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January 16, 2013


John Hillcoat's Lawless was written by Nick Cave and is based on Matt Bondurant's Appalachian bootleg novel The Wettest County in the World based on his forebears' true story. It's 1931, and the Bondurant brothers dominate the bootleg business in Franklin County, Virginia, supplying speakeasies throughout the region. A sadistic Mysterious Stranger in the guise of Chicago lawman Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce as The Devil Himself) rides into town to get in on the action. The Bondurants will have none of it, and bring a mob boss (Gary Oldham) in to assure that everyone's palms are greased in the manner to which they're accustomed. As the movie progresses we get each of the three brothers' -- Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) -- stories. Beyond the basic narrative line, the film does little by way of exploring its historical time and place. Lawless has its moments -- a Mennonite love interest (Mia Wasikowska) for Jack and The Prostitute with a Heart of Gold (Jessica Chastian) for Forrest -- but overall it is formulaic and clichéd. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

The lust for money is not unique to the United States, but money, commerce and exploitation have been central to the American Dream since 104 English men and boys settled Jamestown, and the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Lately the stories America tells itself about itself have run rife with cynicism, and Nicholas Jarecki's Arbitrage is another cynical tale about Very Rich People (VRP) who can get away with anything because... well, because they can. Neither hedge-fund manager Robert Miller (Richard Gere) nor his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) seem to do much of anything worthwhile. Writing in the NYT, Manohla Dargis observes that "It’s an enviable life, at least from the outside where most of us will be, pressing our noses against the screen to watch the beautiful and not yet damned." Arbitrage does bring to mind the starving serfs gazing through the windows of the Winter Palace while the Tzar's party feasts. Miller is selling his hedge-fund company, which baffles his daughter (Brit Marling) who is on the payroll and gets inquisitive about the books. Miller has everything, including a mistress who will be in the car when Miller crashes it. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

Earlier I remarked on Judd Apatow's This Is 40 and warned that you ought to expect what you get with certain directors. I noted that I once read a review of a Michael Moore documentary in which the reviewer went apoplectic over the fact that the film was a polemic. It's a Michael Moore movie; Michael Moore makes polemics; if you go to a Michael Moore movie you will get ... a polemic. Similarly, if you go to a Quentin Tarantino movie, you are going to get Quentin Tarantino. Don't go and then walk out of the theater affronted, insulted, shocked, outraged, disgraced, scandalized, or otherwise offended. Stay away. Period.

If anyone knows his American literary genres, it's Quentin Tarantino. From James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook of the Leatherstocking Tales to Melville's Ahab and Ishmael to Mark Twain's Huck and Jim to the Lone Ranger and Tonto to I Spy's Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, and buddy movies too numerous to list, there is a strain of American literature and popular culture that has used The Interracial Friendship to explore the racial complexities of American culture. Then there's The Classic Western, one aspect of which is to make its Great Plains landscape itself a character, and its sub-genre, much beloved by Tarantino, The Spaghetti Western. There's The Con from Melville's Confidence Man to David Mamet's House of Games; The Self-Made Man from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby to Orson Welles's Citizen Kane; The Road from Jack Kerouac to Cormac McCarthy. There's Horror from Hawthorne's Major Molineaux to Poe's Usher to King's Jack Torrance and Craven's Freddy Krueger. There's Film Noir, Detective Fiction, Mystery, Southern Gothic, The Damsel in Distress, The Escape and, of course, there's Pulp Fiction. Taratino throws them all into one big potluck of inglourious fortune in Django Unchained.

It's two years before the Civil War when we meet German émigré Dr. King Schultz, played by the marvelous Christoph Waltz. He abhors slavery but is himself a Wild West bounty hunter, masquerading as an itinerant dentist, and quite aware that he, too, is dealing in a financial transaction with human flesh. Schultz has sought out Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave he has heard can identify the Brittle brothers whom Schultz is tracking. He frees Django in exchange for his partnership in pursuing the brothers. Django has been sold away from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom he is desperate to find. Schultz sees a man driven, and by way of parallel, tells Django the Norse myth of Siegfried's quest for Brünnhilde, the story of a man willing to confront the fires of Hell to rescue his love. Once the Brittle brothers have been dispensed with, the true quest to free Broomhilda from the evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) begins. Knowing money is no object for Candie, and that he will refuse to sell his slave simply because they want to buy her, Schultz and Django hatch a plot that will trap Candie's greed so that Django and Broomhilda can be reunited.

The broader question of slavery is addressed in Candie's sadistic, sneering question: "Why don't they just rise up and kill the whites?" An excellent article appeared January 15, 2013 on Truthout that puts Django Unchained and Calvin Candie's essentially rhetorical question into context. Thom Hartmann's "The Second Amendment Was Ratified to Preserve Slavery" wants us to understand that those militias referred to in the amendment were called "slave patrols" in the South, where slave rebellions were frequent. Only a police state could keep them down, and Virginia would not vote to ratify the Bill of Rights without the Second Amendment. "In Georgia, for example, a generation before the American Revolution, laws were passed in 1755 and 1757 that required all plantation owners or their male white employees to be members of the Georgia Militia, and for those armed militia members to make monthly inspections of the quarters of all slaves in the state. The law defined which counties had which armed militias and even required armed militia members to keep a keen eye out for slaves who may be planning uprisings.

"As Dr. Carl T. Bogus wrote for the University of California Law Review in 1998, 'The Georgia statutes required patrols, under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to examine every plantation each month and authorized them to search "all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition" and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds.'"

