The Sound of Music, Lady Gaga, and the Oscars

Last night was the annual Academy Awards broadcast, and as always, it was bloated and self-congratulatory and unfunny and often sort of weird. I liked it anyway. I always do. Neil Patrick Harris was a perfectly adequate host, a movie I liked a lot won Best Picture, lots of total strangers shared with the world the happiest moments of their professional careers, while the orchestra rudely played them off the stage, John Travolta seems to have thought that the way to apologize to Idina Menzel was to paw at her face disconcertingly, lots of people wore horrifically unflattering clothing, and Jennifer Lopez’s dress, heroically, managed, barely, to not fall off her. It was an Oscar night. As Bette Midler (bless her) once put it: ‘betcha didn’t think it was possible to overdress for this occasion.’

There were, as always, several musical numbers. Most of them were quite forgettable, but three in particular that stood out. First, the frenetically choreographed number for ‘Everything is Awesome,’ that fabulous song from The Legos Movie. The biggest Oscar travesty of the year is that TLM didn’t even get nominated in its category, Best Animated Feature. It was just too inventive and amazing and fun and funny and smart; can’t have that! Anyway, I liked the number; love Tegan and Sara. Second, I really liked the performance of ‘Glory,’ the song from Selma, John Legend and Common. One of the pre-Oscars’ narratives had to do with that movie, and how its director and star were both snubbed. The song and performance were powerful, as was John Legend’s comments after it won best song.

And then Lady Gaga performed a medley of songs from The Sound of Music. She sang very very well, and then introduced the still-radiant Julie Andrews. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of that film, and apparently it’s being re-released. And I said something rude about it on Facebook. And lots of friends told me, kindly and with great forbearance, that I am an idiot. I probably am. Still, let me explain myself.

The Sound of Music. It’s the most uplifting, triumph of the human spirit, relentlessly upbeat movie ever made. Fresh faced, incandescently talented young Julie Andrews and her mob of well-scrubbed adorable urchins. ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ Grouchy Captain van Trapp healed by the power of True Love. The heroic escape from evil Nazis. ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer.’ All those kindly nuns worrying about how to solve a problem like Maria. ‘The lonely goatherd.’ What kind of grinch wouldn’t like The Sound of Music? The great Pauline Kael was supposedly fired from McCall’s because she gave it a bad review. (Not true; she was fired because she gave every big popular movie a bad review.) Serves her right, you might think. (And apparently, most of my friends do think).

Let me be clear: I don’t think Art has to be a downer. I don’t think that Art shouldn’t be happy, cheerful and uplifting. I have no objection to art that is upbeat and positive. Art can be anything: gloomy, sad, tragic, funny, mean, crushing, and also buoyant, jaunty, merry, fun. I love ‘Anything is Awesome,’ a song so relentlessly cheery it burrows into your brain like a remora into a shark’s hide. I just think that there’s something strange about a movie musical being as upbeat as The Sound of Music when its subject matter is the German annexation of Austria, the Anschluss. I think the shadow of the Holocaust darkened everything about that time and place.  Don’t you think maybe Liesl’s Nazi boyfriend, Rolfe, could sing something a trifle darker than that condescending ‘sixteen going on seventeen’ number?

Other cheerful happy musicals managed it. Take the musical 1776. A fun show about our Founding Fathers and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Charming cute songs. But then there’s the song ‘Molasses to Rum to Slaves.’ The South Carolina delegate, Rutledge (otherwise a minor enough character), sings it, attacking the hypocrisy of the North over the slave trade, pointing out how they benefit from it too. The shadow of slavery darkened those deliberations, and although it’s a fun musical, an upbeat musical, that shadow is given a face and voice and point of view. Or South Pacific, with the song ‘They’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Or the dream ballet in Oklahoma, where Laurie imagines the death of her lover. You can do dark, amidst cheerful.

More to the point, the actual story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers is essentially ignored in the stage musical and film. For example, Maria did not want to marry Georg von Trapp. She wasn’t in love with him, and she really, genuinely wanted to be a nun. She was ordered to marry him by her Mother Superior. She says she went through the entire wedding ceremony seething with resentment towards him, the Church, and God. ‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’til, you, find, your, dream!’ Not so much the case. More like ‘Do what you’re told girl, do as I say, ignore your real feelings, obey, obey, obey, o-bey!’

What bothers me about this isn’t the fictionalizing. I get that in the late fifties-early sixties, you couldn’t have authority figures be wrong. A Mother Superior had to be portrayed as kindly and wise; mainstream audiences of the time wouldn’t stand for any of that commie subversion-of-authority stuff. I get that. No, what bothers me is that the real story is so much better. It’s a much more compelling, honest, powerful, human conflict. By turning truth into uplift, they cheapened the power of actual human experience. Maria was raised an atheist. She was converted by the music of Bach. So include some Bach in the film!  Maria von Trapp became the powerful matriarch of a family choir (and the loving wife of the Captain) through sheer force of will. She made herself strong and independent. You could say that she obeyed, and was rewarded for her obedience. But I see it as the triumph of someone who made the best of terrible circumstances.

Like starting a family choir. Which she did out of sheer necessity. That lovely huge home in Austria where they all live in the movie? They lived in a much smaller house, and took in borders. Captain von Trapp lost his shirt in the great depression. They sang to put food on the table. They were not a wealthy family. And again, that’s a more interesting story. You couldn’t have all that in the early sixties either; fathers were all-wise patriarchs, not spend-thrift ne’er-do-wells.

Nor was Captain von Trapp a distant, brooding father. Nor was Maria a freespirited young woman. She was moody and a strict disciplinarian; he was charming and fun and very close to his children. He liked singing with them, but found the prospect of earning money from their music embarrassing.

They also didn’t sneak off with their musical instruments and suitcases in the middle of the night, hiding in a cemetery so the Nazis wouldn’t catch them. They carefully weighed the offers they got from the Nazis (which were more lucrative than the fees they earned initially in the US), and decided, on balance, it would be better for their kids if they left. They told everyone they were leaving, and left on a train, their papers in order and fares properly paid. And they didn’t sneak off to Switzerland. They went to Italy, and from there, to America, all arranged by their agent. That’s, again, a better story; not fake persecution, but adults, coolly and thoughtfully weighing their options, making the right decision for their kids.

Anyway. I really can’t stand The Sound of Music. It’s nothing but compromises, fake moral uplift, phony conflicts and ludicrous character depictions. And the von Trapps hated it too, especially the portrayal of stern and distant Captain von Trapp.

But there’s the music. Those songs are really famous and really pretty. And Gaga does have an impressive set of pipes. I get why she might want to sing those songs, and I thought Julie Andrews’ appearance last night was lovely. But it grated, it really did. I mean, I get why Elvis Costello made an album with Burt Bacharach. And Lady Gaga has recorded with Tony Bennett. And that’s fine. And Gaga’s career has stalled, and she’s getting married, and wanted, perhaps, to go back to her roots, in musical theatre. Still. It felt tone-deaf, after the Selma song.  It felt like a white girl celebrating whiteness. It felt . . . off. Someone as relentlessly avant-garde and post-modern and intentionally transgressive as Lady Gaga should probably use the Oscars to do, I don’t know, something radically transgressive. It felt like (and I hate this, I genuinely hate this), a sell-out.

