Mutant Mayhem: X-Men

X-Men movie poster

 

On a whim, this Dork Reporter decided to rewatch X-Men and found it surprisingly good, even better than I remembered from my first viewing almost 10 years ago. I used to be a comics fan, and read most of Chris Claremont and John Romita Jr.‘s lengthy run on The Uncanny X-Men series in the mid-80s. Even though I had long since stopped reading comics regularly by the time the movie was announced in 2000, I recall being convinced there was no way a live-action X-Men movie could not be a ridiculous folly. But I went to see it partly out of morbid curiosity and partly out of a sense of duty as an ex-fan (see what I did there?). As it turned out, writer David Hayter and director Bryan Singer’s expert adaptation of the Marvel Comics source material turned out more fun, clever, and exciting than it had any right to be. Most welcome of all, it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny (in a good way), a key ingredient unfortunately lacking in the mostly humorless (but still pretty good) sequel X2: X-Men United (2003).

Hayter and Singer managed to dig up every ounce of subtext baked into the X-Men mythos by original writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. At its heart, the X-Men series was essentially a neverending sci-fi soap opera with a noble moral of progressive social awareness. The weirdo superheroes that make up The X-Men are “mutants,” born of human parents but with superhuman powers typically manifesting during adolescence. Prior to Lee and Kirby’s innovation, comics’ superhero templates were either extraterrestrials like Superman or ordinary humans with artificially gained superpowers like Spider-Man (mere mortals Batman and Iron Man don’t count, no matter how inordinately driven to fight injustice). Unlike the physical ideal Superman, most of Lee and Kirby’s mutants did not view their powers as gifts, and some were outright monsters.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-MenThe Royal Shakespeare Company mutants face off

The X-Men formula also incorporates deeper themes of racism, xenophobia, and even evolution. Indeed, the entire premise is built upon the theory of evolution: as multiple species of humans walked the earth simultaneously hundreds of thousands of years ago, so too do humans now find themselves sharing the earth with arguably the next branch of homo sapiens’ evolution: known in the comics as “homo superior.” Carried through to the next logical conclusion, this mutant minority is feared and demonized as freaks by the humans that vastly outnumber them.

The X-Men’s sympathetic antagonist Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) is a survivor of a German concentration camp. The horrors he experienced at the hands of those that hated his race (but didn’t yet realize he was actually a different species) in 1944 Poland inform his actions as the supervillain Magneto. As he listens to contemporary American politicians argue over how to contain and suppress the increasing mutant population, he disgustedly states “I’ve heard these arguments before.” His former friend (and fellow mutant) Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) hopes to find a way to live in peace, and counters “That was a long time ago. Mankind has evolved since then.” But Magneto is unyielding. “Yes. Into us.”

Hugh Jackman in X-MenTalk to the claws

The crucial factor that had me simply assume the movie would be terrible was casting. It’s not hard to imagine a young actor able embody Spider-Man’s secret identity Peter Parker as a put-upon geek harboring tremendous reserves of guilt and righteousness. But how do you cast Wolverine, a diminutive, half-animal Canadian supersoldier with ridiculous hair? Easy! You hire the tall, absurdly handsome Australian studly song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman. Against all odds, he totally nailed the fan-favorite character. The moment in the film when this former X-Men comics fan decided that Jackman succeeded is a sequence in which he steals an X-motorcycle and discovers a handy turboboost button. The entire audience at the New York Ziegfeld theater laughed heartily along with his undisguised glee at its total awesomeness. This doubter was completely sold.

Another casting coup was the double-dose of Royal Shakespeare Company gravitas provided by McKellen and Stewart (both with extensive experience in fantasy and sci-fi genre material, as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, respectively). Bruce Davison (as the xenophobic Senator Robert Kelly) also has a long history in science fiction, having starred in Willard and the influential classic The Lathe of Heaven.

