Monthly Archives: July 2013

A matter of taste

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The first time I laughed at the new Woody Allen movie “Jasmine Blue” – and I must confess I have had only intermittent interest in his films (liked “Midnight in Paris,” skipped  “To Rome With Love”) for a while and had no idea what the film was about – happened very early on. Later I realized that the gag, which was indeed funny at the time, or at least I wasn’t the only person laughing (which has been happening these days with increasing frequency) was, in retrospect, not funny at all.

To cite the difference between comedy and tragedy as defined in Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (“If it bends, it’s comedy, if it breaks it’s tragedy” and “comedy is tragedy plus time”), this was tragedy. However, the scene inverts the other part of the definition, because this was a case of tragedy being comedy plus time.

I’m referring to when Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), disembarking a flight at the San Francisco airport, enthusiastically engages an elderly woman in a conversation, or rather a monologue, talking with intimate detail about her husband, her friends, her chi-chi lifestyle, dropping names and labels and price tags. They pick up their luggage (Jasmine’s is Louis Vuitton), the older woman’s husband arrives, they go their separate ways, and it becomes obvious that the woman is not an acquaintance of Jasmine, but a total stranger who had the misfortune of sitting next to this crazy person who, in lieu of talking to herself, has unloaded on her fellow passenger her whole delusional life history.

No more bending – it’s broken.  And with that the laughter stops.

Jasmine, as the expertly wound and uncoiled exposition eventually establishes, had been married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Bernie Madoff-like high-stakes financial conman. After Hal got busted, Jasmine was left disgraced and penniless, and her husband’s fall also took with it the nest egg of Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and Ginger’s husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay),

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in effect ending their marriage.

Now Jasmine is forced to seek a place to live with her sister in her meat-and-potatoes San Francisco apartment.

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There she descends like a queen, in denial about her fall from the upper class, picky and bitchy and, Blanche Dubois-like, alienating Ginger’s new, Stanley Kowalski-like boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) – hey, why not throw in the “two guys named Cheech” from “Annie Hall?”

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– who hates Jasmine’s undeserved sense of entitlement, her condescension and disapproval, her meddling, and her hoity-toity ways.

Yes, it’s A “Streetcar Named Desire.” But the theme of class and cultural differences has underscored many of Allen’s films, going back at least to his first “serious” movie, the pseudo-Bergmanesque-with-sidetrips-to-Chekhov “Interiors” (1978), in which the patriarch of a snooty waspy family dumps his brittle, joyless wife for a bubbly “vulgarian” – a long-in-the-tooth party girl. There are sister problems in that film, too.

Though “Blue Jasmine” draws on many such long-established Allen – not to mention Tennessee Williams – themes, it does break new ground. I’m not positive, but I think this is the first of his films that cleaves so intensely to one character’s point of view, to the extent that it is never altogether clear whether a sequence involves a flashback, a hallucination, or both.

A couple of notes about Blanchett’s performance. I would say that it is the best I have seen in any Allen film. Hypnotic, unrelenting, it inundates the screen with nuanced misery, anger, self-deception, unearned arrogance, snobbery, pathos, prickly resilience, petty resentment, deluded self-entitlement, and despair. And sweat. This is not a woman you should ask out on a date, even though Peter Sarsgaard’s slick and wealthy widower gives it a shot.

The portrayal affected me so much that by the end of the film I found myself sweating as much as Jasmine. Here’s an observation I have made about sweating actresses: the last non-American English-speaking actress who sweated this much, to the point of having visible half-moons of perspiration under her arms, was Tilda Swinton in “Michael Clayton” (2007).

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She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. I foresee a Best Actress nomination, at least, and possibly an Oscar for Blanchett, but she would probably have accomplished the same whether she was sweating or not.

Nonetheless, Blanchett’s tour-de-force performance has the paradoxical effect of concealing what it is that makes her character so crazy. She wraps the viewer so thoroughly in Jasmine’s unreliable point-o- view that the reasons for her downfall and ostracism are hard to figure. Since this is a tragedy, and Jasmine ostensibly is the tragic hero, what is her harmatia, her fatal flaw?

Is it the fact that she’s a snob? A compulsive liar? A narcissist incapable of empathy or self-awareness? In a state of constant denial? Is it simply because she enjoys the buzz from a couple of bottles of wine or three or four Stoli martinis and a dozen Xanaxes? And then there’s her poor judgment in men:

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she sure knows how to pick them – both for herself and others, and when she actually finds a keeper, she doesn’t have the moral fiber or good sense to capitalize on it.

Maybe she’s simply guilty of denial, willfully blind to the failings and treachery of a man she idolizes. For in addition to bilking friends out of billions and cheating on his wife, Hal commits the unforgiveable offense of equating price tags with value, of adorning his property with artworks for which he has no appreciation except as status symbols.

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Jasmine is no better. When you come down to it, her ultimate crime is that she has bad taste.

— Peter Keough

All the People Died

Johnnie To is the best action director in the world and one of the greatest of all time. Full stop, period, the end.  Many people would agree because of his movies’ most obvious virtue: Flabbergasting cutting that, once the bullets start flying (and boy, do they fly), is faster then, well, a speeding bullet.

But that is only part of the picture. While he has his foot on the accelerator, To keeps a sharp eye out for where he is and where he’s going. No matter how (relatively) slowly or quickly he edits, he always makes sure to define dramatic space with exactitude. The characters’ placement relative to one another is never in question, so the audience knows exactly where everyone is without have to strain their brains. The ability to define action space with some – any — skill is an absent art Hollywood these days, with no more than four or five filmmakers displaying any mastery of it.

To doesn’t substitute cutting for action within the frame, either. Whether he’s pulling back for a long shot of a car careering down an isolated, empty highway or moving in for a medium close-up of the man behind the wheel — who is woozily trying to maintain his attention while blood leaks from a wound – he forces you to concentrate on each images, rather than distracting you with the bells and whistles of meaningless quick cuts. He’ll even use deep focus in those action shots, with, say, a shot of a burning building, viewed from within the car, receding into the distance. (The foregoing is a rough description of the opening scene of Drug War, the latest To to make it into the U.S.)

