Category Archives: 2000s

The Omen (2006)

*. Though it did decent box office, or really very good box office for its slight budget, I’d missed this version of The Omen entirely when it came out and so went into it now not expecting much of anything. I’m sure I didn’t have my hopes up, probably figuring it was going to be just another one of the dismal twenty-first century horror resets that didn’t go anywhere (see, for example, my notes on the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and Child’s Play) .
*. The first thing that struck me was David Seltzer’s name appearing in the credits for the screenplay. Seltzer had done the screenplay for The Omen (1976) and I thought it curious he would have come back to do this after not wanting to be involved in the sequel Omen II.
*. Well, actually he wasn’t involved in this at all. The screenwriter who had been working on a new script was denied a credit by the Writers Guild because it was deemed to be too close to Seltzer’s original. Which it certainly is, both for the story and much of the dialogue, which is repeated verbatim. This, in turn, leads to a number of further reflections.
*. In the first place, why bother? This is something a number of critics wondered about at the time. The review by Peter Travers in Rolling Stone may be taken as representative: “Not since Gus Van Sant inexplicably directed a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho has a thriller been copied with so little point or impact.”
*. I’m just as baffled at what the point was in sticking so closely to the original. On the DVD commentary there’s an exchange at the beginning where director John Moore is asked about the use of news footage of recent human catastrophes like floods, 9/11, and even the Challenger explosion as suggesting the coming of the Antichrist. I found his response very odd. “Oh yeah, that’s mostly the point here, is that the Beast, the Antichrist, will be a man-made entity, and that most of the ills that befall us are man made.” The “point of the remake,” he goes on to say “was to give it [these disasters] context.”,
*. So the heralds of Revelation, the opening of the seven seals, are all human in origin. Things like war and climate change. So why does the devil need Damien? And can the forces of faith fight rising sea waters? Or fix defective O-rings? If this was the “point of the remake” you can colour me confused.

*. Another point that I questioned with regard to sticking to the original script is that it was far from flawless in the first place. If you’re free to make changes, why not? Why not fix the character of Father Brennan, who can’t keep his act together for just the couple of minutes he needs to try and convince Thorn of what’s going on? He finally gets access to this powerful figure and he has to lead off with cries for him to drink the blood of his saviour and find Jesus?
*. OK, he’s a kook. One of the good guys, but still a kook. But here’s another point in Seltzer’s script that should have been reworked. It comes when Thorn has finally been convinced that Damien is a demonic force, responsible for his wife’s death (and indirectly the death of two of his unborn children). He’s just finished listening to all of Bugenhagen’s spiel (which he accepts as true), when . . . he suddenly develops scruples. Damien is just a child, Thorn can’t go through with it, and he even throws the daggers of Megiddo away. I didn’t think that made any sense in the original and it’s a problem they did nothing to fix here.
*. They also made no attempt to fix a stupid factual error in the original: a single line where Jennings says that the place name Megiddo is derived from Armageddon, when it’s the other way around. Talk about an easy fix! Did nobody care that this was wrong? Did nobody know?
*. Perhaps we’re just getting stupider. In the original when Thorn digs up the grave of Damien’s mother and finds the skeleton of a jackal he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to because it was assumed the audience would have followed along. Here he has to explain what it means to Jennings, and to us. It’s no longer a safe assumption that audiences will keep up or be paying attention.
*. As a final point on the question of why they would want to keep the remake so close to the original there is the fact that all of the signature scenes from thirty years earlier are just repeated here, without finding any way to improve on them. Damien’s freakout in the car going to church is just done through rapid editing. The trip to the zoo is more a trip the mall with some apes improbably in glass cages. Except for one gorilla they don’t seem too upset. Father Brennan is speared again with a falling lightning rod, the only difference being that the rod smashes through some stained glass first.
*. Then there’s the decapitation scene, which by the time it comes was about the only thing that had me still interested. I guess it’s neatly done, in a sort of Rube Goldberg-Final Destination sort of way. But still not up to the original.
*. I wouldn’t suggest it as a general rule, but still: anytime a horror movie indulges this much thunder and lightning you start to think it’s in trouble, trying to give itself any extra support it can get.
*. A good cast. I was wondering what happened to Julia Stiles. I hadn’t seen her in anything since all the Shakespeare adaptations she’d been in a few years earlier. Liev Schreiber does his best. Mia Farrow, the devil’s mother, is back as the devil’s nanny. Ha-ha. She’s good, but I’d still give the nod to Billie Whitelaw. David Thewlis is still getting hyped on the number of the beast. I wonder if they considered having him do the same routine he did in Naked. Would that have been too obvious? Pete Postlethwaite steals every scene as Father Brennan. Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick not saying much but looking more consciously evil than Harvey Stephens (who shows up here in a cameo as a reporter).
*. I wouldn’t call this movie a disaster, though at the same time I can’t think of a single thing it does better than the original, which was, in turn, only a happy bit of a trash. