Weekly meditations from your humble messenger
Door Draft (Stop-Loss, 4/7/08): "It's been endlessly
parodied, but Winston Churchill's observation about the Battle of Britain
might as well be about the current war: "Never before have so many
owed so much to so few." If nothing less than Western civilization
depends on "victory" in Iraq, if it's worth thousands of lives
and foisting $3 trillion in debt on our children, then not instituting
a draft to relieve the strain on the all-volunteer army is not just
the President's conceit. It's a bit of hypocrisy you and I been more
than content to live with for more than five years..."
the Band Played On (The Band's Visit, 3/31/08): "I defy
anybody not to be charmed by Eran Kolirin's small, quiet comedy, The
Band's Visit. Unreasonably high expectations of the film are immediately
relieved by its first words: "Oncenot
small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this.
It wasn't that important." Writer-director Kolirin has his tongue
planted firmly in cheek, of course: in the Middle East, major consequences
always seem to follow events that shouldn't be that important (e.g.
who visits this holy site here, who digs a tunnel for tourists there,
etc.). Beyond that initial bit of coyness, The Band's Visit finds
plenty of relieving humor in a setting that is, frankly, one of the
most not-funny in the world..."
Games, or Neither (Funny Games, 3/24/08): "Michael Haneke's
taut, sadistic Funny Games wants to be the kind of movie people
either love or hate. By that measure, it's a failurethe
vast majority of people just plain hate it... "
All in Your Head (The Orphanage, 3/17/08): "Dread scary
movies? Still prefer to shut that closet door before going to sleep?
Then stay the hell away of Juan Antonio Bayona's seriously creepy The
Shrink's Mind (In Treatment, 3/10/08): "I have to admit,
I'm obsessed with the new HBO series In Treatment. It's true
that the show, which focuses on the analytic travails of psychologist
Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne), doesn't seem like chancy materialcharacters
from just about every hit series, from Six Feet Under to Nip/Tuck
, end up on a shrink's couch at one time or another. Tony's sessions
with Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos were as much a trademark of that
show as pork for lunch at Satriale's or ogling strippers at the Bada
Bing. Couples therapy also figured large in another recent HBO series,
the otherwise quite physical Tell Me You Love Me. But In Treatment
Maiden in Tehran (Persepolis, 3/3/08): "The Iron Curtain
is long gone, but the theocracy in Iran has stood in well as the West's
latest, forbidden "other." In 2004, as some read Lolita
in Tehran, and others wouldn't flee without their daughters, Marjane
Satrapi published Persepolis, the acclaimed graphic novel about
growing up before and after the Islamic Revolution. The French-produced
animated feature that replicates the spare, almost iconic style of the
a deceptively powerful tale that may be the most enlightening yet about
what it's like to come of age in modern Persia..."
Pause in God's Waiting Room (The Savages, 2/11/08): "If
humanoids of the distant future ever watch our movies, they will gather
the following about us: 1) there are few middle-aged women in our society,
2) males tend to get kicked in the gonads a lot, and 3) all our families
are dysfunctional. Tamara Jenkins' The Savages will do little
to counter impression #3, but at least it suggests we had a sense of
humor about it..."
Hole in the Heart of the West (There Will Be Blood, 2/4/08):
"It's not news that Americans prefer to romanticize the Western
landscape. Long after the "frontier" vanished, we yearn to
read freedom, opportunity, and the promise of personal reinvention in
those panoramic vistas. The phrase big sky still has a positive
connotation. The mirror image of the daydreamthat
the big sky can seem awfully empty, and those landscapes swallow up
as many souls as they liberateis
less pleasant to contemplate. A few visionaries have gone there, including
directors John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (Treasure
of the Sierra Madre) and novelists William Vollmann and Cormac McCarthy.
With his desolate epic There Will Be Blood, we can now add Paul
Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) to the short list of
the West's cautionary rhapsodizers... "
Country for Old Men (The Kite Runner, 1/28/08):
"If there really is a place that is 'no country for old men,' it
must be Afghanistan. Although we've been at war there two years longer
than in Iraq, and Osama bin Laden lives on in the neighborhood, Hollywood
has been strangely loathe to deal with the place (Robert Redford's Lions
for Lambs is the only major attempt so far). Iranian director Mohsen
Makhmalbaf's Kandahar and Afghan Siddik Barmak's Osama
are two creditable but relatively low-budget attempts that saw limited
release here. Now we have something in the middle: Marc Forster's The
Kite Runner was made with a modest budget and an unknown cast, but
has the advantage of being based on a novel that has sold something
like five million copies..."
Fall Apart (Atonement, 1/21/08): "While little sister
Briony (Saoirse Ronan) watches from a mansion window, big sister (Keira
Knightley) shares an erotically-charged moment with the son of a servant
(James McAvoy). Thirteen year-old Briony draws the wrong conclusions
about the nature of the encounter, which lead to misunderstandings in
the family. These, in turn, cause no end of trouble for the unlucky
lovers. This kind of premise seems best suited for sex farces set among
Britain's quince jam-and-jodhpurs class..."
Reality Happens to Ironic People (Juno, 1/14/08): "Wise
children are catnip to screenwriters. Whether we're talking about the
emotional precociousness of a Dakota Fanning, the solemnity of a Haley
Joel Osment, or throwaway gags in comedies like Annie Hall ('The
universe is expanding!'), wise children can convey all the fun without
risking any of the backlash. The pre-pubescent Webster (Emmanuel Lewis)
was an adorable moppet; an 18 year-old version looking more or less
the same, and dropping more or less the same pearls of adult wisdom,
is pathetic. Which brings us to Juno. ..."