To’s brilliance, which can seem boundless, includes defining action as its absence. Typically during a To action film (he also makes comedies, romances and period films), there comes a moment when the characters come to a complete standstill, with even their faces frozen into emotionless masks. But there is a tension here – emotional torque – the signals an oncoming sequence of utter mayhem. I’m not sure there is anyone else in the world who can wring so much from a shot of someone just sitting there.

Drug War, the first To movie to be shot entirely in mainland China, sets a municipal police anti-drug squad, headed by Capt. Zhang, against a large drug syndicate. Zhang and his officers have arrested a medium-level meth producer, Tommy Choi, who promises to spill the beans on a huge drug deal in response for leniency. Zhang, with reservations, agrees to the deal because of the rare opportunity to nab some bigwigs. But while Zhang is steadfast and trustworthy, Choi turns out to be a habitual sell-out artist, double-dealing on his own double deals.

To’s action films frequently feature this kind of exigent partnership, two parties with complementary short-term goals but long-term goals which are at lethal odds. Neither partner can ever be sure which end the other is pursuing at any given moment.

Drug War is set in one of those vast, Chinese urban centers, full of industrial sites and cruddy-looking apartment buildings; it makes you wonder what people are ultimately waging war over. Although compared to the drug gangs the police don’t appear to be particularly brutal, they’re not above beating prisoners or like behaviors.

Despite mainland censorship, To has been able to depict a China suffused with corruption, just like Hong Kong, To’s home base.

Maybe Chinese bureaucrats didn’t want to get in the way of a good movie. Because that’s what To has come up with. No, let’s allow the superlatives to flow, because Drug War has earned them. It’s exciting and mind-blowing – brilliant.

In other words, it’s a Johnnie To movie.

If you’d like to read an interview I did with To in March, 2003, you can go to my archive site Here’s the link:

–Henry Sheehan


Logan’s run

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More than most superheroes – and believe me this is saying a lot because some of them have very involved origins and back stories – the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a.k.a. Logan, has a lot going on. At the beginning of his second solo movie he’s in a deep hole

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in a Japanese POW camp in Nagasaki. Just as the A-bomb is about to go off,

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he saves the life of a Japanese officer (Ken Yamamura).

Huh? Where is this coming from? Then it turns out it’s just a dream, and when he wakes up Logan is in bed with Jean Grey, the mutant telepath, talking about life and death and love and loss – call it “Nagasaki, Mon Amour.” But didn’t she die in “X2: X-Men United” (2003)? Only to be reincarnated in “X-Men: the Last Stand” (2006) as her evil double Phoenix and then killed again? And did Wolverine and Jean really have anything going on between them? I thought she was Cyclops’s old lady. But then Logan wakes up again and he’s living in a cave in Alaska with a bottle of whiskey and a transistor radio. No wonder he can’t sleep. Or is he still sleeping?

In fact, although the narrative in this first part of the movie pops back and forth like one of those teleporting mutants, it’s very disjointedness somehow placates the need for coherence and continuity and achieves a kind of poetry. The Nagasaki sequence, for example, evokes the stark end-of the-world beauty of a similar scene in Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” (1987).

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And the tête-à-têtes with the ghostly Grey, which recur like an irrepressible death wish, add an existential depth to the whole film despite its constant clutter of incident, explanation, and contrivance.

And that’s the theme, then – whether eternal life is a good idea. Cursed or blessed by a mutation that allows him to heal instantly, plus a skeleton of “adamantine” that is indestructible, Logan can live forever. So as explained in part in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009), Logan  has been sulking and fighting lost causes and killing people in various conflicts for over 250 years, hence his cameo at Nagasaki at the beginning of the film. But if life has no end does it have any meaning? It makes Logan feel weary. I totally sympathize. Just trying to figure out what’s going in this movie is making me weary.

And so he chooses to spend his infinite remaining days a boozy hermit whose sole companion appears to be a giant bear (which looks unfortunately like the one in “The Golden Compass”) and whose recreation consists of occasionally pinning a bow hunter’s hand to a bar with his own arrow. That is, until Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a lethal, sword-wielding moppet in a schoolgirl outfit, shows up to bring him to Japan, where old Yashida, (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), the officer he saved at Nagasaki and now the wealthiest man in Asia, is dying, and wants to say goodbye, and thanks.

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Or so he says. Turns out that Yashida is that rarity, a cowardly samurai. Having been saved once, he doesn’t want to face the prospect of dying again. So like the moribund, trillionaire CEO of the Weyland Corporation in “Prometheus” (2012), he will do anything within his almost infinite financial means to gain eternal life, including sucking out the immortality mutation from his old pal Logan, and applying it to himself.

And that’s just the start of Logan’s problems. He ends up protecting Yashida’s daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from kidnappers, and soon everybody is out to get him for some reason or other – the Yakuza, a battalion of Ninjas, a dragon-lady mutant called Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the ghost of Jean Grey… The police are after him, too, but they are inconsequential. As Mariko says, the government in Japan is so weak that gangsters now run everything. (Is that true? I’ve been too distracted by coverage of the royal birth to follow any other international news.) Other than that dubious observation, however, “The Wolverine,” unlike other films in the X-Men series, lacks much in the way of topical relevance.

I guess it is striving more for mythic significance, and, of course, spectacular action. A long sequence of hand-to-claw fighting on the roof of a bullet train speeding at 200 mph will hold your attention. But most of the battle scenes seem drawn from the Japanese “chambara,” or samurai film tradition, and Logan indeed refers to himself as a “ronin,” or masterless samurai. In one sequence, Logan takes on the ninja army and he’s pierced by countless arrows,

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resembling Toshiro Mifune at the end of Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (1957).

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The arrows here are attached to cords, adding a weird, spidery, Gulliver-tied-up-by-the Lilliputians element to the image, as if each of Logan’s crimes of passion and violent follies were finally catching up to him and sticking to him and entangling him inescapably in his karma.

