Phillips cut his teeth with the controversial documentary, Frat House, in which Phillips and co-director Andrew Gurland faced allegations that they paid fraternity members and staged several scenes.) But if Phillips’s films were only about this (and, more importantly, if his films weren’t flat out funny), they probably wouldn’t be worth considering. Any Family Guy viewer knows damn well that a promising installment often flounders when MacFalane’s writers rely too much on reference.

But Phillips has Zach Galifianakis’s Belushi-like presence to counterbalance all this. I enjoyed Galifianakis’s raucous mania in The Hangover, but felt that he had exhausted his possibilities in the HBO series, Bored to Death. It turns out that I was mistaken. Jonathan Ames’s lazy and ungenerous writing, which fails to view Galifianakis as anything more than a fat guy foil for Jason Schwartzman, was largely to blame. In Due Date, Galifianakis bustles as brightly as he did in The Hangover. The man has the talent to turn a physical gag on a plane with his belly into something that somehow makes us less aware of his physicality and more intrigued by his character. (Chris Farley was one of the few portly comic actors to do this as well: most notably in his famous Chippendale’s sketch with Patrick Swayze on Saturday Night Live.) As aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay, Galifianakis knows how to deliver his lines so that the audience is constantly recalibrating its estimation of Tremblay’s intelligence. (And in light of the film’s observations about underestimating people, and a nation that relies too much on swift judgment, this performance helps steer the film in the right direction.)

There’s a scene in which Galifianakis’s character is asked to perform material within a public restroom, so that he can prove to the disbelieving Downey that he’s a bona-fide actor. Tremblay delivers an unexpectedly poignant performance, using the edge of a bathroom stall as a wall. And this moment works on several interesting levels: (1) Todd Phillips is communicating to his audience that Galifianakis is more than just a funny fat man, (2) Ethan Tremblay is communicating to his snobbish white-collar traveling companion that he has some serious chops, (3) Ethan Tremblay is being asked to give it his all in a public restroom, quite possibly the most ignoble venue to prove himself (and the one you are least likely to see chronicled in the newspapers), and (4) the savvy symmetry between (1) and (2) gives Phillips some leverage to continue his exploration of the real and the fictional.

That all this is going on, while Phillips is presenting his populist audience with a genuine emotional moment, suggests very highly that the director who once gave us Starsky & Hutch has more moves than any half-literate moviegoer could have anticipated six years ago. How’s that for underestimation?

John Hughes’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles serves as Due Date‘s obvious template. Yes, Phillips and his writers have taken the blue collar/white collar framework of Planes, updating the film to reflect a post-9/11 America. Yes, they have taken an actor known in part for his wackiness (here, Robert Downey, Jr., previously, Steve Martin) and made him grumpy and straitlaced. Yes, they’ve even taken whole lines from Hughes (“I have a winning personality”) and converted them over.

But Phillips has also paid close attention to what Hughes did so well visually in the motel room scenes: the blue colors for John Candy, the white colors for Steve Martin. In one notable moment from Planes, we see Martin grabbing a blue blanket covering Candy and putting it over his frame, a nice visual suggestion of class integration in a motel room bed (like the restroom moment in Due Date, also evocative of the dignity discovered within “low” environments).

Twenty-three years after Planes Trains, and Automobiles, the income disparity between the rich and the poor has worsened. So in Due Date, our white-collar protagonist now wears a purple shirt, as if his white collar had become somehow stained by blue-collar contact. (It is also interesting that, when Downey’s character breaks his arm, his cast is blue.) Meanwhile, the Tremblay character wears blue jeans (2010’s answer to Candy’s blue collar pajamas?) and a red shirt (post-Dubya assumption about red staters). Additionally, the pregnant white-collar wife stuck at home wears a pristine white sweater, bearing faint blue stripes. Is she imprisoned by class? Or is she besmirched by it? And what does it say that Downey’s character suspects a black man of having an affair with her? Might he be just as capable as Tremblay of rallying with an OBAMA = SOCIALIST sign? What does it say that Tremblay lets a “zebra baby” epithet slip from his lips that is entirely accidental? If our language and our actions remain under constant scrutiny, how then can we learn from our mistakes?

