Monday, October 18, 2010


Grade: D
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Karl Urban, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss
Director: Robert Schwentke

“Roger that.”

They were trying to sneak that one past me. The first Bowen Rule of the Cinema: There has never been a good movie that contains the phrase “Copy that.” But what if they say, “Roger that,” instead? What then? Does the rule apply?

Let’s face it – from the first spunkless assault-team cliche amid Bruce Willis’ suburban Christmas decorations, Red had “copy that” written all over it. But it took awhile for the inevitable to happen. After an hour of wondering if I would need a Synonym Corollary, the movie finally coughed up the “copy that” that we could all see coming. You’ve heard that the criminal wants to confess? So it goes.

It’s not that “copy that” is a cause of a bad movie, nor some linguistic leprechaun that plants a bad film at the end of the rainbow. Rather “copy that” strikes me as a leftover of lazy screenwriting, a symptom of less than 100 percent effort. It means that in all the time from script to screen, no one bothered to imagine a better thing for the character to say.

Laziness is something that I want to talk about in relation to Red, a languishing DC Comics adaptation about retired CIA assassins fighting against people who want them in permanent retirement. I want to talk about it in terms of this proposition: Irony in action movies is dead.

It used to be, particularly in nineties indie cinema, that you could take a stock movie situation, remove the serious character, introduce a quirky character in that place, and voila, you have satire. As a famous example, there’s Harvey Keitel’s “cleaner” character in Pulp Fiction, a play on the dead-serious cleaner in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita.

Once upon a time, that sort of flip ironic detachment counted as hip and satirical. But after so many times, irony has come to hide lazy screenwriting and characters we don’t care about. When a film sells itself with the calculated oddness of 65-year-old Helen Mirren firing a machine gun, the familiarity of the irony reflex means it has lost the satirical charge. It’s just lazy and flat and dead. To misquote Bruce Willis … Red’s dead, baby. Red’s dead.

Take a look at the successful action movies this year, stuff like Inception and The Town. There are romantic strands in both films. Some would label these strands cliche or melodramatic. To say that is to miss the point: these romantic strands are intensely sincere. The successful action films of late share that sincerity. The unsuccessful ones (like Red or Knight and Day) are void of sincerity. They float in the comic-geek netherworld of unreality. Even the explosions don’t really mean it.


Grade: B
Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher
Director: Tony Goldwyn

Why are so few people talking about Conviction?

Is it boring to talk about Hilary Swank being very strong in a quintessentially awards-style role? Over-awarded or not, it shouldn’t stop talk of how real and involving she is as Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts waitress who saves her imprisoned brother by becoming a lawyer and absolving him of murder.

Swank is sturdy as the accidental lawyers and Sam Rockwell lights it up as the convicted murderer, Kenny Waters. Swank’s great advantage is that she fits so easily as a normal person, with perfectly measured emotional range. Rockwell plays a barfight scene in a totally new way, teetering between violence and comedy. Swank may be the backbone of Conviction, but Rockwell is the heart.

Conviction is a type of film rarely made about women – movies about obsession. Usually female film obsessions are about age, looks, and men in that All About Eve sort of way. Far fewer are films, particularly obsession films, about women at work, as with Conviction. The movie plays like a female counterpart to David Fincher’s Zodiac, a film about male obsession surrounding a real-life unsolved murder mystery.

For all the talk about Conviction being conventional (traditional might be a better word), it rarely goes for the expected payoff to a scene. Even a courtroom scene that offers plenty of chance for riotous jubilation gets an admirably underplayed treatment by director Tony Goldwyn. (The director of Diane Lane’s A Walk on the Moon gets two great female performances from Swank and Minnie Driver.) This crowd-rousing film always goes for something more quiet and more fulfilling. This is a movie that gives traditional a good name.


Grade: C
Cast: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Baker, Dylan Walsh, AJ Michalka
Director: Robert Schwentke

Poor Sham.

In 1973, the magnificent chocolate stallion ran the second fastest time in the history of the Kentucky Derby. His mark remains to this day. He probably had the talent to win horse racing’s Triple Crown. Instead, he has gone down as the forgotten rival to a horse whose only real competition was the limits of reality.

There is a very good movie to be made about Sham, an artsy, angsty Sisyphean drama about the horse that never quite could. Needless to say, that film won’t be made by Walt Disney Studios. Instead, the Mouse House has made an inspirational sports film about Sham’s great rival, Secretariat.

The 1973 winner of horse racing’s Triple Crown, the first horse to achieve that cherished feat in 25 years, became a national sensation. Like a great performer, he saved his best for last. He won the final leg, the Belmont Stakes, by an unbelievable 31 lengths. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest performances in the history of modern sports.

