Archive for category 2000s

Zach and Miri Make a Porno

Zach and Miri Make a Porno

How to use porn as a “meet cute.”

Given my absurd effort to attempt to review every film that I see from beginning to end, I am obligated to write something about “Zach and Miri Make a Porno.” I don’t really want to though. Despite what you make think, it isn’t very much fun to write about films which aren’t very good, and “Zach and Miri” just isn’t very good. This review will be shorter than most.

I suspect that you can only write so many scripts about characters trapped in a post-high school inertia which combines raunchy dialogue and a sweet emotional tenderness . Eventually that well simply goes dry. In “Zach and Miri,”  there are a couple of nice performances  and a couple moments of lewd brilliance, but most of the film feels like Kevin Smith’s bucket is scraping against a bed of rocks.

Much credit goes to Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as the film’s title characters, a pair of “just friends” and roommates who decide to shoot a porno in order to ease their financial woes. This is of course just the contrivance needed for them to acknowledge their mutual feelings for each other and live happily every after, but Rogen and Banks have a goofy chemistry which makes the film work despite a mostly shaky script. Aiding them in their home-made porno endeavor are Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Jeff Anderson, Traci Lords, Katie Morgan, and Ricky Babe

It is during the scenes in which they are shooting their porno that the film comes alive. Their first attempt is a “Star Wars” parody called “Star Whores,” which features such characters as “Hung Solo” and “Darth Vibrator.” When this film goes awry because of a deal with a shady landlord, their next attempt is shot at the coffee shop where Zach works and is called “Suck My Cockucinno.” This leads to the best moment in the film. Amidst a ridiculous scenario involving milk delivery and silly innuendos, Zach and Miri have the sex which makes them realize they love each other. As to the rest of the film, we have a classic “idiot” plot which fuel the drama the rest of the way and generated a fair bit of ambivalence in me.

Kevin Smith has a notoriously unhappy relationship with critics, so I’ll understand if he doesn’t take kindly to this review, (Not that I qualify as a “critic,”) but the film never seemed to rise above the level of a high-concept curiosity. The seed of a great raunchy comedy is in there, but it needs a lot more from the script and its supporting cast. You can only lean on overtly crude language and shocking sat gags for so long before it becomes an exercise in tedium.

2/5

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American Psycho

American Psycho

A surreal thriller with the heart of a comedy.

“American Psycho” is one of the more unsettling films about impotence, male sexuality, violence, the oppressive superficiality of 1980s culture, and weird, vain executives obsessed with business cards and the integrity of their pores. That shotgun list of thematic topics only scratches the surface of what this film is “really” about. This is because the “plot” consists of a string of outrageous murders which or may not actually take place and which is littered with character’s whose personalities and motivations are buried under thick layers of social construction.  If pressed, I’d probably read the whole thing as a bizarre escapist fantasy of a seemingly powerful white male whose personality and virility is rendered inert by being trapped in a dreary, anonymous life which is devoid of any agency or obstacles, but with a film as ambiguous as this, most any reading is fair game.

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a white, male investment banker in New York City that is fixated on his own appearance and at least has extremely violent impulses, whether or not he acts on them. Of that much in the film, I think we can be reasonably certain. Beyond that, we are forced to try and distinguish between a version of events which is the product of Bateman’s extreme and dark fantasies or a frightening reality in which Bateman has the privilege of committing a grizzly series of murders without consequence, or some combination of these two. There is evidence to support any of these interpretations, so the better question is, doe it matter which version of events we go with?

I’m not sure it does. Taken literally, Bateman is a sadistic serial killer who offs a ludicrous number of people, including co-workers, hookers, friends, and even some cops. Whether out of white collar solidarity, ignorance, or mass anxiety about their own mental health, Bateman is never forced to answer for his crimes. Willem DeFoe plays a detective investigating missing executive Paul Allen (Jared Leto) that should easily have been able to at least implicate Bateman in the murder, but instead seems more interested in feeding Bateman alibis. Bateman even confesses all his crimes to his lawyer, who passes off Bateman’s confession as a joke and insists none of the murders happened. Try as he might, no one is willing to acknowledge Bateman’s actions, which constructively is a failure to acknowledge Bateman’s agency altogether.