Famke Janssen in X-MenJust don’t call her Marvel Girl

James Marsden later proved himself to be entertainingly charismatic in Enchanted, but here he’s a victim to the humorless character of Cyclops. As Wolverine correctly psychoanalyzes him, he’s a dick. Similarly, Famke Janssen isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the no-fun-please Dr. Jean Grey (known in the comics as Marvel GIrl, later to die and rise again as Phoenix in Brett Ratner’s crap sequel X-Men 3: The Last Stand – read The Dork Report review). But together with Jackman, the trio brings alive the Wolverine/Cyclops/Phoenix love triangle drawn from the comics, helping to make the movie accessible.

The one real weak spot in the cast is Halle Berry. Like Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, she seems to have only one real acting performance under her belt (Monster’s Ball, of course). Here she turns in one of her most bland and toneless performances yet. For extra amusement, be sure to catch the deleted scenes on the DVD edition in which she can be heard affecting a weak pseudo-African accent. It’s a shame, because Storm was a very strong character in the comics around the time I read them. Writer Chris Claremont obviously had an affection for her, even promoting her to leader of the X-Men.

Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin in X-MenFerocious mutant super-soldier Wolverine can really relate to Rogue’s teenage angst

Aside from casting, I imagine the second-biggest obstacle facing the filmmakers was how to introduce the complex X-Men universe to mainstream audiences while preserving its integrity to appease longtime fans. Hayter and Singer came up with the excellent solution of having us meet Professor X and his X-Men through the eyes of newbies Wolverine and Rogue (Anna “That’s my mother’s piano!” Paquin). Both are very different characters that share key common experiences that allow them to bond in a big brother / little sister relationship: Wolverine is a loner amnesiac unaware there are others like him, and Rogue is a young runaway isolated by particularly extreme powers that prevent her from experiencing normal human interaction. Almost anyone can identify with the painful coming of age that comes with her exaggerated adolescence. A startling moment of pathos occurs between them when she sees him wield the fearsome metal claws sheathed in his forearms: “When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”

On an even more practical level, the filmmakers came up with an ingenious solution to the comics characters’ silly costumes by having the movie X-Men wear more photogenic uniforms. Cyclops’ joke about yellow and orange spandex is an easter egg for fans: Wolverine sports such an ensemble in the comics. Best of all, the requisite action set pieces are justified by the characters, not just the plot. For example, a big blow-out staged at a train station is the result of a heartbreaking misunderstanding that causes Rogue to flee the longed-for safe haven she had only just discovered.

The franchise is now set to continue with a trilogy of prequels including this summer’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and rumored projects X-Men Origins: First Class and X-Men Origins: Magneto. But with the first of these wracking up some notably awful reviews, it’s clear the first in the series will still stand as the best for some time.


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Mogwai live at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, April 2009

 

The Scottish instrumental rock outfit Mogwai earned their reputation in part for sheer volume, like My Bloody Valentine and The Who before them. Their music is also notable for exploring the kinds of extreme dynamics you usually only hear in electronica or progressive rock, wholly unlike the fatiguing constant loudness of most pop, punk, and metal.

My teeth are still resonating. This was far and away the most viscerally physical concert I’ve ever attended. In all seriousness, I believe it would be possible for a deaf person to enjoy a Mogwai show. I don’t mean to be offensive to the deaf community here; I felt the waves of sound as much as I could hear them.

This concert, part of a three-night stand at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, was filmed and might appear on a future DVD.

Mogwai live at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, April 2009Mogwai fear nothing

Official band site: www.mogwai.co.uk

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Orifices in Place of Faces: The Flaming Lips: Christmas on Mars

Flaming Lips Christmas on Mars poster

 

The Flaming Lips are an odd band to have achieved mainstream success. After years of noncommercial psychedelic art-rock experimentation like the four-disc Zaireeka (1997), they broke through to mass appeal with The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002). The latter features the finest existential love song to ever become the official rock song of Oklahoma:

Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
     — Do You Realize??