Django Unchained has been compared to Spielberg's hagiography Lincoln, I guess inevitably because they were released so close to each other and Django is about slavery, and Lincoln is ostensibly about slavery. Django is a much more confrontational dialogue with history, aesthetically and ethically, and, I believe, better for it. I agree with A. O. Scott's assessment that "[W]hat you see in Django Unchained is moral disgust with slavery, instinctive sympathy for the underdog and an affirmation (in the relationship between Django and Schultz) of what used to be called brotherhood." (A. O. Scott's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

"Still Too Good, Too Bad or Invisible" by Nelson George in the new York Times

Promised Land, written by co-stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, is agitprop, and really cynical agitprop at that. Damon was also slated to direct the film, but was replaced by Gus Van Sant. I am a Van Sant fan (the name of this series is an obvious homage) who has never understood why Van Sant is inevitably identified as the director of Good Will Hunting. That is not at all the film I think of when I think of him. I think of Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park. I am happy that someone has taken up the topic of fracking, but the dangers are consequentially ruinous enough to deserve a more serious imaginative treatment. What is wonderful about the film is that it is possessed of a Van Sant look that makes the promised land of the title a character in and of itself. Filled with beautifully composed aerial shots and pans of rural Pennsylvania, Promised Land is a cinematographic American quilt. Of course, the promised land is at once the idyllic western Pennsylvania countryside and the promised future, a brave new world that will emerge as "progress" despoils that self-same land. (A. O. Scott's NYT review/Tom Carson's The American Prospect review)


As we neared the end-of-year Oscar race the film makers who hoped their films would be the obvious contenders tried too hard to wrap themselves in Big Ideas -- only the Big Ideas weren't really that Big when you got right down to it, or the writers' and directors' attempts to tackle Big Ideas fell sorely short of the task. Even The Master, is a Big Ideas movie in a sort of anti-Big Ideas way, and in its own perverse way Lincoln suffers from the Big Ideas syndrome, too.

In addition to Big Ideas, we had multi-layered narratives, some we might even call multi-multi-layered. I discussed the recent fixation with layers in "Biopics...Or Not." There I said, "Into this category go Madonna's W.E., along with Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal's The Words, and that morass of layers written and directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski, Cloud Atlas. The principle problem with this narrative trope is that the contemporary story always falls dreadfully short of the historical one. Is this a novelistic tic that has infected film through Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Michael Cunningham's The Hours, Gilles Paquet-Brenner's adaptation of Tatania de Rosnay's Sarah's Key, Wayne Wang's adaptation of Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and the Wachowski-Tykwer adaptation of David Mitchell's novel?"

One of the cardinal rules of successful narrative, when it moves beyond allegorical morality plays and stock characters of good and bad, is that you have to care about the dramatis personae who populate it. All good actors will tell you that they never pass judgment on their characters, that their primary obligation as actors is to find the humanity within, no matter how horrific a character's actions. Ultimately, we have to care about the people we encounter on the page, the stage, the screen. I did not care about anybody in Oliver Stone's Savages, adapted from Don Winslow's novel, and set in Southern California on the Mexican border. Ben and Chon are friends who run a successful business growing medicinal marijuana of exceptional strength. They share O, a California-girl girlfriend who narrates the movie. The Mexican drug cartel wants to partner with them, an offer the friends refuse. The movie picks up pace when their paths cross with Salma Hayek's Mexican drug lord and her thugs played by Benicio Del Toro and Demián Bichir. The guys seek the help of a corrupt DEA agent, a manic John Travolta, who urges them to take up the offer. The dualities of borders of all kinds figure into the narrative, metaphorically and geopolitically -- not least of which is the distinction -- if, the film wants us to consider, there is one -- between savagery and civilization. (A. O. Scott's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

Set in a dystopian future Rian Johnson's Looper is a Philip K. Dick-esque time travel, sci-fi thriller. I don't think I can explain the premise myself, so I'll leave it to others. Here's Manohla Dargis in the NYT: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis "[play] the same contract killer, Joe, at different ages. A looper, the young Joe works for an outfit that exists 30 years beyond 2044, where time travel exists but is illegal. Whenever the outfit wants to dispose of a 'problem,' it sends the problem with a hood over his head into the past where a looper is waiting with a gun to blow him to smithereens. The hook — you can almost hear the original movie pitch it’s so tidy — is that every so often the outfit sends back an older looper, who’s unknowingly killed by his younger self, which is how the 2044 Joe stares down his middle-aged counterpart."

Here's Dana Stevens in Slate: "[Joseph] Gordon-Levitt plays a hired assassin whose targets are sent back in time from the future. It’s 2044, and time travel hasn’t yet been invented, but—to employ the future-perfect tense useful mainly for time-travel movies—it will have been invented in 30 years. By that point, a fearful, vaguely post-apocalyptic government will have forbidden any use of the technology...."

In the case of Looper, I enjoyed the time travel layers and the questions the film poses, but does not answer or even deeply consider, as it careens, or caroms, toward its climax. I relied (too much?) on my willing suspension of disbelief. Stevens makes the point that "a well-thought-out straw diagram might have been able to get me through the movie’s last half-hour, in which timeless philosophical questions of free will vs. destiny, nature vs. nurture, and utilitarian ethics (would you consider killing a child if you knew it meant saving countless future lives from the monster he might grow up to be?) get raised, then chucked aside as the story hurtles to a rushed, gory conclusion...." Oh, well.
(Forrest Wickman, "Looper, Diagrammed with Straws" Slate)

The movie about the The Boy, The Big Tiger and The Sea is OK. Ang Lee's aesthetically beautiful Life of Pi, based on the book by Yann Martel, tells the story of a boy on the threshold of manhood who finds himself alone in indifferent nature. Pi's father has packed up his family and booked passage from India to Canada. He has also packed up his zoo because he believes the animals will bring more if they are sold in America. Only Pi and a Bengal tiger survive the storm and shipwreck that befall their journey -- and another journey begins for Pi. I haven't read the book so I do not know if it indulges in the same -- what to call it -- naive grandiosity? that the film does. I thought it was me, but A. O. Scott was bothered by it, too, and remarks in his review that Pi "...embraces religion without quite taking it seriously, and is simultaneously about everything and very little indeed." Scott continues, "What is and isn’t real — what stories can be believed and why — turns out to be an important theme...albeit one that is explored with the same glibness that characterizes the film’s pursuit of spiritual questions." This returns us to the question posed in the indie Blue Like Jazz: "How can there be a God if Chicken Soup for the Soul exists?"

