Archive for the ‘one of the year's worst’ category

Transcendence

April 20, 2014

20140420-203047.jpgIn the slack and dozy sci-fi drama Transcendence, Johnny Depp speaks in the same mechanical drone when he’s human as when his consciousness exists only as a series of bits and bytes. Depp is Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher who has already “uploaded” the mind of a monkey to a supercomputer in his lab. When he’s shot by an anti-AI terrorist group, Will’s mind is likewise digitally preserved, and he gets his partner and wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) to put him up on the internet, as though he were a kitten video someone could post on YouTube. Gee, does that mean Will is responsible for the recent Heartbleed virus?

Transcendence is a goofball futuristic think piece without an eyedropper’s worth of (intentional) humor in it. The well-meaning Will, it turns out, loses his humanity once he dies and is reincarnated as a ghost in the machine. He games the stock market to bankroll a vast facility to pipe more power into himself. This power he uses to work on nanotechnology that saves people’s lives but also connects them to his consciousness. In his delusions of benevolent AI godhood, Will doesn’t realize he’s ramping up to a planet entirely jacked into himself — and, oh yes, he’s starting to pursue the new hobby of creating humans.

This would all fit better in a Wired op-ed than in a movie, especially one that loses track of its protagonist so quickly and focuses on the various people, including Evelyn, who debate over whether Will should be stopped or, indeed, can be stopped. The debaters also include Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany as fellow researchers and Kate Mara as a dour leader of the anti-AI movement. We’re meant, I think, to be frightened by Will’s overstepping human ethical bounds, but Depp stays so bland throughout that Will never really seems a threat. And the script, by Jack Paglen, short-circuits itself by beginning five years after the movie’s events, effectively spoiling its own ending.

This is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who served as cinematographer on almost all of Christopher Nolan’s films (Nolan takes an executive-producer credit here). Usually cinematographers-turned-directors at least manage a decent-looking first film, but Transcendence is drab and grayish, with occasional abstract images of rain falling (to be fair, this does assume some thematic relevance later) but otherwise as grim as a London afternoon. The movie has zero momentum or urgency — somewhere around the one-hour mark, we get a title declaring “two years later,” and we sink into our seats and wonder why Will’s facility has been allowed by the government to continue unimpeded for two years. The forces gathered against Will are amazingly ineffectual and dithering. They seem to let things go so far because if they didn’t it would be a short movie.

The dullness reaches new lows during the climax, which involves gunplay yet manages to be anticlimactic, with Evelyn begging Will to upload her into the system so she can plant a virus there. Will’s minions, all of whom have been healed by his nanotech, fall to the bullets and are never heard from again. What happens to, say, the blind guy whose sight was restored? Does he die a blind man? Does he die at all, given that the virus shuts down every computer on earth (again, this isn’t a spoiler, due to the idiotic opening scene)? Or does the nanotech heal the bullet-wounded before the system shuts down? Transcendence ultimately has less regard for common humanity than its putative hero-turned-villain ever does. It says that the lives saved by technology, and the countless lives blighted by the global blackout, mean nothing, and government agents and terrorists unite against a demigod that never seems that bad. The movie’s message is as muddled and scrambled as Will’s source code.

Labor Day

February 2, 2014

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Remember when Kate Winslet was the best reason to see a movie — when her presence promised fun, spirit, irrepressible emotion? Winslet is not, I hasten to add, suddenly a bad actress; she’s just gone afield, choosing counterintuitive roles. I don’t want to see her suffer; I want to see her laugh and be dazzling. In recent years it’s almost as if Winslet were doing penance for her earlier work, appearing in one dreary Oscar-chaser after another, and Labor Day is the dreariest yet. Winslet plays Adele, a depressed divorcée who barely leaves the house. Her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) looks out for her, pushing the car’s shifter out of neutral when Adele means to go in reverse. That’s a rather neat metaphor for their relationship: he helps her from being stuck but enables her living in the past. Winslet commits herself to this sorrowful woman, whose agonies, we learn, go beyond mere divorce. (It must be said, though, that Adele maintains a house and raises a child despite no visible job, and later she withdraws what looks like thousands of dollars from her bank account; she must’ve gotten a really sweet deal from her ex-husband.)

All this is just set-up for the real story: an escaped convict, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), approaches Henry at the supermarket while Adele is busy fretting over which brand of light bulb to buy. Frank’s leg is wounded, and he needs somewhere to stay for a few hours. Dazed with fear — though Frank is courteous and not openly threatening — Adele agrees, and Frank ends up spending Labor Day weekend with the two. If you’re going to give up your couch to a convicted murderer, of course, you could do worse than Frank. His demeanor is calm and soothing. He fixes things around the house. He teaches Henry how to throw and hit a baseball. He shows Adele how to make peach pie. He’s the perfect man, perhaps too perfect. He’s essentially a feminine fantasy of a good bad boy (Joyce Maynard wrote the source novel, adapted by Jason Reitman).

