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HS’s 2013 Top 10. And a few we could have done without.

As you can see, there is some overlap with Mr. Keough’s list, best and worst. That is a good thing.

1. Nebraska — From the very first shot of an old man shuffling along the side of an urban highway – against the direction of the traffic – you know you’re seeing director Alexander Payne at the very height of his considerable cinematic mastery. The movie makes you want to say something about America, but I won’t.

2. A Touch of Sin ­— Zhangke Jia’s films till now have, broadly speaking, looked at the results of upheaval. Here he gets down to the upheaval itself, violent crime throughout China. Ultimately, it’s motive more than action that matters, but, boy, that action.

3. Welcome to Pine Hill — 2013’s other great movie about America. Keith Miller’s debut feature about a man brought up short just when he’s straightening out his life comes alive through Miller’s attentive technique, manifest in, among other things, editing dictated by emotion.

4. Her – Spike Jonez, traditionalist filmmaker? Certainly not in subject matter, but he has certainly absorbed the great historic lessons of American cinema. Combined with his very contemporary story, he’s come up with not just a fascinating movie, but a nearly unique one.

5. Beyond the Hills – Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mongiu continues to impress as one of the world’s leading filmmakers. Typically, this movie tackles big subjects (how do old and new types of knowledge co-exist in the contemporary world?; what is madness?) but does perfect justice to its story about the reunion of two grown orphan girls. Brilliant.

6. The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer undresses a monster’s psyche simply by offering to direct the creature in a movie about his crimes (during the Indonesian massacres of 1965). It’s as simple and as complex as that.

7. Leviathan — Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel carried some video cameras aboard a North Atlantic trawler, held them or bolted them down, and allowed the images to form themselves before the lens. But then, they also distorted the film’s clarity and color, making us work to really see what’s what. A paradoxical way of freeing an image from excessive authorial control, but it works.

8. Upstream Color — I think I got what Shane Carruth was trying to say here, but I just might have been affected by the same delusions as the movie’s characters. Original, engrossing, ingenious. What else do you need?

9. Byzantium — Neil Jordan’s best Gothic outing in quite some time asks us what are we looking at when we look at female vampires? And it answers.

10. Ernest and Celestine – A warm and charming, but never mawkish and just suspenseful enough tale of a country bear and a town mouse. Directors Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar, and Stéphane Aubier adopt a water-color style complete with imprecise lines, a “mistake” that works wonderfully. This listing is for the French original. The English dubbed edition opens in the U.S. later this year.


I’ve never done a 10 Worst List and, as Ebenezer Scrooge once said, I’m too old to change. But there are movies which drive me crazy for different reasons.

No apparent adult supervision: 47 Ronin

Saying you are smart over and over again does not mean you are smart: Before Midnight

No, this is not a step forward: The Conjuring

No good outcome possible: R.I.P.D.

If you don’t know this by now, you will never, never, never know it: 12 Years a Slave

–Henry Sheehan

Some Christmas Coal.

“Christmas comes but once a year” is beginning to sound more like a promise from the major Hollywood studios than an expression of seasonal joy. There were some good films worth discussing; some bad films worth excoriating. But mostly we were served helpings a plain, squishy vanilla, movies so devoid of, well, almost anything, that they evoke as much a discussion as “Didja like it?” “Eh.”

So here, in no particular order, are some of our Yuletide visitations.


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.  No doubt lots of people were quick to call this latest Will Ferrell comedy dumb (even if as in “dumb but funny”), but I wonder if any in the audience realized that the movie called them stupid. Set in the very early 1980s, the movie takes the start of 24-hours cable news as its backdrop and says outright that CNN (called GNN in the movie) and its imitators were/are so successful because the pander to the emptiest part of the American brain. And that’s all of the American brain; no one in the movie differentiates between a smart American audience and a stupider one. We’re all idiots together as far as the movie is concerned. Well, good point.

Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) and his misfit news team (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and David Koechner) are disappointed to find themselves relegated to the graveyard shift at the upstart news operation, so much so that Burgundy takes it into his head to dedicate their hours to “America,” meaning cute animal and mawkish human interest stories. They area hit of course.

