Thursday, October 23, 2008

Max Payne

I’m an arrogant man, but I can admit when I’m ignorant. Can someone explain why studios believe that a PG-13 rating will automatically draw more people than an R? I understand it on paper; an R rating means that only those over 16 or with an adult can get in while anyone old enough to ask for a ticket can get into a PG-13 film. What the stated facts do not take into account is how many theaters don’t really care and let anyone looking 17 in for the show. In an industry that shifted completely from word of mouth buzz and sustained box office to a blitzkrieg of ads and a sole focus on opening weekend gross, the potential of an R film to build into a hit is forsaken for a quick buck. If you want a film that sums up the pitfalls of the film industry business model, you could do little better than “Max Payne.”

Based on a popular video game, “Max Payne” is the latest bad adaptation of a medium that is inherently more fun than cinema because you can control it. That is not to say that video games are better, but ask someone if they’d rather play a video game or watch a movie about it, which is essentially like watching someone else play the game the way they want to, and people will overwhelmingly answer the former. Of course, you might have to stop and think for this one, because “Max Payne” the movie bears little resemblance to the game.

Mark Wahlberg stars as the titular hero, a cop traumatized by the murder of his wife and baby who transferred to the Cold Case division to track down possible leads for their killer. As he tracks down killers, he stumbles into a seedy underworld gripped by an ultra-addictive drug that make you see flying demons that may or may not be real. Along the way he meets Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), the arbitrary as-deadly-as-she-is-beautiful killer who wants answers about the grisly death of her sister (Olga Kurylenko). Max was the last one to see her alive, so the two inevitably fight, then team up to fight the bigger foe.

For an action film, there sure is a lot of overlong lead-up. For over an hour, Wahlberg wanders around dark streets with a face expressing only anger and repressed sadness. The film shoots for a noir tone but winds up aimless. He finds a link between a string of thugs and his wife’s killers in the form of a tattoo, which as we all now are limited only to members of secret groups and not freely available for purchase in any parlor anywhere. Mona Sax disappears as quickly as she arrived, to be placed in cold storage for the coming action scenes. Ultimately the hour of exposition is contradictory, misleading (and not in an artistic, suspenseful way), and boring. It’s also unnecessary, since the plot is mostly summed up by a tattoo artist who explains the meaning of the mysterious tats, which in turn tells you all you need to know about the drug.

When the action finally arrives in the last 30 minutes, it is indeed pretty, but it’s unmemorable. Mona shows up just to look good while shooting, and Wahlberg, apparently forcibly restricted to one facial expression for the rest of the film, is suddenly cut loose and all that backed-up emotion comes through in the form of outlandish expressions. John Moore proves to be a hopelessly incompetent director, creating a desaturated world that borders on black and white in a feeble attempt to be a film noir. His action sequences are adequately done but he falls apart in any scene that cannot be rapidly edited; in other words, he cut the film to be emotional but does not know how to capture emotion.

The film is not bad in the sense that you can’t stop thinking how bad it was, it’s bad in the sense that it is totally unmemorable. I sat there, the film ran, then it ended, and I went on my way. The action was moderately entertaining but couldn’t drown out all the boredom that preceded it. Wahlberg, fresh off his role in “The Happening,” the year’s worst film and one of the worst films of recent years, seems hell-bent on killing all his newfound credibility. Kunis, who got her film breakthrough earlier this year in the excellent “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” does what she can, but doesn’t have enough to be good or bad. Wait for the extended cut on DVD, then rent something else instead.


I wish I had been in the room when Oliver Stone announced he was making a biopic on George W. Bush and that the goal of it was not to demonize him, if for no other reason than to see if his pants caught fire. Of all the insufferable celebrities who use every moment of press to give us their unwanted political opinions, Stone is up there with the worst. The fact that he started shooting the movie in May and made sure he released it before the election didn’t inspire much confidence either. Then again, his two previous films about presidents or events directly concerning them, “JFK” and “Nixon,” were bold, revisionist, even-handed dramas, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Surprisingly, he made a pretty great film.

“W.” chronicles the President’s life from his early days at Yale to shortly before his second presidential election. The film is structured out of chronological order, preferring instead to show the growth of W. as a person and to draw parallels. When Vice President Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) convinces Bush to approve “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the President calls to mind his fraternity initiation, in which he and other pledges sat in a tub of ice water while being force-fed alcohol and generally disoriented.

