Author Archives: Peter Keough

Expended families


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The movies have always relied on screwed-up families for stories, but I can’t remember seeing as many on that subject as I have recently. They make “The Family,” adroitly discussed below by Henry, look well adjusted. And not just mainstream, genre, or Hollywoodish movies, like “You’re Next, “Prisoners,” “A Single Shot,” and “Baggage Claim.” but also Indie films like “Mother of George” and “We Are What We Are.” So is the nuclear family undergoing a crisis these days? Probably, but when isn’t it?  But I think the prevalence of such movies reflects a crisis experienced by society at large, of which the family is the smallest unit, a microcosm of what’s going wrong in general.

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These kinds of extrapolations always get me in trouble with people who deny such close connections between real life and the world on the screen. After all, these films are developed sometimes years in advance of their release. Are the filmmakers psychic, then, and can predict what the hot issues will in the future? And then, of course, there’s the usual– “it’s only a movie.”

But how does one account for the fact that both “Prisoners” and “A Single Shot” open and close with nearly identical scenes? Both begin with the protagonist hunkered down in a wintry forest with a rifle, setting up a shot on a deer.

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Both end with the protagonist trapped in a deep pit, literally or figuratively, of his own making. I think what transpires between these two scenes can be read as a commentary on the audience’s subconscious anxieties about domestic security in general, about what threatens it, what should be done to protect it, and what the moral ramifications of such measures might be.

In both films the father either initiates or exacerbates the threat to his family by his macho behavior In “A Single Shot,” the protagonist John Moon (Sam Rockwell), a marginal recluse type with survivalist tendencies, finds himself in a moral dilemma after the title discharge, and his poor judgment, driven by greed and a desperate need to restore his broken family, directs him to action that not only compromises him morally but also makes the situation worse.

In “Prisoners,” on the other hand, the pater familias Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) lives in a more upscale middle class neighborhood. But he also has the makings of a militiaman, what with his basement stockpile of goods and ammo in preparation for some apocalyptic social breakdown. Unlike Moon, he does not actually initiate the crisis – the kidnapping of his and a neighbor’s daughter  – but he certainly doesn’t improve the situation by resorting to extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation of the chief suspect

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(i.e., he chains him to a radiator and beats the shit out of him to get him to talk).

“A Single Shot,” seems to suggest the notion that, like Moon, America is responsible for its own troubles, having instigated terrorist assaults through their own indiscretions in foreign policy. And in “Prisoners,” the subtext suggests that though the US does not bear any responsibility for the woes inflicted on them by outside evil-doers, it can be faulted for its poorly thought out, heavy-handed response, which seems only to have made matters  worse.

Whether these subtexts were intended, or even exist, seems moot at this point. They did not resonate with audiences. “Prisoners” has grossed to date about $49 million, but since it cost $46 million to make and who knows how many millions to promote and market, it hasn’t been a winner. As for “A Single Shot,” it made around $16, 000 bucks, which might cover catering costs.

Perhaps the two movies got stiffed by audiences because they both engage in the never popular practice of male-bashing and discrediting the patriarchal roots of American society. In which case “Prisoners” gets a raw deal, because [and this involves really major spoilers] the ultimate culprit proves to be that archetypical bad guy, the wicked matriarch. Yes, behind every bad or mixed-up man is an evil woman.

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“Prisoners” doesn’t reveal the gender of the real culprit until near the end.  But a couple of the other films mentioned above don’t beat around the bush, but put the blame on a woman from the get-go.

In Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George,”

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set in a sumptuously rendered Nigerian community in Brooklyn, a woman fails to bear a child for the easy-going restaurant owner  who brought her over from Africa for that purpose. Though it’s clear that the husband is shooting blanks, his termagant mother badgers the wife, subjecting her to potions and charms and finally insisting that she commit an act that is duplicitous, but  effective. To the mother-in-law’s credit, however, she is nominally acting in the service of a male-dominated system.

In David E. Talbert’s “Baggage Claim,” another woman, a flight attendant named Montana (Paula Patton, whose appeal escapes me), 

is berated by mom for  failing her gender responsibility of getting married, settling down, and having kids. She takes drastic measures to get with the program, but the situation is made more urgent when her younger sister gets engaged. So Montana sets off to revisit her various exes across the country (though not, and perhaps this was intended ironically, in Montana) to see if maybe she overlooked something the first time around, and come up with her own beau when the wedding takes place in 30 days.  Kind of like Bill Murray in “Broken Flowers,”  except offensive and stupid.

What a surprise when  Montana realizes that you don’t need a man to define who you are, unless you mean Mr. Right, who turns out to be right under her nose!  As for mom, sure she was a tyrant (and a bit of a castrating man-eater, as she has been married and divorced six times) determined to destroy  her daughters’ lives, but she had the best intentions at heart.  Plus, she’s family. So, hugs all around. Even Djimon Hounsou’s billionaire hotelier – who is inexplicably smitten with Montana and wants to underwrite her freedom and pretty much her every desire but will not marry her

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– has to admit that all turns out for the best.