I don’t like throwing the word “karma” around, but here it is appropriate, as, in a Buddhist sense, Logan embodies the condition of a soul reborn too many times, burdened with too much grief and guilt and loss. He seeks the end of pain and desire — Nirvana – which may be what the recurring image of Jean Grey is offering him.

But Logan fights on, in ceaseless battles with innumerable assailants for an obscure cause. His fate resembles that of the rogue samurai in Kihachi Okamoto’s “The Sword of Doom” (1966), whose misdeeds finally catch up to him and who ends up fighting an eternal battle against endless adversaries, some real, some phantoms, in a tea house turned into a rice-paper-sliding-door hell.

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That film ends on a freeze-frame of the swordsman in mid-stroke. In fact, the film had been intended as the first of a series. Indeed, there was plenty of material, as the novel it was based on by Kaizan Nakazato was, at 40 volumes, the longest in Japanese literature. I’m sure the X-Men series has, over its near half century run, grown to at least that size. It doesn’t look like Logan will be released from the cycle of suffering and rebirth any time soon.

— Peter Keough

Class Struggle in Snailville

Reviews of animated features generally format themselves and Turbo, the latest from DreamWorks Animation, is susceptible to the same treatment. First comes a plot description (a garden snail with a need for speed finds himself suddenly capable of high velocity), an assessment of the animation in general (good) and of the character animation (fair to very good). Then a list of shortcomings (the set-up is overstated, the second half of the movie is yet another depiction of self-realization through contest).

And thus, Bingo! I’ve done it dozens of times myself.

But Turbo has a little something extra, a little something you rarely see in any American movie, never mind an animated feature: Class consciousness.

Most of Turbo is set in the San Fernando Valley, the northernmost section of the City of Los Angeles. Because the communities have their own names and because they represent particular types of suburban living, most people outside Southern California don’t even know that places like Van Nuys, Woodland Hills, and Encino are part of the city and not cities themselves (there are a few places in the Valley, depending on how you define it, that are independent).

Thanks to movies and songs (Valley Girl), it’s the West Valley, largely white and upper middle-class to outrageously wealthy, that has come to represent the entire place. But the East Valley is far more ethnically and economically diverse. Mostly white and Hispanic, the East Valley also contains smaller but significant neighborhoods of Armenians, Koreans, Sephardic and Hasidic Jews, and others. The southern half of the East Valley — Studio City and Sherman Oaks — is middle and upper-middle class, with average incomes dropping (with exceptions) as you move north through North Hollywood, Pacoima (the birthplace of Ritchie Valens), and Panorama City.

The unofficial dividing line between the two halves is Van Nuys Boulevard, although there is one community west of the boulevard, Reseda, which is spiritually part of the East Valley.

Van Nuys (the childhood home of Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Don Drysdale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Robert Redford, and so forth) sits just about in the middle of the East Valley’s north-south axis and mimics the area’s economic pattern. Van Nuys’s southern bit is middle class, with all the economic uncertainty that implies. As you go north and east, the area becomes more Hispanic, populated by workers and the small merchants who cater to them.

Turbo opens in either the southern or western precincts of the Valley where the film’s sluggish hero lives in a backyard. The snail life there is conformist and dominated by the fear of humans. Through a series of adventures – which include a drag race in the dry, concrete bed of the Los Angeles River and a perilous crossing of the 101 Freeway – Turbo ends up kidnapped and transported to northern Van Nuys. There he’s drafted by the junior partner in a taco stand into snail races. But for Turbo, who has already acquired his high-speed powers, this isn’t an imprisonment but a liberation. Finally, he can race to his heart’s content, free of social disapproval. Moreover, there is a group of snails similarly, if less swiftly, enjoying the fun of racing.

Hollywood almost invariably depicts working class situations as stifling or as full of condescendingly “colorful” characters who are, at heart, “the salt of the earth.” Turbo’s director and co-writer David Soren (long may he prosper) sees this class arena as a garden of individuality. Turbo’s kidnapper is partnered with his brother in the taco stand (which looks exactly like a typical L.A. stand) and his friends include a white hobby shop owner, a Latina owner of a garage, and the Korean owner of a nail salon. Each character (even the racing snails) has his or her own dramatic integrity. And though every being in the movie is comic, there is barely a whiff of condescension. They have nothing to do with either salt or earth.

This is pretty impressive stuff. Coming as part and parcel of a pretty good animated feature it gives rise to a hope that Hollywood might start to pay attention to who people really are and how they actually live.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.

–Henry Sheehan

Horror vacui

Beware of spoilers.

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Recent movies have me musing about a favorite topic, death. That, and horror. In particular, why do we like to watch death and horror on the screen? What does it do for us? Are we seeing more death and horror, and enjoying it less?

Other than the frightening box office success of “Grown Ups 2,” (beating out the extraordinary “Pacific Rim,” $42.7 to $ 38.2 million) Hollywood of late can’t be credited with anything as scary as – well, I think the last time I was really scared at a big studio movie  was at “Alien” (1979), although the eerie indie “Berberian Sound Studio


( which played recently at the Brattle Theatre in an inspired twin-bill  with Dario Argento’s wonderfully nutty, hallucinatory “Suspiria”)

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opened up the doors to an existential horror similar to that of “The Tenant”

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and “Mulholland Drive.”

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As for “Upstream Color

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I sometimes have the feeling I entered that movie and never returned.

Otherwise, perhaps I have become jaded. Except when they go after animals, especially cats, not even the extreme, graphic violence of the “Saw” gets to me any more. “Maniac” and “Aftershock” – eh. But then they didn’t have any menaced cats.

