Monday, April 26, 2010


Vincere is a magnificently melancholy metaphor of a movie. A poetic examination of Italy’s love affair with Benito Mussolini and his brand of Fascism, it refracts that story through the prism of Il Duce’s relationship with the woman who bore his first child and claimed to be his wife – a claim he denied.

As the movie begins, Mussolini (Filippo Timi) is a firebrand of a young journalist. He doesn’t quite know what he’s for yet, but he’s against almost everything: the king, the Pope, even God himself. As he mesmerizes the audience at a debate where he’s arguing that there is no God, the camera picks up the rapt face and shining eyes of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno.)

The two are soon locked together like magnets. Ida leans into his kisses as if she’s dying of thirst and his mouth is a fountain, but his interest in her seems to be all about control and domination. Even when he takes to the street with his Socialist comrades to demand peace and justice, he sounds ferocious, bellowing until his neck turns ropy.

Their affair doesn’t last too long (no one knows just why it ended, and the movie leaves the details vague), but Dalser refuses to give up. Even after Mussolini takes up with another woman, eventually marrying her and claiming her publicly as his wife, Dalser insists that she is his wife and their son is his legitimate heir. When she starts writing letters to the pope and all the politicians she can think of, calling on them to pressure Mussolini to do the right thing by herself and her son, she is put under close surveillance and then confined in a mental hospital. Her son is then kidnapped from the sister she had appointed his guardian and given into the care of a Fascist bureaucrat who leaves him in a Catholic boarding school where we see him only on holidays, the only student there.

Mother and son pine away in parallel isolation, forbidden to see one another. (Playing the son as a young man, Timi creates a distorted-mirror image of the father, a discarded and damaged man who’s both pitiful and terrible.) Their very existence is denied by Il Duce, who has by then become the dictator of a mostly all-too-willing Italy. He seduces the populace as confidently as he seduces his women, enveloping them in an orgiastic atmosphere of nationalism and brutality before plunging the country into WWII as Hitler’s ally.

Writer-director Marco Bellocchio, who has served as a member of the Venice Film Festival jury, creates an impressionistic crescendo of emotion by layering together a series of densely textured, often nonlinear moments. He and cinematographer Daniele Ciprì draw us into a scene by focusing on tangible, often sensuous details. In one scene, Balser’s catchlit eyes, marcelled hair, and satin nightdress gleam in a dimly lit room as she succumbs to Mussolini . In another, she strides across a field to press her case with one of Mussolini’s trusted aides, then stops to put on dress shoes with busy, nervous hands.

There are many movies within this movie, attesting to the power of the image and to Mussolini’s canny use of propaganda. In newsreel footage from the time, we see the real Mussolini speechifying and playing with a lion cub, a trick he used to show off his courage. It’s fascinating to see the real Mussolini, but hard to imagine this stiff, obviously self-satisfied bully being as successful as seducer as the much more elastic and charismatic – and much better-looking – Timi.

The beautifully composed green- and blue-tinged images shot for the movie, along with its military score, create a tone of somber significance, while its frequent use of medium and long shots places its characters in context and makes their actions vivid. In one dreamlike setup, gunshots sound and smoke billows into a high-arched ancient walkway as people run first toward the camera and then away from it. Then Dalser emerges from the smoke, walking calmly toward us with her baby carriage. In that scene and several others characters are shown in silhouette or with faces obscured, amping up the drama even further.

We experience everything intensely, but we often don’t know what we’re seeing. In the scene in the arched walkway, for instance, we don’t know who’s running from the cops or just what they’re demanding or protesting.

Rather than detract from the power of the movie, however, that uncertainty enriches it, driving home Vincere’s message by example. Letting their emotions get whipped up for a poorly understood cause was what got Italians in trouble during the Fascist era, and her blind devotion to the lover who seduced and abandoned her was Dalser’s ultimate downfall.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


In an essay about violence in the movies in last Saturday’s New York Times, A. O. Scott clucks about the carnage in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Kick-Ass. “We will, I suppose, each find our own limits and draw our own boundaries, but it may also be time to articulate those and say when enough is enough,” he says.

I’d go along with that. What I don’t understand is why so many people are drawing the line at this little wink of a movie.

