This is the time of year that I am deluged with DVD screeners from the public relations departments of major Hollywood studios that are being pushed for awards from both the big muck-a-mucks at the Oscars and from more down-to-earth groups like my own New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO). Warnings appear at the beginning of each screener about the dire consequences of copyright violation, including a stiff prison sentence. After watching something like “Where the Wild Things Are”, my reaction is to file a report with the Hollywood police department urging the arrest of Spike Jonze for impersonating a film director.
Here is my take on the first batch of films—mostly slop–that made its way into my mailbox:
1. Big Fan
This was written and directed by Robert Siegel, who wrote the screenplay for “The Wrestler”, a stinker of a movie that I could not bear to watch for more than 15 minutes after I received it about this time last year as an awards screener.
The main character is a 36 year old Italian-American parking garage attendant who lives with his mother in Staten Island and who is in a state of arrested development. He is an obsessed fan of the NY Giants football team and lives for the moment when he calls into the local sports talk radio station as “Paul from Staten Island” to praise the Giants and badmouth the rival Philadelphia Eagles.
As somebody who listens to a lot of sports talk radio in NY (but never calls in!), I had hopes that this movie might be special, despite Siegel’s connection to “The Wrestler”. Sports talk radio, I should add, has one other leftist fan as Brian Siano reports:
Chronicles of Dissent reveals Chomsky as a considerate, engaging lecturer who can nimbly untangle skeins of propaganda with simple common sense. Barsamian also provides a clearer sense of the man’s egalitarianism. Chomsky has deep respect for the capabilities of “ordinary people”-a group we’re encouraged to see as a mindless herd. Discussing his habit of listening to sports talk radio, Chomsky says:
What’s very striking is that the people who call in not only seem to know an awful lot, and judging by the reaction of the experts on the radio, they seem to talk like equals, but also they are perfectly free to give advice …. The people who are running the talk show [and] the experts that they have interact with the callers at a reasonable intellectual level.
Siegel’s problem is that he is not content to tell a simple story of his main character, which could have gotten a treatment akin to Paddy Chayevsky’s Marty. Instead, he decided to turn the movie into something like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” with Paul from Staten Island becoming a dark comic version of Travis Bickle. This involves unlikely plot elements meant to serve the portrait of a man out of control.
Sometimes less is better, but of course Hollywood—including its independent variants such as this—cannot understand this.
2. The Messenger
Like “The Hurt Locker”, this is one of those movies about the Iraq war that is set up as a psychological inkblot test. Liberals might find it confirmation that war is hell while conservatives might welcome it as a “support our troops” statement. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind the fence-straddling stratagem if they were well written and well directed.
Going from “The Hurt Locker”, which I received as an awards screener last year, to “The Messenger” is just another indication that Hollywood continues its decline. This movie about a couple of soldiers on assignment to tell the next of kin that their son or daughter had died in Iraq is cut from the Clint Eastwood/Paul Haggis School of Advanced Histrionics.
Every scene is calculated to evoke pathos of the sort associated with silent movies, with clichés hardly more acceptable than a damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks. Most of the movie consists of lead actors Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster standing in living rooms or front yards while the next of kin either curses them out or cries inconsolably. When they are not on duty, they sit around getting drunk and trading war stories.
The movie was written and directed by Oren Moverman, an Israeli émigré who co-wrote the silly postmodernist Bob Dylan biopic “I’m not there”. Here’s his take on what he was up to:
Casualties of war have no politics, left or right – and that’s how Moverman felt about the soldiers delivering the messages of death.
“This film doesn’t have politics or an agenda, in terms of being pro-war or anti-war,” says Moverman, who served in the Israeli military before emigrating to the U.S. to break into the movie business. “People who look at it as a political statement don’t understand. These days, being in the army is a professional job. For a lot of people, there’s no other choice. A lot join patriotically because they’re moved by certain events. In this country, the world ‘political’ gets so confusing. The military is a little more sophisticated than that.”
I suppose in one sense it is a professional job, just like it was for the characters in “Goodfellas”. At least in Scorsese’s masterpiece, we understood that we are dealing with cold-blooded killers.
3. Passing Strange
This is a very competent filming of an off-Broadway musical by Spike Lee. It stars “Stew”, an African-American rock musician who despite growing up in a Black ghetto in Los Angeles decided that he wanted to be a rock musician—a kind of latter-day Jimi Hendrix. His narration includes pointed observations about Black identity, politics, and sex. Highly recommended. Here’s a snippet from “The Black One”, one of the songs performed in “Passing Strange”:
Stew: Who lends the club that speakeasy air?
