Review: Green Lantern (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Puzzle (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: 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:


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: IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D (2011)

Perhaps it’s somewhat wrong to be suspicious about a movie featuring elephants and orangutans, but then IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D is 40 minutes in length, narrated by Morgan Freeman, and feels the need to announce its film format in the title. Now I like Morgan Freeman and I like animals. But nothing says We Take No Chances more than this cinematic configuration. The formula is perfectly calculated to persuade families to part with their hard-earned dollars. And perhaps the responsible thing to do is condemn the film from some strenuous anti-consumerist stance. On the other hand, I cannot deny the inherent soft spot within my otherwise no-bullshit psyche. Let’s face the facts. Outside of the regrettable fact that Hitler liked dogs, you’d have to be a complete sociopath or a total asshole not to love animals in some way. So the real question we must ask is whether IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D captures the mammals released from captivity into the Kenyan Savannah and the Borneo rainforests in an informative and helpful way.

Because this is 3D, we see elephant trunks curling in our direction, but not close enough to cause alarm. An orangutan’s hindlegs wrap around the bottom end of a bottle. Cute! But while the orangutan is mostly a fruit eater (a fact one doesn’t learn from watching this movie), one is left to ponder the possible physical harm to others, should the orangutan have an empty stomach. When the animals lope across logs or frolic in rufous terrain, the 3D captures the details quite well. Unfortunately, since 3D requires considerable visual definition, the efforts to capture Discovery Channel-style imagery don’t always work. There is one moment when an orangutan swings in slow motion. It should be breathtaking. But because there is so much movement, the orangutan dissolves into a blotchy amalgam of squares – reminiscent to a DVD skipping – once it has reached camera left. I am pretty certain that this phenomenon would not occur in the real world. Later in the film, a troublesome fly enters the frame and it destroys the “natural” moment. Perhaps these 3D deficiencies had something to do with the Lincoln Square IMAX theater I was sitting in. Yet I did see Avatar at the same theater and experienced no such problems.

Some of the feeders wear bright orange coats and the milk guzzled down by the cute orangutans is in green bottles. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers called Todd Haynes’s set decorator just before the camera started rolling. Then again, it could just be the film stock.

I must confess that my inner skeptic scoffed at some of the reductionist hand-holding: “As long as [the orangutans] feel loved, they will have the confidence they need later in life.” Love can help you in life through any number of ways, but it’s not necessarily the best method to ward off a predator who wishes to have you for lunch. We are also informed that the orangutans “can read your heart and they will understand you.” Well, if you’re providing free food and an open terrain, that will certainly be the general impression that you get from an animal. On the other hand, I’m certainly not an orangutan, but I assure you that I can read the heart and understand the soul of anyone buying me at least than two drinks in a single sitting.

There is a moment midway through the film in which Morgan Freeman’s avuncular voice attempts to wrap an absurdly sunny bow on a disturbing moment. An elephant, who has seen one of his family members butchered by humans, storms around his pen when more benevolent humans (or so the filmmakers lead us to believe) attempt to tame him. We are assured that once the elephant receives “a thorough checkup,” he will be good to go. Who knew that the pachyderm equivalent of PTSD was so swiftly resolved? Do animals have emotional consciousness? That’s a question for a more involved essay than this one. But since the traumatized elephant is presented shortly after we are informed that an elephant has an amazing power of perception and a remarkable memory, I can foresee an especially inquisitive child, once they have connected the dots, unleashing a barrage of disturbing questions. Parents, you have been warned.

I’m probably making IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D sound worse than it is. The film is quite pleasant, a mostly sufficient method to blow wads of twenties on the kids, provided you understand that it doesn’t serve as a substitute for education or even edutainment. Still, for all the “nuanced animal behavior” that the press notes describes, I would have preferred a nuanced animal narrative. They are, after all, an indelible part of our existence.

Review: Super (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Source Code (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Circo (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Rubber (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Potiche (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Directors/New Films: Pariah (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Directors/New Films: Curling (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Win Win (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Directors/New Films: Happy, Happy (2010)

[This is the second 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 best thing about Anne Sewitsky’s comedy, Happy, Happy, is Agnes Kittelsen, whose bright eyes bounce around with so much life that you figure she’s angling to become Norway’s answer to Amy Adams. Kittelsen plays Kaja, a thirtysomething teacher who lives in the middle of a snowy nowhere with Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), a laconic man who likes to leave for a week and go hunting (“go hunting,” we learn later, is a pretense and a euphemism), and Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso), their son. When Theodor meets an Ethopian child his age, he initiates a game of “Slave” with him.

Based on that description, it probably seems that Kaja and Eirik are white supremacists. And based on the fact that a happy quartet of white men pops into the film every fifteen minutes to sing famous blues standards (This reminded me, for some reason, of Alan Price’s band in O Lucky Man! Let’s have more of these happy musical intrusions in cinema.), I cannot deny that I felt that the film was embracing some bizarre yet slight shadow of white privilege. My slight discomfort, however, was assuaged by the pic’s good-natured tone, which is more committed to trying out any number of comical quirks, however messy.

There are strong indications that Eirik is a closeted gay man. He hasn’t banged his wife in a year, which makes no sense, seeing as how she’s quite happy to offer him blowjobs and she’s very happy in general – even when snobby people speak down to her. Are Theodor’s casually racist reenactments the result of closeted emotions? It’s probably worth pointing out that Eirik and Theodor enjoy staring at Kaja, without saying anything, over breakfast. They continue this dreadful staring contest, against Kaja’s protests, until Kaja flees. With men this boorish around, who needs traditional family? It isn’t much of a surprise when Kaja takes an impromptu step to break this stability.

The Ethiopian child, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), doesn’t talk much and, rather strangely, isn’t terribly aware of his own heritage. (It’s especially strange because Noa appears to be very fond of books. Nevertheless, the game of “Slave” does eventually encourage Noa to examine his own closeted heritage.) Noa is the adopted son of Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and a fairly chilly attorney named Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), who have moved into the spare house across the way. Sigve and Elisabeth have vacated from the big city because Elisabeth had an affair. The two hope to rekindle their marriage. However, as I pointed out before, Kaja is fond of blowjobs. It doesn’t take a lot of know how to predict what happens next.

What does make Sewitsky’s film very interesting for a long stretch is how behavioral collision often forces perverse exuberance to emerge in this wintry wilderness. When the two couples play Norway’s answer to Cranium, during a drawing round, Eirik attempts to illustrate AIDS by drawing an incomprehensible backdrop of planes hitting buildings and two stick figures. “Two gay guys in New York,” he explains.

I enjoyed Happy, Happy quite a lot when it embraced these uncomfortable moments, which, oddly enough, emerged quite frequently when the four main characters were playing board games. When the two couples meet to play the Couples Game (a bit like The Newlywed Game, where couples demonstrate how well they know each other through questions), Sigve and Elisabeth seem to know each other very well, while Eirik and Kaja don’t. The latter couple can’t even answer the question, “What did you first love about your partner?” But Sewitsky is skillful enough to play against this expectation later in the film. Very often, Sewitsky suggests, it’s the couples who know each other too well who end up breaking their covenant.

Unfortunately, Sewitsky is less adept in portraying the aftermath. After affairs are consummated and the truth is revealed, she’s not quite sure what to do with her characters. Having crossed the threshold of what they must do to serve the narrative, these characters are left, quite literaly, to sing to the audience – however badly. Perhaps Sewitsky is asking us to remember that euphoric residue remains after a domestic cataclysm. As a cautious optimist, that’s certainly a message I can get behind. But I don’t believe this to be entirely fair to her characters.

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: Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

A Hasty Response to The Late American Novel

I remember reading Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee’s anthology, The Late American Novel, a few years ago when it was called Kevin Smokler’s anthology, Bookmark Now. Kevin Smokler has more followers than I do on Twitter and is paid by Chris Anderson to do something in relation to books and marketing. When I read Bookmark Now in 2005, I had a beef with Kevin Smokler. But now I do not, although Smokler doesn’t follow me on Twitter. And I don’t follow him. I do not have a beef with either Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee, but Max and I follow each other on Twitter. It may be that I am less angry now than I was in 2005, or that I like Max more in 2011 than Kevin in 2005. I feel compelled to point out that it is not 2005. I know this because I have less hair. The Late American Novel may have spoken to me six years ago, but I am not quite sure that it speaks to me in 2011. But then I have not yet opened its contents. I am about to. I will say that I do not see the Internet as a distraction or even an enhancement. It is a bit like a sex toy that I plug in from time to time. I am certain that I am not the only one that feels this way. If the Internet were to go away, I’d be perfectly happy. Because, aside from my extracurricular activities, I am surrounded by books and, if websites were to go away, you would find me in the streets disseminating pamphlets and circulars. You would find me giving speeches in obscure town halls. (Come to think of it, you may be finding me there even with the Internet. I comfortably wear the Internet as a surplice, but it is not the end all and the be all. It has yet to design the intellectual equivalent of exciting underwear.)