It’s a lesson that both sides can profit from. Because class lines are more ruthless than they were in 1987. In Due Date, the the yuppie is much meaner. At one point, Robert Downey’s architect character, Peter Highman, clips a kid in the stomach to get him to stop harassing him. Is this brutal solution a harbinger of fatherhood to come? (Or violent liberals to come?) Meanwhile, Ethan Tremblay commits far more destruction than John Candy’s Del Griffith. Forget Michael McKean’s cop. Phillips ups the stakes and brings in the border patrol. Minutes into the movie, Tremblay manages to get Highman on a no fly list. These skirmishes against authority make Due Date a more political film (think gleeful anarchism) than Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. But like Zwigoff’s movies, Due Date skillfully uses politically incorrect humor to defuse any hypothetical political agenda and thus make these considerations more palatable to the common man, which is very much where Due Date‘s heart is. And rightfully so. The reason why this movie works so well is because our fragmentation is more common than most of us are willing to accept.

* The use of Two and a Half Men is suspiciously well-timed, leading one to imagine an iniquitous PR flack, happily trading in misfortune for money, encouraging Charlie Sheen to engage in more headline-grabbing behavior right before the film’s release.

Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009)

In my review of The Girl Who Played With Fire, I expressed my disappointment that writer Jonas Frykberg and director Daniel Alfredson had failed to include one moment relating to Billy’s Pan Pizza — that mysterious Swedish brand that could rev you up for a day of stealing motorcycles while your name was being smeared in the newspapers. While an unidentified pizza brand does factor into two moments of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third film in the Millennium trilogy, I regret to report that these pizza moments fail to revive a cinematic snoozefest. One curious facet of the Millennium film trilogy is its inverse ratio to the books. As the books get better, the movies get worse. It’s a great disappointment to see our beloved Blomkvist played by Michael Nyqvist as if he is a narcoleptic. There were several times in which I felt compelled to brew a pot of coffee and send it through the screen. It’s also incredibly sad to see the page-turning trial scene transformed into commonplace courtroom drama, which isn’t helped by the film introducing a cost-cutting scene in which the judge orders all non-essential people to leave the courtroom due to the private nature of the matter. (Nice way to cut down on extras. But, man, does that grand courtroom look so lonely!)

The film appears to have suffered a severe shortfall in financial resources. It looks and feels cheap. Aside from the trial scene, it is so cheap that an early moment in the book, offering a reason for Blomkvist and Berger to spend the night at a hotel after some unknown nutjob has messed with Berger’s car, has been excised — presumably because the filmmakers couldn’t afford the car. The spontaneous decision for casual sex has no motivation (and furthermore, if it’s all for crass tits and ass, it’s seen off-screen!). During the press conference and paparazzi moments, there are laughably scant reporters covering this major news story. Larsson’s lurid book worked so well precisely because it demanded to be read as a pulpish opera. But little ambition can be found in this film adaptation.

Unlike the previous two films, the photography here is pedestrian, often containing little contrast or pizazz (this being a production originally made for television) save for a scene within the Constitutional Protection Unit in which cinematographer Peter Mokrosinski lights a cross on the wall behind Blomkvist and a window light hitting against the wall behind his interlocutors. These moody touches would have worked well, had there been more placed throughout the movie. Alas, it is not to be. For goodness sake, the novel constantly makes reference to “a glass cage” that Salander works in. Larsson, for all of his silliness, gripped us because of his hyper-specific detail, which often extended into the visual.

But it isn’t just the lackluster visual execution that sinks this movie. The film’s main problems are with Frykberg’s script. The compelling stalker subplot in the book, in which a creep is sending Berger emails reading WHORE, has been severely downplayed. Not only has the Svenske Morgon-Posten newspaper been eliminated (thus neutering the book’s competitive attitude about journalism, which nicely balances Salander’s redemption), but by merging the SMP subplot into Millennium, the total staff has been reduced to about four people. Thus, there’s hardly a threat or even a red herring (the lovely character Holm) for us to care about. And the stalker’s emails contain relatively silly messages compared to the book. Instead of the novel’s threatening messages (YOU’RE GOING TO GET FUCKED IN THE CUNT WITH A SCREWDRIVER. WHORE!), we get YOU SLEEP WITH THE LIGHT ON? ARE YOU SCARED? I get emails like that all the time. Not from enemies, but from friends. So when Millennium responds to these emails with hysterics, you have to wonder if some harmless YouTube cat video will be enough for them to file a restraining order.

