Sunday, March 29. 2015
No Weekend Roundup this week. Got distracted with what follows, and time got away from me. But if I had the time, the thing to focus on this week is Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen. This isn't the first time -- Saudi Arabia and Egypt were fighting in Yemen in the mid-1960s -- but they've never been this overt about it (possibly because Egypt seems to be on their side this time). The US should be appalled, expecially since it's being done with US-manufactured armaments. The UN should condemn this blatant aggression, sanction all countries contributing to war in Yemen, and try to arrange a democratic resolution between the eleven distinct armed groups vying for power there. And needless to say, if democracy is the goal, Saudi Arabia and Egypt cannot be the solution.
When I started writing this blog, I would include more or less short notes whenever I saw a movie, along with grades, but at some point I stopped doing so. I still have some rough notes in my scratch file for movies that date back to 2011-12 (Hugo: B+; The Skin I Live In: B+; The Lincoln Lawyer: A-; Source Code: B+). It seems like we see fewer movies each year. Four independent theaters have closed since we moved to Wichita in 1999, leaving us with Bill Warren's monopoly, and Warren got rid of an older theater that he used for relatively arty films -- said he was looking for a "higher use" for the property and wound up selling it to a church. At the time he promised he'd keep showing those films in his other theaters "because his wife liked them," but within a year he divorced her, too. We also haven't rented movies since moving here -- a fairly regular occurrence when we had a store around the corner in Boston. We've been watching more TV series, but not many films on TV.
I wrote a long post about American Sniper the other day, but didn't wrap it up in a capsule review, so I thought I'd do that here, and round it out with the rest of the little we saw from 2014. I also went back and checked for releases in 2012 and 2013. I would have guess that the number of movies I've seen last year was down, but I came up with 20 in 2014, only 18 in 2013, and 20 in 2012. I can remember back in Boston it seems like we must have seen one or more per week, but those days are long gone. These are collected from various annual release lists, so may well be incomplete -- it's also possible that my memory is fading
The Lego Movie (Feb. 1): Animated, got rather amazing hype when it came out. Lots of famous actor-voices, with Will Ferrell as the villain, Lord Business. I suppose there is a lesson there about capitalism, which I might have appreciated more had not everything else been so annoying. C+
300: Rise of an Empire (Mar. 4): Sequel to 2007 film 300 (which I haven't seen), based on ancient Greek war legends as Sparta and/or Athens battles Persia, tied to an unpublished Frank Miller graphic novel which raises everyone and every thing to the level of war porn. Of course, as porn I enjoyed Eva Green (Artemisia) much more than Sullivan Stapleton (Themistocles), even though with the fate of civilization at stake she was consigned to the wrong side. [TV] B-
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Mar. 6): Wes Anderson movie, based on various writings by Stefan Zweig, mostly set before and during WWII, told through flashbacks from much later. The hotel appears to be not in Budapest but somewhere in the Austrian Alps -- at least in some mountains somewhere in Central Europe. Remarkably deep cast; Oscar wins for production design, costume design, makeup and hair. Quite a story too. [Saw it a second time on TV] A-
Noah (Mar. 10): Bible epic from Darren Aronofsky, although it could have come from one of those graphic novels, especially as the "Watchers" take over. God destroys the world, but the decision as to whether mankind should expire seems to be Noah's, and he's in a foul mood. Happy ending, of course. [TV] B-
Ida (May 2): Polish movie, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, about a sheltered orphan girl raised in a convent from WWII seeking insight into her past. Turns out her parents were Jewish, killed by a farmer who hid her in a convent. More interesting is her aunt, a lawyer who joins the search, and pays a terrible price. In black and white, slow and heavy. [TV] B+
Belle (May 2): The story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the daughter of a British Captain Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, adopted in 1765 and raised as a "free gentlewoman" by Linday's uncle, William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice (a perfect role for Tom Wilkinson), who eventually writes a key legal ruling that advances the cause of abolition. A-
Boyhood (June 11): Richard Linklater film, shot over 12 years as its principal subject (played by Ellar Coltrane) grows up from six to eighteen, from first grade to leaving home for college, and less closely follows his sister (a couple years older), mother (Patricia Arquette's Oscar role), estranged father (Ethan Hawke, who was evidently absent for most of the previous six years but takes a consistent interest here). Several ill-chosen stepfathers come and go, which provides most of the stress and strain. It all seems rather eventful and remarkable compared, say, to my own life, but also quite ordinary, which is the charm. I left hoping they had shot enough extra footage to craft a Girlhood starring older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Otherwise this will remain unique. A
Snowpiercer (June 27): Directed by Joon-ho Bong from a French graphic novel, depicts a future dystopia where the class system is rigidly stratified from the back to the front of a train endlessly racing through frozen wastes. The oppressed masses in the back revolt and try to seize the master in the front. The class analysis became more interesting in retrospect once the action subsided. [TV] B
The Hundred-Foot Journey (August 8): Lasse Hallström food film, with Helen Mirren running a Michelin-star restaurant in the south of France, Indian emigre patriarch Om Puri setting up shop across the street, his son (Manish Dayal) developing into a chef good enough for Mirren to poach, and Charlotte Le Bon as intermediary. The food itself is a little over-the-top, and the story is a bit pat, but both are easy to enjoy. B+
A Most Wanted Man (July 25): Film of a John Le Carré novel starring the late Philip Seymour Hofman as a dissheveled German spy chief, who finds and attempts to use a Chechen refugee to trap a Muslim philanthropist into disclosing a financial conduit to a terrorist organization. The CIA gets involved, turning all of Hofman's reassurances into lies. With Le Carré the fiasco may be the point, but one still expects more of the world within movies. B
Magic in the Moonlight (July 25): Woody Allen movie, with Colin Firth as a illusionist/sceptic who's not skeptical enough, and Emma Stone as a charlatan and love interest. Suffers from some of the worst philosophizing of Allen's career -- reminiscent of his earliest movies but less funny. I wouldn't have minded so much, but Laura went beyond hating this and spent the second half heckling. B
Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Aug. 27): Oscar-winning movie by Alejandro Iñárritu, about an actor (Michael Keaton), a big star in Hollywood playing a cartoon superhero ("Birdman") seeking to salvage his acting credentials by staging a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. Problems ensue, including a scene-stealing co-star (Edward Norton) and the vow of a critic (played by Lindsay Duncan) to pan the opening. Many continuous pan shots turn the theater into a labyrinth, adding to the claustrophobia. Even more annoying were the frequent lapses into fantasy or magic -- Keaton levitating, smashing objects, quarrelling with his Birdman alter-ego. At the climax of his opening, Keaton takes a real gun instead of the stage prop and kills himself -- the ending the movie seemed to be aiming at -- but not even that came off right: we find out that he merely shot his nose off, and that the critic came around for the guy willing to spill his own blood for art. Then he jumps out the hospital window and flies away -- I suppose as Birdman repossesses him. Not without its virtues -- Emma Stone's supporting role is one -- but pretty full of shit. B
Nightcrawler (Sept. 5): Jake Gyllenhaal plays a crook and self-help devotee who finds his calling in shooting gory video at car wrecks and crime scenes -- he's advised, "if it bleeds, it leads" -- and selling it to news broadcasters. He then finds that he can get even more sensational footage by orchestrating the events -- in particular, he stages a shootout between cops and home invaders he tracked down. Creepy. B+
