Archive for January, 2015

“American Sniper” is three bad movies for the price of one.  When the film is state-side, it is a laughably bad domestic drama hampered by stilted dialogue and poor acting.  When it is overseas, it is a myopic, simplistic, and naïve pro-war film that is a slap in the face of intelligence and decency.  Worst of all, for the film’s entire run, it is an attempt to turn a real life lying, psychopathic asshole into a superhero and a role model.  I hated this film for every moment I was watching it, yet it didn’t inspire outright anger in me as much as I was expecting it to.  While “Zero Dark Thirty” is a better film, it made me angrier because that film didn’t have the balls to make an argument for or against a serious issue, on top of being boring.  “American Sniper” has its boring moments too (I did not expect Clint Eastwood to fail at making exciting action sequences, but save for one sequence in a sandstorm his direction is lackluster), but at least it argues for something, even if that something is stupid, simplistic, and morally repugnant.

It’s almost impossible to review this film without talking about the real American Sniper at the center of, and in every scene of, this film: Chris Kyle.  I doubt I have seen a film with a more loathsome and unlikable hero, and that’s just the sanitized version on film.  In real life, it’s hard to see Kyle as anything other than a despicable human being.  His memoir, which required not one but two ghostwriters, reveals him to be a psychopath who enjoyed killing.  It’s one thing for a soldier to be proud of his work, or see violence as a means to an end when fighting for a greater good, but Kyle seemed to relish killing in the same way a Ted Bundy likely did.  Not only that, but he seemed fond of bragging, to the point that multiple stories from his book have had their factual accuracy called into question.  Hell, he was even successfully sued for libel, and anyone with working knowledge of the American justice system knows how hard it is so successfully sue ANYONRE for libel in this country.  In the end, Kyle died due to his own stupidity.  He took a man with severe PTSD to a gun range, and unsurprisingly the man turned a gun on Kyle and shot him dead.  Naturally, our jingoistic, ultranationalist, unthinkingly patriotic population has seemed fit, by and large, to elevate this asshole to hero status, simply because he was seemingly proficient at killing brown people in the Middle East.  He is supposedly the deadliest sniper to have ever served in the U.S military, but since the Pentagon doesn’t release figures like that, it’s possible was lying about that too.  Even if he wasn’t, what does it say about America that we celebrate a high number of legally sanctioned murders?  Even if every single human being he killed was a dangerous terrorist who needed to be taken out, shouldn’t we instead weep at the existence of such horror rather than celebrate our reaction to it with more palatable horror?

So now we have a film about this man, and try as it might, it can’t quite wash away the entire stink of the real Chris Kyle.  The fictional Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper, and I can’t quite tell if his performance is bad or if he’s playing a moronic, egotistical dullard really well.  Certainly the width he holds his eyes open at is unintentionally comical, and the Texas accent he attempts is somewhere between the real Kyle’s and Yosemite Sam on tranquilizers.  The film’s Kyle is a man who abandons his position in a rooftop in Iraq, where he’s supposed to provide cover for Marines going door-to-door to smoke out an insurgent, all so that he can personally knock down doors, kill some “savages” (the only word he uses for Iraqis in the film…in fact, of all of the Iraqis shown in the film, only a handful are portrayed as anything other than dangerous terrorists or potential terrorists), and be Mr.Big-Dick-Swinging Hero.  In another scene, he scopes out a terrorist sniper (a fictional character named Mustafa, played by Sammy Sheik) and is told to stand down, lest he give away the military’s position and put them all in danger.  Does Kyle stand down to protect his fellow soldiers and the mission? Nope.  He takes the shot, kills the sniper out of revenge for taking one of his friends, and the result is to have the building their in surrounded.  Yes, Kyle will not let the mission or the safety of his fellow soldiers get in the way of his simple-minded and selfish need for revenge.  Hell, the American Military was set to blow him and the building up to kill all of those insurgents, and they are only saved from the enemy AND their own government by a sandstorm.  This is a movie so stupid it doesn’t even realize that the country it claims to love tried to kill its hero.

Let’s back up a bit.  After a brief opening sequence where Kyle is torn about whether to murder a little boy or not, we flash back to his childhood.  We see Kyle’s father (Ben Reed) threaten to beat his son if he turns into a “wolf”.  See, his father thinks there are only three people in the world: Wolves, who are the evil people; Sheep, who the evil people prey on and don’t realize they’re in danger; and Sheepdogs, who protect the sheep.  The film certainly endorses this simplistic worldview, and I was reminded of how the film “Team America: World Police” made this same argument, but at least had the decency to make it semi-satirical.  In that film, the world was Assholes (evil), Pussies (sheep), and Dicks (protectors who sometimes go off, ahem, half-cocked).  “American Sniper” is a film that takes seriously what a puppet movie from the “South Park” guys made fun of over a decade ago.

Later, we see Kyle as a rodeo cowboy whose skanky girlfriend cheats on him.  Kyle’s proud of his big, shiny belt buckle and has a “Don’t Mess with Texas” bumper sticker on his fridge.  After enjoying, I don’t know, 20 bottles of beer with his brother, he sees news coverage of the embassy bombings in Africa that were the handiwork of Osama bin Laden.  In an unrealistically dramatic scene worthy of a facepalm, we see Kyle stand up from the couch, quiet his brother, and watch the newscast in horror, as if the report deeply moved him.  Yeah, I’m sure that’s how it went in real life: after kicking your cheating girlfriend out of the house and getting shitfaced with your brother, Kyle’s redneck ass was moved by a news report playing the background.  If you believe that, I have some magic beans I’d like to sell you.  They’re America Beans, and they grow freedom.

So Kyle runs to his nearest recruitment office to sign up to be in the armed forces.  Despite telling the recruiter that he’s not a fan of the water, the recruiter convinces Kyle to try out for the Navy SEALS program by all but saying “What are you? Chicken?”   What follows is a hilariously bad montage of Kyle in training.  The training consists of being cold, being pelted with high pressure hoses, and being sexually harassed by men.  The men in this film are sexually harassed more than Demi Moore was in “G.I. Jane”.  “Come on, do I have to fuck you in the ass myself” and other lines are yelled at the recruits.  This will set up a pattern of quasi-humorous, passive-aggressive homoeroticism that runs throughout the film.  It is likely many will walk out of the film thinking Kyle was a closeted homosexual, considering how much bravado he puts on and what little chemistry he has with his wife.

Ah yes, his wife Taya, played horribly by Sienna Miller.  Much of the first act of the film is given to showing Kyle’s and Taya’s relationship, and it is laughably bad.  They meet at a bar where, after Taya correctly reads Kyle as an egotistical, patriotic goon, she still gets drunk with him, leading to her vomiting in the parking lot as our protagonist holds her hair back.  A love story for the ages.  Not since Mama and Sugar Bear from “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” have we seen such moving redneck romance.  Later they play some carnival games on a boardwalk, where we’re treated to great gems of dialogue like “Do you like country music?” and “What do you think of kids?”  Can’t you feel them fall in love, people.  When they are finally on the cusp of consummating their relationship, Cooper plays Kyle as wide-eyed and scared, and for a man of such bravado who has yet to be scarred by war, the fear can only be explained if he finds girls icky, no?  Once Kyle does enter the military, he visits his wife in between tours of duty simply to knock her up and be cold and distant with her.  I was reminded of the Al Pacino character in “Cruising” who, after spending nights undercover in gay leather bars, goes over to his girlfriend’s apartment to fuck the shit out of her and prove he’s not gay.  Kyle’s behavior is more than a bit reminiscent of this.