Deciding how much violence is too much is not an easy line to draw. It falls in different places for different people – and it can move. Personally, I hate movies that exist just to rub our faces in scenes of extreme and realistic-looking mayhem, or that present war or gore as the solution to a problem. But I can take a lot of violence if it’s abstracted enough not to feel real, or if it’s used to tell a story about something deeper than the shock and awe of torture porn. That’s why I love most of Quentin Tarantino’s gorgeous, word-drunk movies. For me, they’re about the pleasure of marinating in an expertly executed genre story in the company of memorable characters. Well, yeah, some of those characters kill people, in elaborately choreographed torture sessions and death matches that are staged for our entertainment. But what really interests Tarantino, I think, is why his characters do what they do. His movies don’t exploit violence; they explore it.

The same goes does Kick-Ass, though it’s jokier and less stylish than Tarantino’s stuff.

Born of a comic book, Kick-Ass touches on our worship of cartoonish violence and revenge fantasies, with a pointedly light tone and level of analysis. At first glance, there’s nothing new about this tale of organized crime-fighting superheroes in New York City, aside from the fact that it stars an 11-year-old girl superhero. Whether or not you like the movie will probably depend largely on whether you find Hit Girl (the excellent Chloe Moretz) refreshing or shocking. A lot of people were offended by seeing a girl that young using such salty language and perpetrating and enduring such extreme violence. Some are also concerned about the 13-year-old actress who played her.

To me, it seems naïve at best, and possibly paternalistic, to protest the corruption of Hit Girl’s innocence when our culture routinely exposes girls of that age and younger to much rougher stuff. Kids these days have a lot to deal with, and cartoonish revenge fantasies are probably a very effective way to deal with some of it. And it’s about time the superhero boys’ club started admitting girls, if you ask me.

But Hit Girl isn’t the only thing that makes this story stand out. As he did in Stardust, cowriter and director Matthew Vaughn spices up a straightforward fantasy a little bit by commenting on it, giving it enough self-awareness so media-savvy 21st-century kids won’t find it too corny. This time, he and his cowriters (Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr. wrote the comic and Jane Goldman cowrote the screenplay) create a meta-fantasy by telling Hit Girl’s story through the lens of a regular guy who aspires to do what she does.

Dave Lizewski (a likeably self-effacing Aaron Johnson) is a better-than-average-looking but otherwise unremarkable high school student. He longs to be a superhero, although, as he laments in a nicely written voiceover, his only superpower is “being invisible to girls.” He goes for it anyway, mail-ordering a dorky-looking jumpsuit and mask to become Kick-Ass, a self-made capeless crusader.

Kick-Ass gets a serious beat-down on his first outing, but on his second he saves a stranger from a gang. His awkward battle is captured on cell phone video, making him “the latest Internet phenomenon” – and bringing him to the attention of Hit Girl and her father/trainer, Big Daddy (a surprisingly restrained Nicolas Cage), who enlist him as an ally.

A fanatical pair of self-taught vigilantes with a fantastic arsenal of weapons, Hit Girl and Big Daddy can do incredible things, although they don’t actually have any super powers. We’ve heard that story before, of course, in Batman. In fact, most of what happens in Kick-Ass feels deeply familiar, a fact the movie cheerfully acknowledges with winks like Big Daddy’s Batman-ish superhero getup, Dave’s Taxi Driver-esque practice moves in front of the mirror, a slow-mo shot of two guys running out of a blazing building, and too many nick-of-time saves to count. There’s even a nod to the murderous schoolgirl in Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

But watching a regular guy struggle to make it as a superhero while a little girl goes in for the kill gives Kick-Ass enough kick to make it worth seeing.

If you like this kind of thing, that is.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Muhammad and Albert

I just saw a kick-ass double dose of docs about Muhammad Ali (to be fair, one was also about Larry Holmes, who seems like a very decent guy, and understandably peeved at having lived his life in Ali's shadow) at Harlem's Maysles Cinema. The first, Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, is a visual knockout by the gifted photographer/filmmaker William Klein, who filmed extreme close-ups with a wide-angle lens to crowd his frame with telling details, then punctuated those kinetic scenes with iconic images of America in the '60s and '70s.

The second one, Muhammad and Larry, was harder to watch, since it traces the beginning of Ali's decline and his defeat at the hands of his friend Holmes. It's a sensitive and moving look at the two fighters, supplementing 1980 footage shot by Albert Maysles (yes, it's that Maysles) and his brother David with contemporary interviews shot by Albert and Bradley Kaplan. The film was made for ESPN's 30 for 30 series.