It remains unclear whether Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee will, in five years time, be paid by Chris Anderson (or some other dimwitted man who plagiarizes from Wikipedia and hosts conferences and edits overrated magazines and pays quirky and interesting voices a lot of money to transform into uncritical hacks in a few years) to do something in relation to books and marketing. But I don’t think they will. Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee are certainly more admirable and interesting in their 2011 pursuits than Kevin Smokler was with his 2005 pursuits. Looking at the list of contributors in The Late American Novel, there are only three names that make me want to throw the book against the wall and rage like a deranged animal for another random anthology so that I can peform the same eccentric test. And I have to say that, as anthologies go, this is a pretty decent batting average. I think there were more contributors who annoyed me in Bookmark Now.

I’m not sure I needed Thomas Allen’s “Notes on the Cover.” If you have to explain your book cover, it’s my feeling that you’re slumming it in some way. I also didn’t need Reif Larsen’s “The Crying of Page 45.” Larsen, who has littered this essay with annoying postmodernism (“Figure 3: The order of Chapters in Cortazar’s Rayeula“) didn’t get the memo that, thanks to the twee approach of McSweeney’s, pomo will be quite dormant for the foreseeable future. “I never arrived at page 45,” writes Larsen. And one longs to tell this precious writer that he’s not exactly making it easy to push beyond the third paragraph. One also wishes to tell Larsen that nostalgia is a terrible reason to read. One reads to get some sense of being alive. Or at least this reader does.

Which brings us to Marco Roth’s “The Outskirts of Progress,” with its second-person East Coast assumptions. First off, Marco, I may be skeptical, but I’m not pessimistic. Like you, I’m not a slave to technological progress. But unlike you, frequent railroad landscapes do not bore me. I also quibble with your suggestion that I am deracinated. I was just watered and taken for a walk. No knowledge is lost, if one looks hard for it. Please take more time formulating your thoughts.

The widely disseminated Davey Gates-Johnny Lethem exchange from PEN America (collected here as “A Kind of Vast Fiction”) is something one can get behind, especially in response to Gates’s idea about the “instantaneous opinion marketplace” and whether all future novels are, in some sense, historical. But then my own long-winded online presence would suggest that Gates and I are simpatico on this score. I also liked Deb Olin Unferth’s “The Book,” in which bullet points demonstrate the futility of attempting to announce the death of a medium. Elizabeth Crane humbly writes, “So I’m the last person to have any predictions about the fate of fiction in the future. Are there any original ideas anymore?” Hucksters and e-cult members: take note.

Leave it to Emily St. John Mandel to cut through the bullshit by opening her essay with this sentence: “There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me.” Bookmark Now prided itself upon insisting quite rightly that books were still alive in a digital age. The Late American Novel insists quite rightly that we are all no longer on the same team. Yet I flit around for an essay hoping to acknowledge this fragmentation and I find Katherine Taylor offering the advice: “Don’t go back to Fresno.”

That’s a bit like referring to “flyover states.” It’s impolite.

Maybe going to Fresno might give some of us a more reasonable idea about where books are heading and what regular people are reading. The Late American Novel, while refreshingly cheerful, doesn’t quite acknowledge this. But then neither did Bookmark Now. Rudolph Delson is wrong to suggest that there isn’t pleasure in knowing about novels. That’s like saying there isn’t pleasure in knowing about people. We should know about everything. But perhaps The Late American Novel is a necessary kickstart.

In Defense of Jaume Collet-Serra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Of Gods and Men (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: We Are What We Are (2010)

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

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

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

But cannibalism? Not until the very end.

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

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

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

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

Review: Certifiably Jonathan (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Green Hornet (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Next Three Days (2010)

A Paul Haggis movie inevitably makes you feel like a well-trained parrot who has recently learned to squawk, “Hey hey, ho ho, intolerance has got to go!” Instead of the stale cracker offered as reward, one is asked to sit dutifully through the end credits.

In attempting to understand Paul Haggis’s position in the film world, I’m considering the time-honored Monet chestnut: “People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.” But Paul Haggis’s movies — all containing lack of logic, stock archetypes, and soupy storylines — are altogether too easy to understand. These movies are about as challenging as inking in a TV Guide crossword puzzle. But even the best stupid movies give us very good reasons to love them. By contrast, when The Next Three Days features an early moment (not in Pour Elle, the template for Haggis’s remake) with privileged scum making reductionist statements about gender to prove how “authentic” Haggis is in getting “real” people, it becomes almost effortless not to love it.

