Tag Archive: film review


I’m reposting this review just so it’ll be next to all the other reviews I’m posting. Hope you like it, for the first or second time 🙂

Spoiler Alert. There are lots of spoilers.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a worthless piece of shit. It reduces all Arabs to two forms of the same subjugated stereotype: either terrorist or collaborator. Chastain acts like she’s talking to her cat, or some other entity that she thinks is incapable of judgment. The filmmakers would probably counter that her character is supposed to be “no-nonsense,” “emotionally detached in service to her country,” et cetera, but you know something? I don’t go to the movies to watch mannequins. I go to watch human beings. I think that’s a pretty reasonable request.

Speaking of human beings, the white guy Paul Newman wannabe who does the torturing in the first scene is just Joe Sixpack enough to represent conservative middle-America, while also having enough heart to possess pet monkeys (apparently), for the “more compassionate” viewers to relate to: basically, for the wimpster Obama voters who seek a rationale for the “War on Terror” that Barack never officially ended or Gitmo that he never closed. This disheveled-looking Paul Newman guy is just civilized—calm, rational, t-shirt wearing, non-sadistic, just-doing-his-job—enough while torturing people to make torture look civilized.

The blocking and editing of the film are like Law and Order: Criminal Intent: basic, dull, pedestrian. All it’s missing is that orchestral “DUHN-DUHN” between scenes. (By the way, a little exchange from a L&O: CI episode called “Scared Crazy”: Dr Lady: “We’re fighting terrorism.” Goren: “WITH terrorism.” P.S. He doesn’t approve.) Chastain and Paul Newman evoke Tolkien and Bob Marley in a movie about torturing people. Why? Two reasons: to make their characters seem real (and moral), and to make it look like this movie has anything to do with the actual world we live in. It’s pitiful and sacrilegious. Why not mention Gandhi as well? Or Beyonce?

The Arab who gets tortured in the first scene is just light-skinned enough to make the whole scene NOT look exactly like two white people torturing a brown person, which could come off as racist, keeping in mind America and the West’s long history of enslaving, torturing, and killing non-white people. In a moment of totally shameless American exceptionalism (not to mention sloppy writing), Chastain talks about how she was “spared” after a suicide bombing basically so she could finish the job of taking out bin Laden, as though some sort of fate or divine destiny is leading her effort, and not monomoniacal ambition, or bloodlust, or whatever it is. The CIA leader guy (her boss) says “I don’t give a fuck about bin Laden,” and that the specific terror cells should be focused on, to which Chastain (in her only scene of what appears to be consensual acting) replies that bin Laden is responsible for all of their terror acts and that if we kill him, the terrorism will cease, with which we are provided no evidence at all. In fact, what he says makes a lot more sense. He shuts her down flat with the unfortunately sexist and mental-illness-phobic, “You’re out of your fucking mind,” but it still feels good to see her put in her place. (What?! This is what I’m taking pleasure in? Women being put in their place? This is the character I’m supposed to want to WIN! This movie is poisoning me!)

By the way, why are there a notable number of apparently powerful women in this movie? Is this based on anything that happened in “real life”? Or is it post-genderal Liberal Hollywood idealism in a film that takes James Frey-esque liberties with “what really happened”? I think it’s good to depict women in positions of power in order to challenge expected gender roles, but where is the truth of this so-called true story? Who ordered these things to happen? Was it a guy or a girl? These things matter. When she states with “100%” certainty that bin Laden is in Abottabad, she convinces people with her confidence alone, not with any actual incontrovertible evidence. Is that the feminine mystique working? Are women not as burdened with the burden of proof as men are because they happen to be attractive and redheaded? Where is her superior ability? Where is her high place on the knowledge hierarchy? Bigelow does women a disservice with this one.

