My Week With Marilyn

By , April 29, 2012 2:32 pm

My Week With Marilyn

2 “Me and Orson Welles” + 1½ “The Prince and the Showgirl” = 3½ “My Week With Marilyn”

Lost in the plaudits for Michelle Williams’ sultry, vulnerable performance as Marilyn Monroe is Kenneth Branagh’s turn as Sir Laurence Olivier.  Strange to say “lost” when he was nominated for an Oscar, but considering the death of Heath Ledger and Williams’ withdrawal from Hollywood life, she was certainly the story.  But for those of us who’ve admired Branagh, watching him take on Olivier is fascinating.

Branagh, of course, was declared and declared himself the successor to Olivier.  Apart from playing almost every major Shakesperian protagonist onstage, Branagh filmed top-shelf adaptations of “Henry V,” “Much Ado About Nothing” (with then-wife Emma Thompson), “Othello,” and finally, “Hamlet.”  Branagh’s Hamlet is the only major version to use every single word of text, resulting in a 4½ “monument to the highest art of the Western canon.”   In receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, Branagh took the famously beguiling text and “interpreted in detailed stage directions every scene in a way that invites our understanding.”  His Hamlet, true to form, is dialed up to 11, but Branagh made sense of each moment of the play with precise line deliveries and clever, clear visual metaphors and hypertext sequences.

It may have killed his career.  Like Hamlet himself, you have to be somewhat crazy to try something so crazy and play crazy for that long.  After Hamlet, Branagh slipped into meaningless character roles in bombs like “The Gingerbread Man,” “Celebrity,” and “Wild Wild West.”  Eventually, Branagh returned to Shakespeare, adapting the minor work “Love’s Labour’s Lost” into a musical with Alicia Silverstone.  Has ever such a great actor succumbed to such hubris?

Olivier had ambition, of course, but he was making himself into something entirely new:  a Shakespearian movie star.  Olivier aged into a long and prodigious career—yes, he had fat Orson Welles and fat Brando moments (Zeus in “Clash of the Titans”), but he also played Lear in admirable fashion as a 75 year old.  Still, Olivier had all the pretension of an “artist” while trying to achieve Shakespeare stardom beyond his stage bound rivals.

Branagh declared himself Olivier’s successor, but being second, he knew he couldn’t re-break his ground.  Millions might never tune into Richard III on television again, but Branagh could himself into a bonafide movie star.  As noted above, he couldn’t square his artistic ambition with his popularity, and hasn’t quite transitioned into having a foot in both worlds like Ian McKellan, whose Richard III stands neatly alongside Magneto.

Branagh dramatizes this conflict in his portrayal of Olivier, who becomes exasperated with Monroe’s “technique,” such as it is.  He maintains his dignity and “professionalism” as Monroe deigns to drag herself out of the dressing room, getting advice from some sort of soothsayer psychologist life coach.  Eventually, Branagh’s patience with stardom wears thin, and he lashes out: “Marilyn, my darling, you are an angel and I kiss the hem of your garment but why can’t you get here on time for the love of FUCK?”  His grievances are warranted, but as his resolve wears, he reveals himself at heart to be a fussy old didact, wholly unsuited to a romantic comedy with the most famous actress in the world.  It’s the one thing he can’t act, and as Olivier himself observes, “ Acting is all about truth, and if you can fake that, you’ll have a jolly good career.”  For Branagh, this is how the new Olivier ends up turning “Thor” into Henry V.

The DDT Truck in “Tree of Life” is Totally a Metaphor for Vietnam

By , April 25, 2012 12:52 pm

One additional point.  From the theologist’s perspective, my DDT Truck / Vietnam metaphor is probably looney tunes.  So let me show my work to see if I can make this more convincing.

Since I started preparing students for AP courses, I’ve read and thought a lot about AP’s epistemology–how teaching to that test teaches students to think.  There’s a huge nerd fight in English teacher circles about whether AP is a stifling form of New Criticism, which basically asks you to discern the author’s intent based solely on the rhetoric in the text.  I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole, but some argue the AP test stifles students’ creativity by limiting your analysis solely to the text.

AWL students know how I approach literature:  Who cares about authorial intent?  I can argue perfectly well The Help is racist even if Katheryn Stockett thinks she wrote an uplifting tale of overcoming prejudice.  But that doesn’t mean AP’s emphasis on analyzing narrator, rhetoric, point of view, etc. is useless.  In fact, that should be the beginning of your analysis.  But it shouldn’t be the end, necessarily:  If historical context, source material, or the etymology of key phrases inform your viewpoint, I say use them!

Understand that it’s in AP’s interest to narrow your thinking:  Narrowing your sources of evidence narrows the range of answers, which makes essays easier to grade.  But when you get to the “real world,” that’s not in your interest, especially in a knowledge economy where creativity is a virtue.

Still, the AP test is very valuable for high school students because it teaches you to conduct a disciplined analysis of text.  Again, it’s a great training vehicle, but as a critical method, it’s lacking.  This is why my favorite AP question is the open-ended question in which you can choose any work to fit into the question.  Here, you can be creative as long as your analysis is plausible in light of the facts and you actually answer the question.