Treating Bateman as a thoroughly unreliable and indeed insane narrator brings us to more or less the same place. In this version, Bateman is so ineffectual and inert that he doesn’t have the gumption to actually hurt anybody, so he slips into Macabre daydreams in which he can enact his sadistic desires. This explains why nobody is all that bothered by a string of bodies at the end, because they don’t exist. Either way, nothing Bateman does “matters.” Not even in his fantasies.

So what then are we to make of this unresolvable ambiguity and Bateman’s extreme violence, “real” or imagined? Perhaps it is about interpretation. Bateman, like us, is wrestling with the ambiguity, and is no more successful at resolving it. His response is admittedly more aggressive than ours, but insofar as he attempts, or believes he attempts to make his actions correspond to “reality,” (or from our perspective, the narrative,) he can’t. Nothing he does corresponds to anything. It all reflects back to Bateman as an empty form. He has no identity (unless you count the generic, stolen lines of conversation that Bateman offers up as an “identity.”) In fact, his appearance is so like his colleagues that the only expressive outlet they have is virtually identical business cards. Combine this with an equally empty existence devoid of meaning or consequence amidst a dreary culture of false White Collar drones, and “American Psycho” is a sort-of postmodern satire of America.

Alright, I’ll admit it. Most of that last paragraph was aped badly from a conversation I had with one of my good friends, who is a P.I.T. (or “Professor-In-Training” if you aren’t into made-up acronyms for made-up words.) Even if the idea of a “postmodern satire” sounds pretentious or incoherent, the emphasis in deconstructing this film should exploring why the plot is ambiguous, rather than hypothesizing the ambiguity away. As for the experience of watching this film, major credit to Christian Bale for brilliantly toeing the line between dark comedy and pure sadism. “American Psycho” probably wouldn’t work with any other actor.

4/5

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Zodiac

Zodiac

Drawn out psychosexual frustration at its finest.

Admittedly I was perturbed watching “Zodiac” for the first time several years ago. It felt listless and meandering, overblown and overwrought, but worst of all, the film focused on a series of murders that were never solved. At that time it was difficult for me to conceive of a film about a series of murder that didn’t resolve itself in the final moments via some sort of confrontation with the murderer coupled with a psychoanalytical explanation for their actions, not unlike Fincher’s “Seven.” (Nevermind that the real-life Zodiac Killer was never actually found, so “resolving” this plot would be fairly disingenuous.) Several years and films later, this wholesale expectation that every on-screen murder must be solved has left me, which along with the knowledge that this film isn’t the least bit interested in answers, but in questions, left me free to savor how “Zodiac” revels in myopic futility and impotence.

“Zodiac” is a film obsessed with obsession. It gets lost in a rabbit hole of ideas and theories which tantalize us with the possibilities of answers, but offers up only paranoia and isolation. It does this using one of the most enticing mysteries of the twentieth century: Who was behind the Zodiac killings in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s? The end of the film suggests a possible culprit, but with limited conviction. (The man died before any definitive evidence could be cultivated, so this theory, like the others, can neither be confirmed or denied.) Instead, it ponders about a number of possible suspects and the obsessive characters that tried to compile an extremely fragmented string of evidence which seemed to lead nowhere.

Typical crime films give us one protagonist who assembles all the pieces of the puzzle scene by scene and explains precisely how they all fit together in the end. “Zodiac” plays out as if several people are working on the same puzzle, only in different rooms with different pieces, most of which are missing. The official police leads investigating the murder are Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards,) but amatuer detectives Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal,) a reporter and cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle respectively, also spend a great deal of time trying to crack the case.

Whomever was responsible for the series of grizzly murders left an odd crumb trail to follow. There are cryptic letters to analyze, a strange phone call to a notorious psychiatrist, and loads of circumstantial evidence to parse through. Yet most of it leads to nothing more than a series of blind alleys. Characters drop into and out of the investigation, some because of threatening letters and creepy anonymous calls, others because the trail goes dead. Robert Graysmith lasts longer than anybody, but his unilateral focus on a murder investigation that does not directly affect him costs him his family and his career. At one point, Graysmith even ends up in the basement of a Zodiac suspect who would be generously described as “really, really weird.” Eventually, Graysmith begins to resemble the deranged characters he suspects might be the zodiac killer.

