The Movie Binge

July 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

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Several years ago I went on a strange date with a strange girl. We met at the Fresco Tortillas on Fulton Street and exchanged numbers. That was in August of 2001. The girl didn’t call and I forgot about her. Six months later I received a voice mail from a person speaking in a slurred British accent. It took me a while to figure out it was the Fresco Tortillas girl, who, last I knew, was American. I called her back. It turned out she’d gone to live in England for a while and adopted the accent.

We met at a bar and she chain smoked and told me she wanted to be an actress. Her new accent came and went as she spoke. She told me her brother was an actor who’d been in big things, including one of the Mummy movies. She told me his name—Yancey Arias—and I always remembered it. It was one of the names that I saw flash far down the list in the opening credits of Live Free or Die Hard.

Arias plays Agent Johnson. He shows up about thirty minutes in. The nation’s computer systems are under siege and there’s panic and chaos in the streets. Bruce Willis is dragging around a greasy hacker kid who might know why. Willis and the kid get in a police vehicle with Agent Johnson at the wheel. Willis grills the kid, who starts babbling his nervous tech-geek nonsense (a routine repeated many times throughout the film). Agent Johnson glances skeptically into the rearview. A moment later a helicopter full of bad guys fire twenty thousand rounds at the car. Only Agent Johnson is killed. Arias slumps convincingly as Willis and the kid flee.

I’m an unabashed fan of big-budget summer action films. At the same time I agree with everyone who says they’re horrible. They mostly are horrible, especially when viewed years later on TV. But Die Hard was one of the good ones, I thought. Willis, against the odds, made a great action star. He defied further odds later by turning in some interesting performances. It will surprise no one to learn that his fourth run as John McClane doesn’t rank as one of those.

McClane’s a world-weary battler this time. He’s divorced, doesn’t understand his daughter, muses darkly on the thankless nature of heroism during one of the movie’s few quiet moments. His lack of tech savvy is played for laughs not only by the hacker kid and the always-irritating Kevin Smith, but the evil genius bad guy too, who calls him “a Timex watch in a digital age,” or something like that. The same could be said of the film itself, coming as it does twelve years after the last installment, but the filmmakers do their best to stay current, tossing out references to anthrax and 9/11.

Remember 9/11? I do. I remember a lot of pious, well-meaning talk of a new era of enlightened national discourse and the end of irony and violence in movies. What a notion! Did we ever believe it? I wish I could go back in time to 9/12 and go on TV with Peter Jennings and say, “In six short years, Peter, these horrors will merely be dim back story in the next Die Hard film. Now, what was that you were saying about America being changed forever?”

Live Free or Die Hard has some cool action sequences, including a surprising—and inexplicably refreshing—scene in which McClane and the bad guy’s foxy Asian girlfriend beat the shit out of each other with bare fists while the hacker quivers over a rubber keyboard. He’s always trembling and stuttering and making unfunny wisecracks. I disliked him immediately and that never changed.

The movie held my interest but it drags toward the end, just when it should be revving up. There’s a long sequence involving a semi and a fighter plane that was probably too expensive to cut. By the time McClane delivers his signature line I’d already checked out. I was thinking how chincy it was going to look later on TV.


Black Sheep

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Welcome to Loews, would you like to try a fiesta-popper combo?

Not since Night of the Lepus has something so adorable caused so much carnage. There is terror incarnate in being attacked by that which we believe could never harm us. Also, there are fart jokes. And vegans digging their teeth into live rabbits. Plus, there's a sheep biting off a guy's weiner.

Black Sheep is at once hacky and hysterical, ridiculous and wonderful. I mean, if you're into that kind of thing. If you hear "genetically mutated sheep" and think, "Is that in the new Michael Moore documentary?" maybe you should wait until it comes to cable. If you have an Evil Dead poster rolled up in a tube in your closet and once dated a guy who dressed as the clown from House of 1000 Corpses for Halloween, you'll probably enjoy Black Sheep. It's not scary, but it is bawdy and gross. Plus, there's a sheep driving a truck.

If Jaws had been a kinkajou, if The Birds had been about flying squirrels, if the only thing buried in Pet Cemetary had been koala bears, there would have been a precedent for Black Sheep. As it stands, it felt less like an actual horror flick and more like a series of isn't it funny that a SHEEP just bit that guys mouth off and now he has no mouth- type vignettes. But if Monty Python taught us anything, it's that fluffy animals biting your face off are funny. These sheep have a vicious streak a mile wide!

I was hoping Black Sheep would be more in line with the 1970's animal-spolitation films, like Squirm, where worms go crazy and attack a small town. And - and - the lady is standing naked under the showerhead - only - instead of water coming out, it's like all these insane sharp-teethed worms falling on her! AHH! But the plot of Black Sheep seemed to get easily distracted. What could have been a fun parody of the "nature-attacks" genre became, instead, a very silly movie about sheep zombies.

Black Sheep doesn't have a chance to play up the "animals are coming from places they shouldn't be coming from!" angle because it makes an unfortunate choice to turn New Zealanders into giant weresheep. The transformation happens slowly -- first a furry hoof, then a taste for blood. The next thing you know, the evil farm owner is in the middle of a presentation about how his genetically mutated sheep are the wave of the future and every other word out of his mouth is "baaah." He's turning into a sheep! In front of his investors! Who are Japanese and German! Plus, everyone dies.

Facing up to the sad fact that Black Sheep would not be the Orca the Killer Whale of 2007, all I was left with was my enjoyment of sheep violence. Setting a sheep on fire, falling into a pit of genetic waste, and mint jelly used as acid. Plus, a guy gets kinda raped by a sheep.

Broken English

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The standout quality of Zoe Cassavetes' debut feature is its simplicity. It deals with one issue and one issue only: one woman's quest to feel loved. The film's standout weakness, however, is its simplicity: it takes an hour and twenty-five minutes to get to the point that "you need to be happy with yourself first before you can be happy with someone else".

Now, it's called Broken English which, while I'm assuming has something to do with the leading man's heavy French accent and much of the story-advancing characters having English as a second language, highlights the dialogue in general. If you were to type out the dialogue of this film, or to read the written script, it would look completely inane. Everyone talks in cliches, and none of the characters have a single original idea (save one, but it's fleeting, and in the next paragraph). Which is in itself, though maybe not an original idea, a pretty good one. That's because this aspect is almost unnoticeable (the perfect amount of noticeable) due to the performance of the actors and the actual reality of the world that that reflects. That is the way people talk, as if they were in a movie, and it takes a strong performance to fold that back on itself. English, I'm talking about the language now, is broken as a means to communicate, this film seems to say, and it merely narrates our actions, which are the real messages. Again, this is simultaneously a strength and a weakness for the film.