That’s a heck of a story, and we get why Disney wants to bring it to a new generation. However, the tale doesn’t follow the established Disney sports film formula, which wears its heart for the underdogs above all else. So it looks past the horse to find an underdog in Penny Chenery (rendered by the very able Diane Lane), the Denver housewife who inherited the superhorse from her father. It’s fair to say Secretariat is the story of a woman cheating on her family with a horse.

Like a good lover, the horse brings her joy in good times and support during bad times. Secretariat allows the sheltered housewife to become the cutthroat businesswoman that she always wanted to be, as she tries to keep the family horse farm afloat. Her life away from washing clothes becomes a source of empowerment in an era of rising feminism. With a female lead operating in a male world, Secretariat carries a politely feminist tact.

That isn’t a theme you would expect Disney to do well. At times, it doesn’t. Secretariat runs wild with cartoon chauvinism. Take Sham’s owner, who comes across as the Don King of the Battle of the Sexes. The real-life social tension caused by a housewife abandoning her traditional place in the family led to a real life divorce. Here it is only an obstacle to overcome for a moment of uplift. That said, the film pays attention to the balance between family and business that women face, giving the audience a heroine who is easy to cheer for.

Disney sports films are known for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Secretariat’s corny script (from Miracle scribe Mike Rich) is no exception. It should be hard to ignore the fact that the Meadow Stable won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont the year before Secretariat (with Riva Ridge), but somehow it happens. It’s also left unsaid that this particular Denver housewife went to an Ivy League business school and wasn’t quite the pony circuit beginner that the film portrays. Also, real life 1973 would beckon Ang Lee to turn Secretariat into The Ice Storm 2, but such unpleasantness doesn’t dare intrude (arguably for the better). The Tweedy children are only faux hippies long enough to clean up for a grand ball like the guests at a Very Special Von Trapp Christmas.

If the facts are wrong, the story isn’t. Director Randall Wallace and cinematographer Dean Semler deliver a mostly rousing entertainer due to its charismatic horse, fun race scenes, and Diane Lane’s refusal to let the film sink to the hokey level always tempting an inspirational sports movie. She plays Chenery as a woman whose bite is worse that her maternal bark. She dominates John Malkovich’s eccentric trainer, a rough-and-ready jockey, and two corporate men played by faceless actors named Dylan (Walsh and Baker). She flavors the role with a degree of seriousness that pays off against the odds. This easy backstretch of a movie doesn’t wring out all the drama in the story, but it works for what it is.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman
Grade: A
Cast: Documentary
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Free admission granted

I don’t like to pull out the phrases “important movie” and “This is the one movie you should see.” But if I had to describe a movie as important, and had to say there is one movie you should see, it’s Waiting for Superman.

That’s not to say it’s my number one film for the year. And that doesn’t mean it’s a future classic. In 30 years, this film isn’t going to matter. Our education system then will teach our children for the world of that time. Whether that’s producing graduates prepared to compete in the global economy, or imparting the nuances of prairie dog hunting to survive winter on the freezing plains, we will get the education we deserve.

If there is one thing that left and right have agreed on all my life, it is the public education system stinks. In a democracy, in theory, such a consensus ought to mean that the public demands and receives successful reform. Yet in 30 plus years we’ve barely seen a squirt of it, as the world gets more competitive and our test scores flatline. Davis Guggenheim, the director of the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, explains why.

Past documentaries about children and “inner city life” – even very good films like Hoop Dreams or Mad Hot Ballroom – have emphasized the desire for escape. As such, they present their child subjects as exceptions with the skills or luck to escape tough realities. Underlying these stories is an assumption of fatalism about their situations, that tough lives are unavoidable and a permanent reality for children in these places. Guggenheim’s withering assessment stares right at this belief and refuses to let us buy it.

Waiting for Superman introduces two myth-busting challenges to perception. The first is that bad schools are the products of bad families and bad neighborhoods. Guggenheim points to evidence that the opposite might be true, that neighborhoods might well fail because their schools fail. The second is that we don’t know how to improve the education of these children and that perhaps there is no way to do it. Guggenheim asserts – and it makes the situation all the more damning – that 20 years of charter schooling have given us the solutions, but that entrenched powers dedicated to protecting bad teachers prevent our society from putting them in place.

And that’s the thing, right? We can do something about this. Maybe not everything. Maybe not perfectly. But something. But we won’t. Narrating his own film, Guggenheim examines the success of some charter schools, public schools that operate independently from the rules governing the rest of the system. We visit places like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the KIPP schools that use innovative techniques to routinely produce top-level students. More importantly, these schools do not seem to be the products of a single terrific staff. They reproduce their results in numerous cities across the country.