This is my style of criticism, which I call post-modern legalism.  It’s “post-modern” in the sense that the reader, not the author, owns the work.  By “legalism,” I mean this:  a lawyer can make any argue she wants, as long as her theory 1) is grounded on some established, relevant principle in the law and 2) her logic flows plausibly from material facts, and 3) just as in American common law, where judges continually adapt the law to fit the current context, critics can read works through a contemporary lens.  In other words, meanings are not fixed by the author when they were written, but can change as our understandings of the world change.

From a New Critic’s perspective, my “DDT Truck / Vietnam Metaphor” is crazy.  THERE’S NOTHING ANYWHERE IN THAT SCENE ABOUT VIETNAM!  The theologist says, dude, that DDT truck is not a metaphor for Vietnam–it’s about sin and temptation.  In a completely awesome line, he says, “It is the fall of humanity we’re dealing with here, Mr. Himes, not Forrest Gump.”

After I got done laughing, I realized that the theologist is forcing me to develop an actual theory for this assertion.  Fair enough, and from a postmodernist perspective, I think I can make this argument using the theologist’s  “sin” argument as my foundation.

So here’s how the DDT-truck-as-Vietnam-metaphor works.

Near the beginning of the film, the Mom gets a telegram saying her son died in combat, presumably in Vietnam.  In past films, Terence Malick has used war’s destruction of nature to make a precise point about sin.  In fact, in Malick’s 1998 Best Picture nominee “The Thin Red Line,” he emphasizes how war isn’t a sin simply because we kill, but it’s the deadliest sin because war annihilates God’s Creation.  Check out the trailer for lots of voiceovers with soldiers carrying machine guns through the isolated tropical island of Guadalcanal, engulfed in lush vegetation the virtually swallows them whole.

In modern literature and film, the Vietnam War is often seen as a similar rape-of-nature story, where Americans were whisked away to a land away from (what we see as) civilization, tempted to use unnatural means (chemical warfare, including Agent Orange and Napalm) to destroy an otherwise unspoiled wilderness.

Accelerated World Literature students should hear the dog whistles:  I KNOW THIS ONE!!!  SINFUL DESIRE IN THE SUBCONSCIOUS!  HEART OF DARKNESS!   APOCALYPSE NOW!  VIETNAM!!!!!!!!!!

Exactly, theoretical AWL student!  So, in the context of historical period covered by “Tree of Life,” the filmography of Terence Malick, and the text of the movie itself, there’s a decent argument the chemical cloud sprayed from the DDT truck alludes to Vietnam.  Say it with me, AWL Students:  Moral Fog!  Loss of Innocence!  Destruction of Nature!  Death in the Jungle!  Original Sin!!!!!!!

Of course, I get to this conclusion because postmodern literary analysis allows you to bring context to the story to create plausible arguments within the confines of the facts.  My guess is that from the theological perspective, I’m clouding the True Meaning of the film by reading it beyond its theological foundation.  In other words, I’m just making stuff up.

Considering how hard I had to work to make that argument, I have the feeling he may be right.  But my way is more fun.

The Theologist’s Perspective on “Tree of Life”

The theologist is right:  I’m not a theologian, so I didn’t see his perspective.  Now I get his explanation of the film’s allegorical foundation: the “Christological spine” of the brother’s sacrifice binding flawed nature, grace, and humanity by shared suffering.  I see how his class would sharpen my thinking by making me follow my argument to its logical conclusion..

I’m not sure if this is his approach, but as I understand it, the methodology for dogmatic argument is fundamentally different than postmodern literature’s.  Dogmatic theology is mostly abstract, emphasizing propositional truth over experimental truth.  In other words, dogmatics emphasize how things should be, as God designed them.  Thus, understanding God’s Law requires interpreting allegories in the text of scripture itself, separate from our earthly experience.  This is not to say there’s only one right answer or one interpretation–disagreements exist, but in the pursuit of the one truth.

This is similar to New Criticism, the foundation for AP’s literature tests.  As AWL students know, AP’s commandments are 1)  answer the question and 2)  “get it.”  Because dogmatic theology and New Criticism are both methods for deciphering the “correct” response, they’re useful for rooting out theologically incorrect and/or sub-6 answers.

I grew up in the United Methodist tradition, which approaches theology differently.  Our founder, John Wesley, named his movement for the “methodical” way he organized his spiritual thinking.  His framework became known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, where the four corners of Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason are the “matrix” by which we interpret God’s Word.  This is a pragmatic and somewhat postmodern approach: faith is revealed in Scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.  In essence, Wesley’s method makes sense of scripture by rooting our textual understandings in actual human experience.

Growing up Wesleyan may be why I dislike New Criticism:  Can we divorce our understanding of “text” from Experience and Reason?  Ideas may have an internal logic that’s “true” in the abstract, but can they be “true” if the story and human characters don’t intuitively make sense?  My guess is theologists would argue this makes God’s Word imminently interpretable, subject to the imperfections of man.  This is no way to Truth.

So here’s what I’m going to try:  Reconciling the theologist’s Christological reading to my postmodern literary reading of “The Tree of Life.”  Perhaps this will illuminate two different approaches to critical analysis.