In one scene, Nora (Parker Posey) is on a date and muses, "do you think we all turn into our parents?" To which her date replies (and here's that idea I mentioned), "I like to think of it more like 'picking up where they left off'." Intentional or not, this is a bold claim for the daughter of John Cassavetes. It certainly seems like she's trying to pick up where her father left off, and I heartily applaud her effort (it's more than can be said for ol' Nicky), but I'm left uninspired, and merely with a few morsels of truth, rather than a constant stream. Cassavetes (when I use last name only I mean John, 'cause I'm a huge misogynist) spent years and years honing the philosophy of his films before making them. And then he had his actors play out the story that was rooted in that philosophy. There's clearly way more going on, but let's leave his "style" at that for now. To look at Broken English, the philosophy is the story, as in, it's revealed like a mystery and explained like a murder plot. It's an explanation of a feeling rather than the result of one. There is very little meaningful dialogue in the film, so it could benefit hugely from cutting all of it. Just leave only the words that come as a result of a characters feelings yet aren't about them, and I think Nora's character would be left with about two lines.

I have about four thousand other things I want to mention, but instead I'll sum up: the film's desire to be real gets in the way of it being interesting. It has moments of greatness (saying goodbye in bed and the perfect final shot) but not enough for me to think about the characters any further, or to love them at all.

Ratatouille

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There are two main reasons why I enjoyed Ratatouille more than any other animated film that I've seen in the past...oh, let's say twenty years? That seems about right.

1) I love Patton Oswalt, and even though he did not write the movie, it's sort of amazing how much it seems as though the project was created as a way of bringing his aesthetic to the masses. When I say that, I don't mean his shtick. What I mean is, the film is dealing with the central motif of his body of work: the dilemma of being a tasteful, thoughtful person trapped in a world full of unthinking bores. I know that sounds incredibly snobby, and sometimes it is, but it's urgent and key, especially when ignorance and anti-intellectualism becomes a destructive force rather than just an aesthetic irritant. So there's that, and the fact that Oswalt happens to have a keen interest in fine dining, and the maybe-not-totally-coincidental casting of Brian Dennehy -- a man who has been invoked in at least two of his best bits -- as the father of his character.

2) As I said, Ratatouille is a movie about taste, but more than that, it's a general audiences picture that intelligently and sensitively explores the tension of art, criticism, and consumerism. Most animated features are either vehicles for dumbed-down jokes and/or cloying tearjerkers*, but Ratatouille is mainly concerned with making an argument that brilliant creativity can come from anyone, anywhere, even if it is met with resistance from indifferent philistines, crass consumerists, or overly mannered snobs. Of course, the latter is represented by a ridiculously self-important food critic voiced by Peter O'Toole, and though for most of the film he is portrayed as an insufferable prick just like pretty much every other fictional critic ever created, he eventually comes around to revising his opinions when confronted with a dish so sublime that he's overcome with a Proustian involuntary memory. The film's stance on criticism is a bit garbled -- predictably, criticism is connected only to negativity, and the appreciative, philosophical end of the discipline is represented mainly by its creative protagonist and the writings of a deceased chef who serves as his primary inspiration. However, even though I currently make my living as a critic, the part of me that went to art school can't help but agree with the film's basic point: We should all own our taste and develop our critical faculties, but we should use that as a starting point for our creativity rather than to let it fuel our ego and turn us into petulant, persnickety consumers.

* I don't want to totally knock the tearjerkers. Finding Nemo is a worthwhile film even if it's not totally my thing, and I'll level with you -- I was totally DESTROYED by An American Tail when I was a little kid, and I still get choked up if I hear "Somewhere Out There" on the radio.

License to Wed

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Hey John Krasinski. How are you? Life at the top of being the star of NBC hit The Office is the greatest, I'm sure. Anyway, I bet that many well-meaning people, having seen this heapingly rank cup of rom-com with which you've seen fit to grace yourself, are probably clogging up your cell phone tubes trying to give you advice for your career. They are no doubt saying: oh, this is for your own good Mr. John, this is to keep you from becoming the next Zach "When Will A Quirky Woman Save Me and my iTunes" Braff or Matthew "Remember How Skinny I Was, Was That Drugs Or Anorexia Either Way Gross" Perry. You probably think this is very nice of them, and maybe you're hoping that my brilliant ass has words of wisdom for you as well. Only I don't, not me. I have for you instead an invitation. Right now, we word-fight, me and you behind the shed. Lanky Le Smirksologist versus Frizzy McInternetsalot. Stop dragging your feet.

Krazamataz, GOD. You effing sleepwalked on this one and you know it. The script's a total shambles. You and Mandy Moore, god rest her drying soul, have zero to negative chemistry. The characters are so finely drawn as to turn invisible when they stand sideways. Robin Williams is really, really old. That super-tacky fake-Jersey kid from the Nancy Drew movie is wandering around basically playing the same character. And you, you son of a primetime, you've got so little to work with that occasionally you just accidentally start playing Jim Halpert and I'm almost damn sure Ken Kwapis (another Office vet, for shame) got stuck with some long takes because you probably couldn't stop mugging at the camera and going Can you believe this guy I mean seriously...who let HIM run a parish?

This is something we should be basically talking about, and that's your commitment to the jokes. This Halpert guy, he's actually been kind of a passive-aggressive dick for like a year now and I'm not saying you've gone and got lazy with him but you haven't really been called upon to be very likable. So it's a total breath of super-fresh air when License to Wed forces you to take some pratfalls, 'cause you actually up and go for them, like you let all your limbs go wibbly in the air. Physical comedy will get you out of a lot of skinny corners and plus I bet it was more fun than mumbling things nervously while Robin Williams used that one tone of voice he has.

Sure, I get that sometimes probably you find out that your friend is directing a thing and you sign on because, well, you're so close to paying off that zeppelin! or whatever, but maybe next time you or someone you employ can read the thing all the way through. Maybe you or said person would have then noticed the part where the sweeping climax of the film takes place at Sandals Jamaica, a resort which just a few months back was sent up in a couple of spot-on Office episodes. Or maybe, even if that didn't matter to you and yours, someone would have noticed that not one character in the movie seems to have a reason for doing anything that he or she does. By the time your character cruelly and nonsensically punch Robin Williams in the face, we're all pretty much wishing we could feel his glorious, glorious pain. Oh! anything to feel alive again.

I see that you're crying, so I'll let you go, but you're skating on thin ice holding a basket of pre-counted un-hatched eggs in a lightning storm during swimming after eating, Krasinski. And I'm always watching.

Transformers

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We like the cars that go boom

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that, "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae." Now, I don't have any rage or loathing to express for the Transformers movie (mostly bemusement), but it should be noted that being critical of a movie like this in any conventional sense would be equally preposterous. So what if the plot has semi-trailer sized holes in it, or the human characters are all as equally underdeveloped as the their robot counterparts, sometimes moreso? That's not why people are going to see this movie. And believe me, if the sold out Monday-night crowd and the box office numbers for the past weekend are any indication, people are seeing this movie. Lots of people. Which, to my sensibilities, means that a huge number of people are paying to see the most expensive commercial ever made for:


  • GM cars and trucks

  • Ebay

  • Hasbro

  • Apple computers

  • the U. S. Army

  • the U. S. Air Force

  • Mountain Dew

  • Nokia

  • Google Maps

  • Sony

So, if you endorse any of these products, or you just really want to see cartoon robots (yes, CGI is a form of cartoon as far as I'm concerned) beat the shit out of each other, then by all means, see this movie. Despite what many of my co-workers are saying, I can totally understand the catharsis and mindless enjoyment in watching a lot of money spent on special effects and literally awesome carnage. If I were 20 years younger, this would probably be the movie I'm most excited about this summer. While Transformers delivers spectacularly on its premise, there really aren't any surprises. As far as I can tell, you will enjoy this movie exactly as much as you think you will. It's no more or less than what is expected of it (despite the movie's requisite maxim that it's "More than meets the eye"), which seems to be what the movie-going public wants most this summer.

