Tag Archives: Andrew O’Hehir

“I’m Pat F*cking Tillman.”

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

The death of Pat Tillman, the National Football League star turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire — or “fratricide,” as the military puts it — in Afghanistan in April 2004, was a strange event in recent American history. On one hand, Tillman’s death was covered far more extensively than those of any of the other 4,700 or so United States troops killed in the Iraqi and Afghan combat zones. To put it bluntly, he was the only celebrity among them.

On the other hand, Tillman’s story remains poorly understood and has little social resonance. As a colleague of mine recently put it, Tillman didn’t fit, either as a living human being or a posthumous symbol into the governing political narratives of our polarized national conversation. That’s true whether you’re on the right or the left. If he struck many people at first as a macho, hyper-patriotic caricature — the small-town football hero who went to war without asking questions — it eventually became clear that was nowhere near accurate. Yet Tillman was also more idiosyncratic than the equally stereotypical ’60s-style combat vet turned longhair peacenik.

Mind you, Tillman might well have become a left-wing activist, had he lived longer. He had read Noam Chomsky’s critiques of U.S. foreign policy, and hoped to meet Chomsky in person. But as Amir Bar-Lev’s haunting and addictive documentary “The Tillman Story” demonstrates, Tillman was such an unusual blend of personal ingredients that he could have become almost anything. It’s a fascinating film, full of drama, intrigue, tragedy and righteous indignation, but maybe its greatest accomplishment is to make you feel the death of one young man — a truly independent thinker who hewed his own way through the world, in the finest American tradition — as a great loss.

Eric Kohn at Indie Wire:

Narrated by Josh Brolin, “The Tillman Story” tracks the uneasy investigation into the reality of the player’s death launched by his family in the wake of an official attempt to celebrate him as a hero. Each step of the way, the corruption grows slightly deeper: The military waits until after Tillman’s funeral before declaring that he was killed by friendly fire, but his parents and siblings determine that the story runs even deeper than that. An unnaturally humble public figure, Tillman never revealed his intentions for going to war—but a twisted publicity campaign launched in the wake of his death assumed otherwise.

The government turned Tillman into a hero, elevating his posthumous stature while burying the atrocious errors that led to his death. Recounting the events through interviews with the Tillman family and previously classified government documents, director Amir Bar-Lev provides an exhaustive account of the wrongdoings at hand. It’s not the sole definitive version of the story—Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman” came out in 2009—but by framing the story as a conspiracy thriller, Bar-Lev finds a natural cinematic hook: Coming across like “The Manchurian Candidate” as a ghost story or “All the President’s Men” with civilian journalists, “The Tillman Story” is loaded with dramatic potential.

Bar-Lev assembles the story with layers of media, old and new. He finds a compelling plot point in the contrast between the mainstream Tillman narrative and his family’s background struggles.Voice-overs accompany footage of Tillman’s stone-faced relatives at a massive memorial held in the Arizona stadium where he used to play for the Cardinals. They express their frustration on the soundtrack while news cameras capture it on their faces. Distraught over the elevation of Tillman to the level of a trite patriotic symbol, their anger drives them toward detective work. “He didn’t really fit into that box,” exclaims Tillman’s mother, Mary, sounding both mournful and disappointed that the country her sons served let them down.

Kurt Schlichter at Big Hollywood:

Call me fussy, but I prefer that my conspiracies and cover-ups actually involve conspiracies and cover-ups.  The Tillman Story, a new leftist documentary on football player turned Army Airborne Ranger turned friendly fire casualty turned symbol of…something…posits a massive conspiracy to do…something…and an enormous cover-up of…something…but never quite explains what.  However, there are lots of ominous shots of George Bush and Karl Rove, so we can somehow gather that whatever it is is, in some way, all Bushitler’s fault.

This is a bad film, both in its execution and its intent.  As a lawyer, it insults my intelligence.  As a veteran, it insults my professionalism.  As an audience member, it failed me as a film.  Pat Tillman, first seen in footage sitting nearly silently in a studio, begins the film as a cipher and ends as a cipher.  I know little more about the man or his motivations than I did coming in.  All I know is that I could not wait for it to be over.

This over-praised documentary is based on the premise that there was an enormous, mysterious conspiracy surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, which is a problem for the filmmaker since it is clear there is no giant, mysterious conspiracy surrounding the death of Pat Tillman.  The filmmakers cannot explain who conspired, or what they conspired to do.  Was there a cover-up?  Of what?  The film desperately wants there to be one, as does the family – perhaps that would give them the story the producers need and generate the meaning the family wants.  But, as the film demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt, there isn’t one.  This is a story of mistakes, not malice.

Pat Tillman died in a tragic battlefield accident.  That happens – young men, powerful weapons, and “the fog of war” all combine to make fratricide a terrible and ever-present reality of infantry combat.  I know nothing about the circumstances of Tillman’s death other than what the film showed (including several instances where the camera focused on Army investigation documents that revealed information the filmmakers did not highlight).  But what the film shows makes it clear that there are no “unanswered questions.”

John Nolte at Big Hollywood:

On May 3rd, 2004, a memorial for Pat Tillman took place in San Jose’s Municipal Rose Garden. Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and both his family and the whole world believed he had been killed in a Taliban ambush during a brave attempt to draw their fire in order to save his own men.  Just a few weeks later, the Army would come forward to acknowledge that this narrative was wrong and that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire.

At this point, the question that came to my mind was why would the Pentagon and the Bush Administration voluntarily come forward and uncover their own conspiracy? The film makes no mention of any outside pressure on the Pentagon from the Tillman family or even the media to get the bottom of anything. Meaning that at this point everyone believed the initial report and apparently all the Administration and military had to do to keep us all believing was to keep their mouths shut.

So the question is: If the idea was to use Tillman’s death for nefarious pro-war purposes, why just a few weeks after the memorial service would those with the most to lose from doing so, voluntarily kick over a political hornets’ nest by telling the truth? Why not milk the situation for as long as possible and for as much propaganda as possible, especially with a presidential election just five months off? At the very least, why not save all the political heartache and fallout this revelation was sure to bring (and did) and stall until after Bush is reelected?

A producer once told me that whenever you have a film character open a refrigerator door you either have to show them close it or include the sound effect of the door closing, or else the audience will get unsettled thinking the door has been left open. Bar-Lev’s refusal to address or explain why a supposed-group of conspirators would of their own volition blow the whistle on their own supposed conspiracy leaves that door open. And no fancy camera move or sinister scoring is going to close it.

Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:

Bar-Lev — whose previous directing credits include the 2007 My Kid Could Paint That — trusts his instincts enough to know that he doesn’t need to embellish or intensify any angle of this story to make it more dramatic or more affecting. His treatment of Tillman’s parents is particularly low-key. Dannie Tillman, who has since written a book about her son’s case, speaks at one point about how uncomfortable it is to be a parent grieving intensely and privately in the midst of a grand and glitzy public outpouring of grief. Against that, Bar-Lev shows footage of Dannie, Patrick Sr. and Marie standing stiffly and politely on a football field as earnest speeches are made and marching-band music is played. At one point, incomprehensibly, a team of prancing and high-kicking dancers line up before them, a truly weird way of honoring a fallen soldier.

The Tillman Story is often painful to watch, even when the images in front of us are nothing more than military documents that have been marked, by Dannie, with a highlighter. Dannie was given thousands of pages of official reports and documents by the U.S. military, a sea of pages with every significant name or detail blacked out; the presumption was that once she started going through this material, she’d simply become exhausted and give up. But with Goff’s help, Dannie unearthed many of the more excruciating secrets surrounding her son’s death, notably the fact that the soldiers responsible for it (their story isn’t told here, and appears to be wholly shrouded in secrecy) explained their actions by saying, “I was excited,” and, “I wanted to stay in the firefight” — details the U.S. military wouldn’t be particularly eager to publicize, for obvious reasons, and which can only intensify a parent’s suffering.

Bar-Lev recently lost an appeal to have the MPAA ratings board change the rating for The Tillman Story from an R — for the movie’s use of, as the ratings board so delicately puts it, “excessive language” — to a PG-13. That’s particularly cutting considering that one of the most piercing revelations in The Tillman Story is that Tillman’s last words, shouted out as a last-ditch effort to keep his fellow soldiers from shooting at him, were “I’m Pat f*cking Tillman.” Sometimes the use of an expletive, beyond being a sticking point for a group of de facto censors, really is a matter of life and death.

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Life Is But A Dream, Sweetheart

John Hudson at The Atlantic with a round-up

Dana Stevens in Slate:

With Inception (Warner Brothers), Christopher Nolan definitively proves that he’s more interested in blowing the viewer’s mind than in tracking where the mind-shards land—or how and whether they can be pieced back together. The director who gave us Memento and The Prestige, along with Batman films The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, may be unmatched among contemporary filmmakers for solemn bombast—but he’s also unmatched for visual elegance and genuinely original action. There are plenty of movies that will give you a spectacular chase scene through the streets of Paris, but how many of them would think to fold a Parisian street onto itself until it resembles a three-dimensional game board designed by M.C. Escher?

Escher is a good reference for Inception, and not just because the film includes the image of a Penrose stairway similar to the one the Dutch artist created in his lithograph “Ascending and Descending.” The action in this psychological thriller pivots on questions of perception and perspective, questions of exactly the sort that fascinated Escher. How do we know the difference between reality and projection, past and present, memory and dream? If we agree to stop asking these questions and simply live in a shared delusion, what have we lost? These are admirably ambitious riddles for a summer action movie to pose, reminiscent of the shape-shifting and romantic trickery of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But in place of Puck’s rueful speech enjoining the audience to imagine “that you have but slumbered here/ While these visions did appear,” Inception is content to end on a Keanu Reeves-esque “Whoa.”

Dustin Hucks at Film School Rejects:

I will say this now, without reservation and fully confident that many will agree; Inception is easily the best big budget film of the year thus far. I’ll go further and say that it’s one of the most beautiful, well written, and fully realized high dollar films of the last five years. Inception, is close to perfection.

Christopher Nolan is the reigning king of the non-linear plot, and master of deeply layered narratives that hook audiences and reel them in slowly. He salvaged the reputation of The Dark Knight on the big screen, and retooled the psychological thriller. Nolan’s body of work is compact, with seven films over twelve years — the most recent being Inception; and what an addition to the collection it is.

Inception is the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief of the mind called an extractor who enters the dreams of high powered individuals and steals their secrets via an architect. The architect is responsible for building the world of the dreamer, convincing them their surroundings are real. Dom is assisted by his friend and colleague Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the voice of reason in Dom’s life. We’re brought into the main part of the story in the middle of an extraction, in the mind of sleeping energy company CEO Saito (Ken Watanabe). What seems to be a routine extraction turns into what the entire film ends up being; a question of what is what, when, and who is aware. Much of the groundwork is laid early on, though true to fashion, Nolan makes sure we’re not aware of it.

Dom and Arthur are at an architect-built compound, attempting to lead Saito’s subconscious through the process of tipping his hand and leading them to his greatest secrets. During this event we’re introduced to the mysterious Mal (Marion Cotillard) — whose appearance disturbs Arthur. Mal and Dom have a relationship, the details of which we’re not immediately aware. All we know, is Dom can’t trust her.

Very soon the dream is compromised, Saito aware that they are in his subconscious mind and Mal holding Arthur at gunpoint. Here we learn some rules — if you die in the dream, you simply wake up, but being injured does not have the same result, however. Dom kills (wakes) an injured Arthur, and we’re introduced to the other side of the dream. Cobb is asleep, as is Saito; both hooked intravenously to the machine that makes extractions possible. It is here, through a series of events I won’t ruin, that we learn about the concept of dreams within dreams.

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

While Nolan’s images are visually impressive and powered by state-of-the-art digital effects and accomplished stunt work, they’re always ordered and organized with anal precision. They don’t look or feel anything like dreams. (Or, at least, not like my dreams.) They look instead like mediocre action films from the ’90s, or in the case of the supremely boring ski-patrol vs. Arctic fortress shootout found on Level Three, like the Alistair MacLean adaptation “Ice Station Zebra” from 1968. (With Rock Hudson! And Ernest Borgnine!) “Inception” may have been directed by Christopher Nolan, but Nolan’s dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay.