I wouldn’t be the first person to observe how psychosexual the experience of many films can be. The very language of the word “climax” suggests a release of all the dramatic tension that has been building throughout the film. If most narratives replicate the sexual experience, “Zodiac” is the cinematic equivalent of blueballs. Answers linger at the edge of the frame, but they never arrive. The murders, which the film shows us in detail, never make any sense, and we are left with a pervasive sense of dread which the film never dispels.

It is important not to mistake this unmitigated psychological distress with a response to the film as a film. The distress is the point, because “Zodiac” is concerned with our need to know, not in feeding that need. It meanders and exploits our anxiety about unsolved crimes, and about unanswered questions more broadly. We as a species love certainty, but this film gives us none. Of course, that that could just be a load of nonsense and “Zodiac” is simply a really well done crime thriller about one of the strangest string of murders in American history. Either way, the 2007 version of me was an idiot. This is a very well-made film.

4/5

 

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Love Actually

Love Actually

A tour-de-force of in-your-face sappiness and most of Britain’s finest actors.

In my years of watching films, I’ve somehow almost completely avoided the films of Richard Curtis. Not including his work as a writer and producer on the film “Bean,” I’ve steered clear of his eye-watering canon of saccharine romantic comedies. While the schmaltz his films generate is legendary, I was still unprepared to witness their emotion-churning effects for myself. In watching “Love Actually” with my wife over the holidays, well, I was gobsmacked by its ability to hijack the human nervous system and generate tears like some sort of fast-replicating sadness/happiness virus, but you know what? I liked it. Kind of. If one is going to make a film as aggressively sentimental as this, better Richard Curtis than just about anybody else.

The trouble with a film like “Love Actually,” which consists of several highly-contrived narrative vignettes filled with lots of warm and sticky feelings which are generally recognized as love, is that it is impossible to care equally about all of it plot strands. Some of these stories do worm their way into your heart, but the film constantly jumps from story to story, some of which are not uninteresting, but actively irritating. The result is a well-meaning film with highly-inconsistent returns that is nevertheless hard to hate.

On the good side we have Bill Nighy as aged rocker Billy Mack, my personal favorite on this smorgasbord menu of holiday cuteness. Mack is forced to transform some of his long-expired hits into bad Christmas music by his manager, a task which Mack approaches with a full-on DGAF (look it up if you don’t get know what this acronym is Grandpa) attitude. While promoting his admittedly awful music on the British media circuit, he raises all kinds of Hell by mostly being brutally honest about just how awful that music is and the shameless drive to resurrect his defunct career which inspired it. I also enjoyed John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) as a couple of stand-ins for sex scenes that slowly fall in love over the course of the movie they are shooting.

Including the previous two, I count nine stories in all, from the silly to the starkly serious. We have: 1) Alan Rickman as middle-aged man that is considering cheating on his wife, played by Emma Thompson, with his perpetually-clad-in-red secretary, played by Heike Makatsch,) 2) Laura Linney as one of Rickman’s love-stricken employees whose dreams of getting with her long-time crush Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) are ruined by her brother’s rare mental disorder which compels him to call her while she is trying to have sex, 3) Kris Marshall as a down-on-his-luck-romantically Brit who travels to America to impress the local women with his accent, 4) Hugh Grant as Britain’s Prime Minister who falls for a member of his household staff, played by Martine McCutcheon, who is mercilessly and inexplicably called fat at several points in the film, 5) Andrew Lincoln as a man hopelessly in love with his best friend’s new wife, played by Keira Knightley, 6) Colin Firth as a writer who falls for his Portuguese maid, played by Seinna Guillory, and 7) Liam Neeson as a recently widowed husband who must contend with his lovesick (and decidedly non-grieving stepson,) played by Thomas Sangster. These narratives are even more ridiculous than that quick synopsis makes them sound.

“It is what it is” isn’t much of a criticism, but it feels very apt here. Whatever else can be said about “Love Actually,” it is at least honest about what it offers. (In starting out with home movies of friends and families reuniting in airports, the film couldn’t make it more clear about what you can expect the rest of the way.) The value of what this film offers depends on your desire for cheap but well-constructed and viciously-efficient emotional manipulation by an enormous cast of British talent. Bearish as I am about such films, “Love Actually” kinda sorta won be over.

3/5

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Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Anchorman

On the lingering excellence of a minor masterpiece of broad comedy.