So is horror a dead, so to speak, art? Can it be revived by a return to basics? That seems to be the appeal of “The Conjuring” from “Saw” co-creator (along with Leigh Whannell) James Wan. He has graduated from sadism and graphic mayhem and has been trying to frighten people the old fashioned way, with the classic scare tactics of creaks, false shocks, and the creeping, unseen unknown. His first film taking this approach, “Insidious” (2011)

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drew on a combined haunted-house-plus-possessed-child combo with forays into David Lynch weirdness, but it elicited mostly laughter from the critics at the press screening I attended a couple of years ago. 

But there wasn’t as much laughter at the screening of his new film “The Conjuring,” and indeed some critics confessed it gave them the willies. I can’t say I was one of them. Instead I found it predictable, dithering, and dumb.

Once again Wan returns to the haunted house and that old horror standby of the family who moves into a new residence, all sunshine and optimism,

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and then discovers that they have entered the gates of Hell.. Or if not hell, then maybe a more stimulating-than-average episode of “Most Haunted.”

Based on a true story, one from the case files of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, real-life paranormal investigators, or, as Ed puts it modestly, “Demonologists,” “The Conjuring” relates the harrowing experiences of the Perron family, Roger (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their four – or was it five? – daughters, who in 1971 moved into their dream home in rural Harrisville, Rhode Island. We must forgive the Perron’s their naivété, as they have not yet been able to witness the next four decades of haunted house horror conventions, up to and including the “Scary Movie” franchise. But really, they should have at least paid attention to the poor dog when he refused to step over the threshold (the dog’s fate, as might be expected, affected me more than anything else in the movie).

So six females and one guy – that’s a lot of estrogen, and you know that can’t be good. Soon enough some weird things start happening, like somebody trying to sleep and having her leg pulled by some disembodied joker, unusual bruises appearing on Carolyn’s body, and strange noises mounting to a crescendo along with the soundtrack and then turning out to be nothing at all.

Not yet, at any rate.

To his credit, Wan has talent at putting together a creepy mise-en-scene. The house, toured in part via streadicam from the p.o.v. of family members, first with excited expectations, then with uneasy curiosity, and finally with growing alarm, dread, and panic, is wonderfully beat-up and creepy. I was hoping they would spend more time sorting through the interesting crap piled in the basement, which the Perron’s find boarded up and then, violating the basic rule of how to survive in a horror movie, proceed to unseal, enter, and poke around.

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Big mistake, of course. I won’t disclose what happens, but it will scare the pants off you, especially if you haven’t been to a movie since “The Sound of Music.”

Desperate, her fears initially dismissed by Roger (who really should spend more time at home with the family), Carolyn attends one of the Warrens’ lectures at a local college, and begs them to come by the house and investigate. They agree, Ed reluctantly, because he fears that Lorraine, who is the psychically sensitive one of the duo, might go over the deep end, as apparently once happened before during a previous exorcism that had gone horribly awry.

Using primitive equipment

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— as compared to the spook-hunting equipment on cable TV today or the gizmos in “Ghostbusters” – they find that the place is crawling with spirits and demons. Apparently, a witch who lived in the house a century or so ago, Bathsheba by name, had sacrificed her son to Satan and then hung herself from the creepy tree in the front yard.

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Her baleful influence has spawned a series of suicides and murders over the years, and now she’s stuck to Carolyn’s back like some giant, ectoplasmic tick!

Okay, let’s back up. Maybe I should lighten up, not be so analytical and just have fun because it’s just a movie! Well, I tried, but I just couldn’t get into Wan’s creaky, retro scare tactics. And maybe I”m trying too hard when I point out some seemingly innocuous film’s racist or homophobic or misogynist subtext.

But, come on: a household that includes a mother and five daughters, females who stir up a pandemonium of dormant evil entities, the chief demon being a Satan-worshipping, child-murdering harridan whose malignant spirit possesses a woman who then seeks to kill her own kids?

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Then top it off with a sadistic exorcism sequence,

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performed by Ed


filling in at a pinch for the local priest, who’s tied up getting an official okay from the Vatican.

The Vatican? Not so subtly Wan poses the Church as the last bastion of goodness against a seething netherworld of female and female-possessing malignancies. Now I don’t have any beef against Catholics per se, being born, raised, and baptized one myself. But it is the biggest and most powerful institution of retrogressive patriarchal practices and beliefs on the planet.

Upon reflection, “The Conjuring” reminds me of another recent film in which a similar problem arises in a household of females led by a patriarchal figure, Christian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills.” Here, too, one of the women starts acting wacky, and so the good Father in that film also arranges an exorcism of sorts, with a different outcome. 

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Now that was a scary movie.

— Peter Keough

I Can’t Do My Homework Anymore

When you write reviews for a daily newspaper and a movie such as Neil Jordan’s Byzantium comes along, it brings a few problems along with it. The worst of them, by far, is the scant space allowed for the review. Exactly the type of movie that requires length to discuss is granted a measly 15 inches – and might lose two or three of those by the time the piece is fed to the editing buzz saw. All a poor, burdened movie critic can do is offer a brief plot description, a rundown of the cast’s adequacy and inadequacy, and a general statement about what the filmmaker was up to.

I wouldn’t mind taking ju st 15 inches with Byzantium. Not because it’s bad; on the contrary. But Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini have so crammed the movie with references to horror films and Gothic literature that it’s difficult tracking them all down, never mind exploring them. Frankly, I’ve found the process almost overwhelming. Although I’d already watched the movies or read the fiction that the movie invokes, I felt compelled to go back to it all for second (or third or fourth) looks. That still left Byzantium itself, shorn of references, to deal with.

So, like I say, 15 inches of copy is beginning to sound like a good idea.

Byzantium begins with Eleanor, who appears to be about 16 but who is actually more than 200, throwing notebook pages from a balcony down to the city street below. The pages contain, she says, a story no one can know, a story which turns out to be the tale of her life as a human and as a vampire. But down on the street, an old tramp grabs a page, reads it, and clearly understands it. The young/old girl and the old man find a basement room in which to talk and the old man speaks of the revenants he heard of as a boy and how he is tired of life and ready to die. Eleanor answers his implicit request by cutting a vein in his arm with her long, sharp thumbnail and drinking her petitioner’s blood until he dies. In doing so she reveals her nature and her character as a vampire who only drinks the blood of those who are tired of life. (In Byzantium, humans can only die from a vampire encounter; they aren’t turned into vampires themselves. In fact, no one can become a vampire who doesn’t desire it.)