Wayne Coyne in Christmas on MarsThe Alien Super-Being gets great reception

The Lips also have more ambition than most of their contemporaries when it comes to the audiovisual aspects of a rock group’s responsibilities. They were inspired by how some of their forebears did more than contract third parties to film them live in concert or to direct hagiographic documentaries. The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Yellow Submarine), The Who (Tommy, Quadrophenia), and Pink Floyd (The Wall) all made feature films that deserve to be considered among their canonical audio-only discography. As Lips frontman Wayne Coyne told Pitchfork:

we’d always talked about how the Flaming Lips should have a movie, like the Ramones have a movie, or the Beatles. Not in a pretentious way, just like, “Yeah! We should have a movie!” We thought, “Well, why not? We’ll just sort of make one and see what happens.”

They began talking up Christmas of Mars years ago, and the longer the delay, the greater the legend. It was rumored to be either an expensive folly on the scale of Axl Rose’s album Chinese Democracy (in production for 14 years for a budget of $13 million) or an elaborate meta joke. But in fact, the Lips did in all seriousness work on the project off and on for about seven years. They produced the whole thing in their stomping grounds of Oklahoma City, mostly around Coyne’s own home. For better or for worse, it’s entirely their vision, written and co-directed by Coyne, with Bradley Beesley (who directed several of the band’s music videos) and George Salisbury.

Surely Coyne & co. must have been familiar with the infamous b-movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) (in the public domain and a free download). The spectacularly awful movie was hilariously massacred on both Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1991 and by Cinematic Titanic in 2008. Like this ignoble predecessor, Christmas on Mars is saddled with long sequences of bad dialogue delivered poorly by amateur actors. Even cameos by the Lips’ pals Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg are really awkward.

Partly inspired by the psychedelia of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (read The Dork Report review), Christmas on Mars actually owes more to the blue-collar atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien. The humans in Christmas on Mars are ordinary people in an extraordinary locale, struggling to survive. One year prior, humanity has established a dilapidated space station on Mars. Worse, the crew members are slowly going mad and suffering hallucinations. As they conclude, man is not meant to live in space. The sole purpose of the colony, other than constantly repairing its decaying infrastructure, seems to be to support a test-tube baby due on midnight, Christmas Eve. The only woman on the station lives in a bubble, feeding the baby through a tube grafted into her belly.

Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd in Christmas on MarsThe Lips discretely invite you to enhance your viewing experience in whatever manner you choose

Major Syrtis (Lips member Steven Drozd) has taken it upon himself to organize a Christmas Pageant to raise morale. He is in fact partially responsible for their current predicament, as he apparently sacrificed storage space to cart some Christmas accoutrements to Mars, a decision that has near-fatal consequences for the colony. The colony’s only source for happiness is very nearly ruined when his chosen Santa commits suicide. The Alien Super-Being (Coyne) lands nearby in a spherical spacecraft, which conveniently shrinks to a size suitable to be swallowed until he needs it again. Even though Coyne wrote the script, and is quite a talker if the DVD’s bonus interviews are to be judged, the role he assigned himself has no dialogue. He fills Santa’s shoes and repairs both Syrtis’s busted snow machine and the colony itself. He saves Christmas and allows the baby to be born.

Far more interesting are the beautiful optical special effects (at least, I assume they’re optical – if they actually are digital, they’re uncommonly beautiful). Some of the abstract psychedelia was so freaky I feared it might burn out my aging television. Most curious is the strange preoccupation with vaginal imagery. The Alien Super-Being passes in and out of his spaceship through a vaginal portal. Syrtis hallucinates a visiting spaceman with a pulsating vagina for a face, and later dreams of an entire marching band with similar orifices in place of faces (say that ten times quickly).