The Imitation Game (Sept. 27): Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing (mathematician, cryptanalyst, a major figure in the development of computer science), focusing on his work during WWII in breaking Germany's Enigma encryption codes, but extending from grade school to his arrest for homosexuality in 1952 and death in 1954. The latter events were ghastly by any standards, and they make Turing a martyr, but the film plays this up in all sorts of perverse ways, making Turing appear more dysfunctional and stranger than he actually was, distorting his work, and consigning his colleagues at Bletchley to the sidelines, cheering or (more often) booing as he solves all the problems single-handedly. (See Wikipedia's section on "Accuracy" -- the longest I've ever seen.) Keira Knightley has a nice supporting role, again riddled with inaccuracies but something the movie could have used more of. B-
Gone Girl (Oct. 3): David Fincher film of a bestselling novel which Laura and virtually all of her friends had read. Rosamund Pike plays the wicked wife who frames her husband, played by Ben Afleck, for her murder, and he's guilty enough the charges have some traction. Of course, a body would help, but she loses nerve and doesn't go through with her planned suicide. Instead, she returns to a former boyfriend, finds him a bore, murders him, and passes it off as self-defense. Many times you see a movie and leave wondering what happens next, but with these people it's impossible to care (and probably ridiculous to boot). B+
Inherent Vice (Oct. 4): Paul Thomas Anderson film of a Thomas Pynchon novel, set in southern California in the 1970s, with close to a dozen odd characters improbably interconnected in multiple ways -- all that looping back has a whiff of conspiracy, but my brief familiarity with Pynchon (V. is my all-time favorite novel; I failed to get through Gravity's Rainbow but still intend to finish it some day) suggests that's just the way the world is wired. Doesn't feel like a great movie, but a persistently interesting one. A-
St. Vincent (Oct. 24): Bill Murray plays a surly Vietnam Vet -- smokes, drinks, gambles, has a wife with Alzheimer's in a nursing home he can't afford and a Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts) in his bed when he can; otherwise he's just a dirtbag and asshole, until he reluctantly befriends a neighbor kid (starting with a scam for babysitting money). The kid goes to Catholic school, and evidently the only thing they teach there is saints, so when he get an assignment to write up "a real-life saint" he does some research and settles on Murray. Probably the best scene is when some mobsters try to shake him down for money he has a stroke and creeps them out. What creeped me out was the sanctimoniousness over his Vietnam "service." B-
American Sniper (Nov. 11): Clint Eastwood's Iraq War film traces the path of Chris Kyle from good-hearted Texas simpleton to serial killer but gets caught up in the action sequences, leaving us with only the sketchiest sense of how he played his "legend" into postwar fame and fortune, or even how he got martyred as an advocate for the therapeutic value of shooting guns for the mentally ill. Sienna Miller reminds us that wives can be forgiving as well as hysterical. Bradley Cooper plays Kyle partly as modest stoic and partly as action junkie, clearly preferring the hunt to his home life, not that he has the critical facilities to question any convention. That any Iraqis emerge with more dimensions than paper targets is due to the scriptwriter's fabrications, but even they turn out to be clichés, and even more absent is any hint of the thinking that made American soldiers arbiters of life and death in that miserable country. I could imagine someone making a mirror movie from the sniper Mustapha's viewpoint, with all that discipline and craft ending as his head explodes from Kyle's distant shot, but who in America would pay to see such a thing? We'd rather be fed the self-adulatory pablum this picture delivers. Still, it's sad that the only pride America can take from this war is the efficacy of its assassins. B-
Selma (Nov. 11): Daniel Oyelowo does a fine job as Martin Luther King as the SCLC moved into Selma, Alabama to campaign for voting rights in 1965, and great care was taken in the casting of the many others who made up the movement, including the tensions between SCLC and SNCC. The white violence against the marchers was also palpable (although several incidents were merely mentioned). On the other hand, I was constantly irritated by how far portrayals of major political figures strayed from my own vivid memories from the day: especially Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson and Tim Roth as George Wallace. (I was more forgiving of Dylan Baker, who often plays psychotic killers, as J. Edgar Hoover, although the resemblance was equally remote.) One could have made a stronger point that the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which came from demonstrations in Selma, coincides with recent Republican moves to gut the Act and once again to deny poorer Americans the right to vote. B+
I suppose it wouldn't hurt to include 2015 (to date):
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Feb. 26): Two or three storyline threads stretch our favorite Indian hotelier, Sonny Kapoor (played by Dev Patel) way past the breaking point, but this is saved by the same thing that saved its predecessor: it's a marvelous showcase for venerable British actors and actresses -- Bill Nighy and Ronald Pickup have the most to do sorting out their love lives, and Penelope Wilton makes a brief show for a trailer laugh. On the downside, it seems like they spent a lot of time at the end trying to kill Maggie Smith off, then couldn't do it. Ends inevitably with a big Bollywood dance. B
Movies I didn't see but would have liked to:
For a baseline, I went through the 2013 film list. Just wrote down grades (and can't guarantee my memory is perfect there).
Time prevents me from going back further. One last statistical check is for how many A/A- records in each year: 2014: 4; 2013: 6; 2012: 5. Down last year, but not much more than random chance.
Friday, March 27. 2015
I finally got around to seeing Clint Eastwood's American Sniper film yesterday. It took me so long mostly because my wife, who usually picks the films we see, wanted no part of it: I had to go alone, something I hadn't done since I caught the "last chance" showing of Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In in 2011. I didn't argue very hard. Everything I had read suggested that the movie has many problems and few virtues. More importantly, I read Nicholas Schmidle's profile of the sniper in question, Chris Kyle (In the Crosshairs), so I had a pretty good idea what the story was going to be. The only question was whether director Clint Eastwood might add some nuance and conflict that Kyle doesn't seem to have ever grasped. But after Eastwood's senior moment at the GOP convention, and given his occasional infatuation with American jingoism, that wasn't guaranteed.
It turns out that the movie is remarkably compressed (despite a 2:20 running time). It starts with what became the trailer, a scene with Kyle on a rooftop in Fallujah contemplating shooting a child and/or his mother as armored vehicles inch down a rubble-strewn street with US soldiers methodically going house-to-house, kicking doors in. He ultimately kills both, but before the shots are fired, the scene is interrupted for a little background.
We see a pre-teen Kyle hunting with his father, and fighting with schoolkids. At the family dinner table, his father explains that there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs, who protect the sheep from the wolves -- Kyle's worldview in a nut shell. Grown up, Kyle rides bulls and broncs in a rodeo. Then, after a news report of a terror attack he signs up for the Navy Seals. We then get many scenes of sadistic basic training, a bar break where he picks up a wife, intense sniper training, 9/11, and his first tour in Iraq, where his first kills were that child and mother.
The bulk of the film recounts his four tours in Iraq, each staged with an intense action sequence, separated by brief returns home as his family grows. Two of the action sequences involve talking to his wife on the phone, so she gets in on the war experience. As a sniper, Kyle lurks patiently on rooftops and in buildings, surveying the war calmly, methodically picking off "bad guys." But over time he seeks more action, so he joins in on clearing buildings, and is close by as two of his closest buddies get shot (one killed instantly, the other survived but was blinded and died in a later surgery).
