STANLEY KUBRICK’s 1964 satirical black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is, most of the time, an exercise in seeing how far absurdity can go while still maintaining the sense of realism that comes inherent with playing on Cold War anxieties and alarm. The notion of an Air Force commander in the throes of anti-Communism passion-slash-paranoia ordering a decidedly unilateral preemptive bombing of the Soviet continent and kick starting World War III, because “war is too important to be left to the politicians,” still has the potency to make one uneasy and queasy. That the maverick Colonel Jack Ripper goes over the edge out of fear for the sanity and safety of his precious bodily fluids makes Sterling Hayden’s performance, played dead straight if unrestrained in its lunacy, seem like one long deadpan skit of comedic gold. Indeed, Dr. Strangelove succeeds as so much more than how it seems on paper because it melds together humor and drama elements congruous to create something altogether unique. Case in point: when the actors play it straight—even Slim Pickens as the cowboy Major T.J. “King” Kong—the sequences in the B-29 Superfortress as the crew doggedly undertakes their first-strike mission (insinuatingly underlaid with a subdued, solemn adaptation of the Civil War tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) have a simple human poignancy and doomed nobleness to them that match the beautiful ending, where the mushroom clouds of nuclear explosions rise to Vera Lynn’s cozy “We’ll Meet Again.” But whenever the manic gum-smacking theatrics of the bellicose, Soviet-leery General “Buck” Turgidson, who George C. Scott plays with an endearing go-for-the-gold nuttiness, dominate the screen, Dr Strangelove is the film with the best ratio of memorable zingers to lines of dialogue. Peter Sellers, of course, is brilliant in his triple roles, most especially in that of U.S. President Merkin Muffley; when Muffley, ever the pragmatist, calls Soviet Premier Kissoff on the hotline, Sellers shows how to make a one-sided conversation a side-splitting laugh riot. Mr. Kubrick’s spectacularly razor-sharp film is a bitingly subversive social commentary about nuclear annihilation and the stupidity of the human race that manages to be so hysterically funny you forget how smart it is. Now that’s something you don’t see every day.
I don’t want to misspeak, but Thor: The Dark World might just be the comic-book-iest film that Marvel has produced yet, and that’s wonderful. And yet, to be expected. After all, between Iron Man, the Hulk, or Captain America, Thor, the hunky Norse god, is the only superhero that lives, quite literally, worlds apart from us. Sure, his heart belongs to Natalie Portman, on Earth, but his home is the golden, gleaming citadel of Asgard, galaxies away. Visually, such a level of world-building is always tricky, expecially, it seems, when a large budget permitting excess usage of CGI is involved, and Asgard is clearly not a matte painting (although that would have been nice). And thematically, how do you make the audience care without spending too much time doing so? The Asgard in Thor fails on many of these points, true. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s much more exciting, and frightening indeed, to see such a fantastical city coming under attack than seeing New York City leveled, if only because maybe we can’t imagine it as clearly. Asgard could have easily been Marvel’s Minas Tirith, if that had been the wish of the filmmakers, and, similarly, when Asgard comes under attack, it could have easily held the same emotional significance as when the White City was besieged (in The Lord of the Rings). Although it was not to be, still, Asgard and its denizens are realized satisfactorily enough. I particularly liked Heimdall, the all-seeing guardian of the Bifröst, an revolving portal to the planet of your choosing, attached to an impressively out-there rainbow bridge leading to Asgard. He’s played by Idris Elba, outfitted with a golden suit of armor—complete with a horned Viking helmet—and multi-colored eyes of unfathomable, almost doleful depths, which is not unusual considering that he stands gazing out at the myriad universes and the billions of lives arrayed in front of him all day. Although that’s literally all you know about him, you find yourself hoping Heimdall won’t be killed off, if only because he is a good reassurance that while onscreen, “Thor” is a comic-book movie that isn’t afraid to be a comic-book movie. Is Heimdall substantial to the plot? Not really. But if you’re making an off-world superhero adventure, why not indulge a little in the cool details of that faraway land, unbound by any expectations of realism? Since it seems superhero movies are required to culminate in explosive, expensive world-destroying that involves an alien ship descending on Earth and wreaking havoc, however, here the finale involves the alignment of the planets over the Greenwich Observatory, in England and not in Asgard. It’s another noisy, who-can-get-back-up-the-fastest-after-being-thrown-fifty-feet battle, although here the film experiments with Thor and the bad guy tumbling though invisible, randomly-situated “portals” that suck them up mid-brawl onto different worlds and then spit them back out again. True, it makes things marginally more interesting, but all super-important, fate-of-the-universe match-ups are getting stale. The superhero, out-matched but redoubtable still, needs to delay the destruction while his human friends scientifically fiddle with buttons and try not to get killed. Here in Thor: The Dark World it’s no different, and you wish that something other was at stake than our skyscrapers. Wouldn’t it be so much more exciting if Asgard instead recieved the attention it deserves?