And I’m sorry if I offended even more people. I just don’t like that musical very much.

Taken 3: Film review

Ah, yes, another chapter of ‘Eric reviews movies that have been out for a month.’ But, come on, it’s a Taken movie. Must-see stuff, but maybe not exactly opening weekend. But I finally saw it, and oh my gosh. Wow. I mean, seriously.

I love the Taken movies, as I love all things Luc Besson, but I let’s face it, cinematic masterpieces, they’re not. Liam Neeson is clearly having a ball in his new role as ‘elderly action hero,’ and if what you want from movies is lots of ‘splosions, lots of hand to hand combat action sequences, lots of scenes where bad guys fire hundreds of rounds from automatic weapons at Our Hero and somehow miss every time (in fact, where horrible bad guy marksmanship seems central to Our Hero’s plan, like something he’s planning on), lots of spectacular car crashes, all leavened with Family Values sentimentality, well then, the Taken movies are for you. They’re red meat for red staters. Or in that carefully hidden lizard brain red stater at the heart of most guys.

Of course, if you want the plot to make a lick of sense, then you might want to try something, you know, good. Narrative incoherence is part of the strategy. Or rather, they’re incoherent in any kind of real-world sense. I mean, Taken 1 requires that we believe that hundreds of teenaged upper-middle class American girls, vacationing in France, could just go missing, sold as sex slaves, with no reaction whatsoever from the US Embassy, or State Department, or Homeland Security, or CIA, FBI, ATF, Interpol, the girls’ parents (Liam Neeson excepted), or from CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, MSNBC, Politico, Vox. Facebook. Twitter . . . Nope. Nada from anyone. Except for Liam Neeson, on a one man killing spree of villainous Albanians. In France. Actually, in Paris. With also no reaction from the French police, except for covering it all up, because they’re in the pocket of Albanians. I’m totally not kidding, I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed myself more at a movie. Funniest thing ever.

Of course, Taken 2 upped the stakes. Moved it to Istanbul (not Constantinople). More Albanians, only this time we’re supposed to believe that Liam Neeson’s character’s daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) could just drop hand grenades off the tops of buildings, in Istanbul, blowing up peoples’ cars and stuff, with no reaction from Turkish police. Wow. Just, wow.

But, so, okay, Taken 3. (Besson didn’t direct this one BTW; he wrote and produced it, but it was directed by his long-time 2nd unit director, Olivier Megaton). So, Liam plays, as always, former Special Forces ace Bryan Mills. His ex-wife, Lenore, is married to rich douche-bag, Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott). Daughter Kim is in college, living with her boyfriend, and pregnant. Lenore is unhappy in her marriage, and kinda wants to get back together with Liam/Bryan, but he’s too noble to take her up on it; suggests she sort out her relationship with Stuart first. So, Liam/Bryan gets a text; Lenore wants to meet to talk over bagels, so Liam/Bryan gets the bagels, dashes home, sees her car parked there, goes in, and she’s dead. Murdered. He sees knife, picks it up, then cops pour in. So there he is, caught red-handed. Framed.

Okay, it turns out that what happens next is the turning point for the entire movie. Liam/Bryan could just get arrested, explain everything, trust in the cops to get it right. Main cop is Forest Whitaker, who is always a smart guy in these things, so that wouldn’t seem like a bad strategy. But Bryan/Liam decides to beat up all these cops instead and make his escape. Most of the rest of the movie is this big chase scene, with loads of cops chasing Liam/Bryan around, while he hacks into the police computer and figures out various clues as to who-dun-it (murdered Lenore and framed him for it). And Forest Whitaker basically follows him around, always a few minutes late. Eventually, it turns out that Stuart was behind the whole thing, trying to put together some money he can use to pay off the Russian mob. (The main Russki mobster, BTW, was played by the brilliant character actor Sam Spruell, also the main baddie in Snow White and the Huntsman. Skinny blonde guy? Anyway, always glad to see his work.)

So, anyway, finally, Bryan/Liam breaks into the Russian mob stronghold, kills a couple of dozen guards, gets shot at, hundreds of rounds worth, by various automatic weapons, never gets hit, and uncovers nasty Stuart’s whole plot.And the Russian bad guy dies. So Stuart takes Kim with him, and races off, to his private jet.

Leading to this: Liam/Bryan is driving the Porsche he took from the main Russian guy. He gets to Santa Monica airport just as Stuart’s jet is taking off. Now, remember, Liam/Bryan is mostly interested in protecting Kim. That’s all he cares about; protecting his daughter. The police, at that point, know Stuart’s the bad guy. Jets have to land somewhere, and wherever that one lands, Stuart will be arrested. So, knowing Kim’s in the jet, Liam/Bryan decides the best thing to do is to ram the jet with the Porsche. ‘Cause there’s just no way that could go wrong, plane crashes being notoriously safe for passengers.

Of course it works. It’s a movie, stupid crap like that always works in movies. But then comes the very next scene, a final conversation between Liam/Bryan and Main Cop/Forest Whitaker. And the cop admits that he’s known the whole time that Bryan’s innocent.

Which made me realize something crucial. What if, when he first found his wife dead, Liam/Bryan had just let himself be arrested. The cops, we learn, were suspicious of the crime scene. They were planning to investigate the murder. They’re always five minutes behind Liam/Bryan as he puts the clues together and works it out. They’re smart cops. If Liam/Bryan had just let them arrest him, the result would have been exactly the same. Minus all the dead people.

‘Cause there’s also this: all those chase scenes, with cops chasing Liam/Bryan around, they’re all massively costly. We see dozens of cars destroyed, at high speeds, on LA freeways. There’s no way someone didn’t die, though in fact it appears that no one did, in the movie. Lots of cops get hurt, beat up, concussed, kidney punched. But Forest and Liam have this nice chuckle together and go, ‘it’s all good, we’re fine.’ What? Seriously?

Here’s what I think: in real life, people who cause dozens of high speed traffic accidents for no purpose whatsoever generally are taken to account for it. People who beat up dozens of police officers aren’t allowed to go free.

Now, I’m not saying that it was irresponsible or immoral for Besson/Megaton to make a movie in which those specific crimes aren’t punished. I do think it makes for bad film making. I think it’s specifically bad film making when, in order to enjoy the happy ending, we have to forget everything that happened earlier in the movie.

I’ll grant you that the standard isn’t high. But Taken 3 is far and away the stupidest movie in that particular franchise. This one actually manages to be stupid enough to not be enjoyable. That wasn’t true of the last two, but it is true of this one. It took awhile, but I’ve finally been stupided out by a Luc Besson film.

Jupiter Ascending: Film Review

Jupiter Ascending is looking like a very expensive flop. According to IMDB, it cost $175 million dollars to make, and had an opening weekend of $19 million. It’s gotten terrible reviews; a Rotten Tomatoes score of 22. You’ve probably heard what a bad movie it is. I’m here to tell you that none of that is true. My wife and I went to see it last night, and we had a blast. It’s fast paced and fun, visually stunning, and tells a story that’s certainly out there, but that is coherent and holds together and is never for a second boring. The Wachowski siblings are immensely imaginative sci-fi story-tellers, and while this isn’t The Matrix, it’s a thoroughly engaging piece, with contemporary political relevance, even. We both liked it. It’s a movie that needs, and that will reward, your support.