As with Stone’s previous presidential dramas, “W.” often returns to a theme in the form of an obsession of the protagonist. In “JFK,” it was Garrison’s attempt to prosecute Clay Shaw seemingly because of his homosexuality. In “Nixon,” it was the juxtaposition of Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Here, the defining conflict Bush’s relationship with his father; Junior wants to escape his father’s shadow, but only gets jobs and diplomas on his family name. Even as president, his decisions on Iraq must inevitably be compared to Poppy’s. Junior’s desire to measure up to his family name drives his life; in his youth, he drinks and blows off multiple jobs just to frustrate his father. Even when he runs for Congress, it’s more to prove that he can than an attempt to get into politics.

The turning point in W.’s life is his cold turkey sobriety and his Born Again Christianity. These events save his life, but they also shape his attitude as President. Recovered addicts and Born Again Christians fundamentally believe in a clean slate. The term itself, “born again,” denotes a rebirth, resetting the clock to year zero. They acknowledge the past but must not dwell on it. This psyche might explain why he has stuck by so many bad decisions over his tenure.

Stone has always been a director capable of handling a large cast, and for the most part he succeeds here. Elizabeth Banks plays Laura Bush- who doubles as the film’s conscience- as a supportive, loving woman who reassures her husband even as she chastises him. Jeffrey Wright and Dreyfuss are likewise marvelous, with Wright capturing Colin Powell’s cautious wisdom while Dreyfuss embodying Cheney. Stone draws a parallel between Powell and Cheney; both are men who speak their mind and know their business, but Powell knows the human costs and expresses hesitance while the disconnected Cheney pushes for war in Iraq to open up oil lines. Toby Jones and Scott Glenn play Rove and Rumsfeld as one-note villains who show no consideration for the consequences of their actions. The worst is Thandie Newton’s absurd portrayal of Condoleeza Rice as a screen-mugging parody. Her presence alone hurts Stone’s claim that this isn’t some joke.

Surprisingly, the film portrays Bush sympathetically. Stone paints him as a good man who, though not necessarily simple, is easily manipulated by advisors into the public face of their machinations. What the film lacks in historical perspective, it makes up for with a human element; Bush genuinely believes he is doing God’s work and, as such, cannot question his own decisions. By stopping the film’s timeline in 2004, it avoids the extremities of the Bush administration’s failures and thus is able to make these people seem more relatable, or at least the Bush family.

Stone’s films never strive for absolution for their characters, but rather for understanding. He does not pardon Bush’s actions because he was manipulated, but neither does he condemn any member of the administration. The film is too rushed and lacks Stone’s usual visual mastery, and as such holds little of the replay value of “JFK” or “Nixon.” He also should have fired Thandie Newton after the first rushes came in and recast Rice. However, this is a gripping and entertaining film that blends the facts of Bush’s life with his usual fantastical elements. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but it’s one of the better films of the year.

The Ten Best Films of 2007

OK, I know we're almost at the end of this year, but then I wasn't passing off my opinion as fact in January, and I've had this list since then.

10. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Sidney Lumet is one of the all-time greatest directors, and he's still churning out hits like this in his 80s. No director has ever handled such a wide variety of topics and still make them all so great. In this darkly funny heist film, two down-on-their-luck brothers decide to rip off their parents' jewelry store, with disastrous results. It doubles as a study of a dysfunctional family and a thriller about criminal ineptitude so vast it's a surprise to see it outside of a Coen brothers film. The more that the results of their failed heist unfolds the more Andy and Hank sink into almost crippling guilt. It's one of the most emotional crime films made in recent years, maybe since classic film noir. There aren't many deaths, but when they occur they shock and leave a resonance like ripples on the story. Bodies aren't used to move the story forward, but to compound the characters. This may not be on the level of Lumet's masterpieces like Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and 12 Angry Men, but it can hold its own against his finest films, and it's a superb late-career effort by any standard.

9. Ratatouille

Who knew a film about a rat cooking for humans would be not only not disgusting, but mesmerizing? Pixar, of course. Their standard of excellence can put just about any other production company- animated or no- to shame. Patton Oswalt seems an odd choice to voice the lead in a children's film, especially since he got the job for a foul-mouthed, near-poetic tirade against fast food, but he pulls it off marvelously. His voice, along with Pixar's knack for putting a wide range of human face and body language into non-human things, makes Remy come alive. Like all great Pixar films, the inanimate or the animal world is juxtaposed against the human one. Remy's father (voiced by the incomparable character actor and one of Oswalt's heroes Brian Dennehy) tells his son that a rat can't be a human, yet the humans display little nobility. They are greedy, lustful, deceitful, and only at the end do any of them display any moral fortitude. Yet this is a sweet film, as are all of Pixar's (they're for kids after all), and if the plot wasn't enough, you've got a masterful dig at critics from Peter O'Toole.

