Monthly Archives: June 2013


­­Frank Tashlin was a rare example of an­ animator who made a successful switch from directing drawings to directing live action. Justifiably, much has been made of his habit of staging action with the nutty freedom from physics that are routine in cartoons but generally absent from movies.  That liberating madness is captured in a line Bob Hope shouts out in Tashlin’s second feature, Son of Paleface (1952): “Hurry up – this is impossible!”

Tashlin’s contortions of the laws of the universe weren’t his only borrowings from animation. He also translated cartoon backgrounds into feature language. Tashlin worked at Warner Bros., where stingy budgets prevented any experiments with the illusion of three dimensions. Stuck with flat backgrounds, the Warner animators responded by using broad swatches of color and strict geometric forms to replace naturalistic scenery. Tashlin kept doing that when he turned to features, whether he could use the sharp brilliance of Technicolor or was stuck with smudgy, bleary “Color by Deluxe.”

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That’s pretty much what Pedro Almodόvar does with the background of the main set in I’m So Excited, the first class section of an airliner cabin. The set-up involves a full complement of crew and passengers stuck circling for hours in Spanish airspace after the discovery of a mechanical clitch. Having ingeniously trapped a large cast in a small space, Almodόvar sets in motion the cartoon version of a telenova, with extravagant romantic and sexual complications built on the already baroque designs of a flamboyant cast of characters.

Imsoexcited 1The problem is that caricaturing a telenova is the same as sending up a Bond film: How do you send up a send up or – as here – caricature a cartoon? Almodόvar does as well as can be expected, though he produces an amusing comedy rather than the gut-buster he seems to have had in mind (occasionally you can note the mini-beats he’s built into dialogue to accommodate anticipated yuks from the audience).

But this brings us back to Warner cartoons, which were built around the lifelong struggle between the id and the superego. In his few outright comedies and undoubtedly in his dreams, Almodόvar constructs a world where the id always triumphs and always with happy consequences (id doesn’t necessarily translate to sex; there are repressive, though acted-on, sexual relationships in nearly all his films, especially over the last decade).

Imsoexcited 2The Warner animators could depict these fights and consequent transformations literally, even to the point of distorting a character’s shape. Tashlin, especially when he worked with Jerry Lewis, managed to do the same thing with live action. Almodόvar’s movies and Tashlin’s exhibit different sorts of genius and so Almodόvar responds to the cartoon challenge with hair styles, costumes, make-up and behavioral tics. It’s not as big a laugh-getter as Tashlin’s style, but it is an effective means of expression.

I’m So Excited is, thus, a must-see for Almodόvar aficionados and for the curious, but not for those who simply want a burlesque with a Spanish accent.

–Henry Sheehan

“Song” and dance


I liked “Unfinished Song”

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more than “Amour.”

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There: I’ve said it.

I could qualify my preference by conceding that Michael Haneke’s relentless dirge of a love story was the better made film, as its near universal critical acclaim, Academy Award nominations for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress, and its Oscar for Best Foreign Language film would testify. Or that Paul Andrew Williams’s bittersweet riff on the same theme appeals in part because of its shameless manipulativeness and sure-fire formulaic approach. All that would be true. But does it matter in the end? “Unfinished Song” moved me; “Amour” did not. Or rather, it did – it made me angry.

And that’s not because I am one of the Haneke haters: I have written appreciatively of  his whole body of work and reviewed almost all of his films positively – most recently “Caché” (2006)  and “The White Ribbon” (2010), and I also favored the generally reviled remake of “Funny Games” (2008). Heck, I even liked the guy a lot when I interviewed him, though that might be in part due to the fact that he’s a dead ringer

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for my friend, Lloyd Schwartz.

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Nor was I was put off by the spectacle of what really happens when you get old, or when love proves impotent in the face of time and mortality, or am turned off by the efficacy [spoiler] of a pillow or some other means of euthanasia when the situation gets hopeless. Like most people, I’m sufficiently familiar with these concepts from personal experience, and also from other works of art that elevate these blunt facts to the level of comprehensible, illuminating truths.

So maybe I just prefer films that exploit universal emotions and then offer pat resolutions and platitudes as consolation. “Unfinished Song” has its share of that. But then again, so does “Amour.”