When Eleanor talks of a protector named Clara, Jordan cuts to a luridly red strip club where Clara, who seems to be in her mid-twenties but who is also over 200, is performing a lap dance. When her customer breaks a house rule by touching her, she starts beating him up and would clearly kill him but for the intervention of a couple of bouncers. Before she resumes work in the sex industry as a prostitute she’s attacked by a young man in the run-down apartment she shares with Eleanor. After the young man gets Clara under control, he tells her she should never have expected to get away with – well, something we’re not yet told about. But before her visitor can savor his triumph, Clara has cut his head off with a wire garrote.

As the movie goes on – that is, “goes on” in the present and in 1804 – the female pair’s differing attitudes towards men quickly emerges. Clara had become a vampire as a consequence of being forced into prostitution by a brutish snob of an English cavalry officer. She makes men her prey, going the wholesale route by becoming madam of her own brothel where she can feast on the perversions and blood of johns. Eleanor has suffered at men’s hands, but not so dramatically as Clara and is able to take men as they come. She even begins a friendship/romance with a young man with a fatal blood disease whom she meets in a seaside town.

Eleanor and Clara aren’t just hunters, though. They are also the hunted. For reasons that only gradually become clear, they are being hunted by some male vampires who want to extinguish their existence.

This is really all just set-up. Jordan generally favors convoluted plots, which are also hallmarks of Gothic tales. And Byzantium is emphatically Gothic. Aside from the serpentine story, there are ruined houses (in both time frames), pale heroines and heroes, a character devoted to playing romantic music, mysterious shifts of personality, and double-dealing (really triple-dealing). Eleanor’s airy distribution of her pages reflects the beginning of many Gothic tales: A narrator opens the story by relating how he had recently received a manuscript that was full of fantastic and horrible events. If he couldn’t vouch for the honesty and intellect of the man who sent the package to him, he would never believe such things could happen. But he will leave it for the reader to judge the tale’s veracity. Then another narrator appears to tell the story proper.

One of Jordan’s favorite conceits is to confront a character with a dramatic change in some aspect of reality, but not to give that character any extra emotional or intellectual resources he/she needs to deal with it. Eleanor and Clara have lived for two centuries and the passing of time has altered  their perceptions of reality. But because they’ve spent those years hiding out, their minds haven’t developed any more than their bodies have. Eleanor, for example, has had the time to practice and master a Beethoven piano sonata. But she writes the same autobiographical snatches over and over. As for Clara, she seems frozen in a moment of vengeance. Aside from the knowledge of the twilight life and the power that comes with that, they have nothing but ordinary human feelings.

In Byzantium, Jordan keeps horror sequences to a minimum. Images are drained of bright color and nearly the only time you see red is when Eleanor or Clara wear a red item of clothing, as if that were the only way Jordan can bring himself to refer to vampirism. Even some blood-drinking scenes are equally discreet; one of Eleanor’s takes place entirely behind opaque glass. And in suspense or horror scenes, when other directors would resort to close-ups and quick cuts, Jordan keeps his camera distant and his cutting almost languorous.

At one point, we learn that Clara also uses the names Claire and, most significantly, Carmilla. Carmilla is the name of a character and novella written by the great Irish Gothic writer, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) . Carmilla herself is a beautiful 19-year-old of aristocratic background who ingratiates herself into the prosperous household where another 19-year-old, Laura, lives. Amid currents of naïve friendship, unmistakable lesbian undertones, and an emotionally animated landscape, Carmilla plots her slow but steady seduction of Laura, a seduction that would end with her transformation into a sister vampire.

Despite her bloodsucking, Carmilla is a sexual virgin as is Laura (of course) and three women we understand to be Carmilla’s victims. Although Sheridan Le Fanu doesn’t use the word “virgin” explicitly, it’s implicit in his descriptions. Yet Laura – who is the story’s narrator – describes Carmilla entering certain “states,” when Carmilla stares at her with an openly sexual passion, glances that, in her innocence, Laura doesn’t understand.

It is worth noting that Clara and Carmilla don’t just share the one name. Like Clara, Carmilla has two other names too: the anagrams Mircalla and Millarca.

The connection between the two Carmillas are somewhat obscure, though. There is only one sexual relationship in the movie that could be labeled a seduction – one between Clara and a sad young man – and it is stretching the word’s definition to call it such. The novella is a description of one tale-length seduction.

Jordan makes another reference near the movie’s midpoint when he shows an uninterested Eleanor sitting in front of a television playing the Hammer horror film, Dracula, Prince of Darkness. The movie was made in 1966, between Hammer’s first period, when it was making slightly lurid versions of classic horror tales, and its second, when it went all out on boobs-and-blood. Some of Hammer’s best productions were undertaken around these years and Prince of Darkness gets the studio’s top treatment, with typically ingenious direction from the studio’s busiest director, Terence Fisher.

The excerpted scene is a variation on a turning point from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1896): The destruction of Lucy Westenra. Lucy is an attractive young woman who is the first victim of the vampire count, turning into a vampire herself and feasting on children. As anyone who has read the scene knows, her destruction by a group of men sounds extraordinarily like a rape. The scene in the Hammer film echoes that gory episode, with a female vampire seized by men, roughly held down on a table, and hammered with a suitably phallic stake.

But what point is Jordan trying to make by pointing outside the movie to all these other female vampires? If it’s to tell us that Eleanor and Clara depart from the norm, I think most viewers will have figured that out after about 10 minutes. If anything, Jordan is hurting his movie by giving in to the preciosity that can mar his work. He occasionally shows a group of orphans marching through a town or on a beach in a way that emphasizes his choice of a widescreen process, almost as if the shape of the screen was more important that the human elements within it. And he’s so intent on turning the modern-day brothel into a Gothic labyrinth of rooms and corridors that he never manages to establish its overall form.