The movie doesn’t lapse into manufactured drama, but it forgets to include any real drama, either. Everyone’s emotions seem repressed. Nobody is ever overcome with passion, or joy, or relief, or anything. The characters maintain a dull even keel. The only strong moment in the entire film is when Adele’s neighbor (Brooke Smith), picking up her disabled little boy after having left him in Adele’s care for the evening, gets exasperated at the boy’s struggling vocalizations and slaps him. The boy, of course, is trying to tell his mother that he just saw Frank — the same man who’s been kind to him all day — on TV, which constantly blares warnings of the dangerous criminal on the loose.

Labor Day might be read as a boy’s coming-of-age story (it’s narrated by Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry), a tale about that time his mom met a guy who was a better dad than his real dad. The politics of the piece are null — it could be saying that what this fearful, saddened woman really needs is a real man, and what the flat-affect son needs is a real man as his dad. When we learn the nature of Frank’s crime, it’s set up so that he’s essentially blameless, even though it grew out of his losing his temper. Director Reitman feeds us the past traumas of Frank and Adele in elliptical little flashbacks. They’re two broken people reaching for each other, and that sort of thing.

And so we return to the mystery of Kate Winslet, and why she wants to do a movie in which she sits tenderly holding a dead baby. Life has beaten the shit out of Adele, but I prefer Winslet when she’s beating the shit out of life, and has no need of a man to set her straight on the carpe diem path. It’s twenty years now since she took cinema by storm in Heavenly Creatures, in which she swooned as she announced, “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases — it’s all frightfully romantic!” The Winslet who delivered that line so wonderfully would’ve spat in this morose film’s eye, and its dishrag heroine’s, too. Labor Day doesn’t risk any melodramatic excesses; it sort of sits in a blank, defeated slump. We don’t feel the depth of despair or the spike of joy; it’s a flatline movie. It leaves us with nothing except the aftertaste of our popcorn.

Saving Mr. Banks

December 15, 2013

safe_imageSomeday, an enterprising film programmer will organize a festival entirely devoted to movies about writers whose work was bowdlerized by Disney. The festival could screen Dreamchild (Lewis Carroll), Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie), and Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of P.L. Travers’ struggles with Walt Disney over his studio’s adaptation of her book Mary Poppins. In a great example of corporate synergy, the movie arrives just in time to be sold alongside 50th-anniversary DVDs and Blu-rays of Mary Poppins next year at your local Wal-Mart, which might also sell you stuffed versions of the animated penguins Travers loathed so much. From beyond the grave, Disney has his revenge on the recalcitrant and Magic-Kingdom-allergic Travers. She allowed no film sequels to Mary Poppins, but Saving Mr. Banks, brought to you by the Disney studio, works as a simplistic Disney-version prequel of sorts.

Travers (Emma Thompson) is on her uppers when her agent implores her to entertain the idea of selling Mary Poppins to Disney (Tom Hanks), who has been after the rights for twenty years. He made a promise to his daughters, he says, and he intends to keep it. Travers packs two tidy bags and grudgingly jets off to L.A., where she’s greeted by a hotel room filled with stuffed Disney characters. Here and there, Saving Mr. Banks is almost a whistle-clean Disney rewrite of Barton Fink, with Walt Disney as both studio head Jack Lipnick and the intrusive creative id Madman Mundt: Travers’ Disney-festooned room is about as disturbing as Barton’s room clogged with mosquitoes and wallpaper paste. But it’s also a smiley-face inverse — Travers’ demons and writerly quirks are destined to be gentled by good ol’ Walt’s intuitive understanding of what’s really bugging the old dame.

Director John Lee Hancock, no stranger to sentimental muck (he made The Blind Side), gives us copious elegiac flashbacks to Travers’ childhood and her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), a drunken fantasist who couldn’t hold down a job. The key to Mary Poppins and to Travers, then, is Mr. Banks, who was based on her father; once the movie’s lyricists pen a song in which Mr. Banks redeems himself by fixing a kite, Travers warms up and swallows Disney’s conception, cartoon penguins and all — at least according to this film. This complex woman, a bisexual Zen Buddhist who worked for the British Ministry of Information during World War II, is reduced to a wrinkled little girl who wants her daddy. She resists and maybe resents Disney because his brand of fantasy reminds her of Father (and was far more lucrative), but in the end, Daddy/Disney comes through, even consoling a tearful Travers at Mary Poppins’ premiere.