As one of my friends put it, it’s a movie where the final scene involves a werewolf doing battle with a giant lizard, a fight taking place in and on Jupiter (the planet’s) red spot, while a huge factory there explodes around them. While that’s true, it leaves out the turbo-powered gravity-defying sneakers worn by the werewolf (played by Channing Tatum). Add to it Mila Kunis having a super-cool superpower–she’s able to control bees, which she sends swarming around bad guys trying to kill her–an extended comic scene about the universe’s worst bureaucracy, and Eddie Redmayne alternately whispering and shouting all his lines, and you’ve got yourself a space opera that dares actually be operatic, by golly.

The Jupiter of the title is actually Jupiter Jones, played with moxie and bravado by Mila Kunis. She lives in Chicago with her Russian emigre extended family, including her Mom (Maria Doyle Kennedy, so terrific as Mrs. S on Orphan Black). The family has a maid service business, and Jupiter’s specialty, apparently, is cleaning toilets. Her life sucks, in other words.

Turns out, she’s actually royalty. Like, one of four ruling members of the most powerful family in the universe. She’s an Abrasax, and she has three part-siblings, each of whom owns huge amounts of the universe. Earth, it seems, is tiny, but kind of important, because it’s a perfect source for this liquid with magical life-extending powers. Super rich people will do anything (will pay anything) for that liquid.

Spoiler alert: skip this paragraph if you don’t want the plot ruined. The magic life-restoring liquid is actually soylent green. It’s people. That’s why the Abrasaxes want Earth; they intend to harvest our excess people. We’re a particularly good source for the stuff. It’s all about profit, in other words.

Alright, so, Jupiter is a perfect genetic match for the three Abrasax siblings’ Mom, and the richest Abrasax, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), wants her dead. He sends an assassination team to Chicago to dispatch her. But they’re spoiled by Channing Tatum, playing a former-soldier-turned-mercenary, Caine Wise. He’s half wolf, and has, as mentioned, these awesome rocket power shoes. He rescues Jupiter, and takes her to his old partner/mentor, Stinger, (Sean Bean). See, he’s been hired by Titus Abrasax (Doug Booth), an effete sensualist who wants Earth and its potential profits. But instead, Caine and Stinger deliver Jupiter to Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton), ruthless socialite, who sort shows Jupiter the ropes. And Jupiter makes her claim to Earth ownership, negotiating this horrendous intergalactic imperial bureaucracy to accomplish it.

Suffice it to say that Jupiter gets to spend some time with each of her Abrasax family members, discovering how increasingly loathsome they are. Meanwhile, she’s increasingly attracted to Caine, who seems pretty much into her too, but he’s got that doggie DNA problem. (“But I like dogs,” Jupiter assures him).

There’s also, it seems, a inter-galactic police force, led by Diomika Tsing (the stunning Nikki Amuka-Bird) trying to force all the Abrasaxes to play nicely together. And meanwhile, Caine keeps having to fight various baddies who are trying to kill Jupiter. Who does some pretty impressive fighting herself.

Sci-fi can (and some would insist, should) have some contemporary relevance. Stories about imagined futures ought to, in some sense, comment on our problems and needs. I don’t think that’s a requirement, but Jupiter Ascending surely meets that challenge. For all its flash and action, this is a film about income inequality, is it not? The super-rich don’t get rich on the backs of the poor, they literally kill poor people so they can bathe in their extracted human essence. Until they’re challenged by a tough American girl who grew up scrubbing toilets. I think the film makes a strong political statement.

The film is failing in box office terms, and it doesn’t make sense. Compare it to the Terminator movies, which it somehow resembles. Cosmic politics playing out on Earth? Ginormous creatures doing battle in the sky, midst ‘splosions? The difference is that Jupiter Ascending is 47 times a better movie. (Yes, my phone has that app). The Wachoskis can stage a big CGI action sequence where we can always tell what’s happening, we’re always oriented in time and space, and we actually have the time to care about or worry about characters we’ve come to like. The spectacle, in a Wachoski film, isn’t just awesome, it means something. I know, comparing them to Michael Bay is to damn them with faint praise. But this was a fun movie, an enjoyable time in the theater. The last Transformers movie was a bore. I never cared about any characters in it, couldn’t follow the back story, and couldn’t bring myself to care enough to follow the plot.

It was also a big hit. This one cost a lot to make too, and won’t be a hit. And that’s a shame. At least they got my ten bucks.

Movie Review. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

So finally, finally, I saw it. The latest Hobbit movie, the one you guys all saw and made up your minds about two months ago. (Forgive me; I like to see these with my wife, and we’ve had a lot going on). What everyone said about it was that it wasn’t very good, and that there was no reason to make three movies based on one thin novel. In this case, everyone was right.

For starters, it’s not about a battle involving five armies. It’s about a battle involving either four, or seven armies, depending on what you call an army. Count ‘em: there’s a human army, led by Bard (Luke Evans). An elvish army, led by Thranduill (Lee Pace). An dwarvish army, led by Dain (Billy Connolly). An Orc army, led by Azog (Manu Bennett). That’s four. There’s also Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarf king, and his twelve dwarf pals, if you want to count them as an army, plus a second Orc army, plus an army of giant eagles who show up sort of deus ex machina-y. So: seven. Four, or seven, take your pick. Not five.

But that’s only for the final battle sequence, which takes up maybe the last forty minutes or so of the movie. Up to that point, the major dramatic question asked by the screenplay was this: will Thorin, out of sheer buttheadedness, provoke a completely unnecessary war, which he will lose in about four (or seven) minutes, involving humans and elves, who outnumber him five bazillion to one, all battling for a buncha worthless gold. And which we, in the audience, don’t care about. Or the gold, or the war. Or Thorin. Or, at that point, actually, even Bilbo.

See, when last we visited Middle Earth, the big question was, would Smaug, the dragon, attack Bard’s village, and if so, would Bard summon up the strength and courage to shoot it down with a big iron arrow someone crafted specifically for that task. That was an awesome question. It gets answered five minutes into this thing. Smaug sets fire to the town, Bard shoots it down, badda boom badda bing. Lots of devastation, though, so Bard up and decides they’ll all move to this abandoned town by the dwarfish mountain stronghold. (We all saw the Two Towers, we all know that moving your town to a mountain stronghold is a bad idea).

Then we spend forever watching Thorin go all Gollum on us over all that dragon gold. Which for some reason, the humans want some of (they’re starving, what they actually need is food and medical supplies, which they can’t use gold to buy because, far as we can tell, there’s no one anywhere to sell it to them). And then the elf army shows up, wanting their special elf crown jewels, which we’ve totally never even heard of before. Then a big ol’ supporting dwarf army shows up, and all three of these armies spend some time posturing and glowering at each other. Then, finally, super-evil Orc armies start showing up, and we get to the big battle scene we’ve all been waiting for.