A pre-movie sequence advises viewers to have sex, smoke pot, or just do whatever they like while watching the movie. This boring Dork Reporter dared to disobey these instructions and simply watched it alone at home, stone cold sober. Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect Christmas on Mars is one of those things best experienced in an altered state.


Official movie site: www.flaminglips.com/content/film

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Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)

Let the Right One In movie poster

 

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) is unapologetically a vampire story. It follows most of the rules of the genre but avoids the standard trappings of spectacular bloodletting (like, say, Blade) and simplistic sexual metaphors (we’re looking at you, Twilight). Director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriter John Ajvide (adapting his own novel) are startlingly frank not just in their depictions of the ritualistic violence inherent in a vampire’s everyday toil, but also in the desperate hungers and desires of all their human characters as well.

Novel and film are both set in 1980s Sweden, at a time when the famously independent, neutral nation was struggling through a Cold War economic recession. 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is meek, frail, and so fair as to seem albino. He splits his time between a scolding mother and a loving but distant father with unexplained secrets. The only time we see Oskar happy is when playing in the snow at his father’s rural home. An ominous guest arrives, muting even conversation (we never learn the man’s identity, or the reason for his smothering effect, but for story purposes it only matters that Oskar cannot be happy even here). Oskar is constantly bullied by school thugs seemingly inspired by the savage torturers from the movie Deliverance: their favorite taunt is to demand he squeal like a pig. The constant pressure drives him morbidly inward, rapidly becoming a potential danger to himself and others. He secretly collects gruesome newspaper clippings of local crimes, and sneaks outside at night to playact his vengeance with matches and a knife. It’s easy for a 21st Century viewer to imagine Oskar becoming a school shooter.

Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One InEli (Lina Leandersson) has been twelve for a long time

A mysterious couple moves in next door in the dead of night: Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl appearing about his age, and her adult companion Håkan (Per Ragnar). Eli interrupts one of Oskar’s solitary nighttime revenge fantasies, and they strike up a sort of friendship. As the habitually aloof Eli warms to his company, she advises him to fight back against his oppressors. When he gets a chance to do so, Hedebrant’s startling performance during his triumph conveys a disturbing impression of a too-young boy experiencing a kind of ecstasy. Compare and contrast his obvious pleasure with the wholly dispassionate murders committed by Eli and Håkan. One wonders how Alfredson directed the young actor towards such a performance, and how much Hedebrant knew about the subtext of how the scene would play on the screen. As becomes clear, Eli may not have had the boy’s best interests at heart; was she urging him to stand up for himself, or setting him up for a bigger fall later? Either way, she succeeds in binding him more closely to her.

Although Oskar is pubescent, his infatuation with her does not seem to be especially sexual. His hungers are more for companionship and understanding. Eli says she is “not a girl,” and asks Oskar if he would still like her were she not. With little hesitation, he answers yes. He catches a glimpse of her naked torso, seeing what seems to be a castration mark. But Eli is far more than just not a girl. Subtle special effects give us fleeting images of her with eerily enlarged eyes and as an older woman. She is permanently frozen in a state of childhood, but it seems she hasn’t matured intellectually and emotionally as her body remains in stasis (unlike the young character Claudia in Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire). As she tells him “I’ve been twelve for a long time.”

Let the Right One InVampires are hot stuff in bed

Although it doesn’t resemble more typical vampire tales, Let the Right One In does follow most of the mythos: vampires have to be invited in (hence the name; to enter uninvited will cause a painful, bloody death – a fate Eli demonstrates to Oskar to prove her affection for him); any victim bitten but not killed will become a vampire (Eli is shown to break a victim’s spine after feeding – a belated form of mercy coming from a vampire, I suppose); housecats are compelled to attack vampires (as seen in not one of the most convincing special effects sequences), and sunlight causes them to spontaneously combust (as seen in one very convincing sequence).