These schools have been founded by teachers and administrators who were fed up with the failing system. One is Geoffrey Canada, a Harvard-educated reformer operating a charter school in the Bronx, whose childhood fantasies inspire the title. A second is Michelle Rhee. The driven chancellor has fired underperformers and introduced charter school techniques to the horrendous Washington D.C. school system. In real life, she is about to be fired despite her successes. Some writers, particularly on the Washington Post website, suggest Rhee is better at public relations than reforming schools. Whatever her performance, what she says makes sense. When she says we’re sacrificing the lives of children to preserve harmony among the adults, we all know that’s true.

We see the impact on lives by spending time with several inner city children (and one suburban girl – that’s a third myth busted here, that suburban schools are immune). These students are hoping to escape the “dropout factories” of the public school system and attend charter schools. We watch them walk to school, play with dogs, and dream of becoming veterinarians. We listen to the parents speak their fears of their neighborhood schools and their hopes for their children. These aren’t original scenes, but they are necessary scenes. By the end, we feel a stake in the bouncing-ball lotteries that determine which of the hundreds of children will fill the 30ish spots offered by the charter schools.

At first you’re sad because most of these children will miss out on a quality education. Next, you realize the absurdity of having futures determined by the bounce of a plastic ball. Finally you’re angry, because you know that as each child loses his or her future, our society loses something by refusing to give the best available education to the most promising among us. All because a stupid plastic ball didn’t bounce right. And all because we’ve abdicated our responsibility to a stupid plastic ball to make these decisions for us.

Everyone knows who the villains are, bad teachers and those who protect them. Over the past few decades, the teachers unions – the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association – have stifled reform and created employment contracts that make it nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Unions might have been great back when factory workers were being forced to work 73-hour days in between dodging bullets from Pinkerton agents. Nowadays, we know – heck, we even joke about – what happens when unions make ridiculous demands debilitating to the success of an organization. We’ve seen General Motors. In fact, nowadays we own half of it. But unlike car companies, public education systems don’t have to come begging to Congress when they fail; they just raise your taxes. Think of this country’s education system as one slow-motion legalized bailout.

Superman has a gentle delivery, even occasionally humorous, but it is made out of a cool anger. It’s a good anger. It’s the type of anger that gets something done. You know that stiff drink that people in movies take to steel their nerves before they deliver a baby on a plane, or otherwise fight the odds? Waiting for Superman is a cinematic shot of gin for a difficult but absolutely necessary task. Because yeah, our future depends on it.

The Social Network

The Social Network
Grade: B
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Rooney Mara
Director: David Fincher
Free admission granted

I know I’m supposed to get out and help push.

The fight for great cinema is on, and I’m expected to throw it into neutral, hop out, and chug-chug-chug with my hands on the door. We all have to get behind The Social Network and push the crowds to every mall across the country to see this, The Movie of a Generation.

Can I tap the brakes just a little, just a little, without people saying that I didn’t like it? I did. Very much. However, I remember when Baby Boomers chose Reality Bites as the movie of my generation. So I always hesitate to declare one for the next generation. We like to think we are forever advancing as people, and that makes it flattering to pick a film set on the Internet cutting edge. But the rural meth-topia of Winter’s Bone or the collapse of the public education system in Waiting for Superman is every bit as current and relevant.

Still, it’s reasonable that David Fincher’s sharply made, widely praised film is a good candidate. So let’s take the time to celebrate The Social Network for what it is – a very, very good origin story about how the founders of Facebook brought us all closer to our lifetime friends while destroying their own friendships in the process.

You can’t turn around without finding a review that compares The Social Network to Citizen Kane. Critics such as IndieWire’s Todd McCarthy and Salon’s Andrew O’Heir note or dismiss the similarities in the rise of fictional Charles Foster Kane and the portrayal of real-life Facebook genius Mark Zuckerberg.

Is that an accurate comparison? I say, who cares if it’s accurate? It’s such a fertile comparison that accuracy is beyond the point.

Both pictures come from the tradition of American stories in which self-made rich men end up with everything and nothing. Both Kane and Zuckerberg are lonely figures whose drive for success has slowly erased their human relationships. We want to admire our millionaires, because they represent what we deep down desire. We want to feel we can have the American Dream without having the cost be too much to our soul. These stories reflect the deep hesitation we feel toward our sometimes conflicting values.

Kane and Zuckerberg are also privileged young men who fashion themselves as outsiders. They build their empires by imagining bonds with the common man, in alliance against idle and unfeeling privilege. For Kane, this means muckraking newspapers going after the political bosses of the day. For Zuckerberg, this means taking aim at old money Harvard classmates like the impossibly entitled Winklevoss twins (each played by Armie Hammer, who makes it seem like Brendan Fraser is part of a set of triplets). They are rebelling against the power that they know personally. However, these men might be as much a part of what they hate as they are opponents to it.