And it turned out pretty well at the box office, as the film ended up grossing $16 million, or about twice what it cost to make. So maybe the state of the family is not so bad after all.


Spend Labor Day with “Drinking Buddies:” An interview with Joe Swanberg

Photo by Clayton Hauck for Chicago Magazine

In an item that came out in the “Boston Globe” on Sunday I lamented the fact that as we “celebrate” Labor Day, the spirit of the holiday, which is to acknowledge  the working men and women and the unions that have made America great, has given away to car sales and reports on movie grosses. Certainly not many films have come out recently that deal with the now controversial subject of workers and the working place. However I wasn’t thinking of an obvious exception to that rule, Joe Swanberg’s sneaky-brilliant “Drinking Buddies,” a look at the relationships, romantic and otherwise, between co-workers and their mates (Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston) at a boutique beer works, the aptly named “Revolution Brewery,” in Chicago. Unfortunately, this insight did not occur to me back in July when I had the opportunity to interview Swanberg. And another omission: his role in Adam Wingard’s recently released horror film “You’re Next.

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So what were you, drunk? What did spend 45 minutes talking to the guy about?  Well, we did discuss topics such as the harsh criticism, matched by dogged adulation, he has gotten over the past ten years, during which he has made around 20 movies. (Okay, another thing I forgot to bring up with him was this boxing match he had with one of his more abusive detractors last September at the Fantastic Fest in Austin). He describes his evolution from being an enfant terrible determined to tear down all the artifices of cinema, to directing his first studio-ish, quasi-genre film (“Drinking Buddies” is a romantic comedy. Sort of. Explanation to follow) And we talked about beer, though we didn’t drink any.

JS: I’d be happy to talk beer, that’s for sure.

PK: You make your own beer?

JS: I do. I needed a hobby that was creative where I could begin and end a project in a relatively short amount of time. And also something that didn’t have any critical infrastructure involved with it. I could brew a beer, I could give it away to my friends, and that was sort of the end of the line. Whereas with movies you make it and it has to go out in the world and fend for itself. Making beer felt that it was purely for myself. And it’s hard because I love making movies and it’s hard to separate myself from the critical feedback. And beer was the perfect… also I end up travelling a lot for work so the beer was nice because I could brew it and it would take a week to ferment so if I timed it right I could disappear for stretches of time and the beer was fine.

PK: Is it good?

JS: It’s… alright. I haven’t had the time to – it’s about the same now as it was four years ago when I started.

PK: Unlike your movies

JS: Hopefully those are getting better. I’m working a lot harder on those.

PS: In 2011 you released ten movies. That’s a pace like Fassbinder.

JS: He was certainly an influence. Roger Corman was a big influence, too. Corman did like 50 movies in 15 years. Before he went into producing. He hasn’t directed anything in a long time. 2010 was crazy because my wife got pregnant so I knew I’d have a kid in November.  The idea was to shoot a lot of stuff between now and then and slowly edit.  That’s something I can do at home, so if my wife goes off to work I could edit while he was taking naps and I ended up finishing a lot of it. So suddenly in 2011 I had all these movies to get out into the world.

PK: That’s impressive that you did all these movies with a new baby.

JS:  I did a year of promotion with the kid. It was crazy – Sundance had rejected everything that I made and then my son was born in 2010 and then they invited “Uncle Kent,”

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which caught me off guard and my wife and I took him – he was three months old – to Sundance. And then Berlin which had rejected all my movies before took two of them that year so we had to leave my three-and-a-half year old son with my mom while we went to Berlin. It was very weird to be at this point where I had prepared myself to hunker down and be a homebody for a while when all of sudden the work was hitting a new audience that had not been open to it before. It was a strange year.

PK: What were the two audiences?

JS: The audience before seemed to be certainly festival-based. It felt young and there was an age gap and there seemed to be a critical gap also because I was getting bloggers and it didn’t get that high art audience to fully accept it. Unlike [Andrew] Bujalski, who was immediately embraced as a real filmmaker. But I don’t know why Sundance took one and Berlin took two (“Silver Bullets

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and “Art History”).

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Maybe it’s just me but it felt like the serious critics were paying attention, whereas before they were dismissive.

PK: Some of your films have been criticized as self-involved and self-indulgent…

JS: Yeah, sure, absolutely. I understood it the whole time. I still understand it; it’s very easy for me to watch all my movies and see why people don’t like them. I think I stuck around long enough so that there’s a different level of generosity towards the work. Or at least as the opportunities arose to get more money or work with bigger actors and I just kept making the same kind of work, at least people started to consider that I was doing was for a reason and not because I couldn’t do something else. And I think that early on that plagued all the mumblecore movies. The idea that we didn’t know how to make real movies. But all of us had gone to film school. I certainly had learned three point lighting, had shot on 16 mm, and edited on Steenbecks. I came out of film school very rigorously trained in the methods of making films, and chose not to do that. As much as I understand why people would not like any of my movies, that was the only thing that was annoying, the assumption that none of us knew how. And that we weren’t trying to something different.