So much for the clever stuff. Otherwise, the movie is a rehash of the jokes in the first go-round, endlessly recycled. Carell’s character, the weatherman, is still a schizophrenic who spouts non-sequiturs; once more, Koechner is the clueless sports anchor who has a gay crush on Ron (is that gay “joke” still funny? was it ever?); and Rudd’s investigative reporter is still, well, kind of a womanizer, but in a nice way because he’s Paul Rudd. Typically for a Ferrell movie, if he and his director Adam McKay think they’ve got ahold of a funny joke they milk it until the cow runs dry. Whether you think the movie depends on your patience, your appetite for repetition, and your gratitude for a movie that has even a teeny tiny taste of satire.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Peter Jackson continues his vain effort to craft a trilogy out of J.R.R. Tolkein’s slight, unexpected bestseller, the one which prompted the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even squeezing borrowed and invented characters to fill out the relatively scant dramatic landscape, Jackson has harvested acres of nothing. As he did in part one, Jackson employs the simplest of structures: some characters travel for a while, fight, travel again, fight, travel, fight, and so forth and so on. Such bare bones would be fine if Jackson sutured some flesh onto them, but there’s nothing with blood in its veins on the screen. In place of the painfully unfunny “comic” scenes of the last movie, Jackson has relied on two action scenes: one with giant spiders (shades of Bert I. Gordon!) and a way, way too long climax starring a dragon. Partly as a result, the enterprise doesn’t resemble The Lord of the Rings movies anywhere near so much as Jackson’s gaseous, ponderous King Kong.

August: Osage County.  A Pulitzer Prize? Well, OK. This hackneyed tale of family woe in the boondocks was adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play and directed by John Wells with that misplaced reverence due Broadway tales of the common folk (think Bus Stop). Tell me if you’ve heard this before: A family patriarch dies and so relatives, their spouses and children come from near and far to join the stay-at-homes in an outpouring of vitriol and decades-old resentments, not to mention the revelation of scandals.

These machinations have chugged across movie screens so long that their operators have had to raise the scandal stakes and the scandals in such a recent rehash as this reach such ludicrous heights (or depths) that it’s hard not to giggle from the very first.

Out on the Oklahoma plain – which we see every once in a while on typically over-composed, postcard-perfect images –old man Weston has drunk himself to death, leaving behind his widow, pill-popping Violet Weston. Because she is the most mentally deranged member of her clan, Violet assumes the status of lacerating truth-teller, the one who slashes through pieties, battling one army of clichés with legions of her own.

Violet is played by Meryl Streep, a cold performer who acts like she’s a telegraph operator tapping out her meanings in broadly worded transmissions. There isn’t much scenery in the old dark house Violet inhabits, but there’s even less by the time Streep is done chewing and swallowing it. She is surrounded by a name cast whose names you will recognize but whose performances are unmemorable.

47 Ronin. Given its budget and what I assume were its ambitions, this is truly the worst movie of the year. Keanu Reeves stars as a half-Japanese, half-European young (?) servant in Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. In an opening voice-over, a narrator refers to the shogunate era as “ancient Japan.” The shogunate existed from 1600 to 1868 so you’re tipped off literally from the movie’s opening that the movie has no respect for Japan, its history or culture.

Actually, you’re tipped off by the movie’s title. The tale of the 47 ronin is an old one which has been made into at least six movies. The most famous is Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941 The 47 Ronin which he made under the orders of the Japanese wartime government. The emperor’s regime wanted a pro-war, militaristic propaganda film, but Mizoguchi returned with a magnificent anti-war drama that, even without its background, is a classic. But there have been other good versions, too: Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 Chushingura and Kon Ichikawa’s 1994 47 Ronin.

This movie, directed by Carl Rinsch, is essentially a showcase for barely adequate special/digital effects, so-so action scenes, and dramatic scenes that would be more at home in a second-rate manga. It drrraaaggsss, in other words. The whole point of the story is lost in what, I suppose, you could call an update, the story rearranged to appeal to a modern audience. If this movie had another title, it would be terrible, miserable, awful. With the title it does have, it’s also a travesty.

–Henry Sheehan

Cinema of the Ants

There were only two possible outcomes for Luc Besson’s The Family: either it was going to be bad or Besson was going to direct his first good live-action feature (I haven’t seen his animated work). Well, Besson hasn’t broken any creative ground and his latest is bad in the usual way, with flurries of incoherent action interrupted by clock-watching dialogue scenes. You could say that the replacement of his usual pseudo-philosophizing by comic back-and-forth is a step in the right direction, except for the fact that Besson doesn’t have much of a sense of verbal humor.