Eli shares with Oskar her motto “To flee is life. To linger, death.” Like her encouragement to fight back against bullies, here is the key to understanding the mystery of her devoted human companion Håkan. Eli has outsourced her physical needs to her selflessly devoted servant, essentially making him into a serial killer on her behalf. What motivates him to comply? Was he once a boy, like Oscar, that fell in love with her? Whatever their bond, she ensures that Oskar is next in line to become her new provider.

After writing the above, I read The A.V. Club’s excellent Book Vs. Film: Let the Right One In by Tasha Robinson (part of a series also including Watchmen). In short, yes, a great deal needed to be omitted from the novel to shape the story into a feature film. But Robinson approves; rather than leaving too much out, the movie fruitfully chooses a very different, more internal version of the story. Some tidbits gleaned from the article that may be of interest to anyone else that hasn’t read the book:

  • The book is a more graphic, conventional horror story.
  • Oskar’s father’s friend is a less sinister character in the book. Simply, he’s a drinking buddy, and Oskar’s otherwise decent father is apparently a mean drunk.
  • The title is derived from a Morrissey song quoted in the book: “Let the right one in / let the old dreams die / let the wrong ones go / They cannot do what you want them to do”
  • The Oskar of the novel is overweight, inspiring the bullies’ “piggy” taunts.
  • The Håkan of the book is a pedophile. Eli encountered him as an adult, and she trades some sexual favors for his services. Skimming the comments left below Robinson’s article, I see most other viewers interpreted the movie the same way I did.

Official movie site: www.lettherightoneinmovie.com

Must read: Let the Wrong Subtitles in to Let the Right One In. Icons of Fright finds the English translation lacking.

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Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky movie poster

 

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a creature rarely encountered in movies and even less in real life: someone genuinely happy. She’s not bothered by others’ life goals; at 30, she doesn’t have a baby or a boyfriend, own a house, or know how to drive. Relentlessly chipper, upbeat, and outgoing, she’s best friends with her roommate (a true rarity!) and has already found the career possibly most suited for her (she’s a gifted, compassionate primary school teacher). Her one vanity seems to be that she’s proud of her legs.

In conversation, Poppy always finds a way to agree with almost anything anyone says. We first meet her chattering away at a sullen bookstore clerk. Having seen Hawkins interviewed around the time of her Oscar nomination, it’s all the more apparent she’s affecting a Catherine Tate impression for the movie. Like Tate, Poppy just barely skirts the edge of being annoying to the audience as well, which considering the reactions Poppy provokes from certain other characters later in the film, probably says more about me than it does her. Poppy’s other major strategy in life is to find a new opportunity in every setback. A back injury sends her giggling all the way onto an exciting adventure to a chiropractor. Having her bicycle stolen provides another opening for a new experience: driving lessons.

happy_go_lucky_2.jpgYou’re driving me mad! See what I did there? No? Too easy?

Unfortunately for them both, her new tutor is the unstable, ferociously angry Scott (Eddie Marsan). Just a few of Scott’s many neuroses include racism, homophobia, religious fervor, and conspiracy theories. His most paranoid rant (regarding the Washington Monument supposedly being 666 feet tall – apparently a rumor stemming from the misreported height of its foundation) echoes those of the similarly damaged Johnny (David Thewlis) from Mike Leigh’s excellent Naked (1993). Is Marsan the most versatile actor ever? He’s played everything from a sweet-natured man almost paralyzed by shyness in Leigh’s Vera Drake, to a tough preacher in 21 Grams, to a ruthless criminal who keeps losing extremities in Hancock. Yes, Hancock.