The movie says that pinched British artistry (actually Australian by birth, though Travers made England her home in 1924) doesn’t stand a chance against vulgar, mass-appeal, glad-handing American showmanship. Judged solely on performances, Saving Mr. Banks is sometimes amusing, if you willfully forget the context; Hanks’ Disney is an amiable yarn-spinner who won’t let his staff refer to him as anything but Walt, and Thompson’s Travers has the sharp wit of the terminally disappointed. They’re playing two vastly disparate icons, though the writing doesn’t help them transcend stereotype — the affable American man who has to defrost the prickly British lady is a trope pretty much as old as cinema. Ultimately the movie, despite its focus on Travers and her sour-faced childhood issues, is a warm tribute to and embrace of the Disneyfication process.

Ol’ Walt knows exactly how to melt Travers: he tells her he can make millions of people all over the world love her father. This, of course, comes at the price of nonsensical ditties and a dance number with penguins and Dick Van Dyke uncorking the worst Cockney accent ever recorded for posterity. It also leads, years later, to a movie that depicts Travers’ daddy as a useless drunk who almost drove her mother to suicide and who finished his time spitting blood in a lonely bedroom. Travers, who died in 1996, would certainly not have cherished seeing her father’s diseased guts laid out for sentimental scrutiny this way, especially not in the service of explaining to audiences why Disney’s triumph over Travers benefited the world and her father’s memory. In real life, Travers hated what Disney did to her creation, and she would have hated what his studio has now done to her.

World War Z

June 22, 2013

world-war-z-portable-20-755x420First of all, zombies don’t run, despite the “Z” in the title of World War Z. The movie’s fast-moving antagonists move en masse and bite people, but they don’t eat people — they’re content simply to spread their pathogen via saliva. That’s the second way the villains in World War Z-for-zombies aren’t zombies. Third, they “turn” within ten seconds or so, and blood-borne pathogens don’t work that way. The biters are sometimes called “the undead,” and a scientist in the movie says that efforts to kill them with lethal viruses failed “because dead people don’t get sick.” But the reason that earlier, more traditional film zombies moved so slowly and clumsily was a little thing called rigor mortis. If you’re bookin’ it down city streets and up the stairs of tall buildings, you’re not dead; you may be something else, like the rage-infected people in 28 Days Later or the depraved sadists in Garth Ennis’ Crossed comic-book series, but you’re not dead. To say otherwise ignores physiological realities like blood circulation.

So, whatever they are, the folks in World War Z are causing mayhem all over the world, and it’s Brad Pitt to the rescue. Pitt is Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who quit to spend more time with his wife (Mirielle Enos) and two darling little daughters. Then the epidemic hits, and the UN pulls Gerry back in. Why? Because he has experience in the field, and because he Knows How to Do All the Things. This is fortunate, because on the very first mission the UN sends Gerry on, the accompanying virologist accidentally kills himself with his own gun before he even gets off the plane. At least I think that’s what happens; the director, Marc Forster, is widely loathed among James Bond buffs for his incoherent handling of the action in Quantum of Solace, and World War Z is Exhibit B in the case against Forster directing anything more strenuous than My Dinner with Andre.

World War Z is based glancingly on a novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), generally admired for its attention to the geopolitical fallout of a real-world zombie apocalypse. As far as I can see, the movie uses the marketable title and practically nothing else; there is no Gerry Lane in the book, at least no character who survives multiple conflagrations by the skin of his teeth, including an airplane crash. (The airplane, happily enough, goes down within presumed walking distance of the WHO Center that Gerry had wanted to reach.) The only way a proper World War Z movie could have been made was as a satirical mockumentary, for a fraction of the eventual price (two hundred million dollars). It seems as though, as soon as Brad Pitt got involved, the movie became about a hero who manages to get in and out of every pandemic hot spot and somehow figures out how to save humanity from the biters.

The big money moments involve hordes of biters — sorry, I’m still not allowing them the dignity of the “zombie” label — literally piling up to scale a massive wall in Jerusalem. But quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. A later scene in which Gerry and some associates sneak past some biters at the WHO Center achieves more suspense with, say, two or three biters. Meanwhile, safe in a Navy ship out in the ocean, Gerry’s wife sits and waits by the phone. Sometimes it rings and she answers it. Once, she takes the initiative and calls Gerry, at the worst possible time, when he and some associates are trying to sneak past some biters in South Korea. You have to be quiet around biters, you see, because “they’re drawn to sound.” Oh, I see. Completely unlike all those earless deaf zombies who wouldn’t bother you if you were leading a brass-band parade in all those George Romero movies.

