Movies

An Inescapable Truth

In the Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers, Israel's domestic spymasters make the price of occupation clear.

As I watched The Gatekeepers in a small hall in Jerusalem, three thoughts kept repeating in my mind. The first was that if the new Israeli documentary were showing on prime-time television rather than in tiny cinematheque auditoriums, the country's vapid election campaign might morph turn into an urgently needed debate on the occupation. The second was that once the film opens in U.S. theaters on February 1, its interviewees—former heads of Israel's Shin Bet security service—will probably not be invited to speak before certain "pro-Israel" groups in America, the kind that conflate support of Israel with silencing criticism of Israel policies. The film's Oscar nomination for best documentary will not be celebrated in those organizations. The third thought was that if dissident Israeli philosopher and theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz were alive, he'd watch The Gatekeepers with the furious satisfaction of a prophet proved right. Leibowitz raged against the moral price of occupying the West...

Fracking versus the Boondocks

Promised Land bills itself as an environmental movie, but it’s far more concerned with preserving Dan Barry-esque small-town America mythology.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File In this April 22, 2008 file photo, a natural gas well pad sits in front of the Roan Plateau near the Colorado mountain community of Rifle. Opponents of a law restricting federal oversight of injecting fluids underground to boost oil and natural gas production hope a new bill and a new administration will tighten regulation of the practice called fracking. T he first sentence of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring proves a good template for most stories about the environment in America: "There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. … Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change." Promised Land , which opens nationwide today, begins its story about fracking, the drilling technique that’s...

Making Liberal Hearts Bleed in Anytown, U.S.A.

What is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land?

Political issues come and go, but message movies never change. Thanks partly to a relatively novel subject—fracking—and partly to an elliptical set-up, Gus van Sant's Promised Land , written from a story by Dave Eggers by its stars, Matt Damon and The Office's John Krasinski, varies from the norm only in fooling you for almost half an hour into thinking it actually might be up to something interesting. Too bad the movie turns into the same Ibsen for Idiots combo of a burning deck and a stacked one that was creaky when Jane Fonda was just another lonesome gal with a few New York modeling gigs to her credit. His brow as furrowed as if he's just woken up in a voting booth with no pants on, Damon plays Steve Butler—as in "loyal servant," no doubt—who's snapping up mineral-rights leases on behalf of a corporation unsubtly named Global somewhere in generic, Great Recession-ravaged Heartland, U.S.A. The setting's lack of specificity is your first hint that flyover country will go on looking...

Making Liberal Hearts Bleed in Anytown, U.S.A.

What is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land?

Political issues come and go, but message movies never change. Thanks partly to a relatively novel subject—fracking—and partly to an elliptical set-up, Gus van Sant's Promised Land , written from a story by Dave Eggers by its stars, Matt Damon and The Office's John Krasinski, varies from the norm only in fooling you for almost half an hour into thinking it actually might be up to something interesting. Too bad the movie turns into the same Ibsen for Idiots combo of a burning deck and a stacked one that was creaky when Jane Fonda was just another lonesome gal with a few New York modeling gigs to her credit. His brow as furrowed as if he's just woken up in a voting booth with no pants on, Damon plays Steve Butler—as in "loyal servant," no doubt—who's snapping up mineral-rights leases on behalf of a corporation unsubtly named Global somewhere in generic, Great Recession-ravaged Heartland, U.S.A. The setting's lack of specificity is your first hint that flyover country will go on looking...

Condemned Love

Amour, Michael Haneke's latest film, is a horror story with a foregone conclusion.

Courtesy of Sony Classic Pictures
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Amour , featuring Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant D on’t be fooled by the possibility of a kinder, gentler Michael Haneke. It would be easy to let down your guard given the title of his latest, gruelingly good film, Amour , and the release poster’s image of a beautiful, aging woman’s face cupped by loving hands. But Haneke has made a decades-long career out of crafting haute horror stories, and old habits die hard. As do the habits of Amour ’s octogenarian couple, struggling to hold on to routines as if that could stave off the inexorability of death. Set almost entirely within the confines of the pair’s Paris apartment, Haneke’s latest Cannes-winning film centers on Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) as she confronts her slow demise from stroke and dementia and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) accepts the crushing task of serving as her caregiver. Haneke’s films are a tough haul—icy in their austerity and remove, fueled on expertly...

Don't Put Flowers on Hollywood's Grave Yet

Film could be headed for a renaissance instead of its long-predicted journey into the blockbuster night.