In terms of writing: In one scene, Chastain appears to be narrating to the audience in crass vernacular. Then it turns out she’s writing an email. With scenes like this, Bigelow’s desire to mix common accessibility with serious Sorkin-esque technical dialogue collapses into a sagging, poorly acted, toneless, babblefest of mumbling, mannerless, totally un-engaging young actors with unfamiliar faces. Part of why the dialogue suffers is that it’s all a means to an end: the climactic killing of the man most hated by Americans since Hitler. In an early scene, she describes anti-American forces as “radicals, not interested in money,” just so the audience understands that having passion and righteous indignation and NOT doing things for money makes you a “radical”…hey wait! Doesn’t that mean America is radical too, if we’re NOT in this region of the world for money, but instead because we were brutally attacked? So then we ARE in this region because we’re interested in money? OIL MONEY, perhaps? It’s amazing that Bigelow would choose to make such an anti-establishment point in her big Hollywood movie!

Hold on, this is an anti-Arab propaganda film. We have to make the freedom-haters look irrational, crazy, and dispositionally unrelatable. And if you don’t care about money, you’re irrational. Simple.

Seeing as the CIA was obviously okay with torture, and yet Bigelow wanted to screw around with the facts for more “drama” (since it’s “only a movie”), why not have her main character say “STOP TORTURING HIM!” in that first scene, so that not only do we like her as a character, but also Bigelow can directly CHALLENGE any pro-torture narrative in a big Hollywood movie and expose torture as not only ineffective but highly immoral and unacceptable? But no. She reflects status quo pro-torture opinions for greater “drama” and to give us Americans the emotional charge of seeing lily-white people beating up helpless Arabs. Is it dramatic to her to torture her audience with these plastic, emotionless zombie-characters? The lack of recognizable actors in the movie was probably to save money, since everyone who comes to see “Zero Dark Thirty” is only waiting for that climactic scene with bin Laden anyway, and doesn’t care who’s on the screen or what they’re saying all that much anyway.

I don’t trust, know, or care about any of these characters. I can’t remember any of their names, and I’m not interested in their specific relationships. There are one or two short scenes involving characters’ personal lives, essentially included for no other reason than to make this look like a real movie and not just a pure propaganda piece. Zero Dark Thirty’s main problem is that everything prior to the killing of bin Laden is just a means to reaching that end; that’s the only reason anyone came to see this starless piece of crap (oh, and because it’s “controversial” about torture). Everything that happens is foreplay to obtaining the emotional release of watching huge muscular guys storming a compound and killing a terrorist in a massive “fuck yeah” pro-America circle jerk. It sure is nice having superior weapons and equipment!

The final scene, of Chastain crying while sitting in the helicopter, mixes stupid dialogue (“Where do you want to go?” the pilot asks her, as though that wouldn’t be arranged by SOMEONE beforehand), with the image of the poor sad white lady crying now that her life’s work has been accomplished at the young age of 22 or whatever. In reality, this shot is intended to make white Americans look compassionate. “Look,” we’re supposed to say, “war is so hard and terrible, even WE can’t take it sometimes, AND WE CREATE IT!”

Lastly, the fact that the CIA relies on Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini, the only bit of casting that makes you say “huh”) to plan a “hit” on bin Laden demonstrates America’s devotion to images of power.

Save your time, save your money, save your mind, and just do some internet research about torture to get the real truth and the real drama and the real characters, everything Bigelow could’ve included if she’d really wanted to make an actual movie.

This is a review of Barbet Schroeder’s 1972 French film, “The Valley,” also known as “La Vallée” and as “Obscured by Clouds,” and is known for its Pink Floyd soundtrack.

This review reveals elements of the plot.

If there’s one thing you can tell about a movie with really engaging drug scenes, it’s that the director or writer does a lot of drugs; hence, he or she is adept at conveying the druggy experience in a satisfying, engaging, perhaps sympathetic way. If the drug scenes are the  best thing about a movie, it’s safe to say the director didn’t have much more experience or vision to offer. Or, because of a warped perspective, he or she was incapable of conveying it.

In “More,” the other Barbet Schroeder movie I saw, the director prevents any connection or sympathy with his characters until they are as messed up on drugs as they could possibly be.