Obviously cast for their associations with gangster movies, Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer (sometimes people forget 1983’s Scarface and 1988’s Married to the Mob) play a married couple who, with their two teenaged children, relocate to Normandy under the federal witness protection program after dad turns mafia snitch. It’s a hallmark of how much the family resorts to criminal ways that the government has run out of U.S. locations in which to squirrel them away.

The plot follows the family’s interactions with Besson’s take on the “insufferable” local French and then shifts to the mafia’s eventually successful attempts to track down and murder the “protected” Americans.

Besson takes what, for him, is unusual care in depicting peripheral characters, primarily locals (some of whom are relatively nice) but also the family’s bodyguards. One might almost think that Besson has awoken to the human potential of his typically flattened supporting casts.

As it turns out, though, Besson is just setting these folks to be slaughtered in the most graphically violent ways imaginable, often at just the moments they are expressing their inherent humanity. Besson has found that what for him is a more agreeable way of expressing his directorial control: Sadism.

Sadism has been a running, if minor, strand of European cinema practically since its birth. Bunuel, who explored it and expressed it, found it woven throughout the human condition. Michael Haneke hides his under a gloss of artistic “objectivity” and thus turns it into middle-class “art.” Besson just seems to enjoy it. Gesturing towards the humanity of the bodies on screen makes him all the more gleeful when he shatters those bodies into blood, bone, and flesh.

He takes the view of the man on the tower looking down at ant-sized people and, rather than imagining, actually tosses something off the roof for the sake of amusement. Luc Besson is not an auteur; he has neither the eloquence nor the preoccupations to stake that claim. But he has created a cinema, the Cinema of the Ants.

–Henry Sheehan


One Good (The World’s End), One Bad (Lovelace), Two Uglies (The Canyons, Passion)

Here’s a quartet of flickers playing down at the local Bijou, holdovers from a week or so back.

Top of the list is The World’s End, the third comedy from the team of writer-director Edgar Wright and writer-star Simon Pegg (we might as well add actor Nick Frost, since he’s prominently featured in all three himself). The team has come a long way since Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), very funny movies, but which lack the technique and emotional vistas of this latest work.

Wright and Pegg have hit upon an approach that avoids formula as it allows for so many variations. Starting with a large cast of characters who are, each and every, victims of their own personalities, they bore in on the most socially marginal of the group. This hero – because that’s what he becomes – resents his marginalization to the point where he thinks he should be a model for, if not the whole of society, then for a very wide circle of his friends and acquaintances. He is not a reject, but a semi-voluntary non-conformist.

Pegg, as always, plays the square peg (sorry) who can’t seem to find the right shaped hole.  A now grown ne’er-do-well who lives by sponging off his more responsible, middle-class friends, he rounds four of them up to have a redo of a 12-bar pub crawl they weren’t able to complete the night of their secondary school graduation.  So back to their quiet hometown they go and start all over again.

The sketches of the four friends is remarkably adept for a contemporary comedy (though it would have been considered par for the course in the 1940s). The pacing of the humor is sure and the big twist in the plot (analogous to those in the first two comedies) is unexpected and funny (at least if you haven’t seen the movie’s television commercials). In fact, the whole movie is funny, even when it slips in a soupcon or two of sentiment.

Lovelace is the second feature directed by the well-regarded documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. As was the case with their first, 2010’s Howl, they are basing the movie on “real life,” in this case the story of Linda Lovelace, nee Boreman, the star of Deep Throat (1972), the porn film that made explicit sex on the screen not just acceptable but chic.

The two directors haven’t fallen into the trap of making a mere docudrama, but they have constructed a peculiarity that doesn’t offer much more. In essence, they use the first half of the movie to tell the old story of Lovelace and Throat, a popular yarn that emphasized sexual freedom, taboo-breaking, the thrill of celebrity, and oddball respectability. The second half, using Lovelace’s own 1980 autobiography, Ordeal as a resource, tells a much more harrowing and ugly tale of a woman brutally forced into a porn career by an abusive boyfriend.

The first story is told entirely objectively. Though Lovelace is the center of the camera’s attention, there’s no sense that we’re seeing the action from her or any other character’s viewpoint. That’s decidedly not the case with the second version of the tale, which begins with an older, wiser Lovelace beginning to write Ordeal and then proceeding to flashback.

