Getting Back To Movies You *Can* See … Here’s Our Take on ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Alex: Meh.

I mean, really, that’s pretty much what I have to say. Meh.

Okay, the raid on the bin Laden compound is “wiveting,” as Babwa Wawa used to say, but the rest of Zero Dark Thirty — which begins just after the 9/11 attacks and chronicles the bin Laden manhunt, as led by one intensely focused C.I.A. agent — doesn’t have much to say about the events it’s depicting. I guess critics and moviegoers and politicians are debating whether the movie “endorses” torture, but I think ZD30 takes no stance at all. And not in some sort of fair and even-handed way, but at a weird laconic remove. One can find in it a pro-torture message and an anti-torture message, but it isn’t because there’s a whole, total portrait. It’s because there’s a lack of one.

Is this the job of a movie like this? To participate in the torture debate? And/or to critique our intelligence and counterterrorism systems? What is this movie? It belongs to the class of nonfiction re-creations that includes The Social Network and All the President’s Men — movies that depict stuff that just happened, like, five minutes ago. But those movies succeed in showing us how everything went down, whereas ZD30 doesn’t illuminate much for us.

Except the existence and dedication of its main character. Our heroine is played by the future Mrs. Aaron Rich, a.k.a. Jessica Chastain, and according to the movie’s version of events she was the detective hero whose hunches were always right, however far-fetched they seemed. (Man, am I sick of seeing cop/spy heroes doubted by their bellicose superiors at every single turn. “You don’t have a shred of evidence” is one of those lines of movie dialogue that ought to be banned forever, along with, “Let me get this straight,” and “Clever girl.”)

And that’s really my objection to the movie. We’re so with her, we’re so sure she’s right — especially because we know the outcome! — that we’re satisfied to see her redeemed and validated. It validates us. It’s really a classic — and hackneyed — Hollywood equation masked by Kathryn Bigelow’s good taste and silken filmmaking.


Well, to throw in another phrase that should be banned, “Alex, when you’re right, you’re right.” There’s nothing really bad about ZD30 (a title that is never explained, though I think it has to do with the time Seal Team Six (who are curiously never referred to by that name) leave to go kill OBL, though that’s merely conjecture… and I don’t know where to find dark o’clock on my watch), but there’s nothing wonderful about it either. It’s basically the longest movie you’ve ever seen in your life and one of the most shapeless. You know how 2001: A Space Odyssey is a wonderful film that is perfectly formed, has several distinct chapters and evolves beautifully over the course of the history of humanoid existence on Earth and beyond? Right—this film does nothing like that.

The narrative basically follows the Chastain character, Maya (who has no last name, even though she really does exist and did do what she apparently did in the film… I know this because I saw a picture of her on 60 Minutes one night before I ate supper), as she’s obsessed with OBL and is never wrong about him, as you point out, Alex, although we never really learn anything about her. And then there are a bunch of weird and sloppy psychological or intimate moments where Maya’s veil falls for a moment: at one point she says something about how she was recruited by the CIA out of high school (Oh, really? Tell us more about that! That sounds interesting!); later, after she confirms the corpse they have is indeed OBL, in the most embarrassing scene in the film, she begins to weep as she realizes her live as she has known it is over.

But we don’t know who Maya is or why we should care about her. You can’t just put a melodramatic hat on top of a sober manhunt. Not only is it pointless, facile sentimentality, but I don’t know how to react to it, because suddenly it’s a different movie from the one I’ve been watching, where Chastain was cocksure, even without “a shred of evidence.”

This leads to my biggest gripe about the film and the script by Mark Boal (and direction by Bigelow) which is that the film seems to constantly criticize the chauvinism of the CIA and the military, but time and time again Maya is no angel, deserving the condescension from her (male) coworkers, and they constantly throw her into cheap stereotypes of “week sisters in war” (like her crying at the end of the film, or crying when her non-friend colleague, Jennifer Ehle, dies (a character so underwritten, it seems she is only in the picture to die in order to show Chastain crying and feeling sad another time—no men cry in the film, by the way)).

There are several throw-away lines about how she’s a “clever girl” and chauvinistic remarks about her not having the temperament for the work. The problem is that Maya is a complete asshole and a horrible person to work around, regardless of her gender. Yes—asshole dudes say shity things about her, but it’s hard to feel sympathy for her gender situation when she behaves like a dick throughout. In other words, Boal and Bigelow bury a light gender criticism in a film about someone who should be criticized. (I just want to be clear that I would be happy to accept Chastain as my wife… though I’m now convinced she can’t act and that her best roles are the silent ones (Tree of Life)).

You’re absolutely right, Alex, that ZD30 doesn’t illuminate much of anything, aside from the fact that one random woman had a weird hunch, that nobody believed in, that ended up working out. I would ask, if that’s the case, why did we need to see it over almost 3 hours of our lives? Why not cut it significantly… or at least try to give it some more shape as it moved along. There are a bunch of inter-titles throughout (phrases like “Human Error” and “The Canaries”), used to suggest “chapters” of the story… but they seem to only relate to the first few scenes of a section rather that the whole section. Forty-five minutes after each title, you forget what title-area you’re in… because there is just so much stuff packed in to each part.

Also, doens’t the use of inter-titles suggest that you could make the script really clinical and step-by-stepy—like Kurosawa’s High and Low? That’s probably the most efficient man-hunt movie in history, there are well-defined sections and no waste. Here there is lots and lots of waste, dressed up as “texture,” that really only just adds minutes to the total run time.

