Monday, December 27, 2010

True Grit: A True Western

It's perhaps inevitable that the Cohen brothers would finally make a Western - and re-make a Western classic, at that. Their movies - from Blood Simple to Barton Fink, Fargo to The Great Lebowski, No Country for Old Men to A Serious Man, are about flat American landscapes, moral wilderness, the constant threat of violence, and the relentlessness of moral policemen and a-moral fuck-ups. With True Grit they seemingly have boiled down their entire oeuvre into a simple story, one that transplants these elements into their natural habitat: the outstanding, vast beauty of the American west.

True Grit (originally brought to the screen with John Wayne in 1969) tells the story of Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Elizabeth Marvel), a fourteen year old girl whose father was murdered by a good-for-nothing hired hand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie comes to town seeking to avenge her father's death and capture Chaney. To do so, she first must raise the money, then hire a gunslinger, the inestimable and slightly over-the-hill Rooster Cogburn (in this case, Jeff Bridges plays Wayne's Cogburn role, with barely understandable phlegmatic mumbling, cursing, and fumbling). Mattie is a force of nature - she doesn't take no for an answer - and, in case you may have thought otherwise, it is she who is the "True Grit" of the west. She brings both a sense of rectitude and a sense of purpose to a wild west town that clearly has neither (the opening scenes - of a hanging and a trial - show what a lousy, wayward place this is. The hanged men are summarily dispatched in a bunch no matter their last words, and the jury hardly cares to bother with the details of the defense).

Cogburn, it turns out, still has some rectitude left in his bones, even if he's now utterly lacking in purpose (Mattie finds him drunk in the back of a Chinese pantry). Into the setup of this pretty pair walks Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), all flamboyant purpose (he's after Chaney for another murder in Texas) and little rectitude (he's a bit of a dweeb, if they had such a word in the old west, and willing to give Mattie a spanking for her lip). The three of them make a natural family, and off they go, chasing after Chaney through the wild west.

Along the way, they find a Cohen-brothers style journey filled with characters, assassins, thieves, and snakes (literally). A body that Mattie and Cogburn encounter along the way is subjected to three questions to determine its value: is it someone they know (no), does he have anything on him (no), are his teeth worth anything to anyone (yes). That seemingly boils down the morality here to its absolute essence.

Naturally, the three of them have their arguments and breakups along the way, leading for some nice set-ups, ambushes, and chances for redemption. And when all looks lost, and Chaney looks like he's gotten clean away, Chaney and his men come upon Mattie, and they're all back in the game.

Mattie has a way of interrogating both the lawmen and the criminals with a matter-of-fact frankness, and makes her assessments based not so much on which side of the law they find themselves, but whether they seem to know their own mind. Those who do, pass her evaluation, and she theirs. This seems to be the assessment of a Cohen bother's movie boiled down to the most basic: knowing your own mind is really the only thing that will save you in this world.

As she goes through the wild west, she seems to bring this sense of rectitude and purpose with her, so that by the end of the film, both Le Boeuf and Cogburn - neigh, all of the west - has moved into a new civilized era. As I watched the end of this movie, it struck me that this is the opposite of the Cohen's other great film, No Country For Old Men, which is about the inevitability of death. That film featured Anton Chigurh as a kind of dark angel, summing up the characters he encounters and bringing to them the cold calculus of non-existence as he travels through a society that's in decay. Mattie Ross is the opposite of this, and though she's as inexorable as Chigurh, she's a force of life, an angel of purpose and poise bringing meaning to a landscape that's been heretofore devoid of feeling.

As Cogburn carries Ross towards the last scene of the movie (literally carries her in his arms), she looks up into the night sky, barely conscious, and appreciates the vast beauty of the heavens in a way that she's not done since the movie began...a scene that may be the closest the Cohens have ever gotten to a suggestion of God, or a higher power, or whatever you want to call it.  This may not be quite as interesting as the evil they've explored in movies like No Country, or Fargo. But it's probably the purest form of a Western that's been made in forty years.

True Grit, it seems, is the Cohen Brothers expressing their true faith, and they do so lovingly, with humor and grace, as the best artists do.

I Love You Phillip Morris: Even Gay Sociopaths Need Love

This affable but goofy gay comedy stars Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor - A-list Hollywood stars one doesn't usually associate with the gay film genre - as two convicts who find love in jail. The film's conceit is built around the character of Steven Russell (played by Carrey), a Texas cop and Christian who has an accident one day that convinces him to change his life.

One hears of such stories (the film insists, in opening credits, that this one is absolutely true). After a near-death experience, Russell emerges with absolutely no fear. No fear of coming out of the closet (he does so with the dramatic flair usually associated with Carrey, which is less queer than purely theatrical), and no fear of practically everything else. Unfortunately, that includes a life of crime, to which he seems temperamentally well suited, if unfortunately unskilled. He leaves his wife and child, moves to Miami, takes up with a handsome Latin, and begins funding his lavish lifestyle with stolen credit cards. I had an acquaintance who did nearly the same thing.

Like my acquaintance, in no time, Russell finds himself in the county lock-up, where he then meets the Phillip Morris of the title: an unassuming, blond, gay innocent (McGregor, playing uncharacteristically shy) with whom he's immediately smitten. As the title suggests, this then is a love story, about how the two men fall in love, get out of jail, make a life together, and how Russell proceeds to screw it all up.

What's nice about this film is that it has the mad-cap pacing of a Some Like It Hot or Bringing Up Baby, hardly the type of screwball hi-jinks one usually gets in gay film and a nice change of pace. Carrey, as Russell, proceeds to pull the type of scams worthy of Frank Abagnale, Jr., including posing as a lawyer, the CFO of a major corporation, and ultimately - and most amazingly - a patient dying of AIDS.

It's hard to say what's motivating Russell, other than that near-death accident, since he seems to be throwing away everything he's found at the hands of an uncontrollable mania. He's a sociopath in the most basic sense, with no feeling for what he's doing or other people (except this romantic idea of his love for Phillip). As the movie goes on, one realizes that it's not Russell, but Phillip, who is the main character here...Russell is but the larger-than-life object of his affections, whose plots and schemes ultimately come to ruin them both.

I Love You Phillip Morris ultimately has more to say about love and obsession than it does about being gay, which is why I think it's such a good film. Both Carrey and McGregor make these characters come alive, and despite how far they are from the mainstream, they're as close to real people we know as any we get in film. One would go to any length for the other, and the other has to decide just how far forgiveness can extend. That they found each other is something of a miracle, as well as a curse. Carrey's timing may be a bit too flippant for a serious comedy (though he plays the serious moments well), but the movie - odd though the story is - delivers plenty of laughs. It may also be the most interesting exploration of love - gay or straight - that we've seen from a comedy in years.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tron Legacy: Track Lighting for the Next Generation

The latest Tron movie is an attempt to re-introduce the original groundbreaking 1982 Disney classic to a new generation. As predicted, the movie largely fails to live up to the excitement of the original, even if it does impressively re-create the Tron computer-graphics styled world in modern 3D track lighting.

In this reprise, Jeff Bridges re-creates his role as Kevin Flynn, computer hacker extraordinaire, who is sucked into the world of  the computer core to play games against the programs running the machine. In the original, "users" like the anti-corporate Flynn and ENCOM employee Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and his program alter ego (Tron) fight to free the programs from the cruel rule of the Master Control Program. The original made clever use of what was then "new" computer jargon to create a fantasy world akin to Alice in Wonderland, with Flynn being sucked into the rabbit hole of the programmer's nightmare.

Now, Flynn has been missing for decades - last seen in 1989 with his seven year old son before disappearing forever. That son, Sam, played by Men's Health coverboy Garrett Hedlund, is the new Flynn: traipsing around San Francisco on his motorbike, playing pranks on the corporate-as-ever ENCOM (even if he is now the main shareholder). He's basically a rich punk (instead of a curious hacker, as his father) and I have to say I found this new hero much less appealing, both caustic and self-satisfied. Even as he's being stripped by four digital buxom beauties in skin-tight leather as he's suited up for the games, he finds neither pleasure or excitement, just blankness, like a rabbit being dressed for dinner.