The action intensifies, with the final battle ultimately won by Mother Nature as a sandstorm engulfed Sadr City. That was the one where he made an "impossibly long shot" to kill his nemesis, a notorious Syrian sniper, only to have his building surrounded by swarming enemies with AK-47s -- the intense action interrupted by a call to the wife to tell her he's "ready to come home now." Of course, the crowds ate it up. The postwar scenes were anticlimactic: at first he showed signs of PTSD, but they fade away as he dedicates his life to helping other veterans. He takes one multiple-amputee to the shooting range, and when the disabled vet hits the target, he announces that he feels like he got his balls back. Salvation through shooting becomes Kyle's cause. In the last scene, he gets into a truck with another PTSD-damaged vet. Then the movie cuts to black, revealing that the vet murdered Kyle that day. The movie ends with footage of Kyle's funeral, and indeed it is touching. Just not clear for what.
The film is based on Kyle's autobiography, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, written with two co-authors. The book came out in 2012 and was a bestseller before his death in 2013, and has sold many more copies (more than 1.2 million) since. The movie doesn't show anything about Kyle's post-Navy business or how the book and his self-promotion affected his life. The movie doesn't bring up Kyle's claim to have shot looters after Hurricane Katrina from atop the Superdome, or his story about "punching out Scruff Face" -- Jesse Ventura, who successfully sued Kyle's estate for libel (see Nicholas Schmidle: The Ventura Verdict).
This would be a good time to quote Wikipedia's paragraph on "Historical accuracy":
"The Butcher" is an "Al-Qaeda enforcer" who is shown attacking a child -- the son of a "sheik" who gave info to Americans after Kyle's team broke into his house -- with a drill. He is killed in the firefight after the scene with the weapons stash. Mustafa is an enemy sniper -- an Olympic-winning marksman from Syria who appears at least three times in the movie, becoming a personal obsession for Kyle. Kyle kills him with his 2100-yard long shot, as part of the climactic battle scene.
In other words, each and every significant encounter Kyle has with any Iraqi was invented for dramatic effect. (Presumably at least some of the anonymous, long-distance sniper kills come from the book. Kyle was credited with 160 kills. The movie shows maybe a dozen.) No doubt the fiction adds to the movie's drama. Perhaps it also whitewashes the US war effort, but Kyle was never more than a small cog in the military machine -- his rank after four tours was Chief Petty Officer, basically a sergeant -- and his approach to the war was so simplistic you hardly expect anything more: kill "bad guys"! Who are the "bad guys"? The ones who are trying to kill you.
One of Donald Rumsfeld's most indelible one-liners was that "you go to war with the army you have, not necessarily the one you want." The actual army that Kyle belonged to is defined simply: they are trained to be extraordinarily lethal, when deployed they are very focused on their own self-defense, and their primary defense strategy is to be as aggressive as possible. No one in Kyle's army questions why they are in Iraq. No one doubts their right to be where they are or go where they want. And everyone is deeply affronted any time they meet any form of resistance. No one recognizes that other points of view are possible. For Kyle, in particular, everyone he kills is evil; if not, he wouldn't have killed them. The whole movie, from the sheepdog story on, is testament to Kyle's moral certainty, and the tearful funeral excess just serves to elevate his moral certainty to the nation as a whole. And that's why the movie elicits such a solemn reaction from a certain kind of American: the one who believes that America is the greatest nation in the world, so great that the rest of the world can (or should) prostrate itself at our feet.
Nothing in the movie gives you a chance to question either the politics or the wisdom of Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq, let alone the wider trajectory of US involvement in the region. Even though most of the movie takes place in a foreign land, it never leaves an American mindset. For that reason it works as propaganda: even without explicit lies it reaffirms the war by not questioning it. What makes that worse is that the trajectory of understanding the Iraq war started to change with the Surge in 2007. The early period, 2003-04, was eventually viewed as an unmitigated disaster, but that boiled down to three things:
It's hard to remember that when Bush et al. conjured up this war, even though they led with the fear card, they tried to present the war like we'd be doing the Iraqis one big favor. That sentiment was one of the first casualties of the war. There's an old joke that goes: it's hard to remember that your mission was to drain the swamp when you're ass-deep in alligators. In the early days, Iraq was seen as an epic adventure in nation building. In the end, it's no more than alligator killing, which is probably why the SEALs are the last soldiers standing tall.
Moreover, the worldview has changed. Early in the War on Terror, the "bad guys" were few: the religious fanatics of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Baathist elites of Iraq and Syria, a few others -- as much oppressors of their own people as enemies of the US. However, it turns out that the US was never "greeted as liberators" -- that everywhere the US bombed turned into enemy territory. That should have led us to question our entire approach, indeed who we are, but not being capable of introspection, we've changed out view of them instead. Looking at the US response to ISIS, even we can imagine no upside: just a long slog of killing a neverending supply of "bad guys," because once we enter a region, practically everyone turns into "bad guys."
Of course, if you're not entranced by this latest, most vicious twist on "the American religion," it's possible to view American Sniper differently. It is a celebration of a cold blooded killer, but it also details his descent into PTSD, as he turns into someone his wife at one point says she no longer recognizes. Kyle at least saves himself by doubling down on the militaristic pietism that made him rich and famous, but he is surrounded by other vets who can't make that work -- including the one who killed him. It takes an extraordinary amount of empathy to watch this movie and conclude that the war has been disastrous for Iraqi families, even though there are scenes that show just that. But it should be easier to see how expensive the toll on American lives has been, whether you do or do not accord any special value to the lives of soldiers. Kyle should be viewed as a tragic figure in American history. He sure is no hero.
 Some links from previous posts:
We can add a few more:
One more thought about the movie. One thing that is loosely implied is that Kyle got a perverse satisfaction out of sniping, at least for a while. Bradley Cooper plays Kyle as exceptionally modest -- lots of other characters dub him "The Legend" and offer other accolades, but Kyle mostly sloughs them off. Even though he's always teamed with a spotter, sniping is patient and methodical work, not something full of adrenaline rushes. But as he goes from tour to tour, he keeps getting drawn back for more and more -- although he never articulates it, there is something to sniping that he never experienced before and that once he experienced it would be missing from his life. It reminded me of a remarkable interview in the second season of The Fall, where serial killer Paul Prescott explains the intense sensation of living that he feels when he kills someone. Of course, Prescott killed far fewer people than Kyle, and did so furtively against the law whereas Kyle was on his government's payroll -- the difference was that Kyle never had to hide what he was doing -- but both were similar in the meticulous, artful way they set up and dispatched their victims. (You can find a summary of the episode here, although it skips the part I'm referring to.)
Sunday, February 26. 2012
I figured the eve of the Academy Awards would be as good a time as any to catch up on the movies I mostly didn't see in 2011. We wound up seeing less than twenty, even counting a couple picked up on TV well after the fact. (Laura may have seen more of the latter, since she controls the TV and I rarely notice what she's watching.) In past years we've seen upwards of 80% of the Oscar-nominated films, falling short mostly in the crash-and-burn categories, but lots of things held us back in 2011, including short runs. (I caught The Skin I Live In on the last day of a one-week run, but more often than not things just slipped by -- I can't recall movies like Beginners and A Better Life ever appearing here, while Albert Nobbs waited until the week we had to go to Detroit.)
Seems like an exceptionally shallow year, even taking account of my light sampling. One indication of how far the industry has dumbed down is that nine of the ten highest-grossing films were sequels: Harry Potter, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Twilight Saga, Mission Impossible, Kung Fu Panda, Fast Five (as in Fast and Furious), The Hangover, and Cars -- the sole exception, at number nine, was another well-known franchise, The Smurfs. Three are animated. Most of the rest are non-stop action trysts. This may not prove we're sinking into the new Dark Age -- although the Republican primaries are hard to dismiss in that regard -- but if not we're sure suffering from a nasty case of ADHD. (Curiously, television, which has long seemed culpable as the prime destroyer of our attention spans, has rarely produced so many smart series and specials -- not that the dreck hasn't increased apace.)
