Monthly Archives: June 2012

A high school boy (Aaron Johnson, who played a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) decides he will simply purchase an outfit and proclaim himself a super hero.  One modest success leads to a knife-in-the-belly and being run over by a car, but he does not lose heart, and returns to the streets with steel-reinforced bones.  Soon, he’s a web-hero, attracting not only the attention of cruel mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his wannabe son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) but of the more accomplished super-duo, Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage, doing an Adam West impression), and Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), Big Daddy’s foul-mouthed, lethal 10 year old daughter.

Funny, clever, and hyper-violent, this is a comic-book movie that engages rather than slams you into a stupor.    Yes, we get some nice, brutal, inspired fight scenes.

But we also get the softer, gentler side of super hero bonding

This is a fun, smart documentary that chronicles the fall of George Lucas in the eyes of his fans and mines their conflicted attitudes towards a man they belove yet revile.  At root, it’s a story about how gods disappoint.

The social impact of Star Wars can be overstated (one fan references Shakespeare), but there is no denying that Lucas’s 1977 film was revolutionary not only in how it changed movie entertainment, but in its creation of a legion of fans dedicated to its ethos.  They just don’t just love Star Wars; they revere it and deem it participatory in their lives.  They wear the outfits, make their own film homages (the clips of these movies are the highlight of the documentary), buy the toys and products and countless DVD releases, and endlessly debate the impact of the film.  And the nature of its creator, who once gave them sun and now provides only darkness.  This goes beyond Spock ears.

The first third of the documentary shows Lucas’s rise from geeky auteur, hostile to the Hollywood machine, to corporate titan, overseeing not just Star Wars but the technical transformation of Hollywood films in general.  And then the fun begins. First, Lucas re-envisions his Star Wars trilogy.  He brightens things up, adds some more incredible effects, and best (or worst, if you’re an acolyte), changes a few scenes.  The ensuing furor is atomic.  Fans are particularly incensed that Lucas changed the character of Han Solo, who in the original picture shot a bounty hunter point blank, but in the “re-envisioning” returned fire only after the bounty hunter shot first (the bounty hunter missed from 2 feet, a failure that makes fans apoplectic).  As one disgruntled fan notes, “It’s as if Martin Scorsese cut out some killing from The Departed because he realized he had an 8 year old son.”

As fun as the collective kvetching is over that change, the roil becomes greater when the fans attack Lucas’s decision to erase the first cut of the trilogy.  I did not know this, but you can’t get a DVD of the original movies.  Lucasfilms even intimates that the original prints are destroyed.  And boy does this make the Star Wars fans nutty.  They point to the hypocrisy of Lucas’s opposition to Ted Turner’s colorization of black-and-white films and say, collectively, “Aha!”  You can almost see Lucas in a dark room, on a throne, wickedly chuckling at their discomfort.

While the outrage over Lucas’s authoritarian control over his original work is pitched, the response to the release of his execrable second set of films is a hilariously bitter pill.  Oh, did these folks want to love those films, having waited sixteen years for them. And their recollections of how they felt when they realized the pictures sucked are almost heartbreaking.  One fan explains that he saw The Phantom Menace over a dozen times hoping he would just get it.

The documentary is really made by the fans who gave the interviews. Their love is pure, their hostility to a Jar Jar Binks poetic, and yet, they all seem to have a good sense as to how ridiculous they look as grown ups incensed, and even enslaved, by George Lucas.

This critically-acclaimed 2011 release purports to be a psychological study of its protagonist, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who becomes a member of an upstate New York commune/cult led by the charismatic John Hawkes (nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Winter’s Bone).   The film opens with Martha’s escaping the collective farm, though Hawkes and the other members of the commune (a motley assortment of women who serve him and a few young men) don’t do very much to stop her flight.  Martha ends up 3 hours away, at the Connecticut lake home of her wealthy sister and her new husband.  There, we learn of her ordeal through flashback (sexual abuse, violence, co-opting and subordination to the whole) while she struggles to adapt to life outside the cult.  She provides tension to her sister’s household as she brings bad habits from the commune with her (swimming nude, curling up in the bed of her sister and brother-in-law while they are having sex, condescending to them about their lifestyle) and undergoes post-traumatic stress that manifests itself in panic attacks, wetting herself and refusal to discuss what happened.