The Black One! The Black One!
Who dances like a God and has “vunderbarr” hair?
Now he’s the life of every soiree – he’ll give the bum’s rush ennui -
turn up these light cause I barely can see…The Black One!
Is he the post modern lawn jockey sculpture?
4. Summer Hours
This is a highly refined (what else would you expect?) French movie about what happens with a country estate filled with priceless paintings, furniture and knick-knacks after its sole resident, a 75-year-old widower, dies. Her 3 children have some disagreements, but none too bitter, about their disposal. Most of the movie consists of appraisers assigning prices to the valuables or the children sharing fond memories or regrets about time spent there. It has all the emotional power of an Antiques Roadshow episode.
5. (500) Days of Summer
This is something of an “anti-date” movie with a male and female lead involved in an unpleasant affair in which the free-spirited woman refuses to make a commitment. In other words, the direct opposite of most Hollywood movies in which the male has that role.
Nothing much happens in the movie except the two lead characters discussing what they mean to each other like in vintage Woody Allen movies, but without the sharp comic dialog. My guess is that the movie would appeal to young, educated, affluent, white men and women since the characters so clearly belong to their world. In some ways, the movie has all the narrow focus of mumblecore movies, with their tendency to cater to the narcissism of white youth, but with much more elegant and expensive production values.
The movie’s highly touted “hipness” is based on references sprinkled throughout the film to Henry Miller, Ingmar Bergman movies, and other items that would bring a knowing smile to the face of a Columbia University undergraduate.
6. Where the Wild Things Are
An overstuffed piece of junk based on the Maurice Sendak children’s book about an unruly child who is magically transported to a realm of huge ogres who make him king. His time in the realm lasts exactly 3 pages and consists mainly of the boy dancing around with the beasts sans words.
From this slender premise, writer-director Spike Jonze has built a baroque edifice with all sorts of psychologizing about why the creatures quarrel with each other and the boy. They are depicted as neurotic teenagers and deliver speeches more appropriate for 1950s existential theater.
One wonders what would have drawn Jonze to this project since the last movie “Synedoche” he was involved with as producer was a grim meditation on the inexorable process of aging and death set in an apocalyptic tableau. It is rather like seeing “Peter Pan” rewritten by William S. Burroughs Jr.
7. The Blind Side
This is the sorriest mess in the batch. It is based on real events—the adoption of a virtually homeless Black teenager by wealthy whites in Tennessee who help him become a good student and standout football player who eventually lands a lucrative NFL contract. It has the same kind of sensationalist pandering to prurient white tastes as “Precious” but arguably with a much more upbeat conclusion.
It is marred by melodramatic touches that I doubt ever took place in real life, such as the young man being tutored in basic football techniques by the couple’s very young white son. It is as embarrassing as a Tarzan movie.
Now Hollywood had some very interesting material to deal with in terms of race, class and athletics if it had stuck more or less to the material contained in Michael Lewis’s “Blind Side”, a book about professional football that is partially about Oher’s life. If it had not incorporated lurid fictional elements and had simply conveyed what was in the book, it might have made for a gripping movie. Lewis, a very gifted journalist who started writing initially about Wall Street, covers sports mostly nowadays but in the same kind of depth he used in writing about Salomon Brothers.
You can get a feel for his understanding of the characters from this excerpt from his book at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/24/magazine/24football.html. Generally speaking, critics have ripped the movie for all the right reasons. I especially appreciated NYFCO colleague Prairie Miller’s review.
Following on the heels of Precious, and the rescue mission by indignant welfare and educational authorities of that young eating disorder sex abuse victim whose multiple lifelong predicaments apparently went unnoticed until filmmaker Lee Daniels’ camera started rolling, is The Blind Side. Though subbing this time around for Mariah Carey’s vigilante welfare worker, is Sandra Bullock as a frantic southern belle socialite bent on saving a troubled obese teen from his own community of nothing but assorted crooks and crackheads…
When Leigh Anne packs Mike off to freshman year at his primarily white college, she warns him in the presence of her grade school son and when noticing that he’s ogling the coeds, that if he gets any girl pregnant there, ‘I’m going to cut off your penis.’ Considering the horrific history of black male castration for trumped up sexual and other offenses over there on Deep South turf, it’s more than a little like say, telling a Jewish foster kid in your care, that if you’re a bad boy, I’m throwing you into the oven. Blind Side, indeed.
* * * *
In my next installment, I will review “Star Trek”, “The Young Victoria”, “Bright Star”, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, “The White Ribbon” and “An Education”. Hopefully, I will be able to make it through that batch without hurling myself through my 13th floor window.