Much like the scene of Kyle watching the embassy bombings is handled with over-the-top idiocy, the scene where Kyle and his wife watching the towers hit on 9/11 is similarly moronic.  Taya screams, Kyle comes rushing out into the living room, and she clutches her husband’s bare chest and weeps.  You can’t get this TV movie-level acting just anywhere, folks.

Then we’re back in Iraq.  Okay, so the film shows us embassy bombings caused by bin Laden, 9/11 which was perpetrated by bin Laden, and then we’re in Iraq, which the film neglects to mention bin Laden had nothing to do with.  There’s no mention of Saddam Hussein or WMDs or anything like that.  The lack of political contextualization does not mean the film is apolitical, it means it is trying to tie Iraq in with bin Laden.  That is a conscience attempt to distort history while claiming you are not being political at all, which is disingenuous and morally reprehensible.  Later, the film puts Kyle and his soldiers on a mission to find the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, al-Zarqawi, without mentioning the inconvenient fact that Al Qaeda wasn’t even IN Iraq until America went in there, toppled their dictatorship, and then plunged the country into a chaotic civil war that proved a breeding ground for extremists.  Nope, this film has no room for anything facts that might make America look like anything other than an awesome land of flags and freedom who need to kill some “savages” lest they try to attack San Francisco.  I’m not kidding, at one point in the film Kyle defends going back to Iraq on repeated tours using the tired and woefully asinine argument of “We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.”  At least when Captain America goes after Red Skull, Hydra is actually a credible threat aiming to blow up or conquer the United States.  You can’t claim all Iraqis are subhuman savages AND that they’re capable of launching full scale attacks on American cities at the same time.  Well, I guess you can, because this film and it’s version of Chris Kyle do.  Taya puts up a weak defense to that argument, but the film and Kyle treat her, and any other character or situation that stands between Kyle and his desire to murder his way through the Iraq, as a nuisance.

We’re treated to scenes in Iraq of either Kyle being bored and shooting dozens of Iraqis who are always clearly threats (the film never gives us a call so close that it’s really much of question whether the trigger should be pulled or not), or Kyle glamming himself, his friends, and his vehicles up with the Punisher logo and going out to hunt a fictional villain known as the Butcher (Mido Hamada).  As someone who loves the character of the Punisher, and who has that skull logo tattooed on him, I am personally insulted that Kyle seemed to think of himself as the Punisher, not to mention attempt to appropriate the copyrighted skull design for a business he was attempting to start before being killed.  Here’s what Kyle doesn’t understand about the Punisher, aka Frank Castle: he does not enjoy killing.  He does it because he feels he has to because the law is inadequate.  On top of that, the Punisher was against the Iraq War, perhaps because he was sent to fight in another useless war in which Americans died for nothing, Vietnam.  If you don’t believe me, then forgive me as I quote the Punisher’s dialogue from a comic book in the Punisher Max line, the line of Punisher comics a character is seen reading in this film:

Frank: “Once upon a time there was a bunch of evil fucks. Hardly anyone knew, because they were so good at keeping it quiet, but these particular evil fucks owned the world. And they made the world a cruel and terrible place. They ran the great industries that poisoned the air. Their businesses turned whole countries into slaves. The money they made could have fed and healed the population of the earth twice over, but all that they could think to do with it was hoard it. They got away with it by being expert salesmen. These were men who could sell anything to anyone. They made puppets out of presidents and started wars for profit. Eventually, they came to believe that there was nothing that they couldn’t do. And so one day… inevitably… they pushed the planet’s luck too far.”

Anyone want to guess what war for profit he’s referring to?  In any event, what’s surprising about this film is that not even the battle scenes, a staple of any war film, are any good.  Eastwood, who you’d think would know how to stage a good scene of violence, does little but set his camera up in a static shot a medium distance from the action, maybe jiggle the camera a bit, and choppily edit the scenes together so that we have boring sequences of little visual interest.  I was at least hoping “American Sniper” would be a well-made film that happens to have a horrible message, like when D.W. Griffith practically invented the modern film with “The Birth of a Nation”, a technically marvelous film where the Ku Klux Klan are our heroes.  As “The Birth of a Nation” is to the American Civil War, “American Sniper” is to the Iraq War in every way but quality.

I’ll give credit where credit is due and say that there are two scenes in the film that kind of work.  One is the aforementioned sandstorm scene, which is admittedly visually interesting.  The second is a scene that feels like it came from another, better film.  Kyle is on his sniper rifle and shoots a man who is about to fire an RPG at a Marine convoy.  The man collapses, dead, and the RPG falls with his body.  A young boy then comes over, picks up the RPG and points it at the convoy as Kyle mutters to himself for the kid to “just out it down”.  Now the film intends this scene to merely show Kyle’s guilt over having killed a child earlier in the film (it’s the first person we see him kill).  When the kid puts the RPG down, unfired, Kyle is relieved.  Leaving aside the likelihood that the real Kyle would have shot that child dead with no remorse, this scene almost works as an indictment of the Iraq War.  If you kill a terrorist, another one from the next generation will just pop up into his place.  If people from another country invaded us and killed our fathers, chances are our sons would grow up to want to kill the people of that country for that reason.  Certainly “American Sniper” understands revenge.  It’s the narrative reason it gives us for Kyle wanting to keep going back to Iraq, and the reason he takes out the fictional sniper Mustafa despite the fact that it puts him and all of his colleagues in danger.  So why, then, does the film lack any empathy for the Iraqi people?  Supposedly when Spielberg was supposed to make this film, before Eastwood came on board, the film was going to show the story from Kyle’s side and from Mustafa’s side, so we had a more even-handed view of the geopolitical situation.  Think of the film “Enemy at the Gates”, which followed a German sniper and a Soviet sniper during World War II.  Conservatives would likely decry this as a false equivalency, but how much difference is there really between Kyle, an unthinking killer who loved his country without question, and am Iraqi sniper, who also unquestioningly follows an ideology and performs his task to the best of his ability?  Perhaps America is not equal to a terrorist insurgency, but Chris Kyle may be no better than an insurgent, except that he wears an American flag instead of an ISIS one as he practices his lust for killing based on his beliefs.

Kyle’s and the film’s ra-ra-go-America jingoism are never repudiated within the film.  Even when a fellow soldier and friend of Kyle’s dies on the field of battle, and he attends the man’s funeral, his reaction to a relative of that soldier reading a letter the soldier had written calling the war into question is to tell his wife that it was the mindset behind that letter that caused his comrade to fall.  The man had the powers of observation and the mind of his own to see the useless travesty that was the Iraq war, and Kyle’s response is to blame his friend and not the men who killed him?  How disgusting of Kyle, and this is just the one in the film.  Who knows how the real Kyle would react to such seditious thinking.  When a solider earlier in the film questions Kyle carrying around a Bible (which we ironically see him STEAL FROM A CHURCH in his childhood) and the meaning behind the war, Kyle’s response is to ask the man if he’s feeling okay and if he wants to sit out the mission.  That the film has Kyle paying lip service to religion and carrying a Bible against his heart yet apparently never reading the book is odd.  It’s almost as if the film is attempting to whitewash and deify this asshole, but his idiocy and shitty-nature is partially propaganda-proof.