According to the theologist’s Christological reading:

Jack =  Humankind
Sacrificial Brother = Christ
Graceful Mother = The Virgin Mary
Harsh Father = Flawed Nature

Here’s my thought:   Christ is the Son of God.  Humankind are God’s children.  Mary conceived Christ through God.  Seems to me, Brad Pitt’s character isn’t Flawed Nature, but God Himself:  God of all Nature, the Creator of the Tree of Life

Here, I think the theologist and I can both be right.  He sees the film as Christological; I see it as allegorical of Job.  Through the methods of the great Catholic thinker Dante Allegheri (who you’ll study in Mr. Fast’s class), we can square the circle by anagogical thinking:  Old Testament stories analogized to Christ’s sacrifice as the key to eternal life.  For example, Dante interpreted the story of Moses as representing how Christ’s sacrifice releases the soul from bondage into eternal glory.

In this way, “Tree of Life” can be about Christ and Job at the same time.  Professor Craig Detweiler, author of A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture, thinks as I do, that “Tree of Life” is “random and intractible” without understanding the film “focuses not upon the losses of Job but upon the overwhelming answer from God.”  That’s how I read the cuts to nature:  God’s response to Job, as in the scripture.

Furthermore, the father treats his son much as God treats Job.  Filtering this scripture through Experience and Reason, I see the God Who tells Job to “gird up his loins” as a harsh Father trying to toughen up his kid.  He belittles him for not understanding the demands of the Provider, puts him through painful trials just to prove a point, then says this abuse is an act of love.  Roughly, God acts like the basketball coach who makes you run until you puke and breaks clipboards in the locker room–but only because he wants you to be the best you can be.

This is the Flawed Nature Mr. Sanem talks about and Terence Malick films, but to me, this excuses God out of the Father role in this allegory.  In fact, God lets Satan take Job’s possessions, kill Job’s children, and afflict him with boils–all to win a bet! The Greeks might have understood this to be the Way of Nature, that God knows the future but doesn’t direct events.  But not here:  God gives Satan explicit permission to do awful things to Job and his innocent children.  Then lectures Job that he doesn’t understand the way of nature.  In “Tree of Life,” Malick analogizes this to “old school” 1950’s parenting–Brad Pitt’s abuse are acts of tough love.

So, if our discussion is an example, here’s how a theology would sharpen my Wesleyan thinking.  He forces you to discipline your thoughts by focusing on scripture, develop a framework for your analysis, then develop that analysis to its logical end.  He didn’t let me stop halfway without considering the implications of what I was arguing.

Thus, if I’m prepared to defend my Job thesis to its anagogical end, I better be prepared to seriously question how God sees His relationship with mankind.  I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.  I just hope the theologist would give me credit for grappling with the issues even if my interpretation is theologically wrong.

Artist, The

By , January 4, 2012 9:04 pm

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is as charming as you’ve heard, a silent film about a silent movie star that precisely captures the look, rhythms, and even the melodrama of the silent era.  Hazanavicius creates a meticulous ode to the silent era—as if a French Tarantino made an entire meta-movie about his love for Rudolph Valentino.

Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin is the charismatic star who refuses to adapt; Berenice Bejo is Peppy Miller, the from-nowhere talent who gets her big break from Valentin during his hey-day.  Their story is wholly predictable, which, to be fair, is also one of the conventions of the silent era melodrama.  The point is the execution:  the stirring score, expressive acting, and the occasional surprise, like Valentin’s nightmare that he’s trapped in a movie where everyone can talk but him.

Still—HUGE SPOILER ALERT!—there’s a moment at the very end that complicates the film.  George’s fall from stardom involves a divorce, an auction, and other rock-bottom conventions.  You wonder, had Hollywood not invented The Comeback yet?  Really, what is moviestardom if not reinvention?  Why not at least try some dialogue before putting a pistol in your mouth?

Finally, in the film’s final scene, George and Peppy emerge together in dance number, an homage to “Singin’ in the Rain.”  For the only time, we hear George’s voice:  He speaks with a very pronounced French accent.  Sure, the actor himself is French, and “The Artist” is an unmistakably French enterprise.  But in the context of the film, now we understand why George didn’t just try talkies.  Perhaps this speaks to some sort of general prejudice of the time, American Francophilia, or if read deeply, American isolationism during the pre-war era that gave rise to Hitler.  In the least, though, this tiny moment brilliantly transforms the film’s only questionable element into something more complex and interesting.  This elevates an artful entertainment into a work of art.

The Pitch:

2 Sunset Boulevard

2 Sunset Boulevard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Paulette Goddard

2 Paulette Goddard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 The Artist

4 The Artist

4 The Artist

4 The Artist

Descendants, The

Yes, I can make myself look like this and still date Stacey Keibler, ok?!

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

At the beginning of Act III, Scene I In Henry IV, Part II, the prematurely aging king lies awake in his “perfum’d chambers of the great,” burdened by the impending collapse of his kingdom from rebellion and the weakness of his playboy son Hal, the crown prince.  “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” he muses, dying exhausted soon after, a frail shell of patriarchy.

The classics dramatized royalty, in part, to glorify the patriarchy to the common man.  Usually, this meant idealizing fidelity to the kingdom over the personal.  Centuries of democratization, however, has bent literature towards using the Everyman to convey the universality of the human condition.  What binds the two is a sense of responsibility, that eventually a man must put aside personal desires to serve something larger than himself.