The contrasting stories don’t seem to have much point. Anyone who saw Lovelace’s name during the 15 or 20 years she was in and out of the public eye knows what she wrote in 1980, even if they didn’t read it themselves. Is there anyone left out there who believes a career in porn is all party favors? Taken separately, the two halves of Lovelace are competent, if uninspired, pieces of filmmaking. Together, they are less than the sum of their parts.

Gosh, sex is dirty – but then, so is everything human, ain’t it? Welcome to Paul Schrader’s world where everything that isn’t tawdry is literally divine. A proponent of Calvinist views (that good works not only won’t get you into heaven, but aren’t even indications of worthiness) and, less so, Jansenism (the gift of grace can be less a blessing than a curse), Schrader is usually content to lay out these premises as finished statements which he then illustrates with pictures of varying solemnity.

The Canyons finds Schrader at his pedagogic worst; the movie, which is turgid in any case, can’t even rouse a spark of titillation from entwined limbs and bumping torsos – or the drug taking, the cruelty, the bitching and moaning and manipulating. It’s not even good soap opera, so Schrader has to force a potential for murder into the action in order to make it seem that something is at stake.

The canyons of the title are those which surround and divide Los Angeles and which contain a large portion of the Hollywood “creative community” (as they like to be called). The little squared circle at the center of The Canyons involves a scuzzy producer, his girlfriend, an actor friend/former lover of hers, and a woman who just seems to be around for the sex.

The two guys struggle for the affections of, as opposed to mere access to, the girlfriend. At first, the producer is depicted as playing underhanded games, but, when it suits Schrader, it is revealed the actor is sort of a cheat himself. But that’s OK because… see above.

Bret Easton Ellis wrote the screenplay, which guarantees the backdrop is in a legitimately unreal Elliswood. The Canyons also engages in stunt casting. Lindsay Lohan does on screen what the tabs say she does in her “private” life and an excruciatingly untalented porn actor plays the producer. Class all the way.

If Paul Schrader is deploying his old ideas – make that idea – Brian De Palma is recycling his fragmentary techniques in Passion, a thrill-free thriller. Everything you’d expect to see, you see. The plot features his standby doubling, with the tension between a businesswoman and her protégé mirrored by tension between the protégé and her protégé. His visual reflexes still spasm when hit with a hammer; for example, one character’s face is seen in a reflective surface so that we’ll know – as we know in nearly all De Palma’s thrillers – that she has a secret self.

Based on Passion, it appears that De Palma has lost interest in everything aside from his own mechanical self. A movie isn’t a window to a world; it’s just a great big mirror filled with one tiny figure.

I don’t know about you, but I’d head for the pub crawl.

–Henry Sheehan

More Murderers Among Us

DSC_0271 copyDocumentary filmmakers must be ever vigilant lest their movies get kidnapped by their subjects. It’s not a question of whether the filmmaker and the subjects don’t have similar goals; they might or might not. But even the most naturally empathetic documentary director has to ward off the seductive charms of a subject who implicitly offers to exchange access in exchange for uniformity of perspective. Complicating the matter, some subjects don’t want what is conventionally regarded as sympathy. They might want the audience to fear them or even be repulsed by them. It’s the games people play.

Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple’s 1997 post-facto promo of a Woody Allen musical tour, is a case in point. Although Kopple had proven her ability to look at her subjects with two eyes – one admiring, one skeptical – in American Dream (1990), she got all dewy-eyed over Allen and sympatico with his apologists. The movie was a vessel for Allen’s narcissism.

With The Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer pulls a double-dare on his subjects, Indonesian gangsters and militia members who led death squads in the mid-1960s. He offers to turn the movie over to them, to make the movie they’d like to see made about themselves. He provides some historical background, includes present-day documentary footage, but mostly shows the retired mass murderers plotting, rehearsing, and staging their feature film.