OK, I know — you want me to back off the high-minded analysis and tell you whether “Inception” is a good destination for those summer moviegoing dollars eager to leap out of your wallet. Sure, I guess so. It’s a cool-looking action movie, carefully constructed and edited, that uses all kinds of nifty locations and a lot of portentous-sounding expositional yammering. It inhabits a Philip K. Dick-style universe of psychological warfare that suggests “The Matrix,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report” — all of them, by the way, better movies — but it’s fairer to call “Inception” a maze movie or a labyrinth movie than a puzzle movie. Because, as the wisecracking fellow critic sitting next to me observed, every time the story gets puzzling the characters call a timeout and explain it.

So, yeah, if you approach “Inception” with lowered expectations it’s a pretty good time. Problem is, there are no lowered expectations around Christopher Nolan, whose adherents have proclaimed him as the heir to Kubrick and Hitchcock and declared “Inception” a masterpiece. I don’t want to get sidetracked here, but let me suggest that the comparisons aren’t entirely misguided. They’re just not helpful. Nolan has inherited some of Kubrick and Hitchcock’s worst tendencies, most notably their defensive, compulsive inclination to work everything out about their stories and characters to the last detail, as if human beings and the world were algebraic or geometrical phenomena requiring a solution.

But the mysterious power of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” cannot be explained by the ludicrous official story revealed in the final act — indeed, it nearly scotches the whole movie — and the attack of “The Birds” is never explained. As Kubrick’s career progressed he was increasingly drawn to stories that defied or challenged rational analysis, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “The Shining.” (I think I’d put “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut” in that category too, but let’s discuss some other time.) Nolan seems to have learned exactly the wrong lessons from these mentors. For all the complexity, craftsmanship and color of “Inception,” it’s yet another of his ultra-serious schematic constructions with no soul, no sex and almost no joy, all about some tormented dude struggling with his ill-managed Freudian demons. That same guy sitting next to me cracked that Nolan needs to stop seeing a therapist; there’s not nearly enough sublimation in his movies.

John Nolte at Big Hollywood:

Like the performances (DiCaprio has finally won me over), the special effects are absolutely flawless and serve the story perfectly. From your own dreams you’re sure to recognize the various visual moods Nolan explores: chaos, the inability to move quickly or escape, moments of inexpressible beauty and how an emotional connection conceived in your dreams can profoundly penetrate your waking reality. Nolan could’ve obviously gone anywhere with this idea but using the conceit of an “architect” (that’s all I’m going to tell you), we’re not subjected to dinosaurs or space aliens or any of that other crazy story-killing nonsense designed to sell the film’s trailer.

Like I mentioned earlier, “Inception” is a triumph and certainly one of the best films you’ll see this year, but until an absolutely exhilarating climax, the intricacies of the plot always feel a little further ahead of you than they should be and even then require an awful lot of exposition for the pieces to finally click into place. Also, the characters and their relationships are surprisingly and unnecessarily clinical. Cobb’s team, which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an efficient fixer, Ellen Page as the “architect,” Tom Hardy as the “forger,” and Dileep Rao as the “chemist” – never gels.

Individually, each character is well-crafted but there’s very little chemistry between them and this causes the second act to be more mechanical and less involving than it should be.  From the beginning, Cobb’s personal journey, which involves his wife (Marion Cotillard), promises to give the film a much needed emotional core, but that promise is always just a whisker out of reach until the very end, which, to be fair, is quite moving.

There are reports that “Inception” cost as much as $200 million to produce, and for that we should be thankful to Warner Brothers. Nolan is a once-in-a-generation auteur whose career is just getting started (he’s still a few days shy of 40) and his talent deserves a studio willing to finance it. Because there’s still a little justice in the world, that’s happened with this bold, challenging, slightly imperfect journey into the true final frontier that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:

Nolan’s film overflows with narrative ingenuity and cinematic showmanship. Snatches of dialogue recur, their meanings refracted through levels of reality and unreality. Gordon-Levitt tousles with henchmen in a rotating hotel hallway, putting to shame his own anti-gravity acrobatics on SNL. Allusions to Penrose stairs rub elbows with canny wordplay (e.g., “Mal,” whose name conjures both “moll” and the French term for her predisposition). Four concurrent climaxes are piled one atop another on interdependent dream layers. And, perhaps most impressive, Nolan assembles the kaleidoscopic elements into a nearly seamless whole and buffs it all to an immaculate polish.

Quibbles can be found for those inclined to look. It is quickly evident to viewers, though somehow not to his teammates, that Cobb’s deep psychic scars make him perhaps the least reliable dreamcrasher imaginable. (It can hardly be a good sign that, around the two-hour mark, Cobb confesses, “There’s something you should know about me—about inception.”) And bravura editing notwithstanding, the four-headed finale tends to undercut the impact of each of its components. It’s one thing to marvel at a master juggler, but rather another to feel as if you are one of the balls.

But in this end, it may be Inception‘s greatest strength, its precision engineering, that also proves its signal weakness. Nolan has always been a nimble, meticulous director, but his best work has exceeded such technical virtues. His first major film, Memento, may have taken the form of a gimmick movie, but it transcended its own structural ingenuity to become one of the most unique and resonant tragedies of the past 25 years. His last movie, The Dark Knight, was also his messiest, with flaws that included a collapsing final act. Yet it, too, perhaps in part thanks to that messiness, found unexpected grandeur and gravity in its subject.

For all its elegant construction, Inception is a film in which nothing feels comparably at stake. (In this it resembles Nolan’s The Prestige, another admirably heady tale of perception and reality that never quite found a hearty emotional grip.) The dangers that loom with the failure of Cobb’s mission range from the inconsequential (Saito’s firm goes out of business!) to the inauthentic (Cobb won’t be able to return to pretty, talismanic children he was forced to abandon: parenthood as MacGuffin). The sorrow of Cobb and Mal’s doomed marriage, too, for all of Cotillard’s hypnotic allure, feels nonetheless remote, a motivation in search of real meaning. Though questions may linger at the film’s conclusion, they are less likely to be moral than mechanical: How many minutes of dream-time comprise a minute of waking life? How, again, did the heroes wake themselves up from their ultimate dream?

Like his protagonist, Nolan excels as an implanter of subversive ideas. This time, alas, he didn’t dig quite deep enough for them to take root.

Scott Tobias at Onion AV Club:

Nolan sets up a uniquely difficult challenge for himself: In order for Inception to work, it has to reconcile the rational and predictable (represented by Page and her maze-like constructs) with dangerously fluid, irrational impulses (represented by DiCaprio and his fevered psyche). The Nolan of The Prestige and Memento is more naturally suited to the former than the latter; the vast cryptogram of Inception has a core of real emotion, but it isn’t always matched by an abundance of visual imagination. Nonetheless, the film is an imposing, prismatic achievement, and strongly resistant to an insta-reaction; when it’s over, Nolan still seems a few steps ahead of us.

UPDATE: Heather Horn at The Atlantic

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And How Are The Kids?

Dana Stevens at Slate:

Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features) is the movie we’ve been waiting for all year: a comedy that doesn’t take cheap shots, a drama that doesn’t manipulate, a movie of ideas that doesn’t preach. It’s a rich, layered, juicy film, with quiet revelations punctuated by big laughs. And it leaves you feeling wistful for at least three reasons: because of what happens in the story, because the movie’s over, and because there aren’t more of them this good.

Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are a middle-aged lesbian couple in Los Angeles with two teenage children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Nic, a physician, is the breadwinner of this stable, well-off family, while the unfocused Jules has vague plans to start a landscaping business on her partner’s dime. Near the start of the movie, Joni, at her younger brother’s urging, calls up the sperm bank that provided their mothers with genetic material 18 years ago. Behind their mothers’ backs, the siblings make contact with their hitherto anonymous biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a hedonistic restaurateur who’s flattered by the attention but unsure how to proceed. Gradually, Paul is incorporated into the fringes of the family: The children bring him home for an excruciatingly awkward lunch, and against Nic’s wishes, Jules takes on the job of landscaping his yard.

It’s fitting that gardening—Jules’ landscaping project, Paul’s achingly trendy farm-to-table restaurant—plays such a large role in The Kids Are All Right, because the movie is at heart about the ecosystem of a family, and the way that system changes when an exotic species is introduced. The presence of Paul changes everything, exposing fault lines in Nic and Jules’ relationship and forcing the children to defy their mothers and reassess their peer friendships. (A subplot in which the introverted Laser finally stands up to his jerky best friend is particularly well-handled.)

Rob Hunter at Film School Rejects:

The Kids Are All Right is a bright and beautifully acted look at what it means to be part of a family. The ups, the downs, the relationship with your partner and kids… the specifics of it may seem like ingredients for a niche indie picture or even worse, a “message” movie about tolerance, equal rights, and the evil liberal agenda, but it never even comes close to such things. Instead the movie is simply about the challenges of family life. Nic is a doctor who enjoys both her wine and her control streak a bit too much. Jules is the more relaxed and carefree half of the relationship who floats between “careers” with a mix of indifference and enthusiasm. Together they’ve raised their kids as well as any parent could which means there’s plenty of room for doubts and concerns. Joni has just graduated high school and is mere months away from heading off to college, and as nervous as she may be her parents are even more terrified. And then there’s Laser who seems well adjusted but may be exploring his sexuality in some unexpected ways. And by unexpected ways I mean with a ginger of course.

As wonderfully written and directed as the film may be the picture’s real power is in the acting. All five of the lead performers are giving some of the best work of their careers. Granted, that’s not saying much for Hutcherson, but even with a limited background he’s never seemed as natural as he does here. Wasikowska shines as the child on the cusp of adulthood torn between home and the outside world, and she manages more with a quivering lip then many of her peers do with their entire body. Ruffalo is almost always the most watchable and intriguing actor in any of his films and that trend doesn’t change here. His character is an inexcusable dick at times but you can’t help but want to forgive him. A lesser actor (with harder features and without his sad, puppy eyes) would have a hard time accomplishing the same.

Bening and Moore both give fantastic and believably real performances as a couple who love each other, warts and all, and can convey that long history together with little more than a glance. I joked about Moore above (no I didn’t), but she imbues Jules with such a goofy and effortless charm that you could easily see yourself falling into her smiling embrace. But as good as everyone else is the performance of note here belongs to Mrs Dick Tracy herself, Annette Bening. As the most authoritative adult of the three Nic is tasked as straight-man to the more loose and casual performances of Moore and Ruffalo and the childish behaviors of the kids. She never becomes unlikable though, and as her grip on things begins to crack it’s a slow tremble of emotion that begins to spill out. A certain dinner table scene is a masterclass in itself in the art of acting as Nic navigates some surprising revelations and comes out wounded and scarred on the other side.

Andrew O’Hehir in Salon:

By making a movie in which a pair of married lesbians are played by well-known hetero actresses Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, and in which one partner (Jules, played by Moore) has an affair with a straight man, Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg capitulate — in some people’s view — to a whole set of “Celluloid Closet”-type homophobic stereotypes, and possibly lend aid and comfort to the right-wing view of homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice.” Furthermore, Cholodenko doesn’t seem terribly concerned about it. Before our Sundance interview, I read her a few examples from the first wave of critical comments and she laughed them off: “Maybe those people need to take their pink megaphone somewhere else.”

Ultimately, this might not even rise to the level of a tempest in a teapot: Lesbian and gay viewers, along with everybody else who actually sees “The Kids Are All Right,” are likely to find it a sympathetic, honest and frequently hilarious film about the challenges of marriage, parenting and contemporary family life, with one highly topical twist. But if some queer-radical types object to the film on political or ideological grounds, there’s a sense in which they’re right to do so. This movie definitely isn’t aimed at them.