The Haggis apologists rebut with Casino Royale and Letters from Iwo Jima (and sometimes the overrated In the Valley of Elah) when presented with the perfectly reasonable observation that the Oscar-winning Crash, with its tawdry caricatures spouting racist sentiments like loutish anchormen reciting whatever is on the Teleprompter (instead of, say, communicating the origin point of a character’s deeply developed atavism through performance), was last decade’s answer to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Haggis may very well be the Stanley Kramer of our time. Like Kramer, he is without subtlety. Like Kramer, his work will not date well. Like Kramer, he preaches to the converted. But there’s something more invidious about Haggis — something that goes beyond Kramer’s redolent earnestness — that I need to pinpoint here.

Casino Royale‘s “gritty” reboot was applied to a well-known and entirely fantastical archetype. Should Haggis really be commended for such ostensible authenticity? James Bond is enjoyable, but he is hardly a Doestoevsky character. (One can likewise make a similar claim about Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Indeed, Jonathan Lethem did, writing in 2008 that he “couldn’t shake the sense that a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content.”) Letters from Iwo Jima is rightly considered to be a historical corrective to The Greatest Generation. But might not its cheap flips of the coin be similarly styled “morbid incoherence?” (It’s telling that screenwriter Iris Yamashita was able to interpret Haggis’s cornball situations in another language. American audiences, in turn, get these subtitles for lines that were adjusted from whatever vile banter Haggis brought to the table.) We see World War II from the Japanese side and we’re supposed to believe that the film is down with it because American soldiers incinerate the Japanese with a flamethrower. But what makes this narrative exercise any different from the old Twilight Zone episode, “A Quality of Mercy,” which uses the battleside switcheroo for the purposes of conceptual speculative fiction?

Haggis’s scripts are proud liberal exercises that make me profoundly ashamed to be a progressive. Real progressives don’t wave their fingers at their audience. They don’t bully people into enlightenment or self-awareness. Hell, good people of any political temperament don’t do this. They actually listen to people. They encourage. They plant clues. Accordingly, Haggis’s appropriation of genre tropes for movies that are condescending with their apparent “insight” into humanity makes me profoundly ashamed to be a moviegoer. It isn’t often that I’m so severely disappointed by a film. What the hell. I may as well go a few steps further and suggest that Paul Haggis has no business being declared a realist, a decent filmmaker, or even a worthy screenwriter. He’s using so many old inversion tricks that his films can never competently reflect the real world. When even the critics who like his movies — such as Moveiline‘s Stephanie Zacharek — feel compelled to point out that Haggis “doesn’t seem to know how to establish real couplehood closeness without equating it with hot, unfettered sex,” one detects an “artist” who is hardly curious about people and who is more interested in feeling superior when he sketches the kind of crude character doodles that would get him roundly bitchslapped at an MFA workshop or a bar. Or as Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers succinctly noted, “It’s damn hard to enjoy a thriller when you don’t, won’t, can’t believe a word of it.”

The Next Three Days is a remake of Pour Elle — a French film that did have a rather unbelievable storyline about a high school teacher trying to spring his wrongfully accused wife from jail. But Pour Elle managed to transcend its melodrama by imbuing its characters with passionate qualities, by making their struggles interesting to us. The Next Three Days is, rather curiously, without such vim and vigor. Pour Elle had the decency to give us carnal intensity from the get-go. With a few simple moments of visual lust established in the beginning, we could understand immediately why Julien Auclert (John Brennan in the remake) would do anything to rescue Lisa (Lara in the remake). But in the Haggis universe, John and Lara have to ask if their kid is asleep before opting to fuck each other blue. And this safe and hackneyed stance, calculated to appeal to unadventurous suburban audiences, is deeply offensive to me as an American. Because the ostensibly straitlaced are, let’s face it, more screwed up than they are willing to admit. But aside from this practical consideration, wouldn’t it be more interesting to have the Brennans screw each other ravenously with their kid awake? With their kid queasily aware at an early age (like many) of how intense his parents are fucking? How’s that for a family dynamic? If Haggis had the balls to play things out like this, then we’d have a far more interesting film. But that ain’t the way Haggis rolls. When it comes to sex, he’s nearly as virginal in his approach as Spielberg. One wonders if Haggis has ever had the guts to live a little on the wild side.

