Movies

Big Hollywood, Small Toronto

Among big-ticket Oscar contenders, the critic's heart will always be with the overlooked gem.

(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP) Actor Hugh Grant attends the premiere of Cloud Atlas during the Toronto International Film Festival. Every film festival has its own customized vanity. Maybe a mite grimly, Cannes hangs on to its monopoly on glamour. It’s harder than it used to be to get big American stars to walk the red carpet—the studios no longer see much PR value in a Cannes premiere for movies they’re spending millions to open a week later stateside anyway—but the paparazzi can always make do with Johnny Hallyday in a pinch. Sundance, of course, is still the ideal place for indie filmmakers to attract notice. The New York fest gets by on whatever spurious sense of consequence is implied by its location, location, location. And these days, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) touts itself as the place where the road to the Oscars begins. In overdrive ever since future Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire’s North American premiere here four years ago—The Artist,...

Norman Mailer Aims for Auteur ... and Falls Way Short

Criterion Collection has released the famed author's not-so-famed entries into the film canon.

(AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
Whenever being a writer wasn’t enough to suit his churning sense of drama, Norman Mailer (1923-2007) could come up with some awfully wild-assed ways of advertising himself. They ranged from stabbing his second wife in 1960 (she lived and was dissuaded from pressing charges, and he actually got a judge to buy his argument that being labeled crazy would damage his literary reputation) to running for Mayor of New York City nine years later. But those almost seem like banal versions of Walter Mittyism gone disastrously overboard compared to Mailer’s notion that he could become a movie director—indeed, a visionary one, since why else bother if you were him?—without so much as a day’s apprenticeship. Over four decades later, Criterion’s Eclipse series has brought out the eccentric results on DVD: Wild 90, Beyond The Law, and Mailer’s magna cum gaudy capper to the whole caper, Maidstone, which cured him of his movie mania by busting him financially. To varying degrees, all three of his 1960s...

Hooray for Hollywood?

Flickr/The City Project
The article of the day is Jon Chait's piece in New York addressing the question of Hollywood's liberalism. To simplify it a bit, Chait argues that conservatives are basically right in their belief that Hollywood liberals are warping our minds with left-wing propaganda, though they seem to have all but stopped bothering to complain about it. I find it hard to disagree with the first part of Chait's premise: Hollywood is, indeed, dominated by liberals. There are a few high-profile conservatives there (Bruce Willis, Tom Selleck, Clint Eastwood), but they're a small minority. It's not hard to figure out why. Any industry that is made up of creative people is going to be dominated by liberals. Most novelists are liberals too. I'm sure most graphic artists are liberals. There's a whole lot of psychological research demonstrating that liberals tend to be more tolerant of ambiguity, open to experience, and interested in change than conservatives, while conservatives tend to be more...

Kubrick's Vietnam, 25 Years Later

Full Metal Jacket—as well as the rest of the director's canon—still fails to impress, even after a quarter-century intermission.

(AP Photo)
When the 25th anniversary Blu-ray of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War movie, Full Metal Jacket, showed up in the mail last week, I knew what was going to happen. As I glowered at the lavishly packaged thing and it glowered glacially back, my inner Jiminy Critic chirped up with his usual reproach to my anti-Kubrick bias. “Practically everybody but you knows that Stanley is the greatest thing since sliced eyeballs,” he said, making that tired joke about Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou for the gazillionth time. “You chump, did you even notice that 2001: A Space Odyssey just vaulted into sixth place in Sight and Sound’s poll of The Greatest Movies Ever Made? And you haven’t seen this one since it came out.” Feebly, I protested that once was enough. As for 2001 , I’ve seen it four or five times, just trying to figure out what everybody else is going on about. I still think it’s like watching somebody mistake solitaire for poker. “Once is not enough, if I may be so bold as to quote the famous...

Wolveriiines!

Our first opportunity to watch Charlie Sheen go totally psycho.
If you were a teenager in the '80s like I was, you had to have a complex relationship to jingoistic entertainment. On one hand, the way Cold War competition was grafted onto things like sports and movies was kind of unsettling, since the fate of the world was actually at stake, and one had to think that amping everybody up into a testosterone-fueled frenzy couldn't be a good thing. On the other hand, you couldn't help but swell with national pride at the Miracle on Ice, or at Rocky knocking out Ivan Drago. (Though to be clear, the ultimate message of Rocky IV is one of mutual understanding, and one hears the plaintive cry of a man who knows he is but a pawn of much more powerful forces in Drago's lament, "I must break you." OK, I'll stop.) There may have been no cultural product that captured that atmosphere quite so perfectly as Red Dawn , the 1984 movie in which the Commies actually do take over, and it's left to a small band of high schoolers led by Patrick Swayze to use their...