One last point is that I have to mention that Aussie actor Jason Clarke, who plays Dan, the torturer colleague, gives easily the best performance of the film. At times he’s violent and cruel, at other moments he’s jovial and mercurial, almost reminiscent of Dean Martin in some of his best roles in Rio Bravo and Some Came Running. I was really upset when he leaves the film around the end of the first act to return to Washington (or Langley, in contemporary parlance… sigh), because at that point there ceased to be anything or anyone to give a shit about for the remaining 2 hours of the film.

All of that being said, ZD30 is not a bad movie—it’s just bearish and lumbering and hard to get your arms around (I dunno, some dudes like that, I guess). I like lots of moments of it—yes, Alex, the OBL strike at the end is done beautifully—but it just seems like it desperately needs a haircut and a shower before it puts on its tux. I don’t know where that analogy just went. Apologies.

Alex: Agree totally that Jason Clarke is great and I missed him after he decamped for “Langley.”

This movie makes for such a weird (sadistic?) viewing experience because we know we’re building to the raid on the bin Laden compound, and we know it’s going to be tense, and we know how it’s going to end. And as we watch each plot point of the manhunt we mentally hold it up next to the climax/resolution of the story (which we all know) and draw a connection. It would be like going to see The Empire Strikes Back knowing all along that Darth is Luke’s father, and that changes the way you watch the movie. You start looking for clues and connections and you’re looking at it more analytically. It’s more Columbo than Poirot — not “who did it?” but “how will the detective find the guy we saw do it?”

Something about that makes me uneasy. It creates a cathartic effect, and I’m basically anti-catharsis (except for Ordinary People).

Aaron, I like how much use you’ve been making lately of italics. Your writing is starting to look more and more like David Mamet dialogue. For some reason this pleases me.

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Whatchoo Talkin’ ’Bout, Wichita? (Or: Wichita WYSIWYG)

So, welcome back to everyone. It’s been awhile since we posted anything. We both got tied up in “real life” and this blog fell by the wayside… But recently we got in a great discussion of a movie nobody has ever heard of (a lesser movie from a director only film nerds like us know), Wichita, directed by Jacques Tourneur, which tells an early Wyatt Earp story—which is to say, the story of Wyatt Earp marshalling in the town of Wichitaw, two towns before he got to Tombstone (with the O.K. Corral and Doc Holiday and all). We’re both big JT fans (though, I’ll admit Alex likes him more than I do… because he’s like that) and I’m a big Wyatt Earp fan.

I think about a month ago, Alex asked me if I’d ever seen the film and I said I hadn’t (hadn’t even heard of it) but that it sounded cool. Then it showed up on TCM last week and we both taped it and watched it. Sadly the print that TCM had was formatted and cropped from its original CinemaScope (2.35:1) format, and it was muddy and scratched throughout. 

Alex watched it first and texted me saying it “was not one of JT’s best” but that there were beautiful moments. When I watched it, I loved it… and then we got into a discussion on e-mail, which we’ll show you here.

Alex: (Some formatting hiccups late in this post that I can’t seem to do anything about. WordPress is in a cranky mood today. Apologies to all.)

Aaron: So I watched Wichita and I think it’s actually pretty amazing and will definitely be on my best films of the 1950s list (for this upcoming Iras).

It’s a very clever genre twist and very smart. I’ll try to not be too “film studenty” by quoting shit I read in my first term in school, but I do think some of it is relevant. Rick Altman (and David Boardwell and Kristin Thompson) wrote a bunch about how the western genre generally has a town that represents “civilization” in the middle of an wilderness of “uncivilized stuff” and how there is a negative force—generally Indians, but it could be lawless whites—who try to act negatively on the town and then the hero comes in and he exists somewhere between the two poles—not really a townsperson, not an outlaw—who represents some amount of honor and help in a time of need (Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, for instance).

So this film is about a town that is specifically uncivilized (foreshadowing McCabe, I’d argue) and a man coming in to bring civilization and the negative forces are the capitalists in the town, the members of the ad hoc town council. They not only get in the way of the genre necessities of civilization vs. chaos (on the opposite side of the standard), but also in the way of Wyatt (Joel McRea) and Laurie (Vera Miles) being heteronormative. So it’s a genre thing all twisted up. In technical theoretical terms you could say it has the syntax of a standard western (lawman, newspaper, saloon, bad guys in black hats… though the bad guys are just cowboys who want to drink freely… they’re bad by incident when they kill the boy and the woman… sorta by accident), but the semantics are different—the meaning of those symbols is different (again, like in McCabe, where the church is not nearly as important as the whore house… and is actually empty and not complete inside).

Also, interesting is how Tourneur treats the boy (the character is called Michael Jackson, by the way. That’s relevant, right?!) who witnesses the chaos on the street before he’s shot. There’s a striking look on his face that is very, very unlike what you see in most westerns to that point (kids aren’t in older westerns at all) and foreshadows how Peckinpah would approach kids in his movies (how Haneke might approach them now). The idea is that violence in our time is given to our children who have to live with it, but don’t have the psychological means to do so. Peckinpah had a bit role in this film, by the way, and was involved in some uncredited work behind the camera.