In other interviews, Cholodenko has joked that she’s more interested in drawing in straight male viewers than in placating every possible segment of lesbian opinion. That makes the film sound a lot more calculated and Hollywoodish than it is, but the point she’s making is that “The Kids Are All Right” has a dramatic agenda but no political agenda. It’s not attached to a set of talking points about gay marriage and sexual identity, it’s not advocating some revolutionary artistic or social paradigm and it’s not a seminar in LGBT self-esteem.

Jules and Nic (Bening’s workaholic doctor character) and their teenage kids and the Peter Pan man-boy who threatens to come between them (a scene-stealing Mark Ruffalo) are flawed, selfish, fascinating characters you’ll sometimes like and sometimes hate. This is one of the most compelling and rewarding portraits of a middle-class American marriage in cinema history, as well as one of the funniest. The fact that the people in this particular marriage are both women is important to the story, of course. But perhaps, Cholodenko suggests, it isn’t all that important to the universe.

Dan Gifford at Big Hollywood:

This film is essentially selling a lite version of the leftist utopian political fantasy of not needing men and rejecting male patriarchy.

And what does a hetero guy in Hollywood know about any of that? Please allow a brief digression to establish bona fides.

Del Martin, founder of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender–rights movement, was my great aunt. It was she and her life partner, Phyllis Lyon, who received California’s much publicized first same sex marriage license in San Francisco.

That outed, I will note that lesbianism, at least according to my aunt and many other other leaders who defined the movement, is a leftist political statement of female bonding against hunter-gatherer maleness that does not necessarily have anything to do with sex. In my aunt’s own words, a lesbian is “a woman whose primary erotic, psychological, emotional and social interest is in a member of her own sex, even though that interest may not be overtly expressed [sexually].”

That’s what comes through in Moore’s Jules character since she so hungrily embraces heterosexual sex, the thought of which apparently disgusts her parther, Nic. Pure sex aside,  lesbian feminists have always told me that the object of women’s politicized sexual links is to overthrow the patriarchal order and replace it with a feminist culture. “Just as sexism is the source of all our other oppressions, maleness is the source of sexism,” according to a statement from the Dyke Collective. Implicit in that rant is a rejection of males as fathers that provide anything positive to the raising of children.

Can that be true?

A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found “… children in lesbian homes scored higher than kids in straight families on some psychological measures of self-esteem and confidence, did better academically and were less likely to have behavioral problems, such as rule breaking and aggression.”

Maybe the kids are all right.

But critics say that considering this research was “funded by several lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy groups, such as the Gill Foundation and the Lesbian Health Fund from the Gay Lesbian Medical Association“  plus the obvious fact that the political left dominates all media, even the scientific media, whatta ya ’spect?

So, maybe the kids aren’t all right.

Irin Carmon at Jezebel:

The action happens, so to speak, when the couple’s children track down the sperm donor that is their biological father — and apparently Julianne Moore has an affair with him. (In the trailer, this looks like chaste kissing.) With this twist, writes O’Hehir, “Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg capitulate — in some people’s view — to a whole set of ‘Celluloid Closet’-type homophobic stereotypes, and possibly lend aid and comfort to the right-wing view of homosexuality as a ‘lifestyle choice.'” That, at least, appears to have been the complaints of some of Salon’s commenters — not a famously enlightened bunch, alas, but an interesting claim nonetheless.

In other words, does every Hollywood movie involving a lesbian have to suggest she really needs cock?

As a San Francisco Bay Guardian interviewer put it to Cholodenko, “We don’t see a lot of queer characters on screen, and so when we do, many want them to be perfect: the queer voice, the lesbian, the gay man. And when they step outside those boundaries, suddenly it becomes an issue, politically.”

Cholodenko replied that she (also a lesbian mother) identified strongly with the film and felt that it was true to her, and also that she didn’t find the boundaries between straight and gay to be so rigid. She went on,

I feel like, it’s kind of an interesting intermingling of straight and gay. I felt like, if I really want this to be a mainstream film, that’s good. This is really inclusive of gay and straight, and I like that. I like that personally and I like that for this film. I was much more interested in reaching out to the male population than I was concerned about alienating a sector of the lesbian population.

In other words, this was explicitly, at least in part, a capitulation to having more people identify with the story — but in a way that felt narratively true to Cholodenko, at least by her own account. If the film does succeed with “mainstream” (giant scare quotes around that one) audiences, then maybe the next time won’t be such a hard sell. And it won’t have to stand in as the “perfect” representation of a given group, not being the only one.

Judy Berman at Flavorwire:

The greatest strength of co-writer and director Lisa Cholodenko’s (who, it’s worth noting is a lesbian parent) script, as well as Julianne Moore and Annette Bening’s pitch-perfect portrayals of the couple in question, is that it paints its lead characters as very specific, likable but fallible people. Nic (Bening) is a resolutely Type A OB-GYN with strict rules for the kids, a tendency to be called away to work at just the wrong time, and a nasty habit of drinking too much to take the edge off of stressful situations. Jules (Moore) isn’t quite her opposite so much as her counterpart: a sort of free spirit with a lighter touch who’s never exactly managed to launch a successful career. They argue, like all couples do, but the love and deep attachment between them is always palpable. Oh, and they watch guy-on-guy gay porn together while they get it on. In a spectacularly awkward clip that is nonetheless true to the characters, Jules explains to their 15-year-old son that human desire is a strange and unpredictable (not to mention inexplicable) thing.

It’s easy to understand why oppressed groups can be so protective of the way they are portrayed in media. Movies like The Kids Are All Right, which may be rocketed to mainstream success on the strength of its two A-list stars (and equally strong supporting performances by Mark Ruffalo and Mia Wasikowska), might have a chance at getting Middle America to empathize with a lesbian-led family. But that shouldn’t mean Bening and Moore’s two moms should have to be perfect. Any film with flawless main characters is bound to be a forced, boring one more concerned with being politically correct than telling a powerful story.

The Kids Are All Right plants the viewer right in the center of this family in flux’s most difficult summer. By creating characters we feel we know, not in spite but because of their shortcomings, Cholodenko and her stars will undoubtedly win over viewers and rise above stereotypes.

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Eighties Nostalgia Almost All Played Out… Cue Up The Stirrings Of Nineties Nostalgia…

Dana Stevens in Slate:

Hanging over any remake, but especially over the remake of a classic, is the question “Why?” Sometimes that syllable is muttered with a shrug of resignation (“The Wicker Man with Nic Cage? Why?”). Sometimes it’s bellowed to the uncaring heavens in agony (“Last Tango in Paris with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes? WHYYY?”).

The notion of remaking The Karate Kid (Sony Pictures) elicits a “why?” of midlevel outrage. The 1984 original, in which Noriyuki “Pat” Morita coaches bullied teenager Ralph Macchio to victory in a karate championship, may have seemed like a standard-issue inspirational sports picture at the time, but (as with another box-office hit of the same year, The Terminator) a generation of remove reveals what a well-crafted movie it actually was. Rewatched today, the original Kid, directed by Rocky‘s John G. Avildsen, feels smart and fresh, with a wealth of small character details and a leisurely middle section that explores the boy’s developing respect for his teacher.

The first job of the new Karate Kid, then, was to not defile the spirit of the original—at that task this version succeeds almost too well. The script, by Christopher Murphey, reproduces the story of the earlier film beat for beat, and, at times, line for line. It’s respectful to the point of reverence, an odd stance to take toward a film that was fun in the first place because of its unpretentious pop schlockiness. To the credit of both Murphey and director Harald Zwart, that unhurried middle act remains intact—instead of using the nearly 2 ½-hour running time to cram in extra fight scenes, they give the mentor/student relationship at the movie’s heart time to unfold. While the fight scenes have been (literally) punched up by the inclusion of more spectacular martial-arts stunts—along with the bonecrunching sound effect now required to accompany all onscreen fisticuffs—this Karate Kid isn’t the rushed, coarsened, CGI-infested ripoff that fans of the original may be dreading. It’s as sweet-natured a movie as you could expect about a 12-year-old learning to beat the crap out of his schoolmates.

Cole Abaius at Film School Rejects:

Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) have been relocated (with no other real financial options) to China, where Sherry will be working in the automobile plant there. When Dre gets his eyes blackened by another boy on playground, he becomes obsessed with learning how to defend himself, and finds an unwilling mentor in maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). Dre falls in puppy love with Meiying (Wenwen Han), but he faces difficult training ahead and the threat of fighting his attacker in an open kung fu tournament.

This movie, directed by Harald Zwart, is about as seriously dramatic as you can aim at a younger audience, only lit occasionally by sparks of humor. For the most part, it weighs just heavily enough to make all of the situations of its story seem intimately dire. The humor comes from a sarcastic young lead and the ubiquitous warmth of character that can be found in just about any movie Jackie Chan sets foot in, but the moments are few, far between, and welcomed not because of the heaviness of the film, but because of its effectiveness in making the audience feel almost as isolated as Dre.

Tonally, it’s a very quiet film that builds to its crescendo steadily. In the beginning, Dre and Sherry are the only characters focused on – they are in a foreign country, don’t speak the language, don’t understand the culture, and Dre is graphically, violently bullied on his first day. The physicality and impact of some of the fighting sequences – especially early on when Dre can’t fight back – are brutal in light of the fact these are 11 and 12 years old fighting.

Finally, a movie with the kind of child-on-child violence America has been demanding.

But it works. The Karate Kid is decidedly un-campy in its attempt to show what it might really be like to be young and forced to move away from the safety of everything you know. This is matched by Mr. Han’s storyline – an ultimately tragic one that explains why he’s so sullen until he finds the small joy of Dre taking to the training. It’s also matched in some small way by every main character. Dre is a stranger in a strange land, his mother Sherry is upbeat but also never shown socializing with anyone but her son, Mr. Han barely speaks or interacts with anyone, and the love interest Meiying is isolated by her parents’ pressure on her to succeed as a violinist which results in her practicing away her childhood for hours on end.

Erik Childress at Cinematical

Marshall Fine at Hollywood & Fine:

Director Harald Zwart’s resume includes such stellar entries as “Agent Cody Banks,” “The Pink Panther 2″ and now this dreary recapitulation of a movie that was tired when it was new, 25 years ago. Plodding doesn’t begin to describe the turgid pace of the film. And limited is a kind description of young Smith’s acting talent.

As for Oscar-nominee Henson, she has no character to play, only a mother figure. Which leaves Chan, who actually rises above the treacle to give a touchingly stolid and subdued performance. But he’s stuck with yet another subplot, one meant to explain why his character has isolated himself from the world – until he takes on Dre as a surrogate son.

Will Smith isn’t in “The Karate Kid” remake but this is a vanity project nonetheless. Kids will lap it up; their parents, however, can only hope to endure it.

And to our other flashback to the 80s, Carl Kozlowski at Big Hollywood:

Movies based on TV shows are often some of the most painful offerings studios have to offer. Whether suffering through the big-screen versions of “The Beverly Hillbillies” or “Car 54, Where Are You?”, “My Favorite Martian” or this summer’s mega-bomb “MacGruber,” the ratio of awful adaptations to successful ones is vastly disproportional.

Of course, once in awhile, some work: “Wayne’s World,” “The Blues Brothers” and (at least financially) the “Mission: Impossible” films come to mind. But with the new film version of “The A-Team,” Fox has concocted a wildly uneven yet (at many moments) even more wildly entertaining edition of the ridiculously fun ‘80s NBC series that manages to both disappoint and enthrall action fans within the span of a rollicking two hours.

Series purists may find plenty to grouse about, as the film kicks off with a somewhat-different take on the group, having Col. Hannibal Smith (played by Liam Neeson here and George Peppard on TV) meet B.A. Baracus (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson here, and the immortal Mr. T on TV) for the first time, as he forces him to let him hitch a ride en route to saving his friend “Faceman” (Bradley Cooper here, and Dirk Benedict on TV). They are immediately at odds before bonding over their mutual Army Rangers tattoos, a trait they share with Faceman and their final member, an insane chopper pilot named “Howling Mad” Murdock (Sharlto Copley of “District 9” here, and Dwight Schultz on TV).

