Monday, January 21, 2008

Live Free or Die Hard

In Live Free or Die Hard (2007) a terrorist cripples the United States by using his personal knowledge of government and commercial computer systems to take them over and shut them down. The nation grinds to a halt. Numerous images of citizens milling about in confusion and panic as stoplights malfunction, electrical power is turned off, and billions of dollars are shipped overseas specifically bring to mind the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. (I was reminded of similar scenes in the 1950 film The Day the Earth Stood Still). The possibility of a cyber-attack by foreign terrorists has been widely discussed. The film plays into national paranoia about terrorism and computers and the loss of privacy—cameras are everywhere. With only a few mouse clicks the most private information is available to whoever wants it. Nothing is secret or private or secure. Whether a cyber attack against the nation would be successful, I don't know. What makes such an attack possible in this film is the terrorist hacker--he is also the software designer who wrote the programs the nation's computers run. The government ignores his warnings that security is inadequate. He protests, breaks into a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and loses his job. He undertakes the attacks as a form of revenge and also as a way of getting rich.

As the fourth installment in the Die Hard series, Live Free or Die Hard offers a familiar plot. John McClane (Bruce Willis), now a police detective with the NYPD, is sent to bring back a man with a record of hacking government computers for interrogation by the FBI. McClane's rebellious, anti-authority nature has not served him well, and after thirty years he has not advanced very far in law enforcement. He arrives at the hacker's apartment in time to save his life—someone has been sent to kill him. (The hacker, who becomes McClane's sidekick in the film, is played by Justin Long, the actor who represents Apple in the witty but effete commercials that compare Apple and Microsoft computers). In a few short minutes McClane is caught up in the government's efforts to find the man who has crippled the nation's infrastructure. Despite his past history, the FBI trusts McClane and allows him full access to whatever equipment he needs. Without help from any of the nation's law enforcement and security agencies, McClane takes on full responsibility for tracking down the evil terrorist hacker and his henchmen. Stunts, gunfire, explosions, and dead people result.

This film is entertaining and fast-paced, though there is little doubt that McClane will prevail. The most interesting aspect of Life Free or Die Hard is its premise of the nation's vulnerability to terrorist cyber attacks. Although it's unrealistic to believe that a single man would know enough about the nation's computers to shut them down so effortlessly, and equally unrealistic to believe that numerous layers of security wouldn't provide at least some protection, the film nonetheless presents a disturbing scenario realistic enough to make you worry. To what extent is our heavily computerized and connected national infrastructure vulnerable to the sorts of attacks this film portrays? Also interesting is the theme (it runs through all the Die Hard films) that official law enforcement and security agencies such as the local police, the FBI, the military are incapable of dealing with terrorism and high-tech crime. Rather, defeating the bad guys takes someone who lacks technical expertise or finesse but who is wild-eyed and reckless. This is officially sanctioned vigilantism in the form of a single man--John McClane. We've seen this kind of notion at work in numerous other films, from the Dirty Harry films to the Lethal Weapon films to the Rambo series to many others. These vigilante throwbacks to the days of the American frontier betray a fundamental distrust of basic institutions in our government--a distrust that, in the wake of FEMA's failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina and the incompetence of U. S. surveillance activities in Iraq (other examples could be cited) seems justified.

Shoot ‘Em Up

Shoot 'Em Up (2007) is a send-up of hyper-intensive action films that itself is a good example of the genre. From the opening scene, when a man casually sitting on a bench sees a woman in labor running frantically past him, trying to escape the gunmen who are trying to kill her, we know two things: first, that the man on the bench, an eponymous Mr. Smith (Clive Owens) is going to play a major role (he's the main character) and that the film itself is going to go as far over the top as it can possibly manage.