I think the ending is also interesting that Wyatt and Laurie ride off together … to Dodge City… where Wyatt will go back into being a marshall/sheriff… in a town they say is worse than Wichita. This is a very Nick Ray idea of “you can’t ever escape”… and a noirish element too. Also, we know well that Wyatt doesn’t have a wife by the time he gets to Tombstone (after Dodge), so we know something will happen to them and that they’re doomed somehow. Also, setting a Wyatt Earp story not in Tombstone is a bit of a thumb in the eye of the standard genre… and, again, a feeling that no matter what Wyatt does, he’s always dragged back into shit. The repetitive cycle of his life is bleak and joyless.

Finally, I know the print quality and formatting was terrible in the TCM thing we saw, but I do think it’s important to note that this was shot in Technicolor, but JT uses almost no color in the film. Everything is black and brown and gray. This is a stark difference from what many directors working in color in the time were doing — Nick Ray in Johnny Guitar for one example, where the colors are central to the narrative… or Tashlin in his big comedies like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which is as much an advertisement for movies over TV as it is a great movie in its own right. This is rather JT saying, “no, this is not glorious — this is terrible and gross.”

Alex: Don’t be afraid of sounding “film studenty,” because you know I’ll find a way to mock you whether you do or not, so you might as well go for it.

But seriously folks, I’m impressed with your analysis, although I’m not totally with you on the color or the kid. (Though the kid watching expressionlessly through the window reminded me of the climactic shootout in Nightfall — both are taking place within a frame that is then broken/violated, like the ultimate nightmare of watching a movie.)

I hadn’t at all thought about the irony of the movie’s ending — truth be told, I don’t really know Wyatt Earp’s story, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film version of him until Wichita — but what you say about it makes a lot of sense and seems totally in keeping with Tourneur-ish endings, which are decidedly NOT ride-off-into-the-sunset.

I’ve been bopping around chapters of that Jacques Tourneur book my sister got me [Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall by Chris Fujiwara (Mcfarland, 2011)], and Fujiwara has some sharp observations about Tourneur in general. One of which is that Tourneur’s stories and central characters always exist in some shadowy world between stability/lawfulness and chaos/death, and that his protagonists embody that mix. Which is right in line, I think, with your read on Wichita the town and the film. (Stars in My Crown is also very very interesting on this. The more I think about that movie, the more I like it.)

Although you’ve made me appreciate it more, I’m not sure I’m gonna put it on my best of the ’50s list because I thought the action scenes were directed so awkwardly — you can almost feel Tourneur’s relief when they’re over — and I didn’t give a flying fuck about McCrea and your girlfriend Vera Miles. (Good actress. Boring to look at.)

Aaron: I’m with you on how much we care about the individuals, though I would say (to not lose the grip of my argument, please, oh god, please) that the film isn’t about them but about the genre. Eh- it’s a weak argument but it makes me happy (and I don’t think it’s untrue).

I think you’re right about the action scenes, but would excuse those for similar reasons… That we really don’t care about that gunfight because that’s merely a step for Wyatt on the road to his ultimate gunfight (the one at the O.K. Corral). Really I see this as a specific answer to Clementine, which is much more rosey and classical genreish.

This film opens with Wyatt riding across the land and meeting a band of cowboys; Clementine opens with Wyatt and his fellow brothers Earp riding across the land and meeting a band of cowboys. Perhaps this is a bit of a banal parallel, but I do think the general structure is remarkably similar: Wyatt gets to town, shows he’s fair, strong, balanced and not-crooked and is enlisted to sheriff/marshall by the elders, he refuses, then when he sees extreme violence, he accepts; he always maintains he’s not a lawman but just passing through; he meets a woman who is a civilizing domestic force for him (and a symbol of civilization for the town) (their relationship is also similar to Will Kane’s and Princess Grace’s in High Noon), he implements law and order, he gets help from his brothers and has a gunfight. I think this is really taking the structure, the syntax, of the Ford and changing it to show a lot more ambivalence and ambiguity than before. There also seems to be a conservative thread running through that could relate to post-war “men returning back to the domestic sphere after war” stuff, though I have to consider this more.

I think the film relies on an understanding of the Wyatt Earp mythology, and perhaps your issues with it might have to do with your unfamiliarity with it (I say with all due respect). McCrea is totally unknowable and unrelatable here. Fonda plays it very close to the vest as well, though he’s such a symbol of “good” that we know all we need to know about him without him needing to show it explicitly.

On the boy I just really mean that he does witness the violence (again, very, very unusual for the genre in the era and something only connected to Peckinpah later). Really the witnessing the violence leads to his immediate loss of innocence (to be Platonic) and his death. It’s extremely efficient and totally uncommon/iconoclastic. I watched Peckinpah’s first film, The Deadly Companions (which was also on TCM recently in a glorious widescreen print), and it’s clear that he was specifically influenced by Wichita for that—and I would argue other films of his later (I think about the opening of The Wild Bunch where you see the kids lighting ants on fire with a magnifying glass). The Deadly Companions opens with a bunch of kids playing and making fun of one boy… that boy is later shot and killed by a stray bullet in almost exactly the same way as the boy in Wichita. It’s a really clear (and well discovered, if I do say so myself) connection. (That film also plays with genre stuff and the audience’s expectations about stars… like how Maureen O’Hara would be a “good” woman rather than a saloon girl.) All this is to say that Tourneur was doing stuff with genre bending and transforming and anti-westerns before Peckinpah (or Altman or Cimino) were doing it and getting credit for it.

I would further argue that McCrea’s performance (the direction of it by JT) as an element of mise-en-scène is also central to understanding the film (and ties in to my previous argument  about the color palette, which is particularly drab). He’s a blank wall and shows no emotion. He’s neither sympathetic nor vile. He serves a role of being “Wyatt Earp” and that is it. This is as much a critique of the Wyatt Earp mythology as it is a critique of all western mythology (again, not unlike John McCabe who has some sort of reputation for killing a man, though he probably didn’t actually do it. At least not in a “western hero/villain” mode).