The tattoo discovery and subsequent bonding is a bit heavy-handed and produced unintended chuckles from the audience, and the opening action set-piece involving rescuing Faceman from Mexican killers features both underwhelming action and annoying rap-rock on the score. Just when the film seems to be mired in bad writing and an obnoxious sensory overload, however, something starts to click.

Once the storyline jumps ten years from the opening action to the present, where the A-Team is mixed in with US troops in Iraq, it quickly finds its footing. A CIA agent named Lynch (Patrick Wilson) enlists Hannibal to bring the team out on a mission to find and retrieve US currency-making plates stolen by Iraqi soldiers during the first Gulf War, and which are now in danger of falling into even worse hands.

The team pulls off the plate retrieval, only to have a surprise twist occur that results in their being accused of high crimes, put on trial by the military and sent to individual prisons scattered around the planet. When they eventually get a chance to escape and save the day, the resulting four breakouts are again highly entertaining, although nothing tops a sequence in which the guys wind up in an aerial dogfight with two US fighter drone jets with heat-seeking missiles, while flying a tank. Crazier still is the sight of Faceman popping open the tank roof and manning a machine-gun turret against the drones.

Yes, you read right: they fly a tank. The sequence is absurd, over-the-top, and utterly amazing – to my mind one of the best action scenes I’ve ever witnessed, and it’s nearly matched just minutes later with an incredible heist and shootout involving the skyscrapers and streets of Berlin. Director/co-writer Joe Carnahan (the also audaciously entertaining “Smokin’ Aces”) is fast becoming a major force to be reckoned with.

Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:

The A-Team would be more enjoyable if its stars had any charm, or if, five minutes after leaving the theater, we could remember anything about what their characters were like. Copley (who starred in last year’s low-budget sci-fi hit District 9) is Murdock, the crazy pilot. Cooper is Face, so called because he’s always sucking one. (Jessica Biel wanders through the movie, lost and underused, as one of his old love interests.) B.A. Baracus is played by former UFC light heavyweight champ Jackson, who has almost nothing to do except scowl and look brawny. And Neeson struggles not-so-valiantly in the George Peppard role as the cigar-chomping Hannibal Smith.

I have renewed respect for Neeson since he started taking roles in trashier movies: I loved watching him knock heads in Pierre Morel’s joyously disreputable Taken. Roles like these loosen him up, and in the opening sequence of The A-Team — in which he almost magically dispatches a duo of snarling Rottweilers without harming them — I thought he, and the movie, might be fun.

But he, and the movie, only ground me down. Neeson barely registers as a presence here. (I kind of remember Cooper, because of his radioactive glowing teeth.) The movie is cut in such a way that it doesn’t really contain scenes; it’s more like a bundle of dangling participles. That’s not good for actors, especially a performer like Neeson, who’s at his best, even in a total piece of crap, when he can inject a little soul here and there. There’s no room for soul in The A-Team. Even in the context of junky-fun action adventures, this one hits a new low. It’s a worst-case scenario for the way action movies are headed: It’s all action and no movie.

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

For a movie that reportedly required 11 writers and more than 10 years to complete — all without any real reason for existing in the first place — “The A-Team” is reasonably good fun. If you’re a 12-year-old boy riding an intense Cherry Pepsi buzz and totally devoted to destroying some brain cells, that is. But then, I can’t imagine what other demographic could possibly be intended for this carbo-loading action spectacle, which makes only the vaguest gestures at plot or characterization (or the not-so-lamented ’80s TV original) in between its helicopter chases, Frankfurt bank heists, Mexican drug-lord takedowns and other balletic but incoherent production numbers.

OK, I do have two younger colleagues who sheepishly admit that they thought Stephen J. Cannell’s NBC series, which starred George Peppard and Mr. T (he of Nancy Reagan fame) and ran from 1983 to 1987, was “cool.” They were little kids at the time; I suppose it’s forgivable. So there must exist a micro-generation of youngish adults for whom this title exerts a nostalgic pull. Well, you can keep your hoard of Pop Rocks and Ninja Turtles in storage a while longer, because “A-Team” director Joe Carnahan (a Tarantino or Guy Ritchie wannabe who’s been kicking around the film world for a generation) and his bevy of writers make no effort to create some clever retro-camp lovefest.

Which is just fine with me; we’ve seen quite enough resuscitated mid-’80s pop-culture mediocrity, thank you, and the TV “A-Team” didn’t even rise to that level. (I’m sorry, Flock of Seagulls and Tears for Fears fans. The time has come to move on.) What Carnahan and company have done instead is attempt to launch a new megabucks action franchise, aimed at younger viewers for whom the original “A-Team” is a misty fragment of cultural prehistory, perhaps referenced by their drunken hipster uncles at Fourth of July barbecues: “I pity the fool who gets between me and my Pabst Blue Ribbon!”

Alex Eichler at The Atlantic

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Pabst Blue Ribbon, Man

Stephen Saito at IFC:

At the risk of being tacky to bring up Dennis Hopper’s personal travails late in life, as they unfortunately will be alongside the glowing career retrospectives now that he finally succumbed to prostate cancer at the age of 74, it’s worth mentioning that he wouldn’t let his weakened state keep him from being a daring rabble-rouser until the very end.

Although Hopper’s long battle with disease robbed us of one of cinema’s great rebels too soon, it also allowed for moving considerations of his work while he was still alive as the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and Matt Zoller Seitz did of both his work as a director right here for IFC.com and his career as a whole for Moving Image Source around the time he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Hopper’s speech for the occasion can be found here.)

Of course, Hopper was always an odd fit with Hollywood — a fiercely talented actor with all-American looks whose early roles opposite James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” always hinted at his independent streak with the ever-present mania behind those blue eyes. It may not entirely have been his plan to overthrow the film business in 1969 (and using studio distribution to do it, no less) with “Easy Rider,” a film that helped bring counterculture to the masses and kickstarted one of the most creatively fertile periods in Hollywood history, not to mention its influence on shaping the modern independent film movement. (In a study of extremes, Hopper acted in Tinseltown stalwart John Wayne’s “True Grit” the same year.)

Showing my age, I grew up with Hopper in the era long after his exploits offscreen and on (let’s just say it was a long time before I got to appreciate his turn as Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet”) had given way to a steady stream of villains in mainstream Hollywood fare. His appearance alone was instant code for crazed mastermind in such films as “Super Mario Brothers,” “Waterworld” and “Speed,” even though he was doing some of the most nuanced work of his career in films like the May-December romance “Carried Away” and his pivotal supporting turn as Christian Slater’s blue collar father in “True Romance.”

David Thomson at The New Republic:

There was a time when Dennis Hopper exulted in the reputation of being the first kid who knew what was wrong with Hollywood. What he said, more or less, was that the movies have gone dead, man, that it’s just old-timers doing it all on automatic pilot, that there’s no truth, anymore, man, and they won’t put me in lead parts.

There was some truth in what he said, and it was certainly the case that a number of veteran directors found Hopper an intolerable smart-ass who said he had known Jimmy–Jimmy Dean–and that what he was saying now was only what Dean would have said. Which may have been true. But which also allowed that Nicholas Ray–the director of Rebel Without a Cause, one of their two films together–also knew some of what was wrong about Hollywood, even if there was very little he could do about it. Come to that, Orson Welles, 15 years earlier had known, too, and had done his best to indicate another way out of the jungle.

Dennis Hopper was not a Dean or a Welles; he was not a Ray. But he was a bright-eyed, wide-browed kid with a slightly frozen beauty who looked a little like some silent screen actors.

Though he had come out of Dodge City, Kansas, he got to California early on and for a moment it was reckoned he had a career. He was a guy in the gang that hazes Dean in Rebel, and just a year later he played the grown-up son to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant.

He did a few other films–Westerns, like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (that’s the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas version) where he played Billy Clanton, From Hell to Texas, and The Sons of Katie Elder (with John Wayne).

In 1961, he married Brooke Hayward, the stunning daughter of agent Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan. The young couple was good looking enough to be taken for the next generation of Hollywood royalty, but no one quite noticed that the kingdom was melting like an ice sculpture out in the sun. Hopper fought with directors. He spouted a lot of Method talk about the actor feeling “right,” and his career was going nowhere.

Then something happened. Roger Corman was making his exploitation films of the moment and the subject was bikers on drugs having sex. One of these pictures was The Trip, with a scene where Hopper, Peter Fonda, and some others were at a campfire, passing round a joint, and improvising. Was that a real joint? Corman would ask later. He was shocked to think that could be going on. But others noted that the joint gave Dennis a gift of tongues–he made up a speech using the word “man” 36 times.

As a reward, he said, Corman sent Hopper and Fonda off into the desert with a nonsynch camera to get some atmosphere shots. They had a terrific time as can happen with gorgeous kids, a camera, and what may be joints. As Fonda remembered, “So we shot for a couple of days in Yuma, in Big Dune and back towards L.A. Dennis got some beautiful, beautiful stuff of me in the dunes with water behind me, water going into my profile and bursting behind me.”

Gee, this is easy, they thought, and so they reckoned they’d make a whole movie more or less that way. They called it Easy Rider and they did it without Corman. And Dennis would direct. A wild bunch of Hollywood kids came on board–Hopper and Fonda, Terry Southern, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, Donn Cambern, Henry Jaglom and Laszlo Kovacs. Anyone they knew, passing by, was likely to be asked to help in the editing. Another kid they knew, Jack Nicholson, got the third acting role, the disenchanted lawyer–though there was a good deal of argument (and money in court later) over how he got the part when Rip Torn had been in line first. Thy shot stuff–beautiful, beautiful stuff. They had desert, sunrise-sunset, and girls. Kovacs was a terrific camera man. They laid music on the soundtrack and the film has a quest if not a story–of these cowboys driving across America for drug money (Phil Spector made a cameo as their connection–I’m not making this up).

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

On the one occasion when I met Hopper, at a film-festival party in San Francisco about 15 years ago, he gave a vintage performance, drinking wine and laughing it up with a group of people he barely knew (or, in my case, didn’t know at all). He wore a white linen suit and a trim goatee, regaled us with yarns from his heyday as a “total madman” in the 1960s, and looked terrific against what I remember as a crisp, sunny day. At some point his female companion — I’m not going to try to figure out who that was, and it doesn’t matter — stalked off after some heated private conversation, but he didn’t seem concerned.

When I asked Hopper what he remembered most about James Dean, with whom he appeared in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” his demeanor changed. He became intensely earnest, explaining that Dean had changed his approach to acting and to life. Hopper had begun acting in television at a time when it was all about clarity and economy, he explained: You hit your mark, you said your lines clearly, you made your exit. Then he got on the set of “Rebel Without a Cause” (his film debut) and met Dean, who had been studying under Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio in New York.

“Here was this kid, Jimmy — I mean, he was older than me, but he was still a kid,” Hopper said, “and the stuff he was doing was amazing, it just blew me away.” (I won’t pretend these are verbatim quotes; this is the conversation as I recall it.) He remembered Dean rolling around on the carpet of the set that was supposed to be the Stark family’s Los Angeles home. “I asked him what the hell he was doing. I mean, you just didn’t do that. It was completely from another planet.” Dean explained that Jim Stark, his alienated teenage character, had spent a lot of time on that carpet and was intimately familiar with it. He needed to know what it felt like.

Along with Marlon Brando, Dean was one of the principal vectors for the transmission of Strasberg’s “Method acting” approach into the Hollywood mainstream, and Hopper became an eager disciple. (Publicity photographs from “Rebel Without a Cause” show Hopper reading Stanislavski’s “An Actor Prepares” on the set, which can only have been Dean’s idea.) After Dean’s death, Hopper abandoned Hollywood for Manhattan and spent five years studying under Strasberg. In later years, as the Method came to dominate American film acting, several of its practitioners became much bigger stars than Hopper: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Sean Penn, along with Hopper’s close friend Jack Nicholson. But I’m not sure any of those men internalized the Method, or pursued its philosophical and psychological dimensions to their logical extremes, the way Hopper did.