Let’s face it: Disney princess movies do not, in general, represent women well and do not teach little girls useful life lessons. This doesn’t stop most people from loving them anyhow, but there are also many who deplore the films for their sexism, and we mustn’t neglect them. The usual punching bags are 1937′s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1950′s Cinderella and, especially, 1959′s Sleeping Beauty, the last princess movie that Disney would produce before The Little Mermaid, which kicked off the company’s progressive Golden Age in the 1980s, thirty years later. It’s convenient to bunch these three films together as the terrible trio, outdated in values (if not in quality), but they were made years apart from each other and it shows. When it comes to positive representation of women, Cinderella is a marked improvement from Snow White, whose sexism is rampant, and Sleeping Beauty isn’t sexist at all. This amelioration in attitudes cannot be explained solely by the evolution of the princess, the lead female character, into something with little more chutzpah and independence. However unlikely, the prince has a lot to do with it. The nameless prince of Snow White is briefly seen and rarely missed; Prince Philip of Sleeping Beauty is an energetic, witty hero with a modern outlook—and wisecracks—on marriage. One might assume that the prince becomes increasingly important only at the expense of the princess. But that is fundamentally incorrect and very much untrue.
Snow White is particularly insulting to women because the prince could well have been a cardboard cutout for all his involvement in the story—he’s almost nonexistent. And yet that’s worse than if he were the main character. What makes Snow White the most sexist of all the Disney princess movies is not Snow White, who likes to sweep and cook and is a genial, gullible soul, but the prince himself, both unimportant and important. It’s sexist when the princess is saved by a prince who hasn’t earned the respect of neither the princess nor the audience and yet, cheers are expected when he comes to save the day. I didn’t cheer at the end of Snow White but probably would have had Grumpy laid the prince low with the blunt end of a pickaxe. In Sleeping Beauty, Prince Philip isn’t just a prince in name who pops up when convenient. He proves that he is deserving of his princess by fighting for her hand.
Prince Philip’s valor and bravery doesn’t work adversely and negatively accentuate Aurora’s titular role, dormant as it is, because she isn’t the archetypical maiden waiting for her prince to come and rescue her. At first, sure, she wistfully longs for her “dream prince”—a vague, impersonal, if important, figure in her mind. But all her girlish fantasies become insignificant once she meets Philip. Aurora never learns he is a prince, and Philip never realizes that she is the princess to whom he was betrothed a long time ago. And yet the wonderful thing is they still fall in love with each other. Aurora actually doesn’t care if her true love is or isn’t royalty. In fact, when the fairies reveal her royal status and her imminent marriage to a prince, she is—not knowing that said prince is Phillip—inconsolably distraught. At that moment, she would rather be a peasant girl in love than a princess. She doesn’t want servants or a kingdom or a closetful of pretty dresses, she wants the man she loves. The fact that Philip is actually her dream prince is a clever twist that reinforces the classic fairy-tale trope while switching things up refreshingly. It’s not “wait for your prince” but, undeniably, “true love conquers all.”
