Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network

As The Social Network braves the unpredictable terrain of American theaters, I find myself in the position of having managed not to write anything in nearly two months. Since I started regularly writing again, this has been my longest hiatus, and it's been one that crept up on me like a wary predator. A number of factors have contributed to this drought (the late-summer multiplex doldrums, a re-watching of The Wire, the AL East pennant race, the day-job…), and even as I type this out I hear a voice in the back of my head whispering: "This isn't real yet."

When will I really be a writer? Will it be when I have a reader? In that case, what are my thoughts worth?

The online film critic suffering existential malaise is a hilarious irony, but the dilemma isn't unique to this occupation. The question of whether or not I will be noticed when I start knocking trees down in a forest is one that can apply to much of how we interact with each other these days. At work, I exchange instant messages with co-workers sitting a yard away. This past Saturday night I was at a party where a close friend said she hadn't heard about the event because she missed the Facebook invitation. When I post these words to my blog, are they still mine, or will they belong to the blogosphere? To what extent can I judge my own value by the number of click-throughs I get from Twitter?

I would like to say this is all a lot of juvenile pablum, but it's not, sadly. There are people out there who suggest that The Social Network, a fictionalized retelling of the creation of Facebook, can only be of middling importance. There are people for whom Facebook is merely a toy, a phase, a fad, a trend, something for the younger generation that they cannot understand, a computer game. Rather, Facebook is quickly destroying the foundations of human interaction — and even if we cannot blame Facebook for IMs, text messages or Twitter, we can blame Facebook for making this tripe look 'cool' and getting everyone wrapped up in living their lives online. We may mock or pity those addicted to Second Life, but how are their consciously contrived extensions of id or superego any different than the person who updates their Facebook page several times in a day?

"I used to write letters, I used to sign my name," sings Win Butler on Arcade Fire's new album, The Suburbs. "I used to sleep at night, before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain […] when the lights cut out, I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown." In his book, You Are Not a Gadget, computer scientist Jaron Lainer writes of how we are giving too much value to a hive mentality with no consideration to the loss of the self; what's true and meaningful is verified by wikipedia, which is created by an us, not an I. In a New Yorker profile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's ultimate goal for the site is described as an eventuality in which "users will read articles, visit restaurants, and watch movies based on what their Facebook friends have recommended," and describes the possibility of turning on your television and receiving a message that 14 friends are watching Entourage. What Zuckerberg has thus far failed to communicate is the virtue of any of this. And by the way, how will the initial recommender know to read his article or visit his restaurant in the first place?

In advertisements for cell phones, humans are now depicted breaking up with girlfriends via text message (which they get to do thanks to cheap rates), ignoring their families, reclining to watch a movie on a public train because they think it's their living room, and finally turning into robots, all without a hint of irony. These scenarios, all of them, are filmed as evidence for why you should buy cell phones. In The Social Network, Napster co-founder and eventual president of Facebook Sean Parker claims, "We lived in fields, we lived in cities, and now we'll live on the internet," right before getting busted for doing a bunch of coke. He worries about the scandal "getting out."

The Social Network is a great movie, nearly perfect. It's funny and slick, brutal when it needs to be and light-hearted when it gets the chance. It's an expertly told story, thanks to the unlikely teamwork of writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher. It's beautiful and moving, and should work as entertainment for anybody inclined to sit down for it. But what makes it great is Sorkin's ability to write hateful and pitiful people with sympathy, which, coupled with Fincher's pervading sense of doom, allows the story to unfold as though it were a movie about the Manhattan Project. These children, these college kids about to change the world, have no idea the havoc they are to wreak. Or, if you aren't interested in that, it's just a great story.

It's all about money, power and sex, of course. Sorkin posits Facebook's inception as the result of a break-up. Zuckerberg unleashes a vengeful blog post that he will never live down; when he tries to apologize, he is told "the internet isn't written in pencil, Mark. It's written in ink." This sounds like a theme line (and it is), but Sorkin is too expert a dramatist to let anything like this hang in the air. He keeps the story pumping, and he'll let us make our own judgments. It's not about changing or not changing the world: it's about getting the girl to notice you, getting the coolest guys to want to be your friend, becoming cool and staying cool. The peak of the relationship between Zuckerberg and his former best friend Eduardo Saverin is shown as the night they get recognized as the creators of Facebook and end up getting blown in adjacent bathroom stalls. It's a high that Zuckerberg chases while Saverin stays down on earth. Zuck traffics in Cool and ends up addicted. Whether you end up feeling sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg will be left up to you. Sorkin and Fincher are merely going to show you how to get there.

But it's simultaneously a tremendous, microcosmic examination of what Facebook has become to so many people. And if I experienced some fleeting disappointment following the movie that it wasn't a more vicious, unilateral attack, this quickly subsided because what I was hoping for was propaganda and what I got was a fable. Mark Zuckerberg is a nerd at best and an asshole at worst; the other characters discuss him like you would a book in English class, arguing about his true nature. What's explicitly clear from the opening scene on is that this kid is socially inept and wants not to be, even as he feels he shouldn't have to work so hard for it. In the process of trying to get cool, he ends up inadvertently reducing everybody in the world to his level. (That they're actually reducing themselves is a whole other matter; we can't really even blame the guy.) Cool is a number, image is a webpage, fashion is a 140-character status and Zuckerberg is our all-knowing, all-seeing God.

The judgments are left to us, as will be the case in any movie with the balls to put its story first and let the audience do some thinking for itself. But the evidence is all there. What are we to make of the fact that Facebook was born from a premium on exclusivity and now everybody and their mother gets to make a page? What of the comparison to Napster, as Sean Parker gets on board behind the site? He brags of how he changed the world, and Saverin corrects him: Napster lost and went broke. But, Parker counters, he changed the music industry forever. This man wants to do to social interaction what he did to he music industry. He wants to live life digitally so that it can be quantified rather than qualified. If five of my friends are watching one thing on TV and six are watching the other, I already have all the information I need to make a decision.

Barring an unlikely revolution, we're gonna be stuck like this for a while, and it makes me wonder what my own or anybody else's individual thoughts are really worth any more. When I put these words on the internet, I'll just be a raindrop in the thought-cloud: the blogosphere loves The Social Network. But don't take my (our) word for it. Get out there and make your own thoughts.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Only one of many successes onscreen in The Kids Are All Right is the portrayal of a Hispanic gardener. In even the most highbrow of family dramas, a three-scene throwaway supporting character like Luis might all too easily get left in the realm of the underwritten. This is not to say that Luis, who is accused of having a drug problem after an allergy-induced sneeze, is not a stereotype: in fact, all of the characters here are stereotypes. What writer-director Lisa Cholodenko carries out is the neat trick of imbuing them with a refreshing self-awareness. Luis chuckles at his fate and comes out cleaner than most of the major characters. He just likes the flowers.

Luis is contracted by Jules (Julianne Moore) to assist in her fledgling landscape design business. As half of a middle-aged lesbian couple with two kids, Jules is starting to feel restless after 18 years of motherhood without anything approaching a career. Her partner Nic (Annette Bening) is a doctor, and the one who pays for their lovely house and all the expensive wine they drink.

This feeling of housewife-neglect is just one facet of the couple's simmering malaise: as their two kids struggle with adolescence, a craving for 'normalcy' has eroded the family's foundation. They have an 18-year-old perfect-angel daughter who's just graduated as valedictorian of her high school and a 15-year-old son who needs a father figure. In turn, the two kids go behind their moms' backs to seek out the man whose sperm donation brought them into existence.

The donor is Paul, a naïve man's man with a touch of gray played by Mark Ruffalo. Before getting contacted by the children he didn't know he had, Paul was coasting through life as a successful restaurateur and purveyor of organic produce. He has a lot of casual sex and leaves several buttons undone. If he sounds like a cocksure stereotype of effortless sexuality and a predestined 'no-man-is-an-island' growth arc, he is. His son, upon meeting him, refers to his new father as "kinda into himself."

Jules is a "depressed, middle-aged lesbian", her son Laser (namesake never explained) is a "sensitive jock type", Joni (named after Mitchell) "got all A's and got into every school", Nic is a "control freak" and Paul is a "doer, not a learner". They're all familiar characters. Paul's entrance forces the foursome to reassess their already-fragile union, and what's so fun is watching the awkward friction and identity crises between these five strangers who all want to be a family together.

The movie works through two simple, distinct qualities: the script is tight and funny, full of forward momentum, and the actors are all dynamite. Whenever it seems like Ruffalo is starting to steal the show—Paul's role is to be distractingly charismatic—Cholodenko carefully assigns equal screentime to the other four. It's an ensemble piece where when characters bicker, it's impossible to take sides. We want them to get along.