PK: “My kid could do that!”

JS: And they could. The criticism wasn’t wrong, but it was an exploration into something. And the world was changing. I was talking about that with somebody today. Through the decades there are ways of looking at something and processing it as realistic, as reality. So some movies that seemed so real in the 60s are in black and white. You look at them now and they don’t look anything like reality. And if you look at stuff from the 70s that felt real then, and it’s like crazy colorful and people wearing funny clothes and it doesn’t look anything like reality. In the mid-2000s when I started making movies what reality looked like was YouTube and reality television. That’s how American audiences processed the idea that something was real. So I embraced that aesthetic. I basically dropped all my formal film school training and was interested in reality and was certainly interested in the idea of conveying reality and to me it needed to look like that. It needed to be handheld, it needed to be shot on consumer grade video cameras, and if an audience is going to sit here and feel like they were seeing something real there couldn’t be dolly shots and had to look like it was done in shitty apartments. But I’m not as interested in that any more.

PK: That sounds a lot like Dogme 95.

JS: Certainly. And that stuff was just starting to seep out in the late 90s and early 2000s when I was in film school. Those movies were a big push in that direction. But now it’s ten years later; reality doesn’t look like that anymore either.

PK: I don’t know what reality looks like anymore either.

JS: I’m speaking theoretically about an attempt to represent reality. Reality always looks the same. It always looks the way it’s seen from your eyeballs. It always looks like high resolution video.

PK: This then is a breakthrough film?

JS: It’s a breakthrough in the sense that exponentially more people are going to see it than have seen anything I’ve made before. I see it as less of a breakthrough and more like a first feature. After ten years in the woods it’s sort of coming home and embracing the way movies have been made forever. I got out of film school and tried to reinvent the wheel and unlearn everything I learned and tried to actively make these professionally amateur movies. With “Drinking Buddies” I’m fully embracing the system that’s been in place forever. I’m working with a script, with actors, with a producer, cinematographers, a wardrobe person; we’re scouting locations, shooting SAG schedules. It was the first movie I made.

PK: How was the adjustment?

JS:  I loved it.  It was incredible. Everything I expected to be a road block and a hurdle completely liberated me to just be a director. To show up every day. And work with actors and be a director.

It probably shouldn’t have taken ten years. But I had to get over some things. I had to get over that bratty punk rock attitude I had. Those first couple of movies I was aggressive, angry, and frustrated. Coming out of school and not only having made a lot of bad movies but also friends’ bad movies. I felt the reason those things were bad was because of the way they were being made. This kind of pissing contest of who’s got a bigger crew, who rented a dolly, who’s shooting on 35 instead of 16. These things that were so beside the point when every movie was going to suck anyway. Nobody was making anything very good so why were you parading and flexing your muscles? And maybe to my own detriment I created a link between those two things, between this kind of macho way of making movies and the badness of those movies. And so I got out and I didn’t want any excuses. I didn’t want to have to hustle and raise the money for a big crew. I had access to a camera; I had a computer with editing software. I gathered up some friends and we were all working day jobs so when we had time on nights and weekends we’d shoot a little bit, I would edit it, I’d save up some more money, we’d shoot a little more. Over the course of six months I put that first movie together and I didn’t hate it, and I felt like I had unlocked the key with “Kissing on the Mouth” (2007).

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We spent only three thousand on it and it made its money back and it played some festivals… and so the process of going through that and making something I was actually proud of spurred me on to keep doing that, and avoid all the hubbub of doing a movie shoot.

PK: What film school did you attend?

JS: Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. It’s a very experimental and documentary heavy program. To look at my early stuff, I’m so a product of that program and mindset. I went down to film school really obsessed with Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley and that 80s… they felt acceptable and like the kind of work I wanted to make. But at Southern Illinois University even Jim Jarmusch was way too Hollywood for them. They were showing us Stan Brakhage and stuff – that was like the artistic place they wanted us to get to. The big graduate from the school was Steve James, who made “Hoop Dreams” (1994).

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PK: That’s not very experimental

JS: No, but he’s from the documentary side – he’s great. And the school had not changed from between when I was there and he was there – we had all the same professors. I loved it, though. I couldn’t imagine a better school experience. You had to shoot film; they were not all receptive to video. You had to edit on flat beds. It was really a rigorous old school film program, so getting out of school and shooting these cheap video movies it was like my act of rebellion against my parents. I was creating some distance between my mentors and the work I wanted to make.

PK Have your parents seen your films?

JS: Yeah. They did like some of them. My dad likes James Bond movies. He’s not watching independent cinema. But they like some of them.

