M.K.: You're thinking: oh yay, another political rant! Well, that's right. But instead of Edward Said, you get Steve Coll in the NYRB, who, after noting the film's many deviations from the historical record, comments on its role in shaping the actual debate over torture in this country, which might even be more important than the Oscars:
As with discourse about climate change policy, the persistence of
on-the one-hand, on-the-other forms of argument about the value
of officially sanctioned torture represents a victory for those who
would justify such abuse. Zero Dark Thirty has performed no
public service by enlarging the acceptability of that form of
More to the point, I'm mystified by those clever critics (not just unclever ones like Michael Moore!) who have persuaded themselves that the film actually offers a searing indictment of torture. It doesn't. Making the case that 'we' have to do bad shit in order to prevent worse shit from happening is not a critique, it's a justification. After ZD30 you're not supposed to sign up for enhanced interrogation school at Yale, but you are supposed to understand that these are grim compromises we must accept in our global pursuit of Evil. It's not a pleasant realization -- it might even make you cry, like Jessica Chastain in the final scene -- but mostly it just makes you grateful that there are other people out there, getting their hands dirty in the struggle to keep us safe. In the end, it's not that different from the lesson of Toby Keith's classic jingo anthem "American Soldier": "I'm out there on the front lines, so sleep in peace to-night..."
Meanwhile it is Maya's remorseless single-mindedness, fueled by long lonely nights and angry dry erase markers, that gets the fucking job done. Chastain herself is an only intermittently convincing badass, and cringe-worthy one-liners -- "I'm the motherfucker who found him" -- don't help. But the overall message is hard to miss: I can't agree with even smart left critics who argue that Zero Dark Thirty takes shelter in its own "howling absence of meaning." The meaning of Cake vs. Jihad is clear enough. Personally, I'm on Team Cake. Does that mean I have to die, too?
K.H. I live my life on Team Cake and I can't really condone the accidental apology for torture that this movie makes. (I do think it's accidental, as the Steve Coll piece strongly suggests.) But I do want to give a shout-out to this movie's women: Bigelow, of course, and Chastain, and Ehle, and even ponytailed Lauren on the Afghan base. Women are at the center of this fight, and while their glimmering Western locks are a great fuck-you to reactionary Islamic ideas about women, their roles are otherwise barely gendered at all. Sure, it registers in Maya's interaction with the hostage in the opening sequence -- it is even more humiliating to him and perhaps more uncomfortable to her that she is a woman -- but on the whole, she and Jessica and Lauren are just agents of the U.S. government. Everything they do could be done by a man. But it isn't. Bring on Hillary in 2016.
M.K.: Cloud Atlas: a wonderful, dizzying, miraculous novel; a pretty decent film. David Mitchell's book tells six different stories in different times and different places, linked only by theme, mood, and some odd mystical hints about regenerative connection. The film, meanwhile, tells those same stories (set in 19th century Pacific, 1930s Belgium, '70s California, modern day England, futuristic Korea, and post-apocalyptic Hawaii) with a small repertory cast, whose overlapping roles give physical weight to the connecting themes.
For me, the repertory casting worked well, even though it meant putting an Asian nose on Ben Whishaw and forcing the audience to spend an unhealthy amount of time with Tom Hanks. Hugh Grant's relentless ghoulishness across the continents and centuries was a particular delight. Less impressively, the script softens and sugars up David Mitchell's troubling vision, without providing any rationale beyond general Hollywood/commercial necessity. If you haven't read the book, read the book. If you have, well, read it again. But then get the DVD and skip ahead to the Hugh Grant cannibal scenes. They are rad.
K.H.: Without a doubt the best non-singing moment of Pitch Perfect is when Anna Kendrick’s once-cynical Beca catches herself preaching, “We could change the face of a cappella…!” She swallows the tail end of the sentence, eyes bugging, mouth contorting in sheer dismay. She knows how ridiculous she sounds, but it’s too late, she’s too far gone. (I myself may have said something like that once, and my soul shall forever bear the scar.) Take it from a recovering a cappeholic, Pitch Perfect gets so many things right about competitive collegiate a cappella (the prejudice against all-girl groups, the bizarre tyranny of a 21-year-old with a pitchpipe, the inability to quit even when you have other things you care much more about, the constant constant singing) that it’s hard to fault it for ultimately affirming its subject. But we can fault it for making a mockery of every minority character and for forcing its characters to stage the same static fights over and over again.
M.K.: An appropriately somber tale of one young girl's descent into darkness. But seriously, they put Ester Dean in the movie, and they only let her sing, like, for 15 seconds? Ester fucking Dean! She co-wrote Katy Perry's "Firework" and, like, half the shit Rihanna has ever sung! What a disgrace.
K.H.: In this future world, time travel totally exists, but it’s illegal, so only the mob can use it. The dirty work here is done by “loopers,” well-paid assassins who dispose of the victims sent back in time to killed. At the end of a looper’s contract, he is responsible for killing his future self, a fool-proof process known as “closing the loop.” So guess what happens when Joseph Gordon-Levitt, looking elegant in Bruce Willis’s nose, faces his future self in the actual Bruce Willis? I mean, JGL is tough, but is he Die Hard tough? Rian Johnson’s movie is smart and fun, visually interesting, and it even features a honky-tonk Emily Blunt and a wickedly bearded Jeff Daniels, but the looping premise is just speculative enough that it’s hard not to go poking holes. “This time travel shit fries your brain like an egg,” Daniels tells JGL. No kidding!
M.K.: A good movie, although not one that really stuck with me. Mostly I was just impressed that the whole film was set in the future and still somehow JGL didn't even wear a single vest.