Talk about pretentious! Talk about delusions of grandeur! And way, way too many layers! Cloud Atlas sags under its own weight, and its Big Ideas spew forth in relentless CGI. I can't even begin to summarize this thing, which most everybody loved. I think the idea of Cloud Atlas, written and directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski from David Mitchell's 2004 book, is that there is a limited number of souls, and each soul lives many lives over time and space. I don't know if that's supposed to be understood as reincarnation per se, but something like that. Anyway, we're all connected. We're all connected. Did I say, we're all connected? I get it. I GET IT, ALREADY! Forrest Wickman in Slate makes a valiant attempt at deconstructing the layers and the Big Ideas that clog Cloud Atlas. A. O. Scott of the NYT loved it. Dana Stevens of Slate did not. Roger Ebert loved it. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers was underwhelmed. Andrew O'Hehir admitted its flaws in Salon but loved it anyway. The New York Post's Kyle Smith hated it ("I'll grant that the film has many layers. All of them are terrible") as did Rex Reed in the New York Observer. You decide...

Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon in Cloud Atlas.

The layers in Robert Zemeckis's Flight are determined by denial. An alcoholic's denial, an airline's denial so that it can avoid financial repercussions, even denial a born again co-pilot crippled by the crash manages to wrest from his fundamentalist beliefs. Whip Whitaker, impressively conveyed by Denzel Washington, careens between assured swagger and pathetic self-pity. A seasoned pilot and a seasoned drunk, he is always high on booze and coke. Flying into Atlanta in a storm, Whitaker's aviation experience and intuitive skill allow him to save almost everyone on the manifest in a series of decisions that seem nothing short of miraculous -- all the while abusing enough substances to render any of the rest of us comatose. The airline moves swiftly to protect itself, which means protecting Whitaker, as the inevitable investigation ensues. The film is hard-edged, fast-paced, tight, driven...and the ending? Typical Hollywood. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

"Still Too Good, Too Bad or Invisible" by Nelson George in the New York Times

What a slog...  Tom Hooper's film adaptation of the stage musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg adapted from Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Misérables gives us the outline of Jean Valjean's crisscrossed life. Nobody in this thing can sing (well, Anne Hathaway is tolerable); even the chorus members are tone deaf. On top of everything else, as Manohla Dargis says, "Georges Sand apparently felt that there was too much Christianity in Hugo’s novel; Mr. Hooper seems to have felt that there wasn’t enough in the musical and, using his camera like a Magic Marker, repeatedly underlines the religious themes that are already narratively and lyrically manifest." By the time Valjean has been granted his release papers after being imprisoned for 19 years, "he has also become a Christ figure, hoisting a preposterously large wooden pole on to his shoulder." If you want to see a truly exceptional film interpretation of Les Misérables, you can do no better than Claude Lelouch's 1995 version set during the first half of the 20th century. A poor man, played by Paul Belmondo, is given a copy of Hugo's classic novel, and as he reads the book on his peripatetic journey through the French countryside, he comes to understand the parallels the novel holds for his own life. If you want meaningful layers, this beautiful film blows anything from this year out of the water. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)


January 15, 2013


With one exception, I enjoyed all of these movies -- especially The Dark Knight Rises -- though I am not an avid enough fan to dig deeply into their self-referential allusions and mythic constructs. Because the professional critics are more familiar with these oeuvres, I will leave the sleuthing to, in this case, Manohla Dargis, who reviewed all four of these films for The New York Times.

The Dark Knight Rises is the final film in Christopher Nolan's critically acclaimed, dark Manichean trilogy that began with the 2005 origin story Batman Begins and was followed by 2008's The Dark Knight. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

Jeremy Renner takes over from Matt Damon in Tony Gilroy's The Bourne Legacy, and as Manohla Dargis observes, Gilroy "doesn’t work off the [Robert Ludlum] franchise’s foundation for long, instead veering off to juggle his many new faces and places." The exchange I found most interesting in The Bourne Legacy I have already cited in my Zero Dark Thirty entry, but I will repeat it here.
Eric, a retired US Air Force colonel responsible for overseeing the CIA's clandestine operations, remembers a conversation he had with Aaron, a member of a US Defense Department's black ops program, in the field:

Eric (Edward Norton): We got screwed on the intel, okay? Nobody knew those people were in there. It would be perfectly normal for a person to have doubts about the morality of what we just asked you to do.
Aaron (Jeremy Renner): Is that a question, sir?
Eric: No, it's not. Tune in to what I'm trying to say to you. Do you know what a Sin Eater is?
[Aaron shakes his head]
Well, that's what we are. We are the Sin Eaters. It means that we take the moral excrement that we find in this equation and we bury it deep down inside of us so that the rest of our cause can stay pure. That is the job. We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary. You understand?
Aaron: Will that be all?