PK: Now you’re working with a big name cast – including an Oscar nominee [Anna Kendrick for.  Did you have to make an adjustment?

JS: I don’t think I did. It felt like the same with them.

PK: How did you get them on board?

JS: I talked to all of them. There wasn’t any script to send around. There wasn’t an audition process. It was just series of Skype conversations and phone calls. I was trying to feel out – I had been outside the industry for so long that I didn’t have a sense that anyone knew who I was or had seen any of my work, so the first stage in casting was just sussing out who had maybe seen “Hanna Takes the Stairs” (2007)

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or some of the others that had gotten a little more attention. Once we had a sense of who was interested I’d have 45 minute conversations and tell them the scenes I was interested in for the new one and that I wanted to set something in the world of craft beer and some of the ideas I was interested in.

PK: They were your first choices?

JS: Jake [Johnson]  came on very early. I hadn’t seen him anything but the actress Lizzy Caplan had done a couple of episodes of “New Girl” and she had a really good time working with him and I was talking to her and she said you should meet Jake he’s a really cool guy. He was on a month before we began shooting, through emails and stuff; he was a really big part of the writing process. I didn’t really have first choices, I was just really curious to meet people. And a lot of people I didn’t cast in “Drinking Buddies” I will cast in other stuff I met a lot of great people

It was crazy the caliber of actors willing to have a conversation with me knowing nothing about this project. It blew my mind. But actors want to act, and they don’t get to spend nearly enough time doing it. I think the way I work really allows people to act.

PK: A lot of the film was improvised?

JS: All the dialogue is improvised.

PK: How does that work?

JS: It’s sort of a honing process. The first take, you’re free to be really loose. To see what happens. I’ll hook onto a few things I like from that take and encourage them to do it again, but try this. And a lot of times they know too; after doing it once it becomes pretty clear to the actors too what worked and what they can do differently.

PK: Did they drink beer?

JS: They did.

PK: That was unsimulated actual beer consumption?

JS: Definitely.

PK: It’s kind of like “Crystal Fairy.”

JS: I really want to see that. Were they doing drugs?

PK: They apparently sampled the magic cactus.

JS: I’ll stick to the beer.

PK: When I saw this film, and “Crystal Fairy,” it occurred to me it must be tough to be in your 20s these days. Do you think being that age is especially difficult now?

JS: I don’t think it’s more difficult. People my age —we’ve been allowed to be kids our whole life. I’d say it’s a lot easier to be 20 now than it used to be. You don’t have the pressure to get married right out of college. The pressure for women to have a family right away isn’t there. We’re allowed a grace period where, ideally, people can learn something about themselves. Before they enter into lifelong relationships and have children and have things like that. But the same kind of panic sets in for people and it’s harder to find a job than it probably was 40 years ago if you’re college educated. That kind of thing is happening. People are getting out of school when they’re 22 and they’ve got major student loan debt and they have to move back in with their parents and it’s not going the way they thought it would go.

But I don’t see the pressure being put on us that other generations have had to grow up with. The onus is on you to grow up. Nobody is going to do it. Society isn’t going to do it and their parents aren’t going to make you do it. You’re the one who has to decide to become an adult. It’s a conversation I was having a couple of years ago with my friends: what does it mean to be a man? What determines that you have become a man? What are the external signifiers? I don’t think there are any anymore. Just an attitude you have to embrace that you are grown up.

It’s related to peer pressure. I’ve been married for six years now I have a son who’s almost three and very few of my close friends in Chicago… they’re just getting married and haven’t any kids. It’s very annoying for my wife and I to see these guys go out until three or four in the morning and sleep in and have brunch while she and I are in bed by midnight and get woken by seven. I certainly have had occasional regrets that maybe we should have waited a little longer and maybe we could be participating in all this stuff. But then I think that when my parents were this age they had me, plus my too younger brothers, and were way more grown up. And  then I’m also happy that I’m not going to be dealing with a toddler when I’m in my forties. If you’re going to do that you’re going to have to do it and the older you get the less energy you have and the harder it is to have a baby.

PK: What do your parents do?

JS: My father was an engineer and my mother stayed home with my brothers and me. Now she’s been writing a lot. I think she’s been writing books.

PK: Where did you get your inspiration to make films?