Other than almost getting Gerry killed (and mercifully sending us all home early) and handing the phone over to Gerry’s UN superior at one point, the wife is useless. Mirielle Enos (who resembles Jessica Chastain enough to qualify this movie as some sort of weird Tree of Life sequel) may have been an impeccable actress in TV things like Big Love and The Killing, but you wouldn’t see that from what she’s allowed to express here. Pitt has more going on with Daniella Kertesz as a tough Israeli soldier, who reminded me a bit of Jenette Goldstein’s hardcore Marine Vasquez in Aliens, only without the dialogue or the humor. Come to think of it, Aliens remains the gold standard of humans-vs.-monsters war movies, and World War Z reaches for that here and there, and generally falls on its face. The action is unscannable spinach, the characters are dull, and the climax is the very pinnacle of anti-climax, making World War Z seem like a terribly expensive prequel to the real movie that exists past the end credits.

The Purge

June 9, 2013

ThePurge_thumbLGIn a scant nine years, or so we’re told by The Purge, the U.S. government will set aside one night a year when crime will go off the books. People can do anything up to and including murder during those twelve hours with impunity. We’re also told that unemployment in this brave new world (run by “the New Founding Fathers”) is at 1%, possibly because poor people are killed by each other and by roving bands of callous rich folks, while rich people can afford to hole up for the night inside their gated communities and state-of-the-art security systems. If this is meant to be a nightmare of a future Romney (or Romney-type) America, it’s as stupid as Dinesh D’Souza’s nightmare of an Obama America. Actually, the politics of this movie are as muddled as its storytelling and world-building.

This noxious sci-fi-horror-satire stars Ethan Hawke as a well-to-do salesman for a security-system company. All his snooty neighbors have made him very rich buying his product, causing some resentment among said neighbors, in one of those neat Screenwriting 101 narrative beats that depress us because we know it’s there as a set-up for a later pay-off. Hawke and his family (wife Lena Headey, daughter Adelaide Kane, son Max Burkholder) prepare to settle in for the night of the Purge, safely behind well-fortified walls and windows. Problem: the daughter’s boyfriend shows up and sneaks into the house before it’s locked down. Additional problem: a homeless man is being pursued by a pack of bloodthirsty rich kids, and the son takes pity and lets him inside.

The rich kids want the homeless man, and their leader — a diabolical smirker played so irritatingly by Rhys Wakefield that I can’t decide whether he’s an annoying actor or playing an annoying character effectively — lays down an ultimatum to the family: Give him to us or die. And so we sigh and realize this whole futuristic milieu is just a clothesline for a routine siege thriller, ripping off elements of Straw Dogs and Panic Room and Assault on Precinct 13 — the 2005 remake of which, by the way, was written by James DeMonaco, who also wrote and directed The Purge. DeMonaco must also have seen and enjoyed The Strangers, because the killers here wear meant-to-be-chilling happy-face masks.

The Purge is only 85 minutes long but feels 185 minutes long; I sat through it in a haze of complete non-surprise. Whenever one of the Good Guys is in danger, someone off-camera will unexpectedly come in with a weapon and neutralize the threat. This happens more than a few times, until it almost becomes a running joke, though there are almost no jokes in the film, other than a teenage girl saying “penis” and a loathsome character getting a quick, bloody, unasked-for nose job. The homeless man (solidly played by Edwin Hodge) doesn’t get a name — he’s credited simply as Bloody Stranger — so, out of solidarity with him, I have declined to name any of the other characters. Not that their names matter. It’s basically Dad, Mom, girl, boy, bad man.

Bloody Stranger is black, and the family (and Bloody Stranger’s tormentors) are white, though Bloody Stranger might as well be white, for all that race (or anything substantive) is an issue in The Purge. It takes Hawke and Headey a while before they decide to do the right thing and refuse to turn Bloody Stranger over to the killers, though at one point Bloody Stranger actually volunteers to be given up so that the family can live. I don’t quite know how to unpack the notion of a poor black man agreeing to sacrifice himself for a rich white family; maybe it’s a stealth commentary on how poor black men go into the military and essentially sacrifice themselves for rich white families, or maybe it’s just lazy writing. There might be true satire here, but it would take a far less bored reviewer than me to pick away at the flab surrounding the satire. To make matters worse, every so often we’re shown a “Purge Feed” on various TVs displaying what kind of chaos is going on elsewhere in the country. All I could think was that any of those feeds hint at a more interesting movie than the one we’re stuck with.