The trend I hate the most is 3D, which pretty much spoiled Hugo for me until I was later able to reconstruct it without the diversions. Curious that the two most Oscar-nominated pictures are nostalgic tributes to the silent film era, as if the Academy is desperate to escape from the world the industry has created. I was underwhelmed by The Artist, occasionally flashing back to films like Modern Times showing that history itself offered better resolutions.
My own favorite movie limited its nostalgia to the 1950s, which is all I can remember anyway. Nothing wrong with my top five movies, but I doubt I could find a year in the last fifty that yielded less. No time to research that. Let the lists follow.
Movies I saw but that didn't get nominated for anything:
Movies that looked like they might be worth seeing: The Adventures of Tintin, Anonymous, A Better Life, Contagion, A Dangerous Method, Drive, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Margin Call, The Muppets, The Tree of Life, The Way.
Less sure about: Carnage, Cedar Rapids, The Conspirator, The Debt, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, In the Land of Blood and Honey, The Iron Lady, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Shame, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Super 8, Thor, War Horse, Warrior, Water for Elephants.
Also seems like some day I should see the Harry Potter movies.
Above lists come from perusing Wikipedia's 2011 in Film list. The list doesn't include some things, like any of the Foreign Language Film nominees (Bullhead, Footnote, In Darkness, Monsieur Lazhar, and A Separation).
Academy Awards by category:
Tuesday, March 1. 2011
Had thought about skipping the Oscars this year, figuring it would all be all too predictable, as indeed had a couple other awards shows I wound up watching. Still, was feeling pretty lethargic Sunday night, so that's where I wound up. The show itself was pretty dreadful, even with a couple of innovations to minimize the damage, like moving the director's award away from best picture -- look at how often the two are redundant -- and grouping the usual awful songs into two short segments. Other bright ideas didn't pan out so well. James Franco and Anne Hathaway showed why they'd always used comedian-emcees in the past. (Roger Ebert: "Incredibly, when former host Billy Crystal came onstage about two hours into the show, he got the first laughs all evening.") Not even the stunt with Franco in a red dress came with a punchline. (I would have settled for styling it as a Tony Curtis tribute.) Having last year's director winner give out this year's prize reminds you why they always used actors for that job. Even more egregious were the wedding vows between the Academy and ABC. Setting the best picture nominees to the climactic speech from The King's Speech either proved that they had peeked into the envelope or that they didn't care. Having Celine Dion sing over the deathwatch prevented anyone from getting a word in edgewise. The best actor and actress toasts weren't as bad as last year, but mostly because Jeff Bridges was talented and sane enough to read them straight and dispose of them quickly.
As for the movies what won or even placed, they're a pretty sad set. I thought The King's Speech was very smartly done, but it is a pretty trivial travail, much like the constitutional monarchy itself. If you believe that bloviating in front of a radio microphone was the key to winning WWII, you're certainly aware that Britain didn't need much of an effort from King George -- Timothy Spall's small role as Churchill easily covered that base. I've seen people complain about Oscar's predeliction for "Merchant-Ivory costume dramas" but The King's Speech was silly compared to films like Howard's End or The Remains of the Day. Same thing if you tried standing True Grit up to Unforgiven. About the only contending movie that doesn't have an obviously superior referent in the near past is The Social Network. I particularly liked the detail of when what's-his-name had some serious hacking to do and invoked emacs. Still, in the end the movie's about people with money running roughshod over people with less money, with no interest in wishing otherwise.
It's been getting difficult to get out to movies here in Wichita, partly due to the local monopoly and partly due to our own habits. Among the winners, didn't see The Fighter, Inception, Alice in Wonderland, or Toy Story 3 -- all of which were here for ample runs, although lots else came and went fast, or didn't come at all. I've mostly stopped trying to write up notes on movies seen, but will try to at least list them here. (I think I did the same thing last year.) Scrounged through my notes, looked at Wikipedia's 2010 in film page, racked my brain, and came up with this, pretty much in rank order as best I can recall:
Some more we wanted to see but didn't manage (*like because they never came here): Alice in Wonderland; Barney's Version*; Biutiful*; Blue Valentine; The Fighter; Inside Job; The Kids Are All Right; Mao's Last Dancer; Rabbit Hole; Somewhere*; The Tempest*; Toy Story 3; You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
Some other reputable films we never seriously considered: 127 Hours; Casino Jack; Despicable Me; The Illusionist; Inception; Jack Goes Boating; Love and Other Drugs; Morning Glory; Restrepo; Robin Hood; The Runaways; Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Saturday, November 13. 2010
Movie: The Hurt Locker: Finally watched the 2010 Academy Award Best Film on TV tonight. Politically, the film doesn't offer much, but least of all for liberals who think we might at least be trying to do something noble in Iraq. Conservatives won't be much bothered, because the terrorists come off as evil and ubiquitous and utterly without scruple, and the bystanders are suspicious and if they're technically innocent now, just give them time. The film is supposed to follow a support-your-troops line, but they all look like damaged goods, and even if they were damaged before they got to Iraq, I don't see why we should go around invading other countries just to satisfy their primal urges. The film is constructed around four or five bombs and an ambush, and they all provide the expected tension plus bits of technical sophistication. B+
Haven't been posting on movies lately. Haven't seen many, and haven't had much to say about those I've seen. I think the last movies I posted anything on, back in July, were Cyrus and The Secret in Their Eyes (both A-). Very briefly:
Movie: The Town: Nice aerial shots of Charlestown, MA, although I haven't been back since they built the new bridge, so the views strike me as a bit off. One bank robbery, one armored car, one more complicated caper at Fenway, plus some ancillary violence. Lead actor from The Hurt Locker returns as pretty much the same psychopath. Probably more gunplay this time, but that may just be that they prefer AK-47s and they run louder. I didn't buy the Rebecca Hall romance angle at all, but the FBI is as nefarious as ever. B+
Movie: The Social Network: The founding of Facebook and the squabbling over the spoils without anyone ever explaining why it's worth all the money it's supposedly worth. Works with sharp dialogue -- not least of which is that the technical jargon is fundamentally sound -- and lots of details that ring true even when they're ridiculous. A-
Movie: Never Let Me Go: Kazuo Ishiguro novel. Laura read it; found it "incredibly sad," which isn't really a good formula to transplant to the screen, not just because Carey Mulligan's tear (but not her mope) looked manufactured. More likely the novel has suspense and inner depth that couldn't be maintained or expanded. B
Movie: The Girl Who Played With Fire: Second in the trilogy that I haven't read but everyone else has. Good thing to have seen the first first. A-
Movie: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: In Swedish, finally granted a one-week showing as a warmup for the new second film. Swedish title: Män som hatar kvinnor. Over the top, what with the Nazi shit, but pretty extraordinary. A
Movie: Get Low: Robert Duvall plays a geezer, set in Tennessee in the late 1930s. He has something bad on his conscience, and decides to purge it by giving himself a funeral/party, offering his land as bait to draw a crowd. With Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. A-
Movie: Winter's Bone: Set in Ozarks among meth heads, with a 17-year-old girl raising two younger siblings with dad gone -- dead, actually -- and mom lost to the world. Plot line doesn't remind me of my Ozark relatives, but cooking and cleaning do. A-
Bad timing and/or minor squabbles kept us from seeing: The Kids Are All Right; Inception; Jack Goes Boating; Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps; It's Kind of a Funny Story; You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger; not sure what else. Lots of things don't get here fast and don't last long when they do. Only saw Up in the Air on TV a couple months ago -- much better than The Hurt Locker.