JS: I grew up loving basketball — until my freshman year in high school, when it was very apparent I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete. I always loved the movies but the arts weren’t where I was expecting to be putting my energies. And then I got frustrated with jock culture. I got to high school and I realized that the guys I was playing sports with or hanging out with weren’t very smart or interesting. Nobody was trying to challenge each other to grow in any kind of interesting way. They were kind of mean. It was disillusionment with that crowd of people. And then the people I started to relate to were the kids with mohawks listening to punk music and art kids who painted. And I started watching movies in the mid-90s and it was a really good time for independent films, especially the stuff coming out of Sundance. So I started seeing Jarmusch movies and Spike Lee movies and then I took a summer film course at Columbia College. I’d take the train in from the suburbs twice a week during the summer and we shot on 16 mm and that was the no turning back point for me. I just realized I just totally loved it. While watching movies like “Raising Arizona”

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it occurred to me that… there’s something that happens even as a kid you suspect they were just made magically and there’s not a real sense of what’s going on behind the scenes. And certainly for me there was no awareness of an auteurist aspect. I didn’t care who directed a movie I only cared who acted in it. But “Raising Arizona” finishes and the first title that comes up is Joel Coen and I think, well, maybe that’s why I like that movie. Who’s this guy Joel Coen? What decisions is he making that affects the way it turns out? And this was pre-internet – I mean the internet existed but I didn’t have it at my house – and so I would just go to the video store and turn over every box looking at the names of directors and try to make connections between things.

It’s so silly to think about this because it’s so easy now to find stuff, but I saw “Raising Arizona” (1987) and it probably took me three months to find another movie directed by Joel Coen. Of active searching every time I was in a video store. And then one miraculous day I picked up “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) and there his name was again. I rented it and watched it and probably three weeks later ended up in a conversation with someone who said you should really see “Miller’s Crossing”(1990) It took me forever to piece together this guy’s filmography. Today it would be five seconds after I googled his name. So it was a different time and during that searching I came in contact with a wide range of stuff. I couldn’t hone in on a specific thing you had to take in a lot of it.

PK: Initially it seems your films were more derived from actual experience than from other films. Is this film more of a genre film? Are you evolving from making films about raw experience to making films about films?

JS: I don’t think so. I think with “Drinking Buddies”

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we needed something to raise money for it because there was no script. And we were asking for more money than we had ever asked for. And the romantic comedy template was a way to talk about it that made sense. And also the two big movies that were inspirational for this were “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969)

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and “The Heartbreak Kid” by Elaine May. I considered both of those romantic comedies so they sort of existed before the genre became cemented as sort of the lame thing it is now but it was helpful to have a template. I was nervous going into this one. I knew it would be a different kind of challenge and it was useful to have some signposts along the way in terms of structure and characters and narrative. But since I did drinking buddies I did another really small movie that I hot mostly at my house with a crew of five again I’ll bounce back and forth.

PK: Which one is that?

JS: It’s called “Happy Christmas.”  Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey star in it, and Mark Weber and Lena Dunham…

PK: Just having a couple of friends over.

JS: Yeah I’m having this weird experience where my friends are getting famous now. I don’t know what to do about that if you want to keep working with your friends.

PK: I guess Greta Gerwig is probably too expensive to work with now.

JS: Probably.

PK: What was the budget on “Drinking Buddies?”

JS: It was about a half million dollars.

PK: So it was the most…

JS: By a lot. Ten times more than what “Hannah Takes the Stairs” cost and I don’t think any of the others cost more than that.

PK: Did you have to pay more for the actors?

JS: Ironically the actors in “Hannah Takes the Stairs” probably cost the same as those in drinking buddies which was $100 scale. These actors probably lost money making “Drinking Buddies” because they had publicists; their lives cost money.

PK: Recently Steven Spielberg made a statement to the effect that blockbusters are imploding.  Is that good news for you?

JS: Simultaneously [Steven] Soderbergh had that San Francisco thing in which he said that Hollywood is the only trickle-down theory that works. When the studios are doing really well everyone is doing really well. Those are conflicting reports. But the movie industry is doing great right now. It’s just the big blockbusters that aren’t doing well. They’re making huge profits – every year is better than the previous year. It’s exciting to me that a movie like “Pain & Gain” which cost around $25 million did well and that a $250 million movie completely tanked. Those to me are healthy messages for Hollywood to be receiving – that if you take more risk and spread it around a little bit it might take a little longer but you can make the same money. Stuff like “The Purge,” which cost $2 million and made a ton of money. That’s really exciting. I think what we’re discovering is just about marketing. The movie itseldoesn’t have to cost practically anything if you make a cool poster and trailer. That’s a little discouraging, but it means that if the studios really got behind a movie like “Drinking Buddies” and they committed to spending $30 million for promoting it they could probably make that money back. Right now they’re choosing not to do that. Definitely not.

PK: There’s no sex or nudity to speak of. Is that a first for you?

JS: Maybe. No, I did this movie “Marriage Material” (2012) that doesn’t have any. It’s just about two people babysitting a kid. I’ve made a few that are pretty PG-rated. But it just didn’t feel like it needed any. I think the actors would have been fine in going there but whenever I thought about the movie I just never – putting a sex scene in would have been distracting from the stuff I was interested in, but that’s also something I’ll probably bounce back and forth on. I have strong political beliefs that our culture is way to puritanical and these images are good for us to see. It would be good to go to the movies and see real human bodies on the screen. Not perfectly airbrushed but also not this attitude that sex is a taboo subject and not a normal, healthy part of our lives. Those are the things that annoy me. And if I care to change that I have to do something about it. I can’t just do interviews and bitch about no realistic sex in movies. I’m in the position to do something about it.