Four tours of Iraq and two children he never spends time with later, Kyle is home for good, and we get a third act of the film which feels like disingenuous pandering.  It’s clear that the filmmakers were trying to lesson the criticisms the film was going to receive for its Neoconservative politics by ostensibly becoming a film about PTSD and the traumas soldiers face.  Well, “The Deer Hunter” this is not.  For one, Kyle never comes across as a man with PTSD so much as a man who is annoyed that he’s in the “real world” and not out killing more “savages”.  I was reminded of the scene in “The Hurt Locker”, a film that is in ever way a better version of “American Sniper”, where the main character finds himself staring at all of the cereals in the supermarket, and is frozen by the plentifulness of it all as a contrast to what life in Iraq defusing IEDs was like.  Kyle comes across more like a man who is bored and doesn’t know what to do with himself if he’s not being an action hero in the Middle East.  Aside from one scene where he almost kills the family dog due to a war flashback, the film mostly just shows Kyle angry or zoned out.  Of course, then he visits a VA hospital, meets people who were injured in Iraq, and Kyle is seemingly cured of his 24 hour PTSD bug.  That the real Kyle was occasionally injured in Iraq but that the Kyle of the film is seemingly impervious and never hurt only showcases how the film is trying to make him an action hero.  The film wants us to think, with the last minute PTSD storyline, that it’s giving us the psychologically damaged John Rambo from “First Blood”, when it’s really giving us Rambo the unbelievable cartoon of “Rambo: First Blood Part II”.

The film shows us wounded vets with prosthetic limbs or confined to wheelchairs, yet none of them seem to be upset that they gave a piece of themselves to a war that wasn’t worth fighting for.  They mostly seem upset that they’ve lost their manhood.  When Kyle takes one wheelchair-bound man to a rifle range, the man shoots some targets and then says “I feel like I got my balls back.”  Yes, because the ability to fire a gun makes you man.  That is the level of thinking this film is capable of.  If you are an Iraq vet who doesn’t equate a firearm with their phallus and is upset that you were asked to pay a large price for a war waged on false reasons, my guess is you’ll be pissed at this film.

The film’s ultimate injustice and cop out comes in its final scene.  Kyle, after engaging in a little cowboy rape fantasy in the kitchen with his wife, says goodbye to the kids he barely knows so that he can take a vet with PTSD to the rifle range.  The film closes as Taya looks at the vet, who is depicted as scrawny and creepily as can be, and with shots of Taya very…slowly…closing…the…front…door as she stares at  the guy with an obviously visually bad feeling.  The scene alone deserves a Razzie for how horribly and on-the-nose it is handled.  Then the film has the cowardice to not even show Kyle dying from his own stupidity.  After this film has shown us Kyle making a scene and almost killing the family dog due to PTSD, it seems rather stupid of him to take another man with PTSD to a rifle range.  This stupid decision lead to his death, and this film doesn’t have the balls to show us this on camera.  Instead, we get a single title card of white text over black telling us he died at the hands of a veteran “he was trying to help”.  Really?  Go fuck yourself, movie.  At that moment I was happy Chris Kyle was dead, which I suppose makes me no better than the audience members who clapped when Iraqis were shot dead in the film earlier.  I don’t much care.

The film then ends with a silent closing credit sequence of real footage of people lining a highway with flags, so many goddamn American Flags, and still photos of a memorial service held for Kyle in a football stadium.  This is the film going full “Triumph of the Will”, and when Seth Rogen compared “American Sniper” to the fictional Nazi propaganda sniper film “Nation’s Pride” from Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”, he was not far off.  The film wants to end with Kyle as our new Superman-Jesus-Christ.  I wanted to vomit on the floor of the theater.

It goes without saying that the screenplay by Jason Hall is atrocious.  It’s politics are despicable, the dialogue is tin-eared and awful, and the shoehorning in of an attempted PTSD  third act redemption is the height of bad writing.  Eastwood’s direction is at best boring and boilerplate.  The editing is at times very choppy, with some scenes lasting maybe two lines and having no point and not building up to anything before moving on to the next thing.  The acting ranges from atrocious (Sienna Miller) to serviceable.  If this film wins any of the Oscars it is nominated for, it will be a blight on the Academy and a travesty of justice.

Despite my hatred of this film, it is not an F.  The film is not effective propaganda because its flaws are so noticeable, and the fact that it’s not all that well-made actually makes it less effective and easier to criticize.  Occasionally, like in the scene with the child picking up an RPG, and unintentional truth about the ugliness of the Iraq war, or the ugliness of Chris Kyle as a human being, actually break through the intentional Conservative jingoism of the film, which is surprisingly and says something about how horrible both the way and the man were if even a serious attempt at propaganda cannot contain those truths.  The film comes across as boneheaded as when John Wayne made “The Green Berets”, one of the few PRO-Vietnam War films Hollywood ever made, in 1968.  “American Sniper” will preach to the choir, and it will make money from both that choir and curiosity-seekers that are not of that choir.  The film, however, will fail at converting the non-believers, and for that I can’t give it an F because it’s not even good enough to be dangerous. So it gets a D-.

Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)

Posted: January 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

Just in time to celebrate the Supreme Court striking down sections of the Voting Rights Act, we get “Selma”, a film about Martin Luther King’s actions to ensure blacks could exercise their right to vote leading to President Johnson pushing for and signing the Voting Rights Act.  One of the things they drill into you in Film Studies is that any film, no matter what time period it takes place in, is really about the time in which it is made.  While not as many people picked up on Spielberg’s “Lincoln” really being about Obamacare, my guess is anyone watching “Selma” will know the film is concerned with voter ID laws, law enforcement’s treatment of young black men, and the overt and open racism that has spiked up since Obama was elected president.

It’s been tough for Hollywood to make a film about Dr. King, largely because his children, who control his estate, are very picky about who is allowed to use the actual words in King’s speeches.  You see, those speeches, including the famous “I have a Dream” speech, are copyrighted material.   Yes, a man whose words should really belong to the world and not to heirs who did nothing for anybody has domain over his famous works controlled by them solely due to capitalist rights of inheritance.  Not only that, but when you’re dealing with such a revered figure, people can often want to just see the man as an infallible figure from history books, and not as the living, breathing, flawed human being he and everyone else truly is.  Let’s get this out of the way: “Selma” does, albeit briefly, mention King’s extramarital affairs.  It’s only one scene, it isn’t harped upon, but it’s there and makes narrative sense.  Another scene, showing King and friends having lunch at a woman’s house and joking around, could have easily come from a scene in Chris Rock’s “Top Five” when Rock’s character visits friends from the neighborhood he grew up in.  For many people who grew up after King’s death, we seem to only picture King making speeches and marching.  It’s nice to be reminded that he was a guy who had friends and joked around with them, even while concerned with serious issues.  He was a human being, and while the film “Selma” clearly likes and respects the man, it doesn’t try to make him into a god.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether “Selma” was snubbed in the Oscar nominations because of racism or something.  I think the film may actually just be suffering from “12 Years a Slave” backlash.  “12 Years” won Best Picture last year, and in a year where films like “Her”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and “American Hustle” were nominated, it felt like “12 Years” won because the Academy felt it had to and not because they actually believed it was the best film of the year.  For the record, that film didn’t even come close to my top 10 films of last year, and I think it is a good but overrated film.  “Selma” is actually much better.  Aside from the backlash, and the coincidence that both films are produced by Brad Pitt, “Selma” may suffer because it’s not all that well directed.  Director Ava DuVernay films the whole movie in a muted color palette that doesn’t communicate a time period or place, so much as it looked like there was an issue with the projection in my theater.  The image looks like it needs the brightness turned down and the contrast turned up.  On top of that, I don’t know what lenses she used to shoot the film, but the edges of the frame were often out of focus and blurred (not to the extent that most people would notice) while the main focal point of the frame was in crisp focus, as if the whole film were meant to be a dream sequence.  I haven’t seen anything else she has directed, but the film has the hallmarks of a director who is still in their learning phase but has an innate talent.  A few more films and she’ll be a great director, but as of now she needs some work, and another director may have possibly done a better job with this material.