The Last Exorcism Part II

March 3, 2013

The-Last-Exorcism-Part-II-Image-2Not to quote myself, but when I wrote about The Last Exorcism a few years back I led with “Exorcism movies shouldn’t be rated PG-13, because demons shouldn’t be rated PG-13.” That goes double for exorcism movies about a demon that’s in love with its host body. The Last Exorcism made a lot of money, and so we now behold The Last Exorcism Part II, which should by rights be nasty and filthy, since it involves a demon trying to seduce a teenage girl into welcoming it inside her forever. Back in the ’70s, the era of drive-ins and wonderfully loose morals, this sort of thing would’ve barnstormed theaters with a hard R rating and scandalized everyone except the steadfast trash-movie fans who cheerfully chugged it down. Instead we get this pallid, waifish film with a safe PG-13, which allows for no nastiness, no filthiness, and one lonely F-bomb. I remember when demon flicks used to be dangerous and shocking. Get off my lawn.

This sequel is a conscious break from the original — it’s not a found-footage movie, but a “real” movie, in which the first film’s possessed victim, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), has escaped from the demonic cult idiotically revealed in the original’s climax. Nell goes to stay at a New Orleans halfway house with other wayward girls, and her demon, “Abalam,” is still very much with her. She meets a shy boy (Spencer Treat Clark) at her new job cleaning motel rooms — by the way, we see more footage of Nell vacuuming motel rugs than really deserves to be in a horror movie, unless the filmmakers are exclusively playing to the zuigerphobes in the audience.

You see enough horror movies and you’ve seen the four or five basic ways an unimaginative director tries to scare you, or at least startle you. In some respects film language is still in its infancy, but there are nevertheless many effective ways to disturb, disorient or otherwise freak out an audience, and The Last Exorcism Part II doesn’t come within a country mile of any of them. We get the standard jump scares, the standard looming shadow in the background, the standard weird voices. Ashley Bell is a good actress — she was vivid in the first film — but here she mostly shuffles around as Nell tries to be a Good Girl and can never get anyone to believe that Abalam is messing with her again, at least until the time-honored Magical Negro (Tarra Riggs), complete with a voodoo-woman head wrap, says she can help Nell, recruiting two of the most inept exorcists I’ve seen since The Devil Inside. She also briefly calls on Baron Samedi, evoking unhelpful memories of the far more entertaining 1974 flick Sugar Hill — this movie sure could’ve used a spectral dude in a top hat, grinning and chomping a cigar and bellowing “What is in it for me?” — but, no, the Baron presumably finds Nell boring and stays out of it. Pity.

There’s an interesting idea here — Abalam loves Nell and wants to be with her — but soon enough the idea coughs up blood, points its toes skyward, and is forgotten about. For this conceit to work, we would have to see that Nell is actually, y’know, being seduced, but we just see the standard ooga-booga stuff. A demon that presents as an angel, as a being you don’t want to get rid of, is a lot scarier than a demon that rattles windows, says creepy things, and generally comes off like a pervy stalker. For its other trick, Abalam apparently makes Nell have quite the hot dreams, prompting her to moan and stroke her face. Well, what turns Nell on? What could lure this chaste girl over to the dark side? Um, something, I guess — it’s a PG-13 movie, so we never find out. There’s no tension if Nell doesn’t want what the demon is offering. Haven’t these filmmakers ever heard of the first temptation? A demon will come to you as everything you ever wanted; scaring you away from it is just bad business for a demon.

I have to assume the filmmakers are big fans of the climactic scenes in the first two Paranormal Activity movies wherein nice-looking Katie Featherston went on destructive rampages. Here — spoiler alert — nice-looking Ashley Bell goes on such a rampage, and I would advise you, in a few months, to hit up a Redbox, take home this movie for a dollar, and skip forward to the last few minutes, particularly a shot in which Nell drives merrily around town while stuff on the street — including a fire truck — bursts into flames all around her. Good times. If you don’t want to spend the buck, it’ll probably turn up on YouTube titled “The Best Part of The Last Exorcism Part II.” It’s the best part in more ways than one, since the end credits appear within seconds and we get to go the hell home.