Of comedies in the past ten years featuring narcissistic manchildren whose massive egos are matched only by their prodigious cluelessness, Ron Burgundy is perhaps the most durable. Having seen it as a twenty-year-old riding high on his second year of undergrad, this film was quoted ad nauseum by me and basically everyone else on campus. Yet unlike other films which spread one-liners like pinkeye in a frathouse before quickly receding into the pop culture history books, (I’m looking at you “Austin Powers,”) “Anchorman” still has juice left in the relevance tank.

Case-in-point, you could start reciting almost any line from this film, and a shocking number of people under the age of forty could finish it.* Of greater significance is that this film is still capable of generating laughter, both from those who’ve seen it several times and those watching it with new eyes. It even worked for my in-laws, who audibly chuckled numerous times when they watched it for the first time. So why this film (and this character,) when so many comedies’ vibrance has slide into the niche nostalgia zone or relative obscurity? (I’m thinking of other Will Ferrell comedies, like “Talladega Nights” and “Old School.”)

*This claim is just science.

The impending sequel aside, much of this starts with the zeitgeist of top-notch casting. This film is led by the reliable Will Ferrell, whose performance takes vanity to new heights and features some now-comedy superstars including a pre-“Office” Steve Carell, a proto-Apatow Paul Rudd, and the underappreciated David Koechner as the constituents of the bumbling Channel 4 news team/boy’s club. Christina Applegate comes along as the upstart female news anchor that throws a wrench in their idyllic life as the cream-of-the-local-San Diego-news anchor-crop. Improv legend Fred Willard throws in some comedically sublime moments as the bewildered news manager trying to keep everyone, especially his delinquent son, in line.

It isn’t just that these actors have prodigious chemistry with each other, it is that they are all plugged in on the same high-level wavelength, intuitively knowing what to do like borgs doing improv. The mostly-irrelevant plot features lots of melodrama, bruised egos, and almost non-stop lunacy, but as a sort of comic recipe, these key ingredients are in perfect balance with each other. We get just the right mix of Brick Tamland’s (Carell) endearing stupidity, Brian Fantana’s (Rudd) delusions of self-importance, and Champ Bailey’s (Koechner) homosexulity-repressing machismo to accentuate the profound immaturity and self-aggrandizing of Ron Burgundy (Ferrell.) As the intrepid Veronica Corningstone, Applegate knows she has the mostly thankless task of offsetting all the silliness as the straight woman to all the shenanigans, a role which she delivers with aplomb, while still getting her comedic licks in where she can.

It also helps to have such a great premise to work with in the first place. All the goofiness on display in this film takes place amidst the corniness-filled 60s hangover that was the 1970s. I mean, I wasn’t there or anything, but much of the out and out absurdity and surrealism in the film seems only a couple of steps away from plausibility. Couple that with the ironically dour importance placed on the seemingly innocuous job of reading the news, a meta-joke which looms over the entire film, and you have a (back to the cooking metaphor) recipe for success. When we hear Fred Willard’s character say, “Brick is useless when he isn’t reading the weather,” we get that the film is really saying, “Brick is useless.” Even something as seemingly serious as the first female news anchor is treated with bemusement, as though it is only marginally more important for women’s rights than being the first woman to eat a Snicker’s bar.

So this review is basically a convoluted way of saying that the combination of a rare assemblage of talent and a great comedic hook amounts to a uniquely persistent staple of a comedy in the 21st century, that manages to be broad enough to appeal to a lot of people while still feeling authentic to director/writer Adam McKay’s and Ferrell’s initial vision. Yet the obviousness of this review doesn’t make it any less true. I mean, 30% of time, obvious ideas work 100% of the time.

4.5/5

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Spider-Man

spider-man-poster

A classic tale of “boy meets girl, boy gets bitten by radioactive spider, boy can’t get involved with girl.”

So much has changed since the halcyon days of 2002 in the land of superhero films. With only the first “X-Men” film and a series of “Batman” films which had run themselves straight into the ground to contend with, “Spider-Man” was free to blow away both nerds and normals alike with its inventive, eye-popping, state-of-the-art visual effects and endearing origin story about a goofy kid desperately trying to impress the girl next door. More than a decade later, superhero films have multiplied exponentially, with sharper visual effects and darker narratives, all of which applies to this now-rebooted franchise. Watching this film this film in all its campy and relatively innocent glory invokes a quaint, nostalgic feeling, as if this film were wrought in the 1950s.