But No Heart (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,
1/7/08) "Tim Burton is nothing if not consistent. Most of his biggest
successes (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Batman) have come in
a more-or-less consistent mode of macabre pastiche, like an explosion
in a Halloween kitsch factory. Many have also featured Johnny Depp in
the lead. The Burtonization of the Stephen Sondheim slasher musical
Sweeney Todd, with Depp as the homicidal barber, therefore seems
about as surprising as yet another Nicolas Cage sell-out, or a gross-out
gag from the Farrelly brothers. Isn't every Tim Burton movie
a version of Sweeney Todd...?"
World Without Us (I Am Legend, 12/24/07) "It's one of
those egghead culture criticsSlavoj
has talked about how popular culture (and its audiences) have any easy
time conjuring the End of the World, but can't imagine a small change
in our nation's politics. Want to see the eastern seaboard scoured flat
by a three hundred-foot tsunami? No problem! Contemplate getting rid
of the electoral college, though, and we worry that the audience would
never buy it. Need to visualize New York City as a ghost town infested
by hairless, flesh-eating albino zombies? Certainly! Imagine our system
reformed so corporations aren't considered legal "persons,"
or a universal, single-payer health care system, or a clean-running
electric car in every garage? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves..."
Lion, the Witch, and the Dirigible (The Golden Compass,
12/17/07): "Gather 'round children, and let me tell you the tale
of The Golden Compass: Once upon a time, there was a universe
with an infinite number of parallel worlds existing adjacent but isolated
from each other. One of these worlds is a lot like Earth except the
people don't have souls living inside their bodies but outside them,
in the form of particular animals that reflect their personalities.
And yeah, since children's personalities aren't set yet, their "daemons"
Furies Come to the Strip Mall (Before the Devil Knows You're
Dead, 12/10/07): "It must be a sign of the strength of this
year's crop of movies that this column has fallen so far behind in covering
the good ones. Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead,
which has been around a while, is a small gem that's easy to overlook
in this season of rampaging trolls and golden compasses..."
Noon on Blood Meridian (No Country for Old Men, 12/3/07):
"Ask the friendly folks of North Dakota about the Coen Bros. thriller
Fargo and you might get a surprisingly uncivil answer. True,
it remains one of the brothers' most popularly acclaimed films, winning
Oscars for the Coens' screenplay and for actress Frances McDormand.
But it all came with what many consider a patronizing portrayal of our
brothers and sisters of the upper Midwest, who come off as affable but
somewhat dimwitted rubes..."
Meets Grover (Beowulf, 11/19/07): "In Annie Hall
Woody Allen offered the timeless educational tip, "Just don't take
any course where you have to read Beowulf." It's not clear
if the same advice was supposed to apply to movies, but director Robert
(Back to the Future, Who Killed Roger Rabbit?) has forged ahead
anyway. In at least one respect, Woody can rest easy: Zemeckis' computer-animated
Beowulf no more resembles an old Norse epic as it does every
other overly busy, overblown Hollywood sword-and-sandal fantasy. Nor
will there be a test afterward...?"
vs. Geek (American Gangster, 11/12/07): "On a certain
level, the qualification American gangster sounds about as necessary
as "French chef" or "English bobby." In fact, the
vaguely antique word "gangster" has become nothing more than
an honorific these days anything can be "gangster" (or "gangsta")
if it's radical, uncompromising, cool. The crimes traditionally associated
with gangsters, such as intimidation, protection rackets, drug trafficking,
contract killing, etc., have been completely detached from the term.
Nobody will be making a movie called "American Racketeer"
Grim Tale from the Brothers Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, 11/5/07):
"Don't look now, but with its second World Series win in four years
and a growing list of Hollywood movies (e.g., The Departed, Mystic
River ) set in its grittier precincts, Boston is the new New York.
Or at least the new Brooklyna place close to the center of power,
but that might as well be a million miles away for the hard-boiled provincials.
Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, a policier with a fine sense
of its setting, is the latest entry in the Beantown canon..."
Tragedy (The Assassination of Jesse James..., 10/29/07):
"Chris Rock has a bit about slain rapper Tupac Shakur that goes:
"Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Malcolm X was
assassinated ... that n-g-r [Shakur] was shot." Something
similar might be said of calling the death of Western outlaw Jesse James
an "assassination"just what cause, what greater ideal,
was endangered by the ignominious demise of a man like James, a thief
who gunned down more than a dozen men? Indeed, the manner of his death
only burnished his legend. Which is another way of saying that terrific
movies like Andew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the
Coward Robert Ford can still be based on imperfect premises..."
on the Long and Winding Road (Across the Universe, 10/22/07):
"From a certain angle, the world needs another Beatles-inspired
musical like it needs a third Bush Presidential term. I mean, there
are those of us who adore the tunes, but don't see the need for a Cirque
du Soleil Beatles show, or to have "breakfast with the Beatles"
every week, week in and week out. Can't buy me love, sure, but can money
please buy me brunch with the Who now and then? Or mimosas with the
Stones? Admittedly, those of us who see it this way don't visualize
things from Julie Taymor's angle. ..."
Men (In the Shadow of the Moon, 10/15/07): "According
to a recent AP wire story, the chief administrator of NASA now concedes
that China, not America, will next put its bootprints on the Moon. Not
to take anything away from the Chinese and their valiant "taikonauts,"
but this prediction bears repeating: sometime before the fiftieth anniversary
of America's "giant leap for mankind," we will lose our preeminence
in space. What could testify more clearly to a legacy of visionless
political leadership than squandering a half-century lead...? "