And then this is where the movie starts surprising. As Paul, despite his own and everyone else's better intentions, starts taking up the mantle of fatherhood—he imparts social advice for his kids and parenting advice for the moms—it becomes clear that these characters have painted themselves into a corner. The inciting incident was born of Laser's desire for paternal normalcy and quickly this idea festers inside the other characters. But there isn't room for three parents in a 'normal' family and somebody is going to have to lose.

It's not long before an overwhelming sadness takes over. Even as the movie is consistently hilarious, mining laughs from awkward discussions of sexuality and from the minutiae of home life, all five gradually become aware that they will be victims of their own desires for self-actualization. The characters win you over by being funny and warm and then screw you by being human. At one point, a character loses control and goes off on a rant about self-absorbed, eco-friendly, organic food-eating stereotypes, even as she orders another bottle of a specific favored wine. There is another winking moment where one of the moms describes lesbian porn as fallacious, because it usually involves two straight actresses faking it.

It's a self-aware picture about self-aware characters going out of their way to fit their circular selves into square spaces. Ultimately moving and incisive in its glances into both middle age and adolescence, The Kids Are All Right is an exquisite, eloquent drama that's as true to itself as it is to its audience. It's an increasingly rare commodity in our self-important arthouse multiplexes — you get the impression everyone on screen would love this movie. The film is an exercise in honesty, and a pure delight.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Monday, July 26, 2010

James Cameron: A Cinema of CAPS LOCK + A Second Take: Avatar

Since publishing my original review of its theatrical release, my opinion of Avatar has become informed by two lengthy conversations about the film with friends who didn't like it. I will do my best to represent their viewpoints here.

"It's really just an excuse to do pterodactyls versus helicopters." - James Cameron

The New Yorker ran a profile of James Cameron by Dana Goodyear a few months before Avatar's release last year. A friend named Trevor pulled a quote from this article on my previous review's comment board as telling of Avatar's being a failure, in particular, as an 'anti-war' movie: "I suppose you could say I believe in peace through superior firepower."

I told Trevor at the time that what he should've quoted was Cameron's lengthy discussion of the science and story behind one of the film's battle scenes, which he sums up with: "It's really just an excuse to do pterodactyls versus helicopters."

This is a problem with the film, and it's one that is likely shared in most of Cameron's work: he's such a creative filmmaker—his stories so imaginative—that the 'wow' factor tends to overshadow the more important elements like the story and the characters. This extent to which this is happening on the set or in the teenaged heads of his audience varies from film to film, but it's too bad that even in a movie as thematically complex as Aliens we tend to focus on the badassery and the bloodletting.

Cameron makes really cool movies (or at least, he used to, before he grew a big soft one and started making romances: “Of course, the whole movie ends up being about women, how guys relate to their lovers, mothers—there’s a large female presence [...] I try to do my testosterone movie and it’s a chick flick.”), and a great deal of Avatar's success, even amidst today's jaded, self-aware moviegoing populace, was due to its gimmickry. Photorealistic aliens! Three hours on a planet that feels real! Digital 3D like you've never seen it! Sexy cat people! All the plants and animals have Latin names and the Na'vi speak a real language that he hired some guy to make up!

Like Titanic before it, Avatar was an event movie (already faded from the spotlight—and that much too fast) that people talked about just because everyone else was talking about it. But with the hype machine interested only the gimmicks, it's increasingly difficult to remind ourselves exactly what it was Cameron was trying to do.

See, Cameron's been making and remaking the same Vietnam War movie since the beginning of his career. It was when I stumbled across an archival press interview from the release of Aliens that I realized this. Cameron discussed that his main intention with the sequel was to tell a parable about Vietnam, in which a squad of overqualified, over-armed, over-mechanized soldiers goes into a jungle and gets their collective ass kicked by an allegedly dumb, primitive race that they should've easily pwned onto the next planet. Now, for me, Aliens was always about maternity (and it's about both of these), but it's easy to see that this is the same movie he's been making ever since. Cameron's story is always about man vs. machine or nature vs. human design. The fancy pulse rifle with grenade launcher vs. the Aliens. The humans versus the terminators. The Na'vi archers versus the giant bombers. The Titanic versus the laws of physics.

What's inconsistent throughout his oeuvre, then, is the confusing notion of the 'we'. In that man vs. machine battle that Cameron has extrapolated from the demons of Vietnam, his different films take different sides (possibly because, as an American, Cameron's 'we' was the American military machine). Cameron actually examines this directly in Avatar, as over the course of three hours we witness a gradually shifting allegiance from the protagonist, Jake Sully. From the beginning he is torn between his duty as a marine and his new position as a science officer, and eventually he finds himself at the wrong end of evil Col. Quaritch's clumsy one-liners like "I'd say diplomacy has failed!" and "How's it feel to betray your own race?"

In Avatar, Sully's transformation from human to Na'vi is as much a matter of his 'soul' as it is his physical appearance; by the end of the second act he's already turned down the long-desired reparation of his paralyzed human form. And with the hero's allegiance so turns the audience's, which is one of the more interesting facets of Avatar's story. As heavy-handed as it may be, Cameron holds nothing back in making the human race into the bad guys.

And this is what's fun to trace throughout Cameron's work: in returning to the well of the darker sides of human nature, he seems to waiver back and forth in regards to whether or not he believes there's any hope for us. Says Ripley, upon learning of Burke's deception: "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see [the aliens] fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage." As a species, we may or may not be any better than this race of venomous, acid-blooded killers, and we are absolutely a bunch of assholes when compared to the ethically and environmentally pure Na'vi. In Titanic, our ambition to bend the laws of nature kill more than 1,500 of us. In The Terminator, our technological ambitions take us even further, killing off most of the human race.

Yet, the lesson of that film's sequel turns out to be one of hope, as is also the case in The Abyss. Both Terminator 2 and The Abyss end unequivocally with saccharine messages of hope for our future; from our darkest wars we will emerge cleansed and prepared for a new age of prosperity.

Only with Avatar, though, has Cameron finally given up on humanity—likely the result of the Bush administration further informing his anti-imperialist beliefs already clung to decades after the Vietnam War. Even as the Na'vi shelter the few humans righteous enough to side with them, those are the humble sky-people that studied the alien race, learned their ways, and actually became (in Sully's case, literally) part of them.

But this is not the only way to read Avatar. To quote Kelly from that previous discussion board, "the important thing is that we can pretend we understand them through a billion dollar, 3-hour movie where we literally murder our own guilt with a roomful of other cheering white people."

In a non-internet-based, real-life extrapolation of her argument, Kelly told me that she understood what Cameron was trying to do, and actually was able to get behind it, were it not for Cameron's failure to follow through on his point in the end. To hear Kelly tell it, the way Avatar should've ended is with the humans winning, the Na'vi completely slaughtered and Pandora ravaged for precious unobtanium. Now, here's an ending that would likely have been more difficult for Trevor to deny as being 'anti-war'.

Kelly's idea is potent, and in many ways, she's right. Even though Cameron has shrugged off responsibility for human actions by siding with the aliens, that doesn't absolve humanity of its power or its history, and as clever as the Na'vi are in besting the human military machine, it's still pretty absurd that they don't all get crushed (but again, that's how it went down in Vietnam). This, by the way, was exactly what Cameron was going on about when he started waxing adolescent about helicopters and pterodactyls:
"The idea is that Pandora has such a hot, humid climate, with incredibly powerful magnetic fields, that they can’t use sophisticated energy weapons. A lot of the equipment is retrofitted, from their perspective, because it works on Pandora. So you’ve got vehicles that are more consistent with twentieth-century warfare.” His face was flushed and happy. “It’s all just an excuse to do helicopters versus pterodactyls,” he said.

Whatever, dude. Here's the thing: if you want to be an environmentalist filmmaker and actually stir people into action (a laughable premise, right away), you're giving up way too easily when you let the humans of Avatar give up way too easily. As Kelly puts it, the ending of Avatar is far too easily construed as an apology and an absolution for our long, storied history of military imperialism and murder.

So where does this leave me as I attempt to wrap up my restrospective on the films of James Cameron? Do I believe his visceral, kinetic filmmaking tends to overshadow his ideas? Probably much of the time, though I'm not convinced that's a bad thing. It's definitely not bad in theory, and in the practice of Cameron's films it's probably better this way, as we know all too well what happens when he doesn't shut his characters up and put guns in their hands.