Viewed narrowly, the Stanislavski-Strasberg Method is a means to an end: An actor employs his own emotions, memories and sensations in order to portray a character in more lifelike and convincing fashion. Hopper seemed to develop his own expanded, synthetic interpretation, probably shaped by his appetite for consciousness-altering substances, avant-garde art and thorny philosophy. Every Hopper performance was just a facet of his lifelong, overarching performance as Dennis Hopper, and the professional separation most actors maintain between themselves and their characters evaporated entirely. Apocryphal or not, the story of Hopper’s phone call to David Lynch after he had read the script for “Blue Velvet” is on point: “You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth!”

Of course Hopper wasn’t really an amyl-nitrite-huffing, psychopathic rapist any more than he was a disgraced Indiana basketball coach (as in “Hoosiers”) or a disgruntled bomb-squad officer (as in “Speed”). But he pursued roles as dangerous and damaged characters, at least in the second half of his career, with a fervor that suggests he found them personally therapeutic as well as financially rewarding. Frank Booth was a revelation because he was horrifyingly, recognizably real, in a way movie villains hardly ever are. Even with his exaggerated vices and mannerisms, his foulness was rooted in genuine pain. (And Frank’s profane preference for Pabst Blue Ribbon over Heineken launched a trend among young consumers that endures two decades later; the brewery should have paid Hopper and Lynch a lifetime commission.)

Roger L. Simon at Pajamas Media:

Unlike other Hollywood hot shots like Sean Penn, Oliver Stone, etc, who never once changed a single thought they ever had, whether on LSD or a glass of milk, Dennis Hopper was able to see that the very thing that allowed him to live the wild and crazy life he did was deeply obvious. Forget all the self-serving narcissistic left-wing baloney. It was good old fashioned American Freedom! Nowhere else could Dennis have been Dennis — and he knew it. He wanted that for everybody.

So when you think of Dennis on that iconic bike in Easy Rider, think of America at its best, out on the open road, optimistic and heading straight on with unflinching belief in liberty.

And to my Hollywood friends, let this be a reminder that traditionally an artist is not someone who goes with the crowd, especially when that crowd hasn’t revised an idea since the presidential campaign of George McGovern. Open your minds. What’s cool may not be so cool anymore. If Dennis can do it, so can you. He wasn’t afraid of losing his job.

Yes, I know, this is not exactly the perfect guy to pick as a role model — but in a way I do. In fact, in honor of Dennis I’m thinking of turning in my Prius for a Harley.

J. Hoberman at Village Voice:

“The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad!” So Hopper described Marlon Brando towards the end of Apocalypse Now in a no-doubt improvised line that basically referred to himself. Hopper took Method Acting to the far side of the moon and turned Hollywood on to Pop Art, he appeared in Andy Warhol’s first narrative movie (Tarzan and Jane Regain… sort of) in support of Taylor Mead, and pioneered the naturalistic use of marijuana on the screen. He never won an Oscar or a lifetime achievement award but there are lines like “Hey man, I’m just a motherfuckin’ asshole, man!” (delivered while pouring a bottle of bourbon over his head in Out of the Blue) to which no other actor could possibly do justice. Blue Velvet is unthinkable without him.

As an actor, the young Hopper combined the image of the Cowboy with that of the Juvenile Delinquent; later, he was pleased to incarnate the chaos of the Sixties (and not just as a Ronald Reagan supporter). Eighteen years after Easy Rider, Hopper enlivened the youth film River’s Edge as a one-legged ex-biker living alone with an inflated sex doll called Ellie, selling loose joints to the local punks, and reminiscing about his colorful past: “I ate so much pussy in those days, my beard looked like a glazed donut.” Last seen, he was in heavy rotation on TV as a clean-shaven but acid-ripped investment services pitchman proposing to redefine his generation’s notion of retirement. (See his villainous turn in fellow Sixties-man George Romero’s Land of the Dead to see how.)

Not long ago I made a pilgrimage to Chinchero, the Indian town 14,000 feet up in the Andes where The Last Movie was shot–sacred ground for the Incas, man, even before Hopper re-sanctified it! There was no monument to, or even a memory of his antics, just the realization that this crazy gringo had somehow taken over the whole town as the set for his masterpiece. The Last Movie is the one Hollywood production since Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons that deserves a place in Anthology Film Archives’ Essential Cinema. It used to be that Hopper had the only decent 35mm print in existence. What will happen to it now, I wonder?

UPDATE: Dana Stevens in Slate

UPDATE #2: Jesse Walker in Reason


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But Bryan Adams Is In No Way Involved With This, Right?

Dana Stevens in Slate:

The legend of the forest-dwelling thief and his merry band has been committed to film scores of times, most definitively in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), one of those magical movies in which everything—the casting of then-newcomer Errol Flynn, the crisp vividness of early Technicolor, the jaunty score by Erich Korngold—somehow coalesced into a perfect artifact. Seventy-two years later, the Errol Flynn Robin Hood is still the version to beat, and its shadow—or rather, its lack of shadow, for never has a movie been sunnier—looms over any cinematic return to Sherwood Forest. Scott’s remake is unremittingly dour in the modern style: That’s how we reboot old legends, right? By making sure no one in them smiles?

The movie’s long windup has Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) returning from the Crusades, where he fought in the service of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). When Richard is killed while laying siege to a French castle (in a gory and hyper-realistic battle scene that illustrates the barbarism of medieval warfare), Robin and a few of his men desert the army and flee for England. On the way back, he stops off at an estate near Nottingham Castle to return the sword of a slain knight, Sir Robert Loxley. There, Robin learns that the dead knight’s father, Walter (Max von Sydow) and widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett) are about to have their land seized by the greedy Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew McFadyen.) So Robin agrees to pass himself off as the returned Loxley to save the estate. The fiercely independent Lady Marion is furious at this plan and forces the newcomer to sleep on the floor of her bedchamber with no blanket and only a log for a pillow.

Meanwhile, Richard the Lionheart’s brother, the treacherous King John (Oscar Isaac), assumes the throne and immediately begins scheming with his adviser, Godfrey (Mark Strong), to collude with the invading French army in breaking the backs of the English populace with exorbitant taxes. There’s a lot of throne-room intrigue, much of which hews fairly closely to the actual facts of political turmoil of 13th-century England. But the movie has to perform some convoluted narrative footwork to connect the Robin Hood story to these larger historical events. In one far-fetched scene, Robin presents the king with a scroll of populist demands that reads like a first draft of the Magna Carta.

The screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, seems to be working from a memo forbidding the use of any recognizable tropes from the Robin Hood legend. Not a soul wears green (even though there’s some literary and historical precedent for associating the color with the region where the story takes place). Little John (Kevin Durand) isn’t particularly large, Friar John (Mark Addy) never carries Robin Hood on his back across a river, and no one mounts a horse by leaping down onto its back from a tree. Nor, until the movie’s last few minutes, is there any of the charitably motivated highway robbery that was the Merry Men’s stock in trade. This adaptation seems either not to understand the appeal of its source material or to reject it deliberately. The movie eschews every value we’ve come to think of as quintessentially Robin Hood-ish: derring-do, mischief, laughter, joy.

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

Crowe has never possessed much dramatic range, but he can be — and sometimes is here — a tremendously charismatic screen presence who imparts an air of naturalness even to stupid roles in stupid movies. There’s something off about this performance, though. It’s got a calculated movie-star-ness about it, as if Scott had assured him that every character issue and every plot point could be resolved by striking a gloomy non-expression at the perfect angle and holding it for five seconds. Hey, don’t worry about any of that acting-school bullshit, Rusty. They loved you in “Gladiator”! (Which is, at the risk of being obvious, the career-topping, Oscar-sweeping formula Scott and Crowe long to recapture here.)

What I’m working my way around to saying (talk about damning with faint praise!) is that despite its abundant flaws and historical howlers and generally dimwitted tone, “Robin Hood” is a surprisingly enjoyable work of popcorn cinema, if you’re willing to take it on its own terms. As ever, Scott hires the best production-design teams in the business, and his muddy vision of late medieval Britain — where even London is little more than a collection of wood-and-wattle huts built around the royal castle — is richly detailed and totally convincing. Much more important, this is a knockout love story built around two adult characters who’ve learned some of life’s toughest lessons and faced real responsibilities.

I don’t know how much money Cate Blanchett got paid to play Marian Loxley, the aristocratic widow who will become — in the story’s future tense — Robin’s Maid Marian. It was probably more than you and I combined will make in 10 years, but in terms of redeeming this film as a viewing experience, it might not have been enough. For my money, Blanchett’s beauty only grows more luminiscent as she gets older (she celebrates her 41st birthday this week, if you haven’t sent a gift), and in this role as a rural woman forced to run her absent husband’s estate she commands the screen with supernal grace and a fiery sense of purpose.

Moreover, when paired with Blanchett, Crowe’s gloomy demeanor and noncommittal expression — he looks like a man unsure whether what he just ate was chocolate or cat shit — seems directed at a worthy object. In this before-the-man-became-a-legend prequel, Crowe’s Robin Longstride is an archer who skips out on the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) as it pillages its way homeward from the Crusades, perhaps because he’s developed a conscience about all that wanton killing of Muslims. (Ascribing a 21st-century sense of morality and cultural sophistication — not to mention literacy — to the uneducated son of a 13th-century stonemason is nice and all. But, you know, not that plausible.)

E.D. Kain at The League:

Roger Ebert’s review of Robin Hood is not the one I wanted to read. I wanted a thumbs up, four stars, 99% fresh – and instead I learn that this is in fact a prequel to the actual Robin Hood story – much like Alice in Wonderland turned out to be a really boring sequel to that much better tale.


I enjoy Ebert’s curmudgeonly side. His film-buff conservatism comes out in reviews like this one and I find myself nodding in agreement – though, to be fair, I haven’t seen the film myself so I can only speculate. Still – not the real Robin Hood story? Massive battle scenes? Have we lost the art of telling a good story – even when that story is all there written out for us beforehand?

I love the Robin Hood legend for its banditry and its lack of grandiosity. The rebels ambushing caravans in the woods; the archery and daring escapes. I’ve enjoyed every single Robin Hood film I’ve ever seen, and I’d really hate to be disappointed by this one. I fear I will be – since this doesn’t sound anything like Robin Hood at all.

John Gholson at Cinematical:

I’m fine with the formula, even if I’m come to expect more from a director like Scott. It’s a comfort food dish of medieval action; a bowl of extra-lumpy mashed potatoes that’s satisfyingly familiar, if a little bland. I’m not a Robin Hood purist, and I don’t mind the Batman Begins-ification of the character, watching him grow into the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest that everyone’s familiar with. I can’t fault them for trying to find a new way to bring a very old character to life, especially one that’s been done over and over again on film.

I can fault them, however, for the slow-motion black and white flashbacks of Robin Hood’s repressed childhood memories, the predictable plotting, and the general mis-casting of everyone aboard. Crowe and Blanchett both seem too old for their roles, but hey, they’re movie stars, meaning they’re completely watchable in just about anything, no matter how mis-cast. Crowe’s sad sack voice percolates at a low rumble that swallows most of his own dialogue, while Blanchett tries to pick up the slack by being an extra-sassy Marion. Max Von Sydow and the actors playing Robin’s eventual merry men (Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Mark Addy) make the most of their roles, but the bad guys, Mark Strong as the traitorous Godfrey and Oscar Isaac as the cowardly Prince John, come across like thinly-motivated comic book villains.

Godfrey is out to help the French (to what end?) and Prince John wants power without granting his people liberty (good luck with that). Standing in the middle of both men is Robin Longstride (aka Robin Hood, but not just yet), disgraced archer for Richard the Lionhearted, who fakes his way back into England after Richard’s death by posing as the Nottingham soldier Robin Loxley. Robin’s crusade isn’t about killing Muslims in the name of England; it’s fair taxation. Or something. I’m not sure what Robin’s primary motivation is, besides being heroic. He rallies a broken England against French invaders, royally pissing off Prince John, and our story ends where most Robin Hood movies begin — right at the good part.