8. Into the Wild

Sean Penn is far too ostentatious an actor for my tastes, but this directorial effort is superb. Emile Hirsch's performance is one of those rare times when someone transcends acting and simply is the person. I'm not one for wilderness survival stories or anything where the focus of the film is on nature, because I can watch the Discovery Channel for that. But this is more; it's not about a man at one with nature, or trying to survive, it's about a man trying to find himself. Granted, that's cliché as well, but Hirsch is so watchable, and the book adapted so well that the twists and turns of his life keep you rooted in your seat. He travels some of the most beautiful landscapes you'll see, but Penn does not focus on nature, because it's not the point. Eddie Vedder's marvelous soundtrack is just icing on the cake.

7. Michael Clayton

Expertly written, nicely paced, and perfectly acted, Tony Gilroy's legal thriller manages to craft a darkly funny, inventive tale that even keeps its suspense despite giving away a big detail at the beginning. It had the terrible misfortune of coming out in a year in which Daniel Day-Lewis acted, Diablo Cody wrote Juno, and the Coens made No Country For Old Men, because in any other year it would have been almost a shoo-in for Best Actor, Original Screenplay, and Picture. George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton all earned their nominations by putting in some of their finest work, while Gilroy proves to be a competent, if not incredible, director his first time out, but his script is the best he's ever written.

6. Once

I have a theory on romantic comedies: the simpler the better. Most have some sort of quirk, but the more it keeps things grounded and the less it becomes some over the top slapstick the more emotionally involving it is. Once is the kind of film that unfolds so naturally by the time it's over you're left amazed that it lead somewhere. The music is soft and sweet, but without the cloying, annoying, cookie-cutter quality of so much indie acoustic pop (see: Juno). Not many films can make you leave the theater alternately uplifted and borderline depressed, and Once should be placed on the short list of great romantic comedy.

5. Gone Baby Gone

Ben Affleck gets a lot of unfair hate, with people mistaking his poor choice in roles for a lack of acting talent. But few can argue his directorial skill in this fantastic adaptation of Lehane's novel. Putting little brother Casey Affleck in the lead smacks of mass nepotism, but 2007 was the year Casey decided to break out of Ben's shadow. He puts in a superb performance here, and his Oscar-nominated work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was the best part of that movie. He plays Patrick Kenzie who, along with his girlfriend Angie (played by the lovely Michelle Monaghan) works as a private detective. After a child goes missing, the two seek her out, and stumble into a seedy underworld and an increasingly complex kidnapping scheme. By the time they uncover the truth, you need a good shower. A fantastic supporting cast helps move things along nicely, with Amy Ryan's performance earning that nomination. The acting isn't on the same level as that other big Lehane adaptation Mystic River, but this captures the tone much better and the story proves much better suited for film.

4. Juno

Yes, teenagers don't really talk like that. But then Juno isn't your average teenager. Diablo Cody's teen-pregnancy fantasy is full of surprising genre subversion, pretentious teen "irony," and some of the best performances ever put forth in a film focusing on teenagers. Ellen Page keeps Juno from going over the edge of tongue-in-cheek to blatant self-parody, adding layers of sadness and vulnerability to her gruff outer shell that seems natural rather than arbitrary. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney play the nicest parents you'll ever meet in a high school film, while Jennifer Garner shines as the yuppie, achieving wife who wants to adopt Juno's baby. Jason Bateman is likewise superb as the frustrated wannabe rocker who sees Juno as a window to his glory days. Michael Cera is again the lovable nerd, but there's a much higher level of sadness in his role, as Juno sleeps with him purely on a whim, complicated the feelings he already felt for her. Ultimately, it's one of the most emotionally rewarding high school movies made in recent years, maybe even since Say Anything. It's initial over-the-top teen ironic speak gives way to a smart, sweet comedy that hopefully will re-establish itself as a great movie after the Oscar backlash fully dies away.

3. Zodiac - Director's Cut

David Fincher manages to make a hell of thriller out of nothing with this film. There are no real chases, no big action scenes, no crime-solving climax; instead we nearly get lost in labyrinthine red tape and character development. In many ways it's more about Graysmith, Toschi, and Avery than it is about the case. Gyllenhaal gives his best performance, and Ruffalo and Downey offer up great character work. All three imbibe their characters, and Avery's slide into alcoholism eerily reflects Downey's own life. Some may of considered the film overlong, but this Director's Cut, which is actually longer, adds material in such a way that it not only deserves to be put back in but enhances the footage in the theatrical cut. This might be Fincher's best-crafted film.

