Here's those movie reviews I been savin' up.
[Those watched while trapped in an airborne pressurized passenger-tube, mostly Air Canada, will hereinafter be designated as “SOAP” -- Snakes on a Plane.]
Borat ** Talledega Nights ** The Lake House ** The Last Kiss ** Apocalypto ** The Break-Up ** Devil Wears Prada ** Click ** Casino Royale ** The Queen ** The Illusionist ** The Da Vinci Code
Here we go:
Oh, the tragedy of Jew-on-Jew violence!
Well, not really. But a number of prominent Jewish conservative pundits did not appreciate Sacha Baron Cohen’s bizarre pseudo-documentary BORAT, and they came out slugging— most notably, Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post. I love Charlie on just about every subject, and he does hit some homers on this one. Money quotes:
With anti-Semitism reemerging in Europe and rampant in the Islamic world; with Iran acquiring the ultimate weapon of genocide and proclaiming its intention to wipe out the world's largest Jewish community (Israel); with America and, in particular, its Christian evangelicals the only remaining Gentile constituency anywhere willing to defend that besieged Jewish outpost -- is the American heartland really the locus of anti-Semitism? Is this the one place to go to find it?...Krauthammer was joined by the chorus of David Brooks (New York Times), and David Frum and Jonah Goldberg (National Review)
Baron Cohen could easily have found what he seeks closer to home. He is, after all, from Europe, where synagogues are torched and cemeteries desecrated in a revival of anti-Semitism -- not "indifference" to but active -- unseen since the Holocaust. Where a Jew is singled out for torture and death by French-African thugs…
Yet, amid this gathering darkness, an alarming number of liberal Jews are seized with the notion that the real threat lurks deep in the hearts of American Protestants, most specifically Southern evangelicals.
Brooks nailed some truths straight on the head in his editorial on the "Heyday of Snobbery":
The genius of Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance is his sycophantic reverence for his audience, his refusal to challenge the sacred cows of the educated bourgeoisie. During the movie, Borat ridicules Pentecostals, gun owners, car dealers, hicks, humorless feminists, the Southern gentry, Southern frat boys, and rodeo cowboys. A safer list it is impossible to imagine.David Frum quotes, in amazement (considering the source) George Saunders of The New Yorker
Cohen understands that when you are telling socially insecure audiences they are superior to their fellow citizens there is no need to be subtle. He also understands that any hint of actually questioning the cultural suppositions of his ticket-buyers — say by ridiculing the pretensions of somebody at a Starbucks or a Whole Foods Market — would fatally mar the self-congratulatory aura of the enterprise.
Jonah Goldberg chimed in, acknowledging that he found the film funny despite its fallacious flaws and fundamental meanness.
Other (non-Jewish) commentators weighed in with their doubts and denigrations, folks as diverse as Christopher Hitchens at Slate (biff! pow!) and Father Richard John Neuhaus at First Things
Frankly I think Brooks, Krauthammer, and Saunders score touchés on just about everything, but I still couldn’t hold their points against the film because I was laughing too hard. (This constitutes a public confession of my appetite for low-grade, poop-based comedy of cruelty.)
The critics are absolutely right that there is nothing daring about Borat—Baron Cohen picks easy targets, who eventually get around to fulfilling some particle of people’s worst expectations of them, based on the political left’s acceptable prejudice against conservative/Bible-belt Americans, and their confident belief that if you scratch anyone in that demographic you’ll find a racist, theocratic homophobe lingering just beneath the surface.
However, it’s worth remembering that Sacha Baron Cohen didn’t force anyone to go on camera and play a few rounds of one of America’s new favourite sports: rank exhibitionism. He didn’t force them to say or do anything that turned out to look embarrassing. He lied to them about what he was up to, but he did nothing to make them be other than who they are. Complaints that Borat’s journey selected the south rather than the north, conservatives rather than liberals, fundamentalists & Pentecostals rather than boring old Catholics, boorish college hose-heads rather than National Merit Scholars, are all accurate-- but irrelevant. Baron Cohen can make whatever movie he wants—he doesn’t have to be “fair” or make the movie we wish he’d made.
If some conservative wants to go out and “BORAT” Planned Parenthood, the Moveon.org/Daily Kos/Democratic Underground circle, or the inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard, he or she is free to do so. That would be daring, and it would be hilarious and satisfying.
And I’m guessing that the basic myopia and humorlessness of smug liberals would guarantee that (a) they could still be unwittingly BORAT-ed by somebody clever, who came across as breathtakingly earnest, and (b) they wouldn’t display a fraction of the forbearance and acceptance toward the interloper that Borat’s conservative hosts did towards him. Rather, I suspect things would go sour very quickly when a conservative Borat began to challenge the comfort levels of his liberal victims, and it would all end with a lot of screaming and threats and lawyers.