A major part of the film’s hokiness stems from the cornball performance of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, the teenage boy who develops spider powers when bitten by a radioactive spider. (That spider is still out there.) For a teenager living in the greater New York City area circa 2002, he has absolutely no edge to his personality. He never swears and, social awkwardness aside, lacks anything resembling teen angst or attitude. He does yearn for girl next door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) with a goofy shyness that more akin to geeks in 1980s teen comedies than a superhero.

The penultimate event in Peter’s existence is the murder of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), who along with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) have raised him since he was little. The murderer is someone whom Peter might have stopped earlier, but for some pettiness on his part from a disagreement about money, Peter let him go. However, the resulting tragedy hammers home the film’s motif that “With great power comes great responsibility,” and thus Spider-Man is born.

The film has a perplexing villain in The Green Goblin, who is supposedly psychotic but is only marginally more menacing than the Adam West-era “Batman” villains. The Green Goblin comes about because of a self-experiment, performed by an over-ambitious Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe,) who injects himself with an experimental gas designed to create super-soldiers but which has a number of unpleasant side-effects, chiefly insanity. This result is Jekyll and Hyde split in Osborn’s, with the Green Goblin stealing a costume and bunch of weapons in order to do all of those terrible, PG-13 things Norman Osborn wants to do, but won’t

Why do people hate Norman Osborn? As the C.E.O of Oscorp, a weapons research company, people seem to despise him. There is a General in charge of weapons contracts who is just giddy at the prospect of cutting of Osborn’s funding. Oscorp’s Board of Directors, meanwhile, have just been waiting for the chance to sell his company and force him out. Yet the film only ever shows Norman acting like a generally nice guy, except when he is in Green Goblin-mode. Perhaps Dafoe is just too likeable for the role. The trouble with the Green Goblin as a villain is that he eliminates all of Osborn’s obstacles early in the film. So what does Osborn/Green Goblin have left to accomplish?

Apparently plenty, because he flies around on a glider talking about all the amazing things he plans to achieve, and fixating on the threat Spider-Man poses to his (non-)plans. Yet for someone that is supposed to be hyper-aggressive and deranged, he is decidedly well-behaved. Instead of using his cartoonishness to generate fear and unease a la Heath Ledger’s The Joker, Green Goblin just feels cartoonish. Like any respectful villain, he wants to give the hero a chance to join him, though again, to what end he never reveals. After finding out Spider-Man’s identity, the Green Goblin concludes in a decidedly Gollum/Smeagal monologue that in order to beat Spider-Man, he must first “break him.” So what does he do to “break him?” Something really sick like torture and kill Peter Parker’s loved ones? Nope. He scares Peter’s Aunt May, to the extent she required hospitalization. This is something  which decidedly doesn’t break him. The Green Goblin also possesses bombs which can disintegrate humans on impact, but like a good sport and doesn’t bring any to his fights with Spider-Man.

Aside from treading some relatively new ground in generating narrative strands which would serve as backstory in later films (a relatively novel concept at the time,) the film feels a lot less original than it did on its release. The visuals go for iconic imagery, like a slow-motion shot in which an explosion rips open parts of Spider-Man’s mask, but despite how “cool” they look, these shots lack emotional weight. Plus, with the dated visual effects, the weak narrative shines through more clearly. The exploration of duel identity and personal sacrifice involved in being a superhero was well-tread ground even in 2002. Yet that doesn’t stop the film from being silly, colorful throwback fun, even if it lacks the streamlined effectiveness or harder edges of the next generation of films it helped launch.

3/5

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A Serious Man

a-serious-man-movie-poster

A perplexing and painful modern spin on that classic Jewish comedy, the story of Job.

Does the fact that I cannot watch this film without feeling visceral pain on behalf of the much-beleaguered Larry Gopnik imply that I see him as the victim of a cruel cosmic joke or bizarre wager between the Almighty and Satan? My first instinct is that yes it does, but I think it is too easy to consider my sympathy support. There is something profoundly wrong with Larry Gopnik.

Played by Michael Stuhlbarg. Larry is the hapless quasi-hero at the center of this Coen Brothers re-(telling, imagining, make, envisioning?) of the Biblical tale of Job. Seemingly a dutiful Jewish family man working as a physics professor and living a ho-hum life in 1967 suburban Minneapolis, Larry is afflicted with a string of misfortunes which would be hilarious if they weren’t so depressing. It starts with his marriage, which didn’t so much sputter out as it goes for an evening stroll and never comes back. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce, followed by a Jewish ritual called a Get to allow her to remarry the oppressively pleasant Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed,) who takes passive-aggressivity to infuriating new heights.