The movies also sparked an interesting conversation between the audience and Maysles, Kaplan, and Laura Coxson, who produced Muhammad and Larry (that's her with Albert Maysles in the photograph above.) But I'm burying the lead.

Probably the best part of the evening for me was getting to chat with Maysles before he screened his movie, then hearing him talk about his humanist, unpretentious way of making documentaries during the Q and A. It's easy to see why he's put so many subjects at ease in his documentaries: he's a warm, approachable man who radiates kindly interest in whoever's in front of him.

I got some of what he said on my cell phone video camera, so you can see for yourself. You might have a little trouble hearing, though, since I was sitting a few rows back when I shot it and his voice is low. So turn up the volume -- or, better yet, use your headphones.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Green Zone

My husband and I have a running disagreement about the movies. Not which ones to go to or what we think about them, so much: just how to order tickets. He always wants to get them online in advance to make sure we get a seat; I almost always want to save a couple bucks by buying when we get there.

But when I went to Green Zone with a friend a couple weeks back, I ordered my ticket ahead of time. Surely the combination of Matt Damon as an action hero and director Paul Greengrass’ frenetic intensity, not to mention the topical subject matter, would bring people to this barely fictionalized story of how we got into Iraq, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Tumbleweeds were pretty much rolling down the aisles of the theater, though the movie had been open for less than two weeks and we went to an after-work showing in a centrally located Manhattan theater.

Conventional wisdom has been saying for a while that American audiences aren’t ready for a movie about our occupation of Iraq. As proof, people point to the lousy box office for other studio films with big-name directors or stars or screenwriters, like In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, and The Messenger. But I thought all those movies were too preachy and sanctimonious.

That assumption about why people shunned those movies reminds me of the one you often hear about how a certain star can make a movie a hit. I always wonder how the people who make those pronouncements can know what audiences are reacting to. It seems to me most of us decide what to see based partly on the cast, but we won’t see a movie we don’t think we’ll like just because it stars someone we like, and we won’t stay away from a good one just because we don’t know who’s in it. Was Spider-Man a hit because of Tobey Maguire or because Sam Raimi makes kick-ass genre movies – and maybe because the blue-collar hero and evil-businessman villain resonated for audiences after our economy went south? Unless you do a whole lot of exit interviews, I don’t see how you can really know, so I wondered if people were just exercising good taste when they stayed away from the Iraq features.

But audiences treated the unpretentiously affecting Stop Loss and The Hurt Locker, an astonishingly good movie, like redheaded stepchildren (though the Oscars saved Hurt Locker from oblivion). And then there was that wind whistling through the empty seats when I saw Green Zone, another fine movie that deserves – maybe even needs – to be seen.

So now I have to wonder: why aren’t people going to these movies?

Like the second and third Bourne movies, which were also directed by Greengrass and starred Damon, Green Zone is a current events lesson dressed up as a breakneck thriller. The history lesson was buried deep enough in the Bourne trilogy to be pretty generally ignored, which may explain its popularity. Even during the Abu Ghraib scandal, the reviews said surprisingly little about the realism and relevance of the movies’ depiction of CIA indoctrination, undercover ops, and torture. But there’s no way to miss the politics this time around.

Green Zone is based on based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a history of life inside Baghdad’s Green Zone in the months after the invasion, and of the ideological battles fought in the early part of the occupation over how to reconstruct Iraq. It also looks at how the U.S. fabricated reports about weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion. Greengrass focuses mainly on that deception, using Damon’s character – Roy Miller, an upright Army officer in charge of finding WMDs shortly after the invasion – to trace the story and bring home the human cost of the Bush Administration’s head fake.

After leading his men into danger at suspected WMD sites several times and finding nothing, Miller embarks on a rogue investigation that leads him to one of Saddam’s generals, into a hellish American interrogation center, and down a lot of scary streets and alleys with shaky hand-held cameras, suspenseful cross-cutting, and breakneck chases adding to the almost constant sense of instability and urgency.

This time the CIA is the good guy, the one American agency with an understanding of the area’s history and politics and a realistic plan for rebuilding it. But the arrogant ideologues in charge don’t want to hear the facts. This leads to a three-way battle, with nearly as much distance between the two American factions as between the U.S. and Iraq.

The movie starts on March 19, 2003, with the “shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad. This time, though, we see it from the Iraqi point of view, so there’s no danger of mistaking those bombs for distant fireworks. The Iraqi point of view continues to get plenty of screen time, partly through the character of Freddie, a local patriot who volunteers to help the Americans, despite his frequent frustration and anger at their treatment of him and his country.