Here, he offers a BIT more character besides shallow desperation.  A French woman, Vivian, seeks exotic feathers for sale in her Paris boutique. Joining up with a group of young societal dropouts, they seek a mythical valley in New Guinea, on the part of the map labeled “Obscured By Cloud,” (sic), which they believe contains Paradise. Vivian starts out towards The Valley in hope of finding her feathers, but soon rejects her prim, upright, materialistic, bored and married Western persona in favor of reverting to Earth worship among the trees and native tribes. After a short stay in a native village, she and the group attempt to “go native.”

This scene is difficult to analyze because it contains both the film’s message—conveyed in the only well-written piece of dialogue—and graphic depictions of tribal life—such as smashing the skulls of living pigs for a ceremonial feast. It’s difficult to watch, and makes it difficult to absorb or appreciate the valid idea the director wants to convey. It is almost like Schroeder doesn’t really even care if the message (or any message) is conveyed—it is more “included” than emphasized or studied.  Above and beyond creating characters with near-illusory moral fiber, Schroeder clearly enjoys shocking and frightening his audience by subjecting them to documentary footage when everyone in the theater came to see a fiction movie. I don’t think this is a slur on the audience’s intelligence; it speaks more of Schroeder’s vision as a storyteller and as a director.

Without a doubt, this movie benefits over “More” due to the striking photography and lush New Guinean locales, so its greatest strength is also its greatest and most debilitating weakness. Besides the poor acting, forgettable plot, wasted Pink Floyd score, and largely exploitative nature, it loses all didactic credibility because its message is so painfully lost in what is essentially a National Geographic film about native tribes, disguised as a countercultural story about hip kids dropping out of society.

As I mentioned, the best-scripted and most moving scene is where the tall blond guy is sitting with Vivian, watching Gaetan and that other woman among the natives, and explaining to her that one can’t escape one’s conditioning, that among any society, there are rules and oppression, that exploitation of women is even worse in other places, and that true freedom is an illusion.  In a few terse sentences, in pleasant, philosophical French, and with a cinematically despondent stare on his face, the blond guy conveys the theme and message of the movie. But, laid plain within this tribal setting, that valid, interesting message is lost.

It’s a shame, because it’s a good message, very apropos of the time the movie was made. If Schroeder had focused on it, and created a movie to explore it, “La Vallee” would have succeeded.

After this scene, with 19 minutes left in the movie, the characters resume their quest for “The Valley.” The twist is, when the characters actually reach it, right before starving to death in the wilderness, it becomes obvious the Valley itself is an imagined paradise realm. The ideal world they sought is imagined, or rather, nonexistent, perhaps an internal world, unreachable through simple escape from Western society, perhaps unreachable in any way.

Again, a decent theme, lost in a fog, Obscured by Cloud, like The Valley itself. As with “More,” I am forced to ask if the titular/thematic pun might be intentional, part of the idea of the movie, to stand for and convey the exact phenomenon that proves the message of the film to be valid. Or something. The drug scenes being among the strongest in the movie suggests that it is indeed part of the idea. I feel it was misguided. With a bit more sobriety or perspective, vision or strength, Schroeder would have had a good movie. Maybe two.

I felt that “More” was pretty describable as “Breathless” on drugs. I would describe “The Valley” as Herzog’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” similarly on drugs. The plot and appearance and some part of the message of the movie are extremely reminiscent of that film, which came out the same year.

I was attracted to both of these films because of their Pink Floyd scores. As it is, I cannot recommend “More” or “La Vallee” to anyone in good conscience, except those who are interested in Pink Floyd, or in how not to make a movie. In any case, if you see it, do yourself a favor: be sober.

 

This is a review of the 1969 French film “More,” directed by Barbet Schroeder and featuring a soundtrack by Pink Floyd.

SPOILER ALERT: This review reveals elements of the plot.