One last thing is that the notion of “focalization” is important here from a theoretical view — which is to say how do we see the film, through what character’a point of view, and how do we understand it. Again, Fonda’s Wyatt is the ne plus ultra of “fixed internal focalization” where what we see and how we understand what we see is determined directy by what he sees and feels. Here we get a very modernist situation where we are focalized fixed and internal in McCrea’s Wyatt, though we don’t know what he feels really. It’s totally proto-Antonioni.

Alex: First off, you love using the phrase ne plus ultra. It’s sorta like how I use “diegetic” and “nondiegetic” in everyday speech and then secretly enjoy it when people back up and ask me to explain those words.

Also, do you appreciate the way I back up a dig at you with a dig at myself? I can’t ever really be cruel to you, honey.

Okay, anyway, I think the casting of McCrea and his performance are really great and do exactly what you’re saying. The POV question is interesting, because I think you’re right that it does locate us in his consciousness the whole time (well, almost the whole time) and yet he himself is inscrutable. So what good is this particular instance of “fixed internal focalization”? (Pffft. Film school nerd. I’d beat you up … if knew how to throw a punch.)

Oh, also — Wyatt’s entrance is really cool. The wandering cowboy party, Lloyd Bridges et al., see him from a distance, sitting on his horse at the top of the hill, and then he rides down and approaches them. Exactly the opposite of John Ford’s entrance in Stagecoach, where everyone sees him sitting on his horse at the top of the hill and then the camera tracks in on him, right up into his face. As if announcing the arrival of the hero.

Aaron: Yes! I love your point about Wyatt’s entrance! I think they say “there’s a guy over that hill” and we see a silhouette way, way in the distance… It’s the antithesis of the Wayne entrance, one of the most iconic of all in the genre (that’s a crash zoom almost, no?). Excellent.

With regard to the fixed internal focalization and McRea’s inscrutability, I would argue that that’s what the film is (again). It takes a genre and a myth that we know well and transposes it into something else. It’s an anti-Western. Normally we know and see and feel what the hero does, but here we can’t and are necessarily alienated from him and as a result we feel uncomfortable, ill at ease, with the narrative discourse (fuck yeah I can use academic terms). Again, I would connect it to Antonioni’s L’Eclisse and how it’s a portrait of a world in a moment of change, ambivalence and alienation … and leads to powerful feelings of evanescence and entropy for the audience. We go in expecting a “Wyatt Earp movie” and come out dissociated from tradition, disconnected from the comfort of the classical genre.

Alex: I just read the Fujiwara chapter on the movie and I’m sure you’d find it interesting. He seems to have had access to the shooting script, which allows him to highlight choices that could only have been made by Tourneur — for instance, actually showing the moment when the kid gets shot. (The script just has his mother bringing his body down the stairs.)

Really really would love to see the movie in actual CinemaScope.
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Post #46, In Which We Attempt To Characterize the Massive Amount of Suck That Is “Prometheus”

Alex: How did we all get it in our heads that Prometheus would be Ridley Scott’s “return” to some sort of artiste-ism? I think there’s been the sense around Prometheus that it would exhibit Ridley in his slower, more thoughtful Alien and Blade Runner mode. (Do we mistake the slowness of those movies for artfulness?) Prometheus doesn’t even mark his return to competence.

But it’s not all his fault. I think Ridley is only ever as good as his script, and Prometheus is such a shoddily constructed sequence of events — I can’t bring myself to call it a “story” — and its characters are so preposterously dumb, that the only way a director could make it work would be to treat it like the B-grade schlock fest that it really is. But irony and camp are not in Ridley’s DNA. If he’s the more ambitious and gifted of the Scott brothers, he’s also, as a result, the more pretentious, and Prometheus is deadly serious. Painfully portentous and convinced of its own importance.

The only joke in the whole movie — the only one that registers, anyway — is that David, the android played by Michael Fassbender, has modeled his speech on that of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. We even see him dying and combing his hair to match Peter’s golden wave. This is part of what makes David the most endearing character: he’s a non-human who wants to be liked by humans. Fassbender is brilliant in how he shows us David calculating ways to put the humans at ease, really figuring out how to talk to them. Of course, he’s also plotting to destroy them. Uh…I think. Is that what he’s doing? I was never clear on his agenda. For that matter, I was never clear on most of the characters’ agendas. For the amount of time they spend explaining to each other what they’re trying to achieve, it’s remarkably unclear just what it is they’re all trying to achieve.

Prometheus is a prologue to Alien. It’s the story of what happened to the wrecked ship where Ripley, et al., discover all those eggs. But the movie it should be compared to isn’t Scott’s first installment of the franchise, but rather James Cameron’s second. (Aliens is the best of the series and also, in my ’umble opinion, the best movie Cameron’s ever made.) That movie is so much better at introducing us to a ship-ful of characters. All of them, from the grunts to the scientists to the android to the corporate boob, are delineated; their objectives are clear; their secrets are dangerous. In Prometheus we have a whole bunch of people who sit around resenting each other, and nobody tells anybody else what they’re up to, and the token Asian guy is a numbers nerd, and the Irish guy is loud and dumb, and both of the main women are characterized by their daddy issues, and the only black person on the ship (Idris Elba) is blunt-spoken and sexually predatory. And of course he’s successful in his seduction of Charlize Theron, who plays the steely (and apparently powerless) boss of this whole crew — although it’s worth mentioning we don’t actually see that sex scene, while we do see the sex scene between the two white people who get it on.