My [Canadian] husband’s first response to seeing Borat was to say that Mr. Baron Cohen just proved that Americans are some of the friendliest, most hospitable people on earth. Borat offers his hosts a steady stream of embarrassment and discomfort, ranging from mere social awkwardness to blatant personal insults (like the poor “church lady” at dinner whom he humiliates by saying she’s not attractive), and yet they keep making allowances and trying to smoothe things over. Mostly Borat is permitted a gracious exit whether he deserves it or not, and only once does he drive people past their limit of tolerance. (This remains true in the deleted scenes available on YouTube.) In his sole venture into liberal territory, it’s the feminists who turn on him faster than anyone, and give us a glimpse of how that other movie would look if someone were to make it.
Part of me wishes that Baron Cohen had made two or three of these films before releasing any of them, so he could try his luck with different premises and different types of people—thereby extracting more laughs for his audience before exhausting the device. Unfortunately Borat has slobber-kissed his last unsuspecting victim, having proved, via various promotional appearances for the film, that the device is already past its shelf-life. The element of surprise was everything.
Anyhow, Borat is vulgar, mean-spirited, one-sided, probably socially corrupting, and pants-wettingly funny. One Jewish conservative who agrees is long-time film critic Michael Medved, who expended just one of his “movie minutes” on the film, calling it “simultaneously hilarious and cringe-inducing,” but gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars. His message to the nay-sayers, in a nutshell: “Take a chill-pill.” And kick back and laugh.
I tried watching a Will Ferrell movie once—Anchorman had the enthusiastic endorsement of my eldest son, so I really tried. But in less than half an hour I bailed out from sheer boredom. However, I had a feeling Talledega Nights was going to sit better with me, and indeed it did.
Stupid, vulgar, totally bananas, but lots of laughs, and a hilarious turn by our friend Sacha Baron Cohen as the Fwench guy. Upon seeing it, one couldn’t help but wonder what had possessed people to remake a Peter Sellers/Pink Panther movie with Steve Martin instead of this guy—Baron Cohen would have been a classic Clouseau. Ferrell’s adventure in grace-before-dinner has to be one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen. One of the truly great wastes of time Hollywood ever produced.
THE LAKE HOUSE (SOAP)
Love Sandra Bullock—can’t help it. Or, more to the point, I like her—even when she plays unlikable people (28 Days) you end up liking her. The premise of The Lake House is pretty tortured, the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect Hollywood to proffer any time after about 1960, but I was willing to go along with it.
Unfortunately, I’m very seldom willing to go along with Keanu Reeves. He made a good cardboard villain in Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, and a cardboard hero in the Matrices, but cardboard only gets you so far. He was ridiculous, the moreso being opposite Bullock, in the Speeds, but at least you had a flying bus to enjoy. Here at the Lake there’s just him—bleah. Bullock is touching, and likable, but the film is pretty thin. While it’s refreshing to see anything out of Hollywood which recommends the virtue of waiting patiently without hot sex, possibly for years, there’s still not much to it. Glad I didn’t pay 13 bucks for a ticket.
THE LAST KISS (SOAP)
Zach Braff is my male Sandra Bullock—I can’t begin to explain it, but I just find both of them completely likable. Braff’s first film (a sort-of autobiographical piece which he wrote and directed—whoa! Gonads!) was Garden State, not a bad virgin venture, but a bit too lead-footed on the melodrama-pedal, with some scenery-chewing acting by the young auteur.
The Last Kiss was a step up, better-written (though the ending was a little abrupt and weird—Braff claims to have written it—it’s not to brag of, buddy), with good chemistry between Zach and the chick (Jacinda Barrett), and good character actors in other roles. Except that O.C. chick (Rachel Bilson) as the tempting tart — e-e-e-ew. Braff’s Michael completely deserves to have Barrett’s Jenna go all medieval on him (Peter Abelard-style)—and you’re even more p.o.’d at him for cheating on her with such a vacuous little sleaze like Kim/Summer/Rachel. Blech.
Once the news broke of the “Depends” angle on the Lisa Nowak story—the lady Astro-nutter who made a hell-bent homicidal cross-country dash wearing diapers to, er, eliminate the need for potty stops— I couldn’t help but recall my thoughts in a similar vein as Zach Braff camped out on his porch for three days awaiting reconciliation with the Last Kiss girl-friend: was I the only one wondering why we were being asked to accept the half-century-old film convention in which people never pee for days on end? No detectable diapers on Braff—did he desert his post to head for the garden? Did the gay couple next door give him squatter’s rights? (But leave him to freeze in the rain?) Just curious. Made the ending even weirder.
Still, I like watching the Braff-man doing just about anything. So far. He could always make a Cronenberg film and screw that up real fast.