This movie made me not want to do drugs ever again, or hang around drug people, or watch any of Barbet Schroeder’s other movies. The only story, and the only good photography, exceptional acting, and interest-points of the characters, come in the last ten minutes of the movie. Everything else is a chore to behold, in a visceral, basic, yet seemingly unintentional way.

I don’t think Schroeder wanted either of his main characters to be appealing, or lovable, but the problem with this movie is that they only become sympathetic or interesting when they become complete stuttering heroin addicts, and that only really occurs at the end of the movie. Prior to that, it is tempting to look away from them, not because their behavior is so shocking or upsetting, but because it’s almost ordinary, unenlightened.

The LSD scene, on the other hand, is a good one in the sense that their drug abuse seems to assume a purpose, delivers something to them which gives it meaning, in fact injecting meaning into their lives. They hug, and it is as though drugs have helped them find something. Maybe part of the message is that drugs won’t really provide you with anything meaningful or solid, but these losers have nothing to gain because they have nothing within themselves to grow on. More on this point in a moment.

The ending is indeed a bit tragic, because Stefan only becomes slightly sympathetic, slightly likable, when he is really hooked, when he is doomed. His death has no meaning, except that the death of a drug addict is without meaning. This is the sad fate of movies that portray characters moving towards doom with nothing besides the journey itself to lend any meaning to their lives. It would be different if Stefan or Estelle had any character besides their essentially insufferable superficiality. But Schroeder denies us this, presumably to magnify the meaninglessness of drug-abuse, the pointlessness of the lives of these two misanthropes. The title of the movie, “More,” is the meaning of it (always needing more), but these two don’t have anything within themselves to begin with.

Maybe the idea is that having nothing inside or in the world brings people to this point, lusting quixotically after some invisible form of perfection, “More,” the ultimate high. But there is nothing to it besides that, nothing to these characters besides their blank-slate personalities, hence there is very, very little to their tragedy, and makes for an unsatisfying movie.

Worth watching, but, like heroin (another part of Schroeder’s idea?) you’ll be left wanting more, and feeling robbed.

“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” released in 2012 and directed by Lorene Scafaria, is the first movie I would very very highly recommend, yet advise against watching. Why? Because, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it is at its base a devastating critique of literally all human endeavor. And for that, we owe it a debt of gratitude.

The film centers around a despondent guy named Dodge (Steve Carell) whose wife leaves him moments after they both learn an asteroid is inescapably hurtling towards earth, destined to destroy humanity. The inhabitants of Earth all respond to this news in different ways–suicide, bacchanalia, sobbing, rioting–and the film follows Dodge and his sudden acquaintance Penny (Keira Knightley) as they attempt to reconcile themselves with the things in life they know, or at least strongly believe–or, really, have mainly gotten used to believing–are important.

Without getting into a huge iteration of the plot, or for that matter ruining the innumerable plot twists or mind-curdling ending, I must commend Scafaria, the perfect cast, and the able crew of the film for crafting such a flawlessly forward-moving film with the utmost craft. In my measure, “Seeking a Friend” is the sister film of “The Truman Show,” that late-90s classic that is, technically, science fiction (as is this film) but stands separately on such a poignant and succinct “what if…” premise as to transcend genre and enter the realm of a purely expressed thought, devoid of any preconception or high-concept theory for its full effect.

In that film, Jim Carrey (another comedian-turned-“serious actor”), plays Truman, a thirty-year-old man who realizes his entire reality is a finite constructed environment, the purpose of which is to entertain people as a 24-hour reality show. With distinct phildickian flair, the film asks “what is reality?” and provides very few answers besides, perhaps, the unknown, or freedom, two concepts clearly analytically linked.

Truman’s life consists of work, friends, a marriage, a house, all of the things we consider basically central to happiness and normalcy (at least in America). Everything absent from his life–war, unhappiness, disease, conflict of any kind–are identified as undesirable. But Truman has dreams and feelings that extend beyond the simple confines of a conflict-free existence. He wants the unknown, he wants freedom. And Normalcy itself–and the endless quest to obtain it, and the society that perpetuates it, and the rewards it offers–are shown to be escapist dreams of mundaneity, true certainty and “happiness” an illusion of the only half-living.

