Monday, December 29, 2008

My Stars: Slumdog Millionaire Blew My Rating System

I had only just yesterday come up with what I thought was a foolproof five-star rating system that would effectively and simply give readers a good idea of what I thought of every movie.

And then I saw "Slumdog Millionaire," and it ruined it all.

Why? Well, I couldn't give this movie just four stars. There are a lot of good movies coming out this time of year, and this one stands above most - it's more than likely to receive a good deal of Academy nominations, including best director and screenplay.

And yet, I didn't want to give it five stars either. That's the highest rating I can give, and I really want to reserve that for what I feel are outstanding movies that go into the movie "Hall of Fame" - the kind of movie we're lucky to get one of each year.

Just to give you an idea. Movies that I'd give five stars to include films like Pan's Labyrinth, Children of Men, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood. Movies that are, in my mind, perfect revelatory jewels of film making, or ambitious amazing failures that will live forever.

And I am a movie lover. I appreciate how hard it is to make a good movie. Movies like Batman: The Dark Knight and Valkyrie are professional, entertaining, and what we largely go to cinema for. But something like "Slumdog Millionaire" does that, and something more - it give us a special vision and take on the world. Kind of like "Little Miss Sunshine," they not only entertain but provide a unique artistic vision, even if they aren't necessarily in the list of top-ten movies ever made.

So what to do?

That's why I had to come up with four and 1/2 stars. I hated doing it, because the five-star system was so perfect. But it was the only way I could give Slumdog the recognition it deserved, without diluting the five-star rating for those films are are truly one of a kind.

For those rating purists out there, you're probably as upset about this as I am. But I hope you understand why I saw no other way out of this impossible conundrum I'd set for myself.

And one other point. You probably won't see many one or zero star ratings on this site. That's because I pick the movies I'm going to see myself - and like you, if I think a movie is going to be crappy, I pretty much stay away. That isn't to say that I won't guess wrong, now and then. "Get Smart" being a good case and point. But since I think I'm pretty good at picking good movies to see, you're going to be much more likely to see three, four, and five star rating on this site than one-star. Unless of course it's a DVD movie. Because I'm pretty much a movie whore, and once I've seen everything that's available for rent, I'll pretty much watch anything.

Slumdog Millionaire: Romantically Exhuberant. And That's My Final Answer

Slumdog Millionaire - the improbable story of how an Indian boy from the slums becomes a national hero on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" - seems like an unlikely film from Danny Boyle, director of such wildly diverse fare as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and the sci-fi think-piece, Sunshine.

That is until you see it, and realize that Boyle has recreated the magic that he hit with Trainspotting: a tour-de-farce of outsider characters living on the edge, only with a story and culture from a vastly different part of the world.

This unique story isn't perfect, to be sure. Jamal Malik, our impoverished Muslim hero living in the Hindi slums, answers so many questions correctly on this TV game show based on the American hit that he's been sent to the police for extreme interrogation, to find out how he must have cheated (a result unlikely to happen in, say, America, the movie seems to want to emphasize). The film intersperses the police interrogation with scenes from Jamal's childhood, each scene a kind of essay on how the particular question on the game show dovetails neatly into his unique experience as a "slumdog" growing up in the impoverished slums of Bombay. The setup is of course artificial and a bit corny, as are the gangsters that Jamal and his brother, Salim, get mixed up with at the end.

But in between, Boyle creates an wholly original filmic portrayal of two boys growing up in the slums of India, finding a way to survive on their own. While that might sound dreary, Boyle's cinema is lively, his camera work finding beauty, life, and haunting imagery amongst the masses of humanity, and his soundtrack punctuating a life on the road with a sense of freedom and romanticism as well as danger. Just one small example: in trying to get an autograph from a film hero visiting town, the young (six year old?) Jamal must escape being locked into an outhouse by his brother by jumping into the shit below. When he emerges, he's covered in shit, and goes to solicit the autograph just that way. But covered in shit is exactly the right metaphor for how Jamal is born into the world. He is the lowest of the low...and a completely unlikely character to be answering a question of national television that could win him twenty million rupees. As Jamal recounts his life on the streets, the movie becomes a kind of mix of classic film innovations set in the land of outsourcing, a kind of "Bicycle Thief" crossed with "Blade Runner" run across the colors and sounds of Bollywood. I particularly like how the three lifelines of the game show (audience answer, fifty-fifty, and call a friend) are used in appropriate dramatic fashion, uniting the drama of the show with the drama of Jamal's life in just the right way.

To say that the subject of the movie is timely would be an understatement. The India we see in this movie is a third-world country quickly and unevenly lurching into the first world, and Boyle gets the sense of cultural change, entrenched prejudice, and lazy criminality exactly right - or at least, as close to the sense of India I know from my Indian colleagues. And given the recent violence in Mumbai, even the violent treatment of Jamal seems plausibly credible.

Boyle does an effective job of turning Jamal's fifteen minutes of fame into a story of unadulterated romance - after all, isn't "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire" the ultimate romance, especially for a boy from the slums? That financial romance is transferred to a woman, Latika, who is Jamal's "third musketeer" and long lost love, and the quest for the financial prize as well as Latika's heart is effectively tied together to create an appropriately rapturous climax.