26. Easy Money
A solid Swedish thriller about a preppy but poor young man named J.W. who turns to organized crime to support his fast life among the swingin' Stockholm elite. (Obviously, devastating neoliberal cuts to the Swedish social democracy mean that J.W. can no longer turn to the state for his mandated allowance of of buxom blondes).
It's more than adequately lean & taut & suspenseful, etc etc, and there are a few hilarious moments like this one, recounted by Richard Corliss: Early in the film, a rich young man tells a “true story” about going into a man’s room in a restaurant and finding Bill Gates there. Impulsively, he introduces himself to the Microsoft zillionaire and offers an invitation to join his friends at lunch. The young man is surprised when Gates later comes to the table, but not impressed. “Fuck you, Bill,” he says.
Recommended for fans of foreign thrillers, Scandophiles, and Bill Gates haters everywhere.
M.K.: More politics! No, actually, I'll skip the reactionary take on popular mobilization here and move directly to the otherwordly awesomeness of BANE. Tom Hardy, turbo-neck and all, does the best voice of the year: I understood every word, and they were all beautiful. "Speak of the Devil, and he shall appear." "Do you feel in charge?" "Let's not stand on ceremony here, Mister Wayne." The coat, the vest, the collar-grip pose: all equally beautiful. I can't think of a less popular opinion, but I was as entranced and entertained by Hardy's Bane as Heath Ledger's Joker. OK, fine, almost as entranced. But that's still good company.
That said, this movie still annoyed the hell out of me. Not because of its Tale of Two Cities-style conservatism, or even the total uselessness of Marion Cotillard. It's just those damned idiotic superhero plot conventions again. For half of the movie, it really looked like Dark Knight Rises was going to break that genre prison -- especially as Michael Caine's Alfred continued to argue, convincingly, that the solution to Gotham's problems was not a heroic vigilante but institutional reform and collective politics. Sounds dull, of course, but between Bane and Wayne and Chris Nolan, I know it could have been badass. Then it turned out Alfred was just being a soft little wimp who didn't want Bruce to get hurt, and heroic vigilantism became more urgent than ever. As always. Blah. Even Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward couldn't save the second half of this thing from the tyranny of cliché.
K.H.: After the dreadful American Reunion, I thought I was done with Seann William Scott. But then, that very same week, this lovable little comedy fell into my lap (i.e. Matt ordered it on Netflix). Scott is Doug, the enforcer, or hockey goon of the title, the guy on a roster whose job is to fight. His idol is the great Liev Schreiber, a gritty, contemplative veteran who speaks with the noble lilt of Newfoundland. His teammates are a bunch of knuckleheads who give hilariously confused locker room speeches. His bff is a rowdy Masshole played by Jay Baruchel. As for Doug himself, he’s so dopey, it’s hard not to root for him. Or as he tells a lady he’s trying to woo, “Sometimes garbage flies in my face.”
M.K.: My sleeper comedy of the year. A muted Seann William Scott is a superior Seann William Scott. And the locker room speeches are great standalones (and even better in context): “Some guys on their team are fuckin’ divorced...” “We’re playin’ divorced guys.”
23. Life of Pi
M.K.: I didn't love the overworked religious questing or the hammy front- and back-stories. But I did love an hour and a half of Ang Lee filming a tiger, a boy, a boat, and the ocean. The visual and emotional delights of that four way relationship were ample compensation for the rest of the silliness.
M.K.: I suppose we've now crossed the invisible Rubicon where our job is no longer to bury, but to praise. (How's that for two classical Roman clichés in a single sentence?). And I'm happy to take my lumps for praising Denzel against the inevitable army of gravediggers. The man is one of our few true stars, and here he gives the audience a chance to bask in his ample human glow. That alone sets Flight apart from recent Denzel vehicles like Out of Time or Taking of Pelham 123, etc, where all his energies are consumed merely in dragging the plot's hackwork on to the next stage. In this film, where the excitement is basically over after 20 minutes, we get a long and leisurely chance to just bathe in the pure Denzelness of it all.
The other notable thing about Flight is its soundtrack, which has produced much deserved merriment for its painful directness: "Sweet Jane," when a heroin addict ODs; "Feelin' Alright," when Denzel has just done a line of cocaine, put on his sunglasses, and is feeling all right, etc. But this is Robert Zemeckis we are talking about. This man who helped American teenagers discover that the entire Vietnam War was actually fought with "For What It's Worth" and "Fortunate Son" playing in the background. In Flight's case, I think there's a higher-than-usual dose of irony to go along with all the obviousness: when a jovial dealer played by John Goodman shows up with a Hawaiian shirt and a bag full of drugs, Robert Zemeckis simply must play "Sympathy for the Devil." It is a rule. And given that this film really isn't much of a jolly romp, and that it really does take Denzel's addictions seriously, isn't it possible that Zemeckis is purposefully throwing the Stones in our faces here? That he's mocking the film and music conventions that coerce us into being charmed by jovial John Goodman, even though he's ruining a man's life? Probably not. It is still Robert Zemeckis. But maybe!
M.K.: A sweet-tempered lo-fi flick that gets Sundance-style comedy right. (It's not really as good as Goon, but I don't get to decide these things by myself). Ed Helms plays an amusingly evil version of his middle-America character in Cedar Rapids, while Jason Segel plays an even sadder, more stoned version of every Jason Segel character, ever. Susan Sarandon, as their mother, is naturally the heart of it all.
Most important, perhaps, Jeff breaks the sacred law that Jason Segel's patented shirt, no pants, and butt cheeks ensemble must appear in every single one of his films. Plus, there are lots of references to M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. Do you remember that movie? I do! We all do! It's funny to remember it.