AP Photo
T his has been a fertile year for people to lament the decline of movies. In fact, two of the most distinguished critics around—Davids Denby and Thomson—more or less proclaimed in 2012 that the jig was up for film as an art form. Since one of them is 69 and the other is 71, the " Après nous, le d é luge " side of this might strike skeptical readers as a mite self-involved. Nonetheless, if they're talking about Hollywood's output as opposed to very-much-alive-and-well world cinema, they don't lack for circumstantial evidence. Between endless iterations of durable comic-book franchises and ever dumber, more ineptly made comedies, no wonder lots of people who used to love movies now prefer HBO and Showtime when they want their intelligence massaged. All but the worst hack reviewers dread the paucity of recommendable commercial movies for grown-ups until Thanksgiving's arrival starts coughing up the usual Oscar fodder. And then a lot of the Oscar fodder—e.g., Silver Linings Playbook— just...

Zero Dark Thirty: Homeland's Prequel?

In both cultural depictions, September 11 is a wound that never heals.

Courtesy of Showtime
Courtesy of Showtime A scene from Homeland , with Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin K athryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty opens to blackness and the sound of a conversation that we immediately know is real. Trapped on a high floor of a tall building engulfed by fire, a young woman says, “I’m going to die,” while the emergency responder at the other end of the phone tries to reassure her otherwise. “I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” she keeps repeating, her voice already becoming unmoored from her few years on this earth and pitched at some impossible place between hysteria and resignation. The emergency operator keeps promising help; both women understand it will never come. We understand as well because this is the 11th of September 2001. When the call disconnects, we hear the operator mutter under her breath, “Oh my God,” and nothing in the movie that follows will be as wrenching as these few seconds in the dark; the next two and three-quarter hours are haunted by this prologue that...

Zero Dark Thirty's Morality Brigade

Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden movie doesn't endorse torture. 

(Rex Features via AP Images)
(AP Photo/Sony - Columbia Pictures) Z ero Dark Thirty doesn't even come out until next week, but Kathryn Bigelow's much-hailed movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is already provoking outrage in some quarters for allegedly "glorifying"—OK, sometimes it's "celebrating"—torture. As all too bloody usual, the loudest howls are coming from people who haven't actually seen ZD30 , some of whom—yes, Andrew Sullivan, I mean you —really ought to know better. Ginning up controversies about movies without bothering to watch them first is really more Bill Donohue and the Catholic League's sort of thing, and does Sullivan want to be in that company? Since plenty of other folks apparently do, I hope you won't mind two cents from a lowly movie critic who admires the hell out of Zero Dark Thirty and isn't exactly big on vindicating Dick Cheney's world-view. There are really two separate arguments here, and people shouldn't confuse the two—though they already have. One is about factual accuracy,...

Dial M for Meh

Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock fails to capture the artistry of the famed director.

(Sipa via AP Images)
Among reputable movie critics, by which I do not mean the New York Observer ’s unkillable Rex Reed (“ Hitchcock grabs you by the lapels like a suspense classic by Hitch himself—a knockout from start to finish.” Yes, that’s a real quote), Sacha Gervasi’s atrocious Hitchcock has its defenders. They notably include The New Yorker ’s stimulatingly unpredictable Richard Brody, who certainly can’t be accused of being a blurb whore by any stretch. Yet it’s worth noting that Brody made the case in favor of Gervasi’s crude fantasia about Hitchcock’s inner life during the filming of Psycho almost entirely on conceptual grounds—i.e., by praising the “audacity” of conceits like Sir Alfred’s imaginary dialogues with real-life serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the original inspiration for Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates. He didn’t have a lot to say about Hitchcock ’s, ahem, cinematic qualities, no doubt because finding them would require Sherlock Holmes’s indefatigability and even Brody knows...

Abe, Daniel ... and Henry

Before Daniel Day-Lewis played Lincoln, another actor's portrayal was legendary. On Henry Fonda's forgotten greatness.

(Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)
(Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation) Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) W hen early trailers were posted online for Lincoln , the new biopic from Steven Spielberg, the consensus was that star Daniel Day-Lewis, known for the research he pours into perfectionist transformations, was finding his way into character through the voice. Day-Lewis as Lincoln sounded nasal, deliberate, a bit pleading, and surprisingly high-pitched. In instant homage, Jimmy Fallon took a clip from the trailer—the president, urging a group of black-clad 19th-century men sitting around a table to make a change “now, now, NOW!”—and redubbed it as Pee-wee Herman. Compare Day-Lewis’s alien timbre to the ease of Henry Fonda, finding one of his first great film roles in director John Ford’s research-free Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Fonda played the future president during a fictionalized period in his youth, when he grew from a bumpkin into a knowing Illinois lawyer on his way to...

Road Trip! Road Trip!

What will the latest generation of cinephiles make of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend?