I have to revisit the incidents of the teenagers in the theater during Avatar, shouting "Yeah, get some!" at the screen during the extended battle royale. Though the onus of coaxing an audience out of passivity into analytical thought can never be put solely on the shoulders of the filmmaker, it's a shame that in Cameron's case he so often gets caught up playing with his toys. Avatar becomes, rather than an anti-war treatise, a story of helicopters and pterodactyls. Even as he smacks you over the head with his allegory, it's easy to view the whole thing as an extended playtime.

And yet, when I was a little boy, it was the nuclear detonation from Terminator 2 that gave me recurring nightmares, and I still think of it whenever the topic of nuclear weapons is raised. Where T2 was a hugely successful summer blockbuster with one-liners and set pieces, its staying power for me was a (simple and obvious, but nonetheless true and important) message of peace. Nuclear war is bad. Humans are good, but we created nuclear war. We have to reconcile this with ourselves.

Is there a similar message to be found in Avatar for the boys who went out for it to cheer on the soldiers? Yes, certainly. There's a purity to Cameron's ideas, even as obvious as they always are, that sticks with you and works in concert with the awesomeness of his action. Taken even as dumb action movies, his work sticks with us as we grow up. Perhaps this isn't anywhere more clear than in Titanic, as mawkishly sincere a story of love triumphant as we can hope for and the movie of the decade for so many heartsick middle-schoolers, whether they deny it now or not.

Of course, Cameron's not done yet. There are allegedly two Avatar sequels on the way, and it's always possible that the man with the biggest head in the business can get his head back in the game. Some of his best work so far has been sequel: with the setup out of the way, Cameron's proven he can hit the ground running. And regardless, even mediocre Cameron is thrilling, exciting, ripe for discussion, worthy of our time and money. I'll be there at midnight on opening day.

Friday, July 23, 2010


I know it's lazy of me, but this really won't make any sense unless you've seen Inception. Sorry!

There are two ways to read Christopher Nolan's Inception. One is to take the characters on their somewhat-confusing, often-garbled literal word. In this case, the film is the story of a band of extractors carrying off an elegant reverse-heist and winning their leader's passage back onto his homeland.

The other examination of the film, one suggested at several points throughout the runtime (most obviously by the not-really-ambiguous-at-all ambiguous ending) is that the entire film is a dream, orchestrated for the benefit and/or deception of Leonardo DiCaprio's bereaved Dominick Cobb.

With each of these possibilities comes a devastating array of flaws. For as cool as the movie can be in sporadic spurts, it doesn't hold up to any serious investigation.

If the movie is to be taken literally, it is so full of plot-holes, garrulous exposition and spatial incoherence from the micro- to the macro- that it can be described as nothing less than a mess. For example: if a van plowing off a bridge can upset a twice-removed dreamworld with an avalanche (which, by the way, hurts nothing and nobody and in no way sets back our heroes' plot), why does it not distort the gravity of that dream-level in any other continuous way as the van continues its plummet? This can be called nitpicking, but the film is rife with such gaps in logic.

Here is a two-and-a-half-hour movie in which approximately forty-five minutes (a generous estimation) is dedicated to the supremely nifty set-pieces promised by the trailer and by Nolan's previous work1. The remaining 1:45 is entirely backstory and set-up. Probably the entire first hour of the movie is mired in exposition2, which only makes the eventual descent into the dreamworld an ultimately relieving incident. You can hear Millhouse asking: "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?"

But even with all this set-up, for every tidbit of diegetic logic underlined and set forth as a 'rule', there is a lazy smudge of hokum we are asked to swallow simply because in two-and-a-half-hours Nolan couldn't come up with anything better. If extraction is a profession with so many fascinating rules and how-to's, couldn't we be supplied with a reason or method behind Eames' ability to seamlessly transform into other people within the dreamworld (and he can do this for the sake of both the aware and the unaware). Oh, and Yusuf concocted a sedative that doesn't affect the inner ear? That's all you've got? But it doesn't wake you up if you're rolling down a hill in a big clunky van? Give me a break.

Finally, from a narrative point of view3, the rules that the film does go to such lengths setting up are all instantly expendable. We are presented with several exciting ticking clocks and increasingly dire stakes, but they are all reset at the behest of a poorly-plotted third act. Initially, they have to complete the inception before the van goes off the bridge, otherwise they'll miss the "kick" and they won't wake up. But when they miss this opportunity, Cobb announces that they now have until the van hits the water a good 30 dreamworld-minutes later.

After Saito is shot in level one, we are told that they have to finish the job before he dies or he'll be irretrievably lost in sub-conscious limbo that will destroy his conscious self when they wake up in Los Angeles; later, after Saito 'dies', Cobb simply finds him and rescues him.

We are told over and over how the feeling of falling will wrest you from the next level down, but only in the sub-subconscious dystopia of Cobb's failed marriage will a fall from within the dream wake you up from the level you're in.

Now, in the course of the film, five characters are seen descending into that messy fourth-level state: Cobb and Mal in their flashback, Saito and Fischer when they die in the third level, and Ariadne, with Cobb again, going down to rescue Saito and Fischer. Of these five, only Mal is unable to recover from the shock of regained youth after forty years in the soup. Cobb tells us this is due to his own inception rather than her mind turning to mush.

Saito and Fischer have been sent here by death one level up, and we might fear that to rescue them will only result in that hypothesized insanity once they wake up to reality. Ariadne is, of course an amateur (on the surface) and handles the improvised descent into a stranger's deep subconscious like a professional4, hopping right back out once her task is done.

If we are to accept any stakes at all from the meat of the film's story (that is: the carrying-out of the eponymous inception), we have to dread that death in the dream will result in a vegetative coma once woken. Yet we see time and again that this was an idle threat.

And why, by the way, do all five end up in Cobb's limbo world? This is where we come to the second reading of the film:

Every frame of Inception, with the possible exception of the Mal flashbacks5, takes place within the head of a character we never see awake6. The clues all point to this, from Cobb's refusal to look at his children's faces to the wise old (ethnic!) sage in Yusuf's basement suggesting that the dream-sharers partake in their addiction not to sleep but to be woken up. Who is Cobb to suggest a difference between reality and dreams?

From the repeated suggestions of a dream-sharer's inevitably tenuous grasp on reality to the explicit inability of Cobb to ever actually spin his top (he's always dropping it or pocketing it because he doesn't want to get caught losing his grasp), Inception consistently points to the idea that this whole thing is a dream. If we decide we want to view the film this way, what actually works is that all these plot-holes and all this illogic can be instantly forgiven: it's all a dream, and there are no rules in dreams, no matter how often it might be suggested that there are.

The problem becomes that the film is about something entirely different than the 'first level' story of corporate inception with which we're presented. And lest I sound as though I'm against subtext, let me underline that what sucks is that [one] Nolan is entirely obvious and heavy-handed in regards to this being a story about Cobb losing his wife and, subsequently, his mind, and [two] that story, as it's told here, is derivative and shallow.

Nolan has proved his abilities as a plotter and storyteller, and no matter how much a misstep we might deem Inception to be, I simply can't write it off as the mediocre heist drama it is on the surface. We have to give Nolan at least a little credit: there has to be something more to this movie than meets the eye, and that's why I'm positive that Nolan's 'prestige' here is the not-quite-explicit idea that the entire thing takes place in Cobb's head.

I think Inception is about a man (Cobb) who has lost his mind for one reason or another (probably 40-odd dream-years inside his own subconscious) and who has become—we are never shown this—the vegetable we're warned might be the fate for Saito or Fischer or anybody else. In his comatose nightmare, Cobb longs to be reunited with his family, but because he blames himself for his predicament, he won't let it happen on any level of his reality.

We see this in Cobb's refusal to look at his children, even as they pop up around corners as often as the projection of his demonic wife. And by the way, they do make an appearance once in the film's purported reality: early in the film, Cobb's children call him in his hotel room in Kyoto. How on earth could they find him there but through the twisted logic of a dream?

So Cobb is a sad tomato7, and this is where Michael Caine comes in. It's not coincidental that the last human expression seen in the film is Caine's knowing smirk as the camera tilts downward to a cut-to-black off Cobb's spinning totem. Caine's Miles is the man behind the actual inception of this story's title. He partners with Ariadne (and the rest of the ensemble may be projections of Cobb's subconscious or members of Miles' team) to bring the vegetative Cobb some happiness within his eternal dream state. This is why every character, four levels down, shares the dreamworld Cobb created.

You know what? This is kind of a nice idea. Unfortunately, Nolan bogs himself down in endless retellings of Mal's fate and a lot of sci-fi gobbledy-gook that serves only to clash with any actual pathos at the heart of the thing. It reminds me of another big-budget project from a director that didn’t really know where to go after the biggest success of his career.