That might seem at first a crazy notion – after all, the film opens with first responders breaking into an apartment and being greeted by the stench of a decomposing corpse. It dangles the horribleness of it all in your face without reprieve, but isn’t that just another kind of exploitation? Nothing gets an audience’s attention like having their worst fears tossed like a pie in their face. And such abject pessimism is itself a form of romanticism, I think, a perverse sentimentality, a variation on Oscar Wilde’s definition that “a sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it,” or as Stephen Dedalus puts it in “Ulysses,” “he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.”

Okay, when you start quoting Joyce you know your argument is getting weak. So I’ll state simply that I prefer “Unfinished Song” because the people in it are much more pleasant to spend time with. The notion that a character has to be likeable to be good is fallacious, certainly, but that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy their company. True, Terence Stamp’s character Arthur in “Song” is a bit of a shit throughout almost the entire movie, but he’s a more appealing shit than Jean-Louis Trintignant’s basilisk-eyed bourgeois bore.

More importantly, he changes, and grows in awareness by the end of the picture, and this conversion is believable, in part because it’s being performed by Terence Stamp, perhaps the most beautiful man in movies.

Tritignant is no slouch either, to be sure, and I really liked him in the far more successful geriatric role in Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Red” (1994). But really, when it came to his spat with the callous caregiver, awful though she was, I had to sympathize with the bitch nurse over the cranky, humorless old fart.

And Vanessa Redgrave versus Emmanuelle Riva? Riva might have been nominated for the Oscar, and she was exquisite in “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” but aren’t we in the habit of giving actors extra points simply because their characters are basket cases?

As for Vanessa Redgrave, well, in addition to being brilliant, she reminds me of my mother. And I guess that’s the real reason I preferred “Unfinished Song” to “Amour.”

–Peter Keough

Chewing it Over

It was bound to happen sooner or later: A mega-budget, summer Hollywood action picture would actually be good. The perhaps unlikely winner is World War Z, a zombie movie with a strong environmental subtext and an unusual amount of ambiguity about worldwide social disintegration. There is even a hero who works for that most unjustly vilified institution, the United Nations.

WWZ 2Don’t get overexcited. Director Marc Forster approach is to break the movie down into a series of set pieces, each featuring star Brad Pitt, who ends up with a sequence of family/allies/zombie meals. The first three or four scenes show Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, saving his wife and two young daughters from the first mass onslaught of the fast-moving and rapidly-reproducing zombies (it takes 11 seconds for a person to die and rise to zombiedom) and getting them to safety. After that, he travels to South Korea, where he meets a unit of American soldiers; Jerusalem; and Wales, where he hopes to find one of the last surviving World Health Organization laboratories (and there are more stops along the way).  Some of the scenes are strictly functional, meant to establish Lane as a Really Nice Guy or even just to set the stage for the next scene.

But while these events are hinged rather than conjoined, they are edited together adroitly, the considerable macro-suspense rising, falling, rising and falling always with competence and sometimes with flair.

WWZ 3The key description of the movie just might be “competence.” If you think that’s a left-handed compliment, well, look around. Most Hollywood movies these days are a mess. Expectations have fallen so low that a film made with the unimaginative monotony of a film school exercise are frequently and wrongheadedly lauded as “ambitious.” Say what you will about Forster’s previous movies (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner), they display authentic artistic ambition (not always achieved, of course). His list of real stinkers is limited to a single effort, Quantum of Silence.

What you might not expect is his handling a big scale action. A zombie assault on Jerusalem stands out in its massive fearsomeness, but World War Z’s action sequences, without a single exception, boast toe-curling suspense. And while a movie like this must feature shots of zombies chowing down on their human prey, they are carefully rationed. In fact, Forster does such a good job that he’s been subjected to the sort of insider sniping that often accompanies success in Hollywood.

The most intriguing side of World War Z is its attitude towards the zombies. The original outbreak was due to a viral epidemic openly and quickly attributed to complications of pollution and global warming. Lane, a U.N. investigator, describes the zombie outbreak as a variation on regional wars, famines, and plagues he has seen in other parts of the world, going so far as to refer to the zombies as victims.

WWZ 3But the scenes of these victims play on Western fears of the global rabble, intent on destroying the civilization responsible for its misery. The attack on Jerusalem cannot help but recall Israeli fears of being “overrun” by Palestinians. The firefights in Korea replicate fears of the North’s communist “hordes.” And so forth. Would that more “quality” American films were up to an equivalent effort.

As to Peter’s question as to whether World War Z is a date movie, I’d answer yes. As long as you’re not expecting to enjoy an episode of sexual intimacy later that evening.