The impending doom of his marriage is far from the only indignity Larry has to endure. Larry also has a cist-sporting brother named Arthur (Richard Kind) who has taken up permanent residence on his couch and periodically gets in trouble for solicitation and cheating at cards, a daughter that steals money from him, a son who only speaks with him when he needs something, a Korean student that is both bribing and blackmailing him for a passing grade, a pending property dispute with his neighbor, exorbitant bills for legal services, and someone who keeps writing anonymous letters to the tenure review committee, disparaging Larry’s character. Larry spends most of the film seeking theological justifications for his suffering.

Larry is aided in this by two and a half rabbis, with the half being the legendary and aloof Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) who refuses to see Larry but gives advice to his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) which I think indirectly applies to Larry. One Rabbi lamely suggests that Larry is looking at God through “tired eyes” and uses the Synagogue parking lot as a metaphor to show how wondrous creation, and Larry’s crumbling marriage, truly is, if only he could see it. The second shares an anecdote about a Jewish dentist discovering Hebrew writing on the back of a Goy’s (non-Jew) teeth. The dentist is filled with existential angst as he seeks out an explanation for this potentially holy sign, before before, flabbergasted, he resigns himself to an ignorance-induced acceptance that meaningful answers just aren’t for us humans to know.

Understandably Larry finds neither of these explanations to be very helpful. With the film’s motif on teaching (Larry is a professor, Danny gets in trouble in class but is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, Rabbi literally means teacher), it is impossible to ignore the Story of Job when attempting decode this film. Given that the meaning of this story has been argued about for several centuries by far more intelligent people than me, this analogy may be of dubious usefulness. By way of an (extremely) crude synopsis of this debate, theories vary from the assertion that God makes Job suffer because Job is actually not a righteous man, to the assertion that God is the one who is unjust in tormenting Job to win a bet or otherwise “test” him, to the  suggestion God is not in fact all powerful and therefore “stuff happens.” I am sure Talmudic scholars everywhere would be thrilled by this paragraph.

These, in all of their infinite variations, and other theories are spelled out elsewhere. My reading of “A Serious Man” eschews abstraction in favor of character study. It starts with Marshak’s words to Danny after his Bar Mitzvah. Haven listened to Danny’s radio which was confiscated from Danny, Marshak begins to quote the wisdom of Jefferson Airplane: “When the truth is found, to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, then what?” The next lyrics are famously “Don’t you want somebody to love?” and therein lies Larry’s problem. I don’t think Larry has anybody to love.

Larry’s happiest moment occurs in the beginning of the film, when he breathlessly writes a complicated equations on the board meant to explain the quantum thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat to a classroom of disinterested students. I suspect that for Larry, life is little more than a math formula for Larry, with his well-adjusted family just the variables he plugs in to solve it. When things start to fall apart, he doesn’t want to deconstruct his relationships or to go on a voyage of self-discovery, he wants a teacher to give him the answer. When the answers don’t come, it becomes apparent that he lacks a genuine connection to anybody. He looks longingly at his next door neighbor playing catch with his son, yearning for a similar bond with his son. He doesn’t have it. I wonder how many nights he has spent with his wife bored out of her mind while his children looking on with seething indifference.

In a film which lends itself to any number of wild interpretations (I didn’t even mention the strange tale at the beginning of the film,) this is admittedly a rather mild take, but what it lacks in creativity, it makes up for in its simplicity. Amidst all the swirling karmic possibilities, the only thing that seems certain in Larry’s life is that he is utterly alone. While he begrudges the unfortunate circumstances threatening to take away his wife, family, and job, he never considers whether he ever “had” them in the first place.

4.5/5

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

A film which suggests that ballet doesn’t have to be boring.”

The blending of martial arts with the elegance of dance was not a new concept in the year 2000. Indeed, most Kung Fu films acknowledge this if not in the metaphysical beliefs which they express via their inevitable training sequences, than in the very nature of the term fighting “choreography.” Fights are less about violence and destruction than they are about communication through movement. Yet nobody took these ideas and made them as explicit as Ang Lee did in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” There may be better martial arts films out there, but few look as superb as this one. Even on a paltry twenty-odd inch television, the film looked brilliant.