My prediction is that Inception will go down as Christopher Nolan's Vanilla Sky: a star-filled oddity of premise that goes over or under most heads and runs on a difficult-to-swallow mixture of sentiment and hardcore sci-fi world-building. Despite its flaws, it will earn a devoted following for whom either the emotions or the ideas (occasionally both) work on a personal level, and that cult will hold it up as one of their favorite movies. Ever.

See, I suppose I don't have a problem with liking Inception so much as I have a problem with the idea that it's anywhere near as mindlessly fun or exciting as it purports to be. I like Vanilla Sky and would be like a bully lashing out if I mocked anyone for it. But what I can admit about Vanilla Sky is this: it's hokey and it's over-the-top, it's a good half-hour too long and I can understand why you might end up chuckling at it.

Inception, which is essentially the same story (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses mind, boy goes on dramatic twist-ending nightmare-bender to convince his sleeping mind that he still has her), is easily (from the score alone) twice as self-important as Vanilla Sky, as over-long as Shutter Island, as convoluted as Mullholland Drive, as knowingly-slick as anything Nolan has ever done. For many it's going to strike a chord.

Everyone else will chuckle.

1) And by the way, for as cool as these forty-five cumulative minutes can be, they really only leave more to be desired in-and-of-themselves. Nolan's team constructed an entire rotating hallway in order to depict Joseph Gordon-Levitt leaping from wall to ceiling amidst fisticuffs with subconscious henchmen, and he uses this practical effect in exactly one uncut shot that lasts long enough to register. Mere seconds. Unforgivable. Anybody who ever wants to show a hero doing battle with henchmen in an enclosed space needs to go watch Oldboy. [back]

2) Ellen Page's performance is awful enough to deserve more than a footnote, but I don't really want to bother. It's bad enough that Ariadne is so clumsily-written and contrived an audience surrogate, all "What does this do?" and "How does that work?". But to give this flimsy, hollow role to an actress of Page's meager caliber is just infuriating, especially when she's next to powerhouses like Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. [back]

3.) If A.A. Dowd is reading this he might as well give up here and post his comment about how I am a "slave to narrative". [back]

4.) Or rather, she handles it like a bemused starlet confronted with a series of wildly ridiculous interactions and paper-thin 'wow' moments: a "human network", if you will? [back]

5.) The flashbacks, now; not Cobb's memory-based reconstructions or subconscious projections. Obviously, in a film like this it isn't always possible to tell the difference. [back]

6.) This is DiCaprio's Cobb, but since we never see him and the world takes place in his dream, it would be pointless to label him as the same character, with the same appearance and personality. [back]

7.) In New York Magazine, David Edelstein derisively mocked the character's name, referring to Dom Cobb as "dummkopf", which, incidentally, means "stupidhead." Several characters here have winkingly relevant namesakes, the most cloying of which has to be Ariadne, the girl who bestowed Theseus with a ball of yarn to help him navigate the minotaur's labyrinth. Despite being played by the unparalleled Cillian Murphy, Fischer might as well have been called "Cipher". [back]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Runaways

Perhaps the reason it’s taken me so long to admit my true feelings for Kristen Stewart is a lingering affection for Panic Room. As soon as that film’s mop-headed tomboy grew up and actually began sexualizing herself, I was rooting for her. I’ve been giving her the benefit of the doubt for years now. After The Runaways, the time has come for me to admit that I just don’t like her.

Retreating into her androgynous shell in an attempt at casual lesbianism, Stewart trades the pained nihilism of a young punk rocker for what just comes off as bored and possibly sleepy. In the course of a decade, she’s been seen awakening the sexualities of Jamie Bell, Adam Brody, Jesse Eisenberg, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner and now Dakota Fanning all by awkwardly futzing with her hair and never looking up from the floor. Whatever her appeal is, I don’t see it and I’m finally ready to write her off.

Stewart and Fanning, both making me nervous in their underwear (and not in the good way), are here being modeled into a girl group by wacko record producer Kim Fowley. Fowley is played in various stages of glam makeup by Michael Shannon, who would be fun to watch if at least there were some scenery for him to chew up, but even when he starts in on his monologues about the girls needing to think with their cocks, the drama is so limp and placid there’s nothing for him to work with.

So Fowley is a record producer who gets the idea from teenager Joan Jett that an all-jailbait punk band would be a sure win. In one of several ridiculous scenes, Joan approaches the famous producer outside a club on the Sunset Strip to tell him she plays guitar and the deal is made five minutes later; Fowley even remarks that producers don’t go around handing record deals to teenagers outside clubs seconds before he hooks the girl up with a drummer and starts making the band. He assembles the five girls based on their image instead of their talent (fitting that Joan spray paints a homemade Sex Pistols t-shirt) and susses out future hit single “Cherry Bomb” to the tune of Joan hitting the same chord over and over again.

Fanning plays Cherie Currie, who stumbles into the position of front-woman after lying about being able to sing. When we’re introduced to her vocal stylings, she’s lip-syncing a David Bowie song at her high school talent show because she can’t manage more than a feeble whisper into the microphone. When she shows up to audition with Peggy Lee’s “Fever”, she’s booed out of the trailer until Fowley gives her the lyrics to “Cherry Bomb” and makes her suddenly an able vocalist (kind of).

From the way the film plays it, I half expected Shannon’s Fowley to turn out to be a drifter posing as a mogul just to rip the girls off. He sets up rehearsal space for them in a dingy trailer surrounded by animal feces and sends them on a club tour in a big station wagon with a boy who introduces himself as “the roadie”.

And in the same way I don’t buy Fowley as a legitimate record producer, I don’t buy The Runaways of The Runaways as a legitimate rock band. They’re presented here as talentless stereotypes – directionless girls who hang out under the Hollywood Sign drinking booze stolen from their parents’ liquor cabinets. Maybe this is what punk rock was supposed to be, but any credibility therein is shot down by the girls’ repeated desires to play huge stadiums and make lots of money.

Writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s lazy style favors montage over scripted scenes in the furthering of the story, resulting in a film ostensibly about the life of a band that recorded five albums but shows them in the studio exactly once. That scene is the one where they break up, of course. The film inadvertently implies that the whole project was a stillborn predecessor to Jett’s later success with “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Bad Reputation,” which get turned up for the end credits.

There are pills that lead to overdose and booze that leads to girl-on-girl make out sessions; there is out-of-focus photography for the drugs and mood lighting for the sex. There are families left behind back home for screaming teenagers outside the club. There’s an argument over Curie’s ‘undeserved’ spotlight as the band’s lead singer – as though none of these girls had ever seen a rock band before (and maybe they hadn’t). This scene particularly recalls the hilarious/heartbreaking Stillwater dissolve in Almost Famous, a dangerous association to draw when your film is little more than a collection of rock ‘n’ roll movie clichés banked on renewing a decades-old scandal of teenaged girls being hot. I’d like to report that this is in some way uniquely or interestingly bad, but like Stewart’s sexless emoting it’s just a lot of boring stuff we’ve been bored by plenty of times in the past.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Män som hatar kvinnor]

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the kind of adaptation that treats its source material as gospel and strays only when absolutely necessary. This is inherently a bad thing: a copy is never as crisp as the original. What keeps the movie coasting is that its source, Stieg Larsson’s runaway bestseller novel, is plotted so tightly in concert with its thematic density that the complexities of the book squeak through into the relatively graceless cinematic exercise.

The convoluted plot of the 600+ page, two-and-a-half-hour story is difficult to summarize, especially when attempting to limit oneself to a paragraph or two. There are two protagonists: Mikael Blomkvist (celebrity journalist) and Lisbeth Salander (reclusive hacker). The latter is the tattooed eponym, though its worth noting that the Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor, translates literally as “Men who hate women.” I suppose this would’ve been more difficult to market, although it’s inarguably the better title given that [one] it’s awesome and [two] Lisbeth’s tattoo is only marginally important in the book and relegated to one or two shots in the film. Men who hate women are what this thing is about.

The two heroes are an unlikely odd couple teamed up in the 21st century to solve the mystery of a teenaged girl who disappeared in 1966. Harriet Vanger vanished from her family’s expansive island estate and was assumed murdered; dragging the river and combing the forest turned up no clues at all. Her uncle finally recruits Blomqvist to solve the case for him; Blomqvist is a reputable sleuth whose legal troubles have left him with a bit of free time. Salander comes along for the ride because — like Harriet — she is a victim of sexual assault and has a mean penchant for revenge.

Don’t cross Lisbeth Salander. This girl takes back the night like a fish takes a bicycle — desperately, with purpose. Several characters — major and minor, all men — attempt to gain influence or control over her throughout the course of the film and they all end up bloodied. She’s fascinating to watch (and to read): antisocial yet insatiably curious, sexually repressed yet sexually voracious, fucked up but fun.

