M.K.: Lots of smart people seemed to enjoy this gleeful horror send-up. Smart people have even written smart essays on the film's critique of capitalist rationality, which is a point in its favor. It's doubtful, for instance, that you could gin up a debate between revolutionary Marxists and Commentary magazine on the subject of The Vow. Even if you did, I'm pretty sure nobody would mention Schumpeter.
But without giving away spoilers, engaging the debate over Use versus Exchange Value, or deploying the concept of Rechenhaftigkeit (whoops! too late!), I will say that Joss Whedon's romantic nihilism rubbed me wrong in all sorts of ways. The opening half of the film toggles between deft parody and mysterious riddle; the back half is pure droning agony. Fun, maybe, for horror aficianados, CGI engineers, and Whedon fanboys, but that's about it.
K.H.: I didn't see this, but Fran Kranz was in my college Italian class.
M.K.: Where did you go to school, again?
K.H.: This really could’ve been good. Emily Blunt is lovely, Alison Brie does a fabulous Elmo, and Chris Pratt is so great at being the weird, enthusiastic guy in a relationship. Better still, the cultural concerns are refreshingly perceptive (the demands of academia and haute cuisine really do place outsize challenges on modern romantic partnerships). So it’s just too bad that the individual decisions the characters make never quite feel right.
M.K.: Who could have guessed that in an endless, sprawling 124-minute movie starring Jason Segel, Jason Segel's bare butt would make an appearance? Who, I ask? Who?
In fairness, the film gets some essential things right. Kevin Hart would be an inadequate postdoctoral fellow, in any field. And nobody should wear a sweater hand-stitched by Chris Parnell. Nobody.
M.K.: It sounds preposterous, but the Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter franchise actually makes a relevant historical argument. I won't get into the details here -- you should really read Dael Norwood's shrewd comments on the original Seth Grahame-Smith novel -- but suffice it to say it's not a coincidence that the vampires are slave traders, or that they forge an alliance with Jefferson Davis's Confederacy.
The problem with the movie is not historical but dramatic. It's essentially Lincoln's life told as a superhero story, and the plot clicks into each new phase with ruthless mechanical efficiency (this is, after all, the Age of Railroads): early trauma, discovery of powers, confrontation with evil, mounting danger, heroic triumph. And really, it all gets dull at about phase 3, or maybe 2 and a half. No real characters or tensions develop. The brilliant Anthony Mackie is wasted, almost toxically. See it if you dig extended metaphors about slavery and antebellum politics: otherwise, meh.
K.H.: Fun fact: the entirely unknown Benjamin Walker is still somehow America's favorite presidential badass, starring here as barrel-chested Vampire Hunter, and also on Broadway as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
37. Safety Not Guaranteed
M.K.: Good cheap fun, but has a more forgettable time travel movie ever been made? If you like Aubrey Plaza and/or Mark Duplass, you will probably enjoy this. If you do not like Aubrey Plaza and/or Mark Duplass, you will certainly not enjoy this. And if you don't know who the hell Aubrey Plaza and/or Mark Duplass are, more power to you, but you can move on to the next item on the queue.
K.H.: In one of Steven Soderbergh’s “final” movies, mixed martial artist Gina Carano beats the crap out of Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, and Ewan McGregor. Plot-wise, this spy thriller could’ve been better, but the fisticuffs are a great destructive dance and a total joy to watch.
M.K.: A modern Indian Tess of the d'Urbrvilles? Starring the gorgeously, achingly vulnerable Frieda Pinto? Directed by Michael Winterbottom, fresh off the cloudy brilliance of The Trip, and a veteran of two other Thomas Hardy movies? How could this go wrong? It even starts off beautifully: we are attached to four rakish Brits, tromping through India with all the careless, imperial joie de vivre of Alec d'Urberville making his way through a Wessex village.
Yet as the plot cycles on, cracks begin to surface. Pinto's Trishna is too passive, as Manhola Dargis argues, and probably complicit in turning the "thrillingly human" Tess into a mere "decorative vessel" for Winterbottom's determinism. Perhaps the film could have staggered on, anyway, on the strength of its rich cinematography and the raw power of Hardy's vision. But halfway through, it becomes clear that Winterbottom's adapted plot is tethered to a fatal error. I'm no stickler for literary literalism, and it might well be possible, and even interesting, for a film to meld the ardent, vicious Alec and the romantic, cowardly Angel into one character, but the schizophrenic creature that emerges here does justice to neither.
K.H.: Ridley Scott’s prequel-ish return to the Alien franchise gets off to a promising start with the arrival of a creepy humanoid alien on a ravishing Icelandic terrain. But then Charlize Theron does some sloppy push-ups, several crew members aboard the scientific vessel Prometheus act so stupidly you’d think they’d never seen Alien or heard of Science, and Idris Elba is wasted yet again in outer space. At least this time, he offers to sleep with Charlize. The film’s saving grace is Michael Fassbender, as the bleached-blond android David, whose head looks marvelous in a zip-up bag. I’m hoping he’ll be carried into a sequel because mankind’s trajectory to Ellen Ripley on Nostromo still remains to be seen.
M.K.: I think Ben Affleck brings out my inner Edward Said. (Warning: RANT ALERT.)
In general I try to resist didactic political readings of art, even left-wing ones. (Re: Cabin in the Woods, I side with the neocon Commentary guy against the Marxists.) But in the case of Argo, and its deafeningly triumphant portrait of a CIA operation in Iran, it's hard not to get political. Here's Said, writing in 1993: the "deeper reason" for harmful U.S. caricatures of Middle Eastern society, he argues, is not mere media sensationalism, but "the imperial dynamic and above all its separating, essentializing, dominating, and reactive tendencies."