In between the classical and the modern sits Matt King, an eighth generation descendant of the House of Kamehameha and trustee of 25,000 acres of virgin Hawaiian wilderness that must be dispensed because of the law against perpetuities.  King (George Clooney) opens the film by dispelling the myth of the Hawaiian paradise, touring us through the trash-strewn, tourist-dependent isolation where tropical sunshine doesn’t prevent businesses from failing or loved ones from getting cancer.  Rather than the perfum’d chambers of Hawaii’s resorts, natives like King live in cheap-build suburban McHouses like the rest of us.  And like us mainlanders, they have soulless jobs; King is an undistinguished real estate attorney, his life time-sucked at the office pouring over documents in minor land squabbles.  Despite having the closest thing to royal blood possible in America, he’s a bit of a cheap-ass:  He never bought his wife a boat; she was tossed out of a rental, ending up in a coma.

Most amazing about “The Descendants” is that, from this complex set up, it wraps plot strands from high and low, from the societal to the personal, from the classical to the modern, around a single theme.  “The Descendants” is about being an adult: putting aside personal desires to act in the best interest of others.  In the legal sense, this is the trustee’s responsibility.  It’s also the responsibility of the king, the husband, the father, the executor of the will, and the patriarch of an important family.  These are all Matt King.

King was never Henry IV—more like a Prince Charles type, the emasculated constitutional monarch whose only real power is caretaker of ancient land.  Apparently, he burrowed into the minutia of small-time lawyering to escape his family.  His wife’s accident brings back problem-child teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) from a boarding school on the big island, where only her heritage makes the schoolmarm put up with her drinking.  She tells him her mother was having an affair, which introduces complications about couple-friends, the ethics of dealing with the other man, making decisions in the face of hostile in-laws, and there’s the matter of caring for a twelve year old.  And that’s before he must decide how to dispense with the trust’s land.  The relatives, aging hippies anxious to reap the family largesse, think this is simply of matter of choosing the least-offensive developer, while native Hawaiians want to see it preserved.

Clooney’s genius is to convey how a man of modest charisma can grow into a serviceable patriarch.  Or, as Huey Long said, “Every man a king.”

The Pitch:

2 About Schmidt

2 About Schmidt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Yi Yi

2 Yi Yi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 The Descendants

4 The Descendants

4 The Descendants

4 The Descendants

50/50

By , November 7, 2011 8:08 am

"Doc, I cannot get French Stewart's insufferable mugging out of my head."

Reviewed by James Owen

About once a year, Hollywood puts out a Death Film in which a Bad Person—corporate lawyer, heartless doctor, inattentive father—confronts death and learns to be a Better Person. Usually, the lesson is money isn’t everything and/or the roses should be smelled—think Adam Sandler in the last Seth Rogen Death Film, Judd Apatow’s “Funny People.”  A variation is the Death as Noble Conclusion in which a saintly character faces death with dignity and grace, ultimately teaching lessons to lesser people characters. Usually, a gorgeous actress—Debra Winger, Julia Roberts—is stricken with a terminal disease to show us that even movie stars can die, and that should make life worth living?

Can’t we just have a film about death being, per Mrs. Gump, “just a part of life”? A film about the general routine of ordinary people who are dying? That’s the goal of Jonathan Levine’s “50/50”, a film that tackles terminal cancer in such a sublime way that you can…almost forgive its soulless ending. While based on the experience of comedy writer and Seth Rogan pal Will Reiser, “50-50” wisely translates the story into that of average late-twenties Seattlite Adam (Jospeh Gordon-Levitt) who finds out he has a rare form of cancer that can only be tackled with surgery after chemo. He goes from being a journalist for Seattle’ NPR with his artsy girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard, cornering the market in the “be-otch” role) to someone with a death warrant.

Rather than go the Rob Reiner route and take up skydiving and safaris, Adam keeps working on his story about some volcano because, hey, he needs the health care coverage. He gives the girlfriend a chance to bail, but even this bitchy girl cannot honestly turn him away. His friend Kyle (Rogan) wants to take advantage of the situation by scoring sympathy on the dating scene. His mother (Angelica Huston) just becomes more overbearing and intrusive than before. His therapist (Anna Kendrick) is in residency working on her second patient. Pretty much, everyone around Adam is a bit of a mess about this. He’s terrified and worried about them, mostly, because he doesn’t have to become a better person—as he says in the trailer, he’s already pretty okay.  There’s no way he could get cancer because “doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and recycles.” But, hey, cancer happens.

Adam confronts all this with his weapon of choice: talking it out. He does not avoid it, his friends do not avoid it, the older guys at chemo (Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) do not avoid it. Thankfully, instead of offering teeth-gnashing and melodramatic dialogue, are characters are clever and funny.  I won’t retell the best jokes, but Reiser clearly models his screenplay on Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” which specialized in coating serious themes banter about sex and drugs to help them go down a little smoother. Shoot, Judd Apatow’s Death Film—the above-mentioned “Funny People”—tackled death in similar ways. If he had not used it as a self-indulgent home video to show off his marginally-talented wife and kids, and run it on forty minutes longer than necessary, it might have looked like “50/50”.

What makes this film exceptional, rather than simply being better than an Adam Sandler “serious” movie from two years ago, is how the film uses gallows humor to examine death. For example, Adam shares some pot brownies with his fellow chemo patients. We’ve never seen that before, especially in a Seth Rogen movie! But then, Adam walks through the ward, meditating on different patients at different stages of their disease.  Adam—still high—walks by someone flat-lining, and all he can do is laugh.

