Sunday, July 31, 2011

Beats, Rhymes & Life:The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (Sunday, July 31, 2011) (62)

Actor Michael Rapaport directs Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, a documentary about the history of the hip hop group and their current struggles to stay together. It's a documentary with a similar feeling to Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, that is not only about the biographical look at the band, but also an evaluation of a beef between two leaders that they're having a hard time settling.

Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, the two MCs of the group were childhood best friends, but always had a different view of their craft. For Tip it was always a serious job that demanded the most accurate attention. His passion has always laid in finding amazing music to sample on each track and knowing exactly how the layers of sounds would would perfectly together. For Phife (aka, the Funky Diabetic), he was always more interested in amazing rhymes and the more poetic aspects of the art. This always worked well for them, as they made six albums in about 12 years, including The Low End Theory, one of the best rap/hip hop albums of all time.

By the late 1990s, however, they were fighting more and more and seemed less interested in keeping the group together. They had already lost one of the original members, Jarobi, who seemed to be less into the touring thing than the others, and their DJ, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, seemed to not be interested in fighting the two titans he worked with. The band melted away, but they remained friendly. Sort of.

Phife was always upset that Tip became known as the "leader" of the band and didn't like how he would run things; Tip didn't like that Phife was never as serious about the work as he felt it necessary to be. When they got together for a reunion in 2008 at the Rock the Bells show (to help Phife pay for medical issues relating to his juvenile diabetes), they ended up fighting constantly and not speaking to one another by the end.

Rapaport talks to most of the important rappers whose styles either were influenced by Tribe or developed at the same time. Interviews include members of De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, Prince Paul, Common, Questlove, Black Thought and Pharrell Williams, to say nothing of appearances by Mary J. Blige, Busta Rhymes and Mos Def. They all talk about how important Tribe's music was to them. Common has what is probably the most important comment that they all had access to the old vinyl that Tribe found their beats and samples from, but Tribe were the first guys to actually listen to those albums and use them.

Rapaport, as passionate as he clearly is about Tribe, is not a great documentarian and the film loses some power with a very sloppy style and inconsistent pace. There are some frustrating transitions and at least two albums (of the six they released) are barely discussed at all.

This is a good documentary from the point of view of telling a story of a band and getting a generally good understanding about their history. Unfortunately the issue of Phife and Tip not liking one another is not really dug into very deeply. Rapaport presents the fight they're having in it's basic terms, but doesn't really get deep into why they are fighting (unlike how Berlinger and Sinofsky handled a similar event in Some Kind of Monster). This is not a very deep movie, but it does have great music... which Rapaport can't take credit for, of course.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Another Earth (Sunday, July 31, 2011) (61)

As Another Earth opens, the young Rhoda (co-writer Brit Marling) is partying in her Connecticut town before she goes off to college at M.I.T. She drives home and hears on the radio that a new planet has entered the solar system and is now visible with the naked eye. Transfixed by this tiny blue dot in the night sky, she does not pay attention to where she's driving and crashes head-on into another car with young family inside.

When Rhoda gets out of jail (a four-year stint for manslaughter), she seems to be a changed person. Sober now in every sense, she realizes that she was reckless as she tries to re-start her life in a much more modest way. During the the four years that have passed, that blue dot in the sky has come closer and closer to Earth and scientists have studied it and have come to understand it as an Earth clone, Earth II, which seems to have the exact the same land masses, cities and people that we have on our planet. That is to say there is a likelihood that each person has a double on Earth II.

What is wonderful about Another Earth is that while this very challenging string-theory-multiple-Earths story line is going on, what we experience from scene to scene is really just a very down-to-earth tale of Rhoda coming to terms with killing two people and trying to make right with the man who survived the accident, John (William Mapother). In order to do this, she becomes his house cleaner, trying desperately to help him through his depression and trying to find the right moment to reveal her identity to him. It is clear that such an existential change as Earth II affects everyone in dramatic ways, but this is much more of a melancholy drama than it is a sci-fi movie (the way Moon, District 9 or 2001: A Space Odyssey are really just dramas set in a sci-fi genre).

I really like the moody, gray-green look to the film. That it takes place in winter, gives everything a cold and wet look, which is very important to creating an interesting atmosphere. We're constantly reminded of how mediocre life is for most and the outside world works as a nice objective correlative for the internal struggles of both Rhoda and John.

As the film moves along, there's a lovely idea that Earth II represents a mulligan, a do-over, for people on Earth (I). Clearly Rhoda and John are in need of such a do-over, though as much in an existential sense as a literal one. This is a lovely device, if a bit heavy-handed. (In fact it's perhaps that it's so unapologetically heavy-handed that it works so well. Co-writer/director Mike Cahill and Marling never flinch from the inherent silliness of the story and never stop to answer questions, like "won't this new Earth crash into our Earth?" Nobody ever blinks about this construction and it works because it's so earnest.)

Marling is really amazing in this movie, particularly for a new actress I've never seen in any major role before. OK, first, she's objectively beautiful, sorta a grown-up looking Jennifer Lawrence or blond Jessica Chastain. But she brings with that a self-effacing honesty and an elemental naturalness that's refreshing and particularly rare for actors of her age. She feels like a mumblecore star with a legitimate script and real makeup. Rhoda is ashamed of what she did and feels obliged to suffer now that she's out of jail and "free," but also is a bit of a mouthy 22-year-0ld whose first-instinct sometimes is to talk back.

Sadly the third act of this film is a complete mess, filled with sentimental, romantic garbage that feels contrary to the real dark story of angst and self-torture (although I'm sure it puts butts in seats, as they say). This sequence is much more typical of what you would expect from a Hollywood production than an independent one (though it's hard to begrudge the filmmakers for wanting to be able to sell their movie, I guess). I should say my favorite directing moment happens here, when an aleatory pants pulling gives a glimpse of unplanned reality. Sometimes the best moments in movies are unscripted.

This film really is good, even if the last 20 minutes are annoying. I like the way it's a movie about the effects of science, but not really about the science itself. I think as an atmosphere piece it is very effective and indelible. I look forward to seeing more of Brit Marling and more from Mike Cahill. Clearly they're talented and know how to do the things they do.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Devil's Double (Saturday, July 30, 2011) (60)

The Devil's Double, directed by Lee Tamahori, tells the story of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi man who became Uday Hussein's body double in the years just before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The story does not get into the interesting stuff you would want it to get into like doppelgangers, doubles and loss of identity. It is basically an action movie with lots of tits and ass and no interesting narrative.

It seems that Latif knew Uday from some level of school, though it's not clear exactly when (maybe elementary school). At any rate the moment he returns from the battlefield of the Iran-Iraq war around 1989, he is called to meet with Uday, Saddam's oldest son. Latif and Uday look alike because they're both played by Dominic Cooper (just like Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap!). Latif is reluctant to become the double because he's not a Ba'athist and worries for his safety. He ends up taking the job and getting some plastic surgery to make him look more like his boss.