King is played by David Oyelowo, and his snub for Best Actor was likely because the role doesn’t allow for much extravagance in comparison with playing, say, Stephen Hawking.  Still, Oyelowo captures King quite well.  He plays King as reserved in public among Whites, but on the cusp of being a firebrand when speaking among his own people in a church setting.  Of course this would be the case, as we tailor our messages for the audience.  The film makes the case that King was tolerated by those in power because they saw him as a peaceful, preferable alternative to the likes of Malcolm X, and so tacitly endorses the idea of radicals as useful to allow people like King, who was also a radical if a non-violent one, to gain a seat at the table. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) does show up in one scene of the film, seemingly having cast aside some of his radicalness, wanting to be used as a tool to have King taken more seriously by comparison.  Much like a moderate candidate who looks good running against a fringe candidate (Romney or Michelle Bachman? Suddenly Romney looks better), radicals were useful in allowing King to advance his agenda.

Much has been made over the film’s portrayal of LBJ (Tom Wilkinson).  It may not be strictly true that Johnson was as against the Voting Rights Act as the film shows, but it is true that he had other priorities he deemed more important at the time as part of his whole Great Society and War on Poverty deal.  The film amps this up a bit for the sake of narrative purposes, and I for one don’t mind.  We also briefly get J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) saying unkind words about King, after which the film uses superimposed text of FBI surveillance reports on King as a way of dispensing exposition and transitioning scenes.  It’s both clunky and ingenious, and at the very least you are never lost while watching the film.

Obviously, voting rights are the main focus of the film.  There’s a very great scene, early on, showing a woman (Oprah Winfrey) attempt to register to vote at her County Clerk’s office in Selma, Alabama.  After meticulously filling out her application, the white clerk asks her to recite the preamble to the Constitution.  Then how many district judges there are in the state.  When she correctly does both, he tells her to name all of the judges.  The onerous and arbitrary reasons places in the United States were able to use to deny people the right to vote, a right added to the Constitution for them to have, is mind-blowing, and that this was only 50 years ago!  When some people claim “slavery has been over for  over a hundred years”, they seem to forget that it hasn’t exactly been hunky-dory on the Civil Rights front ever since.

In a later scene, some blacks attempt a peaceful protest by marching at night.  This leads to a violent crackdown by police, and after a young man named Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) tries to lead his parents into a black diner to avoid crackdown, cops enter the establishment and shoot Jackson dead with no reason.  “Selma” began filming in May of 2014, which was two months before the chokehold death of Eric Garner and three months before the shooting death of Michael Brown, but the killing of young black men by overzealous police officers isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Whatever controversy there may be over Brown, few can deny Garner was killed for doing little more than complaining of harassment from police (which didn’t match the level of his alleged crime of selling loose cigarettes illegally).  There was also the film last year, “Fruitvale Station” about the murder of a young black man by a subway cop.  By showing us an example of this in the 1960s, “Selma” reminds us that recent events are not isolated incidents that exist in a vacuum, and that it is perhaps the collected memory of these events and many more that lead to such an outcry about police violence and black lives mattering.  While white suburbanites may see annoying protests over dubious characters, many blacks see the continuance of brutal, authoritarian repression with every young black man shot down.  Even if Michael Brown turned out to be the criminal punk who provoked an attack, that doesn’t excuse the hundreds or perhaps thousands of Eric Garners and Jimmie Lee Jacksons.

The political messages of “Selma” are relatively safe.  One doesn’t have to go out on a limb to say racism or indiscriminate violence against blacks is bad.  However, “Selma” is not just a quaint historical piece where people can safely walk out and say “I’m glad I don’t live in those times”.  Voting rights are again under attack, and there is still a massive problem with how the American criminal justice system deals with minorities, as well as how American Capitalism serves to keep minorities down.  As one character in “Selma” says, “What good is being able to sit down at the counter with a white man if the black man can’t afford to buy the burger”.  King was sometimes tagged as a Communist or Communist sympathizer for occasional comments against Capitalism, but it’s hard to deny that American Capitalism has not served the black man, or any non-bourgeois man, well.

So then, what is course of action in fighting injustice?  For King, he saw non-violent yet still confrontational protest as a good avenue.  If the other side became violent, that would be enough rope for them to hang themselves, as the cops who cracked down on the original Selma marchers did, on national television no less.  Seeing that won over sympathetic whites and clergy, and that meant that whites in the halls of power could no longer ignore cries for justice.  King knew when to play inside the system, having direct meetings with presidents and other state officials, and he knew when to play outside of it.  While revolutionaries like Malcolm X, and perhaps the Weather Underground, would prefer a somewhat more violent fight against unfair systems and persons, one can’t argue with success.  While our modern Supreme Court may want to roll back King’s accomplishments, be it voting rights or potentially the FHA, they did stand for many years.  Unlike the failed Occupy Wall Street movement, which did little more but help coin the phrases 1% and 99%, it helped to have a leader and specific demands when protesting, which King’s movements had.   While our modern GOP may decry some actions as Saul Alinski-like tactics, perhaps they should be less afraid of the “Rules or Radicals” author, and more afraid that people will once again reach into the King playbook.

It’s hard to watch scenes of King making speeches while protestors on the sidelines hold up Confederate flags and signs with the word “nigger” on it, and not be reminded of the Tea Party, protests against the Affordable Care Act, and the general hate-tinged protests that have sparked up since Obama has been president.  The Conservatives may have replaced “nigger” with “Socialist” as their epithet of choice (which make a real Socialist like me scratch his head), and they may use the Gadsden Flag a bit more than they use the Confederate Flag, but the protests look awfully similar.  George Wallace (wonderfully portrayed in the film by Tim Roth) shows up in the film as the governor of Alabama and, of course, would later go on to run for president as a third party, secessionist candidate.  Watching the film, it’s hard to not notice Wallace-like tendencies in some modern, not necessarily racist, but certainly crazy and borderline evil politicians like Ted Cruz.  Films like “Selma” remind us that history is never too far off, and the struggles we face in the past often take only slightly different forms in the present.

“Selma” may not be a perfect film.  Aside from my quibbles with the visual style, it also has maybe too much affinity for religion (I understand King was a reverend, but does the film need to suggest a god told King not to march on the bridge on that second attempt?) and despite King being the hero who does all of the hard work, it still kind of suggests that all of the black protesting in the world won’t matter unless white people join your cause (as they do for the second and third marches), a white person dies (a white priest [Jeremy Strong] from Boston is shown beaten to death for being a black sympathizer), and a white person pushes your legislation, namely Johnson.  It’s nice to see a movie about black issues where the central character is at least black (looking at you “The Help” and “The Blind Side”), and obviously they can’t rewrite history, but narrative focus could have made all the difference.