Yes, Sam, like is father, is sucked into the same digital world, only this time, we have to wear those 3D glasses to get anything out of it. The effects are glittery, as promised, with motorcycle races and an airy-fairy fragmentation effect for wounded programs, but the story plods on as a Disneyfied Matrix, replete with Michael Sheen as a fey, blond version of the Merovingian and a younger, CGI created Jeff Bridges as his digital alter-ego, Clu (while it's great that they can create a movie now without the need for an actor, it's a little disturbing that they still haven't figure out how to get that animation's jaw to move when it's talking).

In this new Tron, Clu - Flynn's creation to help him "organize" the world of the grid - is the new overlord. Flynn himself has spent the last twenty-eight years locked in a gilded mountaintop, staring at Clu's digital city from across a wasteland. He's taken no action to free himself or this world, and seems rather pathetic as an inspirational father figure to Sam, if that's what he's supposed to be.

If there's any metaphor at all in this latest Tron, it's about the Sixties generation, which seemingly has split itself: into the Zen-influenced, take-no-action Flynn, and his totalitarian, difference-intolerant alter-ego, Clu. Meanwhile, the younger generation of Sam and the digitally self-created "Iso's" (a kind of general-purpose refuge for the digital age) have to fend for themselves in between these warring ideologies that seem not so dissimilar to the malfunctioning Congress. If only the re-integration of Flynn and Clu had some metaphorical meeting about bi-partisanship, this metaphor might go somewhere.

But unfortunately, it doesn't. The original fable - with the CPU as a master controller - at least gave a Robin Hood like flavor to Flynn and Tron's anti-corporate revolution. This one comes out with about as much thematic meaning as as the lounge of a W hotel. Sam and the entirely digital Quorra (his new ISO girlfriend) only suggest to me some kind of metaphor about online porn. Of course, Disney isn't going there, so all we get instead are some cute scenes of neon-lit discos, a few judo fisticuffs, and a final ride into the sunrise.

It's a real shame they couldn't have done a bit more with this. The original was groundbreaking. This one looks fab, too. They've updated the Windows-oriented original with a sleek, Mac-like experience. This time, however, all that digital glitz seems wasted on a generation that is neither shocked, nor impressed, by too much computerized control.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Unstoppable and Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: Tony Scott’s Train Sets

Here are the key ingredients of a Tony Scott movie: two working class guys, beaten down by the system, have to work together to rescue the innocents in danger. There has to be a hard-driving rock soundtrack. A carful of innocents (bunnies, commuters, little children) barreling toward their doom. A ticking clock keeps everything moving toward the climax. Obsequious bosses making life difficult for the heroes. Somewhere, a police car does multiple rollovers as it speeds to the rescue. And of course trains, big, clanking locomotives or subway cars, to complete his guy-driven train set.

These are movies written for the working man – that species that is especially in danger in our new global economy. These men have wives and daughters who secretly love them but have given over to the female tendencies to nag (and complain about male abuse): only a heroic male gesture like saving a city from death and destruction will return their women to the full flower of love. These hard-working men – whether they work in the grease pits or the control towers – are the overlooked, overworked, and discarded – unemployed and dislodged from their families. These movies make them heroes again, and celebrate the things they love: big, clanking, dangerous machines.

Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

This remake of the Seventies exploitation flick, now on video, stars a now paunchy Denzel Washington (“my, you’re handsome,” comments Travolta’s character with perverse sincerity) as a central dispatcher (“Walter Garger”) in New York’s subway system, overseeing the big board and making sure the train tracks are clear. Today, Denzel gets a call from the conductor of car 123: only it’s not the conductor. It’s John Travolta as “Ryder,” a disgruntled stock broker / ex-con who, along with three cronies, has taken the car hostage. He wants $10M delivered in an hour or he’ll start executing the trapped commuters.

Ryder’s central scheme – that taking a subway car hostage will produce enough fluctuation in the stock market to make him rich – is certainly not based in reality (the stock market would hardly notice such a localized event). But Scott doesn’t really care: the point is that Ryder and Garber become a kind of mirror image of each other: flawed working men who have been held down by those who rule the city, the mayor and the bosses. Garber is under investigation for taking a bribe, and Ryder not only senses Garber’s flaw before it’s revealed, he chooses Garber as the deliverer of his redemption.

As Garber and the mayor and their team rush to get Ryder the money before he executes any more voters, one improbable scenario after another is set up in order to keep the adrenalin flowing. Stupidly, the cops try to transport the money by car (they script even needs to comment on it) just so that we can get our required cop-car rollover. We get car chases, deployed snipers, and lots of slinking around the dank and dark subways system. The key to the movie is filming on location, so we get to see what the real subways look like. That would give this movie the air of authenticity, if it weren’t that both the robber’s schemes and the cops’ responses are totally unrealistic.


Scott seems to have learned from these problems and corrected them in Unstoppable. This time he chooses a “real-life” story and dramatizes the action in a way that actually makes sense. A fuck-up of a conductor jumps off a twenty-five car train with no air-brakes in order to throw a switch himself. In so doing, he lets the train get away from him, and off it goes under its own power, barreling through Pennsylvania at 70 miles an hour. It also happens to have four cars of highly toxic combustible materials, making it a barreling missile headed right for an S curve in Stanton, Pennsylvania, where it’s sure to go flying off the tracks and into a forest of oil tanks (who, by the way, builds oil tanks next to a train S curve? This movie may be most startling in how it reveals the incredibly low IQ of the people who’ve designed our infrastructure).

Welcome back Mr. Denzel Washington, this time as the experienced train driver Frank being paired with rookie Will (played by a three-day-bearded Chris Pine). Both characters are true working class grunts stuck with the bad luck of being the last workers seeing the speeding train go by who may have a workable plan to stop it before the inevitable Stanton doom.

Scott is once more on location – this time in rural Pennsylvania – and there’s certainly no lack of local color or shots of trains speeding through crossings, being chased by cop cars, railroad workers, and assorted helicopters, executives, and ex military. Rosario Dawson this time takes the role of the dispatcher who works with Frank and Will to hunt down and hitch up to the back of the train to slow it down, against the orders of hapless executives and the CEO, who just wants to protect their asses. In this film, the experienced conductor and even the rookie know more about what to do with a speeding train than any of the executives or elites, who only seem to want to fire everybody. We’re lucky our lives are in these people’s hands, Scott is telling us (never mind that it was a blue collar grunt who fucked up the situation and sent the empty train barreling down the tracks in the first place).

Though it’s ultimately a feel-good film for the working class set, Unstoppable gets the story straight enough and keeps the action moving enough to deliver a satisfying thrill ride. Scott is getting better, becoming perhaps the next Michael Bay, able to deliver high-powered movies with rock music and working class themes.

So now that he’s exhausted the train theme (one hopes), perhaps the next Tony Scott movie will take us into the air. After all, few employees are more overlooked and underappreciated than those in TSA.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Inside Job: Our Financial House of Cards

You might want to see this movie with your accountant. At the end, you’ll both be ready to stuff all your money under a mattress and move to Antartica. At least there, you might be able to avoid the next – and larger – financial crisis that is surely to come.

Inside Job is not just a documentary about the recent financial crisis. This is a scathing indictment of both our political and financial systems, exposing how they’ve gotten in bed with each other to the woe of the average citizen. The recent crisis, according to Charles Ferguson, Inside Job’s director (he was nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for his documentary about how we **'d up the Iraq war, No End in Sight), was only the latest in a series of bubbles and busts that are growing increasingly larger and more disastrous.

Certainly, the movie pulls no punches in investigating the culprits of this latest and most critical crisis. Starting with a detailed explanation of deregulation (including the Brooksley Borne story, recently broadcast on PBS, about Alan Greenspan’s refusal to regulate the derivatives market), Ferguson goes as far back as the Regan era in identifying what went wrong. For those who’ve followed the story, Ferguson reviews major touchpoints, including the Clinton-era Graham-Leach-Bliley act that eliminated the depression-era Glass-Stegal protections (thus allowing banks to start gambling in the stock markets with your money), George W. Bush’s upping the ante by rolling back how much assets banks needed to keep on hand, thus allowing them to borrow at insane levels to fuel their gambling, to the creation of the mortgage securitization markets, thus allowing banks, mortgage brokers, and everyone in between to sell phony mortgages to people unable to pay, turn them around and re-sell them to countries like Iceland and pension funds like the Mississippi employees union under triple A ratings, thus turning the housing market into the biggest fraud in history. And of course, let’s not forget AIG’s incredibly stupid move of selling markers betting the whole thing would never turn around (or was it stupid, Ferguson argues, since AIG managers knew they would get away scot free with millions since if it crashed the government would have to bail them out with no consequences), and Goldman Sach’s conniving ability to bet against "junk" mortgages they were at the same time selling to their clients as "triple A."