2016: Obama’s America

September 8, 2012

In 2016: Obama’s America, the conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza tells us that America is being run not by Barack Obama II, but by Barack Obama Sr. Our current president barely knew his father, but, D’Souza argues, Obama carries out his absentee dad’s anti-colonial ideals anyway. All of this was found in D’Souza’s 2010 book The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which followed a Forbes article called “How Obama Thinks.” In response to that article, a writer opined, “Dinesh D’Souza has authored what may possibly be the most ridiculous piece of Obama analysis yet written.” Who wrote that? Michael Moore? Howard Zinn? No, Daniel Larison in The American Conservative. Other conservatives have been scarcely more kind to D’Souza’s blend of conspiracy theory and pop psychology. So it isn’t just liberals who might have trouble swallowing 2016: Obama’s America.

The first reel or so is almost The Dinesh D’Souza Story. D’Souza talks about his upbringing in Mumbai and his escape to the embrace of America. To hear him tell it, D’Souza and Obama are doppelgangers: both were born in 1961, both graduated from Ivy League colleges in 1983, both even got married in 1992. We do not hear, alas, whether D’Souza and his wife attended Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on their first date, as Barack and Michelle reportedly did. In any event, D’Souza feels emboldened by his life’s parallel track to Obama’s, and he feels he is uniquely qualified to outline the ways in which Obama is a shadow radical bent on reducing America’s power on the global stage. He understands Obama, you see.

To make his case, D’Souza bends reality in small, weird ways (a baffling dramatization of a black man entering a bar, leading to two white men walking away, only, it turns out, to return with a birthday cake for their black friend — awww!) and in large, disingenuous ways. He lies about Obama’s stance on Iran; he lies about Obama wanting to give the Falkland Islands back to Argentina; he lies about Obama’s supposed blocking of American oil drilling and support for Brazilian oil drilling; he even lies about the Churchill bust Obama allegedly removed from the Oval Office (it was on loan and was slated to be returned before Obama had any say in it). And the timing of D’Souza’s attempted slam-dunk on Obama’s supposed gutting of NASA in favor of “reaching out to Muslims” is hilarious, given what’s trucking around on the surface of Mars as you read this.

How is it as a movie? I had the same problem with it that I had with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, to which 2016 is clearly intended as an heir apparent: it preaches to the converted. Moore, however, produced convincing documentation regarding the Bush family’s ties with the bin Laden family, and he had a star witness in Lila Lipscomb, the former war supporter whose son died in Iraq. D’Souza has nobody comparable, though he tries to pull a gotcha with Obama’s half-brother George, who seems, inconveniently for D’Souza, rather blasé about the president’s alleged neglect of him. Why hasn’t the richer, more powerful Obama pulled his kin out of Nairobi squalor? Well, because George is an activist and chooses to live as he does.

2016: Obama’s America comes to seem like clownish alarmist speculation (the Middle East will become “the United States of Islam”!) taking place in an echo chamber of talking heads who, like D’Souza himself, have never spent time with Barack Obama. It ends with D’Souza’s boyhood avatar staring out into the audience as D’Souza intones “The future is in your hands.” At the end of all this, I was no more persuaded of Obama’s anti-colonial agenda than I was before. The film moves fast, so that, while we’re saying “Wait a minute,” it’s already on to the next theory, the next guilt-by-association fallacy, the next pearl of pop-psych wisdom. According to the film, Barack Obama is president because the American people wanted to feel good about finally electing a black man, even though he’s half-white and that very half-whiteness made America comfortable with him. But, D’Souza is very sneakily saying, it’s not Obama’s white half you have to worry about. D’Souza, I recall, is the same man who in The Enemy at Home held liberals responsible for 9/11. Christ, even Michael Moore said it was al-Qaeda.

Snow White and the Huntsman

June 3, 2012

If it’s a darker, grittier Snow White you’re looking for, allow me to point you to the little-seen 1997 effort Snow White: A Tale of Terror, a justifiably R-rated version starring Sigourney Weaver as the complexly jealous wicked queen. Fifteen years on, we’ve now had two competing Snow White run-throughs in the same year: last March’s much lighter Mirror Mirror, and now Snow White and the Huntsman, though a more accurate title might be Charlize Theron Chews Every Available Scrap of Scenery (Also Starring Snow White). A Snow White, it seems, is only as good as its evil queen, and Theron gives an instant-camp-classic performance destined to be cloned by drag queens from sea to shining sea this Halloween. It’s a grand, startling turn in a grim, plodding movie that, without Theron, would be fighting Snow White for room on the slab by the end.