As he does stand-in appearances fro Uday, he meets all sorts of business and political contacts as well as hundreds of bikini-clad hot women. It seems that Uday's main squeeze is a prostitute named Sarrab, played by the magnificent Ludivine Sagnier (OK - she might not really be a prostitute as she really only works for Uday, but he does give her a lot of money for sex and there is a suggestion that she was a prostitute at some point in her life). Over time, Latif realizes that Uday is a psychopath who enjoys murder and chaos as much as fast cars and expensive champagne. Latif has to figure out a way to get out if his situation without dying.

The film has no particular flow, and we mostly just see a list of events from the period around 1989 through early 1991. There is no sense that the story moves in any particular way. Uday is always outrageous and turns up the craziness when he throws big parties: In one party he makes his guests, male and female, strip down naked and dance (sadly Sagnier does not join them); at anther party he literally guts one of his father's lackeys with a hunting knife for speaking back to him.

The most frustrating thing is how terrible basically all of the decorative aspects of the film, from the makeup and hair to the sets and decor look totally fake, as if they were being presented on afternoon television. The film opens with Latif riding in a car to Uday's palace and the rear-projection landscape that passes is laughable. Every close-up we see is terrible because all we can concentrate on is the caked-on makeup and prosthetic or teeth on Cooper. Even the furniture in Uday's palace looks fake and cheap.

It's really terrible that there couldn't have been a slightly deeper level to this story (even if it might have touched the line of cliche). There's no reason why we couldn't have learned about the psychology of Latif as he becomes a double for a monster (for the devil). Was he ever excited by the violence and power himself? Did he really not enjoy the whores and money that came with his job? Latif is so clean and Good and Uday is so dirty and Bad that the film becomes more of a comic book tale than a real interesting narrative. It's really just long and tedious... and even Sangier can't save it.

Stars: .5 of 4

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

American Grindhouse (Tuesday, July 26, 2011) (59)

American Grindhouse is a fun documentary about the history of exploitation flicks and B-movies, featuring interviews with contemporary directors who were either influenced by those pictures or merely grew up in their heyday. Made by Elijah Drenner, the movie shows rather soberly this wild and limitless group of movies.

We see how early filmmakers experimented with sex and violence, until the Hollywood Production Code forced such pictures out of the mainstream and into alternate theaters. Then we see how over time, these movies became more and more popular with a public eager to see skin and/or blood, until Hollywood pictures themselves started emulating these depraved or gonzo films.

There are dozens of interviews with film histories, Hollywood directors (John Landis and Joe Dante probably the two best known of this group) and grindhouse directors, now as old men. There are fantastic clips from some of the most terrible films, including Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS and Blood Orgy of the She Devils. There's a wink with everything we see, as it is all so crappy, it's hard to take very seriously in any context other than a sociological appraisal of the culture at that moment.

One very interesting thing is to see how close some of these films are to experimental films by artists such as Stan Brakhage, Bruce Connor and Jack Smith. It's clear that these filmmakers looked to grindhouse fare for inspiration, and this really underlines how bizarre and unconventional such films were (like pregnancy movies or the psychedelic bloody orgy movies).

John Landis probably has the best line of the documentary, saying that The Passion of the Christ is the best grindhouse film of recent years. It is indeed - great because it's terrible and offensive.

Stars: 3 of 4

Monday, July 25, 2011

Brighton Rock (Monday, July 25, 2011) (58)

Rowan Joffe's Brighton Rock is an adaptation of a novel by Graham Greene (which he also adapted into a screenplay for a film by the same name in 1947). As is typical of Greene, the film deals with the underbelly of society and with Catholicism. This is a generally good reexamination of the book with a slightly simplified structure that focuses more on the central characters and relationships (also typical of Greene).

Pinkie (Sam Riley) is a young thug rising up the power ladder of the Brighton underworld in the early 1960s (the book was originally set in the 1930s). He seems to have absolutely no ties to society, no family or friends and no ability to trust anyone of his mobby cohorts. He is, however, a Catholic, at least in name, though he seems oblivious to sin or any sort of real religious practice. He's a total wild card who might strike out violent at any moment.

As the film opens, he witnesses the murder of his gang boss and mentor by a rival gang and decides to kill the assailant. When he does this, a naïve young woman, Rose (Andrea Riseborough), sees him and he decides the only way to protect himself and his gang is to get her to fall in love with him to make sure she won't tell the cops what she saw. As the two start spending time together, Rose's boss in her tea house, Ida (Hellen Miren), begins to understand that Pinkie is dangerous for Rose, though she can't convince her to dump him.

As all the mob action is going on, there's a war between the Mods and the Greasers, with a totally over-the-top Vespa-riding sequence ripped out of Quadrophenia (or The Young Girls of Rochefort). Though this really doesn't relate well to the greater story, it does allow for more gang violence and looks pretty cool.

Almost everything we see in Brighton is dirty and ugly. There's a scrappy quality to both Rose and Pinkie, her hair is always disheveled and never looks washed, his room in his boarding house and the apartment she lives in with her parents are totally falling apart and filthy. Its hard not to notice that Britain was in the middle of very tough economic times during this era. Meanwhile, Joffe does a great job, though of showing how Pinkie and his gang live in squalor, while the rival gang boss, Colleoni (Andy Serkis) lives in the posh environment of a fancy, sleek hotel.

There is a constant sense that Pinkie is dangerous and unbridled by "societal norms". He cuts people and takes power without any sense of decency or morals. He speaks to Rose about his Catholicism (though much less then he does in the book) and how it's the only thing that makes sense to him, the only thing that he finds reliable. It's never totally clear, however if he's doing this to sell himself to her (and her family) or if he really believes it.

He seems to be like the character of the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find, where he's got religion figured out to use it for his dark ends. I can imagine Pinkie explaining that he'll be forgiven for his sins when he dies, but in the meantime, he will keep killing. Sadly, he never seems self-aware or deep enough to have such an interesting thought.

The acting throughout the film is fantastic, most notably Riley and Riseborough. They both seem like kids who are in love. She has no self-confidence and understandably things that Pinkie is the best she can get; he's conniving in the short run and thinks he can out-maneuver anyone who comes his way. They're a great pair, filled with young angst and a bit cheeky that they know what they're doing is wrong.

Joffe really does bungle the ending here, drawing it out to a silly 15 minutes, when it could end in one and then giving us a sad and disconnected idea of Rose's victimhood. I wish he had ended it about four times before he did (or rearranged the kicker into a different part of the script). Really the whole second half of the film (after the Mods and Rockers riot) is a forgettable mess, though it still looks good and has some redeeming elements.