I like the idea of the Sin Eater, though I take issue with the idea that he keeps "the rest of [the] cause pure." Still, the exchange carries some weight even it the rest of the film is ethics-lite. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

James Patterson created the Alex Cross franchise, but if director Rob Cohen and actor Tyler Perry (that casting alone should have told me something) think they're going to fly with it, they are out of their minds. This thing is a real stinker. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

I have seen a number of the classic Bond films, but I haven't felt compelled to see those that have come out in recent years -- so I was glad I decided to go to Sam Mendes's Skyfall. From the very beginning, as the opening credits roll, you know you're in for a classy production. The credits evoke 1950s and '60s slickly clever graphics, rhythmic montage, and a fabulous theme song delivered by Adele. Daniel Craig is a cool Bond (though isn't everyone's fave Sean Connery?), and Javier Bardem embodies his arch nemesis Silva, a sadistic narcissist, with aplomb. I'm not much of what Manohla Dargis labels a "Bondologist," but even I had fun with the insider allusions (which I won't spoil) when I caught them. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

January 14, 2013


I had heard of it, but not only did I never watch a single episode of Dark Shadows, I never knew the premise of the '60s soap or of its cult following. Johnny Depp is at his campy best as the incarnation of the vampire Barnaby, and the rest of the cast, too, is at their campy best. Tim Burton is at the top of his game, and the movie is fun on all sorts of levels, including its 1970s pop culture backdrop and its signature Burtonesque set dressing. If, like me, you don't eat popcorn at the movies, you might want to reconsider just this once. Then sit back and enjoy the show. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

It's always gratifying when members of what Garrison Keillor calls POEM (Professional Organization of English Majors) write scripts, in this case Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini. Director Rupert Sanders's Snow White and the Huntsman, a dark re-imagining of Snow White, is part Brothers Grimm tale no. 53, part quest, part Jean d'Arc, part Dorian Gray, part Der Ring des Nibelungen. I didn't even mind the CGI, which is used creatively here to some really great effect, serving the tale instead of dominating and consequently undoing it. This is not the sanitized Disney version. Rather it reaches back to the sinister roots of its source. One of the great child psychologists of the 20th century, Bruno Bettelheim wrote a brilliant study of the universal importance of fairy tales to children. The Uses of Enchantment argues that it is critically important for children to imaginatively experience the violence and terror and sexual tension that feature in the Grimm's original transcriptions of European folk tales, not only in order to come to terms with the turmoil of their inner selves, but also precisely because the world they have to navigate is full of violence and terror and sexual tension.

Charlize Theron icily plays the cruel and haughty queen who has murdered the king on their wedding night and holds his daughter hostage in a tower. Kristen Stewart is the princess who will be pursued by the handsome nobleman William (Sam Claflin) and the rough, strapping figure of The Huntsman. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

When a movie starts out that portends to grapple with big metaphysical questions, I get excited. I know I shouldn't. I know I will be disappointed. But it doesn't stop me from experiencing that hopeful moment. I didn't expect to like Ridley Scott's Prometheus, but I did -- once I got over those hopeful expectations and settled for disappointed ones. Prometheus is the Greek Titan who was believed to have created man from clay, and who famously stole fire for his creation's use thus laying the groundwork for progress and civilization. As punishment for his theft, Zeus condemns Prometheus to eternal torment, bound to a rock where Zeus, in the form of an eagle, comes each day to devour his liver, which grows back to be devoured again the next day. The spacecraft's crew is similar to Scott's crew in Alien. It has become a trope that, unlike the 20th century's heroic trailblazing astronauts, the future will be a world in which space travel is such a commonplace that it will only attract a mixt, even mongrel bunch of loners and outsiders. I especially liked the android David, as portrayed by Michael Fassbender, who watches Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia to learn how to behave as a human. (David: There is nothing in the desert, and no man is nothing. Ford: What is that? David: Just something from a film I like.) David's universal knowledge of language makes him indispensable in decoding the ciphers the explorers discover,  a discovery they hope will reveal to them the race who were the creators of Man. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

I toyed with placing Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the franchise section. Sprawling The Lord of the Rings over three films might be forgiven, the story being a trilogy, but dragging out the short volume of The Hobbit over three seems just plain sadistic and a cruel disservice to a wonderful tale.

And then there's all the stuff you can do with CGI. I purposefully did not see the film in 3D, but both 3D and CGI have convinced me that certain stories are better left read. J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or any fantastic tale, is better served when the words on the page evoke the creations of the reader's imagination (Snow White and the Huntsman being a notable exception). I don't at all mind actors playing the human parts, but when film makers give me their over-the-top versions of goblins and dragons, the over-the-topness always disappoints me. You see, I KNOW what the gremlins and monsters and trolls look like, and then my cherished picture of them is, usually violently, eradicated. Then throw CGI  into the brew, a drug of which certain film makers cannot seem to get enough, and the scenes of our heroes battling the dark forces go on and on and on and... (A. O. Scott's NYT review)


Anne Fletcher's The Guilt Trip is, refreshingly, not a stereotypical cloying Jewish mother vs. long suffering son movie. Yes, Joyce (Barbara Streisand) would like to see Andy (Seth Rogan) married, but she doesn't dwell on it. Yes, Andy would rather Joyce not regale her friends with intimacies of his infancy, but he seems to sense that she does it out of love and, for the most part, generously indulges her. Andy is an organic chemist who has invented a completely safe cleaning agent that he believes he can sell to big retailers. He has planned a cross country trip to make his pitches, but first he stops to visit his mother. She wants to know if he's seeing anyone, so he turns the tables on her. At one point during the course of their conversations she tells him he is named after her first love, Andrew. The information age being what it is, Andy has no trouble googling Andrew. The next morning he asks Joyce to join him, and the road trip, to which an extra stop has now been added, begins.... Brett Cullen does a nice turn as a Texan widower they meet along the way. (Stephen Holden's NYT review)