Evening

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It's tough to come up with new storylines. We've been making movies for a hundred years and telling tales for thousands, so it's hard to fault someone for treading old ground. Of course, if you're going to go down the road most traveled then you'd better have something interesting to say. If you don't, at least make it easy to follow and include some eye candy. If you can't manage that, then you'll be on the same level as Lajos Koltai, who managed to turn Evening into a terrifically boring film.

As a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) lays on her deathbed, she can think of nothing but a brief, youthful tryst with Harris (Patrick Wilson). She's plagued by the missed opportunity and tunes everything else out, including her two daughters that are at her side. As she eases into the afterlife, the question seems to be whether this flirtation with love and her own youthful adventures are more important than her daughters and the issues they face. It's understandable for a dying woman to relive a crucial moment in her life, but Koltai did an awful job showing how this moment effected Ann between the two periods of time, which leaves you wondering why this moment was so meaningful. Their encounter seemed more lustful than loving and it was difficult to believe this tormented Ann for decades. In other words, the answer to Ann's question was woefully inadequete.

On a less esoteric level, Evening was just boring. The only notable performance was from Meryl Streep, but it was in the last 10 minutes of the film and I was too far gone. The rest of the cast had the chemistry and charisma of the Presidential Cabinet. This was Koltai's first real foray into direction after many years as a successful cinematographer and he just didn't have the chops. If you're looking for an upside to this film, I've heard great things about the book.

Joshua

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Settling in to watch videotaped evidence that mommy never loved me

Joshua is a psychological thriller that plays on every adult's deepest fear: What if children, who are inherently amoral, were also smart enough to successfully fuck with us?

When I was four years old, I stole licorice from Vic's Vegetable Stand. Upon returning home, I told my mother I needed to use the bathroom. I emerged, 15 minutes later, covered in the oozing trackmarks of sticky black candy, my tongue and teeth stained like I'd been chewing betel nut. Needless to say, my intricate plans for world candy thievery were immediately thwarted.

If my sweet malfeasance had taken place in Joshua's world, not only would I have successfully eaten and removed all traces of licorice from my naughty maw, I would have framed the neighbor's child and convinced Vic that he should hire me as in-store security. Joshua, unlike every other nine-year-old in existence, is competent. And that makes him scary as shit.

Joshua is, by his own admission, "a weird son." He plays Beethoven, hates sports, and dresses entirely in tiny business-casual attire. He spends most of his time skulking around with no expression, startling people by creepily emerging from corner shadows or comedically popping out behind open doors. The bad seed's movements are wonderfully choreographed, as if The Omen's Damien were played by Bruce McCullough from Kids in the Hall.

The movie opens with the birth of Joshua's sister Lily — just another perfect child born into family of stinking rich hedge fund jackasses. Perhaps it is this vision of his inevitable future which finally pushes Daddy's Little Slugger over the edge. Joshua spoils the celebration by brattily puking on the hardwoods and cutting the noses off his stuffed animals. He also talks a lot about Egyptian gods that eat their own screams. At the age of nine, Joshua is a petulant, 17-year-old goth.

Continue reading "Joshua" »

Vitus

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Smokin' hairstyle piano playin' little dude.

On television or in the movies, precocious children are charming (see the popularity of Kids Say the Darndest Things and Raven-Symoné's whole career), but in "real life" a prodigy is more oddity than not. Ostracized by their peers and gawked at by adults, it's not far-fetched to imagine that even the most successful child geniuses might long for a moment when they can just blend in. This is the premise of Vitus, a charming albeit fantastical story about a Swiss piano player who exhibits staggering talents on the keyboard until a fall from his apartment balcony renders him "normal."

Our boy wonder is played by two actors in two important segments of his life — Fabrizio Borsani when Vitus is 6 years-old and Teo Gheorghiu at 12, both real life piano prodigies. His doting inventor father and ex-pat American mother realize conventional school is too easy for Vitus and get him a private piano tutor to nurture his talents. But Vitus seems most at home when he's doing regular kid things like flirting with his cute, older babysitter Isabel or learning simple carpentry with his salt-of-the-earth grandfather (Bruno Ganz). Flashing forward to the pre-teen Vitus, he's acting out in school because at 12, he's leagues smarter than his 17 year-old classmates and stalking his now hot ex-babysitter. A heart-to-heart with grandpa about finding what really makes him happy turns on a light bulb in Vitus's overactive brain. He just want to be regular and after a rainy late-night flight from balcony to the pavement below, he seems to be. No more cleaning his grandfather's clock at chess, no more expert piano pieces, no more off-the-charts IQ results for Vitus.

The final third of the film, post-accident, loses some of its momentum as Vitus's machination to aid his Dad sends the plot off the rails of believability, but at least director Fredi M. Murer has made a relatively entertainingly little art house flick. I'd much rather spend two hours with Vitus's brand of well-meaning weirdness than the creepy Joshua, another ahead of the curve kid currently gracing silver screens. Vitus wouldn't do freaky Rosicrucian things to your favorite dog when you're at work and he has enough social grace to sport a different hair style than Joshua's tiny Republican crop. Also, Vitus likes Thai food and can fly small airplanes which constitutes a catch in my book.

Captivity

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*Captivity stars the cop from 3 minutes and one line in the final half-hour.

Captivity: The Review: As Boring and Depressing as The Movie? How Dare You!!

The last line of "Captivity" (spoiler! don't care!) is "thanks for the lesson, Gary". I wrote it on the bathroom wall afterwards. The lesson that Jennifer (li'l Cuthbey) is referring to is how to cock a shotgun. She tried to shoot the bad guy (the film's 2nd villain) but she didn't cock the shotgun, and then he showed her how, and then she shot him. But, and I think you knew this was coming, she's probably not talking about just that lesson. I mean, she can't be. This film's not interesting enough for the possibility that there isn't some Romerian lesson like all the rest. But here, the lesson is so muddled, this is all I can come up with: FEAR IS THE SAFEST PLACE TO LIVE, and EVERYONE HATES YOU, YOU CANNOT BE LOVED. Every single twist in the film, literally every single one, is "what you thought was good is EVIL!!" and Jennifer starts the film without any friends or family or boyfriend (just a dog) and ends the film unchanged (yes, unchanged, as in, as if the experience had taught her nothing, because what was there for it to teach her?) only without a dog because she shot it (also with a shotgun). It's dark, isn't it? Almost so dark you can't even see it. Because, as is obviously the case, these aren't true lessons, so the film's got a couple of pretty fundamental false premises. Its cowardice is just so unrelatable that there can be no emotional investment whatsoever, so the only "successful" scenes are the ones based on visceral response (force-feeding a girl liquified entrails, burning off a girl's skin with an acid shower) and all the ones based on emotional impact (shooting the dog, the entire romance and subsequent reversal, the poor poor serial killers as boys with their rapist mother, basically 90% of the movie) are pitiful attempts to disguise the (thankfully small) little erectile scenes as an actual story. Which is like eating a bowl of shit and then asking for a mint. Don't go see this movie. It's negative in every direction. Another way you can tell is that it (I'm convinced unwittingly) aims to prove as true both of the contradictory (and staunchly negative) ideas "hell is isolation" (which is mentioned in the film) and "hell is other people" (which is the last line (spoiler!) of Sartre's "No Exit").