Director Niels Arden Oplev, working with a pair of cinematographers (Jens Fischer and Eric Kress), turns the Swedish countryside into a snowy anti-noir that is as oppressive in its open expanses as Let The Right One In was in its dark forests and unlit corners. He simply doesn’t give himself room to breathe in these gorgeous, rural outcroppings of civilization. It’s the plot that drives the thing, and the first two hours fly by. It’s slick in the way Jason Reitman wishes he could be slick, even through clumsy, poorly constructed montages of clue-hunting.

The doe-eyed innocent nestled in the gnarled branches of a family tree filled with greed, abuse, religious zealotry and Nazism, Harriet Vanger cast a pall over the lifetimes of her entire clan by disappearing. Even the Vangers that wanted to forget never could, thanks to the relentless obsession of Uncle Henrik, bent on avenging the death of his only worthy kin. Salander, only tenuously connected to the investigation, clearly feels a similar kinship with Harriet. Both girls are responsible for the carrying of baggage across generations and for the furthering of demons that must be put to rest before anybody might achieve peace.

Even with the predictable twist, the procedural mystery is a fun ride. All the trappings are here: road-tripping to the police stations of remote hamlets, motion sensing security cameras, a supporting ensemble in which everyone is a suspect, searches on both Google and microfilm.

Where the film finally bogs itself down is in its extended dénouement. Notions and ideas best left implied get explained outright and minor subplots get meticulously tied up just because they were major in the book. It’s amazing how a twenty-minute slog to the end credits can kill a movie.

The thorniness of the ending ultimately reveals not that the thing is too long, but rather that it’s too short; all of the minor elements deserve more than they get, especially Lisbeth’s shady shaky past and Mikael’s legal malaise. This is the kind of novel that deserves, if not a miniseries, at the least the three-hour David Fincher treatment. And since that master is allegedly going to helm the American remake, perhaps Larsson’s stories will soon get the cinematic treatment they’ve earned.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blog Notes 7/1/10: I Am Love [Io sono l'amore]

Aw, crap. We're halfway through 2010 already? With a weary sigh, here are some items of note and some promises and predictions for those few avid followers of My Favorite Gum Commercial:

First up, click over to Venus Zine to read my review of Luca Guadagnino's frustrating I Am Love [Io sono l'amore]. And while we're delving into the "arthouse" summer releases, I might as well link back to my review of the brilliant Dogtooth [Kynodontas], which is finally getting a limited theatrical run after playing the festival circuit for so long.

I swear there is one last post regarding James Cameron coming up around the corner. This will be a combined second take on Avatar and a final wrap-up of the CINEMA OF CAPS LOCK project. That Cameron project has taken much, much longer than I ever intended it to, due mostly to my own procrastination and tendency toward distraction. Regardless, I intend to follow it up with another long-form, open-ended Retrospecticus, to be officially announced as soon as the last Cameron post goes live. I will attempt to structure and schedule this one more rigidly so it doesn't take me until 2011 to finish it.

Speaking of open-ended, it's never too late to vote on the first entry of the Dude, Counter-Dude series, in which I spar over Million Dollar Baby with brother-in-arms A.A. Dowd. As of this writing the score is neck-and-neck: four for myself and three for Alex. I think I speak for both of us when I say we encourage you to vote not based on whether or not you liked the movie but on who made the more successful argument.

Finally, go see Toy Story 3. I've had some harsh lessons about hyperbole in film criticism (last year I wrote that the opening of Star Trek would be the best ten minutes of any film in 2009, only to discover the landmark prologue of Up a mere three weeks later), but I honestly don't know that I've ever been floored by a movie quite like this. Part of my reaction is a fifteen-year-deep connection to the characters, but I imagine it takes a special kind of curmudgeon to go unmoved by the third act of the Pixar trilogy's third act. Good stuff. I may have to revisit it at some point under a Severe Spoiler Warning to tackle that ending. Also, if we're lucky, at some point I'm going to have finish this lengthy piece on WALL•E that's been sitting in the drafts since 2009.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

The Cusack influence runs deep through Hot Tub Time Machine, a movie that doesn’t even dare you to take it seriously but tries to be “about” something at the same time. John Cusack has discussed his joining the project already in motion and rushed through the green light by MGM, hustling through an uncredited rewrite with director Steve Pink. There are three other names on the script; I imagine they wrote the blow job jokes and the gay panic while Cusack and Pink inflected the pathos and the redemption arcs.

There are two assholes and two wimps; all four are losers and the only thing that connects them is the hazy “past.” Lou (Rob Corddry) brings his old group back together when he drunkenly passes out in his running car and gets put up in a suicide ward. To cheer him up, old friends Nick (Craig Robinson) and Adam (Cusack) bring him out to the old ski resort where they used to hang in the 80s; Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) is along for the ride. Nick abandoned his music career for a loveless marriage, Adam’s girlfriend just left him (taking his television, that bitch!) and Jacob lives in Adam’s basement with zero friends and an addiction to Second Life (wink). Their miseries recall Back to the Future (in set up if not in execution) so it’s a good thing that when they hit Kodiak Valley they’ll be given opportunities to right what went wrong in their lives thanks to the magical hot tub.

That this is so obviously the course of the story makes it incredibly frustrating when the film actually tries to explain its way down the straight and narrow. Especially for a film that’s getting made because of its title and will succeed in its target demo through an abundance of ugly men (because it’s funny when they show their asses) and sexy women (because it’s hot when they show their tits), I can’t believe how much exposition there is in this damn thing.

This is a self-aware movie (read: a movie that sports the production values of a YouTube video about a guy sinking awesome trick shots) that features characters who are aware of and reference time travel as we know it from the popular culture. Given all this, it’s somewhat ridiculous that I have to spend a whole hour watching them try to not change anything because they’re afraid of The Butterfly Effect. The story, of course, isn’t what counts here. What counts is that because of that butterfly effect there will be an increased number of blow jobs and fist fights. And I must admit that for the most part, the movie had me laughing. Nobody deadpans like Robinson and Corddry’s macho posturing, even when his pants are off, is hilariously over-the-top. Begrudgingly, I admit that the consequences of their butterfly effect are pretty cleverly executed.

But it’s really too bad, because even for a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine, a reliance on scatological humor is just that. In sending John Cusack back to the 80s to fix his love life (and casting pop-icon-in-the-making Lizzy Caplan opposite him) the film becomes a sorely missed opportunity. By the time the four heroes finally get to the pinch, begin apologizing amongst themselves and acting towards their goals, the movie tries to wrap up a feature’s worth of romantic subplots in the space of about twenty minutes. It doesn’t have time for any of that, but it does have time for Craig Robinson to sing more of The Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started” than I ever needed to hear again.

Yes, that’s the song he chooses to Marty McFly into the hearts of a dance floor that’s never heard trash-hop. 25 years worth of second-chances and you’re banking your fortune on The Black Eyed Peas? I guess I’m not really in this film’s demographic, am I?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Toy Story 3

There's a flashback midway through Toy Story 2 in which Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl recalls life with her former owner, Emily, who abandoned her under the bed only to rediscover her just in time to send her away in a goodwill donation box. It's heartbreaking, and the new sequel, Toy Story 3, functions as a feature-length, ensemble retelling of this vignette. 11 years after the previous film came out and 15 after the first, Pixar has kept the franchise timeline in sync with our own: our heroic toys are stuck in a box and their owner, Andy, is going away for college. They haven't been played with for years.

The toys end up donated to Sunnyside Daycare, a development that only Woody believes to be a mistake. Everyone else thinks their time has come and looks to the unknown (read: scary) future of drooling toddlers and teethers. Woody must convince his toy compatriots to bust out with him, but if they do, even their existence back home with(out) Andy remains a question mark.

The options presented to the toys are The Attic, The Trash or The Daycare — where they risk getting abused and torn apart. It's heaven, hell or purgatory, and the heavenly option — wherein they earn a special spot on high reserved for special toys — also comes with dust, neglect and sorrow. Andy is never going to be a kid again.

There are religious connotations to the story, though more accurately it’s a spiritual, existential question that drives the toys' plight. The motley band of brothers defines their existence through the love of a human child (their very personalities have grown from the roles foisted upon them by Andy's imagination during playtime), so what happens to their identities when Andy doesn't love them the way he used to? (The film will play with that question in several different ways, from a reorganization of Mr. Potato Head's face to Buzz Lightyear's getting reset en español.)