Which wasn’t remotely suspenseful, and was actually kind of hilarious. Intentionally? Could be; a troll head-butts a wall, and knocks himself silly–that’s funny stuff. An Orc is allowed to drown–trust me, it was funny. Legolas defies gravity again: funny. We do get to find out what happens when Legolas runs out of arrows. But that’s not actually all that suspenseful, because we know Legolas shows up in the three movies to which this serves as prequel. So we know Gandalf’s gonna be safe, and Bilbo. The real dramatic tension involves Thorin, who we, by that point, have stopped caring about.

All three movies felt padded, but this was far and away the most padded of the series. Bottom line: we don’t actually care if Thorin gets his gold. That was the driving impetus, story-wise, of all three movies, and we never did care about it. And in this movie, when he’s being such a sulky drama queen about his precious precious gold, we care least of all. I don’t fault Armitage, a fine actor, who is never unconvincing. It’s a story problem, a script problem.

What we have here is a script that never really did work, but that managed to hide that fact behind the smoke-and-mirrors of a lot of stunt-and-CGI action sequences. It was fun to visit Middle Earth again. It was fun to see Galadriel again, and Evangeline Lilly was terrific as Tauriel (though I never did manage to care about her love story), and nice to see Christopher Lee play a good guy for once. Radagast is a fun character, and they found Evans, an actor who looks a lot like Viggo Mortenson, to play Bard, who’s a lot like Aragorn. But when all that affection wears off, and all that admiration for good actors trying their best, what we’re left with is, frankly, some resentment. I didn’t so much look forward to seeing the three Hobbit movies as I felt sentenced to buy tickets to them. I will not purchase the DVDs, and I certainly won’t watch them on HBO. Peter Jackson earned a lot of good will by making three spectacularly great movies. He did, sadly, somewhat squander that good will by making three much-less-good ones.

Begin Again, and ‘authenticity’

I loved John Carney’s brilliant indie film Once. Loved the music, loved the sort-of-yes-sort-of-no love story, loved Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Of course, I especially liked Hansard’s music. “Falling Slowly” remains one of the great love songs ever.

It’s a movie musical about a busker, and so the music has a raw, unpolished quality that’s very appealing. It feels ‘authentic,’ whatever that might mean. Anyway, it’s one of my favorite movies ever, and when I saw that the director, John Carney, had made another movie, another love story, again about musicians that were struggling to break through, I couldn’t wait to see it. And so, thanks be to Netflix, I finally watched Begin Again.

Carney’s a bigger deal this time (that’s what happens when you make a movie for $60,000 and it grosses ten million). This time, he had a budget; this time, the movie has movie stars, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. And it’s got some great songs again, by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals. Like Once, it’s about a male-female relationship that isn’t quite a love story, but in which the two characters really do come to care about each other. Complicated and dimensional and human, rather than just boy-meets-girl. I liked it, I liked the music, I recommend it.

But. How real is the music, how raw and unpolished, how–that word again–authentic. Because in Once, Hansard’s music really does feel, you know, all those things, genuine. Musical authenticity isn’t an issue in the film, it’s just what the film is. But Begin Again is directly and specifically about that issue, the issue about staying true to your art, keepin’ it real, selling-out vs. not-selling-out. Artistic integrity. It’s a movie about musical authenticity.

Okay, so Knightley plays a singer-songwriter, and her boyfriend, Dave, has just signed with a record label, and she’s in New York to support him in a girlfriendly sort of way, and so she even lies about the fact that most of the songs on his album were co-written by him with her. She doesn’t want the songwriting credit, she’s too thrilled for his success to care. And the label sends him to LA to re-record some tracks, and while there, he cheats on her. He’s a creep in other words. And we realize that the label is going to turn all his (and her) songs into conventional pop tracks, and spoil the, you know, passion, truth, real-ness of the work. And Dave, the cheatin’ creep is played by Adam Levine. Lead singer for Maroon Five. The definition of inauthentic bubble gum pop.

But so anyway she’s ready to take her broken heart and blow New York and go back to London. But her pal Steve (James Corden, the Baker in Into the Woods) takes her to a nightclub, and makes her get up on stage and perform, and she does, rather badly, sing one of her songs. But Mark Ruffalo (a newly fired record exec/drunk named Dan) hears her song, and knows, instantly, in his soul, that she’s got It, that she’s the real thing, that she’s the artist he’s been waiting for. Or rather, he hears the song as he would produce it; he hears, not her song, but what he could make of it. It’s a lovely scene: enjoy.

This leads to a conversation about musical authenticity, and he challenges her to name a genuinely authentic artist. ‘Bob Dylan,’ she says, and Ruffalo points out all the ways in which Dylan, with the sunglasses and the carefully tousled hair, is pose and artifice. Then she says ‘Randy Newman,’ and Ruffalo concedes that Randy Newman is indeed, in his own way, authentic.

It’s an issue that recurs throughout the movie. She hears creepo Dave’s album, and it seems overproduced. She and Dan decide to make her album, and record it on the streets of New York, with ambient noise in the background. See: more authentic. (Except we see how carefully Mark Ruffalo controls the street sounds, bribing street kids and asking for quiet). She downloads her album onto the internet instead of allowing the label to release it, and it sells like crazy. (Because she knows Cee Lo and he tweets about it).

The first rule of artistic representation is that portrayal does not equal advocacy. I don’t know the extent to which Carney intends his film to deconstruct the pose of artistic and musical authenticity and the extent to which he’s relying on it. I mean, the epitome of ‘integrity’ in this film is supposed to be Keira Knightley’s character. And she can sing, some; a smallish voice, but okay for this kind of music. But at least in Once, Glen Hansard was singing songs he, Glen Hansard, wrote and performed as a busker. In this movie, ‘authenticity’ is represented by songs performed by a movie star, written for her by someone else.

I’m not knocking Keira Knightley. I like her as an actress, I think she does a nice job in this film, and she can sing enough to pull off the role. I just loathe that entire issue of musical authenticity. We all know the drill: Neil Young good, Neil Diamond not good. Janis Joplin real, Karen Carpenter not real. Thumbs up: REM, thumbs down: Hootie and the Blowfish. Punk: good. Disco: not so much. (Wasn’t Sid Vicious essentially a sociopathic poseur? Does Donna Summer’s pain not count?)  What bothers me about it is that we’re imputing a moral stance to what is essentially an aesthetic judgment. As it happens, I like Neil Young and I like REM; I love Dylan too. But sell-out is too harsh a term to apply to anyone. I genuinely believe that most artists really are trying to use their art to say something cogent about the world they inhabit. Just that some folks have muses that are more commercially appealing. Luck, not sin.

And yet and yet. This scene, this song, is lovely. And yes, it’s inauthentic. Knightley singing a song someone wrote for her (like that’s a crime), Ruffalo pretending to play bass (acting, in other words), Hailee Steinfeld pretending to rock out on guitar (again, acting). I don’t care. I think it’s a terrific moment in a movie I liked a lot.

And that’s what we actually care about, isn’t it? Whether we like the music.