The Next Three Days is also too damn long. A good thirty minutes have been appended to Haggis’s adaption. But why? Pour Elle cut straight to the chase. After Lisa gets arrested, our next shot of her is in prison. Her son Oscar spurns his kisses when he comes to visit with Julien. Lisa asks about some girl from the parking lot. Julien informs his wife that a detective has been looking into this, but it’s been three years. This is near perfect narrative economy that permits us to fill in the gaps. Why would you want to mess with it?

Alas, Paul Haggis has. He’s adjusted a scene with an attorney (played in this remake by Daniel Stern; the attorney was a woman in the original), where John fires him when he reveals the insurmountable evidence against Lara. But in Pour Elle, Julien was more stoic. He is told by his attorney that he has to accept that his wife Lisa is in prison. And he walks away, without any tantrum. Now since we’ve seen Julien in wild lust with his wife earlier in the film, this makes us wonder if Julien’s energy is going to spill somewhere else. It provides a narrative tension that naturally connects with Pour Elle‘s cinematic momentum. But in the Haggis version, John is a passive guy prone to occasional outbursts that are more the result of convoluted plot advancement. In other words, where French writer-director Fred Cavaye was careful to alter his rhythm in relation to his characters, Haggis treats his characters more like automatons who must capitulate to a gilded template of Hollywood cliches.

For example, why would you meet with a man in a bar (played by Liam Neeson, who adopts one of the most unpersuasive Brooklyn dialects I’ve ever heard from an actor), one who has escaped from several prisons, while other people sit very close by, and ask him about his methods? In Pour Elle, Julien meets this guy at a racetrack, with the camera establishing a reasonable crowd buffer with which to safely discuss the verboten topic. Furthermore, Julien asks Pasquet, this prison escape expert, if he can tape the conversation. Pasquet replies, “No, it’s not valid evidence.” So we immediately understand that Pasquet is a seasoned expert and we know why he would meet in public like this. Furthermore, the setting, which involves people blowing money on the horses, is one in which some guy giving cash to another isn’t going to draw much attention. Not so with Haggis’s bar, in which the dissemination of cash is likely to be more flagrant. Julien also offers the pretext that he wishes to “teach” Pasquet’s book. There’s no pretext at all with Haggis’s John.

There is also something unpardonably stupid about a movie in which a man breaks into a truck delivering supplies to a prison and the parking lot, rather remarkably, doesn’t include a single security camera or a guard. John even snaps photos with his iPhone (uh, ever heard of GPS tracking?) of documents he’ll need to forge. But given how shaky the light can be on an iPhone camera, how can he be expected to nab a decent image to forge the documents? Furthermore, if you’re going to learn how to forge a document for a prison escape, why would you attend a community college class on Photoshop and draw attention to yourself? Wouldn’t you learn it on your own? When John learns how to make a bump key, he does so by consulting YouTube videos. Does this guy even clear his browser cache? Is Haggis even understand how Google tracks its users? Cutting a bump key isn’t a skill that Alton Brown can teach you overnight.

I haven’t even discussed The Next Three Days‘s laughable attempts at streetcred. To offer just one example, John asks around the Pittsburgh underworld, trying to obtain fake passports. When he finds his first prospect, the bar John enters is as harmless and boisterous as a sports bar. (By contrast, in Pour Elle, the bar that Julien enters was committed to a silent intensity, letting the audience fill in the blanks about the possible danger.)

But it isn’t just these basic behavioral issues that Haggis has failed to parse from the original. He also hasn’t learned how the little visual details made Pour Elle work. In the above still, we see a police officer giving Julien a dirty look (on the left half of the frame) in the hospital room when he visits his wife after a suicide attempt (the moment captured on the right half of the frame). This visual bifurcation establishes the two separate worlds that the law and Julien’s predicament are going to be operating in. It’s a nifty psychological nudge to the viewer. Yet we don’t get anything this sly from Haggis. Then again, Haggis is not a man known for his visual chops.

Because I’ve been so hard on Haggis, I’ll give the man some small credit for casting Lennie James as a detective. James has proven to be quite watchable in everything. But even the confident expertise he establishes with his presence is undermined by the shoddy material.

The bottom line is that The Next Three Days gives its actors very little to do (the dependable Elizabeth Banks, in particular, is woefully underserved) and tries the audience’s patience. I can highly recommend the French original, but I cannot in good conscience declare Paul Haggis to be anything close to an essential filmmaker for our times.