PK: Are you going to make more big movies?

JS: It seems like that’s in the realm of possibility. A lot of that will depend on whether any of these make any money. That’s always the easiest route to access that stuff. I’ve been out to LA a couple of times the last few months and having meetings. I’m reading a lot of scripts to see if there’s something somebody else wrote that I might like.  I’m certainly open to it. I’d love to find scripts that I really like that I can just jump on.

PK: Maybe the next James bond?

JS: I’m real curious about how those movies even get made. It’s such a mystery. Those big budget action movies are a complete mystery to me what the directors are doing all day long. I have no idea. Making decisions probably.

PK: Would you be interested in that challenge?

JS: Yeah. Definitely. I’m open to everything. I used to be so closed off. It’s part of that bratty punk rock attitude I was talking about. When I was hardly open to anything. Now I feel I would be open to that challenge. Just to do it. Why not? Life is short.

PK: Maybe take on a different genre?

JS: I would. Those become tools that you can put in your tool box if you know how to direct a car chase scene or a musical number. I’m interested in being as good at directing as I can possibly get. To do that is to try these different things. So I have a renewed interest in putting myself in those positions to potentially fail but to hopefully learn.

PK: I never knew Camus was a good way to pick up women

JS: Try it some time.

PK: It’s too late for me.

JS: Ron [Livingston, as the character Chris, who alludes to “The Stranger” while wooing Anna Kendrick’s Jill] beat you to it.

PK: Chris was the most mysterious guy. [SPOILER]  He just kind of disappeared and you don’t really know what happened. There are a lot of ellipses.

JS: That’s the stuff I respond to. A lot of that is probably the Maurice Pialat influence. The way he cuts and deals with time in his movies was hugely inspirational to me when I first started making stuff. There was a retrospective in Chicago where I saw, like, seven or eight of his movies back to back. Like in “À nos amour” (1983)  Sandrine Bonnaire’s character says, “I’m going off to boarding school for six months!”  And in the next scene she’s back talking about it. That’s six months passed in one edit. She runs into a girl in a store who says, “How was boarding school?” and she says, “Oh, it was okay.” I think that’s awesome. A beautiful way to deal with time and solve these problems. So I’ve got that running through my head and also just a real strong desire that the audience doesn’t need all the information. Sometimes it’s helpful not to give them everything so there’s room to spend some time in the movie.

PK: When will we see “Christmas Movie?” And what’s after that??

JS: I’m editing now. So hopefully it will be playing at the festivals next year. It’s a little open right now. I have a few projects that I may or may not get to make. They are sort of within the industry. It’s not going to be up to me. But the success of “Drinking Buddies” will help.

PK: Is the term “mumblecore” now acceptable?

JS: I think it’s impossible to avoid at this point. I think the word is here to stay. I can either spend the rest of my life calling it the “m” word or I can just embrace it. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Plus I happen to like the other filmmakers who are associated with it. It’s not an insult to me to be grouped in with really talented filmmakers.

PK: Is there a unifying thread to the filmmakers referred to with that term?

JS: My guess, and this might sound grandiose, my guess is that the lasting influence will be performance based. Most of us as directors acted in our own stuff or each other’s movies and I think it led to a much different approach to performance. I think it wasn’t an acting school approach. It was very much rooted in a close analysis of behavior and an attempt not to act. I’m seeing its effects. And I’m seeing that the actors like Greta and Mark Duplass and now Lena Dunham and other people who came out of that world – that performance style has really connected these people. It feels different and it feels exciting. Whether the movies get remembered or not and whether there’s any lasting impact of the style, the stripped-down bare style of mumblecore, I have no idea. I certainly suspect that some actors will come out of that world that will be really big important actors who will influence kids who are young now who are starting to get into movies.

Big Brother and Don’t Bother: “Closed Circuit” and “Getaway”

Alfred Hitchcock would have loved today’s surveillance state and the ongoing war against terror, with the endless opportunities for exploring voyeurism, treachery, paranoia, and the predicament of innocent bystanders caught up in conspiracies beyond their control and comprehension. But in lieu of his genius, director John Crowley (“Boy A”) and screenwriter Steven Knight (whose screenplay for David Cronenberg’s 2007 masterpiece “Eastern Promises” was a lot better) and their “Closed Circuit” will have to do. And it looks positively Hitchcockian compared to that third rate video game that passes for a movie, “Getaway.”

Crowley’s fitfully engrossing but mostly routine espionage thriller shows promise at first, opening, as befits the title, with multiplying rows of closed circuit TV screens showing a busy London marketplace. Then there’s a flash and all goes dark. Those of us in Boston a few months after the Marathon bombing can only grit our teeth.