In the movie theater, we laugh at otherwise objectively grotesque and cruel deaths in action and horror movies because it’s a release of our surprise and uncertainty.  But we also laugh to mask our fear of the horrible and unknown—which is exactly why Adam laughs at his fellow patient.  Levine turns two cinematic clichés into a poignant moment of a character whistling past his graveyard.  We don’t see Adam as cruel or simply high because we understand exactly why he’s laughing—it’s the same reason we’ve laughed with a movie about terminal cancer.

The film is full of moments like this, enough to forgive the film for a completely unbelievable and formulaic ending that does everything humanly possible to wreck everything that happened before it. Forget about its implausibility, it’s just disingenuously contrary to the tone of the rest of the film. If you can get past it, “50/50” offers enough complex emotion to be one of the best films of the year. Levitt and Huston deserve nominations. Everyone else in the cast deserves accolades. It would be tough to tackle a comedy about cancer, and certainly the film’s box-office results show the challenges in selling it. Next time out, perhaps if the cancer gave him super powers. That might have been a hit.

The Pitch:

2 Terms of Endearment

2 Terms of Endearment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Knocked Up

2 Knocked Up

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 50/50

4 50/50

4 50/50

4 50/50

Real Steel

By , October 25, 2011 8:50 pm

"Well, it was either refinance my mortgage or do this movie. This movie required less paperwork."

Reviewed by James Owen

If you’re going to make a sci-fi flick about fightin’ robots, then have the decency to make a crazily stupid film if you aren’t going to swing for allegory or social relevance. That is, unless you are hack extraordinaire Shawn Levy, and Richard Matheson’s short story easily translates into a vanilla paste-bland October filler movie. “Real Steel” and takes what could be an interesting story (really!) and makes it into series of sports movie cliches that lack any genuine…wait for it…punch.

It’s 2020 and technology has evolved to where robots have replaced humans in the sport of boxing. Did the sport have to do that for health or liability concerns? We never find out.  Does our society also use this technology to wage wars or supplement law enforcement—I mean, we’re sending Predator drones into sovereign airspace to shoot at whomever’s on our terror list! Unfortunately, the director of the Night at the Museum films isn’t much interested in anything other than…hey…fightin’ robots!

Former boxer Charlie Denton (Hugh Jackman) is supposed to be this unscrupulous, down-and-out robot shill that takes heaps of scrap to state fairs to fight bulls. (Yes, you heard me. Even this is treated with earnestness.)  However, that’s hard to convey to an audience when you look like Hugh Jackman with a close-shaved head.

But we’ve got a family sub-plot brewing. Through ridiculous legal wrangling, Charlie gets stuck with his son Max (Dakota Goya), whom he now takes him on the robot-battling circuit. Undeterred, we watch Charlie buy other junky robots and watch them get eviscerated comically. His robots get a particular thrashing from super-robot Zeus (yes, Zeus). Then, Max finds Atom, who somehow saves young Max’s life. Atom is some kind of practice robot who can take hits but not really dole any out.

Wow…he sounds like Charlie: life is always pummeling and he can’t seem to do anything about it.  While Dad is not sold on Atom, Max really does believe in him. Or it. And, even though he’s never had much of a relationship with dear old pop, the film strives to convince us this confidence will help Max believe in Charlie as well. They work on Atom, the audience is treated to training montages, and we watch as the story crescendos towards Atom taking on Zeus (yes, Zeus) in the climatic battle.

Think about, for a moment, where the screenwriters are trying to take this movie. It could be the ultimate conflict between man-made technology. You have this minuscule unit (with a namesake acknowledging its place in science) battling “the father of the gods.” The simple vs. the complex. The accessible vs. the powerful. The great thing about science fiction is its ability to play out contemporaneous concerns to extreme boundaries in order to challenge the audience. While the notion of fighting robots is kind of silly, there’s real potential. What would happen if artificial intelligence could challenge each other? Would it be better for humanity? Worse?

But Shawn Levy, whether he cares anything about sci-fi or not, knows what makes a studio executive happy. He knows how to craft a film into a good marketing campaign. Or is that the other way around?  Either way, he would rather not challenge when he can placate. This is a film about a father redeeming his image in the eyes of his son. This is about an underdog training for the Big Fight.  Both are tried and true formulas. Even with all the potential for provocative material, “Real Steel” fails because Charlie isn’t the one going into the ring. The robot is. So all the tension about whether Charlie will be redeemed as a father or an ex-boxer is pointless because HE’S NOT FIGHTING ANYONE! There’s a disconnect between his character’s arc and the outcome of the story because they are parallel, not convergent. Perhaps better filmmakers could cross these two paths. What we know is the guy who made “Date Night” sure can’t.

Compare this to the episode of The Twilight Zone that adapted the Matheson story. Lee Marvin plays the lead, which centers more on how man interacts with machine and how society has become sold on machine’s superiority.  It’s a little dated, but you can see the potential. The film could have evoked some ethical questions, like a low-rent “A.I.” Or it could have just been crazy fun. I hoped for misplaced ambition or something that would show Jackman thought this was as goofy as the rest of us. Nope, just a dull film geared for families with nothing memorable left for the kids or their parents. It’s about as offensive as what Warner Brothers did to the end of “I am Legend.”