The truth is, I’m not any more in love with the character than I was when the movie started. Robin Hood, to me, is still a vanilla crusader who’s only good for a couple of hours of arrow-shooting and swashbuckling, and that’s what Robin Hood, the film, delivers. Ridley Scott brings his usual keen cinematic eye and pain-staking attention to period detail to Robin Hood, bringing an uninspired script to life without a grander purpose than to just exist as a typical Summer movie. In another decade, I’m sure someone will attempt to bring the character back to the movies with an all-new spin. Let’s hope they find a new formula.

Marshall Fine at Hollywood and Fine:

Ultimately, the big conflict in this film isn’t Robin Hood standing up for what’s right – it’s England, perched on the brink of civil war, trying to resolve its internal differences to take on the French. But the battle scenes seem perfunctory, almost rote, as though Scott was choosing from a lot of left-over second-unit footage.

Those sequences still have a certain kinetic power but seem like an afterthought. It’s as if what Scott really wanted to do was make a movie about the signing of the Magna Carta, then got cold feet and put in the action set-pieces.

Crowe is still a fascinating actor to watch, someone whose thoughts are always visible. Which is good because Robin doesn’t have much to say here. He and Blanchett have a pleasing friction that eventually turns from antipathy to romance. But, again, that doesn’t seem to be what was uppermost in Scott’s mind.

In the past, I’ve frequently felt that Scott’s films were a triumph of style over substance. But “Robin Hood” is so overburdened with substance that the style is muted, almost invisible at times. And no one wants a summer blockbuster that feels like a history lesson.

Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:

The loveliest, most gloriously pagan Robin Hood may be John Irvin’s 1991 version, starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman, worth seeking out on DVD; it was never released in theaters, thanks to the dunderheaded egotism of Kevin Costner, who didn’t want it to compete with his own inane Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (directed by Kevin Reynolds). Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood may be even worse than Costner’s version, though comparing the two makes for a pretty pittling contest. At least Costner’s version feigned some love for its landscape; Scott’s is just a moneygrubbing extravaganza, ugly to look at and interminable to sit through. No movie about the evils of excessive taxation should be this taxing.

UPDATE: A.O. Scott in NYT

Ezra Klein

Jonathan Chait at TNR

Alex Massie

E.D. Kain at The League

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One, Two, Freddy’s Coming For You. Three, Four, A Remake Critics Don’t Adore

When Wes Craven’s original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” hit the screen in 1984, America was midway through the collective dream-state of the Reagan years, an era that promised to slam the door shut on the social traumas of the ’60s and paper it over with a veneer of “Father Knows Best” suburban normalcy. It was morning in America — but there was some mighty weird shit going on at night.

Craven’s antiheroic Freddy Krueger appeared on the landscape, in that era of missing kids on milk cartons and largely mythical ritual-child-abuse scandals, as a visible manifestation of all the suppressed secrets and lies that weren’t quite deeply buried enough in the dripping, steamy basement. He was a child-killer, freed on a technicality and then hunted down and murdered by the vigilante parents of Springwood, Ohio, who then resurfaced as a murderous, lascivious emissary from the id, in a remarkably ugly sweater. (Craven reportedly read somewhere that that particular red-green combination was uniquely unpleasant to the human eye.)

Along with John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” “Nightmare” reinvigorated horror cinema and launched the teen-oriented, slasher-movie craze of the ’80s and early ’90s. That’s a mixed blessing, to be sure, but “Nightmare on Elm Street” was also “The Matrix” before “The Matrix” was, dynamiting conventional screen distinctions between dream, reality and psychosis. In the original “Nightmare” and some of its better sequels — I’d nominate “Nightmare 3: Dream Warriors,” “Nightmare 4: The Dream Master” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” the most metafictional pop film this side of Charlie Kaufman — production design veered into the Gothic, the grotesque and the surreal.

As the franchise munched its way into jokey, Grand Guignol decadence over the course of eight feature films and a TV series, Robert Englund’s smirky, wiseass Freddy became first a cultural icon and then, more and more obviously, the damaged, hubristic hero of the whole enterprise. Teenagers in horror films are endlessly replaceable; there can be only one Freddy Krueger. His back story became increasingly complicated: He has a mother (a nun — raped by 100 maniacs!), an abusive stepfather, an ex-wife and a daughter. He began to sound like the deadbeat-dad protagonist of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” except with a grant of eternal life from the Dream Demons and a sweater badly in need of dry cleaning.

Craven tried his best to kill Freddy off and demolish the franchise down to its foundations by making “New Nightmare,” which starred Englund, Craven, New Line Cinema head Bob Shaye and Heather Langenkamp (who played Freddy’s nemesis Nancy in the first and third films) as themselves, haunted by a fictional demon their movies had called to life. Of course it wasn’t enough, and New Line convinced Englund to don the moldy stripes one last time, for Ronny Yu’s 2003 “Freddy vs. Jason,” which became, depressingly enough, the highest-grossing movie in the history of both the “Nightmare” and “Friday the 13th” franchises.

I guess, in the wake of all that, you can see the appeal of trying to strip away all the one-line gags and Halloween costumes and Hieronymus Bosch-knockoff imagery and postmodern layers of meaning, and bring the series back to its roots among the insomniac teens and lying parents of an idyllic, lily-white Midwestern town. Or actually, come to think of it, maybe you can’t.

Neil Miller at Film School Rejects:

For no good reason, Freddy Krueger has come back to life. But that won’t stop his return from being a terrifying ride into the world of dreams now, will it? Certainly not.

As an avid fan of avoiding anything disturbing, bloody or in any way scary, I can tell you that I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing Freddy Krueger rise from the ashes like a knife-fingered phoenix. But having enjoyed — much to my surprise — the most recent remake from Platinum Dunes, Friday the 13th, I was at least optimistic. That, and the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as the new Freddy reeked of potential brilliance. In Watchmen, Haley was the essential Rorschach. He had the exact amount of intensity that one would like to see from a scary slasher, that was clear.

What wasn’t clear, at least at that point, was how right Haley would be for this new brand of Krueger. He isn’t the same Freddy that emerged from Robert Englund. He’s a darker, more tragic and twisted vision of a man murdered by a town full of angry parents. He’s an unrelenting dreamscape killer, a downright terrifying and grand figure who haunts the minds of a group of hip teenagers. But there’s something more to his story, something that didn’t exist in Wes Craven’s seminal slasher classic from 1984. In this rebirth, the story behind the man who kills you in your dreams is played with, twisted about, and turned into something deeply disturbing.

This week, after taking in my first screening of director Samuel Bayer’s new Nightmare, I saw fit to revisit the original. And after said visit, the most striking thing about the difference between the classic and contemporary is the steep shift in the tone of Freddy’s background. In the original, he is simply a child killer who was rightfully burned by an angry mob of moms and dads. There is never a discussion of his potential innocence, never a discussion of what he did beyond simply killing a few kids from the neighborhood.

Peter Suderman at Reason:

With three decades’ worth of silver-screen suburban slasher flicks behind us, it’s easy to forget how truly, delightfully bizarre Craven’s movie was.  A mesmerizing mix of low-budget schlock and imaginatively gory shocks, it wasn’t a good movie, exactly, but it was a stirring piece of pop-culture transgression—in no small part because of the obvious and more-than-slightly crazed pleasure it took in mangling its assortment of oblivious, bedroom-community brats. And with its scar-faced spectral dream-villain, it offered a crudely effective psychological manifestation of adolescent anxieties about self and subconscious: When you’re 15, who knows what evils lurk in your mind?

Sadly, the remake has little of the original’s freaky, low-fi surrealism. Sure, it’s fun to hear Jackie Earle Haley spew quips in a death metal drawl (after explaining to one gutted youth that the brain keeps going for seven minutes after the heart stops, he declares, “We’ve still got six minutes to flay“). But for the most part, it merely offers a dull recitation of generic teen-horror rituals: music-video moodiness, bloody-but-dull kills, and a cast of dim, expressionless teens who constantly look as if they’re auditioning for jobs as department-store catalog models. Each is a vacant placeholder for a contemporary suburban high-school type—the jock, the goth, the emo-snert, the bland bombshell (in a pair of Uggz, natch), and the nice girl with the troubled past.

Ideally, each would be an archetype, though even a plucky stock character would do. Instead, every one of them is a black hole of personality; at one point, one of the characters asks another if he wants to talk. They both stare blankly for a moment, and then:

“What do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know. What’s your favorite color?”


The conversation dies there, pathetically, as if the screenwriter, perhaps fully aware of the fact that these might be the most boring humans in cinematic history, simply gave up, possibly to take a nap.

Melissa Lafsky at The Awl:

One of the keys to being an 80s movie that’s remade in 2010 is the presumption that the original was, well, kind of crappy. As one article (I’d link to it, but a media insider recently sneered to me that “linking is dead,” which I hadn’t realized but I’m hardly the one who decides these things) put it, “It’s not like they’re gonna remake ‘Apocalypse Now.’” Still, for those of us who are, well, old, it’s nearly impossible to watch a remake of a 26-year-old movie and not be in a state of constant comparison—particularly when the original was a staple of our childhoods.

Which is one of the reasons the new ‘Nightmare’ is getting such a flaming on the Internet: Messing with a beloved 80’s classic can seriously backfire on you. If your audience is already supermega-nostalgic about the original, they’re gonna compare every second of your remake, frame by frame. Which is basically what I, and every other fangeek, did.

So let’s do a breakdown of the two:

The key difference, of course, is Freddy. We (meaning those of us who fully remember the 80s) adored him. He was the pre-Bart Simpson, a pockmarked iconoclast with a closet full of one-liners and no discernible morals. He represented everything our parents abhorred, and so of course we deified him beyond reason. He was the symbol of everything unsafe that lurked beneath the 80s (as well as the financial savior of New Line Cinema). His level of celebrity was Bieber-esque: A friend of mine waited in line for hours at a mall to have his ‘Nightmare’ poster signed by the man himself, who eventually wrote “Dear Adam: Go take a nap! Yours, Robert Englund.”

But in the post-innocence era of 2010, we’ve gone decidedly darker. Gone are the fluffy haircuts and pink sweater vests and beefy jock boyfriends. Today’s mainstream horror, and today’s moviegoers, are oh-so-self-aware. Nowadays we like our vodka organic, our Tolstoy digitized, and our serial killers repositories of child-raping evil. As Abe Sauer so astutely noted here, the move in this heavier-child-molesting direction began with the casting of Jackie Earle Haley, an uber-talented actor who’s hedged his career on Hollywood’s fascination with pedophiles. Despite his stature—he’d come up to Robert Englund’s shoulder, maybe—Haley summons enough twisted presence to successfully recreate Freddy as a seriously scary motherf**ker. Except in the process, he sells out the character. The New Freddy has abandoned charisma in favor of being a total Sadist—he went “Full Child-Torturing Murderer.” Yes, he’s scary, but there’s no friggin’ way anyone is waiting in line for this guy’s autograph.

Peter Martin at Cinematical:

I actually liked Samuel Bayer’s new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street as I was watching it. Like the other remakes of modern horror classics perpetrated by production company Platinum Dunes, including 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and last year’s Friday the 13th, the latest Nightmare doesn’t skimp on bloody, gruesome violence and is peppered with plenty of profanity, along with wisecracks to deflate the tension. It honors the spirit of the original by faithfully recreating several memorable set-pieces. It delivers, in other words, the most basic desires of horror fans, introduces young audiences to a classic character, and wrings a few changes of its own.

And if A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) fails to erase Wes Craven’s original (1984) from the memory banks of all who’ve seen it, maybe that’s because Craven created an unsettling picture that tapped into universal fears. The new version labors, initially, to establish its own unique take on the atmosphere, mood, and premise.