Joffe does admirable job directing this film, using really great editing to give a constant sense of violence lying just below a peaceful surface and updating the film noir model. His real problems here are in his script (well, his adapted script), where characters are underwritten and scenes are misplaced in the narrative or unnecessary altogether.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Myth of the American Sleepover (Sunday, July 24, 2011) (57)

Summer nights are really long in Southeast Michigan. At least that's what we learn from David Robert Mitchell's The Myth of the American Sleepover. We certainly never know what exactly the myth is, though it seems to have something to do with kids hooking up or making out or something. Somehow the kids are able to fit a year's worth of searching for love into several hours of darkness. Oh, and also, there are no adults and no black people in suburban Detroit.

The story follows four teenagers (well, three teenagers and a kid who's probably about 21 or so) as they drive, walk and bike around their pristine mid-'90s suburban town looking for very specific people to hook up or make friends with. The first is Maggie (Claire Sloma) who is a bit of an alterna-chick (with a few piercings on her face) going into her freshman year of high school (actually, she might be a rising sophomore... It's confusing which kids are in what year because they all do the same things). She lusts after a guy she sees at the public pool as well as another guy who cuts grass around town.

Then there's Rob (Marlon Morton), also a freshman, who sees some blond girl at the supermarket and spends the rest of the night searching for her at the two slumber parties and several other house parties there are. Then there's Claudia (the very fetching Amanda Bauer) who is new to the school, but somehow already hooked up with the high school stud guy (I guess it doesn't hurt that she's cute, blond and skinny... ah, high school). She's invited to one of the parties, not knowing her new beau and the hostess have a history.

Finally there's Scott (Brett Jacobsen), who is going to be a senior in college, but unsure of his direction (The Not-Yet-Graduate, I guess) and decides it would be a great idea to track down twin sisters he had a thing for (four years earlier) in high school who are that night at a freshman orientation "sleepover" at the University of Michigan.

Many of these stories crisscross, where one guy will go to a girls' sleepover to look for someone and then leave to go to another party where he'll bump into another one of the characters. This seems to be set in the 1990s, so they don't have fancy things like mobile phones, let alone Facebook or iPhones. There's actually an interesting sweetness to the analogue nature of the evening, where the kids actually have to meet and talk to people and go to find others if they want to... although, this is all possibly a bit precious and a bit too soon for such nostalgia.

I feel like Mitchell spends so much time setting up his suburbia uber alles that he ignores the fact that we still need to connect to these characters on levels beyond just that we might have had similar experiences in high school. I like that most of the kids are looking to just "hook up" or "kiss" others (and not have sex with them) because that's all you really want when you're 14 or 15. But those desires aren't very deep or very interesting. I feel like every character is just a bunch of nerves and a list of personality traits, but not really fully developed. When Claudia discovers the true story of her boyfriend's past, she move fast to avenge the past, but we never really see very far inside her, what her own history is with guys, what she's thinking about starting at a new school or how she found her boyfriend over the summer.

Scott is more a comic book kid than any naturalistic character. His trek from the suburbs to Ann Arbor to seek out the twin cuties feels rash and unrealistic. Its banal romanticism should have more motivation than it does, and we're left saying, "what the hell is he doing? This would never work." (There is a clever, if shallow, homage to Godard's Band of Outsiders running in an upper floor of UM's Angell Hall... Go Blue!)

This film is a first work and it does show some promise in small moments. There is some very clever, snappy dialogue ("menage a twins") and a few wonderful moments (such as the scene in slow-mo of the kids filing into their respective parties like ants as a song by Beirut plays on the sound track), but the film really only ever rises to a be a collection of short stories that are all a bit too emotionally simplistic and rely too much on our nostalgia for our own childhoods. Sentimentality has never really worked for me, and neither have the lily white suburbs.

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 - 3D (a.k.a. HP7P2-3D) (Sunday, July 17, 2011) (56)

So here we are. We've reached the end of the Harry Potter movies. The seven books, having been stretched out to eight films and nearly 20 hours of screen time and are now totally over forever (until J.K. Rowling writes a new book that is turned into a new movie). It's one of biggest, longest, most profitable film franchises ever. It's also a lot of fun. (If you haven't seen any of these movies, or none since the first, ignore the rest of this post as you will be bored miserably, I'm sure.)

HP7P2-3D is basically the second half, or really the last third, of the seventh and last Harry Potter book. It begins with a running start with the Harry, Ron and Hermione trio on the hunt for more of Voldemort's horcruxes (small things into which he injected parts of his soul to make it harder for him to be killed). They go to Gringott's to get one of them, and then realize one of the last ones is back in Hogwart's, from which they have been truants for the whole school year (no comment on how in a book about seven years at a school, they only spend about six there, with the last one a year of non-lesson-based Evil Lord-fighting. But J.K.R. wants kids to stay in school, or something).

When they get to Hogwart's they find the school in dark lock-down, now run by Snape, where the professors teach the kids all sorts of terrible magic to inflict pain on others. There are Death Eaters all about and all sorts of people in black leather (hot, if you're into that sorta thing). Harry gets a little help from his friends (students and teachers) in Dumbledore's Army and what's left of the Order of the Phoenix. They fight a massive knock down, drag-out fight with the bad guys before Harry's final one-on-one with Voldemort.

I think the movie smooths over some rough patches that I never liked in the book, particularly with Snape. I always felt like the 'Snape is a good guy' thing that we're told near the end was a bit too hard to swallow in the book. Here, however, director David Yates and writer Steve Kloves do a wonderful job of showing how Snape was always massively conflicted about Harry, about his eternal love for Harry's mom, Lilly, and his deep hatred for Harry's dad, who was probably a total douchebag who deserved to be killed by dark magic. The last 20 minutes of the film are particularly wonderful. The epilogue especially always felt forced and precious, but here feels totally natural and necessary. It's a lovely ending to a great epic story.

What I particularly like about this last film is how it brings in traditional themes from human existence and classical art: the idea of one person doing something alone versus someone working with their friends and allies to get a job done. It is very reminiscent to me of the classic story from Hollywood lore that after seeing Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (a story about a marshal who can't get help and is forced to defeat a bad guy singlehandedly), Howard Hawks decided to make Rio Bravo (a story about a sheriff who gets all the help he needs from his friends to defeat the bad guys) in response.

Voldemort is Marshal Will Kane and Harry Potter is Sheriff John T. Chance. We are constantly reminded here about how Voldemort (né Tom Riddle) is one of the greatest wizards ever, for better or worse, and how Harry is really only an average wizard who excels at making friends and having them help him. (There is even an suggestion, posited by Snape, that Harry is a proud prima dona and somewhat of a talentless jerk.) When Harry goes searching for the missing horcruxes, he does find a few on his own, but also needs help from his associates to find the others. Meanwhile, Harry is told that Voldemort found all of them on his own. I guess the idea that this Lincolnian leadership style is more effective, at least less demagogic and less evil.