Ferguson’s point is perhaps more damning than those I’ve seen before, such as David Faber’s story (“And then the Roof Caved In”), Vicki Ward’s “Devi’s Casino” or even Harry Markopolos’s amazing tale of the SEC refusing to investigate the naked ponzi schemes of Bernie Madoff. (Disclaimer: my employer published all of these.) According to Ferguson, deregulation in financial markets was not only an ideology: it was an intentional rip-off of the American public, and government officials, bank CEO’s, and leading academics have all been in on it.

He frames his tale with MTV music video style clips (with songs like “Big Stuff” over cuts of office towers and yachts), which makes this an oddly toe-tapping expose. He goes after the financial fat cats with humor and wit, making fun of their multi-million-dollar parachutes as they drove their businesses into the ground and the economy went down in flames. But what he does best is boil down this complicated financial stuff so that the audience (in my case, mostly retirees, probably who’d lost much of their savings) can understand. Providing simple charts, animations, and most importantly, damaging interviews, he gets to the heart of the matter in the most straightforward in illustrative way.

One example are his interviews with Martin Feldstein of Harvard and Frederick Mishkin of Columbia. Feldstein is a former economic advisor to the Reagan administration and Mishkin a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2008. In both instances, Ferguson manages to get both of these men to admit, on camera, that not only did they write papers praising banks and institutions that they knew were on shaky ground, they got paid by those very same banks and institutions to do it. Even more amazing: neither of them (nor the chair of Harvard's economics department) even perceive it to be a conflict of interest.

Greed in finance has gone unchecked for so long, it is not only normal, one cannot even see the shores of morality any more.

Those of you, then, who have held out hope that the Obama administration would finally fix this problem, despair to you. Ferguson finishes his tale of woe by exposing not only how woefully inadequate the recent financial regulations are to the task of creating any kind of rules: he also points out that the very same men who’ve benefited from the crisis are still running the latest administration. The new regulations are but fig leaves allowing powerful financial forces to start the con game all over again.

It’s clear from Inside Job that the job of ripping off the American public is far from over. This is not a cheery thought to leave the theater with if you’re looking for an hour and a half entertainment. But if you want to understand why finance has become a den of naked gambling with other people’s money – and why the recent crisis is far from the last, or even the biggest, that we’re going to experience – then this movie will lay it all out for you. Before you see it, have your bags packed and visa stamped and ready to go.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Burlesque: Rehashed Glitz for the Holidays

I wish there was more to this movie staring Christina Aquilera as an impossibly talented ingenue who comes to L.A., moves in next to a burlesque night-club (run, of course, by Cher), and connives her way into the ensemble and to eventually being headliner of the show. The movie follows tried-and-true hollywood formula (they've been telling this story ever since All About Eve: Chicago was the latest incarnation) and offers few surprises...except for the music. The music is actually much better than one might expect for a film of this type (aimed at gay men and teenyboppers) and thank god, too, as it's what gets you through the sappy storyline.

Surprisingly, Aquilera gets most of the numbers - that woman can sing. We only get two Cher numbers, but it's nice to see her vocals still resonate. One forgets that Cher is also quite an actress (does anyone remember Silkwood? Mask? Moonstruck?). Cher was an Eighties sensation and she and Stanley Tucci (as her gay manager) are the adults in the film. They liven up their scenes with lighthearted banter while the rest of the characters make somber sincerity out of their tinfoil lines.

When Aquilera's character, Ali, arrives in Los Angeles - with just $200 dollars in her pocket - my first thought was that this could be the very same opening about how women end up being hookers in L.A. But this isn't a movie about lost dreams and the hard realities of the street. In fact, just the opposite: it's a pure fairy tale where the princess comes to town in order to conquer the world, in just three easy lessons. Perhaps the most inane aspect of the movie is the romance between Ali and the bartender who first introduces her to the society of the club, Jack (played by Cam Gigandet in eye liner, three-day beard, and 1% body fat). "I thought you were gay," Ali tells Jack while sleeping over at his apartment (his girlfriend is conveniently away in Paris). No - not gay, just gay bait. The two of them slink about each other for the remainder of the movie, setting up sit-com-like reasons for not consummating their mutual lust until the absolute moment when its no longer possible to put off. The whole affair is impossible to watch except for Gigandet traipsing shirtless in order to entertain the ladies (and gay boys) in the audience. This is one of those films where anything that happens between the characters makes no sense other than as pure titillation.

Of course, the plot hinges on whether Cher's Tess will lose the club, whether Ali and Jack will ever get it on, and how all will come out right in the end. In between we're entertained with various burlesque numbers - singing and dancing - that's probably worth the $10 price of admission considering there's little else of musical note at the movies these days.

The producers of this movie are clearly trying to capture three different audiences at once: teenage girls, gay men, and women of a certain age who like the old Hollywood musicals. That gives this movie a bit of a feel of the Palm Springs Follies...though I have to say, with performances from knock-out singers like Aquilera and Cher, Burlesque certainly delivers the numbers.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Top Ten James Bond Movies of All Time

It’s Thanksgiving weekend and the airwaves are filled – as they are on most holiday weekends – with 48 hours of never ending Bond movies. All this prompted me to look up when the next Bond is supposed to come out (it’s been two years after all), only to find that MGM has gone bankrupt and it’s going to be at least two more years until another Bond comes to the theaters.

This is a shame. For nearly fifty years, Bond has been a cultural staple - reflecting not just what it means to be a man's man (or a man's woman), but the anxieties and fantasies of the time. From the Cold War to space shuttles to media manipulation to international finance, Bond has tackled the cultural craze of the day and reflected it within the classic spy-thriller genre and with Bond finesse, cool, and a healthy dose of camp. More than we realize, the Bond series has defined American culture.

So what’s a Bond lover to do? Revisit the classics, that’s what. You can’t catch all of them, so which are the best? Here’s my list of the top ten. This is a highly personal choice, mind you – some might argue that “From Russia With Love” or “Spy Who Loved Me” or “Die Another Day” would have to be on this list, and they very well might be (I find them all just a bit too lightweight for my tastes). So let me know yours, or how you might order these differently. But if you want my advice, set you DVR to pick from the list below.

BONUS BOND: #11. View to a Kill, 1985

The Roger Moore Bonds were on their last legs, with clunkers like For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy having wrung the life out of the series, and an aging Moore dragging half-ass through the films. The producers seemed willing to try anything to lure in audiences, so they loaded up this Bond with some of the biggest icons of the Eighties: a title song by Duran Duran, and villains played by Christopher Walken and a cool-ass singer named Grace Jones. Walken plays Max Zorin, an evil genius who wants to sink Silicon Valley to create a microchip monopoly (though seemingly based on the Goldfinger story, this is high concept to the max, since the plot is never really explained and probably would make no sense if it were). Swinging from rigged horse races to oil rigs to weird-assed zeppelins, the plot makes little sense, but with so much Eighties action, the movie is a kind of cultural icon itself, now.

10. Thunderball, 1965

This fourth Bond movie is often overlooked but really has some fun filler, like jet packs, a gadget-happy Q, a great jet plane stealing sequence, and an underwater scooter fight. Bond is at his emotional coolest in this film – letting his dancing partner get shot to save his own life, or saving the life of a would-be assassin only to send him back to be executed by his employer. The hotel Bond stays at is probably the definitive 1960’s spy redoubt, with its modernist furniture styled for tropical luxury. Definitely worth a screening to enjoy that architecture. Wikipedia calls this the most financially successful Bond film – no doubt it established the financial fortunes of this long-lived series. But the film may be a bit too cool for most contemporary audiences, and Bond a bit too distant, as it’s not become one of the most beloved of the series. The underwater sequences – while state-of-the-art for their day – have not held up well, and will likely bore modern eyes used to CGI and elaborate recreations of movies like Titanic. They were considered to go on a bit too long even in 1965.

9. Moonraker, 1979

If there’s a definitive Roger Moore Bond, it’s Moonraker, with its Star Wars inspired plot and its esoteric, Nazi-like villain in the form of Hugo Drax, who wants to kill off the earth’s population with poison orchid dust and replace them with blond supermen brought up on wheat germ and elevator music. Re-introducing the most popular side-kick, Jaws (who Bond liberates when he points out, rightly, that a tall, metal-mouthed freak would have no place in Drax’s vision of the perfect population), this Bond doesn’t feel quite like any other Bond ever made. More like a Saturday morning cartoon blending Bond, sci-fi, diamonds, cable cars, and gondolas. It’s a bit goofy, but it was wildly popular, and worth seeing for a blast from the past.

8. Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997

This second Bond outing with helmer Pierce Brosnan in the title role creates a fascinating story that’s an interesting twist on the You Only Live Twice plot: Media baron Elliot Carver (loosely based on Rupert Murdoch, one assumes) attempts to start a war between two major powers – in this case, not in service of a third power, but in service of the news. War sells papers, after all. The casting of a media baron as a bad guy is an inspired cultural twist that gives Tomorrow Never Dies the kind of cultural relevance that Bond films haven’t really had since the ’70s (this was the era of the 24-hour news channel and birth of the internet, after all, and the sense that the media was taking over our lives was palpable at the time). A bit plodding and Jonathan Pryce’s Carver is hardly terror-inspiring, but the movie holds up as Bond and a Chinese agent (Michelle Yeoh) race to stop Carver from starting World War Three.

7. Dr. No, 1962

The very first Bond movie was an instant classic, and established all the crucial Bond elements: the evil lair (and what a fabulous lair it was, seemingly designed by an overspending Frank Lloyd Wright, it would have made a fine hotel), the narrow escape, the Bond bon-mot, and of course, the Bond girl (in this case, reigning sex-pot Ursala Andress). Yet at the same time, the movie seems unlike any Bond that comes after, as it takes its time setting up esoteric spycraft like short-wave broadcasts, ducking a tail, planting a hair to detect entry, and carefully planned assassinations (often gone awry), all of which later Bonds would much more quickly dispense with. Like the first Matrix movie, this first is detached from the conventions later established by the series, even as it inspires them. As such, it’s a fascinating curiosity, introducing us to Bond and his suave ways and luring us into the then exotic Caribbean world of Jamaica, before modern tourism would make it a familiar site to many.

6. Goldeneye, 1995

Goldeneye introduces us to the fifth Bond actor, Pierce Brosnan, and attempts to resurrect a series that had grown flabby and irrelevant over the years. Coming six years after the last Bond, but with the last Bond having been the two terrible Timothy Dalton Bonds, it had really been a decade since a Bond of note and Goldeneye. That decade gaped wide and Bond’s old-fashioned antics no longer played, so this Bond casts Judy Dench as a female M who finally gets to call Bond a “misogynistic dinosaur.” A lot has happened in that decade – including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of satellite telecommunications – and the plot of this Bond takes full advantage of the changes, pairing Bond with a Russian satellite worker (played by Isabella Scorupco, who holds her own against Brosnan) as they race to escape the rogue Russians who are out to get them both. Famke Janseen creates a fabulously fun Bond Bad Girl who enjoys killing just a little too much and Alan Cumming gives a fun turn as a turncoat programmer. It was a tough task – reimagining to Bond series to make it relevant again to new generation – but the movie got it right, the film was a hit, and the series lived on.

5. Live and Let Die, 1973

The best of the Roger Moore Bonds was the first. Moore was a different type of Bond from the others before and after – self-deprecating, air-headed, aloof, campy. Moore turned a series that was quickly becoming old-fashioned into a parody of itself so that the disco generation could laugh at the old-fashioned, stick-in-the muds that was the Feds. A Moore Bond wasn’t a suave spy but a straight man there to be ridiculed by the cool people. Live and Let Die introduced this new concept: the tragic-comic Bond – and it did so in a world of Cool, from Harlem to New Orleans to a Jamaica run by Jazz and voodoo. Moore held his own, however, getting off his share of one-liners. But it was Cool that stole the show, from McCartney’s brilliant title song to the introduction of the Cola-Nut guy (who enjoyed brief fame on subsequent 7-Up commercials, deliciously proclaiming the “un-cola”). This time, the camp held up, and Live and Let Die let the series live on.

4. Diamonds Are Forever, 1971

The Bond movie introduced, and perhaps perfected, its unique sense of self-aware camp humor with this movie set in Las Vegas. Bringing back a slightly paunchier and grayer Sean Connery, and dealing with the post-sixties, post Woodstock rise of youth and women’s liberation, perhaps the series had no choice but to ramp up the sarcasm to remain culturally relevant. It concocts a memorable rat-pack cast of hoodlums, diamond smugglers, FBI agents, and a Howard Hughes knock-off (Willard Whyte). It also fully embraces its homophobia, creating a creepy pair of gay killers who actually hold hands as they knock off old ladies. Jill St. John is perhaps one of the most memorable Bond girls as Tiffany Case, the smuggler who hires Bond’s “Peter Franks.” But the real reward in this movie is the sequence in John Lautner’s Elrod house (filmed in Palm Springs, the house still stands as a testament to high-sixties modernist architecture). Not only is that house memorable and fabulous, so are its two inhabitants – Bambi and Thumper – who inspired not a few acrobatic sci-fi fight sequences (including sequences in Blade Runner and Kill Bill).

3. Casino Royale, 2006

“Rebooting” the bond series with the sixth Bond actor, Daniel Craig, a lot was riding on the success of this film. Fortunately, it delivered. With its amazing opening stunt sequence of Bond chasing a bomber across an African construction site and into an embassy, where he proceeds to shoot up all and sundry, you know they have a hit on their hands. Not only did Craig make a convincing and sexy Bond (we certainly got to see enough of him to satiate even the most lurid Bondophile), but the action sequences were superb from stem to stern. The scene where an airplane takes off and blows a truck into the air not only took my breath away, it was re-created successfully on “Mythbusters,” proving that this special effect is based on reality. Perhaps what makes this Bond so successful is that the wonderful action sequences are combined with some of that old-fashioned Bond repartee that seems to have gotten lost in the ‘90’s. The card sequences in Monte Carlo where Bond invents his signature martini and bluffs his way through a high-stakes poker game are just as fun as the chases. Like most successful Bonds, the movie taps into a cultural zeitgeist of which the culture is only semi-aware: in this case, poker…and the suave allure of gambling and international finance that seemed to typify the era that was the height of the real-estate bubble. It also has a fabulous opening credit sequence that lives up to the best of Bond openers (and is maybe as good as Paul McCartney’s "Live and Let Die").

2. Goldfinger, 1964

Perhaps the most original Bond movie, Goldfinger offers a departure from the SPECTRE villain in exchange for a most entertaining plot: the caper to explode a bomb in Fort Knox that would make the gold radioactive for long enough to quintuple the value of Goldfinger’s gold holdings (it was an exemplary lesson in the market value of supply and demand). Bond is a bit slow on the uptake here (the middle of the film drags a bit as Bond has to catch up with what everyone already knows), but there are plenty of rewarding tidbits for the die-hard Bond fan, including a girl painted gold, a lesbian baddie that implausibly succumbs to Bond’s charms, and a mobster crushed alive in a metal compactor. There’s also the introduction of the best evil side-kick in any Bond movie: Odd Job, with the amazing decapitating hat. Best of all is Bond diffusing the bomb at just the right second: 007. If any film established the Bond series as a permanent fixture in American life, it would have to be this third Bond movie – better than the two that had come before, and a decisive moment in cementing the future of the series. For this reason it comes in at number two.

1. You Only Live Twice, 1967

The most iconic of James Bond movies, and not simply because it has the most scenes imitated by Mike Myers in his Austin Powers films (let’s see: the Japanese Osato building receptionist, the boat dock fight, Japanese wrestlers, Ninja training, and of course that marvelous volcano liar.) The producers of the movie felt that Connery was a bit flabby and slow, and so replaced them on the next bond film (1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the biggest Bond flop). Little did they know that this film would be Bond and Connery both in their prime. This film exemplifies all the key elements of the Bond series, from the misogynistic womanizing and cold-war tensions, to the elaborate and comical car chases, to finally launching Bond into the space race, to the high-point of Bond villainy: Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld ferociously petting his kitty in a hidden volcano with a rocket launcher and piranha pool. This is also the movie that finally perfected the bond movie music, including the fabulous theme song. The movie also veered a bit from the typical bond script to create an exotic Asian local, replete with geisha massage, a ceremonial wedding, and even a Japanese Bond. The movie was such a cultural milestone that it inspired a national trend of Japanese steak houses (the Kahiki, in Columbus, Ohio, opened soon after and for thirty years represented a way for Midwesterns to escape for an evening into the exotic world of Japan and Bond, both of which remained connected in the American imagination for years after). And perhaps I have a personal connection, as this was the first Bond movie I ever saw. I was five years old, but I remember Connery’s hairy chest, and his Japanese proverb, “bird never makes nest in bare tree.” Connery established himself then in my mind not only as the quintessence of Bond, but of male desirability itself. If there could only ever be one Bond movie, this would be the one. Everything you ever need to know about the Bond series, the Bond man, and their mutual importance as cultural icons is here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Harry Potter / Deathly Hallows 1: The Ending Begins, At Last

There's a beautiful scene in this movie, the seventh movie in the Potter franchise, in which an old fairy tale is explained. The tale is of the Three Brothers, who encounter the deathly hallows and are each given a gift from Death. The scene is narrated by the father of one of the familiar characters, but for the first time in this series, it's illustrated as a two-color line animation. The animation is amazing, the story told is riveting. If this were the only scene in the entire movie, I'd be giving this film five stars.

Unfortunately, the scene is preceded by about two hours of standard Hogwarty fluff (if you've sat through the first six films there's no need to explain what I mean by that). This movie, however, is decidedly different from those that have come before. For one thing, it's slowed down - having decided to spread the last J.K.Rowling book into two separate films, the filmmakers are able this time to let us spend more time with the characters, and scenes are allowed to play out with some humor and intricacy. It's just too bad that these three young friends - Harry and his pals Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley - aren't more interesting. The actors often stand and react much longer than seems natural, as if operating their bodies via remote control. I couldn't tell if it was due to the stiff dialogue, or just their exhaustion at playing these same, unchanged, unevolved characters since they were ten years old.

The other thing that's different is the absence of the school, Hogwarts. This time, the war with Voldemort is on full-force, and Harry and his friends are fugitives, whisking from one forest or glade to the next as they seek out the many horcruxes needed to destroy the evil lord (I'm surprised they weren't simply called mcguffins) and evade the death dealers who are after them. The film has a much more serious, adult tone (the actors are all grown up, for one thing, and  the characters are all in mortal danger, for another), and war has come to the witches and warlocks of England. This war has decided tones of World War Two - with Nazi-like uniforms worn by Voldemort's minions when they take over the Ministry of Magic. There are also tones of Lord of the Rings (in the scenery and swords) and Voldemort reigns over his kingdom of ever-present evildoers, hunting down Potter like the Lord of Mordor.

There are very blue and gray tones in this film, and I found that both a bit fascinating and after a while, annoying. I was distracted by blue/gray sweaters, cups of hot chocolate, blue/gray birch trees, November barren beaches while Potter and company flee from danger. How many scenes of still, quite forests symbolizing approaching war and death must we sit through? I can't believe there are actually seven horcruxes in this series and Potter has to go find and destroy them all. He had me with the second, and that was a few films ago. Even Potter's friends are tired of it, and Ron makes a big show of wanting to give up and go home.

I was ready too, as perhaps stretching this story out into two films is a bit more than it can take. Once we get to the story of the Deathly Hallows and the death dealers finally catch up to the Potter gang, the story starts moving again. And then of course, just as it gets going, it stops: so you can wait for part two.

They are certainly milking this series for all they can get. I'll admit, with its allegory of war and references to Nazi-style racial purity, this may be the best Potter film yet. And that animation of the Three Brothers is strikingly new and beautiful. But after seven of these outings, I just want this story to get to the end, already.

And by the way, don't take my four stars as too definitive. It gets four because of that animated sequence. The rest of the film is decidedly three, at best.

HumpDay: Mumblecore Cock Tease

The phrase "all cackling and no eggs" was never more appropriate than it is for this indie flick, about two straight pals who decide to make a gay porno for the local "Hump Day" arts festival.

The mumblecore movement - so dubbed in 2005 - centers on improvised conversations of 20-somethings, often talking in bed either before, during or after sex. Actually not necessarily even mumblecore could be really about anything, even the Arab / Israeli conflict, as long as it's chatty, freeform, and "life-like."

HumpDay is written by the female director Lynn Shelton, one of the rising mumblecore directors, who also directed one of this season's "Mad Men" episodes. Everything in this film is set up to explore just how deeply a modern male friendship - and the semi-sexualized homoerotic banter between two straight friends - might actually go. One could say that this is a "bromance" taken to its ultimate logical conclusion.

Ben and Anna are an average, somewhat happily married twenty-something couple for whom the romance has recently worn off. When we meet them, we find them negotiating sex, planning to have a baby, and going about their daily routines with absent-minded habituation. They hardly notice each other, even as they entertain their personal endearments and halfheartedly complain about the daily annoyances of living with another human being.

Into this stasis walks Andrew - Ben's old friend from college - who still seems to be living the swinging single life, breezing into town to knock on their door at 2am and open up the nearest bottle of whiskey. Andrew is just the tonic the married Ben seems to be pining for: a happy-go-lucky blast from his youth. There's also...somehow...the least bit of some kind of sexual tension between the two, as their hugs and stares into each other's eyes go on just a moment longer than is comfortable for either.

Of course, one thing leads to another, and Ben soon has Andrew ditching Anna's carefully prepared pork-chop dinner and partying with Andrew's new-found bohemian friends (a pair of lesbians and a few other assorted artists and hangers on). Excellent scene, thinks Ben, and he's hooked on Andrew's partying, ambi-sexual world before you can say "homosexual tendencies." When Andrew's lesbian friends tell Andrew about the upcoming arts festival - Hump Day - Andrew sarcastically suggests that he and Ben should make a gay porno as an art piece. "I'd do it," says Ben, half facetious, but half serious, wanting to explore where this thing might go. "Yeah, so would I," says Andrew, and the two of them both know the other really wants to do it, even though several more minutes of (presumably) heterosexual posturing must go by...and even a few more scenes...before each finally decides that the other is serious.

This is certainly no gay porn, where the two straight guys suddenly find themselves hopping into bed. Most of the movie really consists of Ben and Andrew talking about whether they really want to do it, if they would do it, and - finally, when they eventually get around to deciding to do it - how they would do it (which takes forever to negotiate and ultimately...well, you get the picture). I've never seen two dudes talk so much about whether they want to have sex with each other. Clearly, this is an urge that neither can really explain (although the scene where they do try to explain it to each other - Ben has, apparently, some past homoerotic attraction to a video store clerk that he needs to understand, and Andrew thinks that gay sex will make him a better artist - is the best in the film). There are, indeed, some great moments that come out of the interactions between these two actors, and the improvisation does give this movie a certain introspective, semi-titillating, expectant flavor, like a freshman dorm at 2am...but there's not quite enough consistency to make all that conversation worthwhile.

I know that this movie is intentionally leading us on a bit of a merry chase - and that the scenes are all, in fact, improvised - but for such build up, the ending is a decided let down. Neither Ben nor Andrew really work out what's driving them, though they do manage to discuss it in every conceivable way possible.

Was I really this chatty at twenty-nine? It's hard to believe, but then, that's the device of this film. Young people these days seemingly have a lot to talk about. One has to wonder how long these two would have gone on talking, however, had they actually started any kind of real relationship.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fair Game: Political Thriller with a Point of View

Fair Game, the based-on-real-life political thriller from director Douglas Liman (Go, Bourne Ultimatum), wants to make you really, really mad at the Bush administration. It does so passionately and with detailed emotional drama, and it succeeds in its goal quite well. This is the first movie in a long time that immediately made me want to sign up to volunteer for a cause.

In case you haven't heard about the movie, this is the dramatization of the Valery Plame (Naomi Watts) / Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) story. Plame was the CIA agent who was outed in the press by Scooter Libby, in revenge for her husband's New York times editorial undermining the Bush case for war against Iraq. The movie retells the real-life events from Plame's point of view. As an undercover CIA operative, not only was her career was destroyed out of an act of political malice; dozens of her "assets" (CIA-speak for ordinary people trapped in unpleasant situations that the CIA has conned or connived into becoming informants) are left in mortal jeopardy - and many killed - when Plame's cover is blown. The public exposure of a CIA agent isn't only a rather un-American and stupid thing to do; it's also rather illegal. Libby was sentence to two years; Bush commuted his sentence, and the investigation ended there, even though reporters (and the movie) suggest there were clearly other White House players involved.