Review: Morning Glory (2010)

It doesn’t matter if some generous groomsman (or bridesmaid) has plied me with good scotch or not. It doesn’t matter if the DJ or the band has the musical taste of a humorless military historian who blasts nothing more than John Phillip Sousa. If you encounter me at a wedding, chances are that you will find me dancing. There seems to be no better way to celebrate the union of two than putting two feet together. Very often, I will have no clue as to how I began dancing. Sometimes it will start with a trip to the men’s room. Upon relieving myself and washing my hands, I will often return with some terpsichorean fervor that astonishes the other wedding guests. I will dance with anybody. Grandmothers. Kids. Other men. I have been known to corrupt small children with some of my more libidinous moves, whereby I swing an invisible lasso around another man’s neck and proceed to rope him in, concluding my cowboy allemande with a rakish leer which suggests that I will be taking my partner to an indecent location. I have seen kids reproduce these moves.

What does any of this have to do with Morning Glory? Well, somewhere within this watered down Broadcast News knockoff is a mild audience-friendly satire screaming to cut the rug. Last week, with Due Date, we saw how director Todd Phillips and his co-writers managed to update the Planes, Trains, and Automobiles template into an enjoyable comedy that still had the smarts to include some dark observations about our present age. Morning Glory – with its egotistical anchors, its rider-mandated fruit platters, and its accidental caption beneath Jimmy Carter’s photograph – has a few promising steps. But it is too often that stiff partner that lacks the courage to get up and go, to take more than a few perfunctory chances. It is a movie in desperate need of some hip-shaking and a hip flask.

Rachel McAdams plays Becky Fuller, a television producer who foolishly believes that the Protestant work ethic still applies in the television industry. She longs for some higher rung because she has toiled for many years (sans boyfriend, sans many friends aside from her co-workers) as an assistant producer on the morning show, Good Morning, New Jersey. The big boss asks her in for a big meeting. And Becky thinks that she’ll at last land that promotion. Wearing a YES, I ACCEPT tee beneath her clothes, Becky is shitcanned instead. She then spends the early portion of the movie trying to land a job, with her chirpy go-go energy lacking Holly Hunter’s can-do spunk in Broadcast News. It’s really more of a fey merge between Hunter and a mid-1990s Renee Zellweger. Becky is so desperate to be liked that she is very often channeling the needy qualities contained within Aline Brosh McKenna’s script.

She somehow talks her way into a job as executive producer at Daybreak, a network morning show in last place. Becky must endure dull segments about weather vanes, sleazy reporters who wish to take photos of her feet, and a staff that expects Becky to fall through the revolving door. Certainly, the audience is inclined to sympathize with the Daybreak staff. McAdams’s relentless peppiness is, at times, a liability to our willingness to believe in the movie. One does not occupy a top perch in the media world without giving a few orders to ice the unruly subordinates. And while Becky does deliver at least one such ruthless move, we’re never entirely convinced that she has the organizational chops to keep this show together.

Becky places her faith in the aptly named Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), a respected journalist with Pulitzers and Emmies in his closet who lost some vital television spot some years ago. Alas, he’s referred to as “the third worst person in the world” among some former co-workers. Still under contract to the network, Becky installs Pomeroy as Daybreak co-host. The big joke here is that Pomeroy would rather use words like “abrogate” on air or report on serious news stories rather than remark on Easter bunnies. While there’s some late stage conflict between Ford and McAdams, the comedy is hindered by Ford’s terrible performance. He shamelessly overacts in his part: widening his eyes, pointing his index finger, and barking his lines with a sad “Get off my plane!” gusto that transforms a chief character into a regrettable cartoon. It’s sad to remember that Ford was once an actor capable of great control in Frantic, Witness, and The Mosquito Coast. (On a positive note, I can report that Diane Keaton is wonderfully controlled, as always, as the grumpy host who has been on the show too long.)

The movie is most effective when it drifts away from its obvious inspiration. When McKenna and director Roger Michell comprehends that Rachel McAdams is not Holly Hunter, that Harrison Ford is not Jack Nicholson, that Patrick Wilson (McAdams’s love interest, whose receding hairline and look resembles William Hurt in 1987) is not William Hurt, and the guy with the half-grown facial hair playing McAdams’s producer who I’m too lazy to look up on IMDB is not Albert Brooks. (Sorry, guy with the half-grown facial hair playing McAdams’s producer. I had to turn around this review fast.) James L. Brooks certainly never needed a live camera capturing a reporter screaming while he rides a rollercoaster or howling in pain when getting a tattoo buzzed into his flesh. But our present epoch of reality television and YouTube does requires such moments.