I'm also very interested in the revisionist look at Snape as a reluctant collaborator. In this film, he's Maréchal Pétain, a stooge put in a position of power and told to stay quiet while terrible things happen inside his domain (the school). Unlike the general understanding of Pétain, however, Snape is hiding the fact that he's really on the side of good and not evil. Was Pétain trying to work against the Nazis and destroy the Reich from the inside? It's a very hard sell.

(Of course, we shouldn't forget that Snape did witness lots of evil things happen at Hogwarts and his Death-Eater days and it's hard to forgive him for those things. I don't care that Colin Powell didn't believe in the testimony he gave at the UN Security Council in 2003, he said it and it sent us to war and thousands of people to their death. He should have resigned if he was so morally torn. I won't forgive him now.)

The 3D worked really well in this film, probably better than I can remember in any Hollywood picture where I've seen it used. Some of the scenes play very well with the depth of focus and the disorienting quality of the enhanced image, like Gringott's sequence at the beginning. In other scenes, where there is little action, the 3D is used gently to simply show us how basic things recede into space. I would hope in years to come, directors use 3D more in this way than they do with some movies where it seems that dumb tricks are inserted into every shot to make sure we know we're seeing it in 3D and make sure we feel like we're getting our money's worth (we never get our money's worth as it's still way too expensive).

As with the last film, there is no need to see this movie if you haven't seen all the other ones, and particularly if you haven't seen the first part of this one. It is, however, very solid, much more interesting than I would have expected and a lot of fun from a sheer entertainment point of view.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tabloid (Friday, July 15, 2011) (55)

When Randall Adams died the New York Times ran a rather lengthy and in-depth obituary for him, albeit more than six months late. He had been wrongly convicted of killing a Dallas police officer in 1976 and had served 12 years in prison for the crime. It was only after filmmaker Errol Morris dug into the story and turned up mitigating evidence during the making of his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line that Adams got a new trial and released.

The Thin Blue Line is an *Important* film, not only for what it did for Adams but for what it did for the documentary format. Morris used a brilliant score by Philip Glass, wonderful reenactments that showed how moments described in testimony and witnesses' points of view are frequently hard to navigate and sometimes difficult to remember. He re-invented the interview documentary, showing that people sitting in chairs under artistic lighting can be interesting to watch. Most importantly, the film is much bigger than Adams or any of the people in the story. It becomes a story about humanity, the human condition, the fickleness of justice and the concept and understanding of memory.

Morris has had a brilliant career since then and several of his films aside from Blue Line (Vernon, Florida, A Brief History of Time, Mr. Death, The Fog of War) rank among my favorite films of all time. They all transcend their small, slice-of-life stories and show us a mirror into our souls as human beings. Morris latest film, Tabloid, though generally well made, is not particularly deep and delves into a subject that's simply not important enough for the filmmaker's effort. It is an decent film, but not brilliant and leaves us wanting a lot more in terms of interest or creativity.

The story begins simply enough. Joyce McKinney was a beauty queen who feel in love with a Mormon man named Kirk Anderson. As she was not Mormon, and neither particularly religious nor chaste, their relationship was immediately forbidden and he was sent on his mission as soon as possible. Not understanding the ins and outs of the religion, she thought he had been kidnapped by a cult, and raised funds to go rescue him in England.

When she got there (with a small posse of associates, most of whom were in love with her), she took him to a small inn on the coast and kept him tied up in bed for three days, while she forced him to have sex with her. He was declared missing by his church and McKinney's group was hunted down. After she was arrested, she became an immediate star through the work of two rival tabloid papers, the Daily Sun and the Daily Mirror, who were in the middle of a small war.

Each paper went to great lengths to dig up dirt on McKinney, and each got different information, which led to two very different portrayals of her on their pages. She was either a whore and a slut who posed for dirty S&M pictures to make money, or a sweet woman who was just heartbroken and was desperately in love with her ex (she really was the former, as much as Morris presents both sides).

We meet a few of the journalists involved in the coverage by each paper, a few of her former associates and McKinney herself. They all tell very different stories of the events, though one general narrative emerges over the course of the film. It is indeed interesting how each person sees the story differently based on his or her knowledge of the events and their stakes in the drama.

We never get, however, a real deep look into McKinney, the way we might have had of Fred Leuchter (Mr. Death) or Robert McNamara (The Fog of War). The film is ultimately just as shallow as the tabloid stories were to begin with. We never really see why this story was such a big deal - or if it really was a big deal outside of these two papers. It's clear that she was on the front pages for a few weeks or months, but we don't get any context or when she stopped being on the pages. The fact that the film is called Tabloid is a mystery to me, as the it is much more about McKinney than it is about the papers.

Clearly Morris is an artist and a master filmmaker, so he knows what to do and how to make something look good. He uses lots of found footage, industrial films and clips from old Hollywood pictures (not unlike Bruce Connor might have done). He uses his now-standard "Interatron" (or is the "Megatron"?) to interview his subjects (basically it's a two way teleprompter where the person sees the interviewer's face on a screen, through which the camera shoots the person). (I worry this style is getting a bit tired, honestly).

It all feels a bit like Philip Roth's novella Everyman, which was well received, but rather a phoned-in work in the overview of his oeuvre. Everyman was a re-hashing of the same ideas Roth had struggled with for the previous decade and brought nothing new to the table. Tabloid does not expand Morris universe and fits in much more with his First Person documentary television show (which is generally great).

I hope Morris can pick himself up, dust off the rather cynical and silly anti-Mormon junk and move on to make more interesting films. I hope this isn't the first sign that he's losing his magical touch (the way I worry Roth has in recent years). Just like Roth, though, Morris makes good art, it's just that it's not even close to what he's done in the past.

Seen in a vacuum this is a good movie, but seen from the inside of Morris' work, it looks like a failure. As I write that, I think about Morris' brilliant examination of an "event horizon" in A Brief History of Time. Oh, how the mighty has fallen.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Future (Wednesday, July 13, 2011) (54)

As trite as it sounds to say, Miranda July doesn't see the world the way you and I see it; she sees it through the eyes of an unconventional artist. Time after time in her newest film, The Future, she shows us something totally original, something we never would have thought of, as a way of telling a rather standard story. It is a wonderful view of the world, an incredibly sad and anxious view. It's the post-post-Graduate view of the world (or post-post-post-) where thirtysomethings are looking ahead not knowing their direction, not knowing about marriage or kids, not knowing about What Comes Next. It's a story of the fear of the future, either known or unknown, and a the uncertainty that comes from not having memories of the future (shit - I just blew my own mind there).