What's more, the film never questions the main toys' raison d'etre. Several supporting characters do — the leader of the “inmates” at the daycare facility, an aged, strawberry-smelling teddy named Lotso (as in "Lots-o-Huggin' Bear"), remarks during the initial daycare tour that "no owners means no heartbreak." In some ways this retreads the themes covered in Toy Story 2, wherein Woody makes the choice to stay with Andy even though their time together is finite. The villain in that film, Stinky Pete, has the foresight to ask Woody if he thinks Andy is going to bring him along to college.

Toy Story 3 presents Andy's move as the catalyst to the lesson that even though our time here is limited, there are rules that govern our existence and rites of passage that make us stronger for living through them. If we define ourselves by the people we love, we risk losing our very selves when those relationships end. But Toy Story 3 says that's still the only way to live a fulfilled life. It's never preachy, and the spiritual journey the toys undergo is a perfectly-executed crisis of faith and renewal of the self.

And it gets dark. Like, really dark. From the prison-break escape from daycare right on through to the final frame, Toy Story 3 becomes harder and harder to watch. It contains one of the most terrifying sequences I've seen in ages (nice to be reminded, after the doldrums of ostensible "horror" like the schlock Human Centipede or the earnest failure Shutter Island that I'm not actually desensitized to onscreen terror) and I have to question whether the MPAA even watched the thing before they slapped it with a G rating. Even Up got a PG, presumably for the hint of blood.

Two Pixar first-timers helm the film: Lee Unkrich, co-director on Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, makes his debut as lead director while the script comes courtesy of Michael Arndt, who signed up after winning his Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine. That film's mixture of slapstick and brooding shows up again in Toy Story 3 (which is, by the way, hilarious in equal measure to everything else I've discussed), but in the Pixar collective Arndt has found a team of collaborators to help balance out his wilder demons. While the collection of misfits that made up the family at the center of Little Miss Sunshine came across as a bit contrived, the quirks and idiosyncrasies that seem to be Arndt's stock-in-trade work a lot better when applied to a dinosaur, a potato and an astronaut.

Arndt and Unkrich, together with the rest of their team at Pixar, pull out all the stops. In a multiplex flooded with computer animation imitators repackaging and remarketing the lowest common denominator (as it sinks ever lower), Pixar Animation continues upping the stakes, putting its heroes in real danger and making movies not just for children or movies for children of all ages, but movies for people who think and feel. Toy Story 3 is neither as tight as Up nor as ambitious as WALL•E, but it adheres to the emotional core and relentlessly evades painless solutions or easy answers, making it both an immediate classic and a devastating punch in the gut. I don't know the last time I was affected by a movie like this.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Book of Eli

The movie to which The Book of Eli owes its greatest debt turns out not to be Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road or any of the Mad Max films, but rather WALL•E, which is finally and inevitably establishing itself as a benchmark against which all future post-apocalyptic yarns will be measured. Denzel Washington’s Eli is a simpleton, moved to action (programmed, even) by a force he doesn’t really understand to shepherd a MacGuffin from one place to another and save the human race. He even has an old iPod, which he keeps charged with a battery the size of a sandwich. Problem is – and I know Washington can be quite a dish to those so inclined – Eli’s nowhere near as cute as WALL•E was, and not half as fun to watch.

“It’s not a book, it’s a weapon!” shrieks Gary Oldman at his number one, watering at the mouth over the power a slumlord might gain were he to end up proprietor of the sole remaining copy of the Bible. This nifty premise – Eli’s Bible becomes the grail in a post-holy crusade – is the foundation upon which the whole rickety fiasco stands, but directing team Albert and Allen Hughes don’t even begin to tackle the ramifications of it.

Oldman has a few weapons of his own, including rocket launchers, a ridiculous chain gun that hangs out of a truck, and the only remotely interesting one: Mila Kunis’ virginity. In a wasteland where all the characters are mucking about trying to avoid cannibals, Kunis’ Solara somehow still looks like she just stepped out of an American Apparel ad. Everyone else is covered in dust and wearing the boots of dead men, but Solara possesses an un-creasable pair of perfect skin-tight jeans and matching flannel – perfect to keep you warm at night and plus they make your ass look hot at the Grizzly Bear show.

So naturally Solara gets tossed around like so much bartered wood. Oldman owns her because his mistress Jennifer Beals is her vulnerable mom, his henchmen all want to win her body from their boss, the desert scavengers want to rape her and Eli, after declining to trade his booty for hers, decides he’s supposed to protect her. He’s a missionary who normally refuses to intervene when he comes across a biker gang tearing the platties off a poogly devotchka because to step in and save her would be to step off his path to carry out God’s will. But Eli must do as he is told by the Voices in his head and they remind him that hot sidekicks are good for business. It’s the Christian thing to do, after all.

The unsettling thing is that Eli’s quest is ultimately underlined as righteous. The villain’s understanding of the Good Book is, though “evil”, sensible and practical: he wants to jumpstart religiosity amongst the few people left on Earth so that he can control them and become (more) rich and powerful. Eli, on the other hand, hears God (or something) and carries the book where he is told, carefully soaking in its messages along the way. The notion that Eli might be full of it is actually what keeps the movie going as long as it does; when he is finally revealed to have a literally divine power working for him, it’s a little sickening.

It’s the kind of lazy conservatism that would be worth attacking if it weren’t handled so sloppily. This isn’t intended to be a message movie because nobody thought through the implications of the ridiculous twist ending. I could say that I like the notions fostered that the printed word will prove to be pretty important, even to the guy who also has the last iPod, but I don’t know if that’s the message either. It’s really all little more than an excuse to blow shit up.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

From Paris With Love

“Talking isn’t gonna get the job done,” a stern John Travolta reminds his gun-shy protégé as he prepares to confront a suicide bomber and stop the terrorists. This neatly encapsulates the politics of From Paris With Love, a big swinging dick of a movie about how diplomacy is for pansies. Shoot first and you don’t even need to bother with the questions. Jack Bauer, never one to hesitate, would surely send this movie from Sprint™ phone to Facebook™ profile before closing his Netflix™ instant streaming queue.

Director Pierre Morel’s previous American-badass-busting-up-Paris actioner Taken also incurred the wrath of astute movie-watchers who don’t like having conservative politics rammed down their throats like a hand towel in the name of the greater good. That film followed Liam Neeson on a torture spree to save his daughter from human traffickers, another plot that draws an easy comparison to the Fox network’s 24.

Where the seventh season of 24 made a laughable effort to respond to its liberal critics by putting its hero before a Senate committee interrogating him about his tendency to torture, From Paris With Love is a similar thematic extrapolation of its predecessor, giving voice to a young agent who believes in diplomacy (he works at the American Embassy in Paris) before blowing a Pakistani’s brains all over his face and showing him the way of the gun.

That hero is Reese, played by Jonathan Rhys-Myers without a hint of irony from the film in regards to his playing a dull American homophone (that irony is reserved for Travolta, who gets an unforgivable “Royale with Cheese” joke). He manages the accent but can only do so much with lines like “Let’s skip dinner and go straight to dessert.” Thankfully, Reese is pulled away very quickly from his diplomatic paper-shuffling (boring!) and his half-naked girlfriend (saucy!) to chase Travolta’s Charlie Wax all over Paris.

Wax has been partnered with Reese, for whom this world-saving mission is actually a training op. Don’t let that confuse you: it is both a world-saving mission and a training op, which is only one of several frightening elements of the plot. They follow coke-dealers to pimps to French thugs who have been sitting around watching La Haine to the terrorists who are mostly Pakistani and all of them brown except for – not a spoiler if you’ve seen this kind of thing before – Reese’s girlfriend, who was in with the bad guys all along.

We can give Morel a gold star for knowing how to keep this kind of thing moving. He does all he can to prevent you from thinking – it’s one of those gunfight-after-fistfight-after-car-chase deals. Taken even as a straight-forward action movie however, two things are lacking. For one, the action itself is dull and includes the most ineptly shot car chase since – well, since Taken. The main issue through the first two acts, however, is a complete lack of stakes. Where Taken got a leg up on the daddy-daughter pathos (that movie works for me, honestly, because of the birthday party prologue), Paris explicitly glazes over the why’s and the why-we-should-care’s. In order to establish a cover at a brothel, Wax forces a fistful of coke up Reese’s nose and in his ensuing mental haze explains the terrorist plot. Neither we nor Reese are able to understand his blurred speech, which culminates with Reese anxiously muttering “Terrorists!” ...I guess “Terrorists!” is all we need to know in America these days, huh?