Most narratives are usually structured around a protagonist’s problem. How do you tell a story about someone that has no problems? Happy-Go-Lucky defied my expectations that the story would go one of three ways:

  1. Poppy’s happy-go-lucky attitude is a defense mechanism masking an inner sadness. Events conspire that force her to confront and defeat her inner demons. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture a young Julia Roberts.
  2. Poppy confronts a huge tragedy that nearly breaks her spirit. She overcomes the obstacle. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
  3. Poppy meets someone deeply sad and unhappy, her polar opposite. She fixes this broken person with the power of her indomitable spirit. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Robin Williams helping Jeff Bridges heal in Fisher King (although it may seem like I’m mocking it here, Terry Gilliam and Richard LaGravenese’s Fisher King is actually one of my favorite movies).

happy_go_lucky_1.jpglatitude, longitude, positive attitude

While Poppy’s happiness is totally genuine, she is not deranged. She does not deny that problems and sadness exist in the world and in other people’s lives. Nor does she believe that anyone else can simply shrug off their setbacks, depression, or inner demons. The above scenario to which Happy-Go-Lucky comes closest is the third. Scott and one of Poppy’s sisters are as sad and messed up as she is happy. She tries to help, but recognizes she is unable to fix them. The truly sad realization for the audience at the end is that we see that Poppy knows she must keep her distance from her sister and stop trying to befriend Scott. Her mere presence in their lives drives them crazy.


Official movie site: happygoluckythemovie.com

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Australia

australia.jpg

 

Strictly speaking, Baz Luhrmann has made only one musical, the Dork Report guilty pleasure Moulin Rouge (2001). But, last seen directing Puccini’s opera La Bohème on Broadway, he can’t seem to resist the genre. Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), and now Australia all incorporate key elements of the musical: exaggerated emoting, spectacle, and especially, songs. Australia directly quotes whole numbers from The Wizard of Oz, but is actually better described not as Luhrmann’s Oz but as his Gone With the Wind. Which is to say, its an overlong costume drama faintly condescending towards its non-white characters and preoccupied with the epic spectacle of cities burning during wartime.

Australia’s biggest flaw is structural, being essentially two discrete movies featuring the same characters. Imagine a double feature of a movie and its sequel, smashed together into one. The first half concerns the Australian market for cattle needed to support the Allies’ war effort. Englishwoman Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman – a native Aussie who even here has to affect a false accent) owns a small ranch in the outback, and believes her absent husband is cheating on her. She travels down under to sell the land in order to pay down debt, but also to rid her husband of what she imagines to be his adulterous refuge. There, she learns he has been murdered by the monopolizing “King” Carney’s (Bryan Brown) henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, Faramir in Lord of the Rings).

Nicole Kidman in AustraliaBlast it! This war is a spot of bother.

She meets the hunky Drover (Hugh Jackman), a man whose name is his job, whose job is his name, and the sort of fictional Australian that actually says “Crikey” (q.v. Crocodile Dundee). Audience members interested in the beefcake factor will be delighted to see Jackman has built up his body to a size even bigger than for the Canadian mutant superhero Wolverine in three (soon to be four) X-Men films (although the neck-to-head ratio threatens to tip over into freakish territory). Lady Ashley also befriends the film’s narrator, the young “half-caste” boy Nullah (Brandon Walters, so extraordinarily androgynous that I had to keep reminding myself he was not a girl). Nullah spent most of the movie thoroughly annoying the hell out of me as he shouts out the name “Drover! Yay Drover! Drover, Drover, Drover, yay!” over and over and over again. Ugh.

Nullah’s grandfather, a mystical Aboriginal known as King George (David Gulpilil), has been framed for Lord Ashley’s murder. He watches over Nullah from afar, and encourages him to become a storyteller. The fact that we are being told this story by a little boy to some degree explains and excuses the cast’s hammy mugging (most especially by Kidman, of whom I am swiftly tiring, although I was never really a hater) and how, on the whole, everyone seems to take death pretty well. After losing Lady Ashley’s husband and Nullah’s mother, our gang of heroes is only really upset by the death of Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), an alcoholic collaborating with Carney. They are moved perhaps because he is given a chance to redeem himself right in front of them (as opposed to, say, an innocent person dying offscreen).

Hugh Jackman in AustraliaCrikey! Get along, little wallabies!