Aliens is science fiction in the H.G. Wells mode; it somehow persuades you that all of this could happen. It trades in plausible impossibles. Prometheus is pompous pornography by comparison. It’s just a terrible fucking movie. It’s regressive and sadistic and it insults the intelligence and depresses the soul. It doesn’t have a hint of the subversiveness of a lot of the franchise reboots we’ve seen in recent years (Casino Royale, the Batman movies). I mean, really, it just sucks.

Aaron: I wish I could say something else, but really you totally nailed it, Alex. This is a total failure of a movie. It’s confusing and boring and sad in its desperate efforts to make silk out of sows’ ears. There’s really nothing good about it. I guess I’d agree that Fassbender is the best thing in the film, though the character is so recycled and boring (a cyborg who is so human-like that we get confused about what sort of being he is) that it’s hard to celebrate… and, of course, considering how bad all other parts of the movie are, it’s a really low bar.

I will say that I happen to think Ridley has made exactly two good movies (yes, Alien and Blade Runner), though I don’t think they’re as great as you think. I think the best thing between the two of them is his production design in BR and how it inspired the look of the next 30 years of sci-fi movies (though I give a lot of credit also to Philip K Dick). (I happen to think brother Tony Scott is an underrated director and think Top Gun, Crimson Tide and, yes, even Days of Thunder a.ka. Rednecks’ Top Gun, are entertaining and competent action movies. Generally I think Ridley is way overrated for his generally average work and I have to laugh at friends who are surprised that Prometheus is not a brilliant movie. (Did they not see Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven?)

I also want to point out that this movie seems like it’s trying to be a launching device for Swedish actress Noomi Repace, Lisbeth Salander from the Swedish “Millenium Trilogy” (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) movies. Well, I would call this a “failure to launch.” I think she’s totally boring and has absolutely no ability to hold interest or make boys get boners. There’s an elaborate sequence involving her in a white bikini that is so unerotic, I could have been watching an industrial video about the postal service. Whatever the opposite of a star is is what she is.

The film feels like it was trying to be all things to all people, rather than doing what the original (three) films did well, which is giving an interesting examination of human existence and the limits of human control. This movie has an overwrought and dull love story and a bizarre question about God and evolution, which really have nothing to do with anything important in the story.

Co-writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (that dude who created Lost) seem only to move the story through ridiculously clumsy devices. You’re right, Alex, it’s never clear what David’s movies are, but it also doesn’t really matter because I’m not sure if that really what the movie is about. It could have been interesting to show an evolution or  continuum where you have aliens on one extreme end, humans in the middle and then cyborgs at the extreme other end… but what we get is just a bunch of drippy turds on a ship that don’t really interrelate or connect to one another.

One last thing is that it’s funny you mention the Idris Elba/Charlize off-screen sex scene. I actually didn’t know they actually did it – just that she invited him over to her room to do it. It was all so PG and safe that I’m not even sure it was ever consummated. What’s worse than a bad movie? A movie that’s so worried about being offensive that it pulls all its punches and ends up saying and doing nothing.

Alex: They way you can tell Idris and Charlize fucked is because after that “Come to my room in ten minutes” bit, the next time we see her, her hair is actually un-cinched for the first time in the whole movie. (It isn’t long before it gets cinched back up again.) Was Charlize sexy in this movie? Didn’t that gray suit totally eliminate any, like, shape of her body? Why did she have to look like Liv Ullman in Persona? Or is this what straight sci-fi boys find hot?

Aaron: Yeah – that makes sense. What a weird decency-code-like way of framing a sex scene. It’s 1950 all over again! Yes – Charlize was totally spayed in this film. I don’t know. I don’t totally get her sex appeal in general. She’s blond and skinny. Big whoop. I thought it was weird that she was playing so tight it seemed like she might have been a cyborg too… but she wasn’t… or did I miss that too?

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Colorful Credits? Very Stringy Score? Lots of Little Boys? It Must Be A New Wes Anderson Movie.

Alex: I loved about two thirds of Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s seventh feature-length film. It’s about two 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy (unkowns Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), who fall in love and run away from their respective families; in Suzy’s case she’s escaping her actual family, while Sam, an orphan, flees his two surrogate families: his foster parents — who, after he disappears, decide that his reckless behavior threatens their other foster children and pronounce that he is “not invited” back to their home — and the boy-scout troupe that has prepared him for survival on the lam but has provided little else but abuse from the other boys. Sam is Piggy-like, complete with too-big glasses, and the other scouts treat him as such.

Anderson’s movies are filled with such families: the biological (“legitimate”) ones are always broken or dysfunctional, while the ad hoc ones (like the whole crew of the vessel in The Life Acquatic) find a way to work. Moonrise Kingdom is like a comedic Romeo and Juliet, and while Anderson couches his societal critique — Sam and Suzy are two of civilization’s discontents — in his signature cuteness, still there is some seriously radical shit going on in this movie. I can’t think of another movie that depicts childhood sexuality in such a straightforward way. (I emphasize that these aren’t teenagers: Suzy has only just stepped into puberty, and Sam isn’t there yet.)