All of which makes for a frustratingly monotone of a movie.  Martha is treated with such sensitivity by her sister that you sympathize most with the husband, who has to endure a recalcitrant, moody weirdo in his midst without anyone ever saying, “What the hell happened?”  Worse, while it is clear that Martha undergoes trauma, her behavior after she endures it suggests a person who was under the sway of the commune since childhood.  In fact, Martha was there for two years.  Also, the key to a psychological study is an explication of why Martha was lured into the life, but we get no clue as to what Martha was looking for when she voluntarily allowed herself to be part of Hawkes’ crew and scant information on what the cult is really about.  Martha seemed shallow and dull in flashback and during present-day, she seems shallow, dull and jittery.  Moreover, Martha says some very terrible things about and to her sister (“You’re going to be a terrible mother”), who has the patience of Job, suggesting she was a first-class turd even before she went to the commune.  This is not conducive to empathy.  Finally, the picture reveals a Manson-esque quality to Hawkes very late, which is awkward and unconvincing. 

Another problem is Olsen’s performance.  Yes, she does better work than her sisters

ever did on television’s “Full House”, but it is still a one-note, amateurish turn.

A precocious Welsh teen narrates his way through what director Richard Ayoade clearly hoped would be his Rushmore.  Submarine is no Rushmorefirst and foremost because, unlike Wes Anderson’s Max Fischer, Ayoade’s protagonist, Oliver Tate, is a charmless, boring, dolt whose observations about the world around him are unconvincing, banal, and strain so hard to be wise that they come off as too cute by half.  I should have seen it coming, as the film opens with an obnoxious written note to American audiences from the character of Tate introducing us to Wales and thanking us for not invading his country.  Thereafter, Tate’s dull voiceover intones that he does not like scenery, he believes his neighbors are ninjas, he can only see himself in a “disconnected reality” and other like observations meant to be charming and insightful.  He’s also monitoring the sexual activities of his parents by checking their bedroom dimmer switch. Full disclosure: my son and I turned it off after 11 minutes.

I watched Thor with my son on Father’s Day (we trolled Netflix streaming for choices).  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is cast from the heavens, in part for his hubris and in part due to the machinations of his conniving, “why does Daddy love you more?” brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  Thor ends up near Area 51 sans power, and while here on earth, gets shamelessly mooned over by Natalie Portman (she’s supposed to be the geeky, withdrawn scientist type – riiiiiiiiight), learns the meaning of humility and heads back to the heavens to settle somie scores and show some sacrifice.  I should have seen this before The Avengers for absolute continuity but no matter – neither film suffered for my error.   The action sequences are brisk but not  so overhwelming as to cause fatigue and there are some good lines.  Portman is ridiculous in her portrayal of a women of science made weak in the knees.  She positively swoons.  Still, It was good, clean, mindless fun.   

Of course, Thor has some issues with protocol here on Earth:

I did that last night at dinner with my water but it wasn’t as funny.  Father’s Day can only forgive so much.

Ridley’s Scott’s prequel to the Alien series fares much better than troubled installments 3 and 4 (which were not directed by Scott).  It does so without reliance on the now famed Alien monster or creation of another “haunted house in space” where the crew is picked off one-by-one.  Instead, Scott’s film opens with an ambitious recreation of the demise of our creators (or, at least, our forefathers).  In 2089, two scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) deduce that disparate human societies with no connection and at different intervals in the world’s history communicated with another species (or is it?) from space.  So off they go, with another crew on an epic journey to discover from whence we came.  A cool Charlize Theron is in charge of the vessel Prometheus, but the ship is helmed by the down-home Idris Elba and it is guided by an android, David (Michael Fassbender).  They find what they are looking for but it is not what they thought, and Alien is born.

For what could have been a ponderous big idea picture, this movie is very tight, and if never quite as horrifying as Scott’s first movie, it is tense, scary and moody.  The feel is enhanced by a brooding, foreboding Marc Streitenfeld score.  Moreover, the characters feel gritty and realistic and each adds nice touches to roles that could otherwise have been stale.  Elba’s Stephen Stills-liking captain of the ship is an old soul; Theron’s corporate master hides a sense of humor; and Fassender, to whom one of the scientists makes a Pinnochio-reference, is half-boy in wonderment and half-efficient, emotionless machine, a worthy addition to the fine line of Alien androids who came before:

Alien (1979)

Ian Holm

Lance Henriksson

Scott also cleverly borrows from his own Blade Runner in the portrayal of David, who doesn’t possess Rutger Hauer’s maniacal desire to find his creator but does show more than a passing interest in the subject matter.

