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Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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.

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Thor: The Dark World

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?

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Why Sleeping Beauty Isn’t Sexist

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.

To The Wonder

To The Wonder

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

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+

Fiddler on the Roof

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.

Where This Train is Headed, It Doesn’t Quite Know

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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 Hero We Need, and Perhaps the Movie We Deserve

man-of-steel-trailerThe 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.

Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can”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 Dull Bleakness of “No Country For Old Men”

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.