It starts with Lee’s wide open visual approach. There seems to be space everywhere in this film. Whether it is the Gobi desert, forest, plains or even the presumably crowded city of Peking, there is plenty of room for characters to glide, pirouette, and literally float across gorgeous landscapes with beautiful Chinese vistas watching solemnly in the background. When they need more room, they simply move the action upward onto rooftops and treetops. Using the famous wire work that was so fashionably parodied in the early oughts, the characters are able to pursue each other on the side of walls, across tree branches, and even through long stretches of air, in delicate action sequences that have an awkward physicality which is nevertheless strangely graceful.

As broad as the cinematography is, the characters are painted even more so. Based on an early 20th century novel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” approaches what feels an ancient tragedy with a simplicity and inevitable sense of doom. There is Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a master of the Wudong martial arts who is unable to achieve transcendence due to his long standing repressed love for Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), whose own reciprocal feelings of love are smothered under a duty-first society which discourages the expression of emotion in favor of doing what is expected of you. This repressive culture embitters Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi,) who is forced to marry a man she despises for her father’s political gain, when she really loves a desert bandit named “Dark Cloud,” (Chang Chen.)

Secretly, Jen Yu has been learning Wudong martial arts under the training of Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), the former lover of Li Mu Bai’s master who poisoned him and stole the Wudong manual when he refused to teach her himself. Turning her rage outward, Jen Yu steals Li Mu Bai’s famous Green Destiny sword and begins to ravage the countryside with her superior fighting skills. With her lack of hubris and resentment at the world threatening to transform her into a vengeful monster, much like Jade Fox.

The film resonates thematically on the complicated psychological relationships between teachers and students, and the manner in which negative emotions can slowly destroy a person’s humanity as surely as any poison. To be honest though, I didn’t really care. I was too busy being transfixed on the people drifting nimbly through the air and occasionally swiping at each other to get wrapped up in something as mundane as a narrative. If ever there was a “dance” film for non-believers, this is it.

4.5/5

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The Fog of War

Robert S. McNamara and Errol Morris is one of those cinematic pairings that was meant to be. Start with one of the most controversial U.S. military leaders of the 20th century and assign the documentarion most skilled at giving the misunderstood a forum and finding the obfuscation in beliefs and opinions long held as truth the task of making a film about him, and you have one hell of a documentary. Love him, hate him, or extreme indifference, McNamara’s perspective on running the Vietnam War and warfare in general, is utterly fascinating.

Born nearly a decade after the end of the Vietnam War as I was, Robert McNamara was only a vague figure residing in my high school history textbooks. Coming at this documentary with a reasonably neutral perspective, this film only makes my image of the man less clear. Like most political figures, he is not wholly the callous monster some accuse him to be, but neither is he a paragon of American virtue. Around 85 at the time he was interviewed in 2002, his mind is still razor sharp. However, if he ever was the coldly indifferent mastermind of a war strategy costing tens of thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, age has softened him up considerably.

The documentary consists almost entirely of McNamara speaking, with Morris asking the occasional question to steer the discourse a particular way, but the film is broken up into eleven “lessons.” Culled from McNamara’s experience as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, these lessons are intended as guidance on the proper way to engage in military conflict generally. The advice ranges from the clinically obvious, such as “Get the Data” and “Maximize Efficiency”, to the pragmatic “Emphasize with Your Enemy” and “Be Prepared to Re-Examine Your Reasoning” to the frightening ends-justifies-the-means advice of, “In Order to Do Good, You May Have to Engage in Evil” and “Rationality Will Not Save Us.”

Underneath all this is the evocative touch of Morris. Using a device called an “Interrotron,” which lets the camera’s subject (McNamara see the cameraman (Morris) on a small monitor directly into the camera, Morris creates the illusion that McNamara is looking directly at us. However, in order to break-up the visual monotony, Morris splices together old footage and audio clips from the 1960s, all the while a haunting Phillip Glass score drones in the background. Often, this footage accentuates whatever McNamara is saying by providing historical context. At others, the visual images appear to be undercutting McNamara, such as zoomed-in shots of newspaper articles criticizing McNamara for the cool, emotionless logic he applied in making military decisions, or audio clips indicating McNamara’s intention to withhold information on the war for the sake of avoiding controversy.