Over a hundred people are killed in the attack, and the authorities have in custody Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), a Turkish immigrant whom they believe is the only surviving perpetrator.

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But after Erdogan’s court-appointed defense lawyer commits suicide by jumping off a roof (sure he did; this is a film in which the audience is always at least two moves ahead of the characters on screen), barrister Martin Rose (Eric Bana) is asked to take his place.

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One look at Rose’s unshaven, hung-over face, his suit looking like he’s had it on since the night before, and it’s clear he wasn’t picked for his legal-eagleness. As is disclosed through wispy flashbacks and exposition-heavy dialogue, he’s still recovering from a divorce and a messy custody battle for his teenaged son. And making matters worse, who should be his partner in the trial but Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall),

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his ex-lover and the “other woman” in his marriage break-up? Well, the film needs a little spice as a diversion from its implausible, predictable plot.

Perhaps in order to mirror the multiple surveillance camera screens of the opening, a motif repeated throughout the film, Crowley favors parallel editing, intercutting bits of two or three or more simultaneous, ongoing events. Unfortunately, the resulting narrative unfolds as randomly as those closed circuit broadcasts. In it Rose and Simmons-Howe ignore not-so-subtle warnings and investigate inconsistencies in the official story.

To no one’s surprise but their own, they discover that nothing is what it seems – though it would appear from the get-go that Jim Broadbent’s bemusedly sinister Attorney General

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isn’t on the up-and-up. The usual suspect, MI-5, Britain’s equivalent of the CIA, is to blame. Cornered, a member of the agency whines, “You want the freedom to attack me but without me you wouldn’t have any freedom at all!”

That old story. A word about MI-5, at least as depicted in this film: what’s wrong with these guys? Maybe after watching Jason Bourne handle battalions of assassins with just his bare hands, a book of matches, and an aerosol can, we’ve gotten spoiled. Yet how is it that these agents can be foiled by a bureaucrat armed with a water glass, and a kid with a hair drier? Are they just incompetent, or too paralyzed by moral fine points to get the job done? Anyone who has watched the BBC TV series “MI-5” would expect better – this film would rank as one of its lesser episodes.

Nonetheless, when it comes to recent films about the inexorable intrusion of Big Brother into our lives, “Closed Circuit” runs circles around “Getaway,” a film that is quite content to run circles around itself. It’s Christmas in Sofia, Bulgaria, a city known apparently for its cheapness as a movie location and, judging from the film, its inept police force. Haggard, washed-up racecar driver Brent Magna (an anagram of “Bran Magnet,” among other things), played by a haggard Ethan Hawke, who will be washed up as a credible actor if he keeps taking on pictures like this one and “The Purge,” returns home from whatever work an American ex-race car driver does in Bulgaria, to find his house ransacked and his wife missing. A phone call from “the Voice” informs him that unless he performs certain dangerous, illegal, and uninspired assignments not only will his wife be killed, but he will keep pestering him with his nagging, hectoring phone calls.

First on the agenda is stealing an armored super muscle car, a Ford Shelby GT500 Super Snake to give credit to the product placement that may be the sole reason for the movie’s existence. This he accomplishes, but as collateral damage he takes on an unwanted passenger, “the Girl” (Selena Gomez).

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She proves to be the backseat driver from hell – the bickering of this pair recalls Hawke’s spats with Julie Delpy in “Before Midnight,”

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except with more property damage, small arms fire, explosions, and panic-stricken Bulgarian Christmas shoppers.

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“The Girl”  screams, asks dumb questions, and offers useless advice as Magna performs the tasks demanded by the Voice, which mostly consist of what seems a repeated, horribly shot and scattergun-edited loop of the same car chase in which Sofia police squad cars crash and roll over like latter-day Keystone Cops.

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Sadly, there is an explanation for this punishing, repetitive chaos. It lies in the identity of the foreign-accented Voice, who sounds a bit like the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis ads (“Stay thirsty, my friend”).

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[SPOILER] Played by Jon Voight, he is apparently that other bête noir of paranoid conspiracy theories, the billionaire tycoon whose cupidity is mixed with a playful bit of sadism. So between the ruthless omniscience of the intelligence community and the inescapable omnipotence of the super-rich, we’re pretty much screwed. I just wish someone would make a decent movie about it.

Upwardly mobile

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Remember the 99%? Hollywood does, sort of. Two very different studio releases – “Elysium” (which opens today) and “Paranoia” (opens  August  16) – revisit the oh-so-2011 issue of economic and political inequality, and explore the possibility of returning power to the people..

But first of all, what is it with these big-name, presumably fully-coiffed actors playing it bald in their latest movies? Harrison Ford in “Paranoia”

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and Matt Damon in “Elysium”

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both sport the skin-head look. Just wondering, but in addition to this superficial similarity (or is it so superficial?), the two films have a lot in common.