Still, “Selma” is an important film both as a history lesson and as a reminder that we still struggle with these same issues even though we, in 2015, may sometimes think ourselves to be morally superior to our ancestors of only 50 years prior.  “Selma” is very well-acted, finds the right balance of reverence for King and humanizing him, and is all around a fine film. B+

Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Posted: January 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

I’ve seen action films less edge-of-your-seat exhilarating than “Whiplash”.  That “Whiplash” is a film about a young man who wants to be the next great jazz drummer makes this fact very surprising, or at least it did to me as I was watching the film.  With training sequences showcasing physical and mental abuse leading up to an ultimate battle of talent and will, the film at some points has more in common with a war film than with an indie drama about the power of negative reinforcement.  Watching the film an experience, and it’s one of the best films of 2014.

Miles Teller, who was so good in the previous year’s “The Spectacular Now” (which made my top 10 list of 2013), plays Andrew Neiman.  Andrew was accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory, a fictional music school that the film tells us is the best in the United States.  When he’s not going to the movies to watch classic films with his father (Paul Reiser, where has he been?) and crushing on the girl behind the concessions counter (Melissa Benoist), he’s practicing his drumming into the wee hours of the night.  He has no friends, and aside from his father he seems to view the rest of his family with disdain.  One night, Terrence Fletcher (the great J.K. Simmons), the most respected and feared conductor at the school, hears Andrew playing, kind of mindfucks with him a bit, and leaves.  Later, for seemingly no real reason, Fletcher abruptly pulls Andrew from his class to place him in the role of alternate for the band the school sends to competitions when competing with similar music academies.  Perhaps Fletcher sees something in Andrew’s playing, or perhaps it’s merely the way Andrew pushes himself that Fletcher likes.

Fletcher is a bully and a drill sergeant, but apparently very talented at composing pieces and recognizing talent.  His band, though they chat as young men would when amongst themselves, snap to attention like scared boy scouts when the intimidating Fletcher enters the room.  Fletcher is a demanding perfectionist, and isn’t above public shaming and ridicule, almost causing one kid to pee himself before being kicked out for not knowing whether his instrument is in tune or not.  When Andrew can’t seem to get the tempo of a piece correctly, Fletcher slaps him.  The film doesn’t make Fletcher a one-dimensional asshole, however.  When he learns a former student of his has died, he openly sheds tears in front of his band, and plays some of the students’ music for his class.

The film makes Fletcher’s motives quite clear.  He passes on an anecdote about Charlie Parker, the great drummer, losing the beat during a song.  The story goes that another musician threw a symbol at Parker’s head because of this, and after that Parker practiced his ass off until he became one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time.  I’ve since learned that the story, as the film tells it, isn’t entirely correct, but that doesn’t exactly matter.  What matters is that Fletcher believes the story, and is clearly of the camp, as he puts it, that “Good Job” are the two most damaging words in the English language.  Fletcher, and really the film, argues that negative reinforcement weeds out the real talented ones from the people who can’t take the pressure and didn’t have the gumption to go all of the way.  Fletcher is a guy who would hate all the kids of a sport getting “participation trophies” and being encouraged.  He sees greatness as only coming from being backed into a corner.  Never mind the psychological harm it may do.  Indeed, the way the film ends seems to indicate that the film agrees with Fletcher’s worldview, and though it’s a view I don’t entirely agree with (or entirely disagree with), the film succeeds regardless of whether that particular message is slightly dubious.

Andrew, despite the pressure put on him, doesn’t really fault Fletcher…mostly.  When he gets a chance to date the movie theater concessions girl, he abruptly dumps her soon thereafter because she would inevitably distract him from his real only want in life, which is to be great and to be remembered by the world, which he views as more valid and worthwhile than simply being liked or loved by those who know you in their inner circle.  Andrew would rather have the respect and admiration of strangers than the love of one woman or a few friends.  He has a singular, myopic goal, which leads to some rather dangerous and erratic behavior and choices (his rush to get to a competition after leaving his drum sticks at a car rental agency is harrowing).

I cannot begin to encapsulate how great this film is.  It doesn’t give us the protagonist we expect.  Andrew is not the young prodigy who will come to realize that greatness is no substitute for the love of a good woman, or something you’ve seen in movies like these a million times.  Nope.  Andrew barrels forward with a singular determination, even if that may make him occasionally unpalatable to the audience.  Mostly we can still empathize with him, though, and even when we think what he’s doing is crazy and just not worth it, we can’t help but root for him because it takes a massive pair of balls to keep on ticking after what’s thrown at him.

Fletcher is not precisely a villain. With a skin tight black t-shirt and imposing, muscular arms, this is the role J.K. Simmons has done that has come closest to his great “Oz” Aryan rapist Schillinger.  Despite that, he’s allowed quiet moments where we get to know where this guy is coming from.  It’s also odd that the film kind of takes his side, and throughout all of his negativity, Simmons allows us to see the light in his eyes when he genuinely thinks one of his pupils is doing a good job, even if he’d never say that verbally.

This is the only film I can think of that makes music practice exciting.  As Fletcher forces Andrew and two other drummers to do an hours-long round robin of drumming until someone can get a piece of music correctly, the camera spins around 360 degrees and the energy picks up until you, as an audience member, feel like you are there in the rehearsal space, both wishing it would stop so that the drummers are spared further indignity and that it will keep going because you want one (Andrew, let’s not kid ourselves) actually succeed and not have all of this be for naught.

Director Damien Chazelle, who I am instinctively jealous of as he was born in the same city I was and is a year younger than I yet has made such a terrific film, originally made “Whiplash” as a short film to gain financing for this full length feature, hence the surprising news that it received a nomination for Adapted Screenplay as opposed to Original Screenplay for the Oscars.  With only one other film under his belt (unseen by me) he has made a film that throws away the clichés of the coming of age film, or the musical prodigy film, and created a brutal, sometimes ugly, yet beautiful and electric film that gets to the heart of what may be a wider issue: how do we educate our youth, and what is the correct way to motivate talent?  I know some teachers who think discipline and getting back to hitting kids with rulers would do a generation of spoilers, narcissistic, entitled young a bit of good.  I am sympathetic to their view, but not to their glorification of past abuses.  Fletcher may, in the end, be a good teacher by being exacting, but that’s like saying a fascist dictator is a good leader by keeping crime low when the death penalty is used for all offenses, no matter how minor.  Fletcher has good intentions, but we all know that saying about the road to hell.

Regardless of how you may feel about the film’s tacit endorsement of Fletcher’s attitudes, this is a masterful piece of work.  I thoroughly enjoyed every damn second of this film, and I am pleased as punch that this film, while it may not be seen by as many people as an “American Sniper” or a “Guardians of the Galaxy”, will at least get some notice thanks to the Academy’s nominations.  That, my readers, is why I can never fully be upset with a silly award show that hands gold statues to millionaires. A.

Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller)

Posted: January 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

America does this weird thing.  You see, it pumps people up to do something, like join the military or win Olympic Gold, and then later does nothing else for you.  In the US, we are pelted with a million different commercials for the military, are told that every single soldier is a hero fighting for our freedom…but then when their job as brainwashed cannon fodder is over, we ship them off to sub par VA hospitals, they discover college credits earned solely under military work don’t transfer to many colleges, and often have hard times attaining and maintaining civilian jobs.  The American deification of the military is a sham used to convince otherwise intelligent and able-bodied people to be unthinking cannon fodder for reasons that almost never have anything to actually do with freedom or safety for the country.