I once read a review of a Michael Moore documentary in which the reviewer launched into a rant that the movie was nothing more than a polemic, a polemic, I tell you! It's a Michael Moore movie, Michael Moore makes polemics, ergo.... In a subsequent post, when I get to Quentin Tarantino, I am going to grant the same clemency, so I guess, in all fairness I should extend the same to Judd Apatow, but jeez.... Watching This Is 40, I just did not like these people. They're self-indulgent, they whine, they've spoiled their children, neither of them wants to work, though they have done tastefully/ostentatiously well for themselves -- he at his recording label where he only signs aging musicians he was in thrall to in his youth; she at her trendy boutique that she rarely frequents, leaving it to two equally self-indulgent teens. So as they face the trauma of turning forty while his business goes into death throes and her business is at the mercy of an embezzling employee (rather than spend a day in the shop scoping things out, she goes clubbing with the suspected embezzler), while they ferry their kids in expensive cars to private schools, and while some invisible someone ostensibly keeps the house clean and another unseen someone manicures the lawn (typical of a Hollywood that takes maids and gardeners so much for granted that they never appear in a single shot) -- I JUST DON'T CARE! Get a life, people! (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

Alice and Phil are politically correct parents who encourage their three children to "use your words" rather than act out. Harper, the oldest, is a budding pianist; Turner is afflicted with a stutter; and little Barker is a brat. Alice enlists her parents, newly laid off minor-league baseball announcer Artie and his saintly wife Diane, to stay with the kids while she and Phil are out of town. The generational conflict in parenting styles is at the center of Andy Fickman's Parental Guidance, which doesn't suffer quite as much from its self indulgence as This Is 40 does, but it is still cloying. Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei are welcome as mother and daughter. It's hard to say whether Billy Crystal's Artie or the kids are more annoying. If This Is 40 and Parental Guidance are any indicators of the parenting zeitgeist, we're in real trouble. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

January 11, 2013


Set on the Wisconsin plains, Jill Sprecher's Thin Ice tries way too hard to channel the Coen Brothers' Fargo. Greg Kinnear is Mickey Prohaska, an insurance salesman whose life is not going smoothly. In the course of trying to push a policy down the throat of a taciturn old man who is having none of it (as ever, a wonderful Alan Arkin), Mickey's new salesman discovers that the old coot owns a rare violin. Mickey seizes on a plot to purloin the violin to purge himself of his troubles, but when he goes to the old man's house to steal it, he's interrupted by a locksmith (Billy Crudup), a twist that in turn requires Mickey to let him in on the scheme. And then, of course, everything that can go wrong does. As A. O. Scott points out, " not the problem," and also notes that "after it was shown at Sundance [in 2011], this film (originally called The Convincer) was given a new musical score (by Jeff Danna) and recut by its distributor, without the participation of the Sprechers or the original editor, Stephen Mirrione." So who knows... Was it better or worse before?

What a stupid premise. Even were we not facing the catastrophic consequences of global warming, "Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab region," according to the United Nations Development Programme, and "...faces a severe water shortage, with available ground water being depleted at an alarming rate." Yet that should be nothing to worry your pretty little head about in Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I have not read the book, but according to Stephen Holden's review in the NYT, Hallstrom takes "Paul Torday’s absurdist political satire [and transforms it] into a whimsical romantic comedy. It is the cinematic equivalent of turning salt into sugar." An obscenely rich sheik enlists the press secretary for the British prime minister to find someone who has the expertise to engineer diverting what little water Yemen affords into a man made river so that he can indulge his passion for salmon fishing in his native Yemen, in addition to fishing at his rambling Scottish estate. She locates a British fisheries expert, who reluctantly complies, not because he is initially concerned about the environmental consequences, but because he's just not interested -- that is, until he falls under the spell of the sheik's dream. (Maybe it should have been made into a musical?) Of course, there's a romantic subplot worked into the mix.

Jay Roach's political comedy Campaign is absolutely ludicrous -- or not. Will Ferrell's Cam Brady has run unopposed almost forever. The powerful Motch (rhymes with Koch) brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) recruit Zach Galifanakis's milquetoast Marty Huggins to challenge Cam so that they can grease a deal with a Chinese company to make a fast bundle. Marty, his pudgy naive family, and his equally pudgy pugs are not prepared for the dirty politics they're in for, but they persevere. A. O. Scott's excellent review for the NYT remarks on the obvious connections the film wants to make: "You can chuckle at the buffoonery, raise your eyebrows at the baroque scatological and sexual humor...and conclude that The Campaign goes too far. .... But then a glance at some of the clowns we do elect, perhaps especially to our national legislature, might lead you in the opposite direction. Really, the movie could not possibly go far enough unless the screenwriters...had abandoned all invention and transcribed the script directly from C-Span."

Believe it or not, there really are people out there who are fanatical about butter sculpture, and butter sculpting contests are a fixture at many state fairs. Wikipedia tells me that "The earliest documented butter sculptures date from 1536 Europe where they were used on banquet tables. The earliest pieces in the modern sense as public art date from ca. 1870s America where they were created by Caroline Shaw Brooks, a farm woman from Helena, Arkansas. The heyday of butter sculpturing was about 1890-1930...." Jim Field Smith's Butter employs the phenomenon of butter sculpting to try to say something about the distinction between narcissistic competitive obsession and artistic obsession -- it just doesn't work very well. Laura Pickler's husband (like Cam in Campaign above) has been the reigning butter champ for almost forever. Then in this given year, he is obliged to bow out, and Laura, an aspiring politician who plans to go places, takes the Picklers' rightful place in the cooler. Meanwhile, a childless couple in town adopt a little girl. When told she can have whatever she wants, she asks for carving knives -- and several hundred pounds of butter. Her natural talent raises the stakes for Laura, who will do whatever it takes to win. The film could have been a nice little morality tale, but it gets strident at times and saccharine at others. (Jeannette Catsoulis's NYT review)