There is a traditional narrative story and a less traditional one that coexist simultaneously here. The film opens with a squeaky, non-human voice-over of a cat, who serves as a sort of Greek chorus, but in a much more Brechtian sense. When we finally see the cat, it's just a puppet of the front two legs and paws as in a cage. (This is the first of those totally creative and outside-the-box things that July gives us that probably no other director would have imagined or considered.) There is something particularly jarring, but appealing, about this, setting up a D.I.Y. world, a janky, wonderful aesthetic.

It's instantly comforting and sweet without being anywhere close to banal. (I have no idea who July looks to for inspiration, but this film feels like what a Michael Gondry film would be if he was more talented and also is very reminiscent of the fantastic Belgian film L'Iceberg, by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy). It's a bit surrealist, a bit absurdist and much closer to experimental/art film than standard narrative fare.

Back in the human world, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are a couple in their mid-thirties who have been dating for about four years and living together for much of that time. He works from home as a phone tech-support clerk and she works as a dance teacher for pre-kindergarten pre-ballet students. They're both obsessed with modern conveniences (she spends hours watching a co-workers YouTube video of a cringe-worthy dance routine).

Once they decide to adopt that cat, Paw-Paw, they find they have a month before they can take him home (once its medical procedures have healed), a month before their serious adult lives will begin. They decide to quit their respective jobs, turn off their Internet service and change their lives. He starts to volunteer selling trees for an environmental nonprofit, more of a fill-in thing to do than a real career switch, and she begins to flounder, attempting and failing to post "30 dances in 30 days" videos to the Web. But then things start to go wrong when Sophie experiments with cheating on Jason and then tells him about it.

The idea of "memories from the future" is very significant in the third act of the film, and is something that really connects the standard narrative world to the atypical, creative one. As we see Jason's imagination of Sophie's future and his future without her, it becomes unclear whose point of view we're witnessing, whether we're really inside a dream-state or if it's really just the standard narrative again and when exactly this passage ends. Within Jason's mind, Sophie herself has revelations that we later see her responding to in her waking life. This is not him wishing she would learn some lesson (as a spurned lover might think of his partner), but him actually seeing a future where she learns these lessons and then her learning these lessons in the real world. Perhaps they're sharing the dream/fear and they're both in some collective unconscious. It is an absolutely brilliant illustration of an abstract, non-linear timeline.

In the middle of the film, we see several things that fall much more in line with July's own performance/video art background than with this, or any other, narrative story line. She gives us two funny, bizarre dances (if you liked the dance scene in Dogtooth, buckle up for what you will see here), both of them amazing and neither one necessarily advancing the story, but totally perfect in their moments. This still from the film is a perfect example of how the normal becomes a bit less than that in July's world. She's a bit too far out that window for a standard filmmaker to conceive of, it's a dramatic, almost violent, certainly sexual movement that has much more in common with silent film than anything we've seen in years.

As a short-story writer, July has a fantastic grasp of language and natural dialogue. Most of it is very funny and never feels forced. At one point when she's getting ready to go out, Sophie, looking in a mirror, says to Jason, "I wish I was a notch better looking; I'm right on the fence. I constantly have to make my case to each new person I meet." (Oh, I feel you, sister.) In another scene with her paramour, Sophie asks him what they're doing that night, to which he responds, "Well, we're going to fuck, then you can eat ice cream, then watch TV and then I'll watch you." To which she answers, "Is there really ice cream?" It's refreshingly realistic and painfully familiar.

The acting in this is wonderful. July is fantastic, vulnerable, weird, shy, self-doubting, but capable of normal interactions when she gains confidence (at least in Jason's mind). Linklater is great (he really is a great actor on stage and screen), also frustrated, unsure, quiet, scared and angry.

This film mixes all sorts of styles and formats, similar to how a video artist would do with found footage, creative ideas and abstract concepts. There's a sequence in the middle of the film where Jason meets a man who is selling a hair dryer for $3 in the local penny-saver magazine. We see a few scenes of the two men talking about life and love and getting a tour of the man's house and his weird collections. Although it's scripted, there's a cinema-verite feel to this, as if Jason (and Linklater) were stepping off the performance stage and into this man's living room.(July met the man during a non-fiction writing project she did; he is a non-actor.) This is yet another anti-establishment, risky decision that July makes, and, like the rest of the film, it pays off beautifully.

There's an amazing feeling I get as a viewer when I see something totally original, fun and interesting. The Future is all of those things and Miranda July is a brilliant artist and wonderful storyteller and filmmaker.

Stars: 4 of 4

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York (Monday, July 11, 2011) (53)

There is a moment in the middle of Richard Press' documentary Bill Cunningham New York, where the eponymous New York Times fashion photographer is at a gala dinner for the New York City Ballet where the organization is honoring billionaire, philanthropists and arch-conservative political stalwart David Koch (a big friend of Lincoln Center). Cunningham is introduced to Koch, shakes his hand and chuckles as he does with most people. For me, this instant gave me a strange feeling, as Koch has in recent months become the most visible money backer of the Tea Party movement and the most significant supporter of tax cutting and government spending cutting in the country (he's one of the most significant backers of the move in Wisconsin to deny teachers their ability to organize). Koch stands for his own wealth and, ultimately, killing the poor (who needs 'em?!). It reminded me of a comment in a Wallace Shawn essay where he says that artists live in mansions that are paid for by their rich neighbors who also live in mansions nearby - and how those neighbors who support their art get rich by paying their employees badly.

But this biodoc is the absolute opposite of anything political or polemical. It is light and fun and floats above the reality of the people on the ground who we see. In it we learn about the life and work of Bill Cunningham, the On The Street photographer for the New York Times Sunday Styles section, a passionate lover of stylish clothes, expensive and inexpensive, worn not just by models on the runway, but by everyday people. He is known by those in the elite society circles who go to black-tie events and by fashion wonks who see his work as the forward-facing reality of what they do (which frequently is backwards- or upwards-facing). (Of course, the people in the film who know Bill are also the people who specifically read the Sunday Styles section, and are also the same people who go to independent documentaries in New York City. This is photographing to the choir, or preaching in the darkroom, or something.)

Cunningham, himself is a wonderful anomaly. He is in early 80s, lives in a tiny studio in Carnegie Hall (well, he's kicked out at the end of the film along with the other 6 permanent residents, all older than dirt), rides a bike around Manhattan taking pictures of street style as he sees it developing. He studies Fashion (with a capital F) at the Paris and New York fashion weeks, and then sees how these designs spill down to the ground and are picked up by normal, non-model people who don't have perfect bodies (or tons of money). He doesn't seem to have any close friends, has no specific sexuality (though when asked, his demurral suggests he's gay... not that it matters much, because he's so asexual), apparently goes to mass on Sundays and almost never eats much. He has almost no "style" in his clothes, doesn't seem to own much of a sport jacket or suit, and mostly just wears one of those blue French street sweeper jackets (that he's buys at the BHV when in Paris every 6 months).