In the tradition of movie dystopias going back to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) and even H.G. Wells’s novel “The Time Machine” (1895) – or, more recently, the ambitious but silly 2012 allegory “Upside Down” – the world in Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” has taken the upstairs/downstairs arrangement to extremes.

In the year 2154, the planet has gone to pot, poisoned by pollution, wracked by crime, poverty and disease, and monitored by a brutal police force of Robocop-like automata.

But if you’re one of the lucky few to be a citizen of the title space station, an orbiting Garden of Eden featuring unlimited luxury, eternal youth, with piped-in classical Muzak and unflattering, monotone pant suits,

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who cares? But the surface does provide the parasitic Elysium with the raw materials and labor that keeps the good life going, and there’s also the pesky problem of shuttle-borne illegals sneaking in through the tight security, so Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster with an inexplicable, affected, plummy accent) keeps herself busy maintaining draconian order.

Meanwhile, back on earth in a future LA

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that makes the city in “Blade Runner” look like Beverly Hills (actually, it’s a CGI-souped-up Mexico City; as is also evident in his “District 9,” if there’s one thing Blomkamp is good at, it’s futuristic grubbiness and squalor), lumpen laborer Max (a bald Matt Damon) is enjoying  the fruits of over a century of government deregulation and is working in a factory under subhuman conditions. In an ironic touch, he works at an assembly line building the same robotic police robots that had broken his arm in a preceding scene. But an accident irradiates hum lethally, and he’s told he has six days to live, is given some pills, and is sent home.

Now one of the big draws of Elysium is that citizens have access to a device that can heal everything (it looks like a tanning bed); the place combines Obamacare with the miracle cures of Lourdes. So in order to save his life, Max must somehow gain entry into Elysium and get into one of the healing machines. This involves working with the quasi-revolutionary human trafficker Spider (a hyped-up Wagner Morra) who has him fitted with a mechanical exo-skeleton that combines the power of Iron Man’s armor with the excruciatingly application suffered by Wolverine for his adamantium implants.

It turns out a bad guy has the same outfit, and the last hour of the movie consists of the kind of rock-em, sock-em action seen in about a dozen films this summer.

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So by the end I don’t think too many people will be pondering the future of class conflict, nor will the filmmakers after raking in an estimated $35 million opening weekend box office.

A more down-to-earth version of the same scenario, “Paranoia,” adapted by Robert Luketic from Joseph Finder’s 2004 novel, investigates solutions to economic disparity that are less drastic than crashing space shuttles into utopian real estate or blowing people to smithereens (another of Blomkamp’s talents – graphic displays of the effect explosives have on the human body).

At an Apple-like corporation, the loathsome mogul Nicholas Wyatt (Gary Oldman at his malice-oozing best) cans a bunch of 20-something  employees after Adam Cassidy (Liam Helmsworth), their spokesperson, gets mouthy at a pitch session. Pissed off that his generation has been disenfranchise dfrom the American Dream by a bunch of old fogies , Adam does something indiscreet, gets caught, and is extorted by Wyatt into infiltrating his rival Jock Goddard’s (a bald Harrison Ford) company and stealing their secrets.

So instead of donning a pumped up  exoskeleton and taking a shuttle to the promised land, Adam puts on an Armani power suit and drives a Porsche, infiltrates the inner circle of power, gets a taste of it, and faces some tough moral – and political – choices while sampling fine wine and the charms of his thoroughbred co-worker, Emma Jennings (Amber Heard). 

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Among those films that “Paranoia” probably will be compared to (in addition to “Elysium,” though I think that I am, so far, alone in that). Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987) offers some of the more interesting parallels. Indeed, when I recently interviewed Finder, the author of the book, he said that he had deliberately imitated elements of that film, but with key changes.

In particular, the father: in “Wall Street” the aspiring financial buccaneer played by Charlie Sheen has a broken-down working class dad (played by Martin Sheen) who is a font of wisdom and moral clarity. In Finder’s book, however, Adam’s broken down working class father is a total prick, an abusive monster dying of emphysema. You want to hand Adam a pillow and say, “Do it quickly.”

But in the movie, dad is again the font of wisdom, advising Adam about the right thing to do, and let’s say it doesn’t involve armed rebellion against the oppressive ruling class.

Which brings up another difference between the book and the movie, a change that may be attributed to the economic turmoil of the years since the book’s publication in 2004, in particular the financial meltdown and the abortive Occupy movement. Finder’s Adam is a cynical loner out to help himself. In the movie, though, he represents a generation of young people who want access to the same rewards of the system as their stingy elders. In other words, the system is fine, as long as we get included in it, too.

That’s my take, anyway. I’m still working on what the deal is with the bald guys.

–Peter Keough

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

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

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

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.


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.






“Song” and dance


I liked “Unfinished Song”

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more than “Amour.”

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There: I’ve said it.

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

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

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for my friend, Lloyd Schwartz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Peter Keough