(AP Photo/Mario Torrisi)
The Criterion Collection has just brought out a new Blu-ray edition of Weekend, Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 phantasmagoria about cars, nihilistic consumerism, and civilization's imminent collapse into barbarity. As I often do these days in connection with Godard's movies—and not only his movies, either, but his more than most—I wonder what the latest generation of cinephiles will make of the thing. That's if they don't confuse it with Andrew Haigh's 2011 gay romance of the same name, a pretty good flick that's also available from Criterion. Presumably, Today's Young People be able to appreciate how brilliant a lot of Weekend is. The movie's great sequences are fairly undeniable if you've got eyes. But 45 years later, viewers obviously won't have access to the 1960s context: the whole roller coaster of ever more extreme artistic and political ideas and fashions that Godard's films of that breakneck decade so often seemed to be reacting to and anticipating all at once. Back then, he was an...

The Future of Star Wars

Flickr/The Official Star Wars
Though it may be four days before a presidential election, I just don't feel I can let the issue of the future of Star Wars pass without comment. In case you don't pay particular attention to these things, Disney is buying the franchise from George Lucas, and plans to release more Star Wars movies. Our own Tom Carson responds without much enthusiasm, writing that though he was never particularly crazy about Star Wars , "I think one reason for the deep bond fans feel with Star Wars is the awareness that the whole stupid, nutty legend all came out of one man's head. Those tin-eared character names, goofball non-human sidekicks—Jar Jar Binks (boo) no less than Chewbacca (yay)—and inane narrative compulsions are all homely testimonials to an authorship that stayed idiosyncratic and personal even when Lucas hired other hands to direct four out of the six installments." I agree up to a point, and in Disney's hands the next installment will probably end up expertly executed but without the...

I've Got a Bad Feeling about This

For our reviewer, a depersonalized Star Wars is no Star Wars at all.

(AP Photo/Disney, Todd Anderson)
Temporarily turning even Sandy's aftermath into an also-ran all over the Twitterverse, the news earlier this week that Disney had acquired George Lucas's entertainment empire for some $4 billion—including the right to make more Star Wars movies, with the first post-Lucas installment set to roll out in 2015—seems to have left fans about evenly divided between feeling stoked at the prospect (how can more Star Wars be bad?) and dismayed at Papa George's sellout to the Dark Side. "Get your childhoods ready," one negativist tweeted. "They're about to get pissed on again." Since I don't have a dog in this fight—not my childhood, kiddo, and we all know Disney will eat everything one day—it surprised me to notice I wasn't totally indifferent. An as yet not-quite-formulated regret was creeping in, despite my basic allergy to Lucas and the Millenium Falcon he rode in on. While I've never bought into the "Star Wars killed the movies" rap that some of my crustier colleagues like to peddle, the...

When the Fringe Shapes the Center

During the AIDS crisis, ACT UP's radicalism forced more mainstream gay-rights groups to step up their game.

(AP Photo/Tim Clary, File)
(AP Photo/Tim Clary, File) Act Up protestors lie on the street in front of the New York Stock Exchange in a demonstration against the high cost of the AIDS treatment drug AZT in September of 1989. S tarting with my inability to believe Mitch McConnell isn't one of Disney's talking teapots gone rogue, there are plenty of good reasons I don't and shouldn't run the zoo. But if I did, How To Survive A Plague would be mandatory viewing for Occupy Wall Streeters. First-time director David France's new documentary about the 1987-'93 glory years of ACT UP—aka AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, in case you've forgotten—is a wrenching remembrance of a gay holocaust that's already dimmer than it should be in our memory. The movie is also an exhilarating portrait of human beings discovering what they're capable of in a crisis. But above all, it's the story of how a never too numerous band of obstreperous activists successfully changed public policy. On that count, France may gild the lily somewhat...

How Was the Trailer, Mrs. Lincoln?

A look at the trailer for Spielberg's upcoming Civil War biopic

(AP Photo/Disney-DreamWorks II, David James)
Presumably, we all know that speculating about upcoming movies with only their trailers to go by isn't a fit activity for a serious man. But that's how it works in a culture that now operates as a giant racetrack, everywhere from politics to the fall TV season; we all enjoy playing tout. Besides, I can't remember the last time I considered myself a serious man—it's all larks and pratfalls to me now, folks. That's how we grizzled types stay current. At any rate, now that the first trailer for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is out, moviegoers can feel reasonably sure of at least a few things we only guessed before. In approximate order of descending "What? Good God, sir, are you trying to tell me Anderson Cooper is gay ?" nonsurprise: Boy, is this sucker going to be mournful and majestic, with composer John Williams providing his usual musical oil spills when it comes to (re-) stating the obvious. This serves an admirably educational purpose, since any 11-year-old will henceforward be able...

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