–Henry Sheehan

First/last date movies


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Having seen both Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” and Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy”

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recently got me to thinking: what is the worst date movie ever made? (I am in fact hosting a poll of readers in the “Boston Globe” on that very subject). And what exactly is a “date movie?” To answer the latter question I referred to the ever helpful “,” which describes a “date movie”  as “a film that would be enjoyed by someone on a date, like a romantic comedy.”

Well, the last romantic comedy couples on a date might have enjoyed was probably “Silver Linings Playbook,” and I can see why.

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It features a kooky mismatched pair (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) who are both self-destructive and mentally ill and includes an abusive father, nymphomania, a hopeless, pathological, unrequited past love, a mob of obsessed, racist, and violent football fans, and a dance contest. How can a couple see that movie and not leave the theater walking hand in hand?

But as I look at the films in theaters today, I don’t see any that might  qualify as a date movie.

“This Is the End?” Though I find the spectacle of Michael Cera impaled on a lamp post appealing, I can see some being turned off by it, and also having uneasy feelings about Jonah Hill being humped by Satan.

“Star Trek into Darkness?” Any movie attended by people wearing fake pointed ears is not a date movie.

“Man of Steel?” The love interest between Lois and Superman might be of interest for about ten minutes, but I doubt if anyone’s ardor will be fanned by the final hour or so of what is the equivalent of “Hulk smash!”

“World War Z,” on the other hand, features Brad Pitt,

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one half of Hollywood’s most romantic couple (if they’re still together!)  But you just can’t make a zombie sexy. Rotting flesh, cannibalism, mass killings of lumbering mindless humanoids, endless head shots  – it’s like a video game. And it is.    

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Henry will be reviewing the movie, and maybe he can give us a heads-up about how it rates, date-wise.

Anyway, summer might be the wrong time to look for a good romantic comedy. It’s not that nobody goes on dates in the summer, but Hollywood seems to believe that from May to September the only people who go to movies are males with an average age, chronologically or emotionally, of 12. And it won’t be long before “summer” will be with us 365 days a year.

So this is probably the wrong time to be searching for date movies, good or bad.

Except, as mentioned before, “Before Sunset” and “Journey to Italy.” I’m sure anyone who took someone out for a dinner and a movie and caught one those two is probably sorry they didn’t stay home and watch “Mad Men” or “True Blood” on TV.

“Before Sunset” and “Journey to Italy” are definitely examples of what I’ve been calling  “last date movies,” a term I’ve been congratulating myself on coming up with until  I found out Roger Ebert had long before beaten me to that idea in his review  of “Valentine’s Day” (which, oddly enough, also stars Bradley Cooper)

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Valentine’s Day is being marketed as a Date Movie,” he wrote. “I think it’s more of a First-Date Movie. If your date likes it, do not date that person again. And if you like it, there may not be a second date.”

I find the idea of attending a “first/last date movie” as a litmus test of your partner’s compatibility intriguing, but  risky. A better method might be taking a date to a movie you do like, and then gauge the reaction. I find that John Ford’s “The Searchers” is a deal maker or breaker. Consequently, I at one time found myself home alone a lot watching “The Searchers.” So you might want to start off with the easier stuff first, rather than hit the person straightaway with, say, “Shoah” or “Salo” or “The Three Amigos.”

But back to the topic of worst/best/first/last date movies. Perhaps the worst first date movie was a movie in a movie, “Taxi Driver,”  in which Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle takes the beautiful sophisticated woman played by Cybil Shepherd to a porn flick.

gogo 4 date taxi

Can you imagine how the film might have turned out had he taken it her to say, “A Star Is Born,” which was the third highest grossing  movie in 1976? Then “Taxi Driver” itself might have turned out to be a date movie. As it is, though, I think it might a bit of a risk. I think you might want to try “The Searchers” first.

There have been other movies that I have liked, but which in retrospect proved not to have the best to bring a date to. They include Claire Denis’s “Trouble Every Day,”  with an unfortunate oral sex scene, and Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” for too many reasons to list. Speaking of “Trouble Every Day,” “World War Z” and the date deadening effect of zombies notwithstanding, you shouldn’t write the undead off. Vampires are hot, as witness their proliferation on the both the big and little screen, the “Twilight” movies being the most obvious example.