The movie opens with an involving tour-de-farce of Plame's daily operations, which in the wake of 9/11 take her from south-east Asia to Iraq, where she is deeply involved in extracting information from Iraqi scientists on their weapons programs. When the CIA wishes to track down rumors of yellowcake (fissionable nuclear material) being sold to Iraq from Niger, she suggests her husband, a former ambassador to Niger, as a good candidate for the mission. Like a dutiful husband, Wilson makes the trip to visit his old contacts, and determines the rumors of a sale are false - the alleged sale would have involved over fifty semi-tractor-trailers; if that much material was being transported through the villages, someone in Niger would have noticed.

But as we know now, the Bush administration wanted to paint a picture that Iraq had WMD's after all. They ignored Wilson's report and found a single CIA analyst willing to suggest that aluminum tubes purchased by Sadam might be used as part of a nuclear program, despite all the evidence that Plame, Wilson, and the CIA had assembled saying that Sadam had no active WMD program going. When Bush announced the purchase of yellowcake in his State of the Union speech, this was too much for Wilson, who knew the truth, and felt he had to speak out.

All of this is public knowledge, but we haven't gotten inside the point of view of Wilson and Plame so deeply before. The film goes to pains to point out the evidence supporting Plame's and Wilson's story: the trip to Niger is no boondoggle (the water in the hotel hardly runs); Plame is an excellent agent (she handles her "assets" with the required professional mix of empathy, suspicion, and efficiency); and they have an ordinary, suburban marriage that gets put to the test when the power of the White House is brought to bear to smear their names. The movie is certainly one-sided in its portrait (there is no sympathy here for the Bush march to war), but necessarily so, as it's main mission is to arouse anger not simply at the treatment of Wilson and Plame, but at the public abuse. The White House has clearly lied to the public in order to lead us to a disastrous war. Wilson...and later Plame...are the only people trying to blow the whistle. We might have sympathy for what was done to them. But we should be even angrier at how the country was misled.

As a political screed, then, the movie is quite a success, and a definite recommendation (these amazing crimes and intentional deceptions of the Bush administration really need to be better known by the public). It's no surprise to find Penn, one of the better spoken Hollywood liberals, leading the charge, and he delivers his lines with the passion of a real politico. As a dramatization of a couple in crisis, however, it often skips feverishly past moments that could use better contextualization: Plame's quiet adoration of her father (Sam Shepard); Wilson's insensitivity to his wife's situation; Plame's eventual decision to break with her code of CIA silence (Watt's line, "they can't take my marriage," is perhaps the most powerful emotional core here). We get all the right moments, but they're delivered with the telegraphed urgency of a political blogger on a soapbox. One wishes, a bit, for a Spielberg here, who could delve into the political and moral morass of something like the Arab / Israeli conflict and emerge with a complete human portrait as well as a point of view. It would also help to contextualize the war itself, and the dire consequences for both our country and Iraq.

But clearly, the film does its job well. It made me mad as hell. If the Democrats don't have the guts to investigate the Bush administration, at least directors like Liman and actors like Watts and Penn have the courage to make this movie. That's the most re-assuring thing I've come across in the past two years.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Skyline: Aliens in the Sky Getting Nasty

What I want to say about the new sci-fi/horror flick Skyline is that it's really about getting killed in real estate. Literally about that. I'd like to say figuratively, as well, though that may be crediting the movie with too much metaphor.

Picking as its venue the 24th floor Penthouse of a glass-and-chrome modern condo complex - from which the characters have a perfect view of the demolition visiting the Los Angeles skyline - the movie revels in its cold, chrome modern architecture, destroying its inhabitants as swiftly and relentlessly as the housing crash has destroyed the fortunes of many a condo owner in the last two years. This then is perhaps the first condo-anxiety horror film.

Like Cloverfield before it, the conceit in Skyline is that the main story is happening elsewhere, and we're just following a group of random twenty-somethings in their media-misinformed peripheral point of view of the action. The main story - about the invasion of the world by nasty aliens intent on consuming every last human being for their own nefarious purposes - was already told in Independence Day (and much more effectively). So what we're given here is the story of five underprivileged, air-headed pretty twenty somethings who must cope with big blue lights of seduction and subsequent horrible death and destruction going on around them, without knowing anything about what's really happening. You really couldn't get any more peripheral than these five - two friends and their three girlfriends - who have zero personality and even less brains (um, no pun intended) as they try to escape from their sky-loft of death and keep locking themselves out on the roof of the building. It's a little like spending an hour an a half watching "Star Trek" without ever seeing Kirk, Spock, or McCoy - instead, just following the red-shirted extras as they one-by-one get picked off and eaten by molten rocks with teeth.

I'm not sure what this trend about following the least important people in the story portends. In 2012 it's a second-rate writer who's the most important story in the destruction of the world. In Cloverfield we're following a group of unimportant friends. In Skyline these people are even less than unimportant - they're the unpleasant neighbors you wish would go away. Meanwhile, Presidents, artists, football players, precocious teenagers, Marines, lovers, parents, and cute doggies are all getting eaten as well, but no one cares to tell the stories about them. It's tempting to say this is the way the Reality-Show/Tea Party generation sees the world, where importance and authority is determined by the less you have that the most interesting people of all are the completely unaccomplished idiots. No wonder the aliens save these brains for last.

The imagining of the alien menace has all been lifted from the War of the World and Matrix movies, even echoing the floating tenticals as they search out the smell of fresh human brains. Going into the movie I turned to my companion and asked, "is this going to be a zombie movie"? No, I was told, but with its slow-moving, blue-eyed siren singing aliens and its fascination for brain consumption, I'm not so sure.

The ostensible hero, Jarrod (played by Eric Balfour, a completely fashion-pressed TV actor who is probably best known as Milo on "24") leads an anorexic cast who don't have characterizations so much as personality death assignments, as in Freddie Kruger movies (you know: little ironic lines that presage how they are going to die). For instance, the guy who giggles at spying with a telescope on a couple in the condo across the street is the first to be spotted by the alien window shoppers and sucked out of the condo. Once that moment in the movie happens, you know that the rest of his bubble-headed friends are sure to follow, one by one.

I was so much looking forward to more from this movie, as the effects looked cool and I love movies with an askew perspective, as the trailer promised and we see in glimpses here and there. The image of people floating off the ground and into the alien space ships is mesmerizing, even if it is stolen from War of the Worlds. Mesmerization seems to be the theme of the movie, though there's no interest in exploring theme here, just in sucking the life out of the planet. For vacuum cleaners, these relentless aliens do a pretty good job. Not a cliche is left unturned, by the end.

Megamind: A New Blue Superhero

Dreamworks has become the studio of the anti-hero cartoon – witness the Shrek movies, about a disgusting Ogre who instead of the bad guy in the story, becomes the hero, saving the princess and living happily ever after…sort of. With Megamind, the studio continues the trend, this time envisioning the evil genius (read: Lex Luthor character from the Superman franchise) as the potential hero and ultimate savior of Mega City (or megocity, as he pronounces it).

Megamind (voiced by an unusually human-seeming Will Farrell) is the narrator and big-blue-headed host of this romp through comic book irony. His nemesis, Metro Man (or “Mr. Goody Two-Shoes”), is the nominal “hero” – the big muscled, white, square jawed superhero who receives the adulation of the city. Voiced by Brad Pitt but seemingly inspired by John Hamm’s character on "Mad Men" (or Steve Reeve’s Superman, if one goes back to the proper Fifties stereotype), Metro Man is a paragon of masculine rectitude, until, that is, he decides to chuck it all and explore life as an indie guitar player.

The movie opens by making clear that the good-guy destiny of Metro Man and bad-guy destiny of Megamind are determined as much by circumstance as genetics. Metro Man grows up in the sultry, comfy expansiveness of great wealth, while Megamind is raised by criminals in a penitentiary. This isn’t the only clue in the film about a kind of ethnic coding (there’s also a fun comic riff on the Obama poster – “No, You Can’t” – that Megamind hangs on the dome of the capital once Metro Man deserts his post leaving Megaind to control the city). Megamind, the movie, seems to be commenting then on the decline of white power and the rise of ethnic power (blue, in this case, but you get the picture) in terms of social changes gripping our country, proving a cautionary fable for kids of both stripes. There are plenty of “Highway to Hell” rock songs to punctuate Megamind’s evil attitude, including Michael Jackson’s “I’m Bad” – and Megamind rolls, shimmies, dances, and moonwalks joyously through the movie. It’s clear he’s got the soul that Metro Man so disastrously lacks (Metro Man’s attempt at rock singing is awful).