We’re introduced to the anonymous town of Springwood, which has been struck with tragedy: a high school boy dies in unpleasant, mysterious fashion in plain view at a diner. Among those who witness his death are quiet part-time waitress Nancy (Rooney Mara) and the dead guy’s girlfriend, Kris (Katie Cassidy). They’ve both been having bad dreams featuring a creepy guy in a sweater, with knives for fingers on one hand, and they’re both feeling haunted.

Two boys are experiencing similar nightmares: quiet Quentin (Kyle Gallner), who yearns for Nancy, and angry Jesse (Thomas Dekker), Kris’ ex-boyfriend. Worn out by grief, one of them gets sliced up spectacularly after falling asleep. The others realize they’ve been having the same dream, and that the creepy guy wants them dead. “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep!”

The name of the creepy guy is revealed to be Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley). He appears to have some connection with the teenagers, but none of them knows anything about him, and can’t imagine why he’s running through their dreams trying to kill them. Nancy’s mother (Connie Britton) and Quentin’s father (Clancy Brown) are no help to the kids, so they’re left to their own devices to stay awake and solve the mystery of Freddy Krueger.

Throughout the initial scenes, the direction by Samuel Bayer is strictly stereotypical, jammed with music cues that startle due to volume rather than surprise, and false scares aplenty. The script, credited to Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, is front-loaded with moments that feel perfunctory: a showy entrance for Freddy, the requisite spurting blood, and references to the original. It’s almost like the filmmakers are following a checklist of necessary items for a modern horror remake.

Then there’s a welcome shift into a more measured approach. Callbacks to Craven’s original continue to pop up, but there are more extreme close-ups, sometimes moving so close to the faces of the young actors that the shot threatens to go out of focus. As the dream sequences take hold in earnest, the extreme close-ups retreat.

S.T. VanAirsdale in Movieline:

But I can’t exaggerate how little Bayer and Co. even tried in their remake. A quasi-atmospheric intro features Kellan Lutz (spoiler alert) introducing steak knife to throat and downtrodden young waitress Nancy (Rooney Mara) flirting with Joaquin Phoenix in a Joy Division T-shirt (Kyle Gallner). They’re half of a cluster of teens who went to the same preschool where handyman Krueger abused them all, and now, somehow, they’re all having the same dream that plunges them into one of several fashionably lighted chambers where he can finish the job he started years earlier.

How many years earlier remains an open question (these actors all look like they’re pushing 30, despite the presence of childhood photo archives dated 1997), but it’s an unpleasant sign of our times that a mainstream horror film can actually get away with a teenage victim dressed up like a little girl while a leering, licking, caressing villain growls paeans to child rape before pledging to kill her. “You were always my favorite,” Krueger says to the trembling young Nancy — after throwing her around the room like the rag doll on which she likely once pointed out his gravest offenses. Nice. Nicer still is the vigilante justice of Krueger’s origin story, culminating in the parents of the abused preschoolers torching the warehouse where he’s taken refuge. This all unfolds in flashback as Joaquin-alike watches in a Speedo, literally pulled into a nightmare during swim practice.

It’s not as though Bayer is totally without imagination, but years of music-video directing have withered his attention span to about three minutes — the time it takes to mount a visually effective if generally unscary drugstore set piece, or to frame one of Nancy’s preschool classmates in a vlog documenting his struggles to stay awake. The last installment of the videos — when he nods off — predictably doesn’t go so well for the subject. But for the viewer, at least, it yields a more authentic sense of dread than any of the labored, portentous glam-horror in its orbit.

Had Nightmare on Elm Street simply strung a succession of these mishaps together in Final Destination or Saw style, it could have been a serviceable exercise in screen sadism. But the choice to pretend that there’s a story here is worse than insulting to the audience, which outwardly demonstrated its incapacity to give a shit after a while. (And dear Michael Bay: I viewed it with the general public, not a room full of stuffy critics sharpening their own knives for your latest exercise, so shut up already.) It was boring. So, so, so boring. It doesn’t even give Haley the courtesy of a bad-guy showcase; his face frozen and obscured behind burn prosthetics, he spends most of his time spitting distorted one-liners from the shadows, like some anonymous mob witness on an episode of Dateline NBC. It’s boring and a waste.


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Critics Are Throwing Heart Candies At The Screen

Eleanor Barkhorn at The Atlantic has a round-up of the best digs at this movie.

Dana Stevens at Slate:

Try realizing, a half-hour into this 126-minute movie, that all those narratives (plus at least three more) have just been set in place, and that you’re responsible for accompanying and eventually summarizing all 12 story arcs, from buildup to crisis to resolution. It’s like operating an air-traffic control tower: Whoa! Shirley MacLaine incoming! Landing gear deployed … take ‘er to the gate, boys. George Lopez, you keep circling up there while Jessica Alba refuels. Perhaps fittingly, there is a literal air-travel theme in Valentine’s Day, with Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper flirting at 35,000 feet and Ashton Kutcher running barefoot through an airport. (What if all of the people who raced through airports on-screen—Kutcher, George Clooney in Up in the Air, O.J. in that car-rental ad—collided in a giant heap and just lay there, cursing and writhing?)

Hathaway and Grace do at least have some physical chemistry, and her phone-sex scenes are the only hint, in this hearts-and-flowers universe, that someone somewhere is thinking about getting it on. Contemplating the romantic prospects of Ashton Kutcher and Jennifer Garner, it’s hard to summon up a sentiment beyond the one muttered by my viewing companion: “Fine, mush your boring faces together already.”

Valentine’s Day, directed by the romantic-comedy veteran Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) and written by Katherine Fugate, is firmly committed to the notion of economy of scale. What it lacks in charm, humor, and intelligence, it makes up for in sheer volume. Why settle for one high-schoolers-in-love subplot when you can cram in a second, starring Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner as adorable airheads who serve no apparent narrative function? Why rely on one female character to provide the klutzy physical comedy when you can have three (the highly capable Anne Hathaway, the just-competent Jennifer Garner, and the intolerable Jessica Biel)? Marshall’s attempt to please every conceivable audience is like a 200-piece Whitman’s sampler. What’s the point of getting that much candy if you want to discard every piece after the first bite?

Carl Kozlowski at Big Hollywood:

I’m a sucker for good romantic comedies, and I even found some appeal in “Leap Year” despite its abundance of cliches. But I laughed so few times at “Valentine’s Day” that I actually took to keeping count, like a prisoner marking his days off in his cell. The end tally? I laughed out loud six (6) times in 125 minutes – five of those for one-liners, and one series of chuckles and maybe a guffaw in the one truly funny and spirited scene in the movie, which seemed to be an outtake from “American Pie” rather than a coherent part of this movie.

The entire movie, from scene one to closing credits, feels like a bad Lifetime TV movie – as if there’s such a thing as a good Lifetime movie. Well, lo and behold, the script (if you can call it that) is written by Katharine Fugate, the creator of that horrific network’s “Army Wives” series. The obvious question here is why would so many stars team up to make such a bland movie? And how so many people’s standards could be so low? Come on, Bradley Cooper just made one of the biggest comedies of all time with “The Hangover”! Did he have a lobotomy with that film’s paycheck?

The answer is, obviously, greed and laziness. All these people wanted to basically hang out for a couple days and be around the rest of the “cool kids” in Hollywood, while getting paid a few hundred thousand or a couple million each for what was likely at most three days’ work for each character. (That was another game I started playing to save my sanity – how few hours did each actor have to put into their roles?)

There are so many ways to show the person you love, or even dig, that you care for them this weekend. You can go to dinner, take a long walk in a pretty setting, sweep them off their feet dancing. Heck, you could even watch the Vancouver Olympics – because even without snow, that’s certain to be more exciting. But for the love of God and all that is holy, if you want your relationship to last, I suggest wholeheartedly that you steer clear of “Valentine’s Day.”

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

No I won’t be seeing it, unless some rogue CIA squad, acting on bad intel, mistakes me for an al-Qaeda sleeper agent, kidnaps me, and drags me to the theater on the assumption that exposure to the film is the fastest way to break me.

But, I am fascinated with the fundamental stupidity of films like this. They work on the assumption that super-successful, funny, kind, well-adjusted, and hot-as-magma women can’t find dates. I watched a clip on one of the talk shows where Jessica Biel — Queen of Planet Smoking Hot — is wigging out because no one will ask her out.

Meanwhile, these movies assume that absurdly handsome, super-sensitive rich and successful dudes,  who love their dogs and mothers, do carpentry for orphans in their spare time but who’re still manly enough to punch out jerks who threaten the honor of women, have a really hard time in the dating department, too.

Yes, I know movies are fantasies blah blah blah. But you wouldn’t cast a filipino midget in the role of Indiana Jones. And yet these movies cast beautiful people — I mean crazy, designed in an East German lab beautiful people — in roles that only make sense for the basically normal looking. In the play Frankie and Johnny, the female lead was played by Kathy Bates. In the movie, Michelle Pfeiffer got the role. And Pfeiffer couldn’t do better than an ex-con short-order cook in a low-rent diner.

Frankly, I find the plot of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel more plausible.

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

Most of the gestures made at gags in “Valentine’s Day” fall amazingly flat, and feel as if they were retrieved from the reject drawer on one of Marshall’s vintage TV sitcoms, several decades back: High school students want lattes in their vending machines! Jews converse with nuns! Blondes are not that bright! Mexicans actually speak and understand Spanish! The movie is 125 minutes long — which is already wretched excess for a showman of Marshall’s experience — but it feels like hours or years or geological epochs. Generations of mice lived and died under the theater seats, spawning aspartame-poisoned new generations while I was watching this. Taylor Swift began the film as a teenage country-music superstar, and ended it by replacing Shirley MacLaine in the wizened-grandma role. Seriously.

No, that’s not true. That’s a lie I made up out of bitterness. What is true, though, is that Swift, a movie neophyte assigned the nothing role of a crazy-in-love high school airhead, is one of the few actors not wasted in “Valentine’s Day.” Her overgrown-pixie look and odd, widely set eyes lend her a little bit of Marilyn and a little bit of Lucille Ball: She’s Taylor-made for comic greatness! (I can’t believe I wrote that either. But if I am the first among Internets to supply that particular whore-quote, it will have been worth it.)


Taken as a whole, though, “Valentine’s Day” involves watching talented and attractive people squander their energies on a pointless and random exercise, which … hey! Wait a second! That’s an excellent description of what the real Valentine’s Day does to the rest of us (less talented and attractive though we may be). Maybe Marshall and Fugate are playing a deeper, trickier, more influenced-by-Godard game than I think. Except that if they were they might make better use of Ashton Kutcher, a renegade talent whose likable persona has overwhelmed his acting chops, at least thus far. (Catch David Mackenzie’s little-seen gigolo saga “Spread” for Kutcher’s best movie performance.)

In “Valentine’s Day” Kutcher plays a milquetoast florist named Reed, who pops the question to his scarily tan girlfriend (Jessica Alba) at daybreak on Valentine’s Day, thereby launching our City of Angels relationship round-robin. Alba’s spray-bronzed character says yes and pretty much disappears thereafter, leaving Reed to don a pink long-sleeve T-shirt and pink baseball cap and utter lines like, “Now I can be a sugary cheeseball mooning about love to total strangers all day long without people thinking I’m a moron. Because it’s Valentine’s Day!” Uh, yeah. About that moron thing? Let’s give that more thought.

It’s no wonder Alba packs her bags and gets her supernaturally hued hide out of Dodge, leaving Reed alone on the commercially mandated Feast Day of Romantic Love — alone, that is, except for his suspiciously hot but totally platonic “best friend” Julia (Jennifer Garner), whose boyfriend, slithery cardiac surgeon Patrick Dempsey, is supposedly out of town on this night of nights. I’m not saying that Kutcher’s character reads as gay, exactly, and I’m not saying that a female writer can’t do convincing guys. I am saying that both Reed and Julia seem like incompetent first drafts for human characters rather than the real thing, and that Marshall’s not a good enough director to pull more out of these actors than what’s on the page.

Dr. Cole Abaius at Film School Rejects:

Dear Garry Marshall,

Normally I would address an open letter like this to the mystical Whom It May Concern, but in this case I see fit to direct this missive to you. I say this for only one reason: you should know better.