2. There Will Be Blood

I don't even know why they bother with the Best Actor category in years where Daniel Day-Lewis makes a film. Sure, he's only won two, but really, nobody else goes as all out as he does, which I would say makes him the best actor. Paul Thomas Anderson rebounds after the mixed Punch-Drunk Love with this sweeping epic that allows him to flaunt his visual style without it consuming the film, as it did with the terrible, masturbatory Magnolia. The story concerns Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oil entrepreneur who loves only winning. Even money has little value to Plainview, besides allowing him to expand his empire. He is not your average monster; he doesn't have people killed, doesn't sit twirling his moustache as he uses thugs to drive out townspeople. Rather, he simply slowly takes over the town; what good is owning the place if no one's around to let you know it? His decades-long battle of wits with a young preacher (Paul Dano) is a slow-burning, brilliant display, culminating in a shocking end that cements Daniel as one of the finer villains of recent years.

1. No Country For Old Men

Stark, spacious, and haunting, the Coen brothers fantastic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's allegorical thriller is perhaps the truest adaptation of a novel since Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange. Their films are always about the inept versus the professional, or just the inept versus the inept, but here they present us with balanced opponents. On the one hand is Moss, a war hero who stumbles across the remains of a bad drug deal and walks away with $2 million and the smarts to know someone's gonna come after it. On the other is Anton Chigurh, a mysterious hitman who seemingly acts of his own volition. But really, it's not about the chase, it's about man's inability to defeat evil in the world and the cruel impassiveness of chance. Brolin, Jones, and Bardem never really interact with one another; even as Chigurh and Moss have a little shootout outside a hotel, they never speak to one another, and when they do it is over a telephone. Their spacing reflects the vast openness of the desert around them. Sheriff Bell's book-ending, wandering mind narration both calls to mind a similar opening and closing (albeit more comical) in the Coens' own The Big Lebowski as well as cementing the hopelessness of man's situation. Quite possibly the best film of the decade so far.

Body of Lies

Sir Ridley Scott is looking to take the John Le Carré style of spy fiction into the 21st century in his new film “Body of Lies,” an adaptation of David Ignatius’ thriller, and the results are hit and miss. We follow CIA field agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he works with contacts to find Al-Saleem, a high-ranking terrorist orchestrating a number of bombings in Europe. Calling the shots all the way back in Langley, Virginia is Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a fat desk jockey who’s always planning ahead of his agents without letting them in on the secrets.

As one would expect, the two are polar opposites. Hoffman does not care about the potential casualties of the mission, nor does he seem to understand Middle Eastern diplomacy, despite being in charge of the Middle East division. Ferris, on the other hand, is an kindler soul; he treats his contacts with respect, cares for whatever partner the locals assign him, and feels a growing sense of disillusionment with his job, at which he is nevertheless brilliant.

The film constantly cuts between locations, ranging from Iraq to Langley to Jordan, where the bulk of the plot unfolds. As Ferris sets up surveillance, we get constant bird’s eye views from circling spy planes. If the images they produce are at all realistic, then it’s only a matter of time before the United States find anyone it’s looking for. Then again, as the film reminds us several times, this technology relies on the ability to link with other technology, and that terrorists can effectively disappear by returning to the Stone Age, so to speak. They remove batteries from cell phones, destroy computers, communicate face to face; in a futuristic war, they are holding their own by running to the past.

In an attempt to lure Al-Saleem to communicating by phone (and thus exposing his position), Ferris dreams up a bold scheme: create a fake terrorist to steal Al-Saleem’s thunder, making him jealous enough to come out of hiding. Along the way, Ferris joins forces with Jordanian intelligence, run by a suave chief named Hani Salaam. Played marvelously by Mark Strong, Hani is a constant in the spy genre: the partying, drinking quasi-socialite who never loses focus of his command. When he meets Ferris, he takes an instant shine to the young man, but warns the American never to lie to him, which seems an odd request in the spy field.

So far so good, right? Well, nothing mucks things up faster than a poorly thought-out romance, and the one on display in “Body of Lies” is the most inexplicable in a long time. Ferris, who remains focused on his job even as he doubts its worth, strikes up a relationship with an Arabic nurse named Aisha. Of course, their love can never be because they can’t have a meaningful conversation while Ferris is in covert ops, and Aisha will be ostracized by the community for a relationship with an “infidel.” It’s nothing but a plot device to lead to a hamstrung ending so implausible it hurts the realism of the film’s visuals.

No director is more qualified to make this film than Ridley Scott. His “Black Hawk Down” stands as one of the two great films about modern warfare (the other being “Three Kings”) and, once the director’s cut re-inserted the plot of the movie, “Kingdom of Heaven” was a brilliant dissection of Christian/Muslim relations, both past and present. But this is an action film posing as a study of our enemies, though it does have a few genuine moments of clarity that fit neatly into the story. Others are clumsily inserted, such as Hani telling Ferris out of nowhere that torture is ineffective. Ferris comes off like a mix of Jason Bourne and James Bond; he takes Bourne’s freshness and disillusionment and Bond’s apparent godlike invincibility and ability to always make time for some ridiculous skirt-chasing and tries to mesh them like a child trying to force a rectangular block into a circular hole. Ultimately, the film’s visual realism and great performances from its leads make it a fun watch, but the mounting ridiculousness will ensure it a place on Scott’s second-tier of “dumb but fun” films alongside “Gladiator” and “American Gangster.”