Both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White feature similarly plain-vanilla imagery— a princess under a sleeping spell, which is lifted only when her true love kisses her. But there are as many differences between Aurora and Snow White as there are between Prince Phillip and his insultingly empty predecessor. Aurora was never abused as a maidservant in her own home—she had a happy and innocent childhood full of love and care. She was never cursed or hated or abused because of her femininity, unlike Snow White or Cinderella—a sorceress was spurned, and in revenge she directed her spite onto Aurora, a baby at the time. (The sorceress, Malificient, is another interesting female character. Unlike Cinderella’s Evil Stepmother or Snow White’s Queen, her hatred of Aurora never stems from jealousy or envy. She just wants to kill her because, as a independent, powerful woman, she can.)Aurora was a victim but never victimized herself. Her cursed sleep has no direct correlation with her strength of character or lack of it. And it’s strange that Sleeping Beauty is perceived as sexist merely because a prince does all the heroic work while the princess lies under a curse. To believe that having the true love of your life slay a dragon while you are incapacitated by magic indicates your inability to handle the problem yourself is plain bizarre. Isn’t it to be expected that a man like Philip risk life and limb for his beloved? If the roles had been reversed, would it still be sexist?
Yes, Disney could have been über-progressive in 1959 by making Aurora an Amazonian warrior-princess, or not have her cursed in the first place so she can wield the Sword of Truth herself. But that is a different movie, and it’s called Brave. That animated film, released in 2012 by Disney, would have ideally shown girls that a strong and independent young woman needs neither a man nor marriage to feel secure or happy. The filmmakers squander that, however, by insuring that that every male character in the film is dimwitted or silly or the subject of all-ages derision. Princess Merida, the heroine, cannot imagine a permanent union, or even a conversation, with any of her suitors, who are all incompetent idiots crafted solely for comic relief, and we can’t seriously expect her to. Brave chose (what can only be described as) the easy way out by avoiding a strong male character out of fear that a hero would compromise the independence and diminish the fierceness of Merida—or worse, that it would raise the very ghost of such possible criticism.
Whatever gave them that idea? Brave, fundamentally, never touched once upon what Sleeping Beauty and the other princess films were invested in with every fabric of their being—true love, the type that only exists in fairy tales. Not in this one, though, purportedly “modern” and “evolved,” because Merida regards marriage with contempt. That’s fine, she’s young and hasn’t found anyone worthy. But would she have changed her mind if her Prince Phillip came riding along? Would that have raised the ire of feminists? It does make you wonder why there hasn’t been any Disney princess film that has the princess slaying a dragon alongside her prince—before getting married and living happily ever after in quiet domestic bliss as wife and husband. And until that happens, I prefer the story of Sleeping Beauty to Brave’s by a long shot. I would rather watch Aurora and Prince Philip waltzing in a woodland glade and warbling Tchaikovsky because if happily-ever-after romances, real love stories like the one of Sleeping Beauty, don’t happen in Disney fairy-tales, where would they? Not in real life, with all its double standards and fake outrage. It’s not archaic, it’s timeless; it’s not something to deride, it’s something to love. And it’s time for people to wake up and smell the roses.
The newest film by Terrence Malick, To The Wonder, with Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko as two lovers, has become somewhat legendary for all the twirling it contains. Kurylenko twirls in Mont-St. Michel and in Paris, in France, while Affleck watches and holds her tenderly; he is an American and brings her and her child back to Oklahoma with him. There, she twirls also, while he watches and holds her tenderly, but he also begins to wonder if he did the right thing bringing her over to the States, to the ugly Middle America where he works as an environmental inspector, and she does too. The Tree of Life, Malick’s previous work from 2011, was full of twirling (although not as much if I remember correctly) but Jessica Chastain did so as the personification of natural grace, and it made sense in a movie that was both beautiful and alive. That film startled you. When the camera follows Kurylenko drifting down the wide streets of her new neighborhood, grasping her shawl tighter around her thin body and glancing around like a lost child, you can tell she’s feeling alienated and alone and I felt sorry for her; when she caresses and kisses Affleck through the white translucent curtains of their window, even writhing around on the carpet, you can tell she’s very much in love and I feel happy for her. But that’s the extent of my emotional involvement in this movie—others will be enraptured, certainly, and others will give up. I was neither exactly bored nor moved by the onscreen proceedings of To the Wonder. The music and the visuals together make it an attractive film. Perhaps because I noticed things that seemed odd—take for instance, the couple’s house, which could be called tastefully and sparsefully decorated except that the better word to describe it would be empty. It’s a large thing perched on the corner of a very wide, open street in a housing development somewhere in Oklahoma that resembles an aggrandized suburb. Inside, Affleck sits on a chair in the middle of a room and reads a book while Kurylenko looks out the window; the camera lingers on cutlery, coldly gleaming on the countertop, when they do the dishes together. It seems emotionally aloof and put-on. That’s why I was happy when Rachel McAdams appeared to steal Affleck away for all too brief a time, as a former childhood flame and proprietor of a ranch, she appears in golden wheat fields and among snorting horses, and brings more life and real flare into the picture. You feel as if she knew what to do when the cameras started rolling, and she didn’t have to twirl as much to convey emotion. With Javier Bardem, who, with a thick accent, provides much of the philosophical God-querying voiceover as a local priest with a crisis of belief. From 2013. B–