Lady Ashely finds she can make more money by tending the ranch and selling its cattle. Not to mention to effect a trifold moral victory: avenging her husband’s murder, beating the local monopoly, and righting a whole host of injustices made against the little boy. Nullah’s white father sexually exploited and murdered his mother, and if that weren’t trouble enough, the state wishes to abduct her and “breed the black out of her.” Such was official Australian policy until the 1970s; for a much better film along these themes see Phillip Noyce’s hugely affecting Rabbit Proof Fence (2002).

All this fuss and to-do is largely resolved and winds down about 1 hour and forty minutes in, the length of a typical movie. But Australia is no typical movie, and has about another hour and half to go. The happy surrogate family living together on the ranch must work itself all the way back up into an all-new conflict: the return of the villainous Fletcher for his revenge. The turmoil of World War II is reduced to an arbitrary inconvenience to the characters as they fight to restore their new makeshift family.

The movie is full of not-always-convincing computer-generated spectacle like cattle stampedes and Japanese kamikaze attacks. But one fleeting little shot caught my eye and reminded me why I like Luhrmann so much. Watch for a brief moment as a velvet curtain drops, and Luhrmann invisibly cuts to the reverse angle. Classy and cool.


Official movie site: www.AustraliaMovie.com

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The Visitor

The Visitor movie poster

 

The Visitor is the excellent sophomore effort from Thomas McCarthy, writer/director of The Station Agent (2003). The disgustingly talented McCarthy is also an accomplished actor, most recently appearing as a corporate espionage agent in Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity and as a plagiarizing journalist in The Wire.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a political science professor at Connecticut College. The recent widower has regressed into a willfully lonely state, having lost his social graces and merely coasting in his responsibilities. In one small way at least, he does seem to be trying to grow a little as the movie begins. He runs through a number of piano instructors, futilely attempting to pick up the instrument at an age he is counseled to not even try. We later learn that this effort is facing backwards and grasping at the past; his late wife was a concert pianist.

Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in The Visitor

Walter reluctantly travels to New York City to present a paper he nominally cowrote. He finds that his neglected vacant city apartment has been illegally sublet by a man named Ivan (which comes across like a clue dropped for a future conflict – who is this Ivan with a key to his place, and will he return? But the plot point is never picked back up). His unexpected tenants are a young couple barely making a living in New York City as artists: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian djembe player, and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a Senegalese jewelry designer. The conscientious Walter balks at throwing them out and instead befriends them. Tarek begins to teach him to play the djembe, which he takes to more immediately than he ever did the piano.

My one complaint is that the character of Tarek is too sketchily drawn. He’s an implausibly good and nice guy, without a hint of anything even remotely dark. Where are this very gregarious man’s other friends? Even the icy Zainab seems to have pals at the outdoors market where she sells her handmade jewelry.

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor

The trio’s brief period of happiness is broken when Tarek is detained over a misunderstanding that incidentally reveals he and Zainab have both overstayed their visas. As Walter tries to aid his new friends, he finds himself plunged into the black hole of illegal immigration and Homeland Security. Tarek’s overprotective mother Mouma (Hiam Abbass) arrives, and Walter becomes her ambassador as they shuttle back and forth to a detention center in Queens (a borough the movie portrays rather unflatteringly). If finding new friends and an invigorating creative outlet had not already plunged Walter back into life, a budding romance with Mouma completes his new slate.

The Visitor and The Station Agent both manage to just barely skate the razor edge of sentimental cheese. Keeping the story of Walter’s emotional rehabilitation from being too corny is the worry that Walter is maybe a bit too desperate to ingratiate himself. Mouna understandably does a doubletake when she learns how much he is sacrificing to help Tarek, even though they have all known him for only a few days. Indeed, the perpetually nervous Zainab suspected his intentions from the very beginning – his aid would seem to be too good to be true were he not a man with a desperate hole in his life. Zainab’s distrust is the defensive stance of someone who knows she could be kicked out of her new home at any moment – xenophobia dressed up as combating terrorism. It’s all the more affecting when she finally melts and opens up to Walter and Mouna.