Movie Review: Blackhat

I know I know I know. What kind of movie critic is it who does not review (because he hasn’t seen) most of the Oscar-worthy December releases, and then when finally he starts going back to the theaters, reviews Blackhat? A darn poor one, you might say, and you’d be right. Blackhat got a 31% favorable rating on rottentomatoes. It cost 70 million to make, and has made back around 4 million since its release. Flop-eroni. Bomb-eroo. A bad movie that didn’t do business. Avert your eyes, young-uns.

Well, they’re all wrong, and I’m right: it’s great. Well, maybe not great, but really good. Blackhat isn’t Oscar-bait, and the screenplay has some structural flaws the film (however stylishly made) never quite manages to overcome. That said, it’s a beautifully acted, romantic and human thriller, compellingly watchable and engaging. It’s also a Michael Mann film, his first feature film in seven years, and quite possibly the last film of his great career (Mann is 71).

The film inside the cable and wires and circuits of a computer network. Then we cut to a keyboard, and a finger pushes an Enter key. And the next thing we see is a nuclear power plant’s cooling system fail, and its reactor core blow. It’s that easy. That’s the world we live in. One finger hits one key, and boom.

So Chinese authorities, tracing the virus that caused the meltdown, turn to MIT-educated military officer (cyber-division) Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) to figure it all out. He, in turn, contacts his sister, Chen Lien (Wei Tang), likewise a computer nerd. And they figure out that the virus is built on a model Dawai had originally built with his best friend in college, Nick Holloway (Chris Hemsworth). And he’s in prison, for hacking into a bank and stealing a lot of money. This leads eventually to some very shaky and borderline hostile international cooperation between the FBI (represented by Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), and the Chinese military. Holloway is allowed out of prison, with all sorts of restrictions on what he’s allowed to do, and he and the Chens do all sorts of computer-y things, involving very fast and intense typing.

My guess is that people who are a lot more computer-literate than I am (which means everyone on earth age 20-35) found this part of the movie a bit cringe-worthy. I didn’t care about the computer-y stuff, though. It didn’t interest me, except as the stuff that had to happen to drive the plot forward. What did interest me, a lot, was the human element of this awkward multi-national cooperation. The stakes are very high–a madman is crashing stock market computers and blowing up nuclear power plants: why? Dawai and Holloway are old friends, but Dawai has divided loyalties, to his government, and also to his sister. Agent Barrett has to enforce the restrictions on the one guy who might solve the problem, and also doesn’t trust any of the Chinese authorities. Her partner, Jessup (Holt McCallany) is courageous and smart, but a rule-follower; they fight a lot. Nor is she trusted, much, by her FBI superiors.

Meanwhile Lien and Holloway are falling in love.

Wei Tang is tremendous in this film, as she was in Ang Lee’s brilliant (and controversial) Lust, Caution. And of course, that’s always what Michael Mann has done wonderfully well; work with actors: James Caan in Thief, Pacino/De Niro in Heat, not just Daniel Day-Lewis but also Madeleine Stowe in Last of the Mohicans. Wei Tang and Chris Hemsworth are both terrific in this, even when their characters are asked by the screenplay to do quite ludicrous things, as Hemsworth is in this. Again, I didn’t much care. I thought the acting was terrific, Hemsworth and Wei, but also McCallany and Davis and Leehom Wang. I know it’s just a thriller. But it’s a thriller about actual, believable human beings.

A good thing, too, because, from a plot standpoint, the last third of the film is a bit silly. Holloway, a hacker, becomes an action hero; goes after the bad guys, tries to overpower them physically. I think the film wants us to conclude that, while in prison, Holloway worked out a lot (we get a glimpse of it), and also became really really good at fighting, and also at making effective shivs out of regular hand tools. No more spoilers, but I didn’t believe it, and found the ending sadly preposterous.

But up to that point, we get one of the trademarks of Mann’s work; he isn’t afraid to kill off main characters, and to show characters we’ve come to care about die in horrible, slow-motion tragic ways. I got caught up in it, honest I did.

Remember this?

My wife and I agreed: there’s a scene in Blackhat that we were much reminded of. Blackhat‘s not as good a movie overall. But it’s got some powerful moments, and was well worth watching, we thought.

So catch it on Redbox. It’ll be there soon enough. You won’t regret it.

The Rapture, and Left Behind: a sort of movie review

I do not believe in space aliens. I have, however, seen many many entertaining movies based on the premise that space aliens exist. I do not believe in vampires, or in werewolves, or in zombies. But I’m a big fan of movies about vampires, werewolves and zombies. And so, though I do not believe in the Rapture, I ought to be able to enjoy a movie based on that particular end-of-times premise. What gets tricky is seeing a movie that appears to take its own fictional premise really really seriously, a movie made from the perspective that a space alien invasion, or zombie apocalypse–or the Rapture–is something that’s going to happen, probably pretty soon, and that there are specific things we need to be doing about it. That’s when your movie viewing experience moves from ‘enjoyable’ to ‘trapped in an elevator with a Jehovah’s Witness and an Amway salesman’ levels of embarrassment and unpleasantness.

The first Left Behind movie, based on the Jerry Jenkins/Tim LeHaye novels, was made in 2000, and starred Kirk Cameron. It cost $4 million to make, and made its nut, barely, but my guess is sold a butt-load of DVDs. This one cost $16 million and stars Nicolas Cage. It’s made back its investment; who knows about ancillaries. But seen simply as a sci-fi mystery/adventure film, it’s not half bad, honestly. Cage’s performance is creditable, and the other two leads were quite good. I saw it in our local dollar theater, and felt like I got my money’s worth. But, of course, the point wasn’t just to make an entertaining movie, was it?

Okay, briefly, Nic Cage is Ray, an airline pilot, flying New York Kennedy to London Heathrow, and planning on some hanky-panky with a hot blonde flight attendant, Hattie (Nicky Whelan). His marriage has gone sour due to his wife (Lea Thompson, of Back to the Future fame) who has converted to evangelical Christianity. Their college age daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), is similarly put off by Mom’s preachiness, but is aware of Hattie, and pretty ticked at dear-old-Dad as well. She meets at the airport (and rescues from a super preachy Christian woman) a TV reporter, Cameron “Buck” Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who is also on Dad’s flight.

So mid-flight, the Rapture hits. A bunch of passengers just disappear, leaving behind their neatly folded clothing, watches, jewelry (apparently, we’re all naked in heaven), and including all children everywhere. Ray’s co-pilot and one flight attendant also vanish. Understandably, everyone freaks out. Back in New York, people freak out even worse, and Chloe’s car is hit by an out-of-control, suddenly pilot-less Cessna, so she has to walk home from Kennedy, dodging looters all the way. Another pilot-less plane clips Ray’s plane, and now he’s got to try to land a crippled plane, out of fuel, with Kennedy airport in complete chaos and no air traffic control, apparently. But Chloe’s phone has a ‘find-abandoned-highway’ app, and her cell works just opportunely enough to get the plane down safely.