“Elysium” has a nice premise: a 140-odd years from now, the privileged few live in a giant space station, Elysium, an idyllic habitat complete with suburban mansions and swimming pools, high above the polluted and diseased Earth. But that’s where the good ideas end. “Elysium” involves a desperate man named Max, who has only a few days to live after a radiation accident at work, and a race to upload society-upending data—which a lot of bad people would kill for— from his brain into a central computer of Elysium before his time runs out. Doing so would make everyone, a citizen of Elysium, and therefore privy to free health care—you lie down in a bed that heals you if you are stricken with a degenerative illness and reconstructs your face if it was blown off by a grenade. The citizens of Elysium have this technology, the billions suffering on Earth don’t. Max, played by Matt Damon, and about to die, wants to get up there and heal himself. At the same time, the idea is to save humanity, and his loved one’s daughter, because he and some other criminals got their hands on lines and lines of code that would reset the whole system and have it stored in Max’s brain with the help of an exo-skeleton, which also grants him superhuman strength.
The film is directed by Neil Blomkamp, who made “District 9.” The great thing about that movie, sharp and almost satiric, was that it could be summed up in a few words: NO ALIENS ALLOWED. It reversed the dominant alien-invasion concept, and was a stroke of pure genius. What “Elysium” has to say is neither particularly sharp nor satiric, nor does it awe you; it’s an angry fists-in-the-air film about how the wealthy will fall and social equality will prevail. The ending has gleaming medical ships descending down from Elysium and healing the world, which is nice, to be sure, but while watching all I could think of was how “Elysium” seemed to be the product of a group of film students’ Red Bull-besotted minds, while they were playing HALO and television coverage of Occupy Wall Street was on in the background. “Elysium” has great visual effects, and has moments that would make for an impressive reel, but the story reeks of an amateur, inferior, careless, flawed quality.
There’s a scene early on that demonstrates the unblinking iciness of the Elysium security chief, played by Jodie Foster, and a lot of other things too. Three spaceships, full of refugees seeking medical attention, launch from Earth and attempt to reach Elysium. Foster, with parsed lips, and the rest of her team watch the trajectory of the ships on a big screen which flashes big words for the audience’s sake. She doesn’t order them to be shot down immediately but instead sends word down to one of her agents on Earth, who fires missiles up into the atmosphere with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. Two of the ships are blown up; the other does basic evasive maneuvering and manages to land on Elysium (what happened to the missile?), strewing refugees all across perfectly kept green lawns and causing cocktail glasses to be dropped in panic. Homeland Security, represented by gleaming red robots, run around with Tasers. It’s a big scandal. You bet. My mouth was agape with incredulity. Are you telling me that the space station home to the richest people (not) on Earth doesn’t have some kind of automated defense system? Can anyone pick up a big gun and send a missile up to Elysium, or with a little amount of luck fly a spaceship onto someone’s mansion? This might seem like nitpicking, but it’s the kind of filling-in-the-details world-building that is woefully lacking and makes “Elysium,” so full of holes that it’s sinking, suffer. C+
It’s a precious rarity when a film allows the whole spectrum of human emotion to be experienced—despair, exuberant joy, sadness, happiness, awe, fear, when all these emotions are woken up. It doesn’t happen a lot, despite it being what we go to the movies for, to be moved and entertained as the same time. To be emotionally involved in a story that yet is a effortless joy to watch, and great fun. “Fiddler on the Roof,” Norman Jewison’s adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name, is a large Hollywood production that can very easily make you laugh and cry and sing. It’s the story of a poor Jewish peasant, Tevye, and his large family in 19th century Ukrainian Russia, who suffer through the hardships that befall every impoverished peasant in that time and more, seeing as Orthodox Christian Russia does not look kindly upon the Jews, and three of his daughters are ready to be married in a changing world. It’s the story of the small village of Anatevka. It’s the story of the fiddler on the roof, the personifcation of tradition, as he heralds the dawn each morning with his music from a perch as precarious as the situation of the Jewish peasants. It’s stirring and vivid, tragic and uplifting, pure and simple, old-fashioned and timeless.