Could they not have even called it “Reel Steel”? The extra “e” makes it fun in a stupid way. But no, the dude who gave us “Cheaper by the Dozen” couldn’t even have done us that favor.

The Pitch:

1 Battlebots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Michael Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 Real Steel

2 Real Steel

Moneyball

By , October 22, 2011 9:51 am

A rejected "before and after" shot for the new Weight Watchers campaign

Reviewed by James Owen

Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” looks like the ultimate “inside baseball” movie. As such, I shouldn’t like it. I was raised with a disdain for sports and haven’t developed patience for it as an adult (Except for you, fellas). But this Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (!) adaptation of the  Michael Lewis novel isn’t so much about baseball as it’s about the Grand Idea—something so crazy that merely putting it into motion is legendary.

Usually, these films center on eccentric and/or obsessive characters who kick all life’s other responsibilities, including their loved ones, right in front of the bus of the Grand Idea.  This is easier to see in films about business, like Martin Scorcese’s Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator” or the Sorkin-written Zuckerberg opus “The Social Network”. But this is also the root of underdog sports movies like “Slap Shot” or “A League of their Own.”  How else do you beat the odds without a Grand Idea?  I may not like sports, but “Moneyball” shows what’s possible in sports movies.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was a phenom as a recruit, meh as a player, and now floundering as the general manager of the Oakland A’s. Despite (or because of) a successful 2001 season, all of the good players are bolting for the big money of the Red Sox and the Royals. Ha ha. Just kidding, Kansas City. I meant the Yankees. Beane has no money and, despite his pleas, will not get any money. His scouts are from bygone days, dispensing the same type of thinking they’ve done for decades. Beane rages against it without really knowing why. He tries to cut a deal with GM Mark Shaprio of the Cleveland Indians, who tries to yank good prospects from him based on the advice of his minion, the Yale-educated Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Like any smart business man, Beane identifies Brand as a threat and offers him a job.

What makes Brand so good? His approach to prospect evaluation is different than the conventional wisdom. The scouts that so irritate Beane look at RBIs, stolen bases, and batting averages (and idiosyncratic details like basing a player’s confidence on the hotness of his girlfriend), where Brand looks at on-base percentages and other obscure-but-revealing statistics. This is too wonkish, too dorky, too new for a traditionalist sport like baseball.

Enter Moneyball! Having spent time in Lawrence, Kansas the home of Bill James, I had actually heard of this. James rose from obscurity in the early 1980s with tomes looking at baseball through a frame he coined “sabermetrics,” which focused on data-driven game analysis. Now, the film informs me James is a weirdo (a fair point) as well as, in the early part of the zero decade anyways, outside the conventional thinking.

After some fast-paced Sorkin-style whiteboarding, Beane puts together a team that causes a revolt with the scouts and consternation with the manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, so brilliant with so little).  Howe resists this new system because he must manage in a way “he can explain in job interviews after the season.”  This classic Sorkin line creates a sympathetic Howe because, well, you can’t really blame him. Lesser films would make him the bad guy, but “Moneyball” knows the Grand Idea doesn’t really have villains. It just has people who haven’t come around yet.

Where the tension lies in “Moneyball” is not in a protagonist-antagonist formula. It’s about time and pressure. It’s about watching the Grand Idea as it flounders and flops, is criticized and mocked. The opening of the 2002 season is a slow-burning agony;  Bennet’ pacing is slow and lingering, contrary to the David Fincher approach of squeezing two pages of Sorkin’s script  per minute in “The Social Network.” This goes to the purpose of this film: not to show the breakneck speed of an overnight success, but to make the audience question the outcome of something they should already know is true. Miller pulls it off with real style and skill.

Pitt wears the agony of losing like a tailor-made suit. He embodies the inherent contradiction of the film: his Grand Idea is predicated on rethinking a system so that it wouldn’t have picked him as a player out of high school. That failure drives this success—moneyball would weed out players like him. Some critics have complained Beane’s failure is not well-explained, but to my mind, it’s almost over-explained. If not for Pitt’s longing stares and defeated posture, it would be over-the-top. It’s not his just his rugged handsomeness without an expiration date that evokes Newman and Redford. He wears the emotional distress of his characters without beating us over the head. That’s an effortless movie star worthy of such comparisons.

Of course, things come around. This is perhaps a “spoiler,” but moneyball leads to the A’s to the longest regular season winning streak in America League history. Of course, critical sports historians will say the film omits the strength of the team’s pitchers. (Yes, I quoted NPR. I DON’T GET SPORTS!) But, folks, Grand Idea movies cannot cram in every fact.  This is not a movie about a competent pitching staff, and you probably couldn’t sell that at $9 a ticket.  The most gratifying part of “Moneyball” to watch Beane and Brand scheme and scrap their way toward realizing their vision from nearly two-and-half hours. They fire staff and trade players. They finesse the egos of some and blow off others.  We know Pitt can do this, but the revelation is Jonah Hill, who proves to be just as good in a sober, not exactly offbeat drama as he is in the angst-ridden Apatow comedies.

“Moneyball” is not flawless. After the climax, the film dwells on for another twenty minutes about post-season decision-making that requires less dramatization than it’s given. Plus, the actual story has a female drought, so the film creates a daughter and ex-wife to occupy the audience’s interest. Ex-wife Sharon barely registers, despite being played by the great Robin Wright. Beane’s daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) fares better simply because she’s in the film more, but her presence exists only to give “Moneyball” an emotional hook it doesn’t really need.