If only the movie could make more sense out of this, as Dreamworks once did with the Shrek story. There are plenty of great one-liners and a huge amount of talent scribbling out comic designs. But only a few rare moments of pure comic joy (such as Megamind locking a car door after it's been ripped off its hinges). Perhaps where the story goes most astray is in introducing a third superhero - a genetic experiment gone haywire in the form of Tighten (lovely credits parody of what sounds like "Titan" in the movie), a sycophantic camera-boy who's genetically altered  into a kind of evil acned / slacker version of Metro Man. Tighten goes around wrecking the city and setting Megamind up for his big character arch into hero, but it all feels too slipshody-violent for young kids and an unfullfilling detour from the main self-consciously pseudo-sociological hi jinx (the parodies of Marlon Brando's Superman performance are especially lame). One can feel the movie taking a big, uncertain pause as it finishes a shimmy down the second act and turns and slips almost ad hoc into its third.

I was more interested in the Hitch-like exploration of a superhero wanting to back out of the job, or a bad guy who has better friendships than the the nominal good (Megamind's friendship with his loyal sidekick, a talking fish, is the best thing going in the movie), than this Tighten muffle at the end. But these early ideas get totally dropped. So while it gets off to a promising start, and the blue guy can dance, this Megamind seems to have other things on its big noggin than giving us a really great story.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Harry Brown: Celebrating Geezer Vigilantism

One of the more curious films available for rent these days is Harry Brown, staring a riveting Michael Caine as an old geezer who gets so fed up with crime in his government subsidized housing flat that he turns himself into a one-man army, hunting down thugs and drug dealers with cold efficiency. The movie fits into this recent trend of the elderly kicking ass type films (see RED) and may simply be the forerunner of many more such as the baby boom generation begins feeling their Cream of Wheat. Nevertheless, Caine creates a fascinating character in this movie, and the film is a real study in perverse revenge fantasy.

Harry Brown's wife, nearing the end of her natural days, lies in a hospital bed across town, and Harry must avoid the underpass filled with hooligans and addicts on his way to visit. That tunnel is a veritable den of iniquity and we're treated with lovely scenes of punks shooting at pregnant women and other antics designed to make our blood boil. Meanwhile, Harry - having to take the long way around to avoid the tunnel - ends up missing his wife's passing. He regrets the moment, but her death is also the precipitating event that allows Harry to get in touch with his military past, as his wife, it seems, was the one civilizing influence in his life.

So when Harry's best friend falls as the next victim of the mayhem-happy hooligans, and the police begin an investigation, you can bet that Harry soon finds himself not only carrying his old military knife, but kicking down the doors of drug dealers, stealing enough hardware to start his own private war, and taking out his share of creeps and hooligans with enough bloody spatter to make this seem like a zombie movie. Perhaps it's the fact that the sleazy druggies and creeps are pretty spaced out - and move at the speed of zombies - that gives the movie its feel of creepy horror. 

One would figure one had entered into some parallel moral universe were it not for Caine's fine performance, which at every step illustrates a man who is being pushed just one more notch than he can take and who inevitably must fall back on his killer instinct not so much for revenge, but just to be able to live his life.

It's a shame, then, that the movie drives us towards the kind of police-versus-punks confrontation that seems straight out of 28 Days and dehumanizes not the scum, so much, but the police themselves as well as the "innocent" victims. Only Harry seems super-human enough to discern the danger and come to save the day.

I suspect I would not even be talking about this movie were it not for Michael Caine's performance. Somehow, Caine has discerned in the character of Harry Brown not a simple answer about vigilantism being the only response to violent crime, but instead, he's created a complicated man who is loosened from his own civilizing influences one step at a time, and who sees violence as a training to be respected, not a drug to to be indulged (his comment as he takes the malfunctioning gun from a drug dealer who's coked up from snorting off the barrel, cleans it, and then shoots him with it - "you should have kept your gun in working order, sir" - is worth the price of admission). This Harry Brown is deserving of respect, even if the movie falls into disarray around him. Unless this Christmas sees an unlikely number of amazing performances, expect to see Michael Caine's name gracing the roster lists come Oscar time.

Woody Allen's Tall Dark Stranger: A Fool's Tale

With this writer/director/auteur of over forty films releasing a new one, like clockwork, every year, it can be hard to keep up any more with the latest Woody Allen flick. Sitting in his latest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the crowds were thin, and I was feeling almost sorry that Allen seems to be losing even his core audience of die-hard New Yorkers.

Yet as someone who has seen every one of them, I can tell you, they are - with few exceptions - a pleasure. Those exceptions have been coming more recently lately. His most forgettable films - Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, and Cassandra's Dream - have all come in the past decade, rehashing old jokes, laying clunkers, or boring us with uninspired characters. Allen has also relocated to London, mixing up his traditional New York locale with some European fare such as Match Point and Vicki Christina Barcelona, which may be strong films but nevertheless leave behind his famed New York venue. With You Will Meet..., Allen is back in London again, and Allen is once again strictly behind the camera, though the characters are classic Allen nudnicks and nebishes recognizable since Love and Death and A Midsummer's Night Sex Comedy.

Allen is usually on to something when incorporating classic theater like Aeschylus or Shakespeare, and in You Will Meet... he opens with a quote from King Lear: "life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." This is the quote that the fool tells the king (the fool is the only character in Lear who shows any wisdom) and though that's the last time we hear the quote (until the movie's end) and there's actually no reference to Lear in this movie, a little understanding of Lear goes a long way to appreciating the comic foibles of these characters.

In Lear, the king divides his kingdom amongst his daughters - to his misfortune and regret. In You Will Meet, the sixty-something Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has decided to divide his kingdom, in a manner of speaking, by leaving his wife. He's doesn't fancy himself as "old," and is ready for some randy fun. His devastated wife, Helena (Gemma Jones) seeks out a fortune teller who begins counseling her on her future, and how to cope. What Helena doesn't know is that her daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts) has hired the fortune teller as a way to buck up her mother.

But needless to say, things don't go quite as Sally plans as the newly confident Helena begins berating Sally's husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), a writer who's been on a long dry spell and whose confidence is suffering.

As in most Allen films, these four characters eventually find themselves in flirtations with other people: Sally with her boss, a suave gallery owner named Greg (Antonio Banderas), and Roy with the woman who undresses in the window across the alley from his house (she turns out to be the daughter of a famed literary of Allen's typically neat coincidences). Meanwhile, Alfie finds himself marrying a twenty-something hooker, while Helena...told she will meet a tall dark stranger...eventually meets a short, balding, pasty man who she is immediately smitten with.

While the character's peccadilloes are familiar to any fan of Allen movies, the device of the fortune teller gives this film its unique pleasure. What is fate, Allen seems to be asking, and can one foretell it, or even have it under control? All the characters - with the exception of Helen - end the movie on a precipice of fate, where their lives could seemingly go in any direction: disaster, or salvation. In the case of Roy and Alfie, it's even a pretty neat fifty-fifty (in Roy's case, a friend who is given a fifty-fifty case of recovering from a coma; for Alfie, it hinges on a paternity test). For Sally, fate seems to have intervened in the form of bad timing, which leaves her potential affair with Greg untested.

As in Lear, the fool seems to have wisdom while the wise seem to have only regret. Only Helen, foolishly believing in her make-believe fortune-teller, ends up believing that she has successfully seized control of her fate.

You Will Meet...certainly isn't Allen's most lavishly produced work. His budgets seem tighter, and his camera work has been pared down to single takes and natural lighting, giving the film the feeling of more inexperienced indie fare. Brolin isn't really a natural Allen actor (he comes off too intensely one dimensional, I think, to carry off the dark comedy in the way that say, a Banderas or Larry David can). And with the various character story-lines ending unresolved on the brink of revelations, the film feels less dramatically driven than something like Match Point. But it's a smart, sly comedy...something that only a true master like Allen can throw off so breezily. This is no Annie Hall, or even Manhattan Murder Mystery. And as a crooner of lost love and regret, Allen has yet to be able to mine the pathos he last struck in Sweet and Lowdown. Nevertheless, with its subtle parody of our modern foibles of the heart, You Will Meet...holds its own in the cannon of Woody Allen comedy.