“Foxcatcher” does a better job than I would expect at using Olympic athletes as stand-ins for the military when making a point about America.  The point isn’t the main focus of the film, but when your film ends in people chanting “U.S.A” and the scene is filled with sadness, you’re probably saying something not very complimentary about America.  We start off with meeting Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, who does an excellent job at playing a guy who is not too bright without making him an out and out buffoon).  He’s an Olympic gold medal winner who, in the midst of the four year gap between winning that medal and the next summer Olympics, has been reduced to giving speeches about American exceptionalism and greatness to bored elementary school students for $20.00 a pop.  He lives in a sad and barely furnished apartment eating Ramen noodles.  He is the forgotten hero.  Some Olympic athletes may become popular enough to get endorsement deals, like Michael Phelps or Nancy Kerrigan.  Most, however, are only really famous in their specific circle of people who enjoy that one specific sport or competition, and are forgotten about by America-proper unless they, four years later, win again and allow the country to feel undeserved superior to the rest of the world.  Short-lived empty praise followed by being forgotten and destitute.  That seems to describe military service to me.

Things start to change for Shultz when he receives a call asking him to visit a man named John du Pont (Steve Carrell, behind some gimmicky make-up, but otherwise giving an astounding performance).  Du Pont is the heir to the chemical company fortune and lives in a mansion on a massive estate largely run by his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who raises champion horses and doesn’t seem to much care for her son.  John is not quite an eccentric rich man, but he’s getting there.  An avid ornithologist who wrote books about birds, he has turned his attention to wrestling.  Why?  The film draws a comparison to his mother and her horses by implying John sees his wrestlers as his own horses, and views training, building, and taming men to be a far higher art than that of horses.  The film also implies that du Pont is a closeted homosexual who may or may not make advances on the men, or at the very least enjoys the physical contact with half naked men on a more than sportsmanlike level.  Mommy issues, latent homosexuality, and your run-of-the-mill need to feel important, or admired, or worth something seem to be his main driving forces.  As a rich man who inherited his money and seems, in the film at least, to have done little work to earn or be deserving of such riches, the film showcases du Pont as a victim of his own insecurities.  He is the film’s villain as much for using his undeserved wealth to slave his mental wounds as he is for his real life crimes.  If the film is trying to subtly make some anti-American comments, and I think it is, this little jab at class and inherited wealth is just enough to not be harped on by Conservatives in the audience.  The military thing is under the surface enough that I doubt anyone else picked up on it outside of film students.

Mark has his own issues with inferiority.  His older brother David (Mark Ruffalo) also won a gold medal, and unlike Mark he is sought after to be a wrestling coach for various important organizations.  Mark feels his older brother’s shadow cast over him all the time, and while he loves his brother, that resentment is a heavy weight.  That $20.00 speaking gig at the school was originally meant for David.  When du Pont first woos Mark into coming to join his team of wrestlers, Team Foxcatcher, he has Mark try to bring David along as well.  David is a no-go, not wanting to uproot his family, but Mark is fairly happy about this, as it lets him be the big star on the team as he trains to try to win another Olympic gold medal.

Things go well for a while.  Mark wins an important event in France, he lives rent-free on du Pont’s estate while collecting a salary as he trains (and presumably helps train the other wrestlers, though we never see him do any coaching).  Later, du Pont casually introduces him to cocaine, there are impromptu late-night wrestling matches, and when du Pont eventually woos David to join as well, well, Mark feels like he’s no longer special.

The film assigns rather simple motives to all of the characters, and at the very least I’m sure du Pont had far more going on his brain in real life than the always unnervingly creepy film version of him does.  Carrell’s du Pont never seems like he’s anything other than a strange, creepy, almost-but-not-quite unhinged man whose obsession with wrestling, despite having no talent at the sport or in coaching the sport, comes across as odd from day one.  His stated motive for starting the team is to see America be great again.  Invoking American exceptionalism almost always works in this country, and Mark is daft enough to go along with it when nothing else in his life is going right, but Dave at one point does ask Mark what du Pont is getting out of all of this?

It would have been nice if the film had delved a bit more into du Pont’s psyche.  Reading up on the guy after the film, I learn he discovered about a dozen species of new birds, owned the world’s rarest stamp, and was married to a woman, briefly, who later claimed he threatened to throw her in a fire.  If anything, the film doesn’t make him eccentric enough.  I don’t fault Carrell’s performance, as he seems to be playing the character as written, and playing him pretty damn well.  The other main performances, from Tatum and Ruffalo, are spot-on, and Tatum deserves credit for finding ways to play a dumb meathead without falling into cliché.  This film shows both Carrell and Tatum as having levels of acting talent heretofore unseen from either of them, and it’s the centerpiece of the film.  We’re used to seeing Ruffalo do really good work, especially in the great “You Can Count on Me”, so perhaps that’s why he doesn’t stand out and shine as much as his costars despite doing a great job himself.

This is director Bennett Miller’s third film.  “Capote” was, I felt, an over-rated, mediocre film that, were it not for a great Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, would have been forgotten as a lame and boring biopic.  He then directed “Moneyball” after Soderbergh dropped out.  “Moneyball” was interesting simply for being a film about baseball (the most cinematic of sports thus far) that was less about the games and the playing of it than with the business decisions and mathematics behind creating a team.  It deconstructed the myth of sports as a vehicle for showcasing the triumph of the human body and spirit and broke it down to numbers on a spreadsheet and decisions made for profit, as all professional sports truly are.  “Foxcatcher” is, like the previous two films, based on a true story, and combines the true crime nature of the former film and the sports aspect of the latter film.  “Foxcatcher” looks nice and is shot well without drawing attention to its direction, and the score is often used in excellent ways.  He’s directed this script about as well as anyone could direct it.

This is a very good movie, but the script doesn’t quite delve deep enough into the characters’ psychologies, even as it does an admirable job communicating some messages in a not-on-the-nose fashion.  The acting and the directing elevate the script above its small flaws so that we wind up with a film that looks and sounds great, but is just missing enough meat to actually be a great film.  Despite all of that, it’s a very good film telling an interesting story (so interesting I wanted to look up more details about the real life events immediately upon viewing it). B.

“Birdman” looks to examine the state of art today.  That’s a mighty big goal for any film.  Film itself, as a medium, can sometimes be art, but the massive amounts of money needed to fund a film usually prohibit films that aren’t more than entertainment appealing to the largest amount of people possible from getting made.  If those films are made, they likely won’t get much marketing or a release with enough visibility to ensure people actually give it a look-see, and a small non-theatrical release usually robs your film of any chance at gaining prestige.  Because of these monetary hurdles, and film is the world’s most expensive art form at this moment, most films which are made are simply entertainment.  That isn’t to say art can’t be entertaining, or that entertainment cannot rise to the level of art, but for the most part films tend to be one or the other.  Take a look at the top 10 grossing films of any given year.  Now contrast that with the top 10 most well-reviewed films of that same year.  My guess is few years will have heavy overlap between the two categories.