Not that there’s much perceptible difference even before Snow White officially points her toes up. (I am writing to a reader who knows the basic story, right? This isn’t a spoiler.) As Snow White, Kristen Stewart tries; occasionally she bestirs herself to smile and even laugh, which must’ve required a basket of kittens licking her feet off-camera. I do not hate this poor young woman, whose Twilight role has propelled her to everlasting fame whether she wanted it or not (I’m guessing she didn’t), but she’s such a tabula rasa I can’t see how she could arouse emotion in anyone one way or the other. When Snow White has to inspire the oppressed villagers against the queen, Stewart gets her voice up, but only to be heard in the back row, I think; there’s no passion in her speech (not entirely her fault, as the three credited screenwriters don’t come near the ringing poetry of the St. Crispin’s Day speech, but then who could?).

A first effort by Rupert Sanders, yet another commercial director, Snow White and the Huntsman tries and fails to hold our attention with a lot of hacking and hewing. Much of it is done by Chris Hemsworth as the semi-titular huntsman; Hemsworth seems to have a lot more fun as Thor, who doesn’t labor under a Sad Backstory involving a dead wife. At one point, our noble huntsman says he was a worthless brawler before his wife changed him, and now he’s reverted to form; suddenly we’re in Unforgiven Lite. We also have eight dwarves, all played by conventionally-proportioned actors (Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Bob Hoskins, etc.) digitally shortened and, I kept thinking, stealing work from eight actors of lesser height. Peter Dinklage is widely considered the jewel in the crown of HBO’s Game of Thrones, but he is a glowing exception; most little people have to make do with low-comedy roles like the guy who went around junk-punching everyone in Project X. At least Mirror Mirror employed little people as the dwarves (including the Project X guy).

There’s a good amount of dark magic and light magic: tree limbs made of snakes, a massive stag that turns into a flock of birds, various faeries capering about or riding on bunnies. It’s visually diverting but feels inorganic — just CGI demo reels plopped in for Kristen Stewart to attempt to look upon with awe. The best effect, aside from the magnificently seething Theron, is Sam Spruell as the queen’s viciously nasty brother with an equally nasty pageboy haircut. A better script would give Spruell space to gallop away with the scenes that don’t involve Theron, but he does what he can, right down to the obligatory bit where he informs the huntsman that his wife screamed his name before she died. And what name would that be? “Huntsman”? Oh, according to Wikipedia it’s Eric, though I don’t recall hearing it in the film. It could’ve been momentary deafness caused by intense boredom.

You know what has to happen: Snow White has to defeat the queen, especially in a movie that cost somewhere near $170 million. At the climax, when Snow White informs the queen “You cannot have my heart,” Kristen Stewart makes it sound as though Snow White is declining the queen the use of her Blackberry. The queen dies of wrinkles caused by intense boredom, and Snow White is crowned the new queen. There’s no king for her yet, though there is a William, a childhood friend who shows some vague affection for her, and there’s Eric the huntsman, and dear god, is this thing setting us up for a sequel in which Kristen Stewart has to negotiate yet another love triangle? Snow White and the Huntsman and Some Guy Named William, coming to a theater near you in 2014.

The Raven

April 29, 2012

For many years now, Sylvester Stallone has talked about directing a film about Edgar Allan Poe. He wouldn’t star in it — last I heard, Robert Downey Jr. was the favorite — but a lot of onlookers have doubted heavily that the man who directed Stayin’ Alive could do justice to a complex figure like Poe. Well, The Raven has obligingly come along to make anything Stallone could come up with look austere and intellectual. The movie puts our embattled author — lord help his poor soul — at the center of a murder mystery wherein the killings mimic his stories. Even Stallone wouldn’t have had the hubris to have Poe riding a horse while firing a gun into the Baltimore fog, but this film does.

If you’re a Poe fan, you might enjoy such details as a reference to Poe’s ill-fated wife, the princely sum he was paid for his famous poem “The Raven” (nine dollars), and an explanation of why he said “Reynolds” on his deathbed; you might also enjoy seeing Poe’s nemesis Rufus Griswold, the critic who in real life lived to defame Poe after the latter’s death at age 40, unwillingly re-enacting “The Pit and the Pendulum.” But if you’re savvy enough to spot all these things, The Raven won’t be nearly enough to keep you awake. For one thing, serious Poe fans have read any number of Poe-as-detective stories and novels, and William Hjortsberg’s 1995 fiction Nevermore also concerned a murderer patterning his crimes after Poe’s work, though it was Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle, not Poe, on the killer’s trail. Now that would’ve made a much cooler film.