It’s that “plot twist” through which the film’s politics come blazing to the forefront, because of course Reese would like to find a diplomatic solution to the whole girlfriend/suicide-bomber thing rather than see her shot in the head. I really try to give this the benefit of the doubt, and I’m marginally impressed with a movie that has the cojones to pick a side, any side, and follow through. But the conclusion to this momentarily interesting conflict is, rest assured, dramatically absurd on top of being politically abhorrent. If you were disgusted by Taken, bring a vomit bag.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dude, Counter-Dude: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

This point-counterpoint on Million Dollar Baby is the first entry in a proposed series of opinion-exchanges between myself and A.A. Dowd of Wild Lines. Expect ad hominem attacks, Simpsons references and rampant polysyllabism; inevitably, I will resort to footnotes. This debut took a good two months for us to finish, so there's no telling when the next entry is gonna come along. For now, I won the coin toss and elected to receive.

A.A. Dowd, taking the position in defense of Million Dollar Baby:

Million Dollar Baby is the type of movie Clint Eastwood was born to make. Take that as praise or as ammunition for the case against, but don’t take it lightly. Eastwood, who never met a dead genre he wouldn’t or couldn’t revive, does not sample from the collective cinematic past. He just seems to occupy it. He does not filter his archaic preoccupations through winking irony or fussy fanboy affectation, á la Brian DePalma or Quentin Tarantino. He pays his respects not by meticulously mimicking his heroes, but by making the kind of movies they did. He does not riff. He is no postmodernist. He is a prolific, sturdy craftsman, the sort that would have thrived back when the studio system was still firing on all cylinders. His aw-shucks sincerity and no-nonsense conviction—old-fashioned virtues oft mistaken for flaws—align him with the great working-class poets of Hollywood, the Sam Fullers and Howard Hawkses.

A bona fide 40s or 50s style boxing melodrama, Million Dollar Baby would feel right at home among the rough-and-tumble ring pictures of Mark Robson (Champion and The Harder They Fall) or Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Set-Up). It walks and talks, it moves, like a lost genre classic. Most of the elements are there, unfiltered and irony-free. The young and hungry fighter, all guts and heart and foolhardy conviction, claws his (her) way up the ranks. An old trainer spars vicariously with his own deferred dreams. The fights get longer, tougher, bloodier. The ringsides get noisier, smokier. Greedy managers and seedy promoters scramble for a piece of the action. The fighters collapse into their respective corners, battered and bruised but begging to get back in there. There is a big fight, and a nasty, cheap-shot cartoon contender.

Cliché? Inherently so, but there is poetry in these stock movements and players. Corny? Only in the way of all great melodrama. Eastwood assembles these spare parts, the gears and pistons of a faded B-movie machine, and invests them with a breadth of emotion uncommon to most contemporary models. Clint’s ethos stretch way back, to the first wave of studio boxing pictures. If Abraham Polonsky’s 1947 Body and Soul jettisoned the nobility of the genre by steeping it in the greed and exploitation of the fight circuit, Clint relocates it in a familiar (but achingly heartfelt) fighter-trainer, father-daughter relationship. The film colors this central conflict in an earnestness that went out of vogue not long after Eastwood started his acting career; to snicker at Frankie and Maggie’s blossoming kinship—the way she wears his defenses down, working her way into his affections, respect conflating with platonic love—is to approach it through a distinctly modern lens. Million Dollar Baby rewards a willful suspension—not just of disbelief, but of the sleek and well-taught cynicism of the post-modern movie.

Todd Detmold, taking the position against the film:

The last of several bear traps laid out for me in the opening paragraphs above is the suggestion that Million Dollar Baby operates on a level so pure and old-fashioned that only a stone-hearted cynic would manage to go unmoved by the thing. And I will happily admit that there are moments – isolated moments – that I didn’t anticipate finding in this film, colored as it was by that first screening, back in the theater in 2004. I snickered through it then, but of course I was at the height of my collegiate superiority, so obviously I would be too cynical to enjoy this. These moments are the ones of quiet: when late at night in a dim and run down gymnasium that effectively houses the souls of our characters, those very same characters shut up and the film becomes transiently beautiful.

I can’t pretend to have seen the majority of Eastwood’s films, but I can stitch together a passing notion of how he operates. He’s well-known for his ‘one take’ ethos. He doesn’t direct a movie so much as put the actors here and the camera there and then move on to the next scene – its only through an instinct weaned upon five decades in the craft that he manages to make those long gauzy nights as poignant as they are. It’s inadvertent pathos by way of antipathy. In my estimation, an Eastwood film is only going to be so good as its script. One can easily credit Unforgiven to David Peoples.

And I credit Million Dollar Baby to the inimitable Paul Haggis. There’s an atmosphere to the film, sure, but Haggis’ story is one of cringe-inducing types and blunt didactic moralizing; a film hoisted on the shoulders of a central actress infusing her stereotype with some humanity only through juxtaposition to the even-worse stereotypes populating the film around her. In a city of ciphers, at least mo cuishle comes with a gender swap.

It’s bad enough the thing stops being the happy-sappy boxing melodrama described above and morphs suddenly into a Lifetime original movie (Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep: The Maggie Fitzgerald Story); it has to include in its box of hammers-as-art an unsympathetic family of fat rednecks, a pair of unsympathetically mean ethnic boxers, a comic-relief twig who’s so unsympathetically stupid to think he can be a boxer… and to top it all off, a badly overcooked paternal surrogacy.

Watching the movie, you think to yourself, “I get it, I get it. Stop, I get it already.” Maggie’s paralysis is plenty pitiful without the bedsores, the clogged arteries and gross bruising, the amputation and the self-glossectomy. She turns into Sideshow Bob walking into six, seven, eight, nine rakes. From the repetition of misery comes levity. What a joke.

A.A. Dowd's rebuttal:

Where exactly in the oeuvre of David “Leviathan” Peoples—author of space age and post-apocalyptic fantasies, mostly—does one detect the quiet grace and desperado gravity of Unforgiven? You’re telling me you attribute that new classic more to a sci-fi scribe-for-hire than to, say, a filmmaker who has dabbled in all shades and shapes of the American oater? A digressive question, perhaps, but one that hints at the fallacy of merely thinking of Eastwood as some sort of anonymous journeyman whose efforts assure nothing more or less than a 1:1 success rate of execution. Hell, I’ve played that card before, too, usually when deriding one of the man’s actual follies, á la fatally stupid junk like Gran Torino. Truth is, Old Squints has fucked up good material before—see Changeling, a wicked-interesting true story that required the razor wit of a Curtis Hanson, not Clint’s usual Old Hollywood fairy dust. But he’s also done tough, lean, classically cathartic wonders with some pretty blasé blueprints.

Case in point: the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, which is nearly (if not quite) as hoary as you’ve made it out to be. Most of those garish caricatures you checked off come courtesy of hacky Haggis, who plucked them wholesale from F.X. Toole’s ringside and warped them into his usual rouge’s gallery of unreal mouthpieces. They stick out like anachronistic sore thumbs against the director’s dignified digs: the awful scenes with Maggie’s redneck family stink of a finger-wagging class condescension, and Morgan Freeman’s running voice-over makes constantly—and, at times, somewhat oppressively—explicit what might have been better left as subtext. (I think of Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink, chastising the titular scribe for his pretensions, screaming “There's plenty of poetry inside that ring, Fink.”)

Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Jay “Danger” Baruchel, and the trailer trash cavalry may have wandered in from one of Haggis’s loony race screeds, but Frankie, Maggie and Eddie sure didn’t. To appreciate Eastwood’s achievement is to distinguish the stereotypes from the affectionate archetypes, the writer’s contributions from the director’s, the fatty appendages from the meat at the center—in other words, to understand how Eastwood has transcended the limitations of his material and made the film his own. The pathos are anything but inadvertent. They're intrinsically linked to what we know about this genre and, especially, this filmmaker.

Certainly, he’s done more this time than put actors here and a camera there. This is one of Eastwood’s most visually dynamic movies. His characters dance in and out of shadows, his camera roving seductively through authentically run-down interiors. And his fight scenes have the sweat, swing and swagger of the genre’s best. With Million Dollar Baby, Clint buries his reputation for meat-and-potato inexpressiveness. More than that, though, he uses the supposed Lifetime movie of a third act to tear down the walls of genre tradition and reveal something deeper, stronger, and more profound behind them. (Like Raging Bull or Fat City, it’s a boxing movie that eventually becomes something much, much more.) Yes, Maggie goes through a hell of an ordeal. These slings and arrows and agonies are to establish a hopeless, no-way-out scenario for her…and to force Frankie to make the kind of sacrifice Eastwood’s iconic tough guys never had to. It’s a genuinely profound subversion of Clint’s masculine killer’s code, “murder” as both an act of devastating self-destruction and selfless love—the empathetic opposite of vigilante justice. Take it from someone who has seen the majority of the guy’s films: Clint’s never been this vulnerable, before or since. Levity my ass.