The movie is better with Niedermann (that unfeeling giant who likes to sneak up behind family members and cheerfully announce, “Hello, little sister”) than the book is, balancing the blond titan better against the many subplots. But the women in this film aren’t nearly as badass as they are in the novel. (And on this point, screenwriter Frykberg doesn’t offer much of an alternative. Because he has watered down the subplots where women fight back, he has diminished the women — a strange choice in light of the novel’s curious gender politics. Oh well, let’s hope that Fincher and Zallian make this work, should they adapt the last two books into Hollywood movies.) Because the Berger stalker subplot has been toned down, we never get a chance to see her confront the man who’s harassing her. And because this is a cinematic medium, we don’t get anything close to Salander’s internal thoughts within the novel. She’s more of a laconic type who takes in what occurs around her when she isn’t using slings to stretch her legs against the bed (another cost-cutting tactic that cheapens Salander). This gives the perfectly capable Noomi Rapace very little to do. Sure, I liked her Goth appearance in the courtroom. But anyone who has read the book know that, with Salander, looks aren’t everything.

I enjoyed the first two films. But The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest lacks the vitality that was there in the novel. It seems more of a contractual obligation rather than a fun pulp ride.

NYFF: Hereafter

[This is the ninth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

It seems inconceivable that Clint Eastwood would direct a film that uses the facile falsehood of psychic ability to drive its story, and that Peter Morgan (Peter Morgan! The man behind Frost/Nixon!) would write the screenplay. Eastwood, who told the tale of a bigoted Korean War vet adjusting to multicultural reality in Gran Torino, explored moral complexities with The Unforgiven, and expressed a willingness to invert 20th century historical expectations with his 2006 pair of World War II pictures, is hardly a fool. And he’s certainly not the type who would suddenly show up on late night TV with a psychic hotline – even when one accounts for such late-career misfires as Space Cowboys and Blood Work. But I’m pained to report that Eastwood’s latest film, Hereafter, is so utterly preposterous and condescending that I actually longed to revisit The Eiger Sanction. At least that disastrous film had some soul in the unlikely George Kennedy.

Psychic ability is not only unscientific. It is one of the most egregious and overused plot devices used to advance a story, particularly those which are outside genre. Indeed, even the Star Trek: The Next Generation series bible – a document for a franchise that proved too complacent to steer out of its utopian comfort zone – was careful to forbid its writers from including such omnipotent character types. Psychic ability is the reason why the fourth Indiana Jones movie was such a dud. It is often the reason why some cheesy movies are best enjoyed with friends over beer. And when Spielberg’s regrettable name emerged as executive producer during Hereafter‘s end credits, I immediately wondered if Morgan and Eastwood had been pressured, much as George Lucas and Spielberg had muscled out Frank Darabont during Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, to insert such nonsense into a later draft. After all, consider one side character at a resort who offers the line, “As a scientist and atheist, my mind was closed to this,” and who then states that the evidence is “irrefutable.” It’s almost as if this script was designed to recruit wild-eyed naifs.

What the fuck, Clint?

Whatever the film’s production history, I doubt that any of us will be privy to it anytime soon. There’s just too much money and too much power at stake to get an accurate glimpse through the dust motes. Maybe it’s possible that age has finally caught up with the old gunslinger and he’s now firing blanks. But what we have in the meantime is a colossal dud that is easily the worst film of Eastwood’s career. It’s as if Eastwood has traded in his class for the cash. Sure, Eastwood directs a pleasant scene with Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard (who appears as a fresh San Francisco transplant escaping a bad breakup in Pittsburgh – or possibly Pittsburg, over by Antioch; whatever the case, she’s just about the only character in this movie with personality) flirting with each other in a cooking class. One wears a blindfold. The other spoons in mouthfuls of sauce. It’s hardly 9 ½ Weeks (or even Hot Shots), but the two confess their real reasons for attending night school. Alas, just as this promising relationship develops, Matt Damon’s George confesses his secret talent – which is the ability to find psychic connections within people, a “talent” that filled up the coffers in halcyon days. (That George asks each recipient to only reply to these sessions with yes and no answers, and that he wins them over with such painfully leading inquiries – “You’ve lost someone recently” and so forth – leads one to believe that he’s a con. Unfortunately, the film lacks the courage to view George’s ability as even vaguely illegit, and his internal conflict is narrowed as a result. This is too bad for Damon, who offers a quietly commendable performance here. Indeed, his graying hair and sad mug reminded me of a young Gary Cooper.)