By the way, a few days after seeing The Social Network I finally set up my own Facebook account. Been thinking about it, and fretting about it, for a while, mostly because it provides a communications channel with my nieces/nephews who otherwise aren't very good at keeping in touch. One reason for not doing it is fear of getting swamped by the music industry, who already hit me with way too much spam, and had already lined up with a long list of pending friend requests. My rule for now is to ignore everything that comes in from musicians and publicists (so if you're one of them, that's why). May change that later, depending on how it works out. Since starting up, almost all of my posts have been short notices of blog posts. Thus far I don't like anything, don't have any meaningful info public, don't have a picture, don't have any pictures, have written only a couple of very brief comments on other people's posts. Don't know what the limits or parameters are -- I'm tending to think of it like what I imagine Twitter to be, although I have no interest in going near Twitter to make sure.
Monday, July 26. 2010
Two movie weekend, the first time I can remember that happening in a long, long time. Indeed, can't remember the last time we even saw a movie. (Checking back in the notebook, I see I did some movie posts in April.) Good ones, too.
Movie: The Secret in Their Eyes [El secreto de sus ojos]: Argentinian film, set in 1999 when a recently retired crime investigator decides to write a book about a 1974 rape-murder, cutting back and forth to trace the crime and investigation then and unravel a few last details still unclear. The murderer was caught and confessed, then was let out of jail by higher-ups as he was employed in Argentina's Dirty War. In fact, the murderer turns the tables and pursues the investigator, who flees Buenos Aires for a safe country retreat, at least until the junta fell and democracy was restored. Not much on the Dirty War directly, so it helps to know some history. Some interesting discussion of the death penalty. Won Oscar for Best Foreign Film. A-
Movie: Cyrus: Small film gets by on actors and more or less improv dialogue. John C. Reilly is divorced from Catherine Keener, who graciously struggles to help him get over it. Doesn't much work until he stumbles across Marisa Tomei, who is starved for the attention Reilly offers, mostly because she's smothered by her 21-year-old unweened son, Jonah Hill. He feels the rivalry and sets out to subvert the budding relationship in a guerrilla war with O'Reilly. Works out, sort of. A-
Belatedly caught up with Yes Man [B] and The Invention of Lying [A-]. Jonah Hill had one of many good small parts in the latter. Again, words are key; goodwill too.
Sunday, April 18. 2010
Movie: The Ghost Writer: Film by Roman Polanski, about a deposed British Prime Minister with a long history of servitude to and seconding of the United States, including roles in American wars in the Middle East and possible war crimes, and a ghost writer picked to help out with the PM's memoirs. Ewan McGregor plays the writer; Pierce Brosnan the PM. McGregor replaced a previous writer who had somewhat mysteriously perished from a ferry, and who had left evidence that compromised Brosnan's background story. The plot machinations aren't that important, although the CIA will be flattered both to find out that they were able to manipulate a foreign government over decades and that they were so effective at killing people who might blow the story open. Brosnan's crimes seem unlikely to provoke either the ICC or the sudden mass of protestors -- Tony Blair never did, nor does George Bush appear to have much to worry about even though he did far worse -- but I suppose Polanski is free to dream of a better world. One thing he does enjoy here is the notion that the PM/war criminal should be forced to take refuge in the United States, the country that currently regards Polanski as a famous fugitive from justice. Some justice. A-
Saturday, April 17. 2010
Movie: Green Zone: Not often that I've read the book a movie is putatively based on, but I did make it through Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. You might as well read the quotes since you won't get any of the information much less the flavor from Paul Greengrass's movie, which abbreviates a good deal more than the title, and makes up so much stuff you wonder why they didn't go all the way and make up new names for Baghdad and Iraq -- the answer there was probably that the scenarios of mass destruction were too tempting. The background scenes and the thick swell of anonymous people are the most noteworthy parts of the movie. Matt Damon is determined to get to the bottom of the WMD nonsense, but his aperçu that General Al-Rawi is informant "Magellan" is based on nothing more than the concidence of Al-Rawi travelling to Jordan at the same time as Greg Kinnear's character -- didn't Jordan in due course turn out to be where anyone met everyone? Searching for someone in the US government to be less stupid than Kinnear, Greengrass appoints the CIA chief, played by Brendan Gleeson, a role I see "loosely based on Jay Garner" (i.e., not on anyone actually in the CIA). The cat-and-mouse game between Damon and Al-Rawi provides a few chase sequences, where the US forces, riding humvees and helicopters, are so burdened down with armor and gear they resemble nothing more than clunky reptillian alien invaders -- a half-movie idea given that they couldn't bother to characterize any of the victims of the invasion, except for a translator named "Freddy," who manages to get off the one true line of the story, telling Damon that it's not America's right to decide what happens in his country. B
Movie: Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges is bad enough as Bad Blake in a country music-alcohol-rehab rehab film that doesn't get too cute or clever yet which still manages some uplift. B+
Movie: Shutter Island: Martin Scorsese film, based on Dennis Lehane novel, with Leonardo DiCaprio a marshall supposed to be investigating curious events at a Massachusetts Bay jail for the criminally insane before he and the film fall off the deep end. Flashbacks to the dead at Dachau and elsewhere unhinge any sense of reality, as does an improbably providential storm. C+
Movie: The Messenger: An injured Iraq War veteran assigned to the Army's Casualty Notification service (Ben Foster), partnered with a frustrated Captain who got no more than a cup of coffee in the first Iraq War. They serve notice on a half dozen next-of-kins, with a range of reactions, a fair cross section of the recruit class -- no doubt more poignant for focusing on the families as opposed to the soldiers. Samantha Morton has a strong part as one of the bereaved -- her stoicism attracts Foster, but I was more impressed the one time she lost it, chasing off a pair of Army recruiters at a local mall. As for Woody Harrelson, who got the raves including an Oscar nomination, he reminds me of why is revered for its discipline but deep down is simply fucked up. A-
Tuesday, March 9. 2010
Last time I decided to write up notes/grades on movies as I saw them, then I promptly failed to do so. This should catch me up:
Movie: The Road: Bleak post-apocalypse movie, in a world where virtually all plant and animal life have been decimated, with a man and his son trekking cross-country to find the shore and hopefully something better. Lots of rough spots, some with cannibals. Viggo Mortensen literally carries the movie. B+
Movie: Avatar: Tends to get by on its impressive technical achievements, but I actually enjoyed the human sequences, even with their mechanical overkill, more than the computer-generated stuff, which among other things scaled the sets way too vertically. Way too much in almost every way, not least the constant fighting both as law of the jungle and battle for the planet. Story line has been compared to Pocahontas, but note one big difference: these natives had a good share of domesticated animals. Shows someone has read Jared Diamond. B+
Movie: The Last Station: The last year of Leo Tolstoy, with his political interest, his cult followers, his estranged but not invisible wife -- the latter role most likely puffed up for the film, which is only fair for Helen Mirren. Seems awkward and troubling at first, with nobody really living up to their roles, but this has grown fonder over time, so maybe I have it underrated. B+
Movie: Coraline: Caught on TV. Animated feature, Oscar-nominated, mostly left me dumbfounded, although there's some brilliantly inventive visual gags, and the bacon frying sure looked tasty. B
Movie: Lemon Tree: We also saw this 2008 Israeli movie (on DVD), directed by Eran Riklis. The setup is an Israeli Defense Minister moves to a big new house adjacent to a lemon grove owned by a widowed Palestinian woman. The lemon trees are soon perceived to be a security threat, so the DM muscles his way into the grove, setting up a guard post, fencing the trees in where the owner can no longer take care of them or live off them, at one point sending troops in to steal lemons, and eventually pruning the trees to bare stumps beyond a huge concrete wall. The DM's wife observes all this with some disease but little resolve. The Palestinian woman recruits a lawyer to challenge the encroachment, and the case works its way to Israel's supreme kangaroo court. As the lawyer points out, happy endings only occur in American films. The conflict is contained in relatively simple terms: the impact of custom on both sides, the construction of barriers that cannot be broken down by neighbors, the omnipresent threat of Israeli force. In the end the Palestinian resource is destroyed and the DM's house is estranged from the world. For Israel this is what success looks like. A-
Watched the Oscars, which must mean that historically it has more credibility than the Grammys (which I never watch). Watched it with less interest than in many years, probably because I had seen so few movies this past year, maybe even because the few nominees that I had seen were so underwhelming.