Okay, so that’s the plot. Meanwhile, of course, Ray and Chloe and Buck and Hattie are all trying separately to figure out what-the-heck, and are able to explain to the audience just what the Rapture’s about, without ever using the word Rapture. The world’s gone all wicked, and all that Matthew 24, Joel, Daniel, Revelation, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse scary stuff is about to go down. So 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18: God will rapture his Elect the heck out of here to heaven, and also rapture all kids everywhere. So He can protect them all from the Last Days destruction and death.

And of course, the Rapture is mostly about airplanes. Pilot-less airplanes. Not sure why, but it does strike a chord–we’re all a little freaked out by airplanes, after all, the flying of which really does basically feel more like magic than physics.

But, here’s the thing. I have no problem encompassing in my theology the idea of a God that allows, for His own inscrutable purposes, crashing airplanes. I have a problem, however, with a God that crashes them Himself. I just don’t believe in it. And of course ‘Rapture’ is a contested term in contemporary Christian discourse. Some denominations believe that ‘rapture’ simply means the general resurrection of the dead, after the tribulations described in various scriptures. Others, though, think it’s going to happen before all those tribulations, as in this movie.

What do Mormons believe? I don’t have the faintest idea. We basically never talk about it. Certainly we never, and I mean never, use the word ‘rapture,’ not in either of its Christian senses.  Do we get caught up to heaven to meet Jesus? I’m pretty sure that no LDS General Authority has talked about anything like this in my lifetime. It maybe gets whispered about in Sunday School. There’s some ‘people caught up from fields’ iconography. I don’t know if this is a Mormon belief. I do know that I, a Mormon, do not believe in it.

Whenever I travel, if I have some time to kill, I go looking for bookstores. I remember with great fondness a Christian bookstore in Monroe Louisiana, where I went browsing once. It featured two very popular sections: Left Behind, with books and DVDs and posters. The only display equal in size was the Dale Earnhardt table. Best of all was a very popular poster combining both themes: Dale Earnhardt being Raptured out of his smashed up #3 car. So the Rapture’s a big deal in some parts of this great nation of ours, is my point. Almost as big a deal as NASCAR, it would seem. The Rapture is central, I think, to a lot of Christian preachifying.

But for evangelical Christians, it makes sense. Some Christian denominations do divide the world into two categories: Christians, who are saved, who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior, and people who are not saved, people who may well be decent, good people (Buck and Chloe are what we would call ‘good people’ in the movie), but who do not believe in Jesus, or at least not enough.  And nothing could point that up more starkly than a world-wide event in which all the Christians are instantly zapped away to heaven, leaving everyone else to cope with the aftermath. It fits a certain evangelical world-view.

And that’s a world-view that Mormons do not share, not really. Joseph Smith did away entirely with the Christian heresy of geographic salvation. We believe that everyone can be baptized, that even people who have died can posthumously accept Jesus, and gain eternal life. We do tend to divide the world into Mormons and non-Mormons (and even Mormons into ‘active’ and ‘less active’), but we really do believe that works matter. A good guy, like Buck in this movie, would be in line to be saved. There’s a Muslim character in the movie, one of the passengers on the plane, who is the one genuinely and consistently compassionate character in the film. The evangelical worldview is that he’s ‘left behind.’ Mormons wouldn’t agree.

So it makes sense to me that the Rapture would be central to evangelical preaching, and that it wouldn’t be something Mormons ever ever talk about, and is probably something at least some of us don’t believe in. Again, I certainly don’t believe in it. And I wish I could say that it made for an interesting movie.

But it didn’t. Ultimately, the movie falls apart, because we sympathize with the wrong people.  The fact is, we only meet two Christians in the early scenes of the movie, only two people who are established as real characters, and who get subsequenly Raptured. One is the annoying woman who pesters Buck in the airport about his (supposed) agnosticism in the face of a tsunami he’d covered. The other is Lea Thompson’s character, Chloe’s Mom, a woman, we’re told, who is such a fanatic that she’s systematically alienated her entire family. They’re our role models? That’s what we’re supposed to strive for, so we don’t get Left Behind? Sorry, but no. I’d rather stay behind and dodge falling airplanes. We come to genuinely care about the people in Ray’s plane, good, but freaked out folks who try their best to comfort each other and whose survival is what the movie is about.  We like Ray, we like Buck, we like Chloe. If they’re what gets Left Behind, count me in.

Interstellar: Movie Review

I’m going to assume that many of you have already seen Interstellar. It’s a big budget, well-marketed movie, written and directed by one of the hottest and most exciting big-deal directors in the business: Christopher Nolan. And it’s been out since the beginning of November. Here it is, almost Thanksgiving. And it’s taken me til now to get  my sorry butt to the movie theater, and subsequently in front of a computer? What’s wrong with me?

Plus, since it came out, I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had this experience; I run into a friend, and we chat, and the conversation winds around to movies, and they say ‘have you seen Interstellar?’ With that peculiar eagerness that some movies seem to provoke, where everyone who sees it absolutely has to talk to someone about it. It’s that kind of big popular culture phenomenon, where seeing it isn’t enough, where you also have to engage in subsequent conversation.

So here’s my initial reaction: it’s a really good movie. It’s exceptionally well filmed, well acted, well written. Not surprising, since it’s a Christopher Nolan film, and he really does seem to be one of those directors who knows what he’s doing. Matthew McConaughey is great in it. This is not surprising, because he’s a terrific actor, but he’s particularly good in this. Anne Hathaway, not really my go-to actress to play a scientist, is completely convincing in the role. So is Jessica Chastain. So is SPOILER ALERT, the Big Movie Star who shows up two thirds of the way in, dominates maybe fifteen minutes of the movie, and then disappears forever. I enjoyed it. I’m glad I saw it. I was on the edge of my seat. I was moved, at times, and scared at times for the characters, and emotionally engaged in their fates, all of them, the whole movie. Pity+Fear=Catharsis; Aristotle would have been blown away by it, not least because it’s all science-y and A-dog was the pre-eminent scientist of the 4th century BCE.  Two thumbs up. Positive movie-going experience. All that.

But.

The next morning?

Okay, if you haven’t seen it, and are only reading this so you can decide if you want to see it, read no more, and go see it. It’s still in town, will be for weeks, and you’ll enjoy it. You’ll get your money’s worth. Honestly, it’s a really good movie.

So: warning, it’s nothing but SPOILERS from here on in. Because it really is the kind of movie that you want to talk about with people afterwards, and to some extent, I think, those post-viewing conversations work maybe a little bit to the movie experience’s detriment. I’m not sure it’s a movie that wears all that well.  And here’s why.

Okay, so, a crop-destroying plague is slowly choking off life on planet Earth. McConaughey plays Cooper, former pilot/astronaut turned farmer, with two kids, Tom, the boy, Murph, the girl. Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain later on in the movie, played by two kids earlier. Tom loves farming, and is good at it; Murph is super-bright, and wants to study science. Her room, she thinks, is haunted by ghosts. Stuff happens, books fall off shelves, dust settles unsettlingly. She isn’t frightened by her ghosts; she’s just a little kid, but she studies the ghostly phenomena methodically. She persuades her father to take her research seriously, and he figures out that the ‘ghost’ is sending them signals; map coordinates. And he and Murph follow those coordinates, and find a secret NASA lab, which is sending manned missions to a worm-hole out by Saturn, and from there, on a search to find habitable planets, Earth having been spoiled environmentally.