This review is exactly 33% parenthetical phrases. (eat it, Heidegger)

One to Another

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Something "extremely subtle" is about to go on.

Small town malaise, it seems, is universal. In one country it might be expressed through hanging out with your abnormally close buddies riding BMX bikes, sniffing glue and shooting cats with BB guns, and in another country it might be expressed by hanging out with your abnormally close buddies, riding little motorbikes, playing in a dad-rock band, indulging in sun-dappled homo-erotic wrassling and fucking your abnormally close Alpha-buddy's even more abnormally close sister. In either case, bad shit is sure to follow, up to and including horrendous, senseless murder.

But before that comes that fucking. A lot of it. However, because the film is structured so that it ping-pongs back and forth between idyllic, pre-lapsarian nude sunbathing (and such) and post-crime tortured clue and soul-searching, One to Another's exploration of the lives of an all too tight-knit group of provincial French young folks ends up muddled and confusing, and the viewer is unlikely to enjoy either the sex or the existential musings. By the end of the film, the only thing we know for sure is that rural France is a prime spawning ground of Abercrombie and Fitch-y hot boys, as the male leads look like they tumbled straight out of that iconically homosocial catalog. Better looking still is a hot, possibly mystical retard in a strangely attractive sweater-vest/overall combo, which I would not be suprised to see anchoring the fall Calvin Klein collection. Put another way, you're not likely to see a better collection of cheekbones in a film this summer.

The female lead, Lucie, (Lizzie Brochere) looks like a low-rent Tara Reid, including boob job scars. Her main attraction for the boys is her availability, since they more or less all fuck or have fucked her in the past (except for the one who just likes to watch, which sets up a ghoulish joke later in the film). Her brother, Pierre (Arthur Dupont), is the lead singer of the band (which Lucie is strangely not part of, except as #1 groupie) and the sexual superstar of the friends, not only boning one of the other boys on the sly but working nights as a manwhore and professional orgy-goer. He's also the owner of what I can only surmise is a high school letter jacket for making the varsity incest squad, and with his sister, a matching ass-cheek strawberry birthmark. Pierre is supposed to signify unfettered, pure sexuality that annihilates all boundaries. For instance, he and sis engage in some "extremely subtle" frottage in an extremely picturesque al fresco bathtub, and there are several other Bonobo-esque couplings. Pierre's sexuality, even when covert, is a physical, primal force that can overwhelm and force people into equally uncontrolled actions.

When Pierre goes missing on the motorbike he bought with his orgy-money, and eventually turns up beaten to death, Lucie becomes a determined, slutty Nancy Drew on a quest to fuck her way to the truth, all the while offering up such quintessentially French musings like "deprived of youth, man becomes accomplice to his own death." A broad array of rightwing boogeymen are offered as suspects, including secretive old queens, nihilistic young rough trade, fag-bashing neo-nazis, thieving gypsies, sister-protecting Algerians. Lucie tries to coerce a pre-mature ejaculating police detective and the aforementioned mystic retard into helping her solve the mystery, but hot snatch freely given can only do so much.

When we finally learn the answer of who snuffed Pierre, the filmmakers reveal that the film was "based on a true story" and that no one ever knew the motives of the killers. The implication is that the motivations for all such crimes are unknowable, that one can observe the actions of a seemingly normal person and not ever have the slightest inkling as to why they committed a horrible crime. This is just silliness, as normal people don't just snap and off someone, particularly in the way it goes down in the film. While maybe the institutionalized Lucie and the filmmakers can't cope with the reality of murder, most people can combine intellect and empathy in order to hazard some sort of guess as to the whys.

In the last scene Lucie lies crumpled in an orchard, absolutely still, as her only true friend the courageous retard rushes to her aid. When he gets to her it turns out that she was only playing a game, which she calls "learning how to die without him." One wishes that she came to that conclusion far earlier in the film and spared us any further philosophical bullshit.

Rescue Dawn

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The opening sequence in Werner Herzog's new film is immediately more engaging than any CGI feat of ingenuity I've seen all summer, simply for the fact that it's real. These were real bombs being dropped from real American planes during the lead-up to a very real war (despite whatever specious parlance of "police action" may have been used at the time) in Vietnam. Using these clips of an actual bombing campaign also lends a kind of authenticity to the non-fiction, albeit recreated, story that follows. I don't usually go in for biopics, but knowing that Herzog, critic's darling, has already filmed a documentary version of these events in Little Dieter Needs To Fly , including extensive interviews with Dengler himself, makes me feel like this is as close to the truth of what happened as any recreation is going to get.

Rescue Dawn is the story of Dieter Dengler, played by Christian Bale, the lone survivor of a truly daring escape from a Laotian P.O.W. camp in the early days of the war. The film begins on an aircraft carrier in 1965 when no one thought full-blown war was imminent. Dengler and his crew are briefed on a top secret bombing campaign in Laos. While a teammate is yukking it up during a filmstrip educating the pilots on jungle survival tactics, Dengler pays close attention, which illustrates not prescience but a facet of his focused character. Bale does a fine job of becoming Dengler. His speech is overly formal, his jokes usually fall convincingly flat, but there is obviously a wealth of wit and fortitude flashing behind his eyes. While getting suited up for the flight, Dengler explains his decision to join up with the Navy: He just wanted to learn to fly, and to party on bases in Southeast Asia. He never intended to bomb anything or fight in a war. He just picked the wrong time to enlist.

His bad luck continues while on his first mission, only days into active service, when his plane is shot down. Crawling from a spectacular crash, he collects himself and hurries into the jungle for cover. His escape from Viet-Cong sympathizers only lasts so long before he is captured and dragged to a local magistrate. He is given the option of signing away his citizenship and denouncing America, but he refuses and is immediately subjected to torture. In a time when the Geneva Conventions have largely been revoked and there are public debates over which forms of torture are acceptable, Rescue Dawn unflinchingly showcases a host of non-lethal methods. After Dengler is beaten, hung by a wasps' nest, dragged by an ox and waterboarded, one sees how grueling and dehumanizing all methods are, and one gets a sense that our generation is no less culpable for its specious parlance of "information gathering tactics." After the torture, Dengler is shipped off to rot in an internment camp deep in the jungle.