The script provides some explanation for why we started creating androids who are more than automatons:

Charlie Holloway: David, why are you wearing a suit, man?

David: I beg your pardon?

Charlie Holloway: You don’t breath, remember? So, why wear the suit?

David: I was designed like this, because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn’t wear the suit, it would defeat the purpose.

Charlie Holloway: Making you guys pretty close, huh?

David: Not too close I hope.      

Scott bites off a little more than he can chew by adding an unnecessary twist at the end, and thereby rushing some scenes that could have been better developed.  It also has a few silly notes, like throwing in Rapace’s inability to get pregnant and having Rapace tell a crewmember he can’t bring a weapon because the mission is scientific . . . and he complies.  Come on!  Doesn’t he know that in space, no one can hear you scream?

Otherwise, it’s a very good picture, enhanced by the 3D.


This documentary is directed by Carl Colby, the son of the subject, former CIA Director William Colby. In all likelihood, therein lies the problem. Carl is torn as to which themes to stress, much as he is torn by the legacy of his father.  He settles on three.  First is a straight up documentary about a clandestine Cold Warrior who saved Italy from Communism and was critical to the Phoenix Program, eventually rising to the directorship of the CIA, where he was battered by Congress’s withering post-Watergate assault on the Agency.  Footage from Italy, Vietnam, and congressional hearings is provided, along with interviews of numerous members of the American power structure at the time, including Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Kerry, Bud McFarlane.  Bob Woodward and many others. This part is occasionally interesting, but since critical emphasis is placed elsewhere, the historical report lacks any real depth.

Carl Colby also presents a portrait of his family, with the strict and moralistic William Colby at the head, his wife Barbara at his side, as they were stationed from post to post. The interviews with Barbara Colby are affecting as she explains how her husband worked and the impact of Catholicism on his personality, and there are some charming vignettes, but we don’t get much of a sense as to how Colby interacted with anyone in the family.  Occasionally, Carl’s voiceover expresses disappointment about his father’s secretive nature, but there are no real insights.  Carl drops hints of various issues (an epileptic and anorexic sister, a late in life divorce), but they are only given the most cursory treatment (we never learn that, in fact, the sister died in 1973).  For a man “nobody knew,” secrets are to be expected, but we should get better from a son. 

Carl offers a third, more personal theme – the effect of having such a mysterious and enigmatic father. This aspect of the film is the weakest and most awkward. Very abruptly at the end, we’re informed that in 1996, Colby took a canoe from his Southern Maryland home after dinner and was found days later, dead.  The coroner concluded that Colby drowned after a stroke or heart attack. Carl does not provide an alternative theory though he strongly suggests the miserable, guilty William Colby did himself in, after some wine and clams(?)  Carl has been quoted as saying, “Call it whatever you like. I think he’d had enough of this life.”

Carl tells us – as he has in some form or fashion throughout the documentary – that Daddy wasn’t there for him, intoning, “I’m not sure he ever loved anyone and I’m not sure I ever heard him say anything heartfelt.”   Given the limited presentation, and in particular the absence of remembrances from William Colby’s other 3 children and his second wife, Carl’s view strikes me as unique.  Indeed, Carl told The Washington Post “I preferred the old dad, not the new . . . The old dad taught me how to sacrifice. The new dad . . . was just an ordinary guy with ordinary desires.”  That says a lot.  It is as if Carl has settled on his father as a dark, tortured soul and the coda to his life – a love affair with another woman that lasted 13 years that was by all accounts happy – didn’t fit his meme, so he ignored it.

First things first.  I took my son to see The Shining at the American Film Institute Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland (they are running a Jack Nicholson retrospective).  The theater is ornate and massive and brings back the feel and style of the old movie house. 