Of course, if you've seen the TV show even once, you can pretty much guess right away where Boyle's device is ultimately going to take you. And perhaps that predictability makes the film seem a bit over long. But the fact that Boyle needs to resort to some cliche stereotypes and gangster storylines to make this all come together may be beside the point. By the time the end arrives it's clear that this isn't a "realistic" movie so much as a parable, a fantasy, of an entire population that is adopting the febrile imagination of American culture as a way to escape the harsh realities of their birth. The movie mirrors the improbable romantic outcome that all of India desires, and delivers their Hollywood ending with deep feeling as well as delicious grooves. This is a fable, a fairy-tale, after all, and one in Bollywood style - and so some fairy-tale villains and heroes are, perhaps, necessary.

I really did want to find Boyle's fairy tale ending a more decisive reason to dismiss the film. But despite myself, I couldn't. Despite myself, Boyle's film reminded me of my own fairy-tale infatuation with harsh and imposing cities (New York, in my case), and the music, characters, and images from his movie seem to gain more power in the imagination the longer the movie sits with me. There is great life, in this movie about how poverty impoverishes and romance overcomes. The closing dance over the final credits only emphasizes that; the music is great, the actors are celebrating, it's impossible to not want to get up and join the boogie. And even a jaded cynic like me can't help but appreciate being reminded of the joy that only great literature, or great filmaking, can provide.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

War, Inc. A Nasty Little Confection of Bush-Era Irony

Let's start here: I am a HUGE fan of Mark Leyner, author of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist and other influential and silly works of postmodernist fiction that were quite formative in my student years and beyond.

So I was a bit surprised and amused to see him credited (along with Jeremy Pikser and John Cusack) with the story of War, Inc. - a kind of postmodernist fantasia critique of the war in Iraq featuring both John and Joan Cusack.

I'm unaware of any other movie that stars both Cusacks so if only for that reason - if not for the delicious possibility of an Iraq war satire - this movie caught my eye.

The trouble I have with this movie starts, however, with the first posit of Cusack's character, Brand Hauser, hired as a reluctant assassin by a Cheney-esque Dan Aykroyd (who's quite good, by the way) to stage a fake trade show in the not-very-well-disguised-Iraq-stand-in of Turaqistan as a cover to assassinate some south-Asian oil baron. Cusack is neither very believable nor very funny as the assassin with a past, so it's hard from the start to get a read on exactly the point of view this satire is taking. And while complicated, incredible setups are a staple of good satire, this one throws a bit too many balls into the air and pays little attention to where they eventually fall.

Now, I didn't know that all this was co-written by Leyner until the end...which sheds a bit of light, perhaps, on my confusion, as Leyner is a bit of a point-of-view-less satirist who's specialty is undermining easy moral platitudes. What works in fiction, however, seems a bit half-baked in the world of the movies, which requires fully realized sets, makeup, camera framing, and acting to create a fully flushed out experience...something, again, that Leyner's writing intentionally avoids. So it's easier, in retrospect, to see how this bit of anti-Bush fluff went off the rails.

For one thing, they could have gotten a little bigger movie budget, so as to create a believable alternative reality. The movie claims to be set in "The Twenty-First Century," which could easily be today, yet the nods to futuristic technology (i.e., private planes and on-board voice-activated therapists) are hard, exactly, to ascribe to some near future, since everything on the screen looks completely ordinary.

There are some satiric laughs, nevertheless. Joan Cusack lends her wonderfully manic persona to a fellow spy operating under cover as a corporate communications director...and the movie gets the send up of corporate trade-show culture just right (I imagine this movie to be the kind of fever dream that some extremely board marketing executive cooks up while snoozing through yet another Oracle conference). I might take a moment to interject here that I actually once attended a business networking meeting (this was around 2003, right after the "Mission Accomplished" banner and before the full-on insurgency) where someone stood up and presented to the assembled room all of the amazing business opportunities of the New Iraq, and how we would be insane to not head over there right now and set up shop - so I DO appreciate where the central conceit of this film is coming from. It also has some nice send ups of Arab terrorist kidnap culture (if there is such a thing) and the world's rather shallow sense of American bling envy.

But as to where all this is going, even after seeing the movie, I have to confess is anyone's guess. Very little use is made of film innovations like cinematography, set creation, or convincing acting. I think the same effect could have been achieved by staging it all in a high school gymnasium. And Ben Kingsly's mysterious character - whoever or whatever he's meant to be - has absolutely no integration into the movie whatsoever. So the whole thing ends with a great big Huh?

Which is a shame, because I think the idea of a satire of the Bush Iraq war fiasco has tremendous merit. I wish this movie would have been able to pull it off.

Maybe the problem is simply this: how can anyone create a satire of the Bush Administration that's even half-way as absurd as the real thing?

Doubt: A Study of Opposing Faiths. And Acting Styles

It's just at the climax of Doubt - at the point where Meryl Streep's Sister Beauvier and Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn confront each other behind closed doors, and one of them ultimately relents - that you realize that the end of this marvelously acted drama is going to come sooner than you expected.

Not that the movie, at one hour and forty-four minutes, is unusually short. But the story seems unusually quickly least on film.