Argo is nothing if not a study in separation: it begins with the beleaguered garrison of the American embassy, waiting in seclusion for the barbarian onslaught; and it ends with the victorious separateness of a plane escaping the pollutions of Iranian airspace. In between there are a lot of sympathetic Americans, and a lot of essentialized Iranians -- the ceaselessly ranting flag-burners we are used to from CNN -- but rarely ever do they actually interact. It's also a study in reaction: the Americans are never aggressive, only defensive. Affleck does offer a perfunctory cartoon that zips the audience through the U.S.-sponsored coup against Iranian democracy in 1953. But this messy history exists in complete isolation from the clean dramatic structure and focused moral energy of the film. On the whole one could conclude from Argo that the CIA is primarily an international humanitarian organization with a big budget and a few cool perks of spycraft.
By the film's end, as Ben hugs his estranged wife and the flag waves, we are firmly in the world of Reaganite propaganda -- more mischievously effective, of course, because everyone knows that Ben Affleck is really an America-hating Hollywood Librul. Right. Because Libruls always oppose the imperial security state, don't they?
And finally, spare me the guff about the film being a brilliant work of craftsmanship, no matter its politics. First of all, it's just not true: the main character, played by that acclaimed master-thespian, BEN AFFLECK, is a zombie with a goatee. Dramatically, he's deader than Diane Keaton's career. (Sorry Diane: I mock because I miss the old you).
Is Argo technically accomplished? Sure, but so was Haywire. Was I on the edge of my seat during the closing crescendo? Sure, but there were plenty of seat-edge moments in Prometheus. Why aren't they massive Best Picture Favorites? In this way Argo reminds me most of The Social Network, which also bulldozed a fascinating, complicated story, replaced it with an audience-friendly cliché, and watched the honors mount. The critical eagerness to anoint Argo as a good old-fashioned Hollywood thriller** is a deeply regressive impulse, for aesthetic reasons as much as political ones. Its blind imperial divisions, its manufactured simplicities, its constant jokey self-satisfaction -- "Argo fuck yourself!" -- these are all in opposition to the untidy and uncomfortable strivings of genuine art.
So no, I don't want Argo to win the Oscar. But thanks for asking!
K.H.: I do actually think it's a good old-fashioned Hollywood thriller, expertly crafted to keep me on the edge of my seat. Which I resent. I don't tend to think very clearly from that position, and this is a subject that demands just a tiny bit more thought. Argo fuck yourself indeed. Read Persepolis instead.
**M.K.: Of course, 'good old fashioned Hollywood thrillers' were racist and stuff, too. But at least they were complex!
K.H.: Naomi Watts: really, really good at screaming in agony. Little British boys: really, really adorable. Rooting for rich Western tourists to survive an historic tsunami that disproportionately killed the local poor: discomfiting at best. The film gives a nod to white privilege here and there, but mostly we’re just in the thick of it with the Bennett family, uncomplicatedly hoping they’ll be okay. In fairness to director J.A. Bayona, though, there are some wonderful scenes, both on the human scale (oldest son Lucas unable to look at his badly wounded mom) and on the planetary one (water rushing, relentlessly, pulling parent from child).
M.K.: My favorite nod to white privilege comes when the first sounds of the tsunami are muffled by a resort's poolside daiquiri blender. And Naomi Watts is really, really good at just about everything. It turns out that Ewan McGregor, though, is not good at some things, and one of them is making his half of the story feel in any way essential.
M.K.: Another reunion movie! (I'm sensing a Theme to stand alongside Bromance and Urination. We'll see.)
This film, about a large group of high school friends getting ready for their 10th year reunion, goes as far as its ensemble cast will take it. In some cases that's quite far indeed: Chris Pratt, resplendent in argyle, clatters through a spot-on rendition of the ex-drunk dickhead Family Man who is in fact still a drunk dickhead, wife and children notwithstanding ("It's cool," he burbles to Channing Tatum. "You don't have to pretend to like my kids.") Pratt's sincere efforts to "apologize" for his past behavior to the high school dorks, meanwhile, escalate with uncomfortable hilarity into renewed bullying. His karaoke version of "ASI-AN IN BED," bellowed obtusely to the tune of "Lady in Red," brings down the house.
There are other highlights, too: Pratt's wife, Sopranos vet Ari Gaynor, who responds to her husband's boorishness with equal parts embarrassment, fatalism, and complacency; Anthony Mackie, who lights up the place in his too-few scenes; Aubrey Plaza, continuing to do her thing.
Unfortunately there are also major lowlights: the sad and deeply unfunny bromance between Max Minghella and the increasingly creepy Justin Long; and, hard is it is to admit, the inert love triangle between Rosario Dawson, Jenna Dewan, and Tatum's goateed ex-jock. I actually think Chan brought more energy to his role in The Vow. Here he plays a washed-up mortgage broker, and, horrifyingly, you believe him. Just speaking for myself, I don't want to live in a world where Channing Tatum is a washed-up mortgage broker. Do you?
K.H.: I groaned just thinking about Justin Long again. Also! The guy who in 2010 declared Robin Hood to be "AN OUT-LAWWWWWW!" makes an appearance here, as a Jason Mraz-style singer-songwriter. His hit song, oddly enough, is pretty good.
M.K.: Not sure I agree about the song. But more importantly, via Vulture: this is Chris Pratt's actual high school yearbook photo. Wow! Braces!