In Hereafter, Eastwood is sometimes competent at conveying the visual isolation of his characters by having them depart into dark corners of a room, where their faces blend into the dark murk. Such old school panache would be welcome if Eastwood wasn’t operating off of a script that’s stacked with unacceptable and unpersuasive anti-human twaddle.

Hereafter is a three-plot story that takes place in three countries, and that ties up through several highly contrived circumstances at the London Book Fair. It is a movie so fundamentally stupid that it believes that some kid can call up a publisher and find out which hotel a famous Frenchwoman is staying. It is naïve enough to presume that someone who toils at a sugar factory can pay rent and live alone in what appears to be a spacious North Beach apartment. (The press information sheet I have laughably refers to this character as “a blue-collar American.”) It believes that book publishers will actually have the time and the decency to set up a failed manuscript (written by a troublesome author who can’t even turn in the Mitterrand book she promised) with another house.

What else can one expect of a flick that offers psychic ability as its great instigator? But nobody goes to a Clint Eastwood film to get frequent flashes into a shadowy white realm occupied by dead souls. That’s M. Night Shyamalan territory. And it’s extremely disheartening to see a living legend adept with human nuance debase himself like this.

I didn’t so much mind the surprise tsunami at the film’s opening or the unanticipated explosion close to the film’s end. Such melodramatic interventions are not only the stuff of crass Hollywood, but recent headlines. But I couldn’t abide Morgan’s veneer-thin stereotypes. Aside from the one-dimensional George, you have Marie, the celebrity journalist (so famous that she’s appearing in BlackBerry ads; how’s that for journalistic integrity?) suddenly incapable of asking the tough questions after surviving death and who doesn’t understand why her tale of phony psychic victimhood won’t sell. You have Marcus, the angry kid who pickpockets 200 pounds and won’t talk to an adult about his grief. (Hey, Peter Morgan, ever heard of a little thing called counseling? Social workers don’t just knock on doors.) Morgan doesn’t even nudge us towards how these three vapid and disparate stories will merge together. I mean, even Paul Haggis had the decency to do that. And he doesn’t give us much reason to care.

Amidst such anemic archetypes, Morgan makes a foolish move and references Charles Dickens, informing his audience of a novelist who created quirky and unforgettable characters and telegraphing that, with this script, he’s nowhere near the same league. And if that isn’t enough self-sabotage for you, believe it or not, Morgan actually has George visit Dickens’s house!

And consider these lines:

“I don’t want to be here without you!” (during a moment of angst-ridden confession)

“I promise you I’m not going to let you down.” (during a moment of overwrought crisis)

“It’s what you are! You can’t run from that forever!” (during a moment of confidence building)

“I didn’t know you were going to be here.” (during a “surprise” run-in)

If Peter Morgan is not nominated for a Razzie for these unpardonable cliches, and for such an unfathomable surrender of his faculties, I will be stunned.

But Morgan isn’t the only one here who should be thrown to the wolves. It was Clint Eastwood, a man of advancing years, who signed on for this nonsense. It was Eastwood who knew damn well that he has perhaps a handful of films left in him and who believed that this shoddy material was the place to deposit his talents. This film is beyond embarrassing. It’s indefensible.

Review: Enter the Void (2009)

The Void, in Gaspar Noe’s third feature film, is a Tokyo nightclub. This being a Gapar Noe film, the Void is somewhat dicey. It isn’t nearly as bad as the Rectum, that sleazy nightclub with the annoying audio pulse and the vengeful men running in with the fire extinguisher, which appeared at the beginning (the end!) of Irreversible, or even another strip club down the street from the Void. But this does leave one to naturally wonder if Noe’s second film was originally titled Enter the Rectum.