We cannot watch Shoot 'Em Up with any concern for realism, logic, or the laws of physics. If we're squeamish about violence and gunplay, this is not the right film for the evening. Rather we just have to watch it, and it's eminently watchable. It is full of violence, guns, bullets, shootings, killings of every imaginable sort, incredible stunts (many enhanced or entirely finessed with CGI), plot intricacies, and flagrant moments of absurdity. It is probably the only film I have seen that uses a baby's dirty diaper as a weapon against a bad guy. It is the only film I have seen in which the hero clutches a newborn infant under one arm while shooting adversaries using the other arm. It is the only film I can recall which features a gun battle between twelve or so men in free fall thousands of feet above the earth—when the hero successfully lands, the ground around him is littered, or should I say spattered, with the carcasses of the men he has shot in mid-air.

In addition to the newborn (whose mother dies early in the film), we have a ruthless and cerebral mastermind who oversees the henchmen trying to kill the baby. His name is Hertz (Paul Giamatti), and he works for an unnamed employer who turns out to be a corrupt United States senator on track for election to the presidency. We also have an embittered and ultimately good-hearted prostitute (Monica Bellucci) whose baby was recently stillborn. We have three women hired to be artificially inseminated so that their offspring could provide bone marrow to save the dying sperm donor's life. And we have a central theme of gun control—a gun manufacturer trying to co-opt a powerful gun control advocate.

And so it goes. There's nary a loose thread in the film, everything's neatly tied together (or should I saw shot to bits) by the end of the film, which doesn't feel that neatly made. It brims over with movement and energy. Shoot 'Em Up reminded me of the Clint Eastwood film The Gauntlet (1977, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood), also a send-up (supposedly) of violent crime films. This film didn't receive as much attention as The Gauntlet, but it is better made.

Paul Giamatti overacts throughout, in a way that is enjoyable enough and consistent with the film itself. Clive Owen plays a generic tough-guy hero. I never figured out who he was supposed to be—some sort of secret operative trained from childhood to be a master marksman. Michael Davis is the director. I'm not familiar with his work. The film has a British feel to it.

If you settle in and accept the basic rules of Shoot 'Em Up, it is entertaining and sometimes mesmerizing--non-stop gunplay, hilarious dialogue, ridiculous stunts, surprising plot turns, thematic ironies, and men who die like animated figures in a Warner-Brothers cartoon. One may complain that Shoot 'Em Up becomes what it satirizes, and that may be the point.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


The success of Juno (2007) owes to the characterizations, the excellent cast, the whimsical treatment of a serious subject, the direction, and the music. This film tackles a subject—teenage pregnancy—in a way that avoids almost all of the stereotypes and melodrama attached to the subject. It is a highly original film that is at the same time modest and under-stated. It makes Knocked Up look craven and amateurish.

The title character Juno is not a typical adolescent. She lives with her father and stepmother. Their laidback attitude towards parenting is in no way a negligent one. They are fully engaged parents. When Juno announces her pregnancy, their reaction (no yelling involved) is one of both concern and humor. Her stepmother Bren tells her father that she didn't know what to expect when Juno told them she had an announcement to make: "I was hoping she was expelled, or into hard drugs. . . anything but this." They prove to be nearly ideal parents in how they support their daughter during the ensuing months, though Juno thinks she can deal with her situation on her own. She greets the pregnancy as a major inconvenience, a problem, not a tragedy, that she confronts with practical resourcefulness. At first she considers an abortion and goes to a clinic for information, but then she abandons the idea. She decides to put the baby up for adoption. She never really considers keeping it because, as she readily admits, she is a teenager and not ready to be a parent. She puts an ad in the newspaper and makes contact with a couple looking to adopt. It's at this point she tells her parents.

Juno is witty in a way that many might find to be over the top and even irritating. She is always spouting sarcastic witticisms. She takes nothing seriously. She immediately starts making fun of the couple—Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) who have agreed to adopt her child—this is her manner, she expects them to understand, and they do to a point. What she doesn't understand is the adult world beyond and above her own experience, and here the real brilliance of this film kicks in. We appreciate Juno's iconoclasm and individuality while at the same time we recognize her naiveté and inexperience. These get her into trouble—the very traits she likes about Mark and Vanessa—the fact Mark has a separate room for his "gadgets," his apparent youthfulness and lack of interest in the things that normally interest adults—lead her not to recognize the hollowness of the marriage. She doesn't see the brittleness in how Mark and Vanessa interact, or the fact that Mark, who is intensely interested in Juno, isn't ready for parenthood.