The Raven is coarse and stupid, pitched to the jocks in the audience despite all the chat about literature, with anachronistic profanities and turns of phrase, as when someone refers to himself as Poe’s “biggest fan.” The killer is disappointed that the drunk and disorderly Poe (John Cusack) has stopped writing tales of the grotesque and arabesque in favor of poetry and lit-crit, so he has kidnapped Poe’s sweetheart Emily (Alice Eve) and threatens to kill her unless Poe writes new stories about this ongoing case — in effect, becoming the killer’s collaborator. This premise sounds promising, but the execution is dullsville; it sorely needed a gothic sensibility like Tim Burton’s, but what it got was non-entity James McTeigue, who previously distinguished himself with V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin. McTeigue has no apparent feeling for 19th-century America; a lot of it looks like cheap backlot or green-screen. This movie needs madness and delirium swirling around in it like fog, but all it has is fog.

If you’d told me twenty years ago that someday John Cusack would play Edgar Allan Poe, I’d have advised you to cut back on the nepenthe. But here he is, and he isn’t the problem with The Raven. He plays Poe as an arrogant elitist who knows how much he’s wasting his gifts and his life. He’s constantly broke and near-constantly drunk, though we see that he drinks to kill his pain. Cusack puts across the more objectionable bits of Poe’s personality, but as an actor he can’t help projecting decency and affability, so we perceive a tension between the mask Poe wears publicly and the wounded person underneath. Despite the dumb script he has to enact, Cusack seems to feel honored to play Poe, even in a lukewarm pastiche like this, and he commits himself.

If you like Cusack and Poe, my advice is to rent The Raven someday and tune everything else out. That includes the non-actress Alice Eve, who couldn’t convey gravity if you dropped her off a cliff, and the unimaginative score by Lucas Vidal, and the dull Heath Ledger clone Luke Evans as an inspector on the case, and the way one sequence evokes the terror of “The Masque of the Red Death” only to climax with some dude on horseback with a note. “The inventive or original mind,” wrote Poe in a glowing review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, “as frequently displays itself in novelty of tone as in novelty of matter.” The Raven displays neither.

The Devil Inside

January 8, 2012

Contrary to what you might hope, The Devil Inside is not a biopic about INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, who died in 1997 under circumstances we shall not discuss. That would’ve been a more interesting movie, and possibly even a scarier one, than the film by that title currently in theaters. I’ll cut to the chase: Despite its opening-weekend gross of $34.5 million, The Devil Inside has already grown notorious for the widespread, quite vocal audience disappointment at its ending: booing, cries of “I want my money back!” My screening, I must report, was no different; one gentleman stood and delivered a two-word, unprintable capsule review — I was tempted to just go with that, but we do have a certain amount of space to fill here — while a woman offered rather plaintively, “Maybe if we wait, they’ll show another movie?” No, ma’am, they won’t.

In 1989, we are told, a woman named Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) killed two priests and a nun (rivalling the psychotic Krug in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, who’d killed two nuns and a priest) during an attempted exorcism at her house. An early news report we see, filed before the facts were in, characterizing this exorcism as “a church group” provides the one lonely bit of entertainment in the entire film. The Devil Inside is yet another mock-documentary, found-footage horror movie, which means we spend a lot of time wondering why the cameraman doesn’t just say — well, what the gentleman in my theater said — and run away. This intrepid, stupid cameraman tracks the journey of Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), the daughter of the woman with the triple murder rap. Maria is tucked away in a laughing academy in Rome, where, for fun, she carves crosses on her arms and generally behaves like every demon-possessed movie character of the last 39 years.

Isabella’s quest is to find out whether her mother is really possessed, and she enlists the help of two rogue priests who have sworn to perform unauthorized exorcisms on afflicted people the Vatican turns its back on. They mostly fumble about, looking at this reading or that, while the victim more or less dances on the ceiling and stops just short of going out like Michael Hutchence did. They first visit a possessed young woman played by someone who, I gather, is an impressive contortionist. Some Latin clears her right up. Then they visit Maria, a tougher nut to crack; whatever’s in her may have the ability to jump to another body. We know this because the word “transference” works its way into at least a dozen conversations, up to and including “Should we have Chinese or Italian take-out?”

Towards the miserable end, the itchy-footed demon hops from one person to another, and before the credits roll we are invited to visit http://www.therossifiles.com for more information on this developing case. This is how the world ends: not with a bang or a whimper but with a URL. “Be part of the ongoing investigation,” the website tells us. Thank you, but no. I see a great many lame things on the site, but a proper ending to the film I and many millions paid to see is not among them. I see “Click below to discuss the case with others,” but I do not see “Click below to get your money back.” In the comments section, I see many credulous viewers (or webmasters posing as such) debating solemnly over whether the film’s events were real, but I do not see anyone responding as did the loudly unimpressed gentleman in my theater, who I now maintain is the most spontaneously honest film critic I have heard since Pauline Kael died. Well done, sir; I concur.


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