One of the many luminaries who speaks about him (a list that includes Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, Iris Apfel, Patrick McDonald and other famous and fashionable New Yorkers... or New Yorkers famous for their fashion) says that he's really just a documentarian of fashion and style. This is a very true thing. We see how what he does is much closer to a sociologist cataloguing the mores and trends of people over time than it is what you would find in Vogue or Elle.

When you see a montage of some of his layouts from over the years, you see that he was able to document that at some point (1985) off-the-shoulder was a popular look, and that at another (1993) black kids wore low-hanging jeans (not to say either of these styles are over today). The whole, "if-aliens-came-to-earth-what-would-they-think" question is very clear. If they saw one of his layouts, they would really have an idea of what clothes New Yorkers (and Parisians) wore during our era.

This is a very fun and sweet documentary and one that makes you laugh and smile a lot. I love movies about New York and this is exactly that. This is not particularly deep, but it is enjoyable. Cunningham is a lovable, weird guy. This is mostly fashion navel-gazing, but it's a fun show.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Sleeping Beauty (Friday, July 8, 2011) (52)

The very first image we see in Catherine Breillat's The Sleeping Beauty is a pair of old scissors that an old witch holds in the air over her head. Immediately our minds dive into the symbolism and connections of scissors and cutting: castration, self-mutilation, domesticity. The scissors here are used to cut a baby girl's umbilical cord (another significant symbol) and at the same time, the old witch puts a curse on the baby, saying she will die when she's 16.

We next see three silly teenage girls frolicking in a river. They seem rather contemporary and foolishly unaware of where they are or what they're doing. Next they show up at the baby's side, and seem to be three good witches, who change the curse by saying the girl will not die but sleep for 100 years when she turns six and that when she wakes up she will be sixteen. While she sleeps she will experience a bunch of interesting dreams.

The opening sequence seems to take place in the late 19th Century, and the girl, Anastasia, seems to be the daughter of a Frenchman and a Russian woman. They are very high class, live in a castle and refer to the young girl as a princess (though it's probably a term of endearment rather than royalty).

We next see Anastasia in her gigantic bed, setting dozens of alarm clocks (mostly from 1950s and pop culturey, like Mickey Mouse clocks) and reading a gigantic dictionary (of course this is a wonderful pun that the Sleeping Beauty is setting alarm clocks). She proudly declares that she enjoys reading the dictionary better than novels because she likes words and their meanings. From this moment, we understand that this film is about a conflict between words literal meanings and their symbolic, relative associations.

One of the words Anastasia reads is "hermaphrodite". She has already declared that she wants to be called Sir Vladimir and now she tells us that she should be considered both male and female, both Anastasia and Vladimir (both Anastasia Romanov and Vladimir Illyich Lenin? Interesting.). This idea is also very important as we see the idea of gender and sexuality move in a very fluid way form here out. At times Anastasia seems to be a girl, and at other times, she shows traits of a boy (particularly from a sexual development point of view).

When she does go to sleep, Anastasia goes on an epic journey into a dreamworld where we meet all sorts of interesting characters. One of her first stops is at the house of a mother and son who seem to live in the 1950s in the woods. There Anastasia falls in love with the boy, Peter, and his sudden departure from home gives her an excuse to move along to the next stop, in an effort to meet up with him again. She goes on to visit a kingdom of midgets (er... little people), an albino child prince and princess, a gypsy (er... Romani) family and a Snow Queen, to name just a few. At each stop she interacts with the people (in a sometimes sexual way), learning new things from each. With each one, the idea of time (either time flying or time being hidden) seems to be a theme.

This film is an amazing deconstruction of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, from a Derrida-ist point of view. The way she took apart and explored the Bluebeard story in her last film, Breillat gets into our understanding of our contemporary sexuality and our understanding of feminism and Freudian thinking by tearing this tale apart and taping it back together.

As either a girl or a boy, Anastasia seems to follow a very traditional Freudian sexual development, where her latency stage is almost exactly when she is "sleeping" (this is a great and rather brilliant literal translation of this theory). Meanwhile, her dreams are chock full of amazing symbolism. There are lots of knives and trains, some candies and a lot of snow.

When she wakes, she is in a contemporary Paris (well, really in a castle somewhere not on a busy street, but close enough so that a Parisian Lothario boy, Johan, can visit her). Some of the characters from her dream re-appear to her, though whether they're really there or some middle dream-reality state is unclear.

She meets the now grown Romani princess, who seems to have aged at the same rate as she has (that is, 10 years in 100), and Johan says he's Peter's grandson. Again, there is a blurry line between reality and dreams, between real and imagined. We see how sex has now become less of a childish curiosity and more of a sensual or violent act. She is a grown woman, filled with real emotions and no longer a vessel for an education.

Breillat is a totally fascinating director and certainly gets me thinking about literary criticism more than just about any other director working today. That she tends to highlight feminist ideas and references contemporary philosophy (as only a French elite could do). Her films are full of material to unpack and investigate.

This is a beautiful film, aside from being thought provoking. It has wonderful and interesting art direction, costumes and photography and you get the sense that everything on screen is meant to be exactly where it is. This amazing attention to detail is part of the reason why I think Breillat is one of the best directors alive.

I strongly recommend this film, but fully admit that after seeing it twice (I had to see it a second time to be sure I understood what I thought I understood), I still have a lot of unanswered questions and there are still a ton of symbolic meanings that I'm sure I'm missing. To me, that's the sign of a great work of art. It's challenging but an amazing thing to explore.

Stars: 4 of 4

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bad Teacher (Thursday, July 7, 2011) (51)

So Bad Teacher is a movie directed by Jake Kasdan (le fils de Larry) with a highly-praised script written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (whoever they are). It has all the makings of an interesting, dark and biting comedy, something that could possibly be as brilliant and enjoyable as Hesher or Observe and Report. Alas, it is not any of those things - it's totally banal, painfully unfunny and hardly hard-hitting.

Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is a good-looking gold-digger who only hopes to catch a man who can pay for her expensive tastes and buy her a new rack. When she's dumped by her millionaire fiance she sets her sights on a substitute, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) at the middle school where she's a homeroom teacher. Somehow Scott is a millionaire and a perfect pedagodge. Whatever.

Meanwhile there's a goody-two-shoes teacher, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), who wants to be friends with Elizabeth until she finds out her motives and then becomes her enemy, and a gym teacher who lusts after Liz, but isn't hot enough for her (Jason Segal). Liz figures out a way to use her status as a public school teacher to extort money and buy her new tits herself.

