Kicking the Tweets

The Road (2009)

Ash Ye Shall Receive

Typically, when I can’t stand the film adaptation of a book, I recommend that the potential moviegoer skip it and head straight for the source material. With John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, I find myself in the weird position of having found the film to be an utterly faithful interpretation—yet still recommending the book instead.

The problem here is that Hillcoat has literally brought McCarthy’s vivid post apocalyptic landscapes and tales of hard living to life; the imagery and situations are almost exactly as I imagined them in the novel.

“Isn’t that a good thing?” you might ask.

Yes, and no.

The Road is a bleak spectacle of ash-covered landscapes, dead prairies and human remains strewn across America; like the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, Hillcoat’s movie fetishizes texture—particularly grimy texture. The meticulous details of dirt on jackets, under finger nails, and in the crevices of crow’s feet make every shot look like a painting; there are lovely bursts of contrasts whenever The Man (Viggo Mortenson) flashes back to his life before the end of the world: all green and golden loveliness, plus Charlize Theron’s warm smile. So, yes, one can certainly marvel at the sights.

However, the storytelling—wonderful as it is in terms of plot and meaning—becomes a chore after awhile. As in the book, there are long stretches of walking, foraging and sleeping. As The Man and his son, The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), make their way South in search of warmth—or at least hope—they occasionally encounter bandits and cannibals, and the odd drifter. Their encounters range from violent to mundane, and the mundane ones are almost too much to bear; I’m thinking of their encounter with Old Man (Robert Duvall), which plays as filler in the movie, a chance to inject some exposition about the possible cause of the disaster that I don’t recall being in the book. Even Guy Pearce seemed overtaken with boredom when he popped up towards the end, reciting his lines as if he’d gone totally Method and forgotten to eat for six weeks.

What it all comes down to is that, for me, the surprises in The Road were much more powerful in the book; scenes like the bomb shelter and the house with clothes piled high in the living room were punctuations of action in a story that focused much more on ideas (such as hours and minutes being completely irrelevant in the end times). The movie kind of touches on these with The Man’s spotty narration, but watching the film wasn’t the kind of deeply personal experience that reading the book was. I guess it’s like the difference between reading a poem and having someone read it to you; the material is the same, but the difference in experience is profound.

This may be the most awkward positive review I’ve written. If you’ve read The Road, sure, check out the movie; Mortensen does a fantastic job embodying the fear and instinctual resolve of The Man. Kodi Smit-McPhee is serviceable, but is perhaps a bit too realistic in his constant whining and tantrum-throwing. If you’ve neither seen the movie nor read the book, please read the novel first! Then, if you’re so compelled, see the movie on the big screen; don’t wait for video. This is the rare film that does the source material nearly absolute justice, and in doing so ends up as a curiosity rather than a new and engaging experience.

Note: Though I appreciate Charlize Theron's presence in the movie, I can't help but think that her star power is behind the inclusion of so many flashbacks involving her character. She was barely in the novel, and I think it would have been a much more powerful choice to relegate her to one, maybe two glimpses on screen. One interlude in particular--involving her dress and her husband's hand--didn't belong in the same movie as the rest of the story; not even in the same universe; the filmmakers went for a cute, hot moment and ended up with the cinematic equivalent of a record scratch.


Up in the Air (2009)

0 for 3

A couple years ago, Will Smith starred in a film adaptation of the Richard Matheson novella, I Am Legend. The movie was a slick bastardization of the ideas—and point—of the source material, and nothing in its bloated, uninteresting 101 minutes could compare to the first 10 pages of the book on which it was based. Up in the Air, the new Jason Reitman film based on Walter Kirn’s book is not quite as awful, but it did give me flashbacks.

In the movie, George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man who travels so much for his job that he’s on the cusp of earning 10 million frequent-flyer miles; it’s a singular goal in a life marked by an utter lack of dreams or human connections. Ryan zigzags all across America, acting as the soothing hatchet man for downsizing companies. One day, his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that his company is looking to cut travel costs by firing people via a new teleconferencing system developed by Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an ambitious, young college grad. Ryan takes to the air one last time to show Natalie the ropes, insisting that his line of work requires a more personal touch than an LCD screen can offer.

There’s a lot of “Best Picture” buzz surrounding this movie, and I honestly don’t get it.