Towards the end of the pregnancy, Juno begins to feel what it would be like to be the mother of the child she is about to bear. She doesn't relent in her determination to see the baby adopted by a worthy parent, but she does feel a sad and wistful regret over the inevitable course that events must take. She also discovers that she is not as self-reliant as she had thought, and this leads her back to her best friend Paulie, whom she had chosen to have sex with for the first time and who is the father of her child.

Paulie himself is an odd case. He's slight and fragile and otherworldly. When Juno tells him she's pregnant he reacts as if she has just told him it is raining. He never offers to help her or to be involved in the pregnancy, but she doesn't want his involvement. It becomes increasingly evident in the film that Juno regards Paulie as her best friend, but not as her boyfriend. She wants, she thinks, a different kind of person as a life partner, though she isn't really sure who. Paulie makes clear that he thinks of Juno as more than a best friend, but she never recognizes how he feels, or at least doesn't react to his weak efforts to tell her. (When Juno's father learns that Paulie is the father of her child, he quips that "I didn't think he had it in him.") Paulie's supporting role in the film keeps the focus on Juno. Her discovery that he is the person she really loves is part of her growth in the film.

When the film ends, we see these two together. There is no assurance they will remain so. The point of this conclusion is that Juno has learned about reasonable expectations. Her tendency to establish idealized and unreasonable goals caused her to misunderstand the man whom she had chosen to be the adoptive father of her child. She had also set as a goal having a happily married couple as the mother of her child—something of a contrast to her own experience with a birth mother who left her at an early age and who sends her a cactus every year on her birthday. Also an increasingly evident contrast in modern society. Reasonable expectations lead her to realize that the boy whom she had sex with for the first time is in fact the boy she loves. Reasonable expectations lead her to realize that her parents—her biological father and step-mother, however divergent from the idealized vision of the American family they may be—are the parents who have supported her and allowed her to become the person that she is. I wonder how younger viewers see these parents, how they see their own parents—as lovable but somewhat removed presences, there to help out on occasion, there to serve as unwieldy obstacles to be navigated around.

Despite her discovery that she needs other people, Juno remains always an individual, as do most of the teenagers in this film, as if they exist in a separate world from that of adults, a world into which the teenagers can cross on occasion, but from which the adults themselves can never escape.

The cast of this film is excellent. Ellen Page as Juno fully inhabits the character. It is difficult to imagine she exists outside the film as an actual human being. To put it differently, it is difficult to imagine that Juno is fiction and Ellen Page is real. Allison Janney and J. K. Simmons are fine as her parents, especially Janney. Michael Cera as Paulie Bleeker is appropriately passive. Juno is the center of the film. It is her story.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Edward Scissorhands

In the scene at the heart of Edward Scissorhands (1990) a girl named Kim (Winona Ryder) dances in the nighttime air as the ice shavings created by Edward's carving of ice sculptures waft down around her. There's a magical quality to the scene that transcends everything else in the film. Years later Kim's dancing remains in Edward's mind as he carves his ice sculptures on top of the mountain and brings snow to the town below.

This is my favorite Tim Burton film. Although I enjoyed Nightmare before Christmas and Corpse Bride (2005) and Beetle Juice (1988) I could never be quite comfortable with these films celebrating death and the macabre.

The enchantments of Edward Scissorhands include the storytelling frame, where the old grandmother tells her granddaughter the tale of how Edward came down from the mountain years ago. It is of course her own story. Who knows if it's true? The acting by Alan Arkin, Diane Wiest, Johnny Depp, and Winona Rider is excellent. The blank yet feeling expression on Depp's face in his portrayal of Edward is balanced by the fragile, graceful sensitivity of Ryder.