The story and dialogue is so broadly written that the jokes come off as mostly dull and moderately uncouth, but never particularly dirty or bitter. At some point, Elizabeth says to a guy "I want to suck your dick like I'm angry at it"... which is a quotable line, but nothing particularly creative or pathetic. It's just broad and blue, meant to make the over-50-set re-adjust in their seats. (The single best line has to do with a guy being called "Faggy Hitler," which is simple, offensive and hilarious... but not overdone.)

I think this story suffers from not knowing what it really aught to be or is. It's not very dirty, but also not at all a "family comedy". It's somewhere in between; neither fish nor foul (fowl). It is a bit too filthy to star Tim Allen or Kevin James, but much too ordinary (and much too complicated, by the way) to be really interesting or exhilarating.

Cameron Diaz is a banal as a comedienne as the manila folder she resembles - mostly we're just forced to watch her because she's a frat-boy's idea of a "hot chick," having never really shown the chops we've always been promised. (Being John Malkovich is very funny, but I give most of the credit for that to Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman.) Beige.

Does there really have to be a happy Hollywood ending in this story? Are we so dumb and boring that we have to see right winning over wrong? Pfffft.

Stars: 1 of 4

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Project Nim (Tuesday, July 5, 2011) (50)

Project Nim, a documentary by James Marsh (who made Man on Wire and Red Riding: 1980, both very good films), tells the interesting and heart-breaking story of Nim, a chimpanzee who was raised from two-months-old to age five by (human) grad students studying language and communications in chimps. Nim's raising was anything but scientific, but not entirely surprising considering the early-1970s era in which he lived.

At Columbia University in 1973, Linguistics professor Herb Terrace enlisted grad students (and his sometimes paramours), to raise the chimp, cleverly named Nim Chimpsky. Over the first three years of Nim's life, he had no fewer than five human minders and teachers, each one different in style and scientific method than the last. He was taught American Sign Language and was ultimately able to express his basic desires ("I want a hug," I want a banana," "I need to use the toilet"), though his ultimate ability to "cummunicate" his emotions or anything other than his wants was debatable.

Shuttling between humans who had very different ideas of the project, Nim was either closely minded or let to roam free and "be an ape". (One of his human minders, a grad student in psychoanalysis, apparently was interested in his masturbation and breast fed him from her own breast. Ew.) Ultimately, around age 4 he started acting like the chimp he really was the whole time, biting people who he perceived as threats and becoming less and less fun and cute. At this point the Columbia project ended and Nim's life as a post-experimental chimp began, moving from medical research labs to chimp jails.

This is a very interesting examination of the scientific method gone wrong, and how humans being humans are sometimes more animalistic than an ape being an ape. The film is largely unsentimental, although, there are several moments when Marsh relies on our connection to Nim and our anthropomorphizing of his plight to pull our heartstrings. I could have done without these moments (mostly because such things are so banal and shallow).

Still, there is a lot of interesting material that forces us to ask ourselves interesting questions. If humans are able to smoke pot, why can't chimps? Is it at all humane to test medicines on chimps if it will save human lives? At what point in a non-physical psycho-sexual relationship between a chimp and a human should administrators step in to block it? All very difficult and interesting questions....

Stars: 3 of 4

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Aurora (Sunday, July 3, 2011) (49)

Cristi Puiu's first major film to be released in the States, The Death of Mr. Lasarescu (2006), is an amazing existentialist story of life and death in Post-Communist Bucharest. It is the most successful and greatest of the Romanian New Wave films to hit these shores, incredibly simple in story (a man slowly dies over the course of 150 minutes and we watch unable to do anything about it), reserved but powerful in style and devoid of any real structure. It's the very definition of the RomWave. In his newest film, Aurora, which he wrote, stars in and directs, Puiu brings us another brilliant work, this time even more obscure and more unlike anything we've seen before... and this time adds another half hour of content.

The story of the film is so very unclear (or unknown), that it's enough to just know the basic characters involved. Viorel (Puiu) is a 40-something man with two young daughters and a woman who seems to be his wife. He also has an elderly mother he looks after and she has a new husband who he hates. The film opens with him talking about the daughters with his wife in the kitchen as she gets dressed. She gives him a bag lunch and sends him off. For the next 45 minutes or so he wanders around with no particular direction, at some point buying a shotgun. It is never totally clear that he has a job or anywhere to be and circles back to places he has already been several times.

Unlike Mr. Lasarescu, and unlike Radu Muntean's recent Tuesday, After Christmas, this is not really about the brokenness of Bucharest and the old Communisty aesthetic, nor is it about how the city is a modern European capital. It falls somewhere in between. We see the back allies and rail yards (which look crappy in any town in the world), and also see the fancy boutiques on the boulevard.

When action does pick up a bit (it never really gets much faster than a crawl, but at some point there are a few things that happen) there is a sense that there is an everyday human level to living and a separate "rule-of-law" world of right and wrong, but the two remain separate. This is not too dissimilar from Puiu's comment in Mr. Lasarescu, that people die and the system can't help them, though in that it's rather directed at the whole system (hospitals, medical care, ambulances), while here it's more directly existentialist about the inevitability of stuff and the fact that the police (or lack of them) are an agent, but not the pure cause of badness. Viorel never rushes, he never panics, he walks and drives around carefully, knowing full well that he is heading in a specific direction.

It's impossible to proceed without mentioning all that the story owes to Camus, Sartre, Becket, Antonini and Bergman. It is clear that Puiu is a good reader and watcher and that he's studied his nihilistic absurdest existentialists. Life for Viorel is a series of moments that connect to one another; for us, however, his story is somewhat choppy and sometimes unmotivated. Puiu never gives us much background on actions. Viorel does things that don't totally make sense and then we have to either guss at their meanings or wait until they're explained (three hours later). In this way, Puiu puts us in the story by showing us that life is about randomness and non-understanding. Puiu might have a direction, but it's unclear to everyone else. Life for us is about experiencing other people as they go about their business without explaining thier actions to us. This hyperrealism is one of the keys of the RomWave and it is fantastic.

Just because the film is 181 minutes long, doesn't mean it's boring or dull. One of my favorite things about the film is the amazing dialogue and the fact that Puiu's script is full of jokes and humor. Yes, most of it is dark comedy, but it's very entertaining, particularly toward the end, when Viorel's tour is revealed to us a bit more. He's the world's greatest baadasssss, at times talking back to school teachers and kindergarten classmates of his daughters, insulting his mother's new beau or scolding the police. He says what we all wish we could say, but don't figure out until it's a minute too late. (There's also a fantastic piss joke around minute 178.)

