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December 16, 2011


It's March when the year actually begins. One of the hallmarks of the year (aside from the Ryan Gosling requisite) is the plethora of films with the overarching theme that life as we find it circa 2011 is unsatisfactory and either in need of or at the mercy of some outside control -- from software to drugs to disease to weather to cults.

In George Nolfi's Adjustment Bureau, based on Philip K. Dick's short story "Adjustment Team," high-tech engineers just below or parallel to our reality constantly re-adjust the trajectory of human lives any time those lives begin to veer from the pre-conceived manual that dictates each life. With love in the balance, questions of free-will vs. predestination loom.

Likewise Duncan Jones's (of 2008's wonderful, low-budget, non-CGI Moon) Source Code (dripping in CGI) hinges on the free will or no question with a man who, unwittingly incarnated as someone else in order to prevent a disaster, relives the same train bombing (ala Groundhog Day) -- through special software -- until he can discover the bomber. Love is again in the balance.

In Neil Burger's Limitless a secret super-drug allows a man suffering writer's block to become a super-mind not only as a novelist but as a financial wiz, pianist, multi-lingual wunderkind, until, in mad scientist fashion, it begins to become clear that the drug destroys the body it inhabits. Or maybe not. One of the year's first annoyingly ambiguous endings.

In Hanna, Joe Wright's title character has been endowed with her super-human abilities through CIA genetic engineering. She has been sheltered in Scandinavian hiding by her father until she comes of age, with no knowledge of her exceptionalism. Now the moment has come for her to to be unleashed upon the world, and the CIA makes every action-movie attempt to destroy what it hath wrought.

Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel, Sarah's Key chronicles a conspiracy of silence about events in Vichy France. In 1942 French police, under pressure from the Vichy government, rounded up 13,000 Parisian Jews. The prisoners were taken to the Vel d'Hiv bicycle racetrack, and after being held there under harrowing conditions that make the Louisiana Superdome pale, were carted to Auschwitz. Ten year old Sarah does not realize that by trying to save her brother by locking him in a secret closet she is sealing him in a coffin. The story is harrowing, but it is undercut by the narrative, which has a modern day journalist who is researching the events come to her personal epiphany about her own domestic life. The contemporary story is just too slight to run parallel to the historic one.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns was writing the script for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion while New York City was in the midst of the H1N1 flu scare, and its authenticity and plausability make it a standout among pandemic movie thrillers. A virus has jumped species and, AIDS-like, has hopped a ride on a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago to start its exponential binge across the North American continent. Burns consulted with Dr. Ian Lipkin, head of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, to create the fictional disease and the narrative arc of its devastation based on actual examples in public health databases.

No one should ever remake a Sam Peckinpah film but Rod Lurie did. In Straw Dogs, Harvard educated David arrives with his wife in her hometown of Blackwater, Mississipi. There is a palpable sense of us and them, red state/blue state. The local yahoos don't so much conspire to torment the couple for their high-falutin' ways, as they are inexorably compelled by some genetic magnet to do so. The struggle to survive the onslaught becomes the struggle for David to prove himself a man. Whereas Lurie weighs the story down with American cultural stereotypes, Peckinpah took it out of those particulars by setting it in a small English village. And though Lurie stays true to the narrative, he is no match for Peckinpah's lyrical ballet of violence. Malcolm Jones, writing in The Daily Beast observes that, "ultimately, [Peckinpah] makes you feel the catharsis in violence, the adrenaline rush, and the shame in that. Peckinpah’s true genius lay in his ability to make art out of the contradictions in his own heart." Lurie is not up to that end of the challenge.

Robert Redford's historical drama The Conspirator tells the true story of the widowed Mary Surratt whose son was among the Lincoln conspirators. Mary owned a boarding house and arranged for them to meet there. In the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination, John Wilkes Booth is killed in a shootout; then his fellow plotters, including Mary, are rounded up, arrested and tried, not by a jury of their peers but by a committee of officers. Mary, who maintains her innocence, is defended by the at first skeptical, then sympathetic, Reverdy Johnson. Redford draws deliberate parallels between the conspirators of 1865 and present-day Guantánamo detainees, and the film sometimes feels heavy-handed. That said, Redford shot the film using only natural light from windows or oil lamps in order to evoke the aura of a time before electrification, making the overall look beautifully hushed and almost monochromatic.

Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter was hailed by critics. It is a beautiful looking film, and a reflection of the troubled and uncertain times facing ordinary people who thought they had worked hard to scrape together their little part of the American Dream. Is this blue collar, hardworking husband with a deaf daughter protecting his family from impending disaster from the elements or from the possible onset of schizophrenia, for which he is genetically predisposed? Beautifully acted by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain (the actress du jour) as his wife, we are drawn into their vortex until we hit the conclusion of one of those cop-out ambiguous endings.

Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene also deals with the terror that accompanies a loss of identity, in this case having befallen a young woman as a result of coming under the spell of a cult leader who lives as a charismatic bigamist, ritualistically bedding all of the women in the commune. In order to hold onto a degree of sanity she has numbed herself to herself. Escaping to the refuge of her sister and brother-in-law, she struggles to find herself again, but having lived so long with so little in the rural household, she has difficulty surrounded by the upper middle class excess of their domestic milieu. Again, beautifully filmed, artfully acted -- and yet another cop-out ambiguous ending. [I have nothing against ambiguity on principle. I DO have something against lazy story telling. "Gee. How are we going to end this story. Oh, let's just leave it ambiguously up in the air, and we won't have to bother."]

I'll finish up "Conspiracy" with Lars von Trier's Melancholia, in which the conspiracy is against earth and the conspirator is the planet Melancholia specifically or indifferent nature generally. There are often times when von Trier's attempts to infuse his movies with Important Ideas make a mash of everything. Such it is here with a story about very rich people, especially a lugubrious new bride who remains wed all of about 24 hours, with nothing better to do with themselves than be mean to each other while gradually coming to the realization that The End Is Near. Ultimately we don't give a fig about anyone in the whole loopy clan, and hope that the planet will just hurry up and get there.

Post Script: And alas, then there was -- this requires me to divulge that I actually paid to see this utterly worthless piece of conspiratorial junk -- dare I say it -- Atlas Shrugged: Part I, directed by Paul Johansson. Here the conspiracy is anything remotely humane against the One True Faith: Capitalism. I read Ayn Rand's turgid paean to capitalism and greed when I was 11 or so, and like an 11 year old, could be in thrall to such things. Then promptly got over it. How an adult Tea Partier of any stripe could find this pseudo-literary pomposity maquerading as philosophy interesting, much less bow to it as gospel, is beyond me. Yet there I was, amidst an audience drooling in rapt obeisance, and I was cautious lest they be packing heat. Aside from its fan base, others did not subject themselves to this hulking joke, and consequently, rumor has it, there will be no Part II. Thanks be to the gods.

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