In other words, despite the amazing performances by the two principles - and by Amy Adams as the innocently naive Sister James, as well - the movie suffers a bit from that old syndrome of theater directors translating their work to film: what works in a theater, in front of a live audience, struggles as a movie to deliver the same sense of satisfaction. And why? Because theater is a medium of words; movies are a medium of images. The images in this movie are rich, textured recreations of a 1960's Catholic school. Unless that holds some special nostalgia for you (and it doesn't for me), there's little else other than the words and acting of this parable of inquisition to hang your hat on.

But supreme acting it is. I would normally be writing a review about how much better it would be to see this story on the stage - but unless you had Streep going up the stalwart Hoffman, you would miss two amazing performances from two of our best actors. So it's worth buying a ticket, and especially so to see Streep give yet more evidence of why she's probably the best actor on earth.

Streep's Sister Beauvier represents, of course, the old ways of the church: relying on strict discipline and the aura of fear to keep young minds in line. What Streep does so well, of course, is make this a complicated character, not a stereotype. Sister Beauvier is strict, of course, but also capricious, humorous, self-deprecating, even compassionate, and convinced of her convictions, and the rightness of her actions. She has something to teach the young, idealistic, and somewhat incompetent Sister James about how to command respect, not just obedience, and Sister James listens, and learns. She learns a little too well, and becomes an unwitting accomplice to Sister Beauvier's suspicions about Father Flynn, and what he may be doing behind closed doors with some of the more susceptible alter boys.

Hoffman's Father Flynn, for his part, is the opposite, or counterpoint, to Sister Beauvier's strict authority: a full-figured fellow who loves life and hearty appetites, he represents the new age of Sixties enlightenment...a kind of early flower child, who points out that the word of the lord is "Love" and that doubt is an emotion that creates a human community. He also, it turns out, is a man of as much principal as Sister Beauvier. Hoffman brings the kind of iconoclastic intensity of his character Gust Avrakotos from "Charlie Wilson's War," only better groomed and cherub-cheeked. He is no real radical, of course, but his sermons of doubt and deeds of compassion do create a radical disruption to Sister Beauvier's community of austerity.

That the two would ultimately go up against each other is what this story is about. As is the truth behind the accusation that sets the conflict in motion.

All of which is to say, it is a great story, marvelously acted, and full of superbly delivered words, the most moving of which are no doubt Streep's amazing soliloquy to Adams at the end, a kind of poetic coda to the title of the play. Shanley frames his story so that, as one might say, the ultimate villain, and hero, is what you're meant to debate. All of which I appreciate, for I love a good ripping tale that leaves you with such delicious dinner conversation at the end (I think of the play "Art," which I saw in London, which has the same moral open-endedness and conversational effect).

My only qualm is that this marvelous play wasn't filmed by someone with a little more distance on the material who would have felt free to make the changes necessary to make it a superb movie. More on the boy's family, on Father Flynn's acquaintances, on other parishioners might have taken the movie out of its claustrophobic stage-set experience. The movie reminds me a bit of the series Mad Men, especially the character of Peggy Olson and her relationship with religion. But where Mad Men sets Peggy into a broad context of diverse characters, Doubt stays focused on the conflict between Sister Beauvier and Father Flynn. In a theater with live performance, such tight focus creates a gripping experience of high drama. On the more distant movie screen, it creates moments of brilliantly composed acting, and a feeling that all that acting should have someplace more definitive to go.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Got Milk? Gus Van Sant's "Milk," That Is. If You Haven't, You Should

Gus Van Sant's "Milk" is an amazing movie, and in numerous ways.

The story of Harvey Milk, the "mayor of Castro Street" and icon to the gay rights movement, is not an easy one to put on film (though two directors are trying: Bryan Singer being the other). The story is inherently incendiary, controversial, and potentially maudlin. And Van Sant is a director more known for cool idiosyncratic mood pieces and than hot political protest. So maybe this wonderful film is just the perfect blend of the right material in the hands of the right artist. It certainly is different - and more powerful - than anything Van Sant has done before.

It's hard to take issue with any of Van Sant's choices in the film: from the opening establishment of Harvey finding his first true love in New York's pre-sixties Bohemia, to the cast of characters he assembles around him as he decides to run - five times in a row - to eventually become the Casto's first openly gay elected official in the country, to his machinations on the San Francisco city board and his ultimate unfortunate run in with a too-tightly-wound Dan White. Even the music complements the story perfectly. What Van Sant decides to film here is not just a man's story, but a time and place: the Castro in the sixties, and the energy, excitement, fear, and of a group of people just coming out, just realizing not only who they were but what they could make of their lives, individually and together, and recognizing within each other the makings of an entire community. By the time Harvey utters those inevitable words to the mayor, "imagine that...a gay man with power," you understand how amazing it was for him to have gotten as far as he did.

Needless to say, Van Sant's luck in creating such a success hinges in no small part on Sean Penn's performance. Penn not only disappears behind the character of Harvey Milk, he opens you up to the wonderment and pure joy with which Harvey approached the world. By the time Harvey debates John Briggs - turning the tide of California's anti-gay Proposition 6 from certain passage to a narrow defeat - you realize that so much of what he accomplished hinged on his infectious openness, warmth and humor.