While at the camp, mostly inhabited by other soldiers and Air America pilots, the film finds a surprising amount of levity. Faced with the worst possible scenario, the captured manage to find humor and solace in the most commonly human of shared experiences, everything from incontinence to discussions of what would make the perfect meal to memories of girls back in the States. Dengler explains without irony his decision to fly for the military. Born in Germany, Dengler was a young child when his village was bombed toward the end of WWII. He describes seeing the pilots whiz by as an almost spiritual experience (not unlike another Bale role), one that influenced him for years to come, and though he disassociates the pilots from the war that would ravage his homeland, he still has a childlike infatuation with the simple mechanical beauty of flight. Two fellow service members, Eugene and Dwayne, seem to regard Dengler, who never gives in to despair or hopelessness, as a natural leader. When he begins planning their escape, even the disagreeable Eugene comes around to the possibility of success. Unfortunately, Eugene has become too much a product of prison camp mentality and his own frail sanity, and when their escape actually works he is left wandering aimlessly in the jungle babbling, "where from here?"

Dwayne, a perfectly amiable but indecisive dependent played endearingly well by Steve Zahn, is the only one who sticks with Dengler, although their companionship is cut short. It's in the last reel of the film, as Dengler is shot at by his own countrymen and hallucinates a still-complaining ghost of Dwayne, that we see how clearly our human associations define us. Alone in the jungle, while resourceful, Dengler is little different than any other animal trying to survive. It's when surrounded by his friends in the camp and, upon his rescue, rejoicing in the arms of his fellow soldiers that he becomes an expressive, inspiring human being.

Talk to Me

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A lot of times we don't speak up. We have lots of reasons for this. Sometimes we are scared. Sometimes we don't trust ourselves to say what we mean. Sometimes we just don't know what to say. Sometimes we have ruptured our vocal cords or have been captured by wrongdoers and are gagged in an all-windows office looking at the world about to be destroyed. We have lots of reasons, and so, we look around and we pick out other people to be our voices. Maybe a musician who sings real good or a comedian who tells it the way you always thought it should be told or a writer who, I don't know, uses commas, you know, the way commas ought to be used. We choose our voices, and it's all well and good: at least up until our chosen voices change their tunes.

Well, they don't mean to. Because the thing about it is that our voices, our agents, we forget, are other people. They don't exactly live inside our heads, no matter how many times we seem to hear them coming straight from the cobwebs in the corners next to the memory of our birthday party circa turning eight years old (ice cream cake, the movies, a fight). We ought to know this. We ought to know they aren't us (they weren't at the party, after all). And yet doesn't it feel so personal? Doesn't it feel a bit like a betrayal?

This movie is based on truths. Petey Greene (the sideburnituded Don Cheadle) was a radio DJ, and he was important to a community (black) in a place (Washington DC) at a time (Civil Rights, raging). He was an ex-con and his story is for real, including the part about how he talked a lot of shit, drank a lot of alcohol, and was BFFs with a man named Dewey Hughes (black, Washington DC, idolized Johnny Carson and no one else). Dewey (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who will be such a star soon you will know how to pronounce his name) up and makes the very same mistake we all make, all the time. He grabs onto Petey 'cause Petey says the things that Dewey maybe would have said originally had he not got caught up in trying to score big in a Martin Sheen world. Which you can't blame him for that, or can you? The movie is unsure.

Our Dewey pushes Petey to standup, and then to television, and all the way up and up to the Tonight Show, where Petey instead of doing a standup set gets out in front of the curtain, smokes a cigarette, and says a few things echoed just three decades later by Dave Chappelle. Because it turns out that (a) when you're the chosen voice of the disenfranchised and (b) the not-so-disenfranchised get all excited about making money off of you, well then (c) at some point if you have any sense in your head at all you realize that you've created a moral paradox, and finally (d1) you probably have nothing left to do but to quit your Comedy Central show and run off to South Africa or to (d2) smoke a cigarette instead of doing your routine on the Tonight Show. Which is fine, except for how your BFF wanted you to do it right so badly, and your audience wanted another season, so much, and both are left to fend alone. So now what.

That's what compels, about the Petey Greene story. Not the alcoholism (it's there) or the platitudes about race (they're there, though, it's been a long time since such earnest respect was paid on film to Dr. MLK), or the sub-sub plot about another brother in jail. What compels is watching a man choose his proxy, watching his proxy fold for all the right reasons, and then waiting to see if that first man will be able to stand up for himself. Will we ever, do we ever need to, so long as there are other books, or other songs, or other films, or other plays? I would like to think that eventually we'll all have our own voices. I would like to think we'll all some day just realize that what we say out loud just is, and doesn't need fixing, necessarily; we're the only ones who can speak for ourselves. The rest are just getting close. Sure, and I know a strong but flawed biopic isn't going to give me the answers. I'm just glad it even started the questions.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and Dolores Umbridge

Reviewing any Harry Potter media is hard. I'm not implying the text is like James Joyce's Ulysses, rather that it's so immersive you forget to come up for air. Like many Potter fans, I read the first four books in about 2 hours and I certainly didn't underline important passages. So when it comes to the movies, my central question is whether the director was able to at least keep up with the excitement of Rowling's writing. Alfonso Cuarón did a great job with Azkaban and Mike Newell didn't do so hot with Goblet of Fire, neither of which are shocking revelations. The Order of the Phoenix is another tall order and expectations are impossibly high. Still, all the production team really has to do is Not Screw It Up.

Like the huge tome that is Goblet of Fire, director David Yates has the difficult task of condensing a lot of plot, little of which is fluff, into a feature-length film. In this volume Harry is forced to act older than his years and convince his classmates that evil Lord Voldemort has returned and will definitely bring the pain. Since the wizard world's governing body, the Ministry of Magic, is gung-ho about convincing the world Harry is a liar and a fraud, our young hero takes matters into his own hands. When the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the Ministry's Dolores Umbridge, won't teach them anything useful, Harry rounds up a dozen or so like-minded students to prepare themselves for Voldemort's inevitable attack.

While Voldemort is still Harry's nemesis, Dolores Umbridge is the true villain in the Order and she steals the show. Not that Voldemort isn't a scary dude, but I have more memories of prim and proper teachers with a mean streak than I do of recently disembodied dark wizards with nose-less faces.

The questions remains, did Yates Screw It Up? The action scenes were gripping and the side story about Harry's love life was a blast, but the movie just felt like it was missing something. No, I'm not concerned about the lack of quidditch, rather that the pace of the film was far too consistent. Even during the final battle scene I found myself no more engaged than I was during the earliest conversations about extendable ears. My level of engagement was high throughout, but there was no arc, no crescendo. It's possible having read 6 books and seen 4 movies or watching this at midnight on a Tuesday made it difficult to experience the Order as Yates would like, but there are hundreds of thousands in the same boat.

Despite my grievance, you should still see this movie because Yates may have come in a little under par, but he didn't Screw It Up. Billions of dollars later, J.K. Rowling and her stubborn wizard crew prevails again.

