Category Archives: Review

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The Lego Movie

I DON’T EVEN KNOW where to begin with The Lego Movie.  As evi­denced by the finan­cial suc­cess of the film and the Rot­ten Toma­toes rat­ing that is as high as Mon­sters Inc. (a remark­able achieve­ment in itself), the great major­ity of movie­go­ers and crit­ics found them­selves enchanted and even enam­ored. Pity me, then, as a lonely anom­aly, who will never under­stand the innocu­ous joys that The Lego Movie has to offer me, or decry me as a con­trar­ian, for what could I pos­si­bly find wrong with such a beloved kid’s movie? Every­thing.  The Lego Movie is con­structed as a for­mu­laic action-adventure fable, where the unas­sum­ing every­man dis­cov­ers he’s the Cho­sen One, and is com­pelled to dis­cover unortho­dox meth­ods of defeat­ing a fear­some vil­lain, most involv­ing inner for­ti­tude and peppy assertive­ness, after being recruited by a mot­ley crew of goody-gooders.  I can only pre­sume it’s meant to be this way, and that its envi­sioned redeem­ing grace is that is it sup­posed to be a tongue-in-cheek send-up of such movies. To this end, inspi­ra­tional clap­trap is mixed with irrev­er­ent silli­ness and satire, and a few funny gags—the per­cent­age of those that elicit more than a mild chuckle is Lilliputian—punctuate long stretches of run-of-the-mill tedium in which you’re not quite cer­tain what the film­mak­ers hoped to achieve. You keep wait­ing for some­thing to change but no, the only twist that comes is a cringe-worthy cop-out that destroys any inter­est you might have had in the ongo­ing onscreen pro­ceed­ings. The Lego Movie wouldn’t have been so frus­trat­ingly hum­drum if it had really gone and plumbed the depths of absur­dity rather than being super­fi­cially quirky. In essence, it’s an unimag­i­na­tive film mas­querad­ing as some­thing smarter, fun­nier, bet­ter. It’s none of these things and the few qual­i­ties it does pos­sess pretty much van­ish after the first ten min­utes. The Lego Movie, it turns out, is not a post­mod­ern mas­ter­piece but a baf­fle­ment, and a mediocre one at best.  This is a film where a thou­sand Lego pieces go fly­ing in every direc­tion each mil­lisec­ond,  and yet I found myself bored by the story and increas­ingly weary of the throw­away wit­ti­cisms (when they occurred). Not to men­tion, spec­u­lat­ing on whether I was sup­posed to find this film visu­ally appeal­ing. If you squint, every­thing looks like a pix­elly jum­ble; if you open your eyes wide and strive to spot every detail, every­thing looks like a painful mess to step on. C–