I'm a bit stumped by the title of the film. I guess this is about the dawn of a new day for Viorel, or possibly a dawn of a new era for Bucharest and Romania. Perhaps it refers to how when we see stars and light they're actually gone light years ago or that there is no substance to lights in the sky, but just gasses and electricity. All of this connects to Viorel's situation, that we don't really notice him until he does something big or talks back to others.

Stars: 4 of 4

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon 3D (Saturday, July 2, 2011) (48)

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

-- Martin Niemöller

On a space shuttle launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, Simmons (John Turturro), a government-worker-cum-freelance-Transformers-hunter-expert paraphrases this poem as he speaks to the heroic Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf). He's talking about how as a gesture of weakness and conspiracy, the U.S. government agreed to the demands of the Deceptacons to send the Autobots out of the country and off into the wilds of space. Simmons is upset that the holocaust of the humans at the hands of the Decptacons will continue and, like the German pastor before him, he will have tacitly endorsed the heinous act by not fighting against it.

You might say that director Michael Bay and writer Ehren Kruger are being a bit heavy-handed, invoking the Holocaust to a sci-fi action story like
Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but you would be wrong. They are presenting a deeply searing critique of modern consumerism and a deep post-structuralist analysis of the past 60 years of world history. "Was it all worth it?" is the question that they wrestle with. Taken down to it's basic parts, we see how the hope, good fortune and lessons that came out of the Second World War was all an illusion, that capitalism and the concept of "freedom" are broken systems and that there is only a bright future for us today if we embrace femininity.

The basic story of the film is much too complex to understand from a wide point of view in the context of this column (a fact which is, in itself, a comment on American consumerism, of course), so to put it simply, you have to know that the Deceptacons have come back to Earth, are more Communist than ever and are trying to get a bunch of fuel rods that were crashed on the moon in our pre-human-history. It seems these rods (read: phalluses) are the basis for re-building the Transformers' home planet of Cybertron. If they can insert the rods into our buildings, they'll be able to summon Cybertron inside of Earth's atmostphere. (Spoiler alert: When they succeed in bringing Cybertron to Earth, it looks like a big breast with a gigantic nipple.)

The role of sexuality is ever-present and central to the story. It reminds me of Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Salo: 120 Days of Sade, although here most of the sexual torture is replaced by violence and we are left only with symbolic rape. The Deceptacons are a class of super-masculine bourgeoisie, in the waning days of their own empire. They are led by a Prime (see: The President, The Bishop, etc. from Salo) whose goal is really just to dominate and subjugate. They have their own set of laws, which can be amended at a moment's notice; they appreciate youthful vigor and seem to have as much of an interest in boys as they do in girls.

Their main tool of destruction is Shockwave, a robot that can grow to infinite lengths (like an awesome erection) and burrows through the land and buildings with sharp teeth (like an awesome erection). He is, of course, a gigantic penis with teeth, a Freudian nightmare far worse than the vagina dentata. He is a clear symbol for the Deceptacon culture of over-excess, fucking the world, force feeding people excrement and acting on the most depraved thoughts and desires one could conceive.

But Bay and Kruger are not making a direct parallel to Pasolini, of course. In a very post-Roland-Barthes way they take the predicate of the Holocaust and twist it. Here the Capitalists (the Autobots and the US Government) are the Fascists and are fighting the Communists (the Deceptacons). The American freedom they are tying to defend is best symbolized in the hundreds of brilliant product placements throughout the film. One of the cars is a NASCAR stock car that is sponsored by Target. As we see our heroes fighting the bad guys, we see Target right there in the mix. The film is a polemic about American consumerism. What they are fighting to defend is a world of no choices, corporate overlords and the force-feeding of industrial crap (read: excrement). In the middle of the wreckage of post-battle Chicago, a brand new Ferrari drives down the street unscratched. Overconsumption and the post-feeling world have won and we can celebrate by dreaming of buying cars we'll never be able to afford.

The fact that Bay made this in 3D and has begged people to see it in that format, promising us more than we've ever seen, is a cynical commentary by him on the state of the movie industry and the filmic format. Like Werner Herzog did with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Bay shows us here how everything we see is not just done well, but amazingly overdone and and we have to pay more money for the honor of beholding it. We already live in the world he's showing us in the film.

Even the human characters and locations are tied to this theme of post-choice hyper-saturation. The film is set in Washington, D.C. where Witwicky (even his name is a comment on the outsourcing of encyclopedias to the crowd-sourced Internet) is dating a bodacious blond English girl named... uh, I don't remember, but she's a Victoria's Secret model (even here, the poor woman's humanity is stripped away and she becomes a symbol of her employer in the real world; the nightmare that Marx feared has come true and we are all just drones to our corporate masters). In this post-hellish reality, there is no United States or United Kingdom. All Western governments are the same and they're all are marching in lock (goose) step to subjugate the masses with garbage (and to make us bend over so they can rate who has the best ass, so they can then kill that person).

Similarly, though the film is set in Washington, it is shot in Chicago (home of awesome tax breaks... again, a comment on the film making process) -- before the action ultimately moves to Chicago. This is a brilliant way of showing that all American cities are the same. There is no capital city and no "Midwest". There is just one big nightmarish post-Capitalist stretch of cities in American tied together by Interstate 88, the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway. The American government is a fascist organization, it will rape you. In the words of Pasolini's Duke, "the fascists are the only true anarchists." And, I'll add, in the words of his Bishop, "all is good if it's excessive".


Finally, the film shows us that the hyper-masculine nature of the Deceptacons cannot be defeated simply by complimentary warriors fighting a battle, but femininity is the key. It is only after Optimus Prime loses his trailer and rocket arm (is castrated) that he's able to beat Megatron and Sentinel Prime (a new character, a Prime who switched to the Deceptacons when he wasn't able to sell more product). And Wikipedia's girlfriend this time has even bigger lips and more amazing flowing hair than that Megan Fox chick, which means she's able to deflect danger with her feminine charms (read: her gigantic tits and super short skirts... and, by the way, she totally flashed us her crotch when getting out of the Mercedes SLS AMG Gullwing car... a car once described to me by an Italian man as a "pussy magnate"... true story). But it's really only when WikiLeaks is totally emasculated, after he's beaten by Dr. McDreamy and that dude from the Las Vegas TV show, that he's able to help out in any significant way.

This is a deeply moving comment on our world and on our lives. It is a film that I would call *important* (and at 157 minutes, you can't not understand that). It needs to be studied more for it's intricate symbols and allusions. We need to understand better why Cybertron looks like a breast when the Deceptacons are so masculine (is it an Oedipal relationship they have with their world? Is that why there are no female Autobots?) and to figure out why exactly John Malkovich is needed in the story at all. I think he's the key to something. His three-piece suits stand out as some sartorial commentary, I think. They're certainly of the same quality as the members of the cabal in Salo. Woah, it's getting even deeper as I continue to think about it....

Stars: 7 of 4