It was this very openness, Van Sant suggests, that discombobulated the classically repressed and resentful Dan White, and finally drove him to murderous rage. But the same openness is what made Harvey an instantly beloved hero, more so than the mere symbolism of his accomplishments.

Milk is the second fully mature gay-themed movie delivered by a Hollywood director at the top of his game. The first, Brokeback Mountain, became a box-office sensation because of its love story, sex-appeal, and cross-over marketing to the ladies. Milk, on the other hand, seems to have little sex-appeal, even less cross-over appeal, and is likely to not reach the same stratospheric heights of cultural relevance. But it is, in the end, the better movie. Brokeback - a movie written, directed, and acted by an almost entirely straight cast - paints the gay experience as an exquisite tragedy. Milk, coming from a completely different sensibility, finds not just honor but meaning in tragedy, and in the end, leaves you feeling not sad, but inspired.

What's hard to believe is that both movies largely take place at the same historical epoch, even if they seem to be coming from vastly different worlds. If Harvey had been out on that ranch with Jack and Ennis, he'd have ended up owning Brokeback mountain, freeing all the sheep, and turning the place into a gay b-and-b, and Jack and Ennis would have been having him over every week for Sunday brunch. And while both movies end with someone dying, in Harvey's death, the world takes notice, and changes.

In terms of how to live their lives, then, Jack and Ennis made their choices, and Harvey made his. And those choices couldn't have been more different. "Milk" does a first-rate job in explaining why Harvey's choices were not only the more brave, but the more romantic as well. While we might have a beautiful cry at Brokeback's story, we have something even more powerful in "Milk": a reason to change the world.

X-Files: I Want to Believe, OR, When Will This High-School Reunion Ever End?

The title even sounds a little like that song they'll play at 11pm when two people with an unrequited flame are making out in the corner and they're trying to encourage everyone else to go home.

I suppose if the biggest thing you X-File fans had wanted to see in the series was Scully and Mulder get married, make out, and act as wishy-washy about their potential separation as they did about the possibilities of aliens, then this could be the movie for you.

Then again, you could also be a big fan of movies about transplanting people's heads onto other people's bodies. Then you'll be completely fascinated by the B-horror-movie plot.

Ooops, did I give too much away? Let's just say, the medical premise here is about as plausible as the "Spock's Brain" episode of Star Trek. You know the one I mean - where the beautifully brainy alien commandeers Spock's brain from his body and hooks it up to their HVAC system to have it run their vast underground city of Amazons. At least in that episode, though, you had masterful memorial dialogue like, "brain, brain, what is brain? It is controller, is it not?" This movie only gives you more Sculdury insights like "why, why did you say that to me? I don't know why I said that."

On the one hand, I kind of appreciate Chris Carter deciding to give us more of a traditional mass-murderer story (a la the Hannibal movies) rather than yet one more encounter with coy aliens. We do pretty much go along with the premise as various people are kidnapped, mutilated, and otherwise treated like lab animals in PETA's worst nightmares. And the creepy pedophile Priest struck with visions of truth is kind of nice.

And, I agree, there is kind of a Nineteen-Nineties nostalgia in seeing Scully and Mulder give the whole FBI thing one last college try. They have a world-weariness about the whole thing, much as do those X-Files fans who've since moved on to more engrossing fare such as the supremely marvelous Battlestar Galactica. Both Scully and Mulder and Chris Carter have been replaced by younger, more muscular agents with their own agendas and fan bases. As a blast-from-the-past idea, the setup seems promising.

But it's clear from this movie that the time off has not been kind to Carter's story-telling abilities. To call this movie rusty would be a kind understatement, as well as an accurate description of the surgery tools being employed by the evil Russian bad guys. About half-way through, Carter's goes off the rails, like he doesn't know anymore how to tie together the bloody dots on his snowscapes. How about creating some back-channel connection between Scully's cuddly young patient and the nefarious horror-show villains? That nice potential way to create some resonance seemed obvious and well, ignored. And, prey tell, why do the villains have to be suffering from classic b-movie-villain homosexuality? Has Carter been reading too much of "The Purpose Driven Life"?

Rank this movie down there with possibly some of the most unwatchable episodes from the series - you know the ones, the "filler" episodes that borrowed some stale idea like vampires and didn't explore one-tenth the potential that a show like "True Blood" does. I always liked the alien-conspiracy episodes the best. And I felt the last movie, while setting out that conspiracy entertainingly, still left more questions about the series than it answered.

It seems that this movie decided to answer no more questions. Except one: will there ever be another X-Files movie. After this disaster, that answer seems to be clear.

Valkyrie Thrills, Could Have Soared

Bryan Singer's unusual suspects.

"People are going to notice Bryan Singer now." That seemed to be the consensus as we came out of the theater. Not that people haven't already noticed Singer, a young Jewish, gay director who burst onto the scene with his second movie, the cult favorite "The Usual Suspects," quickly followed up with the Nazi-themed indie, "Apt Pupil." Those two films certainly got him noticed by someone big in Hollywood, who tapped Singer to launch the X-Men franchise and basically his ticket to whatever else he wanted to do since then.