We got clipped (oh!) by APOCALYPTO
Maybe, for some weird reason, critics were trying to make peace with Mel Giblets when the meme began to spread that, whatever one may think of his personal quirks (including his drunken tirades), in Apocalypto he had made a really great film—one of the bloodiest ever made but nevertheless exciting to watch and brilliantly crafted.
As an artwork, Gibson has surpassed himself with the art direction and editing of Apocalypto, but plot-wise it all goes flat. The build-up to the catastrophe can get simply tedious. The expository effort to establish the painted and pierced jungle community as “just folks” has a certain silliness to it—not that it’s entirely unbelievable, but it's overly earnest and tries too hard. (And takes too long.) Then the hero’s great escape never really departs from a monotone—there is one crisis with one principal threat to it, and it unrolls in a straight line. The concomitant threat to Jaguar Paw’s wife is also tinged with silliness.
In between those sequences, however, lies a portrait of the Mayan court, informed by both imagination and the grab-bag of archaeological fact and theory that constitutes our knowledge of this vanished society. You’d have to bring a bit of knowledge of the background to your viewing of the film in order to understand some of what you’re seeing— for example, the slaves in the lime pits making mortar for their Mayan lords’ out-of-control building program. And if you’ve read anything about Mayan sacrificial rituals you’ll know that, while the film’s rendition of them is pretty disgusting, it could justifiably have been a whole lot worse.
Gross-out qualities aside, Gibson’s portrait of the colour and lavish costume details of the court and priesthood, and of the architectural configurations, which so perfectly realizes all the images that have come down to us from Mayan carving and paintings, is nothing short of breathtaking. The faces of most of the cast, especially in profile, make it clear that even if something called the Mayan civilization has disappeared [historical note: that happened long before the first Spanish foot hit the beach, Mel—spare me!], the Mayan people themselves have endured to this day.
This feat of historical re-creation we enjoyed no end. But our larger assessment of the film in general was: it's a DUD. D.O.A. The plot was skinny, the complications not so complicated, the whole bag just not all that exciting. It was very environmentally friendly, though: Gibson was recycling his favourite visual and character motifs all the way along.
Actually, I suspect it was the film’s portrayal of a devastated environment in a society of bloodthirsty religious fanatics that got the tinsel-town commentators on side with Mel.
Gibson’s own attempt to draw parallels to “fear-mongering” by the Bush administration is comically off-the-beam. It’s not “fear-mongering” when, like Jaguar Paw’s forest friends, you’ve got something to be genuinely afraid of— for instance, people who’ll cut your head off to appease their god. We live in a world where a substantial population of armed aggressors is still doing exactly that.
Faced as we are with a literally identical threat, to try and draw some strained symbolic parallel between Mayan savagery and American military adventurism or political dominance, is just…well…stupid. The only valid parallel here might be between American soldiers in a foreign land surrounded by practitioners of tribal violence and the hapless captives lined up atop the pyramid. Except our soldiers' hands are tied not by their enemies so much as by their own government.
Back to the movies: Gibson’s little hat-tip to Apocalypse Now when Jaguar Paw steps out of the mud-hole was amusing. And as for the gore—while I’m not an afficianado of blood & guts films, I could think of several mainstream films with far queasier images: Saving Private Ryan, Last of the Mohicans, Glory, and Catch-22 come to mind. Even Braveheart pulled its punches compared to these four, most especially in the scene of Wallace’s execution, which was a totally pansy version of that particularly English blood-sport. Gibson, for all his reputation as a gore-monger, really only pulled the stops out in Passion of the Christ (and he had more than a millennium of equally graphic story-telling and art history as precedent for that).
Sorry. Apocalypto is a bit of a snooze.
THE BREAK-UP (SOAP)
Trapped on a plane with limited time, the only thing that kept me watching this film was morbid curiosity. In pointless fascination, I just had to know whether at any time during this film would I meet a single character who wasn’t completely dislikeable, if not downright repulsive, and whether it would ever succeed in presenting me a single reason why I should care what happened to any of them. Didn’t happen.
I suspect that many in the audience for this film recognized people they knew— people who are unremittingly selfish, shallow, and basically bestial. How grateful I am that I can’t think of a single close friend or passing acquaintance whose life parallels these wretched wastes-of-space in any material way. They are the stuff of legend to me, and let’s keep it that way.
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (SOAP)
My sister has three grown daughters, and they are sometimes the only conduit I have for recommendations regarding “chick-flicks.” They all loved this one. There’s some great acting in it—Meryl Streep is at her best, which frankly doesn’t happen all that much, and Stanley Tucci does a great turn.
But, sorry, guess I’m just an old crank who spends too much time worrying about car-bombs— once again, this is one of those films where I just don’t care what happens to anybody. They are absorbed and obsessed with a world outside of reality, the business of which is of no importance whatsoever. If they suffer, it’s for nothing worth suffering about (except maybe losing one’s family, which Streep’s character does with precious little thought—depressing, but robbed of tragedy because it is impossible to sympathize with her).