Any one of these characters could be the titular Visitor: Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna are, in the eyes of the Department of Homeland Security, at worst potential terrorists and at best temporary labor, no matter what they may have to offer. Walter has homes in Connecticut and New York but doesn’t really live in either one.


Official movie site: www.thevisitorfilm.com

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Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited movie poster

 

Director Julian Jarrold’s lavish period piece Brideshead Revisited trots the globe like a genteel James Bond adventure, visiting London, Venice, and Morocco, but especially the opulent Castle Howard. From the perspective of an ignoramus that hasn’t read Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, this compressed version of what I imagine to be a grander prose narrative doesn’t much fit the traditional structure of a feature-length movie. For instance, a major character disappears halfway through, and the internal contradiction of another’s stunted emotional life versus his grasping desires is not a very cinematic subject.

Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is a voraciously ambitious only child of a bitter, sarcastic, widowed father. He leaves his emotionally stifling home behind to study history at Oxford. His true aspirations are to be a painter, even though the chilly atheist does not seem to posses the rich emotional life of an artist. His middle-class London fashions divide him from his new upper-class peers, but from his first arrival on campus, he feels immediately drawn to the “sodomites.” As we learn more about Charles, we see that he does not so much share their sexuality as he is fascinated by their outwardly dramatic, emotionally honest natures, and considerable wealth – none of which he posesses. Curiously, Goode’s most recent screen appearance is as the similarly emotionless and sexually ambiguous Ozymandias in Watchmen (read The Dork Report review).

Julia Flyte, Emma Thompson, and Matthew Goode in Brideshead RevisitedMy loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires;I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those others we desperately wish to be

One among Charles’ new friends is equally hungry to attach himself to him in return. The alcoholic, infantile Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) has more love for his teddy bear and housekeeper than for his extremely Roman Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, whose role is not much more than a cameo, despite being featured front and center in the poster). Charles is awestruck by the wealth and opulence of Sebastian’s vast family estate Brideshead. As they pass through the chapel, the staunchly atheist Charles mimics his host and genuflects. Sebastian upbraids him, for not only is he from another social class altogether, worse, he is not Catholic. Charles first exposes the essential nature of his character when he replies that he was “just trying to fit in.”

But just as Charles’ cold home was defined by an unloving patriarch, Brideshead is blanketed by Lady Marchmain’s oppressive miasma of Catholic guilt. Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) escaped by decamping to Venice, where Catholics are a bit more liberal: they live their lives as they wish, and simply confess their sins away when necessary. At first, it seems only Lord Marchmain’s mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi) understands the situation: this homosexual dalliance is just a phase for Charles, but Sebastian is truly in love with him. We later learn that Lady Marchmain, whom one might assume would be blinkered by her pious faith, is fully aware of her son’s pain. She also gives an even more astute analysis of what drives Charles to attach himself to the family: “You’re so desperate to be liked, Charles.”

Julia Flyte, Ben Whishaw, and Matthew Goode in Brideshead RevisitedDrinking is not a hobby, Sebastian.

Charles is able to psychoanalyze himself in the end: “did I want too much?” All his actions are driven by desire: for the affections of the Oxford gay clique, to reside in Brideshead, to marry Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and to be praised by high society as a painter. But Charles is icily detached, with a notable lack of emotion and empathy. He calmly divorces his wife offscreen, in order to marry Julia and become lord of Brideshead. But as her family gives the sacrament of last rites to Lord Marchmain against his wishes, she perceives a miracle as he relents and reaccepts his faith in his final moments. Her own faith is rekindled and she rejects Charles. In the end, his actions have ensured the final generation of the family, and leave the desirous manse to no one.


Official movie site: www.bridesheadrevisited-themovie.com

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