File:Postcard of John K. Daniels’s butter sculpture of a boy, cow, and calf, Iowa State Fair, 1904.jpg
John K. Daniels' butter cow at the 1911 Iowa State Fair

A butter sculpture being made on the first day of the 2010 Minnesota State Fair

Everybody wants to be a rock star, and David Chase's Not Fade Away is a valentine to 1960s rock 'n' roll and the kids who pursued that dream. Douglas Damiano (John Magaro who morphs more and more into the look of a young Dylan as the film progresses) is the son of Italian first-generation immigrant parents who believe their son is indolently throwing away not only his future but their own hard work and sacrifice. His father (in a wonderful evocation by James Gandolfini) is particularly frustrated by his son's unreason, in no small part because he loves him so much. In fact, Douglas makes some money as a ditch digger (and doesn't understand why his African-American boss would rather listen to Tony Bennett than the blues) and the band he and a friend put together is diligent in learning, rehearsing, and ultimately creating their own material. Many are called but few are chosen, and finally Douglas is not fated for the concert stadium. (This is not a spoiler. Douglas's younger sister, who narrates the story, tells us so at the very beginning.) Stephen Holden's NYT review is admiring, but much as I like the subject matter and its backdrop of intercut contemporaneous television, radio, albums and cover art, I found the whole disjointed. I asked in my earlier entry on Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, How did this movie ever get made? I wondered the same about Not Fade Away. It just didn't seem like it was ready for the screen. (A NYT Critic's Pick)

January 10, 2013


Well, Manohla Dargis tells me that writer Max Landis and director Josh Trank's Chronicle "is the latest big-studio release in indie-sheep’s clothing." They had me. If it had been an indie, there's much I could have forgiven, but since it's not, I can only consider Chronicle a big fat flop. Adolescent friends Max, Steve, and Andrew -- whose camera lens provides our point of view --enter a cavernous hole in the ground, experience something akin to a psychedelic acid trip, and come out with telekinetic powers. They gradually exploit those powers to greater and greater advantage, Max and Steve for fun, but Andrew increasingly for more sinister reasons that allow the film to hurtle into a gratuitous climax of end of the world proportions complete with exploding bodies. Landis's script is sprinkled  with pseudo-philosophizing, most notably references to Schopenhauer's world as will, which I guess is supposed to support the nihilistic, orgiastic ending. What starts out looking like a potentially thoughtful little sci-fi vehicle devolves into its own superficiality and nothingness.

I'm not sure what the title Blue Like Jazz, great sounding as it is, has to do with Steve Taylor's movie about a Baptist Texas boy ( Texas that would be pronounced "bo"). The film, adapted from the book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller, revolves around Don Miller (Marshall Allman, whom I do not know but who is one of my best friends' husband's cousin). Don finds himself a misfit at affluent Reed College in Oregon, where religion -- at least Christianity -- and conformity are mocked. At one point the character who parades about as The Pope takes a wheelbarrow 'round to strip students' dorm rooms of books he scorns. "How can there be a God if Chicken Soup for the Soul exists?" he excoriates as he throws it into the flames (to which I say, "Amen!"). The whole is full of nice character acting, but ultimately it tries a little too hard at its philosophical aspirations, and its "theology" undermines its attempts at profundity. (Rachel Saltz's NYT review)

The reach for things profound seeps around the edges of Zal Batmanglij's Sound of My Voice about Peter and Lorna, a young couple who, in order to make a documentary about its leader, infiltrate a cult. The guru, who claims to have come from 2054, is a lithe, blond-haired, chipped fingernail polished woman named Maggie, with a tattoo of something resembling an anchor on her ankle, who is surrounded by acolytes.

Recently I've been seeing the trailers for what portends to be a bloated OZ, in which the Midwestern magician is asked, "Are you the great man we've been waiting for?" There is an abiding human desire for salvation to come from the outside to those who passively wait. It fuels contemporary fundamentalist religions as much as it fuels our love of super heroes. Here is The One. All I need do is follow.

What Peter and Lorna do not anticipate is the degree to which which they will fall under Maggie's spell. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

Set in a post-Katrina Louisiana, Behn Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild (nominated for Best Picture, Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay) is a beautiful parable woven of magic realism. It is profoundly about many things, one of which is the damage the overarching faith we place in material "progress" exerts on the soul. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis as a pure force of nature) listens to the heartbeats of birds, sows, leaves, her father's breast. The father Wink (Dwight Henry) is an abusive drunkard whose anger seems to emanate from guilt at the knowledge that his imminent death will leave Hushpuppy alone in a hostile world, and from his desire to toughen her up before he leaves her. If there is an equivalent in film to visionary outsider visual art, this film is as close as it gets. (A. O. Scott's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

"A Mythical Bayou's All-Too-Real Peril: The Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild" by Rachel Arons in The New York Times.
"Still Too Good, Too Bad or Invisible" by Nelson George in the New York Times


Usually one or two biopics are represented in the Oscar contenders, but this year we have a slew of them for some reason. Every film nominated in the Foreign Language Film category is based on a true story. The Chilean film No directed by Pablo Larrain is an historical drama about a man who helped topple the Pinochet regime; Montreal-based director Kim Nguyen's War Witch is based on the actual events of a child soldier in Burma that have been re-envisioned in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Danish director Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair is about the mentally ill 18th century Danish King Christian VII and the affair between his queen and the royal physician; and likewise, the Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg's Kon-Tiki is an historical drama about the ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 expedition undertaken in an attempt to prove his theory that people from South America settled in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. Even the French director Michael Haneke's Amour is based on his own family experience. (Oscar nominations noted in parens)

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor) is...well, masterful. What Anderson freely admits, and the actors deny, is that it is a meticulously researched story of L. Ron Hubbard and the cult of Scientology. In addition to the available literature, Anderson unearthed pamphlets and other contemporary ephemera that came out of Scientology circa 1950, but the cast, fearing harassment from the ranks of the faithful, have insisted that no parallel is intended. That said, it is important to realize that the film is not a standard biopic. Its source material may be Hubbard, but the film has a propulsion it could not have achieved had Anderson set out to do nothing more than tell the story of Scientology.