It’s too bad that this promising satirical thrust couldn’t extend to the rest of the film. There are worse films than Morning Glory out there. But McKenna and Michell don’t seem to know that there was this writer named Ben Hecht and this director named Howard Hawks, and these actors named Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and this talent all came together and created an indelible comedy, with the dialogue gunning at a .45 Thompson’s pace. They can’t recall that we remember that film so well seventy years later because Hawks had the wisdom to swap gender roles from the original source (the play The Front Page), with Hawks agonizing over the casting. I have to wonder: Who will remember Morning Glory seventy years from now? What might have happened if McKenna and Michell had the courage to defy their straitlaced obligations and dance?

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: Another Year

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

“I’m concerned in making films that talk to people. Like anybody, I only want to talk to anybody who wants to listen, who wants to know, who wants to share, or have a conversation with me, as it were. I can’t deal with the kind of media-obsessed, decadent position that can’t decode the film for what it actually is. Which is to say an open, honest look at real people and how real people are, with their needs and all their vulnerabilities. Warts and all. If you can’t embrace that, then go away basically. You’re quoting people at Cannes. Journalists, no doubt, who say that these are people I wouldn’t want to meet at a cocktail party. Well, you know, you’re not going to meet these people at a cocktail party. Clear off to the cocktail party and don’t worry about this sort of film. Because you’re not interested basically. And if people are not interested, I can’t do anything about it.” — Mike Leigh, in a soon-to-be-aired Bat Segundo interview conducted on October 4, 2010

It is a ubiquitous truth that distinctive art often polarizes. But Mike Leigh’s films often cause some of the more catholic critics to reveal their unadventurous sensibilities. (One of Leigh’s masterpieces, Naked, was, by way of depicting particularly nasty behavior, declared misogynist.) While there’s nothing wrong with responding to a movie like one of Harry Harlow’s monkeys from time to time, a cinema intake composed of nothing more than genetically modified bananas will inevitably cause an otherwise sound mind to bray for his cloth mother.

Yes, I’m a Mike Leigh fan, but not slavishly so. Topsy-Turvy is overlong, but quite admirable in its historical ambition. (And it was absolutely the film Leigh needed to make to get to his next “historical” film, Vera Drake, which is one of his masterpieces.) Secrets & Lies, for all of its brilliance, resolves too tidily. I’ll take Abigail’s Party over Life is Sweet, even though I revere both flicks (and enjoy Alison Steadman in both). But aside from these very minor complaints, Leigh’s characters — whether you like them or not — may be more realized than those of nearly any other living filmmaker.

As Leigh’s films have defiantly chronicled the human in an age more concerned with calculating clinging, certain critics have revealed their not so closeted misanthropy — in other words, an innate disposition towards an unchallenging and predictable type of film.

Yes, Mike Leigh’s latest film, Another Year, features a very sad and troubling character clinquant in dimension played by Lesley Manville. The cookie-cutter protagonists and antagonists you asked for are available at the multiplex, thank you very much.

But I’m convinced that Another Year‘s mixed reception at Cannes (alas, a few rumblings were overheard in the Walter Reade Theater) can be squarely divided between those who are interested in life and those who are not. For Another Year dares to show several sides to kindness, a topic that has been very much at the forefront of Leigh’s films since Vera Drake. Leigh seems to share the sentiment behind Kurt Vonnegut’s famous declaration from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” But he’s also smart enough to understand that societal forces threaten to crush this human spirit. Thus, housekeeper Vera Drake sees her illegal abortions as an act of kindness (and receives no pay for this) and is almost incapable of perceiving her actions as wrong, even as her family and others attempt to explain why she’s in such trouble. Merciless government permanently transforms her. Happy-Go-Lucky, by contrast, sees a very happy character, Poppy, finding her natural temperament tested — particularly, by a humorless driving instructor — and is, even at film’s end, asked not to be so nice (or kind) to everyone. She defies this. And in Another Year — the first of Leigh’s films to be squeezed into a yearlong sectional narrative (although certainly not the first to concern itself with cyclical behavior) — the human spirit’s effort to flourish is very much determined by vocational expectations. (And, as my moviegoing companion and I agreed, one minute of Another Year contains more understanding of people than the whole of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.)