Beneath the film's romantic, fanciful surface is a strong antipathy for women and the American middle class. (This is odd since Burton co-wrote the film with a woman, Caroline Thompson). The suburban neighborhood—with the bland pastels of the houses and the overriding sameness of everything within it--reminds me of the neighborhood in the Showtime series Weeds, of Pete Seeger's "Little Boxes," and of similar portrayals of suburbia in such films as The Truman Show (1998) and Pleasantville (1998) and The Stepford Wives (1974, 2004). Yet the satire here is darker, the criticism sharper. The women of the neighborhood, all of them suffering neurotic unhappiness with their lives, at first join together in welcoming Edward to their midst. They nearly smother him. But they easily change to a threatening mob later in the film. Their husbands are faceless nonentities. Conformity is an imperative. As different as Edward is, the inhabitants of the neighborhood are willing to accept him only until it becomes clear that he can never be what they want him to be--he can't conform, can't assimilate, can't be other than what he is. The characters played by Dianne Wiest and Adam Arkin are welcome exceptions to this nightmare blandness.

I was interested to read that Tim Burton based Edward to some extent on himself and his feelings of exclusion during childhood and later. I had always thought that he and Edward bore more than a faint resemblance to each other.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

For Your Consideration

For Your Consideration (2006) directed by Christopher Guest, involves the same group of actors and writers involved in Spinal Tap¸ Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and other satiric films. The humor is droll and sometimes corny. These films take aim at specific groups of people and activities—overhyped rock bands, animal shows, folksingers, and Hollywood. The target here is the film industry and the battling egos at its core. The actors and agents and producers and directors portrayed here are mostly second- and third-rate individuals who have worked in the industry for years, hoping for a break. The satire is biting but mostly gentle. Guest and his actors show compassion for the people they portray. The main focus of this film is an actress, Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) who hears a rumor that she may be nominated for an academy award. The rumor spreads throughout Hollywood and soon everyone is talking about it, congratulating her, and she begins imagining how life may be after the nomination. Others in the film hope to be nominated as well. The film shows their preening vanity, the ways they pretend not to care when in fact they care a great deal. We are not spared their agony when they learn that, after all, the nominations didn't come through.

The trouble with this film is that most of the characters are fairly pathetic figures. They will never rise to the level of fame and stardom they aspire to, they're condemned to mediocrity and nothing more, and none of them can quite allow themselves to believe it. They're not as genuinely funny, or deserving of satire, as the characters in Best in Show, nor can Guest and his actors muster the kind of genuine interest and nostalgic fondness that tempers the satire and comedy in A Mighty Wind. The characters in For Your Consideration are simply not that interesting.

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass (2007) is entertaining and fairly well made. Slightly less than two hours in length, it needs either an additional hour or a different screenplay. It is not that the current screenplay does not do justice to the novel of the same title (the British title for the novel is The Northern Lights). In fact, the screenplay scrupulously follows the events and characters of the novel, with some adjustments, and with some reorganizing of events that occur at the end—the final events of the novel have been saved for the probable sequel. The film ends with Lyra Belacqua and her friends headed off to Count Asriel's research hide-out, in an open-ended, "there is more to come in the sequel" sort of finale. Rather, the problem with this screenplay and with the film as a whole is that it moves too fast. The focus is on action. Events begin to happen as soon as the film starts. There is no time for viewers to adjust to characters or for those characters to develop, no time for viewers to settle into the environment of the narrative. The film simply plunges ahead. One of the attractions of the novel is Lyra, the nonconforming, misbehaving orphan of mysterious parentage who lives with the dons of one of the colleges at Oxford. The power of her personality pulls us in and through the story. Although we gradually do come to know Lyra in the film, we never know her as well as we do in the novel. The three installments of the Lord of the Rings films more or less solved this problem by running an average of an hour longer. This left considerable opportunity for character development. By the time Frodo leaves on his ring quest in The Fellowship of the Rings nearly an hour has passed in the film. But at that point we know Frodo well, we care about him and his quest, and it is not the unreliable attractions of the fantasy that captivate us nearly so much as it is Frodo himself and his companions.