Because they live on an island, they can’t stay hidden for very long. But even after they’re found, and even as their families try to re-orient them to normal life, still they try to find ways to bust out. I find their relationship incredibly touching, and the emotional ripple effects on the grown-ups — there’s an exquisite scene between Frances McDormand and Bill Murray, who play Suzy’s parents, as they lie in their separate beds at night — are genuine and deeply articulated. This kind of emotionality is not always Wes’s M.O.

But the second half of the movie is filled with a lot of Wes’s signature tweeness, and I can never quite get a grip on that stuff. (Yes, Aaron, I said it: I can’t grip Wes Anderson’s tweenis.) We spend a lot of time watching the scout troupe get into all sorts of cartoon-ish shenanigans, and I don’t find any of it funny or subversive. I really checked out of the movie around the time one of our main characters gets struck by lightning then pops up blackened but unharmed, like Wile E. Coyote.

That said, there is definitely something deeper going on with all those 12-year-old boys in their identical uniforms executing orders and wielding weapons: this movie is set in 1965, and six years from now these boys will be drafted. From the start of the film we’re told there’s a huge storm approaching the island, and it operates as a multi-metaphor: for Vietnam, for the miasma of adolescence, for a country about to redefine violence on its own turf.

While the metaphor is there, though, it isn’t deeply explored or elaborated. The movie climaxes with a truly cartoon-ish flee-and-rescue, and in the end everything is pretty much set aright; nobody changes, but they all learn how to live with each other. Anderson always reveals himself as a sentimentalist: he doesn’t really want to tear down the institution of Family — he wants to fix it. So, for me, this is a movie that thrillingly approaches some very dangerous precipices, but ultimately retreats.

Aaron: First, I just want to point out that you have the amazing math skills and temperament of an MFA. At first you love the first two-thirds of the film and then you change it to the first half… Maybe you liked the first five-eighths. Second, and most importantly, I love that you casually mention that “the second half of the movie is filled with a lot of Wes’s signature tweeness” as if that was some sort of valve he was able to adjust. (“The Nazis used a lot of their signature efficiency at Auschwitz.”) I think this is Anderson’s most twee film. All it is is cutesy manicured faux rose-tinted nostalgia. I don’t see any of the depth you find (just in the first half?), and think it’s a really cool and symmetrical looking, but empty movie.

Yes, the boy scouts of the mid-’60s represent the war that’s coming and the guys who are going to die in it — and they also speak to the wars we’re in today and all the young men and women who are killed in muslim places… but so what?! It’s all a bit too polished and too exact for my taste. There’s a clear disconnect between the adult work of the parents, the scouting brass and the establishment (either the government adoption people or the cop) and the dreamworld of the kids (the “moonrise kingdom”), but what’s new about that?

I’m a bit surprised by what you say about childhood sexuality, because it’s really only pre-sexuality (or non-sexuality) as the kids are 12-years old. I guess their just barely post-latent, but all they do is go swimming in their undies and kiss and grope in an awkward, age-appropriate way. There’s no mention of masturbation or any sort of deeper sexuality apparent. There’s certainly no eroticism. I wonder, Alex, if you’re planting your own psychology into these characters. I guess, through synecdoche, they could be playing out an adult sexual adventure… but then what’s the point of it being childhood sexuality? I see the sex here as being average and normal. That kids say they’re “in love” means nothing to me — for the exact reason they’re in by scouts and not in the Marines. This is all a safe test world for what they’re going to see later. Nothing means anything for them. That’s why they’re kids.

You have to describe the social critique you saw because I think I missed it. I saw a very interesting rebuke of humanist cinema. This is not a world that you and I could live in. It’s a doll’s house world (the first shot of the interior of Suzy’s house looks like a doll’s house on purpose… really that’s the core and aesthetic of everything post-Rushmore than Anderson has done). Not only is everything centered, and every single shot balanced in a hyper-rational (read: fascist) but everything is presented in very short settings, mostly interiors, where there is no sense of depth or natural space. As a result everything is shot with normal to wide lenses, giving the film the overall quality of a museum diorama that looks almost real, but cold and lifeless. This is interesting when employed by Chantal Akerman, but generally dull here without the formal polemic she might use. What’s particularly surprising to me is that it’s also a formal rejection of the films you hold dear, Alex. There is no space here for Renoir, Satyajit Ray or Mizoguchi. It’s a hollow space filled with the echos of characters who represent something, but really don’t seem to be at all human. (Damn that’s a poetic sentence!)

What’s more upsetting to me is that there’s all this sound and fury (or, really, no sound and no fury, because those things would be mildly human) but it all represents nothing. What is this movie saying? That youth is a magical time? That kids are wise beyond their years and adults have lost that sense? Bo-ring!

What’s the point of the stylistic and formal assault? I don’t see this as being any sort of political movie outside of the suggested politics of white, middle-class New England in the ’60s. Is this a commentary on our world? Is Anderson trying to move us to a visceral reaction against this very twee world and why would he? It all feels like style over substance for me and like a really elaborate door on an empty room. It might take you a long way to figure out how to open it, but once you do, there’s nothing inside to eat.

Alex: Thanks for checking my arithmetic, Poindexter, but if I have to clarify for your relentlessly literal mind, I shall: The second half of the movie does become more twee and hollow than the first half (absolutely it’s a valve Anderson can open and close, even if he’s doing it unconsciously), but there is still some stuff in it that I find touching (like what our heroes are prepared to do at the climax of the movie — which I won’t describe, lest I spoil, although I think I basically just did). The relationship throughout is very touching. So all of the stuff I liked in the friggin’ movie adds up to “about two-thirds.” Okay? Yeesh.