I love a good piece of mindless (or semi-mindless) entertainment as much as the next guy.  Was “Guardians of the Galaxy” a great film with a ton of messages that said something important about our world or the human condition? Hell no!  But I, and most likely you, the reader, liked that film.  It was the highest grossing film of 2014, as of this writing.  Would you say it was the best film of 2014?  If you would, I would advise you to see more films and I’ll ask you again.  I bring up “Guardians” because it is a film based on a comic book, and comic book movies and their ilk are the films making the most money and getting the most acclaim from “average folk”, by which I mean people who go to the movies but don’t live and breathe them like critics, people in the industry, and hardcore film geeks like yours truly.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe alone is raking in billions of dollars from the plebeians who file into their local Cineplex to watch the next “Iron Man” or “Thor” without having the least bit of interest in a film like “Birdman”.  I say this not to hate on comic book movies, which like any genre have their highs and lows, but to simply state that there is a larger audience for entertainment in film than there is for art in film.

“Birdman” is about this and more, much more.  The film questions whether art has a point when it is less popular than junk (and the film certainly views comic book films as junk for mindless, crass simpletons).  It wonders if theater is a more worthwhile medium when ticket prices for Broadway are so prohibitively expensive that only rich white people can see them and are unlikely to care about art’s messages an themes, and are no better than the people who see comic book movies for entertainment, save for their pretentiousness and affectations toward being “cultured”.  It questions whether it is better to be a true actor or just a movie star, and if an actor is really any better in the first place.  It also questions whether criticism is useful any more, or if it’s just become a worthless cacophony of opinion and buzzwords.

Perhaps an overview of the plot is in order. Riggan Thomson (an excellent and sorely missed Michael Keaton) was famous in the early 90s for playing a superhero named Birdman in three films.  Yes, Keaton himself was Batman in two films around the same time, but aside from the stunt casting there’s not much direct metafictional stuff going on about this.  Twenty years have passed, and Riggan wants to recapture the public’s affection and respect by adapting, directing, and starring in a play based on a Raymond Carver short story.  He’s sunk a lot of money into the production, and stands to lose more than just his reputation if it sinks, which it seems like it just may.  His lawyer (Zach Galifianakis) does an admirable job of trying to help him, and his fresh out of rehab daughter (Emma Stone, all big-eyed and husky-voiced) is his assistant who seems to stand above the fray and is perhaps both more and less deep than she seems.  When a lousy actor is injured in a freak accident, he is replaced by Mike (Edward Norton), a method actor who is respected in Broadway circles, and who looks down upon Riggan as some Studio Hack.

The film is comprised of long takes that are edited together to seem like one shot, much the way Hitchcock made “Rope”.  Unlike “Rope”, the film is not meant to take place in real time, and transitions into shadows or with a nice dissolve allow for a passage of time that these faux-continuous take films rarely attempt.  This gives the film an also play-like feel, which helps as we spend so much time in the theater and watching this play-within-a-film go on.  The fluidity of the camera and the behind-the-scene nihilism make for some shallow and cosmetic comparisons to “Black Swan”, but any similarities end there, as “Birdman” is much less concerned with plot than with dealing with issues.  Unlike other “issues” movies, however, “Birdman” doesn’t skimp on giving us fully realized characters that we are interested in.

So to the main question the film brings up: Is art useful?  Regardless of my own opinion, what does the film argue?  Honestly, I don’t know.  The film is pretty pessimistic and nihilistic through its run, as we deal with characters who are largely up their own ass and oblivious to their own flaws even as they think they know what is wrong with themselves.  The play Riggan puts on is ultimately deemed to be accidental art, which I suppose is the closest thing to an argument the film makes about art: it sometimes happens by accident and against all odds.  I suppose this is true.  Hollywood doesn’t try to make good movies, it tries to make movies that will make a profit.  If the finished product happens to be art, all the better.  The subtitle of this film, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” seems to speak to that.  Every now and then we get a film that was only meant to be entertainment but rises to the level of art (“The Exorcist” is perhaps a famous example, a horror film that surpasses expectations to be more than the sum of its parts), but you can’t really try to make popular entertainment art.  If you do this, you’ll end up with pretentious dribble that might sort of succeed as entertainment at best (“Avatar” comes to mind).  So if art does exist, even if by accident, does it really cause people to examine things about themselves and the world around them?  Speaking only for myself: yes.  I guess that’s the thing, though.  We all interpret art through our personal lens, and what speaks to one may not speak to another, or to any other.  If art can exist, does it need to be useful to all or most?  “Birdman” seemingly has no opinion.

To a lesser extent, any question “Birdman” asks of film it also asks of theater, but both my non-expertise in that medium’s business model and its ins and outs prohibit my full analysis of what the film may be saying about it in total.  Clearly it looks down on the bourgeois audiences who make up theater’s crowd simply because they are the only ones can afford to do so regularly.  The attempts by “Rent” and other productions to make Broadway’s audience more egalitarian don’t seem to have worked, and a ticket to a live performance remains prohibitively expensive for most people.

“Birdman” is clearly an angry film, though an angry film that channels its emotion through satire and inventiveness.  I suppose any serious filmmaker working Hollywood today is probably upset that hundreds of superhero films and “Transformers” movies can get made, but serious films from serious talents have trouble getting funding and reaching the light of day.  I imagine they hate the very same audiences they want to see and enjoy their films.  I can understand that.  I’d gladly trade nearly every summer blockbuster for one film a year from David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, or any other true auteur working in or around the Hollywood system.  It sucks that one crappy movie where computer animated robots fight other computer animated robots will make more money than most other films combined and spawn numerous sequels and rip-offs for decades, and idiots will eat them up only to ask for more, when great films will go unremembered and little loved. I long to go back to the Hollywood of the 1970s where films were inventive and took risks and were both entertaining and meant something.

Of course, “Birdman” also argues that withdrawing into pretentiousness is no answer either.  Norton’s character is a parody of every self-serious actor who thinks he’s becoming another person or feels he needs to be drunk to play a drunk character, but is really just an asshole who is no better than the celebrity who has his own demons.  Norton’s Mike may be a better actor than Keaton’s Riggan, but both Mike and Riggan are similarly deluded assholes.  Riggan’s own pretentiousness, to adapt and add to a short story and attempt to give people something he feels they need to see rather than something they want to see, is nearly the height of solipsism, and a solipsistic artist can only every really play to an audience of himself.

Lastly, director Alejandro González Iñárritu clearly views most critics as hacks who cannot truly analyze or deconstruct art, but rather have their own personal axes to grind and lazily resort to easy insults or compliments that sound flowery yet mean nothing.  I don’t necessarily disagree with Iñárritu, as I have read more than my share of bad film reviews, but like Burton’s “Big Eyes”, I think the director is lumping all critics into a bad pile simply out of his own anger.  Iñárritu has made very good films prior to this, including the extremely depressing but excellent “21 Grams”, and the Mexican “Pulp Fiction”, “Amores Perros”, but his ambitious “Babel” was something of a failure, and he may still be smarting from the mixed and bad reviews he got from that film.  It was after that film where he retreated and made another Spanish-language film, “Biutiful” (unseen by me), and has now returned to the American indie scene.  At the very least, he should be happy with the reviews “Birdman” has been getting, and the film is kind of brilliant.  Not many films attempt to deal with whether art (and film) have outlived their usefulness or not.  If he wants to throw in an attack on critics, and also kind of lump in entertainment reporters who ask moronic tabloid questions about pig semen with them, well, his film has earned him that right.