As per my mother’s teachings, I’d like to open up this message with the good. There’ll be time for the bad and the ugly later, but for now, let’s talk about the unsinkable Jamie Foxx. Even in a terrible film, he still can’t be dragged down. He delivers some genuinely funny lines even if his storyline doesn’t really matter or make sense. There are, admittedly, even a few moments that work really well. Nothing sweet mind you, but still a few things that make for decent comedy.

And then there’s the other 120 minutes.

Speaking of which, I’d like to start by going over some simple math with you. You have 21 characters in this bad boy, and with 125 minutes of screen time (assuming that you pair them up), you end up with each story pair getting a whopping 11.9 minutes of screen time. You have a little less than 12 minutes to tell each story. It might have been fine – like a series of interwoven shorts – if the writing had been tight as a drum and the acting hadn’t spared a minute. But both spared everything.

I have to assume that you didn’t have anyone there to do this easy formula before the entire damned affair got started. No one on set with a Masters degree in mathematics or anyone who passed the crucial Different-Shaped-Blocks-Into-Different-Shaped-Holes Test. And that’s not your fault. It’s our school systems.

So let me see if I have the plot about right: A ton of people in Los Angeles wander around half-asleep on the screen saying ‘I Love You,’ kissing, breaking up, making up, getting angry, and sad or lonely and then the credits roll and everyone picks up their paycheck. Is that about right?

You’d expect me, perhaps, to rage at this point, but I let my anger subside while thinking about your film, and I realized that the honest reaction is one of pity and awe. The pity, because it’s obvious by the sheer volume of post-production, off-camera dialogue and side gags added that you knew you’d made a terrible film. At least someone did. And a Hail Mary clean-up job was called for. It didn’t work in the least, but at least someone tried, and it’s nice to know that the effort was there at the end despite its shocking lack of presence near the beginning.

Going back to math, I would have traded all twenty-one of those stars for two good actors. Hell, if you really wanted a challenge, do four main characters. Or six. But twenty-one? Ironically, I barely even noticed there were that many because their story lines were all basically the same.

As I said before, I’m in awe. You’ve achieved something incredible with this movie: you’ve managed to capture the spirit of Valentine’s Day in film form.

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“And You Will Know I Am The Lord When I Lay My Vengeance Upon You”- Ezekiel 25:17, Samuel L. Jackson-Style

sbnek8Inglourious Basterds opens.

Chris Orr at TNR:

That first scene is a knockout, one of the tautest cat-and-mouse exchanges since Dennis Hopper discussed Italian genealogy with Christopher Walken in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance–the surface bonhomie heightening, rather than concealing, the lethal tensions beneath. Though he overplays his hand on occasion in the latter portions of the film, Waltz is a genuine revelation as the smugly insinuating Jew-hunter Landa. If the actor were not already well-known in Europe, one would call it a star-making performance; instead, we can settle for star-importing.

Not everything in the film is quite so appealing, though the ratio of good Tarantino (the sharp dialogue; the structural inventiveness; the encyclopedic enthusiasm for historic cinema) to bad Tarantino (the bloodbaths-as-narrative-escape-hatches; the indecisive border between homage and parody) is considerably higher than it has been post-Jackie Brown. For any who might worry that Inglorious Bastards is, as the film’s marketing seems to promise, a Holocaust-revision variation on Kill Bill, a gory, unimaginative slog by baseball bat and bowie knife through acres of Nazi corpses, the movie is a very pleasant surprise. For those who were looking forward to such a Kill Wilhelm, well, you do still get a bit of batting practice.

Dana Stevens in Slate:

If Inglourious Basterds is offensive—and in spots, it’s wildly so—it’s not because Tarantino tries to bring Hitler and comedy together. That’s been done before—by Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, and others—back when the wound of the war was much fresher. The queasiness comes in when the movie unproblematically offers up sadistic voyeurism as a satisfying form of payback. As he’s trying to extract information from a German soldier, Brad Pitt’s character speaks a line that could function as the movie’s motto: “Watching Germans get beat to death is as close as we get to going to the movies.” Tarantino’s radical rewriting of the war’s ending is audacious and perversely enthralling. But if Inglorious Basterds were about something more than the cinematic thrill of watching Nazis suffer, it could have been a revelation.

Dennis Lim in Slate:

Since it premiered at Cannes in May, Basterds has met with some wildly conflicting reactions (some of them—no surprise given its breezily outrageous approach to a loaded subject—highly negative and morally accusatory). Tarantino’s career since Pulp Fiction continues to seem like one long backlash. Could it be that one of the most overrated directors of the ’90s has become one of the most underrated of the aughts?

Tarantino’s filmography is split in two by the six-year gap that separated Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), during which, among other things, he worked on the notoriously unwieldy Basterds screenplay (which was at one point supposed to be a miniseries). The received wisdom has it that he never quite made a comeback. But the criticisms most frequently leveled against him these days—he’s a rip-off artist, he makes movies that relate only to other movies, he knows nothing of real life, he could use some sensitivity training—apply equally, if not more so, to the earlier films. (Reservoir Dogs lifted many of its tricks directly from the Hong Kong film City on Fire; Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown are the Tarantino movies with the most flamboyant use of racist language.) Reviewers and audiences may have wearied of the blowhard auteur, but there’s an argument to be made that Tarantino, far from a burnout case, is just hitting his stride, and that his movies, in recent years, have only grown freer and more radical.


Inglourious Basterds addresses head-on many of the standard anti-Tarantino criticisms. You say he makes movies that are just about movies? You think they present violence without a context? Luring the elite of the Third Reich to an Art Deco cinematheque in Nazi-occupied Paris, Basterds gleefully uses film history to turn the tables on world history; its context is nothing less than the worst atrocity of the 20th century. This only seems to have further infuriated Tarantino’s detractors, some of whom are appalled that this terminal adolescent would dare to indulge his notorious penchant for vengeful wish fulfillment on such sensitive and sacrosanct material.

Needless to say, Tarantino’s movie shares little common ground with—and, indeed, is probably a direct response to—your typical Holocaust drama. It has no interest in somber commemoration, and it refuses to deny the very real satisfactions of revenge. Like all of Tarantino’s films, Inglourious Basterds is about its maker’s crazy faith in movies, in their ability to create a parallel universe. His films have always implicitly insisted that movies are an alternative to real life, and with Inglourious Basterds, for the first time, he has done something at once preposterous and poignant: He takes that maxim at face value and creates his own counterfactual history. It may not be his masterpiece, but for sheer chutzpah, it will be hard to top.

Rob Hunter at Film School Rejects:

Much praise has already been bestowed upon Waltz’ Col. Landa, and the performance deserves every bit of it (and more). Landa is a master interrogator and detective (he even pulls out a pipe early on that would make Sherlock Holmes jealous), and Waltz presents his evil machinations as part of an irresistible and infectious force. Even knowing what Landa’s intentions are you can’t help but be charmed

and mesmerized by Waltz’ charisma, playful spirit, and winking expressions. He’s the loquacious Nazi uncle we all wish we had as children… at least until he knows you’re his, the laughter and smiles disappear, and he stares at you with a icy and predetermined resolve. At which point you’re completely fucked. Waltz could play nothing but interrogators for the rest of his career, and I would never tire of watching him work. (And while that may be better than his current resume of German TV movies, I hope he actually gets a bit more variety.) Laurent’s is the other fantastic performance here as Shosanna runs the gamut of emotions from loss to love to fear to rage. Watch the scene in the cafe where she meets Landa unexpectedly for the second time, watch her beautiful but terror-filled face as she silently pleads not to be left alone with him, and see if you aren’t moved. (And if you’re like me you’ll also immediately begin adding her other work to your Netflix queue.)


Pitt’s performance shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it may serve as a reminder that he’s at his best in roles that lean oddly comedic. Some may see his Tennessee mountain-man as a caricature, and while I’m open to that argument his commitment to the character and delivery of some of the film’s funniest lines has won me over regardless. Most of the remaining performances are solid, but two of them stand out as less than that. On the minor end, Fassbender misplays his British film critic-turned-soldier by over-doing the “jolly good” bits of dialogue most severely when we first meet him opposite Myers. The fact that Myers gives the more subdued performance of the two is shocking to say the least. And then there’s Eli Fucking Roth. He plays a Basterd nicknamed “The Bear-Jew” by the Nazi soldiers who’ve heard tales of him bashing in heads with a baseball bat. The character is imposing enough to overcome most of Roth’s suckage, but not enough of it. He murders every piece of dialogue he’s given, misses every comedic beat (aside from one involving Italian hand gestures), and his expressions consist solely of smarmy smirk or pursed-lipped psycho stare. It’s almost enough to wish Tarantino had played the role himself… okay, that’s not true, but Roth is pretty damn bad.

John Cairns at Film School Rejects

Jenna Busch at Huffington Post

Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic:

The horror-movie director Eli Roth—his film Hostel is the most repulsively violent movie I’ve ever seen twice—plays a Basterd known as the “Bear Jew,” whose specialty is braining Germans with a baseball bat. Roth told me recently that Inglourious Basterds falls into a subgenre he calls “kosher porn.”

“It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling,” Roth said. “My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That’s something I could watch all day. My parents are very strong about Holocaust education. My grandparents got out of Poland and Russia and Austria, but their relatives did not.”

Tarantino’s producer, Lawrence Bender, says that after reading the first draft of Inglourious Basterds, he told Tarantino, “As your producing partner, I thank you, and as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream.” Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the film’s executive producers, also reportedly enjoyed the film’s theme of Jewish revenge.

Tarantino told me he has received only positive reactions from his Jewish friends. “The Jewish males that I’ve known since I’ve been writing the film and telling them about it, they’ve just been, ‘Man, I can’t fucking wait for this fucking movie!’” he told me. “And they tell their dads, and they’re like, ‘I want to see that movie!’”

Andrew O’Hehir in Salon on Goldberg’s piece:

In his Atlantic article, Goldberg opines that no Jewish filmmaker would ever concoct such a brazen, violent and preposterously disconnected revenge fantasy (although it’s worth reconsidering “Hostel” in light of the fact that Eli Roth’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors). Wells implies, but doesn’t quite say, that the net effect of “Inglourious Basterds” may be anti-Semitic, in its depiction of Jews as deranged, unscrupulous killers. My own view is that Quentin Tarantino has no serious opinions or convictions whatever regarding Nazis or Jews or the Holocaust. Beneath all his B-movie genre-worship, Tarantino remains a pomo disciple of Jean-Luc Godard, playing an elaborate game of bait-and-switch with his audience and seeking to disarrange the conventional stories — or stories about stories — we’ve got in our heads. More simply, he’s just fucking with us.

More from Goldberg

UPDATE: Isaac Chotiner at TNR

UPDATE #2: Dennis Hartley

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Spock’s Blog Would Be Fascinating


A new post for the opening. We got your bloggy reviews right here:

Jonah Goldberg in NRO.

Peter Suderman in Reason.

Chris Orr in NR.

And a Matt Y post that quotes the Dana Stevens review.

For Slate and Salon and some Bloggingheads, as well as earlier posts, see:

EARLIER: Where No Blog Has Gone Before

UPDATE: Reihan Salam wants to know about black Vulcans.

A Slate article by Juliet Lapidos about how Start Trek: The Next Generation dealt with torture.

Daniel Larison

UPDATE #2: Now Politico has the Obama-is-Spock meme.

UPDATE #3: James Joyner has more links.

UPDATE #4: Matt Y

UPDATE #5: Ed Morrissey

UPDATE #6: Matt Steinglass and Larison on the Prime Directive.

UPDATE #7 Via TBogg,

Dan Perrin at Redstate

UPDATE #8: More from Chris Orr

Andrew O’Hehir in Salon.

Via Matt Y. Michael Peck in Wired.

Jeffrey Weiss and Judith Howard in Politics Daily.

UPDATE #9: Dennis Hartley

Rod Dreher

UPDATE #10: Two posts from Mark Steyn, here and here.


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