Okay, I kinda do.

Unfortunately, all of the hype seems to have been built around the film’s ingredients rather than what they ultimately combine to make. You have Jason Reitman at the helm, who gave us the inexplicably adored Juno and Thank You For Smoking; you have George Clooney, who—love him or hate him—has used his mega-millionaire icon status to pursue only interesting projects (in other words, you won’t be seeing him in Another Fine Day); lastly, you have one of the most topical films in memory: jobs are disappearing quicker than Amelia from the multiplex. Building a film around the people doing the canning is a great idea—if properly executed; Up in the Air is not.

The cast is problem number one. I’m a big fan of George Clooney, but he brings too much of his Danny Ocean character to Ryan Bingham. Bingham is suave and great at his job, but instead of the darkness that we’re supposed to see under the wisecracking facade, we see only more smirking. I kept thinking of the weight in Clooney’s eyes and shoulders that was evident throughout Syriana, and wishing he’d brought a quarter of that power to this role.

Of greater concern is Anna Kendrick as Natalie. She plays an early-twenties version of Lilith from Cheers: all buttoned-up seriousness, but with the eager naïveté of a puppy dog. It’s a fine bit for a sitcom, but when we’re asked to take her seriously for the better part of two hours, it becomes an issue. Take, for example, the scene in which she asks Ryan if he would ever consider getting married. When he says “no”, she acts as like a Vulcan android that’s just blown a circuit; am I really supposed to believe that an educated woman who came of age in the last two decades has never encountered someone who doesn’t think marriage is right for them?

I understand that these critiques have more to do with the screenplay than the actors, but Up in the Air is the perfect storm of bad choices on both the writers’ and performers’ parts. The script is a mess; on the one hand it’s a funny road picture in the vain of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, but at the same time it aspires to the gravitas of a socially relevant portrait of the economic disaster. It takes a very deft touch to have it both ways, and Jason Reitman is about as ham-handed as they come.

It’s cute that he decided to insert real laid-off employees into his movie to give heart-felt testimonials during the firing scenes, but Reitman failed to learn Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino lesson from last year: for the most part, regular people don’t know how to fucking act. And when you plop them into a movie of established actors, the contrast is embarrassing to watch. Look no further than J.K. Simmons, who shines in one of only three decent scenes in the film. He plays a family man who gets the axe, and his exchange with Clooney gives a glimpse of the humanity and fine filmmaking that Up in the Air should have possessed; when we cut back to the non-actors, the movie takes on the air of a corporate training video.

And what of the economic crisis theme? Up in the Air shows us plenty of desolate buildings and jittery nerves in conference rooms, but it doesn’t say anything about how current events affect its characters. The downturn is simply a backdrop against which to paint a clichéd lost-man portrait. Two key indicators of this are late-film developments that defy plausibility and undercut the supposed theme:

1. One of the women that Ryan and Natalie let go early in the film kills herself by jumping off a bridge; this is telegraphed (sloppily) in her exit interview. It pops up as a story point in the last fifteen minutes, and is brushed aside with a few lines of dialogue as if it would not be a big deal in real life. Natalie quits her job and Ryan lies to his boss about having seen signs of a problem with the victim; my understanding of the real world is that there would be lawsuits and inquiries, possibly suspensions. But, no, the dead woman is just a catalyst for...

2. Natalie getting a new job right off the bat. Her new employer receives a letter of recommendation from Ryan that testifies to all the lessons she’s learned on the road, and how great a catch she is for any business, etc. It’s unclear what kind of job she gets, or whether or not she was at all scared of not finding work in the current climate. We just see her sit down for a brief interview and walk away with a new paycheck and 401(k).

I really dislike Up in the Air; which is a shame because I was truly looking forward to it. I would still love to see a serious examination of people whose job it is to put other people out of work; by “serious”, I don’t mean dour—just something that doesn’t feel like its screenplay was revised by the head writer of Two and a Half Men.

The only thing this film did right was to compel me to pick up Walter Kirn’s novel; I’ve finished the first chapter and, sure enough, its first 11 pages are far more effective than the whole movie based on it.