Even the choice of language is excessive. There are references to a soucriant, whose meaning is not clear even from context. It turns out to be a Caribbean witch/vampire, but is sending audiences scurrying to the internet the best way to maintain a drama.

There is a famous cinematic vampire, of course, whose appearance recalls a witch more than a bloodsucker: That is the malevolent crone of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931). The screenplay for that movie is based on a short story collection, In a Glass Darkly, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. A collection which also included – why, Carmilla, of course.

So, Jordan is not a bad teacher, if you don’t mind the heavy load of homework. Personally, I prefer him when he makes movies.

–Henry Sheehan

Doomsday scenarios

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Having just been overstimulated by Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” I think I’ll settle down a bit by comparing it to the other  models of catastrophic destructiveness posed by the summer movies so far.

But first it occurred  to me while that with its  swirling, smashing, and hard-to-distinguish underwater action, an immersion that at times has the hypnotic effect of staring into a washing machine,

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“Pacific Rim” looked a lot like  Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s, avant garde documentary about a fish trawler, “Leviathan,”

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though with a $180 million budget. Or like “Transformers,” though with irony, wit, subtlety, and a twisted sense of the absurd. I don’t think Michael Bay would have, say, the poetic eye to show a tiny girl in blue cowering in the ruins of Tokyo as seen from the point of view of a robot as tall as a skyscraper. Spielberg maybe, though the girl in red in “Schindler’s List” loses points for self-conscious artiness and manipulation.

Be that as it may, how does “Pacific Rim” measure up to the summer’s other blockbusting blockbusters? Here are some comparisons,

In “Man of Steel,” the bad guys are, literally, supermen, the ubermenschen posited by Nietzsche and embraced by the Nazis and just about every other morbidly adolescent, narcissistic power freak up to and including neocons besotted by Ayn Rand. Decked in cool, black, latter-day SS regalia,

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these refugees from Krypton unleash a 90 minute smash-athon as they prepare to terra-form our world to their liking  before  wiping out the indigenous inhabitants. Only another super being, Clark Kent /Kal-el /Superman, from the same alien race, can save us. Mere untermenschen, we puny humans can only cower and wait for the outcome of the titanic struggle.

Body count? Though no actual deaths are depicted, you’ve got to think that wiping out both Metropolis and Smallville is going to leave a mark.

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On the bright side, though, Kal-El (or whatever he goes by) does rescue Lois Lane from a nasty fall.

A  fascist elite also causes trouble in Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down,”  though in this case they’re coming from the inside, not from outer space. A conspiracy of traitors, abetted by nutters, nihilists, and neo-Nazis, more or less turn the powers of the executive branch against itself. Coming to the rescue is the forgotten man of our day, the middle class schlump, who also, fortunately, happens to have elite skills from his time served in the Special Forces. And then there is the ultimate weapon, a brave little girl waving an American flag on the White House lawn as rockets glare redly and bombs burst in air and the harried President wields an RPG from the back of an armored limo.

Casualties and damage assessment: the Capitol bites the dust in spectacular fashion, and the White House is not looking good either. Plus the Secret Service is pretty much wiped out, as well as a few Seal teams and other military assets. The collateral damage among gawkers and hapless civilians is not so bad – again, we don’t see any actual carnage, but the bomb in the Capitol atrium alone must have taken out a few busloads of tourists.

In “World War Z,” (check out Henry’s shrewd assessment here) the situation is somewhat reversed. Here, the elite are the good guys, their skills and intelligence the last hope of the human race, and the hoi polloi, the horde of lumpen consumers as represented by the rabid zombies, are the problem. Complicating matters is the fact that you can change from endangered smart guy to mindless, angry consumer with a single bite, the equivalent in real life of an extended exposure to Fox News. Death toll? Billions, I’d guess,

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with piles and piles of corpses, either ambulatory or burnt to a crisp. But do zombies really count as dead people when you kill them the second time?

Finally, we arrive at “Pacific Rim,” which combines many of the above elements but with the added madness of Del Toro’s chimerical brilliance and fallen Catholic world view. The Kaiju,

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the giant beasts from another dimension that are laying waste to the planet, are an homage not just to Godzilla and the old guy-in-a-rubber-suit goliaths of Toho Studio, but also draw on primordial behemoths like H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu  (Del Toro agreed to direct this film only after his hope of adapting Lovecraft’s “In the Mountains of Madness” faded), as well as the ancient world-destroyers of pagan myths and the Bible, especially the book of Revelations.

The peril is not just cataclysmic, but apocalyptic, which is what the leader of the human resistance, who goes by the loaded name of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba),points out in an otherwise uninspiring speech rallying the troops. A kooky pair of scientists (played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman in hilarious, hyperactive performances that almost make up for the total lack of personality of the rest of the cast) go on to explain how these creatures have been sent to our plane of existence by a predatory race seeking to eradicate the locals so they can move in (shades of “Man of Steel”). And, in fact, humans have done a lot of the work for them, as global warming has already transformed the environment into something more to the invaders liking.

Well, it all sounds a little clunky to me, sending in monsters to do the job any self-respecting aliens would enjoy doing themselves. Equally unwieldy is the human countermeasure of creating “Jaegers,” monumental humanoid robots operated by mind-melding humans in a kind of ultimate Wii video game. I mean, is punching the Kaiju out more effective than a couple of tactical nukes?  But these gimcracky devices do allow Del Toro to insert a subversive subtext, or at least according to my tortured reading of the film.

Once again, the potential salvation of the planet lies in the hands of an elite – the uniquely talented pilots of the Jaeger. They’re regarded by the public as rock stars, doing talk shows and endorsement deals, and they sure look cool because in this movie it’s the good guys, not the evil invaders, who get to wear the sharp-looking, crypto-Nazi duds.


They also have the talent to meld minds, entering a state of “drift,” a psychological swirl of mutual memories, by which they bond with each other and with their machines.