The big difference, I would say, is motivation. Kane doesn’t shackle its man with a motivation so much as insinuate his motivation. Rosebud is not just a sled or a symbol of lost innocence. It is the manifestation of the one ineffable thing that Kane chases that he can never regain. The Social Network tries to do the same in the form of a lost girlfriend (Rooney Mara). That seems like a stretch. It’s weak in comparison to the accomplishments. But maybe the flaw isn’t failing to find the motivation. Maybe the flaw is looking for it in the first place. Maybe the flaw is not recognizing that some people are just driven because they are.

Written by The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network has a full set of lively characters and performances centered around the living-on-credit decadence of our recent past. Eisenberg comes into his own as Zuckerberg, portrayed as a lonely sadist but also admirably ambitious. Some see him as a monster, but I never reached the point of disliking him. I just thought he was willing to do what it took and it couldn’t always be nice. Some have taken his mistreatment of best friend/original partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) as a hideous betrayal. I thought it reached a point where Saverin was out of his depth. Having been impressed by him in Black Snake Moan, count me as unsurprised by Justin Timberlake as the party boy entrepreneur Sean Parker. Frankly, I’m a little surprised he isn’t a bigger movie star by now.

Fincher’s direction is sharp, typically meticulous and professional. It achieves the level of precision that has characterized his career. That said, The Social Network seems like a collection of good to great moments without a wowser scene. Zodiac has a number of wowser scenes. Kane has a dozen wowser scenes forever enshrined in our collective filmgoing mind. That doesn’t make The Social Network bad. It’s just makes it a little less. It’s just a happy matter of degrees of good.

Let Me In

Let Me In
Grade: C
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Grace Moretz, Elias Koteas, Richard Jenkins
Director: Matt Reeves
Free admission granted

Life is unfair to middle children and remakes.

If Matt Reeves’ vampire coming-of-age story Let Me In had been made before the Swedish original, Tomas Alfredsson’s Let the Right One In, would we automatically think it was the better of the two?

It didn’t work that way, and we’ll never know. What I can say: Let Me In, written and directed by Cloverfield’s Reeves, underlines and capitalizes so much of what was wonderfully understated about the original. Still, this creepy vampire flick, set in 1983 small town New Mexico, is better than most horror films that Hollywood will release anytime soon.

Alfredsson’s 2008 original (you know, the good ol’ days) has a real genius for holding sick or horrifying scenes and daring you to laugh. A great example: a sweet dog stumbles onto a private moment in the woods. The killer is draining blood from a victim, and the fluffy white critter comes and sits, as if he is waiting for a ball to be thrown. In comparison, the same scene in Let Me In is shot strictly for its shock value, effective but one-dimensional. Reeves also misses what I assumed about the original, that the child vampire (Chloe Grace Moretz from Kick-Ass) is a psychological projection of the disturbed 12-year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that enables his Carrie-like vengeance on the bullies around him.

I disliked the first half of this one, when I only noticed what was missing. Then something happened. It suddenly got good. Reeves does a better job at crafting touching moments, and the film is high on creepiness that’s generated fairly – through character and place and the fears of growing up. Will loving a girl free you, or change you, or enslave you? No boy going through puberty knows.

What I do like about the new one is the efficiency. The Swedish version had a subplot about aging hippies with an ending that didn’t pay off for the limping along. It disappears. The cinematography and production design are more elaborate, all darkness and halos of light, spooky and memorable. Reeves and his crew show a real talent for transforming a closed door into more than a closed door.

A couple of pet peeves: Why choose Los Alamos, New Mexico? If you’re interested in small-town metaphors (rather than aimless Cold War metaphors), why choose the home of the National Laboratory and one of the most educated small towns in the country? When the boy tells the girl that no one ever moves there, it’s pretty funny. Everyone who lives there moves there. Unless Los Alamos High School has an unusually great program in nuclear science.

The second pet peeve: You know those painfully over-researched 18th Century period pieces where everything is too much like a painting? Where the dresses are too clean and too perfect and everyone has nice teeth? Let Me In is that to the eighties. It’s loudly full of Ms. Pac-Mans and Now and Laters. And the music? Eleven-year-olds in New Mexico in 1983 didn’t listen to Freur. You were lucky if you had Oingo Boingo. Let’s all take a breath and admit that all they played was Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam.

But I call them pet peeves for a reason. They’re pet peeves, not deal-breakers. In the end, you won’t find a better October horror film this year. Happy Halloween!