Incidentally, a new track from Guns ‘N Roses is played over the credits. It sounds like a gravelly woman crooning over some electronic-funk, white soul track with a splash of Middle Eastern feel. It’s kind of good, but the elements don’t mesh that well. Come to think of it, it’s a solid aural metaphor for the film itself.

The Duchess

How many period pieces has Keira Knightley been in now? Even the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films put her in corsets and frumpy dresses. Hot off the heels of the inexplicably lauded “Atonement,” Knightley signed up for yet another fashion show as film, this time about the story of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire.

“The Duchess” is a look back on a simpler time, a proper time, where proper people of proper stock received proper education and properly traded their proper daughters to other families for powerful and proper marriages as if they were property. Georgiana is no exception, and at the start of the film she is betrothed to William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Her initial excitement at her rise in social rank gives way to a growing discomfort with her dispassionate husband, a seemingly dull man whose only interest is a male heir. As the film progresses, his distant nature gradually shifts into a monstrous smoldering, turning to mistresses to provide him a son and essentially imprisoning his wife in their home.

The acting is uniformly strong. Knightley, who thus far has relied on little more than her attractiveness to get by in these films, captures the feel of the character perfectly; she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders as she must deal with her husband’s cruelty, her friend’s betrayal, and the constant attention of the other nobility, whom she must wine and dine incessantly. She seems constantly on the verge of collapse, until she must put on a happy face for her guests, and Knightley hits all the right notes. Ralph Fiennes is a perfect fit as the Duke; there’s just something a bit intimidating about the man. When he smiles at you and talks you get the feeling that, at any moment, some hunchbacked minion is going to sneak up from behind and knife you. Properly, of course. He is never loud, nor scheming, but you come to fear this man over the course of two hours. A host of supporting actors also turn in strong work, with nods going to Hayley Atwell as Georgiana’s best friend and William’s mistress and Simon McBurney as Charles Fox, a leader of the Whig party.

Unfortunately, Saul Dibb’s direction turns what might have been an interesting biopic and one of the better period pieces of recent years into an overlong, boring mess. If I had to spitball a number, I’d say at least half the shots of the film are close-ups on Knightley, which makes sense in a way because the film is basically about how everyone revolved around her except her husband. However, this seems less an artistic and thematic choice and more an excuse to say “Hey, look how pretty Keira Knightley is.” Well done, Mr. Dibb. I can only pray the reserves of movie magic were not expended in this effort. When the camera does move to follow someone, it fails to capture the scope of the time. This was a time of rampant excess, when palaces and dresses and hairstyles and meals were so huge they blinded the nobility to the actual state of their nations. Why is so little shown to us then?

The stated running time of the film is 110 minutes, but it feels an hour longer. Uninteresting scenes drag on far too long, occasionally leading to a rewarding payoff from the actors but usually just adding in some absurd dialogue. Also, why do the women in these films always seem surprised by how sexist the world of European nobility is? I’m beginning to think that all these films are about time travel, because surely a noblewoman raised in high society would know exactly what it had in store for her and would stop acting so damned shocked that she has no say, regardless of title. I agree that the sexism of the time- or now- is deplorable, but let the audience register its own disbelief of the etiquette and social mobility rather than make anachronisms and fools out of characters so we have someone to relate to. This film had promise, but snail-like pacing has derailed a good premise before, and much that “The Duchess” has to offer is spoiled because of it.

An American Carol

David Zucker, the former master of parody whose last good film was 1988’s “The Naked Gun,” registered Republican a few years ago and decided that what America wanted was a film unafraid to offer a right-wing take in a leftist Hollywood. According to him, it’s high time the conservatives got a little payback for all the abuse they (and America) have suffered at the hands of liberal cinema. No one came name me a film that is actually anti-American (which is interchanged with conservative as if they are synonymous), but never mind it's true.

Even a parody needs some form of plot advancement, and Zucker gives it to us in the form of left-wing documentarian Michael Malone, who’s just released his third anti-American film, “Die You American Pigs.” Three bumbling terrorists, looking to strengthen their recruitment campaign, travel to America to hire Malone, who is a critical darling but financially unsuccessful, to shoot propaganda films for them. Meanwhile, he’s trying to organize a ban on July 4th, for no real reason other than it represents America and he thinks it’s bad (because he hates America, you see).