Does Noe considers his audience to be on the receiving end of a two hour sodomizing session? I’m happy to report that I didn’t feel sodomized by Enter the Void – in large part because I think I’ve caught onto what Noe’s trying to do. He presents himself as a provocateur, but he’s really more interested in chronicling an entirely ridiculous human experience on film – masked by the “intensity” of ten minute rape scenes, creepy incest, crude drug addiction, and the like – and seeing if the audience will accept it. This makes Gaspar Noe more of a carnival barker (and personally I have no problem with this) than a bona-fide behavioral chronicler, although I suspect Noe, like any desperate man who thinks he is a revolutionary, would argue that he is serious. (This may also explain why his three feature films have become progressively less “real” and more centered around some outre cinematographic approach. In the case of Enter the Void, the film starts from the perspective of Oscar, a drug dealer tripping the not so fantastic in his Tokyo apartment. And when I say it is from his perspective, the film is literally what he sees through his eyes – a technique that hasn’t been attempted at length since Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake.)

Because most audience members are likely to be shocked (four critics walked out of the press screening I attended: they clearly didn’t know what they were missing!), Noe wins the “game” by default. And for those who hate his movies, the ones who stick around out of obligation or because they don’t want Noe to win, Noe still wins because this audience doesn’t get it.

And then there’s the rest of us: the ones who accept Noe’s films, finding varying degrees of admiration (this funny Frenchman certainly isn’t devoid of talent), but who eventually grow out of them. The last time Noe tried to tie me up in one of his artistic dungeons, I was in my twenties and thus more impressionable. It was a badge of honor to sit through a Gaspar Noe film to the bitter end and find a way to appreciate it. And even though I still admire Irreversible (and, for that matter, I Stand Alone), I don’t think that Noe’s films are going to hold up very well. Before Enter the Void (and in tandem with my recent interview with Vincent Cassel), I decided to watch Irreversible for the first time in eight years. While I still appreciated Noe’s narrative technique (a scene unfolds, and is subsequently followed up with another scene before it), the handheld camera and the long takes (to say nothing of the homophobia) made the movie feel very much like a bad trip-hop band or an angry zine editor from the 1990s who didn’t realize he was repeating an endless cycle: it was something forgotten for a very good reason.

Noe’s approach is very similar to the behavior of an online troll. And it’s too bad that Noe feels the need to cloak his films like this. Because it will cause otherwise astute yet easily offended filmgoers from appreciating his visual innovations and his creative audacity. Here is a man who is willing to include a shot of a vagina, taken from the inside, with the cock sliding in and out. It’s a silly and brazen image, one that recalls the many giant penises throbbing within Ken Russell’s greatly underrated Lisztomania. But no real cultural appreciator can discount a filmmaker who has the balls (so to speak) to risk ridicule like this. (Childish, you say? Lowbrow? Obscene? Well, what makes Noe’s cock any worse than the asshole kissing in “The Miller’s Tale?” Which is not to suggest that Noe should be compared with Chaucer. I don’t want to feed the man’s ego if he’s reading this. But propriety is too delimiting a value with which to assess or experience art.)

So it’s frustrating that Gaspar Noe has given us his best film with Enter the Void, styling it with so many reckless yet incredible ideas (a drug experience captured from first-person; an effort to depict the experience of dying from several camera angles; the camera transcending voyeurism and actually entering a character’s head while fucking; a stripper dancing around a pole from a top angle, with the camera capturing the crude leers of the audience; an overview of Tokyo with cardboard cars and buildings rendered flat; the hilariously inappropriate end credits not appearing at the end, causing uncomfortable audience members to flee the theater before their thoughts are read by others – to name but a few), while lacking the courage to be an adult. Certainly the best way to appreciate a Gaspar Noe film is to accept Gaspar Noe as Gaspar Noe. And the film’s first hour is the most focused work that Noe has done as a filmmaker. It is steeped in isolation and loss, with an older figure, just as dissolute, approaching the young DMT-craving Oscar with new ideas on how to live (and giving him The Book of the Dead). This is all primitive philosophy, to be sure (as is the cosmic camera featured throughout the film, shuttling between live and dead characters; one is viscerally struck by the idea of stray souls conveyed as radio signals, yet when one stops to think about the idea…). As a filmmaker, Noe has never been what one might call a deep thinker. But I appreciated the way that Noe made an attempt to offer a crude framework for his shopworn street material. (And I would argue that Noe’s reliance upon silly character developments and his view of his own characters as mere playthings is his primary weakness, the very quality that prevents him from being one of our greatest filmmakers.) The film sustains this tone for quite a while before Noe the Adolescent returns yet again, playing the incest card in an utterly camp way. (“Do you remember that promise we made?” might almost be viewed as a postmodern line conveying the covenant between audience and filmmaker. There’s one moment midway through the film where “Gaspar” is named as the guy entering a character into a seedy locale. At least this time around, Noe is more transparent about the “game” at work here, which is also mirrored by a prominent portion of the film photographed solely from the back of a character’s head.)