Interview

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It was pure coincidence that I happened to be reading Jancee Dunn's memoir But Enough About Me on the same day that I saw Steve Buscemi's film Interview -- a review copy of the paperback edition arrived at my apartment the day before, addressed to "Michael Perpetua" -- but the book and the film made for an interesting double-feature on the topic of interviewing celebrities. It seems like a lightweight topic, but it's something that happens all the time, and even if we pretend that it's all a lot of stupid fluff, it's a folly to pretend that the lives of celebrities are not a major part of the fabric of contemporary culture. Both Dunn's book and Buscemi's movie are interested in the social dynamics of the celebrity interview, but from different angles roughly corresponding to their individual roles in the symbiotic celeb/media axis.

Every other chapter in Dunn's book is essentially a how-to guide on writing profiles of famous people based on her years of experience doing just that for Rolling Stone and MTV2, and it's mostly quite helpful, even if you never intend to pursue that line of work because when it comes down to it, she's really instructing you on how to immediately ingratiate yourself to people who have some sort of intimidating social power. Whereas Dunn is generally reverential of the celebrity's role in the lives of ordinary people, Interview is extraordinarily bitter and cynical, and far more concerned with the cost of living the lifestyle of major celebrity. Buscemi's story, based on a 2003 picture by the late Theo Van Gogh, spends most of its time demystifying and humanizing its celebrity character, and then showing how she becomes dehumanized without that mystification.

Sienna Miller plays a starlet not entirely unlike her actual public persona, but also quite a bit like Lindsay Lohan. (Among other things, there's a reference to her "fluxuating tit size.") She rapidly cycles through moments of self-possession, petulance, cruelty, righteousness, nihilism, egomania, and self-loathing, but it's never clear whether or not she actually has any sort of emotional baseline. She's being interviewed by Buscemi's character, a sour hard news reporter with a dark past who resents having to interview an actress best known for her tabloid antics when he feels that he ought to be covering something or other in Washington, but his lack of professionalism derails the usual celeb/journalist ritual, and spins them off into unfamiliar territory. The two start off being dismissive and antagonistic, and although that never quite goes away, over the course of one night they find themselves bonding over booze, revealing sympathetic sides of their personalities and gaining insight into each other's radically different lives. Things get sexual, then they realize that they remind each other of deceased familial relations and recoil a bit at the incestuous implications of their attraction, and then kinda get sexual all over again.

Buscemi's character keeps attempting to figure her out, but he's grasping at straws and she knows it, so she toys with him some more. In the end, Buscemi seems like a jackass for feeling that he's superior to this tabloid princess, and she seems like a damaged person for buying into her own hype. The film ends on the assertion that there is no equality, and that every relationship has a winner and a loser, and though Miller's character seems to come out on top, it doesn't seem like much of a victory.

Sunshine

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You got the touch! You got the powwww-er!

I've always thought that humanity was pretty short-sighted to collectively decide that sacrificing babies to the Sun wasn't worth the hassle. Whose stupid idea was that? Now, the only recourse we have if Ra starts getting cranky is to put our continued existence in the hands of the same people who can't ever seem to design a space-ship hatch that doesn't get stuck at the most inopportune time: Scientists.

Such is the premise of Sunshine. A team of psychologically unfit astronauts and associated types have blasted off from earth carrying a massive nuclear payload to the deliver to the heart of the sun, much like a hypodermic needle full of adrenaline to the heart of an ODing bitch. They're following in the footsteps of a previous mission that mysteriously disappeared. Tip: If you're flying to the Sun, don't name your spaceship the Icarus! Was "Challenger" already taken?

The crew of the Icarus II (natch) consists of a genre-standard smorgasbord of types: stolid, self-sacrificing captain; possibly unstable psych officer; mission-oriented science jock; two high-strung neurotics; under-used racially-ambiguous female biologist; naive physicist; and naive girlfriend. Oh, and a ship that talks and is sort of sentient. We're introduced in media res, as the crew is at the point of the journey where their on-board communication devices are nearing zero bars of reception.

After human error leads to a predictably tense (though not less enjoyable for it) spacewalk in stylish if bulky gold lamé spacesuits, the crew starts to disintegrate psychologically as well as physically. Not only has the miscalculation nearly destroyed their nuclear device, but their fragile ecosystem and thus all hopes for a journey home alive has been ravaged the sun.

Even a dying sun packs enough fire and force to eradicate all differences. It looms huge throughout the entire movie, dwarfing the merely human actions even while itself dying, becoming smaller. The Sun is not just the life-giver to the human beings on Planet Earth, but a destructive force beyond all rational understanding and control. The film makes a point of this when the chief Physicist tries to run a simulation of what the consequences of payload delivery will be - at a certain point all calculations become unreliable, and the crew's nightmares of plummeting towards the surface of the sun are just as a reliable guide as their super-computer.

The crew has to make other calculations besides things like proper trajectories and remaining oxygen. There's a moral calculus at play, balancing the seriousness of the mission and the ability to sacrifice the good of any single person for the continuity of the species. Some crew members are more comfortable with the abstraction of the species than they are with the reality of the fellow human beings on board the ship. The script is full of metaphors of control - about what we can control as a singular human being, as a species, and as a constituent of the universe. There is a push-pull between abandoning and seizing control, and it's not a coincidence that the two characters who most clearly see and believe in the mission like to spend their leisure time giving up control, by basking in the sense-depriving rays of the looming sun or being crashed upon by ocean waves in a "earth simulation" program.

Unfortunately, what could have been an interesting exploration of the limits of scientific and rationale thought when confronted with not only huge, unanswerable questions about existence and the nature of the universe, coupled with the surely cinematically-engaging evidence of the ways the laws of the universe change in extreme situations is pushed aside in favor of the introduction of a faith-based boogey-man. Just in time to derail the mission, a character appears that starts spouting lines like "our Science and our genes are futile. It is not our place to challenge god," which has been the default position of Film in relation to science and scientists since Frankenstein.

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland try to play against this traditional movie archetype of the god-mocking, overreaching scientist, but seem to go too far in the other direction, shoe-horning in a menacing, Freddy Krueger-ish nightmare of Faith into the proceedings as the antithesis of the way the more or less rational scientists are trying to save all of humanity. The problem is that, at the end of the film, Science requires just as much of a leap of faith as leaving the universe in the hand of a god would. The last remaining astronaut has to "let go and let science," so to speak. Science, in the end, ends up a matter of faith and relinquishment of control. You may think you're the one setting the controls for the heart of the sun but nature is really driving the bus.

Boyle employs some simple but effective editing techniques that ratchet up suspense while also serving as an echo of the way time and space are warped when approaching the extreme physical conditions created by a star. There are some amazingly jarring flashback frames abruptly cut into the film as the crew board the dark hulk of the earlier Icarus, and the final scenes where the ship and remaining crew members plummet towards the sun stop and start in ways unfamiliar to us terrestrial-bound humans, taking away our control and expectations of continuity as viewers, leaving us no choice but to let the filmmakers do their thing. After showing us what might be Eternity, they then leave it in our hands, and we're able to decide for ourselves what it all means. Has something been preserved or have all the efforts of science just bought us another big-whup 5 billion years of learning to live with the unknowable?