Every so often I spend a few minutes watching the televised coverage of fashion shows --(part of the “news” content on a lot of Air Canada flights, now I think of it, which are screened in front of you whether you want to see them or not)-- debuting some whacked-out (and miserably-dressed) designer’s new “collection” sported by a procession of sour-faced anorexics. At these times I am reminded (as if I need to be) how detestably trivial the whole business is. Would just as soon not have watched the film—another case of morbid fascination waiting to see if I could be made to care. Didn’t happen.
God bless Adam Sandler. He’s perfectly capable of good acting, and it surfaces from time to time, as he keeps offering up his quirky takes on genuine “family values.” Click involves some over-the-top scenery chewing, but I thought it was a charming story and I’m glad he keeps doing them. One could wish for a little less of the vulgarity and profanity which puts the film out of reach of the General rating, but he is who he is.
This one wasn’t as good as Spanglish, in which Sandler had top-notch material to work with—excellent performances in painfully believable roles in a serious and morally grounded script—and kept his own loopiness completely under control. Click is more in the mold of Happy Gilmore, another wonderful, screwy little gift in which the sense of right and wrong is clear and simple and self-evident. Very few of the Saturday Night Live alumni have successfully graduated to a steady film career. Sandler will never win an Oscar (hardly a measure of quality) but has created a niche for his sketch-comedy talents in a kind of Disney-with-F-words genre that is nevertheless something of a public service. And fun to boot.
WHO KILLED JAMES BOND?
Fun film, exciting visuals—but some angst-ridden 90’s guy was impersonating Bond. The mask slips when he doesn’t care how they make his martini.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME???
Female object of passion was a skinny wet noodle with all the attraction power of a plastic fridge magnet.
Bond ran like a well-trained 100-metre sprinter (bed-scene revealed he has mammoth calves). Desperately needed a tailor. Judi Dench could have eaten him for lunch any day of the week. Ball-busting torture scene was sad—less graphic than I had expected (must’ve been a male reviewer who shrieked about it)— but the day Bond cries under duress, we’ve lost our image of him. This is old-fashioned fantasy, remember? Can we be allowed to hang on to it a little longer, please? It can’t work if we start letting the world we live in intrude too far—when the filmmakers resort to that, they’ve admitted the limits to their imagination.
THE QUEEN (SOAP)
We watched the version which had been “formatted” for the airlines, that is, some idiot at headquarters had bleeped out the word “God” every single time it occurred. The excuse was that this was a newbie who thought he/she was just excising profanities. I’m skeptical—I bet it was an attempt to keep the airways a religion-free zone. However, it was ludicrous. Actual film footage from Princess Diana’s funeral saw her seething brother, Earl Spencer, encouraging the crowd to “thank [bleep] for His mercies.”
Interesting film. Everybody’s speech habits and facial expressions were excellent impersonations, and the Queen (Helen Mirren), Prince Philip (James Cromwell), and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) managed to create characters as well as imitations. Some of this “behind the curtains” speculation was quite believable, some not so much. Entertaining yarn, though.
Doesn’t change my basic opinion that because the British monarchy has long since [i.e. prior to the current Queen’s accession] evolved into an institution of HEREDITARY reign without rule, any British monarch’s principal function is to produce decent and responsible HEIRS to the throne— people of character and dedication to family and public service, REAL service, not lip service. In this the present Queen has failed miserably, with her self-indulgent, squishy, profligate, unproductive, maritally-challenged, low-church low-brow brood.
There was much about Diana to be disapproved of, but considering she got thrown to the lions at the age of nineteen by everyone including her own family, it is not surprising that she developed a set of survival strategies that were less than admirable. However, she may have made one contribution to the survival and perhaps improvement of the British monarchy that few other members of it have ever come close to: she loved her children, and let them know it— she made them mix with regular people from their toddlerhood , she let them do ordinary things, she made them wait in line to be served. So far both of them, especially Charles’s son (can there be any doubt that Harry is someone else’s? Please.), have nascent signs of some sense of how to serve in return. Jury’s still out on the two. Too bad Diana didn’t love them quite enough to wear a seat-belt. She could be raising hell to this day.
Bottom line on the film's subject: could there be anything more horrible than having your mere life be your whole career, living in a mandated fish-bowl, and then having fiction-writers create a public pageant of speculation about what came to pass in your presumed sanctuaries of privacy, all while you are still living and carrying out your life/career? Nightmare. It's a wonder any of them are remotely sane.
THE ILLUSIONIST (SOAP)
Fun. I’d pay 13 bucks for it.
THE DA VINCI CODE (SOAP)
Oh, God, I’m too tired to tackle this one today. Maybe some other time. Bottom line: it was the movie that the book deserved. Sucked. Tee-hee.
Spot the fake(s) in this picture.