Of course, Michael Moore's film isn't fair competition here. The best movie I saw this year was Cheri -- totally missed in the Oscar process even though Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates made the show as presenters.
I wound up dropping The Soloist a notch from my previous note; I may have A Serious Man and The Last Station a bit underrated. Lots of things we meant to see and didn't get to -- (500) Days of Summer, Broken Embraces, Coco Before Chanel, Crazy Heart, District 9, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Hurt Locker, The Informant, The Messenger, Nine, Precious, Sin Nombre, A Single Man, Up in the Air, The Young Victoria -- partly endless demands on weekends, partly the sad state of Wichita theatres (meaning local monopolist Warren Theatres).
Sunday, January 3. 2010
Tried to catch some movies over the holidays, but with all the inclement didn't manage to get out much.
Movie: Where the Wild Things Are: Didn't take a lot away from this, other than to remember childhood as a time best forgotten. The monsters didn't seem very functional: they did join enthusiastically into Max's violent fantasies, but the wear and tear was rough. B
Movie: Sherlock Holmes: Guy Ritchie's action film ultimately recapitulated the rational deductions of the master sleuth, but in quickly tossed off sequences after running us through huge amounts of hokum. The action sequences were better cut short for the trailer, where their outrageousness is more amusing. Robert Downey and Jude Law were entertaining, at least when Rachel McAdams wasn't around. Still, the only thing I was repeatedly struck by was the set direction. B
Movie: Invictus: Title comes from a poem by William Ernest Henley, referred to by Nelson Mandela trying to inspire the Springboks rugby team captain. A sports story tailor made for film: how post-Apartheid South Africa united behind a rugby team that had long been a symbol of Afrikaner racial dominance, and how the team's captain, and ultimately the team, picked itself up to win a World Cup. Someone would have inevitably done this, but we're lucky Clint Eastwood got the story -- not least for casting Nelson Mandela with the note-perfect Morgan Freeman. The scenes are eye-opening, the substory with the body guards measures the pulse of the movie. The big game drama is a bit of an ordeal, especially without much comprehension of the sport. My main thought during that slog was: thank God they're not playing cricket. B+
Saturday, December 5. 2009
Movie: Capitalism: A Love Story: Sure, a tale of woe and heartbreak if ever there was. This is Michael Moore, back in Flint 20 years after GM shut the city down to give him a plot for Roger & Me, but mostly on and about Wall Street, where he's like to toss everyone in the slammer, or at least find someone who can explain what the hell a deriviative is. Starts with a sequence on the fall of the Roman Empire, the scenes taken from movies -- I'd swear I caught a quick glimpse of Zero Mostel -- and intercut with contemporary American shots. It's a clever, telling sequence, followed by a loving paean to union-bolstered middle class life in the 1950s, which is in turn wrecked by a Jimmy Carter speech ("bummer") and as accurate a synopsis of Ronald Reagan as I've seen. Moore has a big advantage over every liberal pundit in America because he actually understands the new left paradigm, and because he's generally willing to let the chips fall where they may -- lots of politicians and bankers get skewered here, but Chris Dodd may suffer the most mortal wounds. In particular, he does a neat job of tying war into the build up and destruction of the middle class, starting with pictures of devastated Germany and Japan to illustrate how little competition GM had in the good old days. The one guy who catches a break is Obama, who is shown saying things that confirm Moore's ideal of change we can believe in, while the point about how much money Wall Street put into Obama's campaign is handled in a mere voiceover with corporate logos. And while Tim Geithner gets hit hard, nobody points out that he is Obama's Treasury Secretary. Moore's case stories are well selected, even though he could have come up with hundreds others just as effective: a lot of people get evicted, just like in Roger & Me, but this time he puts more emphasis on fighting back, and on a couple of occasions that even works. One bit I particularly liked showed two businesses owned and run democratically by employees. I'm a big believer in employee-owned businesses. One bit I enjoyed more than I expected to was the stuff with Jesus and the Catholic clergy vs. capitalism. The fact is that Christianity is one of the few pre-capitalist institutions that still has some sway these days, so why not make something of that. Even more important was FDR's Second Bill of Rights speech: something hardly any Americans know about, something all should. His aside that Roosevelt's dreams have in fact been implemented almost everywhere else in Europe and Japan could have been underscored. I didn't agree with Moore's conclusion: that capitalism is evil and can't be fixed by regulation. I think we can do a lot with regulation -- enough to make the productivity of capitalism balance favorably against the predatory instincts of capitalists. But the pendulum has swung so far the other way that a minor quibble with the correction doesn't detract from a superb movie. A
Catching up, working backwards:
Movie: An Education: Set in 1961, a 16-year-old English girl facing a steep uphill climb to college and the world falls in with an older con man, who is even more successful at seducing her parents than her. The relationship eventually goes bust, which comes as something of a relief. He isn't completely sordid, and she isn't completely naive, but the world she comes from was so claustrophobic that it really needed some opening up. Interesting that the BBC Masterpiece Collision had a very similar subplot, set today, the main difference being that the guy had to be much richer to get the attention of the girl. A-
Movie: A Serious Man: Coen Brothers movie, presumably set close to their own adolescence in suburban Minnesota in 1967. A tormented father (Michael Stuhlbarg), wife, two teenage children, the man the wife wants to marry, and a panoply of rabbis, lawyers, and a dentist. Mostly works (or doesn't) according to the Jewish in-humor, much quite funny. B+
Movie: Julie & Julia: Split story of Julia and Paul Child in Paris in the 1950s intercut with Julie Powell's blog year of cooking from Child's pathbreaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci were superb as expected, but I enjoyed Amy Adams' performance as much, and thought it hit the right balance between idolatry and ambition. Also, Adams got most of the food shots, mostly finished dishes whereas Streep was more often slaving over a mountain of onions. Bought the book -- Child's cookbook, that is -- but I still have 524 recipes to go, ETA well over 365 days. A-
Movie: Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarrantino's WWII fantasy, really just another movie exaggerating the importance of movies, a subject Tarrantino actually knows something about (unlike WWII). As history revised beyond the point of absurdity, this reminded me of a Sylvester Stallone vehicle called Victory -- you know, the one where the Nazis, losing the war, decide to recoup their losses by staging a soccer match in Paris against allied POWs (including Brazilian star Pele) and manage to lose that too. I thought that Christoph Waltz's scenes were too hammy and ran on too long, and that Brad Pitt's command of English was even worse than his Italian. Of course, there is lots of marvelous stuff here, and the violence gets by with Tarrantino's usual catharsis, although somewhat less so than in the past. B+
Movie: Public Enemies: John Dillinger gangster movie, although I gather the book it was based on focused more broadly on the FBI from 1933-43. I can't say I was in the mood, but it was nicely shot, and the law enforcement officers were suitably creepy -- especially Billy Crudup's portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover. It's hard to think of anyone in US government whose reputation took a steeper nosedive immediately after his death. B
Saturday, August 15. 2009
I guess if I'm going to do movie notes I should get them over with quickly.