But not even the hallowed ground of a theater honoring film can persuade people to behave in a respectful fashion during a movie.  We had two fools in the front who found particular dramatic scenes funny and laughed and laughed and laughed . . . and laughed some more.  We also had two couples to our right who presumed if a character wasn’t talking, that was their cue to talk.  Stanley Kubrick films have long stretches of no dialogue.

Going to films is more and more difficult given the crude behavior of movie patrons, who cannot shut th f*** up, are now eating full meals during the show, and are otherwise oblivious to anyone around them.  Worse, those who are quiet, including myself, are often forced to simply accept the noise.  I have interceded a few times.  It has worked less often than not, because if you correct a young person in public, apparently, that is a humiliation too great to endure, and what follows is aggression and louder “I paid my ticket” talking.  Now, I’ve made the film less enjoyable for additional rows. 

Okay.  To the movie.  Kubrick’s picture is methodical and creepy,  It opens abruptly with an aerial shot of Jack Torrance (Nicholson) driving for his interview at the Overlook Hotel to an ominous electronic score (think John Carpenter).  Torrance gets the job as the hotel’s winter caretaker, where he esconces his timid wife (Shelly Duvall) and his son (Danny Lloyd), who has the ability to see visions and occasionally communicate with like-talented people (i.e., he “shines”) such as the hotel’s head chef, Scatman Crothers.  Danny’s ability is also telling him that the Overlook Hotel is dangerous, a fact Crothers confirms.  Soon, the hotel insinuates itself into Torrance’s mind, turns him against his family, and he goes berserk.

The film is very scary, often terrifying.  Kubrick gives us the time to get to know the family, and all is not well:  Torrance has had recent problems with drink, injuring Danny in the process.  He is also a condescending prick, which in turn makes his wife more jittery, which in turns makes Torrance angrier and more removed.  With this fodder, the spirits of the hotel work themselves on Nicholson.

The imagery is unforgettable, be it Danny riding his big wheel (tracked by stedicam) through the halls of the Overlook, only to bump into gruesome visions, or the forbidding snow-covered hedge maze, the locale for the final scene.  Lloyd is very good:  he is withdrawn but sweet, trying to deal with a wretched home life and an amazing but confusing gift.  Duvall, whose performance has been criticized as annoying (she was nominated for a Razzie), is, in fact, very annoying, but it is a great performance nonetheless.  She is trying to hold the family together, as Nicholson is trying to destroy it, and her worry feeds his suspicion.  The hotel has to work on something; it has to find an “in” to get to Nicholson, which it does through Duvall, who is nervous and peppy and cloying.  Obviously, she doesn’t deserve to be murdered.  But the spirits of the hotel don’t need to much to convince Nicholson.

The only partial negative is Nicholson.  He’s very good as a man driven to insanity, but the performance has two faults.  First, Nicholson does not show much to recommend him when he has full sanity.  He’s superior and sarcastic and he doesn’t connect with his family.  As such, when he is enticed by the hotel, there’s not much of  struggle there.  He’s ready to fix them up right and there really was no question.  Second, there are too many “Heeeeeeere’s Johnnies” in his performance.  Nicholson goes so over-the-top that he becomes cartoonish.  Still, it’s a minor criticism and presumes the necessity of a struggle for Nicholson’s soul.

Image result for Life is Beautiful

Roberto Begnini’s Academy Ward-winning fable is in two parts.  First, the love-at-first-sight courtship of a sweet and funny man and a beautiful schoolteacher, followed by a tale of a father’s love for his wife and son and the lengths to which he will go to spare them the cruelty of a Nazi concentration camp.  Both halves of the film seamlessly meld, and the picture travels a road from sunny to tense to dire, with Begnini at the heart, lending dignity as he dances faster and faster.

Begnini’s film is neither historically accurate or particularly reality-based.  Indeed, the half of the film occurring in the concentration camp could have taken place over a period of months, weeks or days, and Begnini’s character essentially creates a daily circus to shield his boy from the horrors that surround them, behavior not even Colonel Kilnk would have allowed.  For this reason, Life is Beautiful came in for criticism from some quarters who believe that a Holocaust movie should not necessarily be the backdrop for a comedy, however bittersweet, and/or that Begnini trivializes and historically mutated the reality of Italian Jews during World War II.