As cut, The Act of Killing focuses on Anwar Congo who, before 1965, was a scalper and low-ranking gangster of vague description. Then the Indonesian government, led by President Sukarno, was overthrown in a U.S.-backed military coup led by General Suharto. The coup leaders used private militias and criminal gangs to carry out a massive number of massacres, ultimately leading to the death of well over a million civilians, including men, women, children, infants and the elderly. The aim of the coup was to eliminate communist influence within the government; the aim of the massacres was to kill all the communists, with the term broadly defined to include anyone with liberal leanings, union affiliation, or a teacher’s credential, and their families. An entire village could be wiped out just by an unproven allegation of communist “sympathies.” In the United States, the press coverage played down the massacres, instead praising the new rulers for keeping the Indonesian domino from falling.

A film noir reenactment scene from Drafthouse Film's documentary, The Act Of KillingAnwar Congo led a death squad and according to someone in the film meaning to praise him, personally killed a thousand people. Congo doesn’t propose a personal death count of his own, but he does demonstrate a strangulation technique he personally developed to speed up his kill rate.

There are other killers in the movie, including an old gangster buddy of Anwar’s and the head of a still-popular militia. The culture at large has done more than protect these people; it has lauded them. In one brain-blowing sequence, Anwar appears on a local TV talk show where the smiling young host talks about his murders as if they were the recipes of the week.

It’s Anwar’s movie that is at the heart of The Act of Killing. A stop and start affair thanks to Anwar’s indecision over both the appropriateness and liveliness of certain scenes, the movie is loaded with the kind of kitsch that seems endemic to the totalitarian mind. In fact, both Anwar’s movie and the “real” movie begin and end with a musical sequence that promises comedy to begin with and then ends with devastating irony.

But the largest pay-off comes when you pay close attention to the way Anwar structures his own movies. When he’s alone with the movie crew, revisiting some of the scenes of his many crimes, he appears disturbed, talking about ghosts and guilt and even vomiting in apparent self-revulsion. But when he’s directing himself in scenes which feature his supporters and old comrades he is not exactly boastful, but he does allow himself to bask, apparently modestly, in their praise for his barbarism.

This is where Oppenheimer’s brilliance makes its mark. Plenty of filmmakers have interviewed and/or followed murderous sociopaths, but I can’t think of any who have revealed sociopathy at work.

Preparing for a reenactment scene from Drafthouse Film's documentary, The Act Of KillingAt times, it’s easy – crushingly easy – to see. Anwar’s recreations of massacres involve the impressment of locals as cinematic victims, especially women and children. But the horror of brutalism is not past. Although they naturally don’t measure up to the original crimes, these reenactments still terrify those forced to impersonate the raped, mutilated, and dead. You can see women struggle to keep their mounting panic under control; worst of all, you can see children break out into nearly hysterical crying. When Anwar goes over to calm the children after the scenes are finished, what you are witnessing is not true compassion, but the exercise of power, they private gloating of a killer pleased to see his talent for terrifying is still intact.

Those scenes where Anwar shows apparent regrets are equally troubling. Anwar isn’t overtaken by genuine grief. He is doing what deadly sociopaths do all too well: He’s mirroring, discerning what his more human audience expects to see and delivering it to him. Like his mad brethren, he is copying what we’d consider “normal” affects. Paradoxically, when he’s at his most pathetic, he’s revealing his most deadly side.

So An Act of Killing isn’t a record of a killer who had outlived his time. It’s a warning that monsters still live among us.

Inner and Outer Space

There’s a subset of sci-fi movies whose setting is a spaceship in deep space and whose cast of characters begins small and gets smaller. They include John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) and, perhaps in a stretch, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972).

Europa Report, directed by Sebastian Cordero, is an intelligent addition to the list, particularly due to its additional dynamic, that of the group under psychological pressure, pressure that will force the group to cohere or disintegrate.

Briefly, the plot, which is told retrospectively, is about a months-long expedition to one of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Because of the possible presence of water, the moon is considered a likely home to cellular life and so a small crew of scientists and pilots have been sent out to take samples. This physically enclosed group have to endure the inevitable friction of cashing personalities, lethal accidents and, once they get to Europa, strange and deadly, if apparently primitive, life forms.

Cordero delivers all the necessaries: The stark contrast of space’s enormousness and its consequent physical and psychological claustrophobia; a shooting style which, again and again, creates a palpable reality of emotional stress and bonding; and a moody lighting scheme that manages to combine dramatic needs with plausible ambient light sources.

Europa Report is in sum a good movie, intriguing and intelligent. Fewer and fewer of those these days.

–Henry Sheehan

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


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

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


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