Before long, Malone is visited by the spirits of JFK and George S. Patton, who take him through both America’s and his own history to show him the error of his ways. As Patton guides Malone through time and space, they fade in and out of corporeal states and reality about as often as they need to for Malone to be slapped in a hi-larious fashion. Zucker uses the time jumps to make up his own history; he compares Malone to Leni Riefenstahl, whose many innovations in the field of documentaries are somewhat lessened by the fact that she used them for Nazi propaganda. The ACLU, who have had to defend some pretty foul conservatives in addition to liberals, are portrayed as zombies shuffling about protecting terrorists. Liberals like Malone abuse freedom of speech, which is impossible since it’s not a freedom if you can’t criticize.

Bill O’Reilly has a cameo where he interviews Malone and Rosie O’Connell (no points for figuring out who that one's supposed to be), who has a documentary of her own where she blames fundamentalist Christians for terrorist acts instead of Muslims. Because Christians are good and American, I suppose. I guess Zucker forgot about Eric Robert Rudolph and the Ku Klux Klan. It also ignores about 1000 years of Christian atrocities, but then this film can’t get events from 8 years ago right. O’Reilly notes that people only believe Malone’s messages because it’s what they want to hear. People in glass houses, Bill…

Zucker really gets offensive (which is saying something, given the ridiculous amount of racism in the film), when he goes after college. In a lame, stiff musical number, college professors go on about indoctrinating you children by filling their heads with that there learnin’ and giving extra credit if you’re “black, female, or gay.” That offends on a personal level, but Zucker wins the Classless Pig of the Year award when the spirit of George Washington (played inexplicably by Jon Voight) shows Malone Ground Zero and suggests that 9/11 is Malone’s and, by extension, liberals’ fault. Mr. Zucker, there’s little I can say to you that will make it to print, so I’ll just say that if there is a Hell, I’ll see you there.

Liberals are of course likened to Prime Minister Chamberlain, who infamously appeased Hitler by giving him the Sudetenland, equating diplomacy with appeasement. I’ve got a little tip for you Dave, from an indoctrinated college boy who’s read his share of Voltaire and Vonnegut: it isn’t a satirical caricature against liberals if that’s the stated position of your party’s leader. Satire must criticize everyone, or it is just propaganda, and Zucker can’t even make a good parody anymore. I never thought I’d see a film worse than “Fireproof,” and certainly not the very next week.

The ultimate irony of this film - and the only humor it offers - is that, in the end, the gun-toting, blindly patriotic, willfully ig’nant hick portrayal of the conservatives is far more insulting than the desperate attempts to cast liberals as evil terrorist/commie/enemy du jour sympathizers. The only way it could have been any more condescending to the people it praises is if they threw in some of Sarah Palin’s “doggone its” and “doncha knows.” Apparently the plot was so complex it must be occasionally explained to the audience, yet the occasional narrative exposition comes from children. That pretty much sums it up, really.


There’s a lot of promise that comes with “Blindness,” the new film based on the richly metaphorical, Nobel Prize-winning book by José Saramago. Not only is it based on a great novel, it’s got a killer cast and it’s directed by Fernando Meirelles, director of “City of God,” a film that comes abut close as one possibly can to being an amalgamation of Martin Scorsese’s best work without being plagiaristic. Unfortunately, some books are better left alone.

The story takes place in three parts: the first is the outbreak of the blindness plague and the initial quarantining, the seconds covers the breakdown of the containment camp, and the third follows a band of survivors who escape the camp. Leading them are an optometrist (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife (Julianne Moore); the latter seemingly the only one unaffected by the epidemic. They set up their containment ward to be a solid, peaceful fraternity. You’ve got everyone: a kid, a kindly ex-prostitute, a thief, and Asian couple, and a wise old man who not so wisely continues to wear an eye patch.

As the soldiers guarding the quarantine zone become more and more afraid of infection, they care less and less about the inhabitants, leaving them to ration their own food and chores, even take care of disposal of bodies. Enter the leader of another ward, the self-proclaimed “King of Ward 3,” who first forces other wards to pay for food (as if money or jewelry has any value anymore), then demands women after the tribute runs out. He has miraculously gotten his hands on a gun, though where or how remains as much a mystery as the pathology of the blindness. This eventually sparks a war, which of course the good guys win because they have a leader who can see the others frantically waving pipes and rods, hoping to collide with someone.

Little is done right in this film. The characters are all absurdly one note: the good guys in Ward 1 all stay good, and submit to the demands of the “King” in order to feed each other. Meanwhile, everyone in Ward 3 is entirely evil; they savage the women sent to them in glee, and not one for a moment pauses to consider the abject horror of their choices. Moore does all she can with the role, but no one has a background or any two-dimensionality, so there’s nothing to work with. The book can afford to be almost entirely metaphorical because, well, it’s a book. Books can do as they damn well please; that’s what makes them superior. A film, on the other hand, has to have something driving it, otherwise it just meanders.