Note: For those of you that have seen the movie, you’ll notice I left out the two bulky sub-plots involving Ryan’s affair with a fellow frequent traveler and his trip home to attend his sister’s wedding. The reason is simple: they add nothing to the movie except running time (unless you’ve never seen another movie about family and/or the road). The characters involved in these distractions are as cardboard as the gimmick-y cut-outs Ryan photographs in front of the places he travels; particularly offensive is Danny McBride, as the brother-in-law-to-be, who plays exactly the douchebag one might expect him to play in a conventional comedy; the fact that he is not elevated above archetype here is a good indication of how dumb the movie considers its audience (another credibility issue: he gets cold feet on his wedding day because he’s never—until the big day—thought about what getting married actually means; there may be people out there that this happens to, but they deserve neither sympathy nor significant screen time in a movie made for adults).

Additional Note: I should mention that Up in the Air has one of the best closing scenes I’ve seen; it involves Sam Elliott as an airline pilot who congratulates Ryan on earning ten million miles. The look on Ryan’s face when the pilot asks where he’s from—and Ryan’s answer—is just perfect. The problem is, that scene comes about ten minutes before the end; there is no finer example of Jason Reitman’s ineptitude as a storyteller than the misplacement of this gem of a capper. Instead, we’re treated to a lingering, silent shot of clouds that even a C- film student would decry as pretentious.


Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)


Hicks and Hexes

The saying goes that the best way to criticize a bad movie is to make a good one. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinfofsky have taken that idea a step further by applying it to a murder trial. Their documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, is a damning critique of two trials that saw the (apparent) wrongful conviction of three teenage boys for murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. These filmmakers have taken their case to the court of public opinion, and have made a compelling argument for their subjects’ innocence.

The film opens with grisly footage of the crime scene: the naked, mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys are dragged from a river embankment. Watching the police video, it was startling to think that I was seeing real human beings and not dummies from some slasher film; the reality didn’t hit me until the cut to the family interviews and local news coverage. It’s a hell of a way to open a movie, and the directors wisely went with the most shocking images right off the bat; they would be the tent pole on which the rest of the story—and the trial—would come to rest.

We learn that on May 5, 1993, the three second-graders were allegedly attacked in the woods of Robin Hood Hills by Jessie Misskelly, Damien Wayne Echols, and Jason Baldwin. The teen outcasts—who wore all-black and listened to Metallica—brutally raped, killed, and disfigured the kids as part of a Satanic ritual, or so the story goes. Paradise Lost spends a lot of time on the front end with the victims’ families, all working-class upstanding citizens whose grief has quickly morphed into anger: they gleefully hypothesize about what will happen to the killers when inmates/God/Satan get hold of them; one mother even promises to mail one of the jailed teens a skirt. The outrage is understandable—though very unsettling—and it’s easy to side with the relatives; that is, until the facts of the case begin to unravel.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Paradise Lost became the most fascinating court drama I’ve ever seen. During two trials, we see the legal teams of all three defendants paint a picture of small-town prejudices that made them the only possible suspects in the murder—even though each teen had an alibi and none had motive. Despite the fact that one of the victims’ own fathers is eventually eyed as a viable suspect, the defense teams face an up-hill battle that has less to do with the facts of the case than with the fear and suspicion of people who want to upend their beliefs (a couple of the expert witnesses are derided by the prosecution for being “big-city” folk whose fancy college educations and high rates of pay negate anything they might have to contribute). Unfortunately, I was somewhat familiar with the fate of the “West Memphis Three” (this documentary did come out almost fourteen years ago), so I lost out on the drama of the verdict; but Berlinger and Sinofsky so effectively involved me in the story that I almost forgot.

In addition to the courtroom material, the interviews with both the victims’ families and the families of the accused are just fascinating. No one in West Memphis comes across as particularly educated, attractive, or even nice; it’s easy to see where the caricatures of Southern ignorance come from. But there are surprises everywhere, as in a scene where one of the dead boys’ family is sitting around cursing the murderers and plotting violent revenge in the event that the alleged killers are set free; the grandfather pipes up and says that he’s a Christian, and that as mad and hurt as he is, he won’t engage in the Devil’s work. When we meet Damien Echols’ girlfriend, we see a sweet teenage mother who never doubts the innocence of the boy she loves, and her testimony ultimately causes us to re-evaluate some of what we believe about Damien. You could edit out the trial altogether and still have a solid movie about human pettiness and compassion.