But are the “Twilight” movies actually “date movies?”  Here is where the concept of “date movie” has been supplanted in the lexicon by “chick flick,” defined, again by my invaluable authorities at “” as “Sometimes offensive. A movie that appeals to a woman, usually having a romantic or sentimental theme.” That pretty much describes “Valentine’s Day,” especially the offensive part.

Or, to define “chick flick” in light of the many hours I have spent watching beer commercials on TV:  a chick flick is an unpleasant chore a guy has to do occasionally in order to get the old lady off his case so that he get back to the important guy stuff of eating pizza, drinking Bud with his buds, playing video games, and going to movies like “Star Trek into Darkness.” And they say the age of romance is dead.

– Peter Keough


A long way around the block to get to reviewing “Berberian Sound Studio”


Henry’s earlier item about mise-en-scene got me thinking about another filmmaking fundamental that seems to be falling victim to the plague of blockbusters: sound. You can’t leave a movie these days without being numbed by undifferentiated, over-amplified noise. Also, his enlightening interpretation of “Man of Steel” reminded me that it’s always fun to write about fascism.

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So as I was writing my review of “Berberbian Sound Studio” for the “Boston Globe” I reminisced, as is my wont, about my days back in graduate school when I was toiling over a final paper for a film course on Hollywood film genres. I cooked up what I thought was an intriguing thesis, but it got bigger and bigger and more and more complicated and I couldn’t finish it and now it’s only useful for writing long-winded prefaces such as this one.

What I was trying to do was combine ideas in Thomas Schatz’s book “Hollywood Genres”  with the “The Political Unconscious” by Fredric Jameson (whose prose, I discovered, made more and more sense the more Jameson’s you drank), and use them together to analyze two films from 1933, “King Kong” and “Gold Diggers of 1933.”

Schatz’s study drew, in part, on one central insight: all genre films are waking dreams in which the basic, irresoluble conflict of civilization – the desire for individuality versus the need for conformity – is enacted through a series of dramatic crises until resolved in a “utopian” final showdown (literally, in a Western, but figuratively in, say a screwball comedy).

Jameson also saw genres (literary and others as well as film) as a way of resolving irreconcilable conflicts with make-believe solutions except, resolute Marxist that he was (I’m talking around 1988 when I was writing this paper) he saw the conflicts as economic, consisting of the struggles between different modes of production (feudalism, capitalism, socialism) existing simultaneously in the same society with each vying for supremacy.

See where this is headed? Neither did I. Anyway, let’s cut to “King Kong” and “Gold Diggers.” My insight, and it was doubtlessly not original, was that both the metaphorical conflict of Schatz and the dialectical materialist version in Jameson could be reconciled when you throw in how each is reflected in the conflict in Hollywood modes of production, that is, the revolutions in the technology of the film itself. In 1933 Fascism and Communism and Capitalism were all vying for supremacy, with Hitler just taking over in Germany, Roosevelt beginning his first term, and Stalin doing his Stalin stuff, but in the tempest in a teapot that was Hollywood the biggest deal was sound, established in 1927, and now totally reshaping the industry. The genres that flourished during this period? The musical and the horror film.

The musical makes sense, but the horror film takes a little bit of a song and dance to fit into my theory. Let’s start with Schatz. For him, the utopian resolution of the insoluble conflict occurs in a transcendent moment when oppositions exist simultaneously, as they so often do in movies. In a musical, that would happen during the production number when, contrary to the way things usually happen in real life, the orchestra sounds and Astaire and Rogers or everyone and their brother would dance their troubles away.

And in horror films? They existed before sound, but sound allowed one missing element that elevated the story to a transcendent realm, of sorts: the scream.

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How does this apply to “Gold Diggers” and “King Kong?” Actually, the question wasn’t exactly rhetorical. My notes are gone and my recollections are spotty. Maybe it went something like this:

In “Gold Diggers,” a film that, despite its seemingly lighthearted genre, was about the Depression and how to reconcile the plight of the disenfranchised (read “conformity to society,” as in social responsibility) with the demands of capitalism (read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” but only if you feel you have to. I haven’t). The impossible resolution? The incredibly moving final production number “Remember My Forgotten Man,” which in a sense is a big plug for the New Deal.

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And “King Kong?” Kong, I figure, represents the reign of a feudal, or tribal mode of production (big chief, placated by the tribute of his tiny followers) and could be interpreted as a metaphor for Hitler and the successful  barbarian Nazification of a modern capitalist state. Though it worked in Germany, for a while, in the movie version that is “King Kong,” things are a little different. Here the capitalists, in the form of a movie mogul and his production company, invade a hidden enclave of a lost primitive mode of production, the fascist dictatorship of Skull Island.