The biggest surprise is the directorial ineptitude on display. Meirelles established himself as one of the most gifted new directors with “City of God,” and, from what I hear, he did a bang-up job with “The Constant Gardener” as well. But here he tires to recapture the alternately gritty and glamorous style of his masterpiece. Much of the film is dark, taking place in the shadow of shadows, making it impossible to piece together a scene. He shows us horrors, but these horrors do not help us understand the story better; they just disgust. Too often the screen changes into a bright, milky white, not only to visualize the “white blindness” but seemingly because Meirelles feels like it. This effect drifts in and out of thematic relevance to the point that it undermines the times it's used correctly.

Recently groups of blind people protested that the film (and the book, I assume) painted a negative portrait of the blind. I won’t say that they fail to see the point because that would be crass, but there is a definite misunderstanding; blindness is used only as a macguffin to bring out panic and base instincts in these people. To be fair, though, the allegory was a little thin as a book, and the lack of subtlety on display here could offend just about anyone. If you want to see a good film about a mysterious, unexplained disease that brings about a terrifying image of what man can regress to, watch “Children of Men.” Or stick to the novel.

Flash of Genius

This film could not possibly have come out at a better time. It hits theaters right after Congress finally approved a bailout that will take over 700 billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to help out firms who fell on hard times by mismanaging … taxpayers’ money. After corporations made out like the economy was about to collapse just to panic the average person into supporting them. After the last few weeks of enraging displays, what better way to unwind than with a film about a little man who took on a big company and won?

Chronicling the lengthy bout between the Ford Motor Company and Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, “Flash of Genius” takes the invention of a device we don’t give a second thought to and makes it a struggle of wits. Kearns, played by Greg Kinnear in top form, starts the film as a dedicated family man and professor who invents a superior wiper to the outdated model still attached to every car in the country. He applies for patents and takes his invention to Ford, who promise him everything: nobody will touch his invention until they make a deal, he’ll get manufacturing rights, everything. Then they manipulate him into providing a test model and lock him out before inking a contract. Kearns, a stubborn man, spends the next 20 years trying to get even.

Inevitably, the dogged pursuit of fairness and recompense tears his personal life apart. However, “Flash of Genius” spares us the usual melodrama, with both Kinnear and Lauren Graham slowly letting it all build up until they quit in exasperation, not anger. There are no shouting matches, no teary “you’re tearing this family apart” nonsense; Kearns simply slips away from his family as he becomes more and more obsessed. The only real moment of a dramatic flare-up comes shortly after Kearns sees his stolen invention on new Fords and suffers a nervous breakdown in which he travels to Washington D.C. at the behest (or so he thinks) of the Vice President; the rest of the time he is a man possessed, focused only on his lawsuit, but in a distracted, neglecting way. This is the film’s greatest strength and weakness, because it allows Kinnear to put in a marvelously subdued performance, but also locks the movie into a simpler note.

Wisely, the film does not deviate from Kearns’ perspective. There are no meetings behind closed doors where executives snigger and wring their hands and gleefully plot the exploitation of this naïve genius. At what point they steal his work and figure out how to close a loophole is uncertain, and we only see Kearns’ despair. Along the way he makes some friends who agree to help him but back out when they cannot convince him to settle with Ford. The best of these is an initially charming and seemingly noble attorney played by Alan Alda, who’s gotten a second life in his career playing sleazy lawyers and politicians.

“Flash of Genius” isn’t really a great film; there’s too little happening to leave a mark. However, it’s well-paced, and it is perfectly suited to the current zeitgeist. I imagine at least a handful of man vs. corporation scripts got greenlit recently, and this, for the time being, will be their flagship. Greg Kinnear puts in the kind of underdog performance the Academy loves. Don’t expect an Oscar nomination for him, but don’t be surprised if he gets one, either. “Flash of Genius” won’t get your blood pumping, but it might just make watching CNBC a little more bearable for a few days.


Alfred Hitchcock is the most important, innovative director of all time and only select geniuses like Billy Wilder can make films as lastingly fresh as his. I got a chance to see one of his great masterpieces (he has at least 4 or 5) on the silver screen, and I jumped at the chance. After watching Psycho like one is supposed to view a film, I have an all-new appreciation for arguably his most well known work.