My Best Friend

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Try as I might, I couldn't convince anyone to go see My Best Friend (ou, pour le Francophone, Mon Meilleur Ami) with me. I've been in New York for about 10 months. It's not that I don't have any friends here. I've got some drinking buddies, some work buddies, some Binge buddies, and I'm on very good terms with my roommates and their boyfriends. Seriously, I'm a very likable person! I guess no one I know is very much interested in seeing a relatively unadvertised French film about a man who makes a bet with a colleague to prove that he has at least one close friend in life. The same colleague astutely asserts later in the film that just taking the bet is akin to an admission of defeat, but that doesn't safeguard the entire premise from coming off as more than a little hackneyed. I will grant my friends in New York this: I didn't want to see this movie either.

Francois (Daniel Auteuil) is a successful antiques dealer without anyone to call a friend, so, to win a bet, he hires a know-it-all and seemingly socially winning cab driver named Bruno (Dany Boon) to teach him how to make friends. I thought--due to the lead's name (I can't imagine a more "everyman" name for a Frenchman than Francois) and the nearly universal assumption that the French are a dour and unfriendly lot--that this was perhaps meant as a meditation on how French identity is perceived in the world, and possibly even a plea for a national effort to smile more and be more outgoing. If this is the filmmakers' intent, however, it's approached with such subtlety as to be almost absent from a textual reading of the film. Which is really where French filmmakers do tend to excel: subtlety. However, due to the defiant lack of subtlety in nearly every other aspect of the film, my musings on sub-textual investigations of national identity can be dismissed outright.

As expected, Francois and Bruno are set on a path to become best buds, despite the former's rigid indifference to the world around him and the latter's previous misgivings with the enterprise of friendship (his former best friend ran off with his wife a few years before). There are a few predictable montages of Francois trying to use what Bruno has taught him, shots of the two smiling at each other as they develop meaningful bonds in the search of friendship, and a spectacularly tacked-on finale where Francois uses a contact in the antiques world to land Bruno a spot on the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Which, of course, leads to an overly personal Phone-A-Friend lifeline for the big win.

Perhaps it's just my arrogant American identity, but I couldn't help feeling that the increasingly serendipitous twists and turns of this contrived plot are more reminiscent of an over-the-top American comedy. I could easily imagine Adam Sandler and Kevin James, stars of one of this summer's big cinematic blunders, starring in an American version, the main difference being that our version would have more toilet humor and wall-to-wall gay panic. Granted the French version is shot better (albeit in a somewhat distracting steadicam/verite style), and has better actors and mostly credible dialogue. The French version also adroitly works in a few nice details, most notably a reference to classically Greek ideals of friendship as introduced by a vase that Francois obtains featuring Achilles and Patroclus, best buds from the Iliad.

However, the implausibility of it all--everything from the over-arching premise to the idea that one can get the same taxi driver in Paris twice in a row by chance--keeps the film from sticking to its better instincts. Ultimately, it's a small idea turned into a cute film with endearing characters that could absolutely never, ever happen. Still, I would have preferred to see it with a friend.

The Simpsons Movie

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In a very direct and concrete way, I almost feel like my life has led up to this very moment, where a troubled and trying 18 years after watching the very first full-length episode, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" (sorry, but I didn't then, and never will, watch The Tracey Ullman Show), I now have the pleasure of reviewing, for the incomparable benefit of all peoples, races and creeds, The Simpsons Movie here for the Movie Binge. It is both a blessing and a burden, to have seen the loving face of G-d, but now obliged by destiny and desire to share what I saw on top of that mountain with my weakly imperfect human voice.

What must our grandparents have felt to know that victory had been declared over the forces of Nazism and Fascism in the second World War? What must our parents have felt as they witnessed humans, flesh and blood like themselves, walking on the surface of our once-distant Moon? Surely these examples pale by comparison to the global flood of feeling, ranging from exalted joy to accomplished vindication, when our generation's lucky few sat in darkened theaters at the stroke of midnight on July 27 and witnessed the herald of a new age of peace, laughter and prosperity being born, like a blood-and-mucus-spackled babe, from the womb of our collective hopes and most deeply cherished beliefs. That child is The Simpsons Movie, except that it's a movie and not a child and you have to pay money to go see it.

Magnanimous bullshit aside, I really was delighted at how the final product came out. The Simpsons is consistently the best show on television, even, paradoxically, when it's not. The creators still manage to deal openly and confidently with every social stigma that comes our way, micro or macro, with levity, wit and a continuously endearing and complex cast of characters, one that rivals even literary masters like Dickens or Dostoevsky. The movie retains all the best attributes of the series: The theme has a decided (and generally unassailable) progressively liberal bent, geared toward environmentalism but unafraid to poke fun at itself; our religion, our government, and our uniquely American sense of propriety are all given a vigorous shakedown; and the breaking points of the family, Homer and Marge's marriage, and Homer's own brutalized body are all tested.

Although it's a surreal experience to see them on the big screen, without the constraints of the censors or the half-hour sitcom format, the writers are allowed to more fully investigate the Simpsons's universe. Surprisingly, most of what would have been throw-away jokes on the show actually come together here to create a story that holds together rather nicely. The animation is better, and they have more time to develop character and jokes. Since this is also one of the most anticipated films of the decade, a true landmark event, there was obviously an impetus to go above and beyond in the scope and execution of the plot. As a result of this cinematic one-ups-manship, Springfield itself is threatened, as is Homer and Marge's marriage, and more dramatically than either ever have been. Especially moving is a video-taped message from Marge to Homer, brimming with more emotive inflection than I've ever heard Julie Kavner's gravelly voice achieve. All of this stake-raising works in the service of a triumphant conclusion where Homer gets to play the hero, fulfilling our sensitive audience expectations. In the end, in good times and bad, the Simpsons are an appreciative reflection of ourselves, and we'd all do well to hold together as well as they do.

It needed more Ralph Wiggum, though. Just sayin'.

Hairspray

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It turns out that being racist is bad and that black people are real good dancers who make some mean collard greens. Oh my, did I just flip your bowler wrong side-up? Sounds like you're a bigot who needs a fat slice of life served to you by Hairspray, an adaptation of a musical drawn from the bowels of Broadway (though not before Broadway first had a chance to adapt the original, non-musical film for the stage). If there's one thing this movie knows, it's that blitheness will win out and problems are best solved with pluck. And who doesn't like pluck, you jackass?

You see, Tracy wants to be a dancer on television. It's the 60s, so there are black people who we're afraid of but who seem to have lots of fun regardless. You know they have fun because once a month you see them on television. It's subtle segregation, you might not notice it, so here in the movie we call it Negro Day. Television is in black and white and it's controlled by men with cigars and cosmetics companies. Tracy is also fat, but she's resourceful, so she keeps smiling and dancing until she gets on the show. Then she is like, "Let's stop having Negro Day one day and just have Negro Day forever." Trouble ensues, but briefly. I won't spoil the ending, but I will reveal that You Can't Stop the Beat.