Meanwhile, thank you for the gentleness with which you suggest I’m a pedophile — I’ll show you where you can plant yer psychology — but did you not catch the scene where they’re standing against each other in their underwear and he apologizes for getting “hard” and she responds, “I like it”? Did you not catch the close-up of a kiss they tell us is going to be “French”? I agree with you that this is all this is perfectly normal, but what amazes me is that the movie actually depicts it. Head-on. It doesn’t hint at it or leave their physical relationship for us to imagine. And their sexuality is part of their rebellion — at home they’d get in trouble for this stuff.

We are certainly in agreement that the visual echoes of war and armies don’t get much louder than echoes, but there’s another socio-political critique going on, and that’s the repressive and oppressive nature of family — ostensibly the basic building block of our society. This is what the kids are rebelling against. It’s the institution the movie critiques, and that gives meaning to the dollhouse of the opening sequence (which I thought was brilliant).

I can’t always explain Anderson’s formal compositions and precise — yes, possibly fascist — mise-en-scene, except that sometimes it all expresses the worldview of his precocious protagonists. (The interiors are oppressive. The details are so carefully placed and observed that you do feel distance from the world — just like Sam and Suzy do.) But, as you say, this is also Anderson’s default mode, and it doesn’t always mean something. So I think the movie is more than just twee and hollow — in fact, I think only about one third of it is just twee and hollow.

Aaron: I fundamentally don’t see this so-called “critique” of the family as being very full-throated or important. I see it more as background for a twee love story. As you wisely pointed out, it’s basically all that Anderson is capable of doing and it’s boring. This isn’t anything different from Tenenbaums or Zissou except the people are younger.

With regard to the kiddie sex again (or non-sex, as I would say), let me first say that if the  climax of the film or the scene is that two kids kiss and fondle one another, then we really have reached new depths of disinterest and banality. I liked that comment about how Sam got a hard-on from kissing Suzy, and think that was probably the most honest thing in the film. But the sun shines on a dog’s ass every once in a while and this doesn’t make Anderson’s portrayal of pre-sexual discomfort any more profound.

The most difficult thing for me with Anderson’s oeuvre is how he seems to be making movies for his oeuvre rather than telling stories. He’s more interested in his total body of work than in the particular film he’s making. They’re all sorta the same and all have exactly the same look. In a superficial, auteur-obsessed culture, this means that many people are fooled into thinking this movie (any of his movies) are great because they’re technically perfect and all take place in the same painless dreamy nonspace.

What I think Anderson always lacks in his non-Rushmore movies is any connection to me, to any human experience. I guess you could argue that he’s not concerned with making humanist movies, but I would say that his films have the same sentimental surfaces that you might find in a Rossellini or Renoir film, but none of the depth. Anderson paints his stories with the same glossy brush he uses on his sets. We see two kids kissing and saying ‘I love you’ to the other, but we don’t really feel that love. It’s all shown to us and we feel and understand nothing emotionally.

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If You Like Socially Conscious Belgian Realism — Have We Got a Flick for You!

Alex: Aaron and I are great fans of the filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Their 2002 film Le Fils was, according to the wisdom of the Ira voting body, the #1 film of the 2000’s. (Although I didn’t have it on my personal list, but I’ll bitch about that later.)

Their newest is The Kid with a Bike, and it’s great. The Dardennes’ films are characterized by a realism that is extraordinarily lucid. Most of their camera is hand-held (well, steadicam, which isn’t literally hand-held, but the effect is similar), scoring is minimal (often absent), and their scripts almost never stop to give us backstory.

The Kid with a Bike begins with the titular boy, Cyril, about 10 or 11, starting to come to grips with the fact that he’s been abandoned by his father. Why that has happened now, or why the mother isn’t in the picture, we never learn. The boy eventually comes under the protection and shelter of a hairdresser (Cecile de France, a.k.a. the Future Mrs. Aaron Rich), but who she was before the action of the movie we never learn. This seems key to the Dardennes method: It’s all about what’s right in front of you, without embellishment or elaboration. The camera observes without judging, and it usually does so at eye level of the main character — especially remarkable in this movie, whose central point of view is that of a child. (By the way, we meet his deadbeat father about a third of the way through the movie. It’s a great, brief performance by Jérémie Renier, the Dardennes’ stalwart: Renier himself was a boy in their earliest films.)

Like many of the Dardennes’ male protagonists, Cyril finds his way to the fringes of society. These characters aren’t misfits, exactly, but semi-fits, and they have complex relationships with the societal institutions (orphanages, courts, police departments) whose benevolence is meant to keep them from drifting. If they’re quasi-outlaws — and Cyril gets involved in some petty crime — they don’t exactly surrender the laws’ protection. It’s more like they can’t escape it.

For me, the real treatise on all this is their 2006 masterpiece L’Enfant (in which Renier plays the flawed hero), which should have been the Dardennes film that topped the Iroids’ best-of-the-decade list. After all, it won several Iras (best picture, director, screenplay) the year it came out, where Le Fils didn’t win any. How the latter emerged triumphant, I still don’t know.

But anyway. The new movie is excellent.

Aaron: Well, I can’t really disagree with anything you say about The Kid with a Bike, though I don’t agree with you about L’Enfant (which I think is less strong than you do… though “less strong” for the Dardennes is top-notch for just about anyone else). But let’s leave that disagreement because picking up on that other film is very important to understanding this one. This is an excellent film.