In the end, this isn’t what drives Billy Beane—he’s animated by the obsession to prove others wrong, to keep going until you win or go crazy in the process. You don’t need to understand sports to get that. I can stop everything I am doing to watch “Apollo 13” and not have to know anything about astrophysics. Same way with sabermetrics. “Moneyball” is a smart, well-acted film about the mechanics of obsession. That’s the real American pastime.

The Pitch:

2 Manager Joe Riggins

2 Manager Joe Riggins


 

 

 

 

 

 

 Plus

2 Deputy White House Communications Director Will Bailey


2 Deputy White House Communications Director Will Bailey


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 Moneyball


4 Moneyball


4 Moneyball


4 Moneyball

Ides of March, The

By , October 11, 2011 8:03 pm

One can only imagine what handsome, dashing men find funny.

Reviewed by James Owen

No filmmaker is better qualified to examine the guts of political campaigning than George Clooney, who worked on his father Nick’s unsuccessful 2004 congressional run in his native Kentucky.  In this way, “The Ides of March” is refreshing:  Many celebrities pledge “support” and raise money, but this Auteur actually talks about politics in an informed manner.  Unfortunately, Clooney’s film isn’t a policy argument in narrative form or a polemic about How Things Really Are, but a morality play about how cynicism is ruining politics and the country. Clooney, who adapted the film from former Charles Schumer and Howard Dean staffer Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, tries so hard to make this rather obvious point that he misses the real point of the story.

“Ides” opens with junior campaign manager Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) alone on stage in an empty auditorium checking the sound by blandly mouthing his boss’ stump speech. Later, we hear Pennsylvania Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney) hitting every applause line in the speech—in fact, until the third act, Clooney seems to be filming a test run of a his own future campaign. These contrasting scenes embody the film’s theme:  a puppeteer of political theater and his pull-string doll whose voice fills the echo chamber.  Then we learn through handy exposition the primary is now down to two candidates: Morris and a conservative Arkansas senator (Michael Mantell), in the final battleground of Ohio.

Still, Clooney shrewdly boils down the action to the fight for one state’s delegates, where less assured filmmakers would have made everything BIG and blown the whole budget and pages of exposition on the entire campaign.  Rather, Clooney captures the claustrophobia of campaign life through Myers’ cramped offices and hotel rooms of Cincinnati.  He puts up with this unglamorous life because, despite working on a gazillion campaigns, he just knows there’s something different about Morris.

Based on the speeches given to him by the screenwriters (Clooney, Willimon, and Grant Heslov) as well as the art-deco posters, let’s assume “something different” means “Obama-esque.” Here lies the problem. A young guy like Myers probably wouldn’t be the deputy campaign manager on a presidential race, and if he were, he’d have the experience to eschew this kind of wide-eyed optimism.  Otherwise, he’d have burned out on other political saviors.  The professional campaigner can be dazzled by his boss (who probably got into politics precisely because he’s so dazzling), but you can’t make it from job to job without a healthy dose of skepticism.  You have to be cool without being cold, but Myers comes across more like a starry-eyed activist than a steady hand.

From this cracked foundation, the film crumbles in the second act.  Details will not be revealed here, but Hollywood’s political scandals are rather predictable:  Republicans get in trouble for money; Democrats get in trouble with women. Though reality isn’t quite so neat, “Ides” doesn’t deviate from this basic set-up.  Besides, the scandals are merely a fact of political life—what’s important is how they’re “handled.”  This is the true litmus test of professional politicos:  Do they see the “handling” of scandal as an evil in itself, or is “handling” simply a by-product of the natural composition of politics?

While this debate is worthwhile for political neophytes at all levels of our democracy, Clooney doesn’t really follow through on the idea.  Rather, he has said his film is about betrayal: between people, between a person and her morals, between the politician and the voter. The film’s title gives that away, Brute.  Clooney’s conclusion is that the origin of political cynicism is in the disappointment with “saviors”; thus, because the nature of politics is compromise and politicians are human, “true belief” begets cynicism.  In Clooney’s view, this is the logical conclusion of a political process with real people at their center: anyone seeking power is going to do something bad to get it. If you thought power came from doing good, shelve your principles and get over it.

I didn’t need George Clooney to tell me that—and, in fact, his conclusion doesn’t really jibe with the facts on the ground.  Perhaps, having worked as and around political professionals over the past eleven years in a variety of different races, I have a rosier view. Sure, many are jaded, and the higher on the food chain you go, the more cynical they can be.  But that dances around the complex reality of politics.

People make a living running campaigns, and like most professional people, they gravitate toward working for like-minded people they genuinely like.  As with all of us, sometimes they work for people just to pay the bills. But sometimes they work for people they believe can make a difference. That’s not special to politics—that’s just business.  Ultimately, the job of the Stephen Myerses of the world is to make sure the person they work for gets the chance to make a difference.  And when the right opportunities come along, Stephen Myers works for people he wants to get that chance.  And as long as candidates have to solicit donations en-masse to mass-market themselves, that’s the system.