Waiting for Superman: The Education Crisis Unveiled

It’s been called the Inconvenient Truth of education, and not without reason. Davis Guggenheim - who directed the 2006 movie about global warming - now takes a similar approach in his latest documentary about our failing educational system, mixing careful reason and statistics with powerful personal emotions to demonstrate how our schools are not only failing both young people and parents, but our society as well.

In an age of economic crises, high unemployment and unending foreclosures, one may think that the education system would be the least of our worries. Guggenheim explains, however, how they are intricately linked. There are high-tech employers in this country unable to fill jobs, despite the unemployment level, because they are unable to find enough qualified workers who understand math and science. Our educational system is now ranked less than 40th in the world and is increasingly slipping behind, especially emerging countries such as India and China. The offshoring of jobs is intractably with our educational system’s inability to properly train workers in math, science, reading, and abstract reasoning. The educational crisis is fundamentally an economic crisis, and crisis of America’s ultimate standing in the world.

Guggenheim is basically a disillusioned armchair liberal. He opens the movie by explaining how when he made his first documentary a decade ago about the public school system, he was an ardent supporter of the public schools – but when it came to deciding where to send his own children, he’s put them into private schools. Given what he’s about to tell us in the film, that decision makes perfect sense. As a disillusioned liberal, he goes to some pains to explain how teachers unions originated and the good they were designed to do. But make no bones about it, Guggenheim’s ultimate villain in this film is the teachers' union. Because of the concept of “teacher tenure”  - which makes it impossible to fire a teacher, no matter how bad a job they do or how egregiously they may treat students – it’s become impossible to ever fire a bad teacher (we’re given examples in the film of teachers slacking off, reading papers instead of teaching, and basically telling six year old kids to piss off when they ask to be taught something. In New York state, the solution they’ve created has been dubbed “the rubber room,” where teachers under suspension are sent – with full pay – to do nothing for up to three years, until they can be reinstated somewhere else. The rubber room costs New York tax payers over $100 million a year to maintain). While one in 95 doctors in something like 1 in 150 lawyers lose their licenses for ethical or job performance reasons, only 1 in 2500 teachers are ever let go.

Guggenheim is a much less strident documentarian than Michael More – though he uses similar techniques of animation, background music, and real-life drama, Guggenheim wants to focus on building a solid case and rationale argument that is buttressed by the emotional drama of underprivileged (and suburban) kids trying to essentially “win the lottery” and get into a charter school. What makes Guggenheim ’s arguments convincing is that the charter schools he profiles are clearly doing leagues above our public schools. By creating a culture of success with teachers who have a passion for teaching, they are able to achieve performance ratios far surpassing even our best public schools. The statistics are startling. Over 50% of kids in public schools in underperforming districts will drop out of school before they become sophomores, and only 1 out of 200 will go to college.  In the new charter schools in Harlem and East LA, every single kid goes on to not only graduate, but matriculate in college. These are the very same kids going to the public schools, in the very same situations of poverty and single families. The sole difference: teachers who care.

Naturally, both kids and their parents have come to understand that these charter schools are their ticket to a future, and the drama of their waiting to be selected by the random lottery is sad and poignant. Most of them will not get in: there are two to ten times as many applicants and spaces available. The indictment is clear: we have the cure not only for these students, but for what ails the country. The cure isn’t money, but common sense. Now if only we had the political ability to implement it.

Perhaps most telling in the film is Guggenheim’s profile of Michelle Rhee, the new superintendant of DC schools who took the job with absolutely no background as a principal and no intention of creating a career in the union. Clearly aware of the statistics, she goes about shaking up the system, closing under-performing schools and attempting to strike a deal with the union. She offers the union a choice: give up teacher tenure, and in exchange, she’ll double every teacher’s salary. The union refuses.

In glorifying charter schools and excoriating the unions, Guggenheim isn’t taking a “left” or “right” position, and perhaps it’s his still progressive sensibilities that allow him to create such a convincing film. He is arguing not against the unions but in favor of the kids, whose futures depend upon our delivering to them teachers worthy of their potential. The final scenes of kids waiting to hear about their acceptances into the charter schools that could save them from dropping out surely stacks the deck emotionally (and the Superman visual metaphors are particularly weak), but it’s hard to argue that determining which kids will succeed and which will fail purely by the luck of a ping-pong-ball lottery goes against the opportunity that America is supposed to stand for. Guggenheim may have stretched the drama a bit to make a point, but his film makes it clear that not only our kids, but our society depends upon reforming the unions and reforming our schools.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

RED: Dangerously Fun Movie

I liked this movie. See it with Twizzlers and a Coke. Then all three things will be junk that are bad for you, but fun to consume.

The movie title, RED, stands for "retired, extremely dangerous" - and references a bevy of over-the-hill ex CIA operatives who've been put out to pasture, but shouldn't be counted out just yet.

The hero of this story is Bruce Willis's Frank Moses, a legendary CIA killer who's been out of the game for a while, collecting his retirement check in a nondescript white suburban Tudor in snowy Cleveland. As Moses looks around the neighborhood, he sees his door is the only one without a wreath. The next morning, he puts one on, but it won't stay there for long.

You see, a hit squad is after Moses, along with a few of his buds (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helan Mirren) who happened to have been in South America in 1981 when some black ops extraction happened. A few other grunts were there as well, and someone seems to have created a hit list of all the participants. Everyone but Moses and just a few others have already been taken out.

So when Moses wakes up to find his house under fire, he first casually takes down the assassination squad that's after him, then heads to Kansas City to kidnap the girl with whom he's been playing hanky-poo on the phone (Mary-Louise Parker). Since someone's been tapping his conversation, seems she's a target too.

This is one of those CIA in the kitchen movies. By which I mean, everyone's a CIA agent with secret killing powers and super abilities to dodge bullets, stash automatic weaponry, and infiltrate high-security facilities, but in their hearts they're just aging suburbanites. Basically you and I: driving cars, having fights, idle banter, and home decor issues. I think Tarantino may have invented this attitude in Pulp Fiction (in which case, everyone was a mobster with idle banter and decor issues), but it's come and gone through the years. Now with actual spies in suburban kitchens it seems kind of relevant and fun again.

Chasing after Moses and his compatriots is a younger, nicely-haired, more ambitious version of Moses, CIA hitman William Cooper (Karl Urban, of Star Trek and Riddick fame, in fine form). As Cooper chases down Moses, Moses gets the better of him in most of the situations (an argument for experience over youthful vigor). Hence the movie has the feeling of a Tea Party rally for aging Boomers. Essentially, it's a demonstration in favor of old codgers who still have something in them, confirming what every generation suspects: that the next generation just isn't made of the same, stiff stuff. However, Cooper isn't just a foil. He eventually comes to respect Moses, and the two learn that despite the different generations, they have enough in common.

The pleasure of this movie, then, comes in the casual ironies of old-folks staging assassinations and intrigue for old-times sake, and knocking the stuffing out of the younger dudes. Helen Mirren gives some delicious romantic advice to Mary-Louis Parker about how to know when it's time to assassinate the spy you love. Meanwhile, the younger folks - Parker and Urban, primarily - come to respect their elders and possibly learn something from them.

There's not much more to it than that. The revelations about the cover-up of that 1981 operation lend a serviceable third-act showdown between the Milk-of-Magnesia crew and the government baddies. Malkovich is appropriately zany (he was apparently the subject of some LSD experimentation) and, in this age of scandals and lawlessness, casually proven right about all his paranoia. There's a kind of politically incorrect feel to this film, as if there's some secret pleasure to giving it to all those young, healthy, beautiful people in their prime. It's a shame that some of the big moments in the last act are botched (revelations and decisions miss their punch), probably a result of some rushed editing to make it into theaters, as the movie unfortunately expands all its pent-up energy rather willy-nilly towards the end.

With its premise of ass-kicking aging cast-aways, truly this is a Hollywood script, filled with Hollywood resentments. I doubt that there's anything more socially relevant to its subtext than that. Lightweight, then, but like sugar and soda pop, good for a pleasurable, short rush.