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As with the technology in “Avatar,” this process is a video gamer’s dream, allowing any nerd to plug into a system that lets you grab, say, a beached ocean liner, or whatever else is handy, and knock around some monsters. They’re like Ripley suited up in the loader in “Alien” doing battle with the alien queen, except the experience is about $100 million in special effects bigger and better.

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However, there is a downside. For one thing, the Jaegers’ titanic battles with the Kaiju have the opposite of the intended effect – the more successful they are, the more formidable the foe becomes, increasing in size and number.

Secondly, melding with the machine takes an insidious toll on the human operators, reducing them to components; despite their superstar status, they are just cogs in the machine. Becket, for example, the ostensible protagonist, is pretty much a cipher. It only takes a few seconds of his “drift” flashback montage to reveal all the cliches that make up his character. Nor does he get much more interesting when he quits the Jaegers after a bad experience and joins the masses who are laboring on an ill-conceived “wall of life” designed to keep the Kaiju out. I was hoping he might get more cynical and down-and-out, giving up the Jaegers, say, for Jaegermeister…

As it is, though, Becket and the others serve Del Toro’s purpose, which is not to detract from the magnificent machines and the stupendous Jaeger vs. Kaiju battles. Del Toro doesn’t need characters to develop his theme of dehumanization when the f/x, set designs, imagery, and mise-en-scene convey it with such spectacular impact. In the world of “Pacific Rim,” everything is retro and broken down and crummy; it’s a place where the human spirit has succumbed to the regimentation of an inhuman, mechanical universe.

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The monochrome masses of the lumpen poor in the crowd scenes, the Gothic caverns of the Jaeger hangars, and the big rusty doors, enormous machine fragments, and other greasy detritus lying around evoke the dismal “desert of the real” of “The Matrix.”

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At other times the settings seemed straight out of “Metropolis”

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and “Modern Times,”

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silent classics about the perils of an industrialized society.

Or, as mentioned above, they resemble the documentary “Leviathan,” in which a factory-like fishing trawler takes on the aspect of a Moloch-like devourer. As horrific as the sea monsters are in “Pacific Rim, they are only the distorted reflections of the inhuman giants that oppose them.



You might have trouble deciding whether to say “movies,” “films” or “cinema,” but Hollywood marketing execs have a word that, for them, trumps all others: “Product.” It’s a comfort word for the MBA boys and girls, one that lexicographically lines their business up with their equals in the hot dog and auto industries. “What do you guys do?” “We move product.” “Put it there!”

Like other marketing Solons, Hollywood’s prefer to have their products shaped to fit a prefab appetite. Not for them the old show biz task of taking an unknown quality and enticing the public into paying to see it. Now the job is first priming the audience’s taste and only then making something – anything – to satisfy it.

“Product” isn’t a synonym for “bad movie.” Avatar was product that was also a great film. The term simply identifies a type of movie that, as far as the suits in charge are concerned, does not have to be good – or bad or indifferent. To be product, a movie simply has to respond to a series of marketing-oriented requirements assembled by people who work in the distribution arm of the film industry.

The July 4th weekend brings us to the high point of Hollywood product season. Or, given the sheer terribleness of the 150-minute The Lone Ranger, the low point. Assembled under the spasmodic hand of director Gore Verbinski, the movie is a compendium of Everything Wrong With Hollywood Movies. To review a movie this bad is simply to list failures. The movie is poorly constructed, a straight line of boom-boom-boom action sequences occasionally interrupted by dull bits of exposition. The filmmakers attempt to mask the disjointedness of the action scenes through the familiar distraction of rapid, quick cuts; since there’s not all that much happening in a particular image, they cut between, back and forth, into and out of different images, which is mere sleight-of-hand.

The studio – Disney – was obviously on the lookout for another Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (horrible word to describe a movie series). Verbinski directed three of those and their star, Johnny Depp, is back in place, this time as Tonto, the masked man’s faithful Indian friend. Depp, who has spent most of the last decade pursuing the lucrative trade of self-parody, can’t send up Tonto like he did his feckless pirate captain. Despite some stereotypical traits which adhered to the character, Tonto (despite his name) in his radio and television incarnation by Jay Silverheels was a dignified character, the equal to the Lone Ranger. To make him the same sort of broad caricature a la Jack Sparrow would be a racist regression. So there is an attempt to balance the comic and dignified aspects of the character but this fumble-fingered crew had already failed before they began.

The Lone Ranger echoes the imagery of a couple of classic Westerns, The Searchers (1956) and Little Big Man (1970). Talk about punching above your weight.

White House Down is an attempt to recapture box office primacy by producer-director Roland Emmerich after some years of commercial inconsistency.  So he has brought forth a do-over of his massive 1996 box office smash and creative stinker, Independence Day. The earlier movie is in the marketing hall of fame thanks footage to of the White House being blown up by aliens that first ran during the Super Bowl.

There’s been some tinkering and updating, to be sure. The enemies aren’t aliens but terrorists (or are they? See Die Hard). The president has been changed from a taciturn hero-pilot-leader into Barack Obama, complete down to his Nicorette gum. And although the president displays a certain amount of athleticism, the real action-hero stuff is handed to a law-enforcement type.

All of Emmerich’s shortcomings are still on display. He was a pioneer overcutter of action films, and he succeeds in remaining at the front of this parade of miscreants. He has no storytelling gifts he wants to share, simply alternating between meth-style action scenes and dull rest periods.

But for the first time in his career, Emmerich manages to infuse the leaden kinetics with a sense of “Boys’ Own,” “Ripping Yarns” exuberance. For the first time, an Emmerich outing feels like it is supposed to be fun and, to that extent, White House Down has its share of exuberance.

As for the animated sequel, Despicable Me 2, it is just that, a sequel and only a sequel. You know what that means. You don’t need me to tell you. It’s just product, Jake. Just product.