The Yankee capitalists’ secret weapon is not the gas and guns (and later, planes) but “Beauty,” that emblem of the downtrodden  of the Depression, the starving out of work actress Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray. She’s cast by the producer as the heroine of his spectacle, and in a revealing scene he coaches her on how to scream. “Scream Ann, scream for your life!” he suggests.


And so she does,

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winning the heart of the beast, leading to his downfall, and prefiguring the victory of American capitalism over Nazism.

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Kind of like Kracauer’s “Caligari” except with a big gorilla.

So far I don’t know what the meaning might be of the technological innovations of today – such as 3D, digitalization, and what have you. But I suspect it won’t be pleasant.

Okay, now I feel better. I’m ready to review “Berberian Sound Studio.”

— Peter Keough


ManofSteel 1“You will be a god to them,” the dead but talkative Jor-el assures his son Kal-el, who is on the verge of manhood. “Them” refers to us pitiful humans, soon to be cowering behind the nascent Superman’s cape. We’ll need to cower because soon Earth will be under attack by the army of General Zod, an angry and well-armed refugee from the wrecked planet Krypton, which was also the home of the El family. Oh yes, weak and helpless as the people of Earth are, their pitiful lives will be in the hands of a powerful leader. Make that Leader.

Peter traced the fractured line of Christian references in Man of Steel. Director Zack Snyder didn’t stop there; he’s also shoved shards of paganism. The very opening scene is set on craggy, mountainous Krypton, which is hours or days away from imploding. During an all-over-but-the-shouting session, the robed members of the planet council are listening to scientist Jor-el tut-tut them when in bursts Zod in Krypton’s update of ancient helmet and armor.

Zod is attempting a coup, as if he were Ares, the savage Greek god of war, facing down fellow Olympians. A special being, someone such as Herakles (who once bested Ares in battle), the offspring of Zeus and a mortal.

Everyone knows the rest of the story. The baby Kal-el is rocketed off to earth, where he lands in Kanasas and is raised by a pair of jes’ folks farmers, Ma and Pa Kent, who christen their space baby Clark. And so, Kal-el/Clark has mortal parents to go along with his immortal ones (Jor-el is killed early in the action, but this doesn’t keep him from reappearing throughout). And so forth, and so on.

ManofSteel 2This might have been nothing more than harmless and, under Snyder’s direction, meaningless template but for 20th-century history. Lo not so many years ago, it was fascism that evoked ancient pagan myth, for both ideological and ceremonial exploitation. Hitler was a Teutonic Herakles, an offspring of mortals (Austria) until he recognized his true, divine parents (the Eternal Reich), who emerged from among the people but soared above him (see the opening of Triumph of the Will). It has been the generational project of comic book creators and filmmakers to somehow treat their characters “mythic,” a turn that leads them into traps like V for Vendetta, a putatively anti-fascist film that was utterly fascist itself.

Their predecessors who were pleased to make their work as childish as possible and to do that self-consciously. The primal joys of a child gaining new strength and maturity went all the way towards keeping the stories universal and, hence, non-fascist.

ManofSteel3Man of Steel might have offered some pleasant escapism of its own if it didn’t take its emotional cues from the pouty Kal/Clark/Superman.  As the ever-growing legion of superhero movies demonstrates, adolescent sulking isn’t exactly a mood lifter. Sam Raimi, who directed the Spider-Man movies starring Tobey Maguire, was able to leaven the teenage angst with humor and romance; compare that with the dismal mood of The Amazing Spider-Man of 2012. Man of Steel has a can’t-miss romantic opportunity in the person of Lois Lane which turns out not to be “can’t-miss” after all. Superman’s guiding response to life is resentment, the source of political reaction.

Snyder is hung up on conflicting desires to make a full-out effects action picture and a movie that “means” something. He ends up in control of neither. Like Superman himself, the action scenes surpass human scale, but similarly without a saving exuberance. When young Superman learns to fly, the emotional tone is less a joyful, “I can fly!” than an unappeased “I told you I could fly, but oh no, you didn’t believe me…” When he fights, it’s at the cost of hundreds of human lives. They are the sacrifice for his heroics. And Man of Steel is a holdover of the death cult we thought had been buried nearly 70 years ago.