Tevye, inhabited by Chaim Topol, is the father of the family and the village milkman. He’s a big simple and sturdy man, and he can take most things in stride. It’s a hard life, but it’s what God gave him (though that doesn’t mean Tevye can’t ask him why) and it’s how it always was. He isn’t bowed down by his miserable existence. When he breaks into song, such as “If I Were a Rich Man,” and lifts his arms in the air while shaking his large chest side-to-side and thumping his heart, and stamps gaily around his barn above his horse and his chickens and cows, it’s breathtakingly assaultive. It’s so full to the brim with life, and the joy of living, that you can’t imagine it’ll get more buoyant or happy. Topol turns it into a celebratory song, one that makes you want to get up and shout and stamp your feet and shake. There are others like it, such as the one aptly called “To Life!,” where Tevye and other Jewish peasants do dance and drink in the pub with each other and even with the Orthodox Christians, and another at his eldest daughter’s wedding (where the dancers link arms and kick their legs out and slide forward low, kicking up dust onto their traditional black garb while balancing bottles on their hats. Oy vey!)
“Fiddler on the Roof” looks lovingly upon tradition, the glue by which Tevye’s family remain together, and regards progess as an unstoppable and ultimately liberating force, which people like Tevye don’t particularly like, understandably, but who said they had to? They are all the products of their time, and his time was when he was the strict but loving father whose word was law in the household. This has been seen countless times on film, but what happens when this tradition is upended, less. It all starts when Tevye’s three eldest daughters, one after the other, express their wishes to be married to people he doesn’t like. His eldest Tzeitel is in love with Motel, the hapless tailor. Tevye doesn’t understand it, and doesn’t like it, especially because he has already married her off to the butcher, a man his own age, but after musing on it (in one of the many “On the Other Hand” soliquoys) agrees to it. His second daughter leaves him really no choice when she asks him for his blessing, and not his permission, as she is already pledged to Perchik, a forward-thinking student. Tevye is not very pleased but, after stroking his beard and weighing the pros and cons, gives his blessing and his permission.
His third daughter, however, elopes with a sensitive blond Russian Christian peasant, h0wever and marries outside the faith. The residents of Anatevka are evicted following an edict from the tsar, and cast out left and right. The film ends with Tevye and his wife and his remaining children on the road with all their belongings. As he pulls his wagon in the mud, he hears the strains of music and turns to see the fiddler following him and his family. With a smile and a jerk of his head, Tevye indicates the fiddler to follow and continues on their journey. I wished we could, too.
One must accept, nowadays, that when a major Hollywood studio introduces (by way of reinvention) a new superhero, the film that emerges will most certainly be an “origins story,” meaning that much time is spent on the making of the hero, and great–or if you look at it another way, very little–importance is placed on the ending, so that it sets up satisfactorily another story, and so forth, until we have ourselves a very profitable little franchise. Some might grumble at the first film which seems to be an expensive probe, testing the waters to gauge the general interest, and which, standing alone against more virtuous work, has not much value. But, if done successfully, we all agree that the next one has much potential to be great, now that the brand is a guaranteed money-maker and executives have relaxed momentarily. I thought about this after watching Disney’s “The Lone Ranger,” which is certainly the most perfect example of an origins story.