The fictionalized versions of U.S. puppet/puppetmaster Ahmed Chalabi and the smug bureaucrat played by Greg Kinnear, an amalgamation of Donald Rumsfeld and the ideologues in charge of the Green Zone, have real bite, though the reporter played by Amy Ryan is a much kinder and gentler version of New York Times reporter and misinformation mouthpiece Judith Miller, who never seemed to be as wracked by conscience and self-doubt or as bent on uncovering the truth as this character is throughout the movie.

Green Zone also flatters the American military – surely if they were this good at tracking people in Iraq, they would have found Saddam and his generals and Imperial Guard a lot sooner. But its recreation of the streets of Baghdad generates a sense of danger and deterioration strong enough to make the party scene by the pool in the Green Zone feel appropriately surreal and insulated from reality.

I loved the ferocity with which this movie pursues the truth, and its touching, almost naïve belief in its importance. When the Kinnear character says it no longer matters whether there were WMDs, Miller explodes. “Of course it matters,” he says. “The reasons we go to war always matter. It’s all that matters!”

Maybe most people don’t feel that way. Maybe there are still a lot of people who think there were WMDs that just never got found. Or maybe it’s just that most people don’t go to the movies to get worked up over something as depressing as the war in Iraq.

I don’t know, but I do know Green Zone only made about $33 million in U.S. theaters by April 4, and it cost about three times that much to make. So whatever those empty seats are saying, it looks like they’ll have the last word.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Date Night

Not great but not half bad, Date Night is a soothingly predictable fable about the appeal of predictability.

This is one of those movies where nice middle-class people from the suburbs or a small town get jolted out of a comfortable routine when they fall into an adventure, usually in a big city. This time around, as is often the case, the main characters are a married couple who need to add a little spice to a marriage grown bland.

It’s no wonder so many of us love these movies so much. They provide thrills by pretending to celebrate change and adventure, but their moral is always the same audience-flattering message. As Dorothy put it, in perhaps the most famous of all the involuntary adventure movies: “There’s no place like home.”

Date Night starts well by giving us Steve Carell and Tina Fey as Phil and Claire Foster of Teaneck, New Jersey. Their home is a combat zone, between the two kids cannonballing onto their bed and the drawers Phil keeps leaving open for Claire to bang into, a recurring theme that stands for all the little things he does that drive her nuts.

But the two really love – and like – each other. We like them, too, and believe in their chemistry, since Carell and Fey both bring genuine warmth, self-mocking humor, and an appealingly low-key, low-drama brand of sanity to their roles. These two seem like real grown-ups, an endangered species in Hollywood movies – especially comedies – these days.

Josh Klausner’s so-so script and Shawn Levy’s equally uninspired direction don’t give the actors much to work with, so they have to manufacture almost all their own appeal and romantic wistfulness. If the outtakes at the end are typical of what happened on the set, they improvised a lot of their lines too. That’s not a bad way to go when you’re working with comic talents like the two leads, not to mention supporting players like Kristen Wiig and J.B. Smoove, but the results are too often slack, delivering half-funny lines or one of those moments where someone says something that was meant to be funny but doesn’t quite come out right and then laughs at the wrongness of it. I like sharing that kind of laugh with a friend, but I expect a little more from a romantic comedy.

Some of the physical humor is half-baked, too. A pole dance by the Fosters that’s supposed to be an uproarious set piece, for instance, is awkward enough to be genuinely painful to watch.

A pole dance? I guess you need a little plot so you know how they got there. But not too much, since the plot is never the point in these movies.

Claire and Phil are about to go to a movie for their weekly date night when, spooked by the news that some good friends are getting divorced, they decide to splurge on a trendy Manhattan restaurant instead.

Sent to purgatory at the bar (the filmmakers get in some good digs at the snotty staff), they get a table by poaching the reservation of another couple who didn’t show up. But that couple turns out to be hoarding something that some bad guys want. Before they can even finish their truffle risotto, the Fosters find themselves on the run, dodging guys with guns while figuring out what’s going on and how to get out of this mess alive. Meanwhile, they encounter the requisite characters and make a few pit stops to discuss and revive their relationship.

There’s some mildly funny stuff about a bare-chested Mark Wahlberg (the men who encounter him keep trying to get him to put on a shirt, while the women keep admiring the view) and a lively scene with James Franco and Mila Kunis as the couple whose reservation the Fosters took, which gives the movie a welcome jolt of genuine unpredictability and manic energy.