The movie is ably directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman, who does no real wrongs, except he did pick this project. Nerds will recognize his name because he choreographed the Buffy musical; Broadway fans will thank him for scrapping Jerry Mitchell's original, overly frenetic work on the show. Shankman keeps a fluid pace, and musical numbers occur at exactly the point at which musical numbers should occur. He avoids surprises and does the bidding of the script, imbuing scenes not with delightful! confectionary! fantasy! but with embarrassing wish-fulfillment fakery.

Casting is a mixed bag, beginning with the unfortunately stunt-like choice to place John Travolta in the role of Edna Turnblad, the gigantic doting housewife. Travolta minces into a role ruled on film by Divine and onstage by Harvey Fierstein, and it would all just be an ignorable folly if it weren't for the fact that Travolta has turned into a painfully bad singer and a completely mediocre dancer. His presence nearly spoils the musical's least grating tune, a sweet little duet called "(You're) Timeless To Me" that he shares with Christopher Walken (lurching around with the unteachable gracelessness of an ex-dancer who can barely be arsed to show up on set anymore). Showing up for the first time in forever is Michelle Pfeiffer, who I guess is evil and therefore bad at staying on pitch; showing up for the umpteenth time is Queen Latifah, playing, you know, the sassy black woman who saves the day. You would think at this point she'd be a little tired of saving white people from themselves. I guess I'm grateful she's not.

The kids fare a little better. Tracy Turnblad herself is played by Nikki Blonsky, who basically didn't do a damn thing before she got cast in this, and good on her. She sings, she dances, she's cute and I'll light a candle for her future career. High School Musical heartstring tugger and Bop mainstay Zac Efron checks in with a ton of mugging, and Amanda Bynes seems to have developed enough comic timing to puncture through the script's dull call-response. Best of all is James Marsden — he's a total snooze as Cyclops in the X-Men movies, but here he exhibits grace, charm, rhythm, and pipes.

It's not that it's so bad to have a movie that believes in joy, and in triumph by dance-off. In fact, those are a couple of things sorely lacking in cinema and in life. As an endlessly embarrassed proponent of the Broadway musical, I like to believe in nothing more than the resolution of conflict through song and dance. Only it helps to have a bit of an emotional arc to set your characters on, something for them to battle internally as well as externally, well, doesn’t it? Surely we read the same screenwriting blog. Hairspray props up villains like target practice and, as they're picked off one by one, we don't get to have any fun at all. Why should we? Turns out we already knew that racism was bad.

Goya's Ghosts

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Erik Bryan and Karen Wilson attended a sparsely populated Tuesday evening screening of Goya's Ghosts. Following are their thoughts on the experience.

Erik:
While watching Milos Forman's newest biopic of one of Spain's most celebrated master painters, I couldn't help but get the feeling that historical events like the re-introduction of the Inquisition and the Napoleonic invasion of Spain were being used to thinly veil Forman's political assessment of the current American administration's handling of the Iraq war. Firstly, there's a discussion of the usefulness of torture in obtaining an accurate confession. The context is that of the Inquisition's attempt to rid Spain of heretics, atheists, Jews, etc., but the exact same language has recently been used to address the necessity of gaining information from suspects of terrorism. Later, Napoleon's armies are told that they will be greeted as liberators in Spain, which directly echoes evil overlord Dick Cheney's words on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. It's not that I have a problem with political content being expressed in film, I just don't think it has to be so overt.

Well, as it turns out, according to this article, the screenplay was completed almost a year before the Iraq war began, which certainly gives Forman a few points for prescience. Napoleon himself is reputed to have said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, which makes it all the more amusing that Cheney has used these age-old cliches to defend our government's "information gathering" and "liberation" tactics. For whatever else the film is, Forman has certainly proven that he is an apt pupil of history. But does good history a good movie make?

No. The biggest problem, I felt, was that the movie is barely even about Goya, here played by adequately by Stellan Skarsgard. He just happens to be there during some of these important moments in Spanish history. His printwork is discussed gravely among Inquisitors, he's shown painting the Spanish royals (he was their court painter), but he doesn't actually get much screen time. The majority of the film is concerned with a corrupt priest, Lorenzo (played by Javier Bardem with devilishly cool menace) and the suspected heretic, Ines (played a little less than adequately by Natalie Portman), that he "puts to the question", rapes and impregnates, and later commits to an asylum. Once his coerced confession is discovered by Church officials, Lorenzo flees to Paris and becomes a parrot of Enlightenment ideals which the French invaders fought for but rarely lived up to. These fanciful conversions of political and religious ideology while Europe's at war have been the subject of better films (Barry Lyndon comes immediately to mind), ones that weren't ostensibly biopics of hugely influential painters. The film contains all the elements of Goya's work, the political strife, the vulgarity, the flat honesty, but none of the signature style or passion. Goya's best works, taken at face value without any narrative intrusion, are far more affecting than this milquetoast rumination on where Goya's inspirations may have come from. Which is why, after the movie, as several of Goya's paintings were shown underneath the closing credits, I sat glued to my seat.

---
Karen:
Sitting in the Angelika lobby before watching Goya's Ghosts, I tried to explain to Erik that while I knew very little about Goya's life or artwork I have a strong bond with Milos Forman. Milos and I have an unspoken understanding, I said. Amadeus was probably my most frequent repeat-viewing movie as a teenager, seeing The Fireman's Ball in grad school was a movie-geek revelation and I even enjoyed some of his more maligned movies like Valmont and Man on the Moon. Unfortunately, I found Goya's Ghosts lacked a cohesiveness and an over-arching, complex point of view which is evident in Forman's other work. The movie's chief problem is its harping on the cliched main narrative theme, HYPOCRISY IS BAD. Uh, duh? With his family victims of Auschwitz and growing up in the tumultuous former Czechoslovakia, you'd think Forman could say something more nuanced about the impetus for social order through totalitarian control and the responsibility of art to stand up for human suffering.

The actors' performances come off as bare sketches of real people, the worst being Natalie Portman's dual roles as Goya's muse Ines and Ines's illegitimate daughter Alicia. While Portman has now conquered playing two generations in one movie (which surely has to the similar acting thrill of playing a part where you're immortalized as an action figure), it seemed as though she thought she had to put half as much charisma into each performance. Plus, the fake choppers the film's teeth wrangler Chris Lyons put her in (a distinct set for each character!) were nightmarish. Despite these amusing distractions, I walked out of the movie realizing I learned less about Goya than one should after sitting through a biopic. Equally as murky after the gorgeous art-filled credits rolled were the identity of Goya's ghosts. Were they the brutalized Spanish he depicted in his gruesome lithographs, yet was not able to actually save from their suffering? Are they the royal families he lovingly captured in massive portraits still hanging in the Prado? In 113 minutes of running time you'd think my friend Milos would be able to provide a more concrete answer.

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