Movie: Star Trek: We waited long enough on this one to catch it at a second-run theater, affectionately referred to as the Cheap Seats. I have some pedigree as a fan, given that I watched the original TV series both when it came out and in endless reruns. Also saw the first four or five movies, but never sat still for Next Generation or any of the other spinoffs. This attempts to wipe the slate relatively clean by posing an alternate reality corrupted by time travel. Just as well, given how poorly the original crew aged -- especially the second tier actors, who never were very good in the first place. On the other hand, youth can be a handicap too. Especially for Kirk, whose brilliance is repeatedly asserted but rarely suggested much less proved: in fact, he spends much of the movie getting his face smashed in and getting out of jams only through the most improbable luck. Two scenes were especially rotten: when as a child he skids a vintage Corvette into the Grand Canyon of Iowa, and when he hacks the "no win" Kobayashi Maru simulation but he acts like it's a big joke. The new Spock is even less convincing. That these two are the best and brightest of Star Fleet suggests how far the current dumbing down of the military can go over the next three or four centuries. With the background development asides and the time chewed up by protracted action sequences -- the dragon on an ice planet was a low point -- there wasn't much time for plot development, so they ran through that part pretty quick. It's all pretty crackpot, but not that hard to take. It's still worth point out that the movies seem stuck with war plots, where the original TV series was more interested in exploring new worlds, especially ones that were sci-fi variations of our own. While the movie is now set up for a protracted series of movie sequels, it would be much more interesting to scale these new versions of the old characters back down to weekly TV size. One saving grace was Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime. He not only provided what little sense there was to the movie, he gave it some much needed dignity. The second-tier actors were also much better than their prototypes, especially Simon Pegg as Scotty. B
Sunday, August 9. 2009
Movie: Wanted: Saw this on TV last night (not sure of the source, since that's not my department). Supposedly based on a comic book, a convenient excuse for all sorts of nonsense. Aside from the physics, which starts with a guy who can run so fast his passing sucks papers out of file cabinets to all sorts of curving slow-motion bullet paths, the normal office dialog sets new levels for stupidity and plain meanness -- so bad that the ridiculous action sequences are appreciated more for rescuing the audience than for advancing the plot. Terence Stamp has a bit part that could have grown, but that too is cut short by another bloody assault. C-
Movie: Mamma Mia: Saw this on TV last week. Stage musical given an overly lavish set direction which does nothing to shape up the story. Not sure if any new music was written for this, as there were a couple of songs I didn't recognize -- fewer in reading the song list than in watching the movie, which says something about the performances. In any case, the fit of the songs to the story (or vice versa) is tenuous, and the father mystery is a slender joke to hang this all on -- something that could have used some more story but keeps succumbing to song, leaving Amanda Seyfried beamy-eyed, confused, and silly. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters supposedly have a little story, but they squander it in their numbers. The three male leads are good-natured props, except when they try to sing or show up in flashback photos. That leaves Meryl Streep, which is why anyone bothered watching this in the first place. C+
For a long time I wrote little notes/grades on movies I saw. Sometime over a year ago I fell behind -- last one I posted was November 2007 -- and never caught up, nor does it look like I'll catch up anytime soon. I do at least have a list with grades, which I'll flip around for most recent first. We haven't been seeing many movies since Warren shut down their low budget artsy theater. Bill Warren announced that the land had been called to a "higher use" then sold it off to a church. At the time, he promised more serious movies at his other venues, and pointed out that he had to because his wife was a big art movie fan. Not only did he double cross us there, he divorced the wife for good measure. A friend recently moved to Salina, and comparing notes I find out they get movies there that we never see. You might think someone could open a theater that would fill the niche of the one Warren shut down, but it would be awfully hard to raise the money to go up against his virtual monopoly in this town.
For whatever it's worth, the movies (note: only 4 from 2009):
While we're at it, I'll also list some 2008 (more or less) films I didn't note, probably because I caught them later on the tube.
Thursday, November 22. 2007
Movie: We Own the Night. A movie about New York cops, family guilt trips, and drug dealing Russian emigré gangsters. The most striking thing about it is that there are no more than 2 or 3 scenes in the whole film where anyone appears to be having a good time. They involve drug use, but are hardly limited to it. Rather, drugs are just one part of a free and open enjoyment of life. You sure don't find any pleasure among the cops, nor are the gangsters much better, but at least they aren't as stuck up as the cops. The latter don't even appear to have a bad apple on the take, less an avoidance of a cliché than an escape from reality. Mark Wahlberg plays the most rigidly hectoring cop in memory, at least until he gets shot and starts to smell the roses. By then his club manager brother [Joaquin Phoenix] has turned around to fill the breach. We're supposed to be inspired, but we can tell he's going to be a miserable prick for the rest of his probably short life, and he deserves it. (Robert Duvall, in a thankless role, plays the father who put these two basket cases together.) Some scenes are sharply drawn and a pleasure to watch. But if I had to draw a lesson from the film, it's that the worst two groups of people to allow anywhere near the drug trade are gangsters and cops. It would be so much better just to legalize the shit, treat those who can't handle them, and let everybody else enjoy their freedom. B-
Movie: Michael Clayton. I hate guys with gambling problems, not to mention movies about them, so that's one strike against the lawyer George Clooney plays here. That's about the only one. He has a sense of place, an understanding of what he's good at and when he's in over his head, that is refreshing, and put to good use. That's a skill that the corporate lawyer played by Tilda Swinton doesn't have, and she winds up paying for it in a deeply satisfying ending. Tom Wilkinson's unbalanced litigator doesn't have that skill either, but he has occasional moments of magnificence, and will get an Oscar nomination for them. A-
Movie: Gone Baby Gone. Boston crime movie, with private detectives [Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan] called in to augment the police investigation of a child abduction. The ultimate ending strikes me as much too pat, although it raises a real question about what Affleck should do and what it costs him to do that. Meanwhile, the characters, excepting the head cop [Morgan Freeman], are finely drawn, the local color is so bright you gotta wear shades, and the pacing has a couple of interesting twists. Affleck's gumshoe is an interesting mix of soft speak and quick moves -- Monaghan explains that he only looks young. A-
Movie: The Darjeeling Limited. Wes Anderson movie, follows three well-heeled brothers on a trek across India trying to put their relationships in order after their father died, their mother ran off to a convent in the Himalayas, and the dominant, presumably elder one [Owen Wilson] cracked his face in a motorcycle accident. The other two [Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman] are reticent, outwardly submissive, inwardly fraught. It doesn't make for much of a story, but sets up various skits. Meanwhile, the scene and its people take over the movie. India is so overwhelming it's hard to tell when or if it's being satirized. A stupid scene with a snake ends smartly. A funeral turns touching, in contrast to the father's flashbacked funeral. An encounter with the mother [Anjelica Huston] is anticlimactic. B+
