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.