The film, made by the “Pirates of the Caribbean” team, runs for two hours and a half, and not until the last thirty minutes does the Lone Ranger really come out with guns blazing. Only for those last thirty minutes do you have the white ten-gallon hat, the tin star, the lasso, the horse, the attitude, and the Lone Ranger himself, very comically uprightly played by Armie Hammer. After much thinking, the man arrives at the conclusion that he should take the law into his own hands for the good of all. So, he gallops on top of a speeding train, saves the day, and then rides off into the desert, because if you resolutely utter a few words and disappear into the sunset you are not a genuine gunslinger. I would add, “Hi-ho, Silver! Away!”, which I think is a splendid line, but apparently—it is used once in the film—it’s too cartoonish to treat without ridicule. Go figure.
But, anyhow, onto the sequels. The next adventure which just might have more distinction and creativity to it. Barring the fact that sequels just might never materialize, which destroys the purpose of “The Lone Ranger” really existing, one cannot say it made a good case for itself—it curiously squanders itself, and possibly its next installments as well, with deeply confusing frame narrative in which a wizened old Tonto in 1930s San Francisco relates the story which happened many decades ago. Why? Who knows. Tonto—also known as a less bavard Jack Sparrow, also known as an uninspired Johnny Depp—now that his Wild Wild West days are spent, works all day in a fairground exhibit, stiff and immobile as the “Noble Savage.” He tells the origins story of the Lone Ranger, and his mystical Native American friend Tonto, meaning himself, to a disbelieving young boy dressed up as a cowboy.
To reiterate: the film begins with Old Tonto and it ends with Old Tonto, for some reason, hobbling brokenly into the desert in a long, unbroken shot over which the credits roll (I didn’t stick to see how long it lasted). But, again, why? This narrative framing makes the heroic exploits of the Lone Ranger belong in the past; apparently, the story is over before it has even properly begun. It is really the most befuddling thing in a film that is otherwise straightforward and honest in its reason of existence—to serve a higher purpose, and not itself.
Photo via Google Images.
The best scene in “Man of Steel” is also its purest, and simplest, and least complicated, and many people happen to agree. It happens when Superman takes his first flight—streaking daringly low across continents, rocketing like a supersonic bullet piercing through clouds, and gracefully soaring up into space. A noble, stirring feeling of absolute awe emerges. I was expecting more moments like that in Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s film, but they never materialized. Instead, New York City once again bears the wrath of some extra-terrestrial evildoers descending from outer space. Armored superhumans grapple together and are forcibly thrown into unfortunate skyscrapers many times over, emerging without a scratch, until it becomes monotony, and the same skyscrapers predictably topple over with a resounding crash of steel and glass over screaming throngs of helpless denizens. Instead of terror or terrible thrills, tedium settles in to stay.
Perhaps that is unfair. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that “Man of Steel” has its moments, or rather had the potential for so many more moments like the aforementioned one. It’s odd because it seems to recognize that also—that it could have been the polar opposite of the “Iron Man” films, where gleaming technology and snarky one-liners are replaced with a little inspiring profundity. Or, at least, something more akin to what Russell Crowe’s Jor-El likes saying aloud—how his son will be like a god to the human race, how they will love him and admire him, how he will show them the path to greatness. That’s the story that I was hoping for, as someone who has never read a comic book nor seen the Superman movies. A story about an indestructible superman, born on a distant planet light-years away and raised in the cornfields of Kansas. No need for fancy-pants gadgets or relationship problems. He’s beyond that. At the end of the day, he still calls himself an American, and embodies all the American ideals. It was Michael Caine who said that if Batman is the way the world sees America,Superman is the way America sees itself.
If “Man of Steel” was really that movie, one could forgive all its atrociously redundant and boring battles, and, in general, its lazy script. However, everything that hints at greatness—there are some scenes with Kevin Costner, the young Superman’s adopted father, that seem to be written by an eleven-year old but are imbued with clumsy earnestness which I don’t take particular offense to—are overshadowed by gigantic explosions straight out of whichever summer blockbuster of your picking. Ah, but there are American flags flying in the dust and rubble, and in the background of nearly every scene! There are central elements that work, such as the British hunk by the name of Henry Cavill, who is shy, unassuming, yet when he stands on the Antarctic ice and, closing his eyes, turns his head towards the sun he resembles an otherworldly man. The characters of Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams, and Superman’s adopted mother, played by Diane Lane, however, are just badly written in all aspects, and Michael Shannon gives a valiant turn as General Zod, but what lingers in the mind is his scowl and strange haircut. Not to mention his stubborn unwillingness to give up the fight, yawn, already, after being slammed into whatever’s still standing for the sixteenth time.