Todd Detmold's rebuttal:
Q: Where in the oeuvre of David Peoples do I detect the quiet grace and desperado gravity of Unforgiven?

A: Unforgiven1.
Given our Kael v. Sarris discussions leading up to this point-counterpoint, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you’re falling into exactly the same trap where Pauline found Andrew. You can lord it above me all you like that you’ve seen more Eastwood movies than me; if I’m required to plod through the entire Dirty Harry series just to figure out what makes Million Dollar Baby worthy of my time, we’ve got a problem.

This is one of the dangers of auteur theory. As soon as a director makes a couple good movies or establishes a persona (and this is even easier for a man who was an actor first), we can judge everything else by those unrelated premises. We end up taking the film not on what it is but on what it is not. Shooting the movie beautifully2 doesn’t make it not a poorly-disguised lecture on the pros and cons of euthanasia, nor does Eastwood being vulnerable.

If we must play this game, let’s bring it back to Unforgiven once more (which is, by the way, a pretty damn well-written film). You want to see Eastwood playing a variation on a theme? A sensitive tough guy? You really can’t do much better than this. If Million Dollar Baby is a career benchmark because of its subversion of the Eastwood archetype, what, I ask, does that make Unforgiven? Eastwood has been an old man for a while now, and he had been playing with the same themes in Unforgiven twelve years prior when he rehashed them in Million Dollar Baby. It’s been a good twenty years since Eastwood lost the ability to make a movie where he isn’t an old man. Every role he plays will inadvertently be a commentary on his former self.

Even if we are impressed with Clint’s vulnerability as he opens up to his surrogate daughter, that arc is more than complete by the time she hits the stool. To suggest that the third act somehow transcends the script is dismissive of the deliberate narrative structure. Haggis goes so far out of his way to clumsily weave in Frank’s absent daughter and Maggie’s absent father – as well as, let’s not forget, the anecdote about putting the dog to sleep – there’s no way not to read the film as a harsh and cloying morality tale.

You admit the script is hoary, you admit that the ensemble is composed of stereotypes3. In your opening you say Eastwood doesn’t riff; rather he occupies a classical stage. Yet in your rebuttal you claim he’s futzing with archetypes and ‘tearing down the walls of the genre’. You say he’s a sturdy craftsman who would’ve owned the classical studio system, but then he’s transcending the limitations of his material and making it his own. Which is it, man? If Eastwood really wanted to subvert Haggis’ script and lift it from the muck, he would've had Frank unplug Maggie in the ambulance back from Vegas and saved us all the trouble.

1. You can call him David “Leviathan” Peoples or you can call him David “Twelve Monkeys” Peoples or David “Blade Runner” Peoples. Put your snark aside: surely the man deserves some credit for Unforgiven, no? [back]

2. And there’s something else Eastwood doesn’t deserve all the credit for. [back]

3. Except for the leads: they’re archetypes, allegedly, not stereotypes, and only because of the overly-explicit dignity of age and the twist of gender. If Eastwood is so good at infusing Haggis’ terrible writing with a lot of sincere humanity, why couldn’t he do anything with the other ten major characters? [back]

A.A. Dowd's closing statement:

Before we start willy-nilly evoking the spirit of dearly departed Pauline, let’s get something straight: Kael may have railed and raged against the act of appraising a work chiefly by gleaning the name on the signature line, but she would never, ever deny the importance that a little cinematic context plays in grasping her medium of choice. Nobody who loved Brian DePalma as much as she did possibly could. Kael recognized, as all critics should, that movies play on shared histories, many of them the kind that flicker in the dark and burn their way onto our synapses. Context is what separates Jonathon Rosenbaum from Peter Travers; that tabula rasa school of film criticism is the last refuge of those who don't know their backlots from their badlands.

No, you don’t have to have seen the lion’s share of Eastwood’s work to form an opinion on Million Dollar Baby. But is it so out-there to suggest that a familiarity with his oeuvre could actually benefit one’s understanding of the film? Certainly it might help one see the difference between what Clint The Actor is doing in Baby and what he's doing in Unforgiven. The latter is about violence as inescapable burden––you live by the sword, you die by the sword, and once stoked, that bloodlust hardwires itself into your moral makeup. The former is about the price that comes with strict adherence to rigid masculine codes. Unforgiven takes the Eastwood ethos to their logical endpoint: terrible triumph, but triumph nonetheless. Million Dollar Baby cracks them wide open, re-examines them, and ends up wondering aloud what the hell they're worth. It's summary vs. subversion, lionization vs. critique––how flatly reductive to dismiss them both as mere "sensitive tough guy" routines. (And by the way: how can you know what exactly Clint's doing a "commentary" on, or how well he's doing it, if you haven't seen these iconic back-works? Cultural osmosis? Or are you basing your conclusions on a familiarity with the McGarnagle character from The Simpsons?)

Certainly it takes some kind of willful distortion of screen content to see in the film's backstretch any kind of rhetorical debate on the morality of euthanasia. Beyond one brief conversation with the priest, when does Eastwood toss out talking points? It’s never about whether or not it’s wrong for Frankie to pull that plug. It’s about can he do it. It's about will he. To call the film's dramatic arc complete at the 90 minute mark is to suggest that our man gains absolution the minute he fully accepts his role as surrogate father figure. The real spiritual test, of course, comes later––will Frankie strip his own soul bare to set Maggie's free? Call it cheap or maudlin if you must, but I'm at a loss as to how this protracted internal struggle could be read as superfluous. Did you just shut down when the breathing tube showed up? Did your critical faculties go numb the minute Maggie's body did?

You see contradiction in my various defenses of the film. What I'm trying to convey––perhaps clumsily, but with enthusiasm––is the way great genre cinema can both adhere to template and locate a profound emotional truth at its center. Eastwood earns comparison to his Golden Age heroes by refusing to condescend his material, while simultaneously finding ways to gently bend it into something personal, something reflective of his own concerns. (Fuck it, maybe I am an autuerist.) At the very least, Million Dollar Baby offers one hell of a transgressive first: Hollywood's last standing cowboy, the faded face of masculinity incarnate, weeping openly (and convincingly!) into the camera. Not even David "Unforgiven" Peoples could write that out of the old man.

Todd Detmold's closing statement:

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this has devolved into a battle of Million Dollar Baby vs. Unforgiven. I'd say both films are both about masculine codes and violence as burden.

Deep down though, it's starting to feel like writer vs. director. We write off David Peoples based on Leviathan, but we forgive Eastwood misstep after misstep. Why? I'd propose it's solely because we're so familiar with him. Eastwood is a living, breathing (barely, it sometimes seems) icon: this is how I'm able to laugh at McGarnagle without watching all fifty-something of the man's films4.

He's also a hyphenate, and I think it's risky to elide Eastwood the actor and Eastwood the director. Isn't Gran Torino also about cycles of violence? Isn't Space Cowboys also about aging masculinity? In fact, one of Eastwood's great shortcomings as an actor is that he's always Clint Eastwood. There's nothing he could ever do about it, but at the same time it makes for a cheap subversion of "the Eastwood archetype" if you've got Clint Eastwood.

To me, the sins of Paul Haggis drag Million Dollar Baby down from any heights Eastwood could ever hope to hoist it to, whereas my opposition seems to feel no amount of terrible writing and clumsy moralizing could bog down Eastwood's careful genre exercise.

But here's my last word: the dramatic arc of Million Dollar Baby is complete when Frank gives Maggie her mo cuishle cloak. He keeps the meaning from her (and the audience)5 so to jerk some tears in the final minutes, but what of anybody watching who speaks Irish? Whether we can recognize it or not at the time (and, like McGarnagle, you don't even need to know what it means to know what it means), this is the moment where Frank has accepted her as his daughter.

Everything after this is first a victory lap for their success (as boxer/manager and as father/daughter) followed by the overextended paralysis sequence. The connection between Maggie and Frank's real daughter remains hazily drawn and Frank ends up served with the same amount of nothing he began with. Frank's story is about accepting his fatherhood, and for the entire final act of the film he gets beaten down for it through contrived circumstance. I get beaten down, too, and I resent this when it's not earned. Anybody can tear a tongue out, but Paul Haggis can't make it mean something, even with Clint on both sides of the camera.

4. There's a middle ground, by the way, between having seen all and having seen none. Also, The Simpsons isn't Family Guy: you don't need to get the reference to get the joke. [back]

5. "My blood", in case anybody's gotten this far without knowing the film too closely. [back]