He seemed to not want to finish the X-Men trilogy, instead choosing to launch a rather lackluster reboot of Superman. Those who were disappointed by Singer's last effort should be reassured that he's returned to a subject, storyline, and style that this time delivers the goods. "Valkyrie" is a taught, well-directed suspense thriller about the last and most nearly successful plot to kill Hitler, with Tom Cruise giving his usual Big Gun performance as plot leader von Stauffenburg, in a movie that lights the fuse in the first scene and keeps the tension well sprung until the inevitable disastrous end.

Singer knows best how to tell stories about a group of outsiders banding together to fight clearly defined forces of good and evil. The Usual Suspects was the classic crooks-with-a-heart-of-gold fighting-against-the-callous-evil-criminal tail. Which is why he was so suited to the X-Men franchise, another story that required following a band of outsiders with special powers as they plotted together to fight various evils. It doesn't seem then that there could be a more classic story of outsiders battling evil than the plot by some of Hitler's top Generals and Army careerists to overthrow his tottering government in the last days of World War Two. The assembled cast of the disillusioned, including von Stauffenburg, aren't motivated, really, by anything more than the idea that Hitler is giving Germany a bad name around the world - and that German boys are dying unnecessarily in a war of choice that seems doomed to eventually fail. (Sound vaguely familiar?) They are primarily after regime change at home. Killing Hitler, it seems, is just one of the essential cogs in their elaborately plotted coup.

In a country, however, where even a casual utterance of displeasure could result in the SS pounding down your door, these plotters must construct an elaborate scheme and carefully cultivate a series of confidants in key places. Surprisingly, plenty in the movie seem more than willing to take up the cause (something we'll get to more of in a minute). Cruise's von Stauffenburg becomes ever more committed to the goal, and at times, the actor seems to be channelling his "Mission Impossible" persona. Fortunately, Singer keeps a strong hand on the film, and knows how to get the performance he wants. Touches like the camera following the spinning Wagner album on the stereo or the flashback to a well-performed farewell by actress Carice van Houton as Mrs. von Stauffenburg are just enough self-indulgence to give us the punctuation necessary to ratchet up the tension even more. The rest of the time, Singer stays focused on the mechanics of the coup, outlined quite ironically in Hitler's own "Valkyrie" order, which allows for take over of the Army reserves during time of betrayal by the SS (clearly, Hitler distrusted the SS to no end, when he should have been thinking a bit more carefully about the overly strained loyalties of his battered Army).

While there isn't a moment in Singer's tightly constructed film that doesn't go to waste...and clearly, Singer has finally matured into a director capable of delivering finely crafted adult entertainment...this movie, with its intense and historically fascinating subject matter that could have been Oscar-worthy, is ultimately merely good, not great. More than worthy of your ten bucks and probably, as they say, "the best thriller of the year." But with a cast and subject as delicious as me demanding, but I wanted that little bit more.

Perhaps it is unfair, but the movie that I want to compare "Valkyrie" to is "Munich." Both movies (directed by Jewish directors) are about the costs of war, plots, and assassinations. But while Munich meanders and ponders, has moments of visual poetry, and gives us a reluctant hero who changes not only in attitude but in the depths of his soul, Valkyrie asks us only to be thrilled. The assembled group in Valkyrie suffers from what I would call a "bunker mentality," if you pardon my pun. There is very little we see of the world outside the plotters, about how they interact with that world. There is but one character (the charmingly put-upon captain of the reserves, hauled out from his personal time at the gym or the barbers to do the plotters' bidding) who reflects the moral ambiguity that would be the prevalent attitude of the time. What I wanted was more of that character, and others who might cause von Stauffenberg to waiver, or highlight what might have been some of the more mundane aspects of his motives (such as, perhaps, revenge). As the movie goes on, von Stauffenberg becomes more commanding, confident, and self-righteous, until we get the ultimately defiant and inevitable "I did it for Germany" declaration at the end. But what I ultimately wanted from Valkyrie and von Stauffenberg was a bit different - more moral ambiguity, not less. A bit of a step back from the bunker and the raising of deeper questions of the kind one gets from "Munich."

Valkyrie makes us feels the difficulty of this moment in time quite well, and understand the cost and danger of such an audacious plot. Singer gives us perhaps the best movie yet from a precocious director with a so-far illustrious career. What I was hoping for was not just thrills, however, but perhaps also a sense of understanding...or even, dare I say, a Wagnerian level of poetry. Valkyrie may not be that movie. But with it, I'm confident, one day Singer will really deliver.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This Day the Earth Stood Still Really Doesn't, Much

Fortunately I was able to rewatch the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a classic early 1950's sci-fi of the paranoid cold-war qua alien invasion variant, just before I re-saw this year's remake for the second time in the theaters. What I find so interesting is how closely the remake adheres to the original story and premise...and yet, couldn't be so different.

Listen closely, my writing students, because these two movies are a wonderful illustration of the importance of theme.

For really, David Scarpa's screenplay of the remake does a rather remarkable job of updating the story from the original, while keeping the original story intent: an ordinary looking alien lands on earth, gets interrogated by the government about his intentions, escapes, and requires the help of an ordinary mother and a brainiac scientist to warn the world of its imminent demise.