The most disappointing thing, at the end of the day, is that I know that the Superman movie I (perhaps naively) wanted to see—simple, honest, serious, and with some self-respect that is lacking in most of today’s superhero movies—will probably never be made by Hollywood, because it would be considered boring, and boring movies don’t make a lot of money. Better to muck around in the mud with the rest, and, oh, can we get the same VFX house that Michael Bay used for the whole third act? “Man of Steel” should have fully committed to being that which it occasionally yearns to be, or could have been. After all, sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith…
Photo via Google Images.
Catch Me If You Can, the 2002 true-crime caper film by Steven Spielberg, is made out of contrasting and oftentimes self-contradictory sentiments and elements. It’s brisk, breezy, and blithe, with a perpetually jazzy spring in its step, about a teenager who conned his way to riches for a few years and the FBI agent who doggedly pursued him in pre-Vietnam 1950s, cast in an attractively nostalgic hue, where being an airline pilot meant all the good things in the world—especially if you were a fake one. At the same time, however, it resembles a tragic coming-of-age tale, harsh rather than gentle, mean rather than indulgent.
Put it this way: On one hand there are the gauzily golden scenes where Leonardo DiCaprio, hidden behind his Aviators and Pan-Am pilot cap, marches through the Miami airport arm in arm with a oblivious gaggle of giggling stewardesses, who are absurdly successful in distracting police officers and law enforcement agents who are teeming around in wait for Frank Abagnale Jr., the “James Bond of the sky,” the mischievous young prodigy with quick wits and quicker feet after whom Tom Hanks runs after comically, the boyish charmer who can stroll up to an attractive teller and, with a few choice words, cause her to blush and chortle uncontrollably and fall in love while he extricates various details concerning bank checks (ah, these wonderful years that were…). Catch Me If You Can, when required, operates on a rough but sustained level of comic incredulity that is required from the audience, like a sweet adolescent fantasy.
And yet, inseparably, there is also the story of a privileged, promising young man wrecked apart by his parents’ sudden divorce and financial woes of his father and who runs away from home. He turns to forging checks and swindling millions from the banks with intuitive, innate ease, and proceeds to lie to everyone including his own father. Frank Abagnale Jr. becomes the airline pilot (and the doctor, and the lawyer as well) and flies the friendly skies, but—a telling detail—every Christmas Eve, out of forlorn loneliness, he calls the FBI agent whom he has narrowly escaped from several times to plead to be left alone. This is the epitome of miserableness, and Tom Hanks, on the other line, cackles in glee. Spoiler alert: Frank is eventually caught, and thrown in prison, after having languished for what seems to be a couple of years in a brutal, cold Marseilles lockup. But he’s given a second chance on account of his brilliant mind—working dull office hours for the same FBI department that caught him, analyzing fraudulent checks and other things that he knows. (He accepts.)
One would expect Frank Abagnale Jr., the enterprising, fearless young man who refused to be beat down by the dregs of reality, to pull a Shawshank Redemption and escape to some blue Pacific shore, and he does try—not showing up for work one day and running off to the airport all dressed up in his pilot uniform, in a last-ditch attempt to recapture the now unattainable. But Tom Hanks, wiser than he seems, knows the ultimate truth. The viewer does too, and so does Frank. Everyone knows, which makes it all the more depressing. Only half of Catch Me If You Can is sentimental and sweet, and, in context, it gets swiftly overpowered. The ending might be intended as being a somewhat “happy” one, considering the alternatives, but it is not cheerful nor does it bring a smile to one’s face. At least, it didn’t to mine.
I can’t say the sober, even quite despondent dénouement of this film lowers my opinion of it as a whole, because I can’t say I didn’t see it coming, seeing the emphasis on the non-teenage fantasy parts that forewarned an ending in tune with reality. Steven Spielberg’s love of always-complicated-never-easy family relationships (specifically father-son dynamics, one can argue) in his films has become famous, understandably so, and it manifests itself strongly here. But, although some of the exchanges between Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Walken, who plays his father, are touching, even wrenching, why were they there?
