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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.

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.