Now and then the Fosters waken the ghosts of old romantic comedies that make this one feel pretty anemic, like when Phil and Claire invent dialogue for strangers in a restaurant, a low-rent version of a brilliant bit by Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, or when Claire offers up a pale variation on the famous line about Ginger Rogers, telling Phil: “Everything you’re doing, I’m doing in heels.”

But in the end, the actors’ charm and the appeal of the genre carry us to shore on a warm wave of goodwill. If the Fosters had gone to a movie as planned on their date night, they could have happily seen one just like this. It would have given them a few laughs and made them feel good about their marriage, and what’s not to like about that?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Salander, the title character in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a heroine for the 21st century. A computer hacker with a near-impenetrable set of defenses, she’s also a survivor and an implacable avenger of sadistic abuse, as humorlessly single-minded as Christian Bales’ Batman and almost as freakishly gifted.

Salander’s gift is research, and she has a photographic memory and a knack for seeing patterns that most people miss. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist, the novel’s main character, speculates that she may even have Asperger’s syndrome, that very 21st-century neurological condition.

Salander’s thirst for justice and constitutional inability to be the least bit ingratiating – not to mention her talent for kicking ass – make her a deeply satisfying modern heroine, especially for a novel whose subject is the vicious brutalization of women (its original Swedish title translates to Men Who Hate Women.) So it’s too bad the movie version sands down her edges, zooming in to reveal soft eyes behind her night-black curtain of hair. Noomi Rapace looks the part as Salander, but she leans too hard on the girl’s uncertainty, making her toughness seem like a brittle shield rather than a thick carapace.

Besides being an indictment of misogyny, Larsson’s enormously popular Millennium trilogy, which starts with Dragon Tattoo, also speaks to the times with its anti-corporate fervor, though its touching faith in investigative journalism feels a little retro. (Larsson, who died recently, was a journalist and political activist who did a lot to uncover racist and right-wing organizations in Sweden.) The series is named for the fictional magazine where Blomkvist is publisher, part owner, and principal investigative reporter, and one of two main subplots in the book version of Dragon Tattoo concerns a corrupt financier Blomkvist is trying to nail in print and the magazine’s struggle to survive after the financier sues Blomkvist for libel and wins.

Larsson has a healthy respect for technology (his books single out so many computers and programs for praise you’d think he was on Apple’s payroll) coupled with an old-school, near-religious appreciation of research. Dragon Tattoo contains countless scenes of people pecking away at computers or conducting interviews to search for clues – and holds our interest in the process. Some of the most dramatic sequences in the film involve poring through files in an archive or piecing together still photos from a newspaper morgue to recreate events from years past.

Director Niels Arden Oplev and screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg cut out almost all of the magazine’s internal politics and most of the details about the financier, bringing the other main story center stage. Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger, the aged head of a once-powerful company and the family that runs it, to find out what happened to his favorite niece, who disappeared decades ago. He thinks she was murdered by someone in the family, but who? The Vanger family is a viper’s nest of ruthless industrialists. Between them, they exhibit nearly every odious trait imaginable -- some are even Nazis. For a while, it looks as if Dragon Tattoo is going to turn into one of those Agatha Christie mysteries where the detective goes through a group of people in an isolated place until he finds the killer, as Blomkvist moves into a family-owned house in a small town in northern Sweden and starts digging for clues, hiring Salander to help. But Larsson goes places Dame Christie would never have dreamed of.

The filmmakers always let us know where we are without tipping us off to what’s coming next, and they hug close to the curves of the original story as they condense nearly 600 pages of often complicated storytelling into one smooth-flowing, two-and-a-half-hour movie.. But some of their elisions make the characters less complex and well-rounded. The Swedish sexual politics of the original become more Puritanical in the movie, which erases Blomkvist’s affairs with both the married editor of Millennium and Henrik Vanger’s niece Cecilia. The movie whites out the daughter to whom he is a laissez-faire absentee father, and it makes Lisbeth a more conventional heroine, less emotionally inaccessible and more omniscient.

The movie also sentimentalizes a key scene that the book underplays nicely – making a soap opera of what happens after Mikael learns what happened to Harriet. Still, it faces up to violence against women unflinchingly – enough so that it’s often hard to watch.

So if you want this story straight, get the book – but that doesn’t mean the movie’s not worth watching.