If “Birdman” suffers, it does so in some plotting.  The lesbian kiss between two characters (Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), and those two characters plot lines in general, are superfluous and add little to the film’s points.  We get some relationship drama and a bit of commentary related to ingénues w/r/t Watts, but ultimately these two characters don’t need to be here.  Perhaps because of the faux-single-take format, we do have individual scenes here and there which seem like filler, but removing or cutting them would have messed up the format and were likely left in the film, in their entirety, for that reason.  The dalliance between Norton and Stone feels like a forced plot point.  Also, the ending of the film is telegraphed pretty damn early, thus undercutting the power of a key scene late in the film (it could be said to be the film’s climax, but one more scene follows it before the end).

Minor quibbles aside, this is a well-acted, well-directed film that attempts to examine the state of art, entertainment, film, drama, and criticism as it exists today.  Not only that, it does so in a way that is often both hilariously funny and heart-crushingly depressing and nihilistic at the same time.  If the film needed some more tweeking, or bites off more than it can chew, we can hardly blame it.  I’d rather see this movie than another “Iron Man” any day of the week. B+

“The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” (useless and unnecessary subtitle) fails to create any sense of atmosphere, create any dread, or capitalize on the admittedly beautiful setting it decides to take place in.  It is rare one sees a horror film with such little horror in it. It’s not just horror the film is lacking, but also drama.  This is the kind of film one sits quietly during and waits patiently for it to end, much as you would in a doctor’s waiting room.  This film is a dull, nonsensical bore.

Having not seen the first film, perhaps I was deprived of key knowledge needed to understand the mythology of the Woman in Black as a character.  It appears she is hell-bent on hypnotizing kids into killing themselves.  This would seem to make her a very powerful ghost, what with being able to take over peoples’ minds and control their actions and all.  If she is this powerful, then why, one wonders, does she waste so much time making doors open, close, and lock for no good reason?  Does she have a sense of humor and enjoy playing practical jokes before making people strangle themselves with yarn (which seems a rather ineffective strangling instrument, especially when one considers what a death trap an old, decrepit mansion with holes in the floors would be?  Why write ominous messages on walls and gently touch people with your gnarled, purple hand, only to do nothing?  Why make an appearance as yourself hanging from a noose right behind someone when they aren’t going to see you?  Granted, the audience DOES see you, but if the Woman in Black is aware he is a character in a film then that is an even cooler power, and such meta-ness is far too clever for this film.  The powers and behavior of this child-killing ghost make not a lick of sense, unless one considers that her behaviors are built not as the realistic actions of a character, but rather as excuses for lame and predictable jump scares.  If the pun is the lowest form of humor, the jump scare is the lowest form of horror.

The plot involves a woman named Eve (Phoebe Fox), who is haunted by memories of her child being taken away shortly after it was born because, she tells us, she had the kid too young and was unwed.  Perhaps if the character weren’t played as if she was the most innocent and naïve girl one can imagine living during bombings in WWII, I’d buy that she was an unwed teen mother in the 1940s.  Despite her apparently immoral sexual behavior, she is allowed to be the caretaker of some children, who are being shepherded out of the dangerous and Nazi-targeted London and taken to the aforementioned old and decrepit mansion.  Why are the kids’ parents not also allowed to go with them out of the city?  Why is this old mansion deemed safer when a character clearly states that German bombers will drop leftover bombs on the countryside after raids on the city, showing that they’re only marginally safer at their destination?  The film later shows us *MILD SPOILER* that a fake airfield was set up close to the mansion to draw German bombers away from REAL airfields with REAL British airplanes, so in fact the children are perhaps just as proximal to an enemy target now as they were in London proper.

That airfield is being manned by Harry (Jeremy Irvine), who the film supplies to us solely to be a chaste love interest to our main character, who otherwise would have nothing to do but watch children die around her and be spooked by rocking chairs.  Why a ghost would rock a rocking chair when she has shown the capacity to induce suicide in children is beyond me.  A dead child is far more traumatic than a chair rocking for no reason, but whatever.  Perhaps the title should be “The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death and Rocking Chairs”?

Of course, Eve has a favorite among the 7 or 8 kids: Edward (Oaklee Pendergast).  He has gone mute, for some reason, and has taken to drawing pictures ad accepting dolls from the Woman in Black.  Also, the film implies that he may be Eve’s son, but never directly addresses whether this is the case or not.  For some reason, the Woman in Black decides to try and win this kid’s favor before killing him, something she does not try with any of the other children.  This seems to be as some sort of punishment to Eve, but why the Woman in Black even wants to punish Eve is a bit murky.  I’m told by my girlfriend, who saw the first film but fell asleep during this one, that The Woman in Black’s son was taken away from her, only to drown.  You’d think the ghost would empathize with Eve rather than punish her, considering Eve did not want to relinquish custody of her son, and indeed we’re told she looked for him to no avail, but I guess with all the doors she has to open and close our villain couldn’t be bothered to rationalize her motives.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss how profoundly dumb the ending of this film is, so forgive more *MASSIVE SPOILERS* at this juncture.  Early in the film, Edward writes on a scrap of paper to Eve that his mom told him that good thoughts will keep his nightmares at bay.  At the end, Edward is being hypnotized by the Woman in Black to drown himself in the same marsh her son had drowned in.  At this point, Eve is attempting to wade toward him to stop this suicide by ghost and tells Edward to think good thoughts.  This seems to be all Edward needed, a reminder to think of kitty cats and puppy dogs and not about drowning himself to death, and suddenly he snaps out of it.  Also, this prompts a number of ghost children at the bottom of the marsh to try to pull Edward and Eve to the bottom.  If suicide doesn’t work, the Woman in Black will resort to out and out murder, which raises the question as to why she bothers with the rocking chairs and hypnotism when she could just have her previous victims stab the hell out of these people with glass shards from around the old house and make this a five minute short film.  Luckily, Harry arrives just in the nick of time to pull them up, all before the ghost children pull Him down and kill him, after which Edward tells us that the Woman in Black is gone.  Wait, what?  Why did killing Harry make the Woman in Black disappear?  Never mind, the writers wrote themselves into a corner and needed to end the film at the 88 page mark of their script.  At least, end it until a last minute “scare” of the Woman in Black in London breaking picture frame.  How come she can leave the mansion and the area immediately surrounding it?  If she can leave, why isn’t she trying to kill kids all over the world?  The Woman in Black is no Freddy Krueger, and even he was limited to his home town of Springwood.

So yes, the screenplay is downright awful, the mythology makes no sense, the characters are dumb, and the film wastes a perfectly good set by making it not nearly as scary as it could be.  Hell, of the entire mansion, which looks huge, we only see maybe 5 rooms of it, tops.  Even by PG-13 horror movie standards this is bad, and I almost never enjoy PG-13 horror movies anyway. I would say this is better than “The Grudge” but worse than “The Ring” or “Insidious”, and I disliked or outright hated all of those films.

It is theoretically possibly to make a scary film with a PG-13 rating.  It’s not just blood and gore that the MPAA won’t let in a PG-13 horror film, as they even have rules that the film’s MUSIC can’t be too scary.  When you have limits on your soundtrack, you’re essentially trying to make a good horror film with both hands tied behind your back.  So all you’re left with are jump scares (only need a few seconds of music there) and films that tend to make teenage girls jump and give them an excuse to cuddle up to their boyfriends, assuring they have a fun time at the movies, but leaving general audiences with the feeling of drinking watered-down Yoohoo, which most assuredly tastes like diarrhea.  Drinking diarrhea is preferable to watching “The Grudge”, but only slightly less preferable to watching “The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” more than once. D.