Ricky Bobby Goes to Washington

Don't watch The Campaign with expectations of high sophistication and deft explanation of political issues.

(KC PHOTO/Warner Bros./PictureGroup)
(KC PHOTO/Warner Bros./PictureGroup) A nyone expecting sophistication from Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis’s sloppy-but-enjoyable new political comedy, The Campaign , has plainly led a life crammed with one furious disappointment after another. I can’t believe it’s much of a spoiler to tell you that America wins and politics loses, the contradiction in terms that the big public has feasted on since time immemorial. Movies like this one always let the audience revel in a more or less infantile cynicism about the democratic process by omitting issues, genuinely stubborn ideological divides, the reality of partisanship and the rest of the stuff that gives elections a point. Then a magic finale transforms the Statue of Liberty into a Tinkerbell worth clapping for just the same. Scooting into the wings in befuddled dismay, the whole squalid system turns irrelevant once some plucky fellow stands up for what’s right—usually, a generic and nonpartisan integrity that sweeps away bad faith...

The Masked Morality of the Batman Trilogy

The Dark Knight Rises is not an easy parable for the political left or right.

(Image courtesy of warnerbros.com
Midway through a matinee viewing of The Dark Knight Rises , I had a sinking feeling that many progressives would interpret it as a conservative film. It’s the most obvious reading. In a thinly veiled reference to Occupy Wall Street, the main villain, Bane, spouts facile leftist slogans about “equality” and “the people,” and the only man who can conquer him and save the city is billionaire Bruce Wayne. But if you look at the entirety of the Batman trilogy, the politics are more complex. In each installment, director Christopher Nolan plays with different approaches to crime and capitalism. There are no easy dichotomies. By the end of the third film, a clear argument for balance between authoritarianism in the name of order and an anarchist view of people power emerges. The previous installment of the trilogy, The Dark Knight , ended with a seeming endorsement of authoritarianism, after Batman used an extensive surveillance system to track and eventually defeat the Joker. He employed a...

Batman: Gotham's Reformer

(Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect)
My colleague Tom Carson makes an excellent point about The Dark Knight Rises , the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy: The real joke, as Rush [Limbaugh] might have learned if he’d crammed his posterior into a theater seat before venting, is that The Dark Knight Rises is one of the most deeply conservative movies to come out of Hollywood in years. Understand, I mean “conservative” in the traditional, more or less honorable sense that Rush and his fellow napalm-eaters have done their best to make obsolete. To a large extent, that’s built right into the source material. To much grimmer effect than his rival, Superman—all that sunshine palaver about “the American way,” feh—Batman has always been the guardian of a social order against chaos, with a pretty dour view of unbridled license and plenty of pessimism about humanity’s prospects for improvement. It’s absolutely true that Batman is a conservative character, and that this conservatism carries over into both Rises and...

A Dark Knight for Romney?

Don't believe Limbaugh—the most recent Batman movie is an epic for the 1%

(Courtesy of www.thedarkknightrises.com)
Stop me if you've heard this news flash once or twice before, but Rush Limbaugh got it gloriously wrong. On Tuesday, the Porcine One took to the airwaves to froth about the coincidence—no, wait, there's no such thing in Limbaugh-land—that the villain of The Dark Knight Rises is named Bane, a homophone for "Bain." Plainly, this was a case of Romney-bashing propaganda by a Hollywood nefariously in league with the White House. "You may think it's ridiculous," Rush said stoutly, locking a barn door through which whole herds of ponies have fled over the years. "I'm just telling you this is the kind of stuff the Obama campaign is lining up. The kind of people who would draw this comparison are the kind of people they are campaigning to." Even by his standards, this was gaga enough that Limbaugh was in full-on fudging mode by Wednesday. "I didn't say there was a conspiracy theory," he said. "I said the Democrats are going to use it." But if they try—and at least one Dem flack (Chris Lahane)...

Don't Blink

I've talked in the past about how unconscious bias works—and how it's an aspect of some very healthy parts of our brains and bodies. For very good reasons, we all navigate by intuition, habit, and practiced behaviors every single day. Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer have written about these neurological facts beautifully and well. Every parent knows how time-consuming it is to have to articulate and teach habits we don't even realize we navigate by. Walk on the right and pass on the left. The fork goes here and the knife and spoon go there. It's not polite to say that in public. You can't take that until you pay. Turn your head this way to breathe while you're swimming. That truck means that person delivers the mail. Don't talk back to the people in airport security. If our brains had to sort consciously through every action, behavior, and category (the way parents have to explain things all day) before we could act, we'd be paralyzed. If we didn't practice thinking in categories—...

The Shocking Radicalism of "Brave"

While it isn't flawless, Brave has an impressive satirical eye for a mainstream movie.