Coming off the heels of the epic spy thriller North by Northwest, Hitchcock gave his film crew a break and brought aboard the people who shot his TV show, secured a minor budget, and set about making a taut piece of shock horror to balance out his usual thrillers. Based in part on the story of the infamous killer Ed Gein, Psycho must have messed with the heads of audiences back when it premiered. It's overt sexual overtones, both between Marion and Sam and Norman's obsession with Marion, challenged even Hitchcock's envelope-pushing antics, while the legendary shower scene is more graphic than anything else you'll see from that time period.

Psycho takes Hitchcock's trademark style of audience manipulation and pushes it to the limit, weaving so many twists and turns that you could never anticipate where the story is leading- indeed, even after multiple viewings it loses none of its wonder- yet it is never loses track of its own logic, never folds in on itself to the point of confusion. It starts off as a simple theft. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a secretary at a real estate agency, receives $40,000 to put in a safety deposit box from an ostentatious client. Seeing a way to get her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) out of debt and free from crippling alimony payments, Marion promptly takes the money and runs, stopping only when rain prevents her from driving. She pulls into a rundown motel run by a kindly but nervous man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and checks in under a fake name.

Norman makes sandwiches for Marion, and as they converse over dinner it becomes increasingly obvious that we are no longer watching a film about theft or money. Marion, having heard Norman's row with his mother, gently suggests putting her in a home or a mental hospital so he could sell this profitless motel and move away. He at first angrily refuses this suggestion, retreating into the darkness of his mind as his own face sinks into shadows. Then he softens, and is even touched by Marion's kindness, which in turn cause Marion to rethink her actions and return the money. Then Hitchcock brings it back to darkness when Marion forgets her alias and uses her real name and mentions she's going "back to Phoenix"after saying she was from Los Angeles. Bates catches the slip, but the brief flash across his face of realization and his double-checking of the register after she leaves seals her fate. He found a woman who defied his mother's position that all women are evil, and she turned out to be a liar like "all the rest."

In what may be the ultimate film surprise, more than any film-ending twist or macguffin, is that Hitchcock murders his starlet and turns Norman into the protagonist. Consider when he must dispose of Marion's body by pushing her car (with her body in it) into a nearby tar pit. After it sinks halfway, the car suddenly stops, suspended in plain sight. The audience tenses with Norman, until whatever bubble of air was keeping the car afloat bursts and finally sinks, and we feel a certain relief with Norman. When a private detective looking for Marion and, later, Sam and Marion's sister arrive to try to sort out what happened, the tension comes not from these people trying to figure it out while under the watch of Norman and his mother, but from Norman trying to keep it all from unraveling. When the finale comes and the truth of Norman's mother is revealed, he is almost pitiable.

If the movie has a weak spot, it is in the psychiatrist's overlong speechat the end where he explains Norman's insanity. It starts off chilling and shocking, then keeps going until it's repetitive, anti-climactic, and almost unintentionally funny. Hitchcoc pulls it out of a tailspin when he cuts to Norman's closeup and the inner monologue of his "mother half," but think how much more effective it would have been if Hitch had cut to him right after "Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half-existed to begin with."

The most exciting thing about the film is how inept everyone is. Consider how jumpy Marion is when a cop finds her sleeping in her car. How skittish Norman is when people come snooping around looking for her. How Sam lacks any subtlety at all when he tries to sneak some information out of Bates. No one picks up a gun and magically knows how to use it, and Norman does not suddenly become a master criminal after disposing of Marion. Hitchcock's previous film, North By Northwest, created suspense by pitting a normal man against professionals, but here the borderline incompetence of nearly everyone on screen lets the audience identify with these characters, making the twists all the more shocking.

Hitchcock was never an actor's director; hell, he often didn't even place much value in the scripts. But Anthony Perkins is the great exception; sure, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, James Stewart, and the like were excellent, but none of them put in a performance that is remembered for the sheer acting of it. Everyone knows Rear Window and Vertigo, but not everyone would know the lead character's names. Mention the name Norman Bates, and everyone in the room is going to know exactly what you're talking about. Perkins' performance is quite possibly the most identifiable aspect of Hitchcock's entire canon; Psycho is at least his third best film, but 9 out of ten times you say his name people will start hacking the air with a fist and making screeching violin noises. And while we're on the subject of the soundtrack, Bernard Hermann's score must surely rank as one of the all-time greats, and it's the first score that is inseparable from the film, synonymous with its very name. Such an event wouldn't happen again until Ennio Morricone's immortal score for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (and, later, Jaws).

Psycho is the first of the slasher flicks, and it is still the best. It flies in the face of the current torture-porn mentality, which seems to believe that the more blood thrown against the screen the scarier the film. But consider how tense Hitchcock makes it with merely a splash of blood, in black and white no less. By the film's end it's such a white-knuckler that the momentum-killing denouement is almost forgivable because it flattens the heart rate. Most directors would kill to make a film this good, and it's not even his best.