I like what you say about characters having complex relationships with societal institutions, because that’s a classic trope and falls in easily with why I like this film so much. It’s essentially a neorealist (or neo-neorealist) fairy tale, as impossible as that is. Cyril is the damsel in distress and Samantha is his knight in shining armor (gender roles switched due to age and neorealist intrigue). As close to the ground as the story is, it does float along on a rather moralistic and uncanny thread. What’s great is that, because their films work in such a harsh, thankless world, the magic here is particularly relatable and seems normal.

But this is also a movie about their other movies, with tons of references to earlier works and earlier moments. Cyril seems like Bruno (Jérémie Renier) from their 1996 film La Promesse, Francis from Le Fils or Rosetta from their 1999 (and sadly not on DVD) Rosetta. The fact that Cyril is rejected by his father is reminiscent of L’Enfant or Le Fils. Even deeper, you could read this as the continuation of the Bruno story, with L’Enfant as a mid-point (imagine Bruno grows up, has a baby, tries to abandon it and then the kids ends up in the orphanage system). I strongly believe that as wonderful as The Kid with a Bike is, it could be appreciated more with a stronger knowledge of the Dardennes’ oeuvre.

Finally, I think it’s interesting how much more open and free this film feels with the many shots of Cyril riding his bike around the town. Yes, we’ve seen lots of Steadicam shots of characters walking around before (in Le Fils, in particular), but never anything as high-flying and exuberant as this. Perhaps this is their happiest film, which might have something to do with it being a fairy tale.

I think what I love about the Dardennes so much is that their films are efficient, powerful and short. They don’t try to make complicated epics (Lorna’s Silence is probably their weakest because it tries to do too much and is too long), but simple and sweet short stories.

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The 2011 Ira Winners!

Our two nights of Ira voting were as raucous and vulgar as ever, and a great time was had by all. We all felt the absence of our friend Damien Bona — one of the original Ira voters, who passed away in January — but we know he’s snickering at us and mocking these awards from above.

Best Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Best Editing: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa, The Tree of Life

Best Production Design: Dante Ferretti, Hugo

Best Score: Alberto Iglesias, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and The Skin I Live In

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life

Best Supporting Actress: Sareh Bayat, A Separation

Best Supporting Actor: Hunter McCracken, The Tree of Life

Best Actress: Leila Hatami, A Separation

Best Actor: Peyman Moadi, A Separation

Best Director: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Picture: The Tree of Life

And the ironic awards…

Mechanical Actor: Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris

Mechanical Actress: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Sominex: Midnight in Paris

Dramamine: The Help

Alex: So I’m very pleased with these winners, and it’s only the third time my own top choice for best picture went on to win the award, so that feels good. During the voting I took a lot of grief (and not just from Aaron) for the ubiquity of Moneyball on my ballot. Several people even gave it sominex points, and I started to fear both for the fate of my second-favorite film of 2011 and for the lucidity and reasonableness of the Ira voting body. Happily, we backed away from that particular edge and gave the sominex award to a truly deserving film. (I’m as big a Woody fan/defender/apologist as you’ll find, but even I thought Midnight in Paris suuuuuuuuuucked.)


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Ira Award Winners, Part 1: The All-Time List

Aaron and I will weigh in with our opinions soon enough, but for now here is the ranked list of the 100 greatest movies ever made, according to the New York Independent Film Critics, a.k.a. The Iras:

1.  The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
2.  The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)
3.  Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1943)
4.  Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
5.  The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
6.  Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948)
7.  The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)
8.  Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
9.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)
10. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

11.  Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
12.  The Earrings of Madame de… (Max Ophuls, 1953)
13.  The Shop around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
14.  Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
15.  Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
16.  Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
17.  Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
18.  North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
19.  The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)
20.  The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926)

21.  Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, Bruxelles 1080 (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
22.  The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
23.  Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)
24.  Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)
25.  Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
26.  Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
27.  Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
28.  Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)
29.  His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
30.  Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

31.  Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
32.  Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)
33.  The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944)
34.  Chimes at Midnight, a.k.a. Falstaff (Orson Welles, 1965)
35.  All about Eve (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1950)
36.  The Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989)
37.  The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)
38.  Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
39.  Danton (Andrzej Vajda, 1983)
40.  Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)

41.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
42.  Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
43.  Once upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
44.  2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
45.  Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955)
46.  A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956)
47.  Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
48.  Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
49.  The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
50.  Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)

51.  Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
52.  Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)
53.  Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962)
54.  Home from the Hill (Vincente Minnelli, 1960)
55.  Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
56.  The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
57.  Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)
58.  Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959)
59.  The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
60.  Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)

61.  Pickup on South Street (Sam Fuller, 1953)
62.  Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
63.  The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1928)
64.  The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)
65.  White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)
66.  The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)
67.  The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Jean Renoir, 1936)
68.  The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
69.  The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
70.  The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

71.  Red (Krzysztof Kieslowksi, 1994)
72.  All that Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
73.  Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982)
74.  Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
75.  Day of Wrath (Carl Dreyer, 1943)
76.  Rebel without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
77.  In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
78.  The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979)
79.  It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
80.  The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)

81.  Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
82.  Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951)
83.  Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
84.  Lola Montes (Max Ophuls, 1955)
85.  Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
86.  The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
87.  Shock Corridor (Sam Fuller, 1963)
88.  Meet Me In St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
89.  Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
90.  A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954)

91.  Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
92.  The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)
93.  Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967)
94.  A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1946)
95.  How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941)
96.  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)
97.  Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)
98.  Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
99.  Travels with My Aunt (George Cukor, 1972)
100.  In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000)

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