–Henry Sheehan

Purgatory in Paradise

In 1960, the English critic V.F. Perkins has this to say about the films of Nicholas Ray: “… the quality of the films is not literary, since it owes little to the original script, but cinematic; it results from the subjection of a frequently banal narrative to an idiosyncratic mise-en-scene.” Mise-en-scene is, put simply, the arrangement of décor, props and actors within a lighting scheme, all shaped by the camera through lens selection and aspect ratio. Although frequently associated with long takes, it is just as important to techniques which rely on quick cutting. As vital as it is, mise-en-scene is the most neglected facet of American filmmaking.

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Not by Sofia Coppola, though, and certainly not with The Bling Ring. The fifth feature by the 43-year-old writer-director, it is her most stylistically assured effort to date. Like her first four movies, it reflects her fascination with untried, inexperienced, naïve, and/or vapid people (mostly young, mostly female) who stumble into a situation too complex to handle. But their stories don’t emanate from plot, but from the tensions between the characters.

Coppola bases the movie on an article by Nancy Jo Sales that appeared in Vanity Fair. Sales wrote about a group of (mostly) teenagers from the toney Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas who, in 2008-2009, broke into the houses of numerous celebrities (Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, and Lindsay Lohan among them) and made off with cash, jewelry, and lots of clothes, shoes, and accessories. Coppola changes names, alters family relationships, and so frees herself from the chains of mere journalism, but the film generally reflects the thefts and, ultimately, arrests and convictions as they happened.

The Bling Ring, though, is about a group of kids who mistake an affected amorality as a paradisiacal state of mind, an imaginary, adult-free Eden from which they’re expelled after repeated bites of the apple. It’s about the unconsciousness of sin.

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The very first shot hints at what is to come. Aside from the upper right corner, the frame is black. In that snug corner, a pool of yellow light illuminates some teens climbing over what is clearly the a security camera, a judgmental sentinel gazing impassively from above.

Coppola goes on to depict the assemblage of the gang, at first within frames that take in wide-open backgrounds, even in interiors. As the teens begin to bond, those background spaces shrink in scale so that that they provide a comfortable teen-size, whether they’re in their bedrooms, outdoors, or in the homes of their victims. Finally, when the police close in and the kids begin to turn on one another, Coppola alternates between medium long shots that emphasize the distance and discomfort between the characters with close-ups the emphasize their isolation.

Coppola also fills and empties images with, well, stuff. During the actual break-in scenes, she jams the frame with celebrity possessions, the detritus of fashion. But when the adolescent thieves get home, they have to hide their booty away from prying adult eyes. Their bedrooms, the center of their lives, remain empty. Even the expensive, large homes their parents bought and maintain are often comprised of nothing but large, empty, colorless spaces. The decor emphasizes a free-floating, unanchored existence.

Some viewers have mistaken the vacuity of the characters for a lack of intelligence in the movie. But The Bling Ring is a densely rich film, another persuasive affirmation from Coppola that emotional and moral crises can happen even to the people least intellectually prepared to deal with them.

–Henry Sheehan

The sense of an ending

[Some spoilers possible]

It’s not even the middle of June and I’m already tired of watching cities explode. Two in two nights. Two nights ago with “This Is the End,” last night “Man of Steel.”

Someday I’ll have to see “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which will make three. And are there any exploding cities in “Iron Man 3?”  Even if there isn’t, there are plenty more where those came from. This summer a week will not go by without a variation on this theme: “World War Z,” “White House Down,” “ Pacific Rim,” “The World’s End,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2.” Well, the last one just seems like the end of the world.

Didn’t we get this out of our system in 2012 after the bogus Mayan prophecy? And whatever happened to “too soon” when it comes to movies shamelessly exploiting 9/11 imagery? I am reminded of the Theodor Adorno quote cited in J. Hoberman’s fine new book “Film After Film” – “He who imagines disasters in some way desires them.” And who wouldn’t want to see Michael Cera hooked like live bait on the splintered end of a shattered lamp post as happens in one of the more amusing scenes in “This Is the End?” The film’s irony aside, it reeks of self-loathing. No Fox News windbag or Evangelical scold could paint a more damning picture of Hollywood. Drawing on the Book of Revelations, not to mention the exorcism scene in “The Exorcist,” it is a self-flagellating admission that Hollywood is the new Babylon, doomed to utter damnation and the inescapable nuisance of Danny McBride when the end finally does arrive.