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How To Train Your Dragon 2

IT’S ALWAYS RARE, and reward­ing, find­ing a sequel to an ani­mated film that sur­passes the qual­ity of the orig­i­nal, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a wor­thy can­di­date for that honor. The first film com­bined heart, humor, and heroic adven­ture to cre­ate the win­ning story of an unlikely duo—the friend­ship of young Viking Hic­cup and his dan­ger­ously cute and ques­tion­ably named dragon,Toothless, was fraught with dan­ger, love, and a sub­stan­tial amount of ini­tial mis­un­der­stand­ing. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, there’s more har­mony, to be cer­tain; the worlds of burly, bum­bling Viking war­riors and snarling, goofy drag­ons have been united thanks to the efforts of Hic­cup and Tooth­less. But on one of their enter­pris­ing for­ays out­side the island of Berk, our heroes dis­cover an incon­ve­nient truth: not every­one under­stands drag­ons like they do, and some, most wor­ry­ingly, have dif­fer­ent ideas of what to do with them. Heart, humor, and heroic adven­ture once again ensue in even greater capac­ity . But it’s worth see­ing How To Train Your Dragon 2 just to see the most mem­o­rable five min­utes of ani­ma­tion in recent years.  As Hic­cup, stub­born as always, sets out on his own to seek out the fear­some dragon con­querer Drago Blud­vist and plead the case for mutual appre­ci­a­tion among earthly crea­tures, he and Tooth­less find them­selves soar­ing over a vast dream­like car­pet of golden clouds. You just know they will encounter some­one or some­thing, but you aren’t pre­pared to see an armored fig­ure ter­ri­fy­ingly rise up from the clouds below them—some kind of a pagan sor­cerer, tall and ter­ri­ble with a spiked mask and a staff, stand­ing erect on the back on a gigan­tic dragon. Who is this per­son? Are we still watch­ing How to Train Your Dragon 2, the block­buster sequel from Dream­works Ani­ma­tion? It’s a beau­ti­fully haunt­ing, uncom­fort­ably strange and won­der­ful scene that words can­not define appro­pri­ately. While dragon-flying is usu­ally rel­e­gated to ener­getic, fre­netic show­cases full of gutsy swoop­ing and elated hol­ler­ing, and while those scenes, of which there are plenty in How To Train Your Dragon 2, pos­sess their own thrills, to be sure, they appear com­mon­place com­pared to this mag­nif­i­cent sequence that truly makes your jaw drop. I would wish for more of these stun­ners, but once is more than enough. A

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Gravity

IT WAS QUITE the genius stroke of Hol­ly­wood clev­er­ness how the pro­mo­tional mate­ri­als Alfonso Cuarón’s stuck-in-space thriller Grav­ity touted the omi­nously sug­ges­tive line, “Don’t let go.” After all, if there’s one uni­ver­sal and unimag­in­able fear that 99.9% of movie­go­ers have never expe­ri­enced but can nev­er­the­less vividly imag­ine with­out much effort, it must be the sheer ter­ror of los­ing grip on what­ever was teth­er­ing you to humanly exis­tence and tum­bling off into the far­thest reaches of cold, dark space. But through­out the film, the pro­tag­o­nist of Grav­ity, an emo­tion­ally injured and increas­ingly belea­guered astro­naut played by San­dra Bul­lock, reg­u­larly finds her­self not in dan­ger of let­ting go but rather fac­ing the dire con­se­quences of not let­ting go. And therein lies the beauty of Grav­ity. “Don’t let go”—if you let go, you die—represents what Grav­ity is on the sur­face, which is a sur­vival thriller set in space, a race-against-the-clock actioner that phys­i­cally pits our hero­ine against incred­i­ble odds and over­whelm­ing obsta­cles on her jour­ney to get back to Earth. “Let go”—if you don’t let go, you won’t ever live—succinctly sums up the psy­cho­log­i­cal jour­ney that Ms. Bullock’s char­ac­ter must undergo in the length of ninety min­utes. This para­dox­i­cal par­al­lelism sounds cheesy, and while it is, in a way, Mr. Cuarón presents the two themes together with­out embell­ish­ment or empha­sis on the melo­dra­matic, which results in a nat­u­rally occur­ring and won­der­fully organic kind of cheesy.  Grav­ity is not high art but per­fectly enter­tain­ing— the kind of Hol­ly­wood block­buster that enrap­tures you on the edge of your seat by value of its dra­mat­i­cal purity as much as by the stun­ning visual effects and other expen­sive tech­ni­cal achieve­ments (the sound design and score is notable). Some have claimed that it’s the “small­est” Hol­ly­wood block­buster in a while, or an inti­mate indie film cloaked as a big and loud movie-event expe­ri­ence. It’s not. It’s a big, loud movie-event expe­ri­ence pulled off with sophis­ti­cated restraint and min­i­mal­ism. With George Clooney as George Clooney, a suave vet­eran astro­naut with a pen­chant for lis­ten­ing to coun­try music while lazily jet­pack­ing around in Earth’s orbit. From 2013. A 

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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.

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.