The Golden Compass along with the His Dark Materials trilogy as a whole is burdened by the curse of what the Greeks would have described as the deus ex machina, and what I will term the device of the false rescue. The compass itself—the aletheometer—is at the center of this falsehood. The device uses the power of the mysterious Dust that infuses and vitalizes the universe in the worlds of these novels to allow the user to know the future, to predict with relative certainty the outcome of events. Since Lyra possesses the device and is far better than anyone else at using it, she has an advantage that few protagonists have: she can read the future. Thus in the novels and the film a certain degree of suspense is removed. As problems come up, Lyra consults the aletheometer and knows what is going to happen. Often the interest of the story surrounds the strategies she and others devise to overcome the problems the alethiometer predicts, but after a while this business begins to wear thin. The universe of the film and the novels and the theology of Dust, carefully crafted to serve as a kind of parallel to the Christian notion of Original Sin, is too contrived. I enjoyed reading the novels and watching the film but I never believed in the world they portray in the way I believed in the world of Middle Earth.

Pre-release reports maintained that the makers of The Golden Compass had toned down the anti-Christian/anti-religious bias. Frankly, I barely became aware of any such bias in the first novel, and maybe because I knew what to look for the religious issues in the film seemed more apparent. At any rate, my soul (whatever that may be) was not bruised by either the film or the books.

I think it's disingenuous for advocates of His Dark Materials to suggest that Pullman substitutes reason and science for religion in these books. Instead, he simply substitutes a different kind of religion, one in which there are parallel worlds, where the effects of Dust have a direct impact on human character and experience, where there are angels and an afterlife and even godlike potentates. However, in Pullman's worlds the dividing lines between the earthly and heavenly realms are hazy and permeable, and because of the discoveries of scientists such as Lord Asriel people learn how to move back and forth between these realms and other worlds. It is the bureaucracy and hierarchy of the Christian religion, especially of Catholicism, that Pullman objects to, especially the effects of religious doctrines that suppress normal human instincts such as love and intellectual curiosity.

The discoveries and theories of particle physics and of modern cosmology are in clear evidence in His Dark Materials and in the film. Dust (already akin to Original Sin) is connected with dark matter. As many physicists posit, the universe is not a singular entity but rather a multiverse, composed of an infinite number of universes and worlds therein. Each world is slightly different from the others. Each world has a slightly different term for Dust, and some worlds don't have a term for it at all. Nonetheless, whatever the term, Dust is the animating force everywhere.

The film The Golden Compass and the novel on which it is based construct a fantasy world that manipulates viewers and readers into enjoying the experience offered. It's fine to be manipulated into enjoying what one watches or reads. But it's important to recognize that higher forms of art work on a different plane.

Monday, January 07, 2008


In the 1980 film Popeye you see the essential Altman method at work. Mumbling characters, characters talking over one another, a lack of conventional pacing, a fundamental sense of improvisation. Yet where these devices worked to great effect in Mash or Nashville they don't do so well here. The film seems so informally made that often it appears as if characters are improvising on the spot, making lines up as they go, stumbling around physically and verbally because no one has rehearsed them or blocked out the scenes. In certain scenes characters seem to have lurched into motion only a second before the director says "Action!" Such an approach may work well for a comedian such as Robin Williams, for whom improvisation is second nature, but not so well for others.

Nonetheless, Popeye is fun to watch and often fascinating, even when it can be frustrating and boring. Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl may be the standout character in the film, though it is difficult to pass by Altman's grandson, Wesley Ivan Hurt, who plays the infant Swee'pea. Ray Walston is great as Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye's long lost father. Paul Dooley does passably well as the hamburger fetishist Wimpy, while Paul Smith as Bluto, though he can mumble and growl menacingly, is the least successful major character. There could have been no other choice for Popeye than Williams.

In the developing relationship between Olive and Popeye and Swee'pea, this film is at its best.

Altman recognizes that the creators of the Popeye comic strip and cartoon series created a whacky and imaginative world of characters. He attempts to replicate that world in the film. He also recruited some highfalutin contributors to the project, such as Jules Feiffer for the screenplay and Harry Nillson for the soundtrack.

But at times Popeye is a challenge to sit through.