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As for Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” Henry will be reviewing that film in detail in another posting, but I did want to share a couple of observations. First, didn’t we have those giant mechanical jellyfish destroying cities in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon?” Except in that case they looked more like giant mechanical shrimp.

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There are many other annoying borrowings from other movies, but what’s the point of complaining? That’s what most movies are these days, though some are more artful about it.

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Second, no doubt others have pointed this out, but isn’t this a kind of comic book, f/x-addled version of “The Passion of the Christ?” 

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Some similarities: Kal-El has a unique birth (though a reverse of the Biblical version – in a world where reproduction is all artificial, his is the only natural, i.e, non-virgin birth). He has been sent into this world by his father to redeem it. He conceals his true identity until the Messianic age of 33 when he offers himself up to the Satanic powers of General Zod as ransom for the human race. He refuses the diabolical temptation to use his omnipotence to take over world. In a punishing sequence reminiscent of the brutal stations of the cross in Mel Gibson’s movie, he gets beaten like a piñata by Zod and his minions for what seems like the whole movie. When the final Apocalyptic battle begins he takes on the cause of good against the powers of evil, though Zod and company seem less like Satan and his legions than they do the neocon Spartans in Snyder’s “300”). And to sum up, Kal-El/Superman is guided by a spectral dad  who is a combination of God the Father and God the Holy Ghost; he has a longsuffering mother; and he suppresses his hots for that modern day movie equivalent of a harlot, a female journalist.  (Okay, that last one is more like “The Last Temptation of Christ”).

Maybe fundamentalist groups should send busloads of believers to see both of these movies, or rent them (in expurgated versions, of course) and show them in their churches.

In truth, though, the only end that films like “Man of Steel” prefigure (not so much “This Is the End,” which I laughed at frequently and inanely – though I’m afraid, seemingly unambiguous ending notwithstanding, it will spawn several “Hangover” style sequels), is that of narrative filmmaking as we’ve come to know it. Such films point to a cinema experience reduced to endlessly repeated formula and 3-D destruction, and perhaps are a foreshadowing of  the “implosion” of Hollywood that Steven Spielberg has prophesized. And he should know – after all, he pretty much started it..

 — Peter Keough

The Frankenstein Monster’s Great Grandnephew

The previous was written by the universally admired, if excessively modest, Peter Keough, one of the two Go’s in Critics A Go-Go. I’m Henry Sheehan (not a legend so much as a distant rumor), based in Los Angeles since 1986, a native of Greater Boston, and, yes, a B.C. High boy. And, oh yes, unable to post a picture here. Next time.

As Peter noted, some recent movies have bent their depictions of terrorists to make them more appealing to the Western middle class. That is, these anti-bourgeois destroyers are simultaneously upholders of bourgeois values through dramatic sleight of hand. At times, the movies are effectively slick, but fundamentally specious.

Terrorists aren’t the only killers to benefit from a whitewash. The Iceman, co-written by Morgan Land and Ariel Vromen and directed by Vromen, tells the purportedly true story of a professional hit man who knocked off over a hundred victims in order to maintain a middle-class life for his wife and daughters, who never suspected what dad was up to. A true psychopath, Richard Kuklinski began his killing career by settling personal grudges before going to work for a mid-level gangster in New Jersey. During these early days, Kuklinski also developed an aw-shucks crush on sweet Deborah Pellicotti, whom he quietly pursues until she agrees to marry him.

Kuklinski is depicted as coldblooded and conscience-free (although he does refuse to off women and children). To break up the monotony of serial murders performed by a near automaton, Vromen plays with the mood of the most violent scenes, to the point of alternating the ghoulish with the ghoulishly funny. He is a competent filmmaker (rare enough these days) and The Iceman is well shot and, especially, well edited. The director has a sure sense of pace and is adept at relating a packed narrative.

Michael Shannon is effective as Kuklinski, though the performance relies on the stark qualities he uses to animate most of his characters. But his large forehead, overhanging brow, and growl of a voice does recall a character from Hollywood’s Golden Age: Frankenstein’s monster – or at least the monster that was brought to the screen by James Whale. But Whale was able to bring to the monster what Vromen doesn’t – maybe can’t – which is a crucial sense of ambivalence. Whale’s creature is a monster because of the criminal brain implanted in him, yes, but his violence is sparked by human hostility. He is taunted by Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz and hated by villagers when he accidentally kills a little girl because he doesn’t know his own strength. Then there’s the monster’s horrible death, a mob cheering as he screams in pain inside a burning windmill. But Whale doesn’t underplay the monster’s threat; he does kidnap Dr. Frankenstein’s bride-to-be.