Every actor in the film delivers a virtuoso performance. Philip Seymour Hoffman's megalomaniac Lancaster Dodd is a self-deluded narcissist, the center around which his self-made constellation revolves. Joaquin Phoenix plays the alcohol-/chemical-deranged Freddie Quell (whose mother has been institutionalized with schizophrenia). (If there is a wee problem with the casting it's that one could say Phoenix has been type cast as the self-destructive persona of his documentary hoax I'm Still Here, though Quell is the victim of his demons, not the author of them.) Phoenix's performance is physically wrenching juxtaposed against Hoffman's beady control.

Both men give powerful, nuanced performances, but, as the projector rolls and this magisterial film builds momentum, we come to realize that at its center, the true mover and shaker is Dodd's wife (his third) Peggy, played with equal certainty and nuance by Amy Adams. Dodd may manipulate his gullible followers, but Peggy is Dodd's sly puppeteer. She knows exactly to what extent she will allow Dodd to feed his habit for power and control with his new pet project, Freddie Quell. And she knows exactly when it is time to intervene and withdraw the drug. She is like the queen who will stop at nothing to see her son made king, the mother lion defending her cubs.

Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s cinematography is beautiful, at times breathtakingly so. Johnny Greenwood's score subtly heightens the action without a trace of emotional manipulation. (John Williams could learn a lesson.) The set dressing, the costumes, the hair styles -- everything is pitch perfect. We are left with a powerful examination of human hubris and the dangers of the unexamined life. (A. O. Scott's NYT review/A NYT Critis' Pick)

Ben Affleck's Argo (Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor) is a nail biter. On November 4, 1979 Iranian revolutionaries stormed the United States embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American citizens hostage. Six others managed to escape to the safety of the Canadian ambassador's house. CIA officer Antonio Mendez came up with a crazy scheme by which to get them safely out of Iran, and was sent to Tehran to carry out the ruse: the escapees would pose as a Canadian film crew scoping out locations in Iran for a fake sci-fi film, Argo. That Affleck keeps us on the very edge of our seats, holding our breath, squirming with anxiety -- when we already know the ending -- is remarkable. John Goodman and Alan Arkin offer much needed comic relief as the Hollywood insiders (makeup artist and producer) who give credence to the hair-brained plot. Their location stateside in Hollywood also provides some breathing room in juxtaposition to the claustrophobia of otherwise cramped settings. Despite his roles as both director and star, Affleck deserves credit for not dominating the film and for giving his cast space. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

I am thrilled that Helen Hunt has an Oscar nomination for Ben Lewin's The Sessions (Best Supporting Actress). I only wish that John Hawkes had been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, as well. The Sessions is the true story of 38-year-old Mark O'Brien. O'Brien, who died in 1999, was a journalist and a poet. He was also a quadriplegic, having suffered childhood polio. After much reflection he makes what is for him a momentous decision. He no longer wishes to be a virgin. Hunt plays the sex therapist he hires with enormous nuance, subtlety and care. I started to say, with sensitivity, but that would not come close to the benevolence she brings to the role. Either performance could have been disastrous in other hands, yet together Hawkes and Hunt gently weave O'Brien's story with humanity and grace. (Stephen Holden's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

Daniel-Day Lewis, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes... distracted, I started to wonder which big-name actors would NOT appear in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (Best Picture, Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor). I was also annoyed that virtually every African American in the film was expected to look supplicatingly at all the nice white people. I was gratified, therefore, when, after the onslaught of laudatory reviews, I ran across a critical opinion in The New York Times editorial pages by Kate Masur, associate professor of history at Northwestern and the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. The film is determined, she argues, "to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role."

Masur informs us that, "In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley [played by Gloria Reuben in the film] and William Slade [played by Stephen Henderson "as an avuncular butler, a black servant out of central casting," says Masur] were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes."

We are right back in Tate Taylor's 2011 adaptation of The Help. One expectation I  harbored did not materialize, to my surprise. I was dreading one of those gratuitously manipulative John Williams scores. Instead, the score is, by Williams' standards, positively understated. It evokes popular music from the era including the Stephen Foster song "Was My Brother in the Battle" and George Root's "The Battle Cry of Freedom," and the final track is reminiscent of one of Lincoln's favorite songs, "For the Dear Old Flag I Die" about a drummer boy who died at the Battle of Gettysburg. (A. O. Scott's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

"Still Too Good, Too Bad or Invisible" by Nelson George in the New York Times

My February issue of Harper's Magazine was in my mailbox yesterday, and if you don't subscribe, go out and buy it or get it at your library. The Easy Chair essay (alas Lewis Lapham is gone, but...) by Thomas Frank calls Spielberg out in no uncertain terms. I will confine myself to only the last two paragraphs here, but you must read THE WHOLE THING:

"Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already -- Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad -- and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes.

"If you really want to explore compromise, corruption, and the ideology of money-in-politics, don't stack the deck with aces of unquestionable goodness like the Thirteenth Amendment. Look the monster in the eyes. Make a movie about the Grant Administration, in which several of the same characters who figure in Lincoln played a role in the most corrupt era in American history. Or show us the people who pushed banking deregulation through in the compromise-worshipping Clinton years. And then, after ninety minutes of that, try to sell us on the merry japes of those lovable lobbyists -- that's a task for a real auteur."