The original screenplay, by Edmund North, is a rather congratulatory slow perambulation amongst scenes of early fifties social ironies: such as the two doctors lighting up cigarettes as they ask themselves how it is that Klaatu could have possibly maintained such healthy lungs. Scarpa scraps the strained dialogue and unconvincing setups of the original (what mother today would trust a strange man to spend the day touring DC with her boy?), replacing them with a high-concept premise that largely passes the modern-day science sniff test (such as explaining how an alien could survive without a spacesuit amongst our microbes: by adapting our DNA as a kind of artificial body).

Yet even though Scarpa keeps the basic storyline in tact (with some alterations for modern-day plausibility), what he changes most is the theme. And that change results in what becomes a very different movie experience.

In the original story, inspired by the cold war, Klaatu comes to earth as part of a kind of intergalactic peace force, a universal U.N. He's here to tell us that Earthlings are no longer cute little monkeys in the galactic forest that can be safely ignored - we've evolved into a society capable of unleashing the atom - and unless earthlings change their warlike ways, the galactic U.N. security team will be forced to disarm us. With extreme prejudice.

In the remake, the issue isn't our warlike nature. The theme is green (that's the theme everywhere, these days), and what we're abusing isn't each other: it's the Earth. The Earth is a galactic rarity, you see, and Klaatu is here to make sure we stop messing it up. One way, or another.

You might think that changing a little thing like the theme would be a minor alteration. But no: this change in theme makes for an entirely different movie.

For in the first movie, the theme that we are a warlike species is played out not in big militaristic gestures (though there are those: pitiful attempts by the military and the government to control and understand a very simple thing seems beyond them - the idea of peace); rather, the theme mostly plays out in the minor interpersonal interactions between the characters, in the montages of media and press reaction. War, this movie says, isn't just something the government does: it's something our society trains us to want, from the moment we're born. The ultimate expression of this is when Helen Benson's suitor, Tom Steven, wants to turn Klaatu in for the reward, and hardly even listens to Helen's warning. He's bent on his personal gain and can't even listen to the larger warning of impending destruction. So it is with all of us, bent on the advantages of one country against another when the destruction of the entire world faces us all.

To show us this theme, North slows down his movie, to the point where it hardly moves at all. The story becomes a series of character studies (the doctors, the boarders at the house, the press at the landing site, the scientist), each character with a slightly different angle on self interest and social concern. In North's movie, Klaatu moves on amongst the self-involved humans with steady, patient determination, but the pacing slows as the movie goes, and there is hardly, really, any third act (just a quick messiah-like revival). In this film, the earth really does stand still, and by doing so, we step apart from it, judging our world like a newsreel, or like an alien, while Klaatu searches for the proper forum to deliver his diplomatic threat.

In Scarpa's remake, however, it is not the alien's eyes we see through, but Helen Benson's (played with the same blank calmness by Jennifer Connelly shown by Michael Rennie's Klaatu in the original). So the feeling of this movie isn't that of a wise alien looking down on a panoply of silly mankind: it's that of a panicked human, looking up at the face of imminent destruction.

Thus, Scarpa's movie invokes a very different pace, an almost frenetic race to kill, get, or persuade the amazingly articulate yet stultifying Klaatu to change his mind before the inevitable fate of the human race exerts its ultimate logic. And this Day the Earth Stood Still is anything but still - running across the woodlands and train tracks of New Jersey, the sheep meadow of Central Park, and the mountains of West Virginia (or what's supposed to be West Virginia but is quite obviously the movie-studio ranges of Southern California), Scarpa's movie follows the traditional thriller logic of racing to diffuse the killer animal, bomb, gizmo, or whatnot before it goes off and destroys us all. The idea that humans must change their ways to save the preciousness of the earth is illustrated not in what Klaatu sees in his quiet survey, but what he learns in his new DNA: that flesh creates desire, which creates love as well as destruction. Apparently, that idea strikes Klaatu as worth risking the Earth for, though really, don't ask me why. But Scarpa's movie plays well on its theme, not studying from afar the ironic detachment of humans, but getting up close and personal into their messy moments of weakness and altruism.

In the end, then, we get the same story - but entirely different movies. And it's hard to say which one is better. Both, really, suffer from the flaws of their chosen DNA. While North's original tends to be a bit corny and perhaps ultimately lacking in drama, Scarpa's remake plows right through important moments that might have blossomed from having a bit more time and study, and borrows heavily from dramatic tropes and stock characters we find a bit too familiar.

For sci-fi purists, this might come as a shock, but in the end, I think I like the remake better. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a good seat-grabbing story, even at the expense of subtlety. Or maybe I just like this GORT better, one that's made up of some rather neat technology, even if it's a borrowed special effect. There's just one thing missing from the remake that I can't forgive Scarpa for. That's Klaatu Barada Nikto.

Maybe that's because in North's original, it's up to humans - represented by Helen Benson - to make the change, to utter the words, that will be their salvation. In Scarpa's remake, there's not much we can do to change our nature. All there is to do is hope that Klaatu will understand what's lovable about humanity before it's too late. So there are no words to utter. Just hope that the Earth will forgive us. As a generation who prefers to continue our wicked ways while waiting for rescue by forces larger than us, I suppose it's apropos, if disappointing.