But let’s first consider the naysayers (with much gratitude to David Hudson for rounding them all up). The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ray Bennett complained that most of the film’s characters would be the type “whom you would go out of your way to avoid at a party.” Time‘s Mary Corliss offered similar sentiments: “All the actors make the most of their time before the camera; eventually a plot emerges and a narrative crescendo is reached. It’s real life, processed for the cinema in Leigh’s practiced style. But the real life it simulates is too often that of an evening that turns into an endless night with friends one wishes might just get their coats and get out.” Never mind that Bennett and Corliss fail to see certain advantages to “meeting” such apparently unpleasant people on film. Yes, they rightly compare Leigh’s film to a cocktail party, but they don’t seem to understand that a forty foot screen protects them from social immersion. The audience is not chatting up these characters, but Leigh presents them so vividly (the final look on one character at the end of a long dolly shot, Manville’s masterful head and shoulder bobbing as Mary, a widower’s laconic vernacular and the look in his eyes as he observes the madness around him; to cite just three) that it is nearly impossible not to lose yourself (as my moviegoing companion and I did, sitting still and mesmerized for 129 minutes) and feel that You Are There. And the idea of going to a movie, whether for entertainment and enlightenment, to have your worldview confirmed strikes me as antithetical to existence — diametrically opposed to why any enthusiast soaks up culture. In other words, why did these critics bother to go to Cannes anyway?

And then there’s Todd McCarthy’s schematic assessment via blog: “For me the film is obvious, schematic and lacking in interesting undercurrents or subtext.” Never mind that McCarthy is unwilling to describe what precisely that “obvious” and “schematic” perception is. But thankfully, his tepid criticism can be easily rejoined by what is contained within the movie.

You cannot call Another Year‘s Tom and Gerri “obvious” and “schematic,” because, despite the fact that this couple is somewhat privileged (an apparently stable marriage, reliable middle-class income from geologist Tom and counselor Gerri, a garden allotment, and so forth) and permits maladjusted people into their home with a kind of liberal guilt and empathy that may not be entirely reconciled, they do not offer any defense when friends ridicule Mary (over the fact that she doesn’t know the precise engine type in the used car she has just purchased). Gerri, despite being trained to recognize a narcissist, nevertheless permits Mary to crash into her family home with the same shaky skill she has behind the steering wheel. And when there is the inevitable skirmish during the autumn, Gerri still waits until the winter to state, “You have to take responsibility for your own actions.” Which is something she has been meaning to say all along. There’s also something slightly predatory about the way Tom and Gerri invite friends who are less successful than they are into their house, such as their old portly friend Ken, who appears in the summer, but is a few beers short of a cardiac arrest. Yet Ken, despite being lonely and unhappy, has refused retirement. He is content to “eat, drink, and be merry,” but, from the vantage point of Tom and Gerri, he is “better” than Mary by way of remaining employed in a more lucrative job. (Mary toils as a secretary; interestingly enough, at the same workplace as Gerri. When Gerri invites her for a drink, Mary says that she has only an hour to spare — the exact amount of time that she would devote to a patient) One is left wondering whether Ken would be in worse mental shape, were he to be toiling in a similar position as Mary. (In an ironic bit of casting, no doubt entirely unintentional, Leigh has cast Peter Wight as Ken. Wight played the security guard in Naked, who urged Johnny not to waste his life.)

Aside from this intriguing relationship between happiness and class, there is also Janet (played by Vera Drake lead Imelda Staunton), who appears at film’s beginning (in spring). She is a cautionary character and, if we are to look at Another Year as a cycle, she represents what Mary may very well transform into. Janet is depressed. She cannot sleep. She rates herself 1 on a scale of 1 to 10 on how she feels. And when we are first introduced to her, the camera initially concentrates on little else but Janet’s face. We gradually see more of the doctor who is treating her, and the first detail we notice is that the doctor is pregnant. Thus, Janet (like Mary) is very much consumed by her own internal world. Does society then have a duty to treat people like Janet and Mary? Is it “kinder” to retreat from miserable people (as the above mentioned critics clearly have) or to let them into your home with the hope that your kindness will help them figure life out?

Since this is a Mike Leigh film, there aren’t any easy answers. But the film’s commitment to such concerns is a much needed reminder for any humanist, whether lapsed or well-practiced. Another Year, like the best of Leigh’s films, is very much a Rorschach test. It will be appreciated and understood and felt by anyone who understands that even the unpleasant and the marginalized have souls. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this considerably embedded masterpiece, but it’s definitely one of the year’s best films. And I’ll probably have another go at it just before release date. Anyone who compares Another Year to “an endless night” probably doesn’t have the guts to leave her cloistered comfort zone.