The thing is that Catch Me If You Can is never as profound as it could be or thinks it is, if Spielberg had been inclined to steer his ship so resolutely in that one direction, nor is it, ultimately, a fun light-hearted little gem, which, in my opinion, is what it should have been. Why can’t we just enjoy this sweet adolescent fantasy without feeling the weight of the consequences and the knowledge of the causes of Frank Abagnale Jr.‘s daring escapades, so heavy they ground the whole thing irrevocably? I feel fulfilled watching Leonardo DiCaprio charming pretty girls and living the good life while Tom Hanks huffs and puffs after him, thank you very much.
Photo via Google Images.
The strength of 2007’s No Country For Old Men, the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, would be its minimalistic genre adherence, the considerable simplicity of its story—about three different men in 1980s Texas whose fates are tied together by a bag of drug money, “one harrowingly extended chase sequence,” as a critic put it—in which a lasting sense of muted menace, dread, and dark foreboding pervades persistently and ultimately becomes its strongest asset. That carries the movie—this intentionally very bleak, very flat atmosphere, carefully constructed and cultivated by the Coen Bros., where the specter of violent death is always hanging above, discussed plentifully and witnessed even more. This is a film where you know death is coming, and you just have to sit back and watch. Well, No Country For Old Men is handsomely crafted, sparingly yet effectively, and is morbidly engrossing in large parts, but that does not stop it from being dull, so very dull.
That came as a genuine revelation to me, for No Country For Old Men has been acclaimed as nothing short of a modern masterpiece. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find more than one or two negative opinions about it within the boundaries of good film criticism. (However, rest assured that Internet commenters are quick to find it “rubbish,” “overrated,” and ”boring,” among other such delightfully pithy opinions.) More importantly though, I find it difficult to be a convincing contrarian on this matter when I don’t really know what in particular irked me about No Country For Old Men. I watched it a week ago, and would not object to having my memory of doing so obliterated, if only because there was nothing remarkable about it, and so nothing really remarkable about the movie itself.
Maybe that’s not entirely true. I remember some scenes vividly—one where Josh Brolin is sitting on a motel bed with his bag full of $100 bills, waiting with shotgun in hand. He’s right in front of his room door, and behind it is the man who’s been hunting him down, the polite psychopathic hitman played by Javier Bardem. It’s dark save for the light coming from under the door, and only nigh imperceptible creaking and footsteps in the hallway outside disturb the careful silence. The tension is masterfully ratcheted up to near unbearable levels.
That’s a good scene. But on a whole, No Country For Old Men is rather disappointing. Tommy Lee Jones plays the third man, an aging, weary sherif, who seems to mostly sit around in coffee shops and increasingly muse about all the violence and death which he finds he can no longer deal with, because it’s just too much. He feels “overmatched,” as he tells his ex-lawman uncle. He’s the protagonist, I suppose, since Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss is never very likable and Bardem, well, he plays the part of the relentless killer, invoking curiosity with his mannerisms and quirks, “principles” they are referred to in the film, but still quite a villain. Some have enthused at the proposition that it all makes splendid, strange sense in Anton Chigurh’s head under that odd haircut, making him fascinatingly deep and perhaps not as “evil” in the sense of the word. Why? Because he is a man of violence, who understands it, who was bred in this world of death and dying, much like Llewyn—but unlike his prey, he is the creepy personification of it. Perhaps. But I just saw a psychopath with somewhat redeeming qualities attributed to the crazy world we live in now, as such characters are wont to have nowadays onscreen.
No Country For Old Men’s dullness comes from the fact that it doesn’t really have anything to say, and that it takes a long while—an intemittently exciting and generally ploddingly stale, while—to say it. It’s quality filmmaking throughout, yes, but with too few moments of brilliance which we’d expect from the makers of Fargo. From what I heard, it’s pretty faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, which might be part of the problem, but I wouldn’t know seeing as I haven’t read it. And I feel no urge to read the source material either after watching No Country For Old Men, which is a shame, because I do love a good book.