Nuts.  The overarching theme of the film is a father’s attempt to protect his son from death, both physical and spiritual, effectively conveyed in a respectful manner.  Complaints of inaccuracy or improper tone are misplaced and rigid, as if there is some politically correct blueprint for a Holocaust film.  Conservative film reviewer John  Podhoretz recently followed this line, attacking the latest X-Men movie – which traces Magneto’s powers and philosophy to his treatment at the hands of the Nazis – thusly: “Genocide and supernatural powers don’t mix”.

Nuts to him too.

Shoah has been made.  So too Schindler’s List and The Wansee Conference. Go see them, I implore you, and make your own judgments (and while you are at it, check out Enemies, A Love Story, which actually mines a Holocaust survivor’s post-trauma love triangle for a couple of chuckles).  But don’t stilt artistic vision in the name of grim devotion to past horror.

These criticisms smack of paternalistic preaching that might make The Catholic Standard proud.  Tarantino and Stone “glorify” and thus perpetuate violence.  Lolita makes child molestation all the more probable.  And Begnini’s work, according to Slate‘s David Edelstein, similarly offends: “Imagine Harpo Marx giving the hot foot to a pompous official, who takes out a machine gun and blows him away: That’s how cheap Benigni’s hash of farce and tragedy is.  It’s a gas, all right.”

Edelstein earned his “I’m A Sensitive Keeper of the Grim Tenor of Concentration Camp Flicks” ribbon.  And with that award goes a free ticket to Showtime’s offering, The Devil’s Arithmetic – Kirsten Dunst is transported from modern day history class, where she passes notes and ignores the teacher’s recitation of the the extermination, to a WWII-era Poland.   Or The Twilight Zone, where Vic Morrow’s modern day bigot was carted off in a train headed, presumably, to Treblinka.

Controversy aside, the film begins in brilliant color but mutes to near-black and white as the story continues its necessarily sorrowful pace.  I can say little about the direction as my eye was trained on Begnini.  His performance as an unserious man at the most serious of times mirrors Chaplin (another person we could criticize – how dare he benefit from physical comedy while aping the creator of the concentration camp, Adolf Hitler). His carefree and whimsy is tested as he becomes separated from a rich life, his wife is torn from him, and every day becomes a struggle to personally survive and protect his son.  Everyone else is quite good and the son is particularly affecting (the Italians get me every time – see Cinema Paradiso).

Former police officer Jack Nicholson is haunted by the murder of a little girl, so much so it tests his sanity.  He finds the love of a good woman (Robin Wright Penn), who has a little girl as well, but he remains haunted and, as near as I can tell from this complete mess of a movie, goes insane.

Sean Penn directed this picture, which was released in 2001 (he directed another similarly dark mess of a movie released that same year, The Crossing Guard, so perhaps this was a phase).  The film is clumsy, uninvolving and disconcertingly showy.  Penn can’t just have a cop walk into a room without cross-cuts to the ticking clock and the face of a fat, stupid common clerk telling us something (but what?).  Nicholson can’t drink at a Nevada airport bar without pointless flash cuts to whirring slot machines.  Not only does all this jazz lead to continuity problems (Nicholson’s scotch miraculously becomes a beer), it is annoying.

The Pledge also demonstrates Hollywood’s disdain for the working class.  Set in the flatland of Nevada, Robin Wright Penn, Sean’s then-wife, is a vessel of all Hollywood presumptions about regular folk.  She plays a barmaid.  She has a gnarled front tooth.  She is a little dim.  She wears a lot of flannel.  And when her savior Nicholson comes to love both her and her daughter, we know that they will commune because  . . . Nicholson fixes her tooth!  I mean, let’s not take this working class thing too far.  We can’t expect Jack Nicholson to have sex with woman with a gnarled tooth.


Another problem?  Penn uses top actors for single scenes, so each feels compelled to ACCCCCCCCCCCTTTTTTTTTTT! like there’s no tomorrow.  Benicio Del Toro, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Helen Mirren, they all emote for a brief, generally unnecessary scene, and boy do they make the most of it.  Also, the little girl is killed on the day of Nicholson’s retirement party.  If Penn directs a war picture, God help the character who shows his platoon mates a picture of the gal he has at home waiting for him.

That said, I was a big fan of Penn’s more restrained and mature Into the Wild, directed 6 years later, so I chalk The Pledge up to practice.