Even so, if you're going to remake a b-movie can you leave out the most classic three words in the science fiction b-movie oevre?

Batman: The Dark Knight...Or Should It Be, The Joker?

There's no doubt that good as it is, it's Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker that really makes Batman: The Dark Knight.

Since his death in January, due to an overdoes of sleeping pills and anti-depressants, one has to wonder whether or not this was a case of a role overtaking an actor. In order to portray the anarchistic nihilist, Heath had to summon up emotions that would be powerful and dark, a place he'd never gone before as a performer. Of course, his fellow actors deny that the role played into any contribution to his death. But add the depravity of the role's emotions to his recent breakup with Michelle Williams and his separation from his daughter, and maybe the darkness became too real. David Cohen and Ethan Sacks report friends saying that talk of the role made Ledger go somber. All artists have to experience the brink of the abyss in order to capture really great art. There's no doubt that as an actor, Ledger achieves that here, and quite brilliantly. Whether or not he was able to pull back from that abyss in real life, we'll never be able to say. And if, indeed, the overdoes was nothing but a haphazard accident: well, it was the sort of pointless, tragic accident of which The Joker would be proud.

SPOILER ALERT: for the rest of this discussion, I'm just going to plow right into what happens in the film. If you haven't been able to get a ticket yet, STOP READING NOW. Get online and get your reservations. Come back after you've seen the movie. Since you won't be disappointed, feel comfortable going with the crowds on this one: the crowd reaction, particularly a crowd of people who don't know what's coming, is one of the more enjoyable parts of seeing the film.


First, let's acknowledge that this Batman, written by director Nolan and his brother, is SO much better than the first (and achieves what no other movie this summer, with the exception of WALL-E, achieves: unity of theme and story. Even Iron Man, smart story telling as it was, was a bit confused about its message). Perhaps this is an argument for the writer/director - they know not only how to create character and metaphor, they know how to display it. Let's follow some of the wonderful themes.

Like playing cards. Ledger refers to the DA, Harvey Dent, as Batman's "Ace in the hole." But really, Harvey, and his girlfriend Rachel, are Gotham's King and Queen. Batman is the Ace (after all, the good guys would be able to do nothing about bringing Lau back from China without Batman - Batman trumps all the other rules), and commissioner Gordan the Jack, the loyal servant. Now...throw the Joker into the mix. As Heath tells Batman while he's being beaten up in his bad cop interrogation, "I don't want to kill complete me." Because, of course, Batman's Ace is the mirror of the Joker. The anarchist and the vigilante both thrive on chaos: one to cause it senselessly, the other to use it to society's advantage. The joker would get no laughs if there was no Batman to taunt, no willful purpose to try to upend.

What's fascinating is that this movie is interested in the nature of that card: the Joker. What is the Joker, what does it mean, and what does it mean to us, in a post 9/11 world? Lucious Fox's cell-phone snooping sonar machine is able to spy on all the calls in Gotham, coincidentally parallelling the recent FISA debacle. Batman's ethics requires the machine to be destroyed as soon as the criminal is caught. We're meant to see even using the machine this once as crossing a line - a line that needs to be crossed to catch a bad guy. But with even Obama supporting FISA, is this really that much of a line, any more? Interesting, we live in a world that's even more cynical than the Dark Knight.

But the movie would have us watch Batman cross a line only to emphasize that there are no lines for the Joker to cross. He is the WILDCARD in all senses: funny, ludicrous, deadly, whimsical...the pure antagonist, he only believes in upending whatever plans are in place and unmasking everyone's pretensions. While all the other "cards" in the movie have their faces - some even have Two Faces, their public faces and private faces, their white faces and black faces. The Joker has no face. No identity. No fingerprints. In the first classic "establishment" killing (by which I mean, the Joker - who starts off as a nobody - has to earn his criminal stripes by bumping off the criminal who doubts his ability. It's a classic of cinema which we last saw wonderfully parodied in the Kill Bill movies.), the Joker takes a pause from the killing to explain how he got the way he is: his father did this to him, see? But here's where the fun comes - the next big scene with the Joker, we get this "classic" origin story a second time, only this time, it's his wife. You see? Nolan plays with the convention and we get a different story every time we meet the character. There is no real psychological explanation for the Joker that we'll ever know: he's a pure cipher.

One who believes in mischief more than anything. When all those people on the ferry are debating about pushing the button and blowing up the other ferry, none of them ever stopped to think whether the Joker might be...playing a trick? Did you or did you not believe that those buttons controlled the the detonators on their own boats, not the other? Nolan never tells us: and that's how we know this movie works. He doesn't need to tell us - he's told us all we need to know about the Joker, and who he is. The rest of the fun is up to us.

None of this would work without Ledger's amazing performance. He digs down into this cipher and comes up with all the gestures that make us see both the joy and the fear in pure chaos: a nervous laugh, a bit of self deprecation, a quirky walk, a supreme confidence, a kind of smarmy simpering, and a voice channelling the venom of the most dangerous drunk, the darkest schizophrenic. He has a theory, that people are basically animals with masks, and a job, which is to remove the masks and unleash the animals. He starts off wanting to unmask Batman, only to realize he doesn't need to: the guy is already an animal. So he changes his sights (hey, chaos is nothing if not resourceful), and has his success with Harvey Dent. And his fun with the bat.