No doubt Noe would accuse me of succumbing to petite-bourgoisie values in my older age for expecting more out of him or for hoping for artistic evolution beyond the visual. (I would reply by showing him by extremely shaky bank statement and my punkass book collection.) But while Enter the Void is very much a movie that I can recommend to a cineaste who doesn’t have a stick up his ass (and one that I will probably see again), I’m wondering if Gaspar Noe even has a persuasive fourth feature film in him, or even a movie that can stand toe-to-toe with someone like Bunuel or Pasolini, both of whom were more genuinely interested in perverse human behavior. You’d think that a man in his mid-forties would have worked out most of his adolescent expressive fixations by now. While the film world certainly needs a guy like Noe, maybe this is all Gaspar Noe has to give the film world.

NYFF: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“The film we just saw,” muttered a nameless tastemaker just after the screening. “Who is it for? Romanians? Political junkies?”

“Humorless film geeks? Cultural masochists? Those who view watching paint dry as too adventurous?” I was tempted to rejoin. Some random canvassing revealed I wasn’t alone in my assessment. Even so, who was I to judge this film when my own grasp of Eastern European history was so tenuous? My knowledge of Ceauşescu was as dependable as a quadriplegic being asked to prepare a Caesar salad. (Indeed, one could stab both shaky offerings with a plastic fork. I apolgize to Romania.) But it seems to me that a movie collecting the life of a possibly clueless, possibly calculating leader prone to genocide, basking in his private personality cult, and a view of his subjects out of step from the reality of their privations (I believe Ceauşescu’s eventual assassination by Romanian revolutionaries should have been the telltale sign that something was awry on this last point) shouldn’t be so lackluster. I certainly hadn’t felt blasé about Shoah or any of the countless political documentaries with protracted running times that I had wolfed down in my twenties.

I suppose that the dry intellectuals — the so-called film dweeb crowd that certain online lunatics complain about, but who aren’t nearly as bad as paranoia elsewhere would suggest — are likely to appreciate this formalistic exercise. At three hours, this film is so oppressively long, with few pleasures laced within its Bucharest Death March, that the viewer feels very much without options, much like a citizen of Communist Romania. If this is the emotion that director Andre Ujica intended to convey, I can safely report that he has succeeded. It was only my commitment to judging the entire film that prevented me from stomping out of this snoozefest and carrying out my own private revolution with a bottle of scotch.

Let me dwell first on a few aspects I enjoyed: (1) a volleyball game, taken from what appears to be home movies, in which Ceauşescu is physically awkward and hilariously girly, recalling George Herbert Walker Bush’s wimpy image (Remember that pathetic baseball throw? Infinitely worse than Obama and the man was captain of his Yale baseball team!), (2) a ridiculous parade for some Communist triumph featuring surreal floats depicting sporting matches pushing slowly down the streets (two boxers going at it as the individuals holding the ring move forward, a volleyball game in which one team constantly paces backwards, et al.), (3) up to a certain tedious point, the repeat imagery of world leaders jetting away from airport runways, thus demonstrating how ephemeral their alliances with Ceauşescu are, (4) the occasional jarring cuts to Romanians dancing to pop music (I wish there had been more of this, but this film prefers to drag), and (5) Ceauşescu’s failed attempts at aristocratic flourishes (his awkward efforts with a sled, his unpersuasive claim that he is an intellectual, et al.).