Ultimately, Paradise Lost makes a strong case for the teens’ innocence, though it also paints them as being not bright enough to be able to look innocent. Of the three, Damien Echols is the most educated, but also the cockiest, and it’s not difficult to see how a jury could go against him, even in the face of evidence that he was nowhere near the crime scene. I came away from the movie angry at the proud ignorance of the town and embarrassed for the justice system—I know that it works in many cases, but when it doesn’t, well, you get things like redneck justice and an unsolved murder.

Note: I haven’t seen the sequel, Paradise Lost: Revelations, which follows up on the case with, I guess, new evidence. I plan to check it out soon, to see if it answers some questions that I have about the original trials (such as how the prosecution thought the teenagers lured three second-graders into the woods in the first place).


Videodrome, 1983 (Home Video Review)

Boo Tube

When I pulled up the Videodrome IMDB page—as I often do for quick reference when writing reviews—I noticed two entries for the film. The first was for the original 1983 movie, directed by David Cronenberg; the other was an “in development” notice for what I can only guess is a remake, slated for 2011. From a brand recognition standpoint, I totally understand; while Videodrome isn’t at the forefront of the public’s conscience, it is certainly known enough that it could reasonably attract enough viewers to have a decent opening weekend—with none of that pesky originality that studios seem to dread these days. From a creative standpoint, however, there’s absolutely no reason for Videodrome to be “re-imagined”. Cronenberg had a bleak vision of the future twenty-six years ago, and we are still moving towards it.

As a sidebar, I’d like to thank God, Buddha, Allah, and Gaia for Netflix. Not only has it saved me from cabin fever during this nightmare illness, but I no longer have an excuse for not having seen classic movies.

Videodrome is the story of Max Renn (James Woods), a small-time cable channel executive whose carved a niche in the market by airing risqué programming (soft-core porn, violence, etc.). He’s constantly on the lookout for the next big thing in edge-creeping entertainment; when one of his friends, Harlan, pirates a broadcast called Videodrome—which depicts the torture and rape of faceless women—Max becomes obsessed with finding out who or what has created it. As you might imagine, his quest leads to no good, and Max soon discovers that the Videodrome signal acts as a drug on anyone who sees it; one that induces severe hallucinations that blur the line between reality and television.

Videodrome is a cult classic for a reason: David Cronenberg created a prophetic anti-TV movie that is just as notable for its philosophical musings as it is for its gore, sex, and graphic instances of Debbie Harry trying to act (she plays Max’s girlfriend, Nicki, and from the outset she comes across as having fallen victim to the signal—or perhaps a handful of Quaaludes). The most remarkable thing about Videodrome is that its message about the effects of too much television are still relevant, and can easily be applied to today’s obsession with constant, easy access to information, via Twitter, 24-hour cable news, and even the iPhone (hell, there are people at my day job who have a second computer monitor at their desks, solely to stream television shows all day).

Looking at the film now, it’s easy to see Videodrome’s influence on other movies of the last quarter century, from UHF to The Matrix to The Ring to Surrogates, and at least twenty others (the film's spiritual predecessor is Sidney Lumet's Network). What Videodrome has over many of them is the boldness of its ideas, and a string of instantly quotable lines. When Max encounters a mysterious doctor who appears to hold the secret to Videodrome, he is cautioned that, “Television is reality, and reality is less than television” (the doctor, incidentally, says this on a TV talk show in which he appears on-stage as an image broadcast through a television on a stand). Movies like this question the effect of media on the mind; the better ones ask us to evaluate how we allow the images and messages that we take in to shape our worldviews and even our identities.

By the time Max has disappeared down the rabbit hole, he has become a confused, mass-murdering acolyte of a new world media order. His need to see things he should not have seen and to know things no one should know are dramatized with eerie images like a gun fusing to his hand and an eager vagina sprouting on his torso (which receives videotapes, naturally). But, psychologically, does this differ from our need to be involved in the private lives of celebrities or to watch footage of wartime beheadings?

Fortunately, Videodrome has aged pretty well (aside from the aforementioned Debbie Harry problem), and might even appeal to modern audiences—that’s always an iffy proposition: one generations groundbreaking special effects is the next generation’s drinking game cheese-fest. This is an important movie that should be seen by anyone who is interested in making smart, effective entertainment.