Pixar
(Warning: This review spoils major plot points for Brave ) The marketing for Pixar’s new girl-centric film, Brave , suggests it is a movie in which a wild-haired heroine single-handedly conquers the monarchy, the patriarchy, and the myth that there are no attractive flat-heeled shoes. Feminists as much as anyone imagined that this would be the story, since so much of today’s media aimed at girls is about “empowering” young women (as if the main obstacle to women’s equality throughout most of history has been a lack of spunk, instead of eons of direct and indirect oppression based on the notion that women exist to be the trophies and helpmeets of men). Small wonder then that so many critics have emerged from the theater a bit befuddled by what they saw: the story of a young princess and her mother trying to understand each other despite their radically different approaches to life as a woman in medieval society. Tom Carson, while praising the movie’s effectiveness , argued that the...

If the Tibetan Can't Go to the Homeland...

As some of you know, there is far more to the Tibetan diaspora than the Dalai Lama. More than 200,000 refugees are living, sometimes stateless, in other countries. Tenzin Dorjee, whom I've mentioned here before, is the director of Students for a Free Tibet and one of the next generation of Tibetan leaders in exile. Last week, he wrote at The Huffington Post about an incredibly moving art project, conceived after activist and artist Tenzing Rigdol's father died in exile longing to see his homeland one more time: Rigdol was deeply affected by his father's untimely death, and devastated by his own helplessness in fulfilling his father's final wish. He could not stop agonizing over the idea that hundreds of other Tibetan exiles were going through the same denial of dignity, passing their final years in foreign lands.... Rigdol ... smuggled 20,000 kilograms of native Tibetan soil into India and laid it on a platform six feet high, creating an installation unprecedented in art history. For...

Europe on Five Characters a Day

Woody Allen's latest travelogue is sprightlier than you'd expect.

Starting with its generic title, predictably eclectic cast, and cornball opening tune ("Volare," for Pete's sake), To Rome With Love looks like it's going to be another of Woody Allen's paint-by-numbers late-life divertissements. Those picture-postcard settings? In the bag. Not to mention that loose ensemble of coatrack characters—which bauble of your genius will you hang on me, Woody?—among whom he can parcel out his latest idle thoughts on art, love, and fate while indulging his septuagenarian fascination with the mating habits of comely young people. And you know what? To a large extent, that's exactly what the movie is. Only it's sprightlier and more inventive than you'd expect. At any rate, Allen does seem to be in an unusually genial if not downright perky frame of mind. He gives whimsy its due without either nudging us to remember he's too good for it or reminding us of how bad he can be when he's doing it on automatic pilot. It's a boon that the story's four strands never do...

Pixar's Take on Kafka

Brave tackles the Scottish countryside and family tensions in a poignant—if slightly by-the-books—way.

(AP Photo/Disney/Pixar)
He that hath children hath given hostages to Disney, as Francis Bacon would no doubt have put it if he'd lived in our time. That's why the latest reason I'm glad little Thomasina Carson doesn't exist—there are many, and Justin Bieber's existence is the least of them—is the woe I'd feel at watching her innocently toddle off to see Brave. It's not that the movie's bad, understand. After a shaky start and despite some later missteps, it turns into one of Pixar's best, and definitely one of the most surprising. In the wake of, among others, Up and Wall-E— well, the latter's first half, anyway—presumably we can all agree that's no trivial claim. But the movie's power is due to a certain Big Transformation of a major character midway through that, like my colleagues, I have to wrestle with divulging or not—even though, as my pal Glenn Kenny of MSN grumped , the whole world will know about it by the weekend. (It's already in the movie's plot summary on Wikipedia, making critics' good manners...

The Blander Bush

HBO's 41 asks none of the hard questions about George H.W. Bush's uninspired career

(Wikimedia/Reagan Library Archives)
P remiering tonight on the channel that just got through bringing us Season Two of Game of Thrones —believe me, you'll miss its brute realism— 41 couldn't be a tenderer, more wart-free portrait of George H.W. Bush if one of his grandkids had put it together for a private screening on Poppy's 88th birthday. Which was, as it happens, Tuesday, and many happy returns. But that's no excuse for HBO to air nominal documentarian Jeffrey Roth's (who is he, you ask? Beats me.) feature-length Hallmark card. There's a place for valedictories this thoroughly pablumized. Namely, presidential libraries, one venue where even mediocre ex-Chief Executives are allowed to appear in a cloud-cuckoo-land that stays unmarred by anything less than awe at their wonderfulness. But since those who don't learn from the History Channel are doomed to reruns, or however that saying goes, I'm concerned the HBO brand may give today's youngsters the wrong idea. Few people would dispute that Bush the elder has gained a...

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