Perhaps this all best comes together when the Joker blows up the hospital. The Dark Knight is not a CGI movie - perhaps this is what makes it so successful - it's a bow to classic stunts cinema. So come up with a great classic stunt, like a blow up of a building.

Now add to that stunt a completely unhinged, unmasked, lunatic performance.

You get one amazing moment of the film, the Joker walking out of the building in a nurse's outfit while the building blows up: his face a series of glee, annoyance, disturbance, ennui, even fear at his own creation. As Ledger acts his way in front of a building blowing up, you realize you are being held captive by an actor's performance. We've had these moments - these visceral "ah hah!" moments of amazing cinema in movies recently: when the car is swept off the ground in James Bond as the plane takes off; as WALL-E discovers Eve's wonderfully perfect shape and purpose. But it's rare to have that moment as a mixture of imaginative old-fashioned explosives and amazing acting.

It may be tacky to point this out, but there a few moments in the film - and only just a few - where Ledger's untimely death has created some problems for the post-production continuity, and the big moments that could deliver the themes more fluidly. What was the trick that allowed the Joker to escape the cell with the knife (since this escape is the key to the Joker's whole setup, wouldn't that be a trick worth seeing)? What were the big words to Harvey Dent that supposedly was the Joker's coup de grace in unleashing Two-Face's hidden animal (Harvey has a chat about his anger, but wouldn't you think Ledger could have given him a nice soliloquy to put the final stamp on things, something the Joker doesn't shy away from in other moments)? And wouldn't it have been better, knowing that Ledger would be unavailable for the next film, to give the Joker a more fitting and definitive send-off (and the film a more satisfying ending)? Had Ledger been able to come back from the grave, no doubt Nolan would have had in him for some post-production tweaking to solve these problems.

But these are things, unfortunately, resulting from a tragedy that cannot be held against the filmmakers. And they hardly detract from Ledger's star turn. No one can doubt, after this final performance, a posthumous Oscar is in the cards for Ledger. And one can only appreciate even more how much his talent will be missed.

V for Vendetta? Or Violence?

V for Vendetta tests the theory that the hero of a film can be morally ambiguous and still presented as a hero.

Or maybe this review tests the theory that one man can misread a movie, when so many others seem so sure that they 'get it.' And is that man right? Or wrong? That would be your call.

But I persist. Verily, V vexes the verisimilitude of valor, the vicissitudes of the vanquished versus the victorious. But here, I have alliterated in vain - and missed the point.

Why, does no one ask, do we have a major motion picture where the hero, throughout the picture, acts his way behind a mask? Does this not seem a tad...unconventional? And not in the Team America, puppets on a string kind of way. This is a "serious" melodrama thriller, not the type of movie typically prone to take avant-garde risks.

V, needless to say, is a cipher. His absence, his super-human non-humanness, places him outside the action. The mask and Hugo Weaving's wonderful articulation make us pay attention to his non-sensical alliterative ramblings in a way most films would envy. But V is no more than this: a device, albeit an extended and exhausting one. Evie and Finch, however, are the characters. V is but undiluted id that drives all men to violent action: the wounded child, the revenge-seeker, the poet. He is an incomplete X. We need no more backstory than this. He is merely meant to swash-buckle his way onto the screen, and into E-V's heart, and Finch's curiosity.

For indeed: violence in the name of political expediency is romantic. And fascinating. This is where most critics have lost (or been lost by) the story of V. He may rouse this sleeping Britain from its slumber, but he is, after all, a bomb-maker and a murderer. After might argue that even the momentary hope of a nation rising out of a fascist pact with the devil is hardly worth the destruction of a historical relic such as Big Ben. The story does not shrink from the unpleasant facts of V's actions. He may be romanticized: but we are, like Evie, given a choice: do we also romanticize this evil/heroic V...or do we eye him with a bit of skepticism? Thus the real story of V is not V but the story of EV - the child who comes to face her fears - and Finch, the bird that flies the coop.

No doubt, the symbology of Sutler's Britain is a bit paper thin and obvious. But, my dear fellows, this is a cartoon. Someone has to play the part of the bogeyman. It may be a bit old school, but it never ceases to be enjoyable having religious conservative fascists to cheer against.

The climax of V is not the fireworks at the end but the domino demonstration that proceeds the third act. The point of the movie is simple: one man, with enough directed anger, can inspire a mob. A mob of angry voters? Or a mob of destructive rioters? Yes, the movie plays lightly with such moral distinctions. But this is not a movie about subtlety: it is a movie of symbols. V is not the hero but the anti-hero: V is for Violence, and Violence is the man behind the mask. E-V is us, the children of history who must decide whether violent action with historical purpose is worth the moral cost. At a time when our timidity has been turned into a self-reinforcing fetish, at a time when we are asking young men to go to war, this movie dares to offer a symbolic narrative of how violence imprisons as well as rouses a truculent populous. It may be a simplistic political parable - and it may be more ambiguous than the initial easy distinctions between "right" and "left" - but it's also refreshingly brave.