Movie: Into the Wild. I read Jon Krakauer's book a few years ago, so for once I have that reference point. The book is far more ambivalent about its subject than the movie is, partly due to Krakauer's own troubled identification with Alexander Supertramp, partly because he's looking backwards for clues, whereas the movie's camera always has a clear shot of the story -- after all, no matter how skeptical we are about what we read, seeing is believing. The puzzle quality is retained in interleaving the fatal Alaska venture with the mostly good fortunes that preceded it. It's hard to draw any conclusions about either: each episode strikes me as arbitrary and meaningless, which is the way real life works but unknown in fiction. Given this, it's hard to derive any satisfaction from the story, but the film is something else. It shows you things you rarely if ever see, and gives you slices of lives that rarely if ever get shown. Numerous small performances are notable, especially Catherine Keener's. A-
Movie: Lions for Lambs. Supposedly, three legs will stand without wobbling even on uneven terrain. This story is built from three such sticks, but each is so flimsy they collapse of their own weight. In one, two Special Forces soldiers -- one Afro-American, one Mexican-American -- are sent on a "forward point" mission to the top of a mountain in Afghanistan. Their helicopter is shot up, they fall or jump onto an ice field, and are finished off by Taliban while their commanding officers watch helpless from some sort of satellite feed. Mission unaccomplished, FUBAR actually. Meanwhile, a Senator in DC, played by Tom Cruise, is trying to plant a story about how this new strategy will bring victory in the GWOT, lecturing and cajoling a skeptical reporter played by Meryl Streep. Cruise gets a phone call near the end of the interview which may be news of the mission's debacle, but that's not part of the story he's leaking. Streep then goes to her editor, who's eager to be spooned whatever the government wants to feed him, but rejects Streep's suspicions as not newsworthy. Meanwhile, a Stanford poli-sci professor, played by director Robert Redford, is chewing out a cynical, smart-alecky, rich kid student for not giving a damn and making a commitment -- unlike two underprivileged students he had who were so engaged by the professor they joined the army to prove themselves, and wound up in Afghanistan, dead in the ice high on a remote mountain -- an ending presumably unknown by Redford, although he's so full of shit it's hard to be sure. There's enough in these angles to yield some powerful lessons -- the impotence of the military, the callousness of the politicians, the callowness of the media, the fatuousness of academia, the futile hopes of the lower class and the withdrawal of the upper class -- but that would take more skill and brains than fit the budget here. (Aside from the name actors, the budget must have been pretty skimpy: the Afghanistan sequence looks crappy, and the rest, aside from a cab ride, was shot in interiors, mostly in two offices.) The best critique comes from the otherwise dislikable student when he observes that the only science in politics these days is the study of manipulation, and that in turn dismissed any interest he initially had in Redford's class. The Cruise-Streep thread has some interest for that reason alone -- he handles the word "victory" like a chef's knife, eviscerating Streep's instinct to resist. But Cruise's manipulations are slicker but not far from standard issue neocon propaganda: the willingness to say whatever it takes to get whatever one wants is the ethical norm. Redford's thread is hamstrung from the start, not least because he's bought the notion that process -- commitment, engagement, etc. -- is all that's needed to balance off the right. This asymmetry is indeed a big part of what's wrong: if I'm willing to share and you want it all, even a compromise favors you. The trap that Cruise and his ilk prey on is the concession that there's any justification for war. Give them an inch and they'll slip their favorite war through it, because even a little war compounds ferociously. Redford and Cruise both share blame for getting those soldiers killed: the former by getting them committed without giving them principles, and the latter by abusing their commitment. C+
Some movies that came to Wichita that we thought about seeing but didn't make it to: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; Eastern Promises; Elizabeth: The Golden Age; The Kingdom; Rendition; Things We Lost in the Fire. Curiously, we saw trailers to two after they left town. Movies still here that we might get to: American Gangster; No Country for Old Men.
Tuesday, October 2. 2007
Movie: Hairspray. Somehow this one slipped my mind last time around. This, of course, is the recent movie version of the Broadway musical which preserves the characters and story line from John Waters' original movie, but unfortunately not the music. The original movie soundtrack was possibly the greatest soundtrack album of all time. Of course, the story line helped a lot -- the movie is about integrating teen dancing shows in Baltimore in the early 1960s, the golden age of one-shot dance-callout pop tunes like "Do the Twist." Still, you have to compliment Waters for his remarkably sharp ear. Replacing genuine teen dance toons with fake Broadway ones is a big step in the doo-doo, even if they're still better than the plot-advancing songs that bind Broadway theater in cliché. The other big change is in the acting. Waters' original was squeaky-PG-clean, at least if you're not allied with the Klan, but still it was a trip to see his usual troop of actors, like Divine and Mink Stole as well as arty celebs like Debbie Harry, working family fare. The new movie stick with bankable Hollywood stars -- the sole exception a cameo with Waters that is disposed with during the opening song-and-dance, a bit of humor they never dared return to. So the new movie falls short, if not completely off the table. The new stars are likable enough -- Christopher Walken and Michelle Pfeiffer are especially fine choices, and Amanda Bynes makes the most of a lollipop and a lot of pogo dancing. And the movie does remind me that the real merit of musicals isn't the music -- it's the dancing. It helps a lot that the plot allows for a lot of dancing. A-
Movie: In the Valley of Elah. This film touches a personal phobia of mine. I recall that back when the draft board figured me for cannon fodder in Vietnam, I was more afraid of the army than of the war. The military is a deliberately brutalizing culture -- how else can they accomplish their appointed tasks of destroying the enemy? This movie gives us both sides of the schizophrenia locked into that culture: the sense of duty that leads to killing and the casual madness that comes with it. Tommy Lee Jones, as the Vietnam vet father of an OIF soldier, pushes hard on the duty end. The son merely dies for it -- I'm more tempted to make him out as the victim of the father than of George Bush -- not that I'm inclined to let the latter off easy either. It's obvious to me that the experience of war damages soldiers -- I knew that even when I was a teenager. That's the small lesson here, and we get to see Jones recognize that much -- evidently he does recall something from Vietnam after all. Too bad he hadn't realized it earlier. A-
Movie: 3:10 to Yuma. Don't remember the original, which makes this one luckier than Hairspray. Reviewers say this one is more violent and more cynical. I'd say that anything else would have been a major uphill struggle against the times, and clearly this movie isn't to for that. On the other hand, the 14-year-old kid's suggestion that they just shoot Ben Wade would have been even more au courant, but following it would have left them without a movie -- so score that for cynical after all. The kid offers that same solution several times to several problems -- he's more trigger-happy than Indiana Jones if not George Bush. The main treat here is watching Russell Crowe suddenly kill one of his guards while the others watch dumbfoundedly, then smile wanly and escape any further consequences. Indeed, even after he is delivered to the train, you still realize there will be no consequences. He's as lucky a killer as Americans wish to be, and a lot better at it than Americans actually are. These days we're easily impressed by competency -- it's not like there's a lot of it around. The other treats are the gritty Arizona scenery and the minor characters. B