–Henry Sheehan


Female trouble

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The Motion Picture Academy announced their latest members inducted, and it is about as discouraging as you might expect. Fifteen new directors were added – three of them women. A four to one ratio might actually be an improvement, however. Meanwhile, guess how many women have been nominated for Best Director since Kathryn Bigelow won it for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009? Zero, as in no Oscar recognition for “Zero Dark Thirty.” Screenwriters are a little better off – I counted four films with women sharing credit for the screenplay in the past three years, but that includes both the original and adapted categories.

But enough of your whining. Who can blame the Academy poobahs for not inviting women into their club or nominating them for Oscars when they haven’t done anything to deserve it? Just look around at the films playing today. How many were directed by women? And who wants to watch a film directed by a woman, anyway? Chances are it will be some kind of chick flick.

Actually, there is one film released recently in these parts directed by a woman, and you can be sure it’s not from Hollywood. As the brassy, eye-rolling “New Yorker” editorial assistant groans to legendary editor William Shawn, “She’s not one of those European philosophers, is she?” Indeed she is. The title protagonist of Margarethe von Trotta’s’s “Hannah Arendt” revolutionized the way we look at tyranny and fascism with such books as “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” (“Catchy title,” sniffs the same assistant). She also made herself a household name of sorts when she covered the 1960 capture and subsequent trial of Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann, coining the term “banality of evil.”

She was a giant of 20th century thought, but the trouble is, how can you show that on screen? Von Trotta resorts to what I guess we can call the cigarette smoking fallacy, in which a character’s inner processes, such as thinking, are conveyed by lighting up and puffing away. So Arendt will gaze into the distance, take a deep drag, and perhaps lie down on a couch, thinking.

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Then there’s a cut to her hammering on a typewriter

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or chatting with her friends about her latest brainstorm about evil and banality.

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By my count she smokes some 30 cigarettes in the course of the movie – which if movie time were real time would add up to about 25 packs of cigarettes a day. Sometimes, instead of smoking and thinking, she puffs away and slides into a flashback to her college days in Berlin meeting with her favorite Professor, Martin Heidegger (another giant of 20th century thought, but not smart enough to pass up an opportunity to join the Nazi party and disgrace himself forever),

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in his office, listening, rapt, to him relating his latest thoughts on thought, after which the pair gambol up to a bedroom where Heidegger, who looks a bit like a plump waiter in a stuffy restaurant, puts his thought-burdened head on her lap. Hot stuff.

Say what you will about the cinematic dynamism of von Trotta’s film, it doesn’t have a lot of competition these days when it comes to roles in which women are empowered. They aren’t just objects or victims or decoration, but strive for independence, if not immortality, either historical or literal. Those that attempt his do so through the usual avenues: becoming a vampire,

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as is the case in Neil Jordan’s extravagant (has the spirit of Ken Russell possessed him?) “Byzantium” (Henry is writing on this film in more detail); or a belly dancer,

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as in French-Moroccan director Rachid Bouchareb’s first English language film, “Just Like a Woman.” In the latter two women flee their oppressive husbands (and the law), driving from Chicago to Santa Fe where one of them, a belly-dancing aficionado, hopes to audition for a company of similar abdominal terpsichoreans. Bouchareb’s film also intrigues because it clearly draws on that feminist film “breakthrough” of 1991, Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise,” which turned out to be a breakthrough for movies with strong female characters in the same way that Bigelow’s Oscar was a breakthrough for woman directors.

But back to the recent releases. I was a big fan of “Bridesmaids” (2011) and like many I thought this was going to offer a back door for women into the mainstream, proving they could do the kind of raunchy comedy beloved of the adolescent male demographic, yet still retain their female integrity and autonomy. Instead, so far (and Leslye Headland’s “Bachelorette

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was an encouraging, hilarious, albeit straight to VOD exception) all that’s happened is that the Oscar-nominated Melissa McCarthy has gotten more or less degrading roles in films like “Hangover 3” and “Identity Thief” and has received grotesquely misogynist notices from Rex Reed.

But “The Heat” promised more, directed as it is by Paul Feig of “Bridesmaids.” And indeed it delivers, mostly. It’s more relentless than the earlier film, and not as funny, and verges on a misogyny of its own. But it is refreshing to see McCarthy as Mullins, a Boston Police detective, call up the wife of a handcuffed perp busted for soliciting a prostitute, drop a dime on him, drag him through his car window into her own beat-up rattletrap, and then drive helter-skelter after a pimp trying to escape on foot through the vacant lots and back alleys of one of the city’s seedier neighborhoods. Now that’s Boston strong.

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In true mismatched cop partner style, Mullins is hooked up with FBI agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), her polar opposite – anal, nerdy, lonely (she doesn’t even have her own cat, and instead has to surreptitiously borrow a neighbor’s), and just snooty and condescending when she’s around the guys.

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But like Mullins she’s a woman striving for autonomy, empowerment, and career advancement in a traditionally all male profession, and thus equally obnoxious to the fatheaded patriarchal powers-that-be. She’s kind of like Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” except a lot funnier and more pathetic and after much smaller fry.

Paul Feig settles for small fry too, and the film falls into a long-winded, routine tale of Boston mobsters, family ties, and departmental treachery, with that soupçon of local color we’ve come to expect from so-called Boston noir. I got the sense that Feig might have watched the family scenes from “The Fighter,”

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said “Yes!”, and applied everything he picked up to filling in the details of Mullins’s feral, hateful clan.

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And you’ve got to throw in the requisite sports mania (paintings of Jesus playing on various Boston sports teams!) and the accent jokes (“Are you a nahk” “A what?” “A NAHK!” “Oh, a narc!” “No, a NAHK! Etc.). Wicked funny; I laughed so hahd I forgot to pahk my cah in Hahvahd Yahd.

However, and this is a major accomplishment, “The Heat” is the first film to really capture the sloppy transcendence, the spilled beer, cigarette-butted, vomit-splattered, delusional grandeur and besotted epiphany of getting wasted in an East Boston dive bar.

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If women can break into that realm, there’s nothing they can’t accomplish.