Spanish director J. A. Bayona's The Impossible (Best Actress) is an international effort and utilizes digital imagery as well as old-school modeling and editing techniques to  reproduce the devastating tsunami that, in 2004, pummeled 14 countries the day after Christmas. It pinpoints our gaze on the true story of a single family vacationing in Thailand, all five of whom miraculously survived. The film could so easily have tipped into the sniffling realms of Hallmark Hall of Fame land, but thanks to deeply felt performances, most notably Naomi Watts as the critically injured mother, it rises above its based on a true story-disaster movie origins. I have to agree with A. O. Scott, however, that "the terrible effects of the tsunami on the local population are barely acknowledged." Somewhat like the slaves of Spielberg's Lincoln, the few Thai characters presented in The Impossible seem to be there simply to serve the tourists.

AGAINST THE ODDS The film tells the true story of a family who nearly perished in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami

Last year's My Own Private Cinema covered the short documentary The Tsunami and the Cherry BlossomLucy Walker’s self-described visual poem, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (UK), opens with chilling amateur footage of the approaching tsunami wave making its inexorable way inland to higher and higher ground. Dread sets in as it becomes clear that the path of destruction has no apparent limit. The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11, 2011 -- just before the sakura, or cherry blossom, blooms -- and in the aftermath of the tragedy, Walker's camera finds a number of victims whose words vacillate between utter despair and stoic resolve. Each conveys a Shinto perspective that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay. The Japanese symbol of hope and renewal, sakura is central to the culture, and at one point we visit the Miharu-Takizakura cherry tree in Miharu, Fukushima, which is more than 1,000 years old. It endures, and the people of Japan will likewise endure. [With hypnotic score by Moby.]

Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (Best Picture, Actress, Original Screenplay)
I attend a Sunday morning class at my Unitarian Universalist Church where we are entering the final nine weeks of a 36-week lecture series from The Great Courses DVDs, Why Evil Exists, with a wonderful lecturer, Dr. Charles Mathewes of the Universities of Virginia and Chicago. As a UU church, many points of view are represented in our discussions after the lectures, and one among us is a self-professed Libertarian who hews to an Ayn Randian brand of self-interest and greed-as-good. A couple of weeks ago, fed up with his oft-repeated line that any action is acceptable as long as it hurts no one else, I raised my hand and said, "My very existence on this earth hurts someone or something else. I eat, I drive a car, I pollute. There is no such thing as purely benign existence, but there are all sorts of window dressings." A young woman across from me raised her hand and said, "She is absolutely correct. I served in Iraq, and my presence there shielded all of you from facing the truth that she is talking about. I was there so that you didn't have to be. When I am there you can all remain complacent and look away."

This young woman's remarks echoed in my head as I watched Kathryn Bigelow's virtuoso Zero Dark Thirty. I had not expected the controversy that has arisen over the film's depiction of torture. I get the impression, overall, that our politicians, the CIA, and certain members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doth protest too much. Bigelow does not make heroes of torturers; she shows them to us -- and by extension, she shows us that we are them, which is the real underbelly of the protestations against the portrayals of torture in the film. There has been no large scale popular movement against torture by United States citizens for the simple reason that as a country we really don't mind. What we do mind is having someone remove the blinkers and point our heads at it.

There was an exchange in a much lesser film earlier this year that struck me. In Tony Gilroy's The Bourne Legacy from the Robert Ludlum franchise, Eric, a retired US Air Force colonel responsible for overseeing the CIA's clandestine operations, remembers a conversation he had with Aaron, a member of a US Defense Department's black ops program, in the field:
Eric (Edward Norton): We got screwed on the intel, okay? Nobody knew those people were in there. It would be perfectly normal for a person to have doubts about the morality of what we just asked you to do.
Aaron (Jeremy Renner): Is that a question, sir?
Eric: No, it's not. Tune in to what I'm trying to say to you. Do you know what a Sin Eater is?
[Aaron shakes his head]
Well, that's what we are. We are the Sin Eaters. It means that we take the moral excrement that we find in this equation and we bury it deep down inside of us so that the rest of our cause can stay pure. That is the job. We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary. You understand?
Aaron: Will that be all?

Compared with Bigelow's film, that is a rather clumsy exchange. CIA agent Maya, in a complex performance by Jessica Chastain, does not explicate this reality. She inhabits it with single-minded focus. Without the crutch of explication, Bigelow's film puts us in the midst of the moral dilemma and forces us each to grapple with our moral complicity without herself passing judgment. That is an achievement.

Beyond the torture brouhaha, Zero Dark Thirty is the work of an extraordinary film maker. The editing is genius. I would be fascinated to have a count of the sheer number of shots that make up the film, and yet taken together, one to the next, they give the film fluidity, a smoothly undulating rhythm that reminds us that Bigelow cites Peckinpah and the early Scorsese (Mean Streets) as influences, along with David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Hitchcock's oeuvre.

Another notable aspect of the film is that it seems virtually score-less. For a film that runs to 2 hours, 37 minutes,  Alexandre  Desplat's soundtrack comes in at just under 54 minutes, and much of it is almost inaudible in the film, the sounds emanating from the action and slowly morphing into the deep rumbling of a tympani or a single sustained note from a flute or reed.

Manohla Dargis's NYT review/ A NYT Critics' Pick
"As Enigmatic as Her Picture: Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty" from the NYT Magazine's Oscars Issue
David Denby's New Yorker review
NYT columnist Roger Cohen on "Why 'Zero Dark Thirty' Works"