In other words, the film is, at times, an amusing counterfactual. Apparently, it truly takes Communist oppression to get filmmakers to take the piss out of their leaders, particularly when Ceauşescu – with his unbrushable childish curls protruding atop his head, his puffed up cheeks, the suit that doesn’t quite fit his chubby form, and that lower lip resembling, at times, a half-inflated condom accident – strongly resembles an assclown. (I wish some enterprising underground filmmaker would make a similar film about Bush the 43rd or Tony Blair. If the Autobiography succeeds at one thing, it demonstrates the elastic nature of contextualized found footage.) Even so, three hours of world leaders shaking hands, Ceauşescu engaging in photo ops, and Ceauşescu supervising projects that we know will fail (inter alia) does get more than a bit tedious. And the moments I’ve mentioned can only be mined after some tedious ten minute setpiece. Andre Ujica does demonstrate a certain flair for visual association (the clean and orderly buildings of Communist China compared against Communist Romania’s industrial chaos, leading one to ponder whether it’s the man, the system, or the people which causes this kind of disparity), but his film is centered more around Ceauşescu as Buffoon. Does a buffoon kill 70,000 people? I suppose that moral question depends upon how swift you are with reductionist assertions and your worldview. But this Autobiography, while not explicitly referencing Ceauşescu’s early days as a peasant, chooses to gloss over the suffering and the death. Yes, I get that Ceauşescu very much did the same thing and that the film is meant to be a vicarious expression of this. But this seems an incomplete and needlessly limiting portrait of a man who, despite his frippery, was as calculating as he was flip.

Review: Neshoba: The Price of Freedom (2008)

When it comes to examining vicious crime, it remains a common practice among American journalists and the general public to ignore the story once the suspect has been apprehended or the verdict has been delivered. We want our deadliest realities to confined away from us, sight unseen. But an astute human observer understands that resolution is never quite this tidy and criminals are not always reformed. Human lives continue. One monster’s acts will have consequences upon another life, often creating sharp yet silent obstacles that are too piercing to discuss.

Thankfully a new documentary, Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, offers a rare angle that defies these conventional narrative trappings and attempts to tackle this wider canvas. The film focuses upon recent efforts to bring Edgar Ray Killen — an ex-Ku Klux Klan organizer who helped organize the vicious 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi — to justice. As the film is swift to observe (indeed, sometimes too swift), the ugly scab from this aftermath remains a painful eyesore that the Neshoba County residents haven’t entirely come to terms with. When, in 2004, a group of outraged citizens demands reopening the case upon the 40th anniversary of the killings, the documentary suggests a dichotomy between this multiracial coalition and predominantly white citizens who wish to bury this ignoble history. “What’s happened has happened,” says one man. “It’s been too many years,” says another. “I think he’s suffered enough.” (This latter statement, suggesting the idea that Killen’s ongoing “suffering” is worth more than the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer, mirrors another of the movie’s hypotheses — that, had not two white Jewish kids been killed among the three, the murders would not have received national attention.) Certainly after Killen’s conviction, the then 80-year-old had enough support within the community to raise $600,000 for an appeal bond — a development that the filmmakers skim over. Indeed, one of this documentary’s curious qualities is that it never quite captures the violent sting of the 1964 murders. But if the movie is making a good faith effort to chronicle the present atmospheric aftermath, perhaps this is just as it should be.

Killen himself features quite prominently in this documentary, which centers itself mostly around the reopened trial. And Killen’s stature as an entitled monster, along with his crazed rants about the illusory Jewish Communist conspiracy, make for fascinating viewing. Killen is so ostensibly religious that he has placards of the Ten Commandments spoked into his lawn. And despite his clearly racist fulminations, he insists that he’s not a Jew hater. But the film is ballsy enough to suggest that this vicious cycles often continue in unanticipated ways. Among its prodigious roster of talking heads include several family members and relations to the victims — one of whom calls out for Killen’s blood in a manner not dissimilar from the hate speech that Killen and his collaborators are so fond of. While Killen must be punished for his crimes, there’s an important question here of whether one becomes just as savage as a homicidal white supremacist when howling for blood. Western civilization, as Gandhi once quipped, would be a pretty good idea.