“Seeking a Friend” asks “what is real” on less of a physical level and more of an emotional level: what is real to me? What is important? With only 2 weeks to live, what is the least familiar to Dodge and Penny is suddenly the most important. The unknown, the possibilities, not necessarily experiencing them all but simply knowing they exist…this is more important than the familiar, and the film asks us to remember this and act on it.

In this way, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is one of the most challenging films I have seen in a long time. It projects very strong influences, three in particular that I want to discuss. John Cassavetes, whose “Faces,” “Husbands,” and “A Woman Under the Influence,” demonstrate the sad emptiness of American life as it exists even for those who cleave most closely to its ideals of hard work and rugged individualism. This emptiness stems partially from what is widely agreed is simply part of the “human experience;” life is unfulfilling, dull, painful, superficial, and that’s just “the way it is.” But, in the traditions of New Hollywood, Cassavetes reveals that our society actually creates these unfortunate circumstances of our existence, appearing to reflect our nature when in fact it essentially engineers it. “Seeking a Friend” lays bare the strange alienated emptiness of our social reality in the midst of its total destruction, from caring about personal health, to the health of one’s lawn, to jobs and status, to family.

Pointing out the influence of Ingmar Bergman in any current film is just approximately redundant, since either Bergman’s style or references to it (be they tongue-in-cheek, as in “I am Curious,” to overt and self-professed, as in “Interiors”) penetrate so much of film’s consciousness. “Seeking a Friend” may not know that it is conversing with “The Seventh Seal,” and “Cries and Whispers,” but the awareness of mortality is the soul of this film as it is in any of those films, and is just as central to the plot. Like Anders Ek’s spiritually discouraged priest in “Cries,” we too spend much of “Seeking a Friend” wondering why God (or whatever) feels the need to rend so much of life as insufferable heartache, boredom, loss, and sadness, ultimately all to be lost. Like Antonius Block, Dodge and Penny bide their time and make what progress they can on a road they both know to be short and incomplete, as though the mere act of wanting to live, to continue the experience of humanity, is enough to affect anything in the slightest.

And the afore-referenced Woody Allen, who receives his own filmic allusion in the form of a small, practically incidental but comedically emphasized line from “Annie Hall” regarding a therapist who wants Annie to see her “five times a week.” The exact same wording is used in this film in reference to Penny’s shortlived therapy experience, to which Penny responds by pointing out the therapist’s apparently ample need for human contact. “I would never want to be part of any club that would have someone like me for a member,” Alvie Singer states in “Annie Hall.” Both Penny and Dodge embody this “value system.” While his friends are drinking and screwing away their mortal terror, Dodge chooses to be alone, to ponder his wife who just left him and the life that’s about to be taken from him. He seeks what’s missing, what’s rejected him, in these final moments on earth. Not what he has.

“Seeking a Friend” clarifies a few things about life on earth. 1) It has no inherent meaning. 2) Someday it will end. 3) These are reasons to live fully and joyously, not sadly and cynically. And 4) Society, as it is, doesn’t allow us to live fully and joyously; only when things are about to end, when “nothing matters,” does everything become possible, does “human nature” actually evolve. Only when everything we’ve always been told is important is revealed to be as meaningless and insignificant as we ourselves are, do we see ourselves as free. And as Truman Burbank before them, Dodge and Penny step out of the realm of the comfortable and safe, and even farther, out of self-destruction, look into each other’s eyes, and see a new human nature, one without a hidden agenda, without fear, without winners or losers, without hope. And for that, it is at last an honest picture of reality. No wonder it didn’t win any Oscars.

Other things I liked: product placement was done tastefully. Co-stars, like Patton Oswalt, Rob Cordry, and one big one I don’t want to spoil as Dodge’s father, are well-chosen and funny. Brace yourself, and watch it without any distractions.