They’re aware that it’s all just too coincidental. Gravitational anomalies giving map coordinates to a NASA lab, one that just happens not to have any trained pilots/astronauts for a mission that absolutely requires one. Also, this nifty worm-hole appearing out of nowhere. Also the worm hole leading to several possibly habitable worlds. Someone is helping mankind out. Who?

Okay, so Cooper and Brand (Hathaway) and the two other astronaut guys (who are not given enough to do and die too soon) make it to the first planet, awfully close to the black hole that caused the worm hole, and with lots of water and truly amazing black hole-proximity-tsunamis. A surfer’s dream of a planet, honestly, if you don’t mind having no beaches, and also don’t mind relativity causing you to age way too quickly.  And the relative aging of the astronauts and the earthlings they’ve left behind is seriously problematic, not just because their families are aging rapidly in relation to their aging, but also because Earth, they know, can’t sustain life all that much longer. So a one-hour equals-ten-years-on-Earth planet does them no good. Especially since it’s uninhabitable.

So, the clock is ticking. They can’t just find an inhabitable planet; they have to find an inhabitable planet while there’s still a human race left to transport there. In the back of their minds, though, they remember how some kind of kindly-disposed cosmic entity has seemed to have been helping them out. And they know that in the black hole is some kind of singularity, where Time and Space may represent only two of many dimensions. Is, therefore, time travel possible? Is their survival possible? The answers may be found in the black hole singularity, presuming that whoever or whatever’s been helping them can be persuaded to do so again.

Okay, Waterworld have proven disappointing, they have to choose between two other planets. They’ve been getting positive reports from one of them; the other is further away, but Brand (Hathaway) thinks it’s a better choice, plus she’s in love with the earlier astronaut sent to it. And this becomes a theme in the movie, how love, human love, is a force in the universe.  So do we go to Matt Damon Planet (Cooper’s choice, because it’s closer, and therefore easier to explore in a time frame that might enable him to see/save his kids), or do we go to Anne Hathaway’s Boyfriend’s Planet (her choice, for lots of good science-y reasons, plus her boyfriend’s there)? Cooper decides; ultimately, they have to follow someone’s heart, and it’s going to be his, because he’s in charge.

So we meet Matt Damon, and it turns out he’s a creep and a worm. He represents self-love; he represents cowardice. He feels a little bad about trying to murder Cooper, but he does it anyway. He’s been lying to them about the life-sustaining possibilities of his planet, because that was the only chance he had of being rescued by someone. He tries to steal their space ship. His entirely unheroic love, however, can’t save anyone. Not even him, turns out.

And here’s where the movie turns all gooey for me. Cooper goes into the black hole singularity thing. He has a vision, of seeing his daughter in her bedroom, with him shoving books onto the floor hoping she’ll notice. He transmits data to her through a watch he once gave her.  In other words, the mysterious cosmic beings who have been helping humanity’s quest to survive are . . . human beings, driven by love. The person communicating with Murph is Cooper, her Dad. Well, Future Cooper.

It’s a time-travel paradox movie. Some mysterious being communicates with Cooper. It turns out to be Future Cooper, communicating with Past Cooper. It’s all circular. Our Future Selves communicated with our Past Selves, to save humanity, so that Future Us could survive. If you could travel back in time, would you go to 1923 and kill Hitler? Not sure? Okay, how about this: if you could travel back in time, would you go back to 1905, and whisper “E=MC squared” into Einstein’s ear? Knowing it would lead to a series of insights and discoveries that would eventually make it possible for Future You to travel back in time to 1905 and meet Einstein?  Or, if you’re Marty McFly, would you get in that DeLorean, would you make sure your parents kissed at the prom? Would you trust the flux capacitor? Knowing if you didn’t, there’d be no Marty McFly?

Interstellar‘s a very cool, state-of-the-art, awesome, well-made movie that ultimately just resurrects the hoariest of sci-fi plots; the time travel paradox plot. And it locates the power of time travel in the love of a father for a daughter. Which honestly feels maybe just a trifle gooey.

I think ultimately it’s a really cool movie, exceptionally well made, that, at its heart, is pretty sentimental. Daddy’s love will conquer all! Including plague, including space-time, including black holes, including relativity itself?  Color me skeptical.

 

Film Review: Birdman

Or to get the entire title right: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the most mind-bending, thought-provoking, hilarious, heart-breaking, downright weird (in a good way) movie of the year.  The writer/director/producer is the prodigious Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, whose previous films include Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful, superb films all, but not really comedies. Not to pigeon-hole, but at least one of the labels we would attack to Birdman is ‘comedy,’ along with ‘absurdism,’ ‘magical realism,’ ‘fantasy,’ ‘backstage-theatre satire,’ ‘black comedy'; pick one or many. (In fact, the film includes a brilliant speech, pure invective against the work of art critics, and in particular, their penchant for labeling heart-felt works of art).

But, okay. The film is about Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, who has written, directed and stars, on Broadway, in a play based on Raymond Chandler’s short story “What we Talk About when we Talk About Love.”  Riggan was once the star of a beloved series of super-hero movies, in which he played the Birdman. His career has since foundered, and everything, his self-respect, his career, his reputation, his carefully hoarded retirement money, everything depends on this play succeeding. The play opens in two days. One of the leading actors, Ralph (the wonderful Jeremy Shamos) is terrible in his role, and, for contractual reasons, cannot be fired. So Riggan uses his superpowers (of course he has superpowers), to konk him on the head with a lighting instrument. Ralph is now too badly injured to continue; the part now has to be recast. And every actor that Riggan and his lawyer/agent/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) can think of to replace him is currently in a superhero movie. (Jeremy Renner, even? Nope, he’s now an Avenger). And then Lesley, the female lead (Naomi Watts; amazing) mentions that ‘Michael’ is available, having just been fired from a movie he was doing. Michael is brilliant; everyone knows that. But he’s . . .  difficult. Method-y, demanding, perhaps a bit crazy. But he’ll sell tickets. And, it turns out, he knows the lines. So they call him, and that’s how Ed Norton enters the cast, and the movie.

It’s all very meta, of course. Ed Norton is known for being difficult, and method-y, and disdainful of actors who play, among other things, superheroes. (But he played The Hulk). And Michael Keaton played Batman; close enough to Birdman, no? Naomi Watts hasn’t really done superheroes, but she did do King Kong. And so the film is able to riff on acting, and career choices, and celebrity, and live-theatre-is-art-while-movies-are-entertainment-crap in wonderfully amusing ways, but our reception of all that snark is tempered by knowing all about the compromises these specific actors have, after all, made in their careers, right? And Iñarritu is known for his wonderful, but very art-y films, but also for his close personal friendships with Guillermo del Toro, who directed Pacific Rim (brilliantly), and Alfonso Cuaron, who directed (the best of) the Harry Potter movies.