Somehow I doubt the remake will qualify.

Note: This movie has something that I haven’t seen a lot of, but that I think could absolutely help a lot of “near-future” films: Cronenberg introduces ideas that were futuristic—for 1983—by integrating them into the natural rhythms of what audiences of the time would consider modern-day living. For example, the opening image is that of a video wakeup call by Max Renn’s secretary—the equivalent of a clock-radio alarm. It’s a weird idea, but one that is not mentioned or pointed out as being special; rather, it’s just part of the fabric of Cronenberg’s 1983.


A Serious Man (2009)

Chickenshit for the Soul

Note: It’s been almost two months since I saw A Serious Man. I’ve been struggling to put my thoughts on it into words the whole time. The only upside to being laid up in bed with a drippy, sleepless, chest-bursting cold is that I finally have no excuse to put off this review any longer. I still don’t think I’ve captured everything I want to say, but at least I can blame the meds...

It’s hard to believe that the Joel and Ethan Coen who wrote and directed A Serious Man are the same brothers who brought us Burn After Reading. The former is a masterpiece of cinematic indulgence; the latter is sloppy dog shit.

Harsh? Maybe. But I thought a lot about Burn After Reading in the days after I saw A Serious Man. The dark frustration over that quarter-baked, unfunny political satire almost eroded my glowing enthusiasm for their latest picture, a breezy portrait of a heavyhearted suburbanite. Burn After Reading was clearly a rebound picture, a bit of fun behind the camera after the hard work and passionate investment that was No Country for Old Men. With A Serious Man, the Coens remind us (and possibly themselves) that great, smart comedy is not easy; it does not emerge from cheap, ninety-minute running jokes about Brad Pitt being a ditzy personal trainer (a CW sitcom pitch if I’ve ever heard one).

The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota physics professor in 1967. He’s got a wife and two kids, and his biggest problem is that he’s up for tenure at the same time a student is trying to bribe him for a better grade. Out of the blue, his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces that she’s leaving him for a widower named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Larry’s shocked at the news. Very quickly, the other elements of his life that he thought were fine—or at least manageable—begin to unravel.
All of the characters Larry encounters are quirky in some way, but realistic enough to be plausible foils; because Larry is painted as a sympathetic character, we alternately root for him to prevail while at the same time wishing that he’d stop being such a timid mess.

A Serious Man is full of story elements (“plot” is the wrong word in this case) that I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. This is a movie that walks the fine line of farce and dramedy and succeeds in the most surprising, fulfilling ways. Much like American Beauty, this is a story about the collapse of a suburban family, but because A Serious Man is rooted in Jewish tradition, it operates a few levels higher than the former film. Many of Larry’s predicaments would have been easily shrugged off by a man who was not so concerned with always doing the right thing (even “the right thing” in some cases, is open to interpretation). That’s not to say that the movie is pro-religion; in fact, the red tape of rules, customs, and the reverent formalities of dealing with Rabbis act as obstacles to Larry’s happiness. This makes for a miserable protagonist and a positively giddy audience—I loved just about every minute of this picture (there’s a story thread involving Richard Kind as Larry’s disabled brother that stuck out like a dog-eared corner on a lithograph).

I even loved the ending.

In case you haven’t heard, the Coens gave this movie the same kind of ending as that of No Country for Old Men—only far more jarring. This movie literally stops in the middle of what looks to be a very important scene. For about twenty minutes after I left the theatre, I felt like I’d just witnessed a car accident; my mind went into shock (call it pathetic if you will—I really get into movies). Thinking back on the film’s message, though, the ending makes perfect sense. In fact, I still have a harder time reconciling the opening of A Serious Man than the final moments (I think I understand what the filmmakers were going for, but I’d have to see it again to be sure). I hope I haven’t ruined anything by mentioning the abrupt finale; I won’t tell you what to watch out for, but just know that you’ll have to fill in a lot of blanks on your own.

This is on my short list of films of the year, and I would be as shocked as Larry Gopnik if this movie didn’t at least get nominated for every major award (save for special effects). Joel and Ethan Coen have made the ultimate movie for people who love movies, cramming it with textures, ideas, and performances that make every sub-par, un-ambitious movie (even ones they’ve made) seem like an insult to mankind’s creative instincts. It’s that good.