There’s nothing cynical about working within a flawed system to affect the greater good—but it can often feel that way, which is what breeds political nihilism.  This is what “The Ides of March” should have been about, rather than theme-checking the Shakespeare play most common to junior highs.  In fact, Farragut North is a much better title.  This is the mystical stop on D.C.’s Red Line, where the political consultants on K-Street meet to, as the film puts it, “pimp out ex-Senators to Saudi sheiks.”   Why are people so attracted to the chain-smoking, casual alcoholism, crammed inadequacy of the office space (even in presidential campaigns), and lousy pay this life offers?  This is no glamour in creating call lists, and many politicos end up looking exactly like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti:  shrewd, but horribly unhealthy and terribly worn out.  These two claw at every bit of dialogue with the need to win and, more importantly, be right.  Why do so many talented people give themselves to this life?

Clooney may be qualified to make a very good movie about politics, but he may not be the right guy to answer that question.  Sure, he’s developed into a great filmmaker:  his dark minimalism captures not only the realism of political life, but also his themes about the work that happens in the shadows between a members of a closed society.  But, his approach is all wrong.  He is the starry-eyed Obama supporter in the age of debt ceiling hostage taking.  He is the son who had to watch his dad lose his Congressional race. His ambition is “The Candidate.”  But to paraphrase another classic from the 1970’s: “Jake, it’s just campaign management.”

The Pitch:

2 Good Night, and Good Luck

2 Good Night, and Good Luck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Bob Roberts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 The Ides of March

3 The Ides of March

3 The Ides of March

Friends With Benefits

By , August 1, 2011 8:12 am

"Look, if JC Chavez and the Lacheys *really* needed the money in 20 years, I would consider being a bro and doing a 'NSYNC98D tour."

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

Two very attractive people have very enjoyable looking sex and hang out in very picturesque locations in New York and Los Angeles.  They say things very confidently, as you would if you were sexy, successful, and living in an oversized New York apartment.  And that, pretty much, is the movie.

But here’s the thing:  Hollywood used to be really good at this kind of thing.  Too many romantic comedies try to make you feel by dragging out the ending and/or force-feeding important emotions.  They have something to say about modern divorce and the difficulties of single parenthood, or the ennui of realizing you’re not who you thought you were going to be.   

Don’t get me wrong—I want my romantic comedies to be about these things.  But too often, romantic comedies think they’re about things when they’re really not.  They’re just simplistic clichés dressed up like real movies, substituting acting! for nuanced scripts.  The great romantic comedies of old, when directors cut their teeth on Shakespeare, were both enjoyable and had great scripts.  Now, romantic comedies think they have great scripts that require acting! when they really aren’t and don’t.

Why does “Friends With Benefits” succeed? Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake are not Hepburn and Tracy.  But they’re a heckuva lot of fun without pretentiously trying to convince the audience that their movie is about anything.  In short, it’s what Hollywood should do at a minimum, which Hollywood doesn’t often do anymore.  Very often, words emerge from Mila and Justin (we should call them that because they feel so familiar in the movie) that don’t make a lot of sense, and I’m not sure why they do the things they do.  But Mila and Justin say them so effortlessly, they make them their own.  If you were that cool, you’d sound like that too.

And this is where “Friends With Benefits” takes on an interesting subtext that elevates the movie. How do I know what a blogger-turned-editor at GQ sounds like?  For all any of us know, he could act, look, and sound just like Justin Timberlake—actually, that makes sense.  And if you were a corporate headhunter agency landing big clients in New York, you’d probably put someone as sexy, confident, intelligent, and relentless as Mila Kunis on your team. 

Before we go too far down this rabbit hole, let’s back up a bit.  If “Friends With Benefits” is about anything, it’s about taking time away from stressful jobs to enjoy yourself.   It’s about having the confidence to do fun things!  Why not stage an elaborate 90’s song-themed flash mob for the girl you love?  Why not get that beachfront property and walk the sandy beach barefoot?  Why not take the job you’re scared of and just go for it?  Why not take afternoon walks through the park and ad lib dialogue between strangers?

Director Will Gluck doesn’t believe that romantic comedies should make you believe a fantasy.   Rather, he seems to think that romantic comedies should blur the difference between fantasy and reality.  What is romance, anyway, if not abandoning pretention and just doing something fun because you feel like it?  Look, Mila and Justin take long midday walks through the park hitting on strangers.  Got too much work to do?  Maybe you do, but is that extra hour really going to make that stress go away?  Or will you get more done after a nooner?  Do you think that in real life, you can’t just go out and find the perfect piece of abstract-advertising art for your sweetheart?  That’s your problem, not “Friends With Benefits”’s problem.

There’s two specific scenes that capture the paradoxical synthetic reality, sincere vanity truth of Gluck’s worldview.  First, Mila makes Justin swear on her iPad Bible app that they won’t get emotional after having premarital sex.  Second, a helicopter has to rescue Justin literally off the Hollywood sign because he’s too afraid to jump.  Go ahead, Justin, jump into Hollywood summertime movies!  Gluck’s sense of humor and subtle irony emboldens these two stars to create something random and enjoyable out of nothing but an idea, a lack of pretention, and a sense of fun.  It’s totally planned and constructed, calculated to mildly surprise you with how amusing it is, even if its just kinda random and doesn’t make any sense.  “Friends With Benefits” is a Central Station flashmob of a movie. 

The Pitch:

2 How I Met Your Mother

2 How I Met Your Mother

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 No Strings Attached

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Friends With Benefits

3 Friends With Benefits

3 Friends With Benefits

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