Emma Stone is also in the movie, playing Sam, Riggan’s daughter, fresh from rehab and working as a production assistant, but hostile about it. And Amy Ryan, playing Riggan’s suspiciously ethereal wife, who may or may not consistently, uh, exist. And Andrea Riseborough, Laura, also in the cast, and possibly pregnant with Riggan’s child. And finally, Lindsay Duncan, as Tabitha, the theatre critic who will decide the fate of Riggan’s play, and who personally loathes him and everything he stands for. Which would seem to bode ill.

But I’m leaving out all the important stuff. Like Emmanuel Lubezki, whose soaring camera work gives the film its sweep and movement. Like the film editing of Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, who magically create the illusion that the entire film is one long unedited take, but covering three days time in two hours somehow. Like the Birdman himself, a costumed superhero, who haunts Riggan’s waking dreams, and may be the one character capable of reaching him.

And above all, Michael Keaton, who gives a career performance, just tremendous, playing this . . . guy, a mediocre artist and father and husband who is desperate to transcend his limited gifts and, somehow, rise. Grow. Fly. Which, it turns out, he’s also able to do; actually fly. I don’t want to say that Keaton was ‘great’ or ‘terrific.’ The film warns us of the dangers of labeling. Just that in the middle of all this meta-cinematic strangeness, he made me care, he made me feel something. I wanted, desperately, for his play to succeed. Even while suspecting that it didn’t deserve to.

And so, in one scene, Keaton/Riggan is lost, alone, fantasizing, wandering the streets of New York’s theatre district in his tighty whitie undies, and as he stumbles along, we hear the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech from Macbeth, shouted, screamed, but barely audible, and then we turn a corner, and it’s Shamos, the bad actor fired from the cast of the play, and he’s screaming it, and the music is drums, and turn another corner, and there’s a drum kit complete with drummer. And in the glorious context of this wonderful film, it all makes perfect sense. See this amazing film. Do yourself that favor.

 

Movie Review: Fury

David Ayer’s Fury is one of the best war films ever made, and certainly one of the two best films about the Second World War, right up there, perhaps, with Saving Private Ryan, a film with similar strengths and weaknesses. It’s a tremendously visceral film, communicating, with appropriate violence and brutality, what may well be the reality of combat. (I can’t say for sure, of course, because I did not serve in the military and have never experienced combat). It’s an ugly and unheroic film about deeply damaged, flawed and exhausted men, which nonetheless depicts powerfully what actual heroism entails.

It’s a film about the crew of a Sherman tank, set in April 1945, as the war was winding down, an Allied victory all but ensured, but with battlefields punctuated with final bursts of German desperation and aggression. Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is the tank’s commander, a laconic and matter-of-fact leader of men who, only occasion, slips away from his men to give way to his emotions. As the film begins, one crew member had died, and the tank has been damaged. The men are on edge, and bicker fiercely. one of them, Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (John Bernthal) works on fixing the tank’s ignition, almost incoherent with rage and frustration. Another, Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) rides him mercilessly. Meanwhile, the deeply religious Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf) studies his scriptures. And then the new guy shows, up, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), idealistic, naive, a typist shocked to be assigned to a tank, an assignment for which he has received no training, hopelessly unprepared for combat and its rigors. These are the characters with whom we’ll spend the movie, and each performance is remarkable, especially Bernthal, who makes the half-savage Travis one of the truly memorable characters of any film I’ve seen recently.

American Sherman M4 tanks were faster than German Tiger I, but lightly armored and with inferior firepower; we see one battle in which four Shermans go up against one Tiger, and three are quickly destroyed. When Collier’s men are able to maneuver their tank to a position to destroy the German tank, it’s depicted as an extraordinary achievement. That said, tanks always did have an advantage over infantry, a fact that becomes central to the final battle of the film.

But as the Fury (the word painted on the tank’s gun turret) travels from objective to objective–liberating a town, protecting a supply line–we see glimpses of the horrors of warfare. They drive by a huge pit, and we see a bulldozer shoveling human bodies in. We see women and children hanging from lampposts, each with a placard saying they had refused to defend the fatherland, and Collier (who for some reason is fluent in German) that the SS is hanging anyone defying the drafting of ten-year olds. Ayer doesn’t allow his camera to linger on any of these images, which makes them, in their matter-of-factness, even more horrifying. And in one battle, a German army surrenders, and we see that most of its soldiers really are children.

We like to think of World War II as the good war, the war in which we, the Allies, really were the good guys, and the Germans, the Nazis, really were evil. And I don’t dispute that narrative–the Holocaust does tilt the table one direction only, morally speaking. But in one brutal scene, Collier, furious at Norman’s reluctance to fire his weapon, forces him to shoot an unarmed captive German soldier. And we don’t necessarily applaud. But we do get it. When we talk about the sacrifices made by soldiers, we don’t just mean that they sacrifice their lives. They do that, yes. But the soldiers who survive also sacrifice their innocence. They not only die for their country, they kill for it.

In the most fascinating and crucial scene in the film, after the Fury has ‘liberated’ a German town, Collier takes Norman up the stairs to an apartment occupied by just two German women. Ilsa is older, perhaps in her forties, and her cousin, Emma, is much younger, a pretty girl. Collier asks for hot water, washes and shaves. He trades the women some eggs, some cigarettes and some other supplies for a brief R&R. And he sends Norman and Emma off into the apartment’s bedroom. But oddly, the scene does not really seem to suggest either rape or prostitution, but rather a time-out, an interlude, a moment of life in the midst of so much death, a moment of innocence and romance accelerated by the exigencies of slaughter. It’s possible (the scene suggests it), that Emma and Norman, however briefly, fall in love. They try to exchange addresses. Then the other men in the tank crew show up, and Ilsa feeds them, but their crudeness and violence and pent-up rage (especially from Travis) become overwhelming, turning a sweetly flavored moment into terror and barely-averted violence. We learn how little actual authority and control Collier is capable of exerting. Something, death, violence, PTSD, has turned these men, (especially, again, Travis) into hardly trained animals. It’s a tremendous scene, a scene that shows us, briefly, something akin to civilization amidst the barbarity of combat. And it ends tragically. Of course it does. How could it end otherwise?

Some critics have wondered what the point of it all is, what we’re supposed to conclude from this film’s unapologetic depiction of violence and death. I think the point is that there is no point. Not to say that there weren’t strategic objectives to be achieved in April 1945, or that WWII wasn’t justified, or that the only possible response to any war anywhere is just cynicism and nihilism. Nothing like that. Just that the experience of ordinary foot soldiers was probably somewhat like this, surrealist episodes of sheer horror, unremitting violence, punctuated by periods of pure boredom. That the men in a tank crew or squad get on each others’ nerves and drive each other crazy, and yet, you end up caring for each other like no other humans on earth.

The ending has the same flaw, I think, as Saving Private Ryan. These ordinary foot soldiers become super-heroic and kind of bullet-proof for a finale that’s perhaps that one degree too Hollywood. But that’s a minor flaw in an extraordinary film. Pitt’s tremendous in it, as is Lerman, Peña, LeBeouf. But the performance that lingers is that of Jon Bernthal. It’s a difficult, ugly,profane, uncompromising film. But I was profoundly moved by it.