In “Fog of War,” Morris breeds uncertainty, his typical M.O. His only thesis is that McNamara is a much more complicated individual then any of his critics gave him credit for. No doubt NcNamara gave up a lucrative job as the President of a thriving Ford motor company to take the more difficult (and thankless) task of Secretary of Defense, a decision which may or may not have been good for his family. He did not love the Vietnam War and audio clips reveal more than one disagreement with President Lyndon B. Johnson about it, probably costing him his job. As McNamara said, what-ifs are not all that helpful in history, but you can’t help wondering how different the 1960s would have been had John F. Kennedy lived. Still, even if you despise Robert McNamara, intriguing anecdotes abound, from the harrowing (false claims of torpedo strikes in the Gulf of Tonkin), to the bittersweet (McNamara picking out Kennedy’s grave plot). If the Vietnam War interests you even passingly, this is a must watch.

4/5

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Rescue Dawn

“Rescue Dawn” is a real-life survivalist tale told with Herzog’s usual aloof detachment. Aside from a surprisingly gentle classical score tinkling in the background, nothing in its filming belies the life-and-death struggle taking place on screen. Yet for all the odd little Herzogian touches (the camera lingering on an odd object, strange conversation which don’t seem to tie directly into the narrative) contained in the film, this is one of the most uplifting and most overtly humanist films that Herzog has ever directed. Filled with hope and a belief in the power of the human spirit, Herzog even tacks on a celebratory and shockingly (for him) conventional happy ending.

Protagonist Dieter Dengler was an actual German American pilot in the U.S. Navy who flew secret bombing missions in Laos and Vietnam in the years preceding the Vietnam War. Played by Christian Bale with a sort of dopey jingoism that masks a gritty intelligence, Dieter’s plane is shot down in the midst of a strafing run. Full of stubborn American pride, he refuses to eject, electing instead to go down with his plane. Despite utilizing some skills he acquired from a handy training video witnessed earlier in the film, Dieter only manages to evade capture for a short while, ending up a prisoner of the Pathet Lao.

After some torture and a half-hearted attempt to get a signed confession from him, Dieter is thrown into a shoddy prison that has been hastily constructed in the middle of the jungle. It is there he meets his fellow prisoners, some of whom have been held captives for years. Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies) and Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) have been at their camp long enough that their meager diet has transformed their bodies into gaunt skeletons and hair has sprouted like weeds on their faces, giving them huge unruly beards. The unfortunate victims of the United State’s covert operations, these POWs cannot be acknowledged because officially, no such POWs exist.

Dieter, either because he sees what will become of him should he remain in the camp or he is simply so filled with love of America that he is blinded to the risks involved, immediately begins to formulate a plan for escape. Some of the other prisoners are dubious, particularly Gene. However, when they overhear talk amongst their guards about a plan to kill them due to a food shortage, everyone agrees to participate. The plan is well-constructed, but things go awry due to half-madness and near starvation. Dieter and Duane make it out, but without shoes and without any of the other prisoners.

Christian Bale gives his typically solid performance as Dieter, but the surprise here is Steve Zahn. Wandering amidst a jungle that doesn’t so much try to kill them as drain them of their will to live, Zahn evokes a quiet vulnerability and fearful courage underneath that impressive beard. Duane is totally reliant on Dieter, both physically and emotionally. When they find a shoe near a river, a real treasure when you have none, it is Duane that wears it.

The film is ever aware of the divide between the air and the ground. The characters constantly look up to the skies in the hopes of being rescued, with a steady parade of helicopters and planes fly overhead. The aircrafts seem blissfully unaware of the horrors below. While the oppressive forces of nature attempt to beat them down, hope lingers and persists.

Perhaps the most daring rescue in “Rescue Dawn,” isn’t even the first. Given that this is a true story that Dieter lived to tell about, it should not be much of a spoiler that Dieter survives. However, as soon as he is placed in a military hospital, the CIA wants to take him to Guam, for “questioning.” Dieter’s friends, using a nifty trick involving a birthday cake, manage to smuggle him from under their noses. If they hadn’t, would we have ever heard of Dieter Dengler? Truly it does not matter, as Herzog gives us something he rarely does: an optimistic tale about the durability of the human will to live and believing in oneself despite terrible odds.

4/5

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