So while this documentary is sometimes quite pedestrian in its assembly (collected interviews, dusty archival footage, perfunctory vox populi interviews), it has the great advantage of being caught within the shoals of an important story.

Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

The Australian import, Animal Kingdom, has been identified as something close to a masterpiece by several critics — perhaps because writer-director David Michod has been shrewd enough to populate his mobster epic with enough characters to rival a Tolstoy novel’s head count. But much like a Christopher Nolan movie, Animal Kingdom carries the stench of a film that thinks it’s more clever than it really is. Here is a film that knows how to balance its characters, but it doesn’t always give its fictive population time to breathe or inhabit a tableau. And very often the illusion is lost. Yes, the film does probe into a mob’s family dynamics, both biological connections and those tenuous ties forged out of sweaty necessity. Animal Kingdom is often interesting when pursuing fluid rites of passage — such as a surrogate father ordering his surrogate son about the importance of washing his hands. It maintains a static aesthetic, somewhat voyeuristic with its camera, where grocery stores transform into impromptu offices and bland subdivisions become killing fields for thugs to mete out vengeance. This ability to suggest a topography functioning on multiple levels, often unseen by the very people who reside there, did hold my interest. I also appreciated the moral sketchiness of the police, who prove more fungible in their allegiances than a politician offering his avaricious palm to the highest bidder, along with the cavalier way in which one man invades a kid’s privacy, walking into a bathroom while the kid is showering to deliver an order. Such grittiness invites modest comparison to John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Michod must be applauded for attempting to break free from the conventional yoke.

The problem here isn’t the execution, but the material. While Guy Pearce (as a detective investigating the operation) and James Frecheville (as an orphaned teenager inducted into the savage criminal life) both deliver strong performances, the movie is so bogged down in plot that it doesn’t quite have enough room in its suitcase for that pivotal mob movie atmosphere. Howard Hawks was courteous enough to give us those enticing Xes scattered quite delightfully across Scarface‘s mise-en-scene. Gordon Willis’s sepia pools of light in The Godfather and Michael Ballhaus’s famous Steadicam club scene in Goodfellas likewise cemented the visual feel of those two masterpieces. And even that dependable Method man Cassavetes, in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, demanded that his nightclub scenes be shot through gels. Abel Ferrara’s films likewise understand this pivotal balance between the unctuous wheels of organized crime and a theatrical visual palette.

So if these are the standards with which to judge Animal Kingdom, then this particular mob movie doesn’t quite hit the mark. None of the characters here have the personality of Vincent Cassel playing the titular serial killer in Mesrine: Killer Instinct. This is a universe in which most human beings have thrown in their respective towels, no matter where they may be situated on the food chain, and it’s only a matter of time before animal nature kicks in. Yet this movie lacks the curiosity to investigate precisely how these figures got there. Yes, some move into the criminal world by accident or circumstance. But at the risk of dredging up a Heisenbergian aside, a movie so content to wallow in resigned sad sacks doesn’t entirely capture the human condition. Michod is happy to turn vaguely stable souls into animals, but he doesn’t have the courage to suggest indeterminacy. And this inability to fully embrace anarchism is more than a tad incongruous within a mob movie.

Animal Kingdom is certainly stylized in this prefigured inertia. The camera is often static. It is sometimes singular in hue, such as the dark reds captured within a hotel room, whereby figures begin to spin about as if caught in circular existential traps. There’s often the dim drone of a television set playing somewhere in the background or a menacing car in the distance. Michod certainly loves his corridors and often enlists his cinematographer Luke Doolan to shoot them deep. The film is also very solid in its framing. There are some conversations in which shoulders never depart from the shot. But when you have characters say “What’d you let me fall asleep for?” or offer such homilies as “You survive because you’ve been protected by the strong,” it becomes self-evident that Animal Kingdom‘s rigid philosophy is, like Nolan’s films, rooted in a libertarian-minded philosophy that doesn’t account for the full human spectrum. In a world that presents us with such delightful souls as Steven Slater cracking open a beer and shooting down a JetBlue slide, Animal Kingdom, to my minority mind, tackles a needlessly narrow focus.