In modern Hollywood, the mad scientist’s monster has largely been replaced by the psychotic killer. Rarely, but occasionally, a filmmaker will try to get into a killer’s head. But Vromen is Kuklinski’s ally in compartmentalizing his life. There are only tenuous and largely glib connections between the two halves of the killer’s life. So the film is compartmentalized, too, a series of scenes linked by plot but not by revelation.

–Henry Sheehan

Two films too soon for Boston and one that just sucks

Greetings. I’m the East Coast, Boston-based unit of this movie blog, the counterpart to L.A. movie critic legend Henry Sheehan. Despite the continental divide,our sensibilities have much in common, as we are both passionate lovers of film and both attended Boston College High School, where Fr. Leo Muldoon, S,J., was our Dean of Discipline.

Draw what conclusions you may.

Here’s my first post:

Living as I do less than a mile from the site of the Marathon bombings, maybe I was more squeamish than usual at a scene in “The Shadow Game” in which an IRA  terrorist leaves a bag containing a bomb in a London underground station.

I’m sure viewers in Britain, where the film opened last August, had unpleasant flashbacks as well. It seemed to get pretty good reviews, though. Not so great at the box office, however – it made around $300,000 at 150 or so screens, which at $2,000 per screen is barely “After Earth” numbers. Here in Boston the distributors seem a little unsure about their product, as its opening has been kicked like a can down the road week after week. Now it’s scheduled for June 14: we’ll see if that’s “too soon.”

Be that as it may, my initial discomfort gave way to anxiety for the well-being of the terrorist. You have to feel for her. She’s bearing  guilt and anger from a childhood incident when she passed off an errand to her younger brother, who got shot, presumably by British soldiers, for his troubles. Now as an adult, Collette, played by a winsome and worried Andrea Riseborough, no longer has the stomach for the terror business, especially since she has a boy of her own. But a British anti-terrorist agent played by haggardly handsome Clive Owen is strong-arming her into betraying her group.So they fall in love.That’s the problem with terrorists, at least in the movies; to know them is to love them.

Shadow Dancer

Such is the case in Zak Batmanglij’s “The East” as well. Here a corporate undercover agent played by the smart, tough, good-looking Brit Marling infiltrates a cell of eco-terrorists headed by the smart, not so tough, but equally good-looking Alexander Skarsgard.


This group is more precise in its targeting: rather than indiscriminately threaten the hoi-polloi taking public transportation, they go after the rich and privileged elites responsible for poisoning the environment, destroying the economy, and, in general, ruining everything for everybody to enrich themselves. So, despite the cabal’s smug self-righteousness, you can understand how Marling’s agent might be seduced by their message, not to mention by Skarsgard’s ripply torso. Unfortunately for the distributors of “The East, however, apparently their plans to promote the film in Boston by bringing in Marling for interviews went awry and they had to cancel. It seems she was supposed to be in town on April 15, the date of the Boston Marathon.

The studios might be cautious, but what are we to make of their insistence that terrorists are essentially loveable and misunderstood? What does that say about the audiences they are appealing to? That deep within the most law-abiding citizen is a repressed urge to raise hell?

Such is the premise of “The Purge,” which opens June 7. In the year 2022, a group called “the New Founding Fathers” has taken over the country. They’ve managed to reduce unemployment to 1%, and nearly eliminate crime.

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Their solution? Simply set aside one day every year in which anarchy reigns – theft, rape, murder, double parking, whatever suits your fancy. I reviewed this for the “Boston Globe,” but here are a couple of quick thoughts. Wasn’t this same story on “The Twilight Zone” at some point? If not, it should have been. As a 30 minute TV episode it would have worked just fine.

Secondly, James DeMonaco’s film does offer one intriguing insight. Here and there, mostly on the TV broadcasts in which pundits discuss the merits and shortcomings of the “Purge,” it is suggested that this policy insidiously benefits the rich, who can afford better weapons and the elaborate security systems sold by the film’s protagonist (played by Ethan Hawke). Since the poor are therefore inevitably the victims, they are in effect culled from society – Neo-liberal, Darwinian economics at their most primitive.

gogo big The-Purge

Oh, well. The closest the film gets to developing this rather subversive concept is by having the chief ringleader of the bad guys wear a prep school blazer.

–Peter Keough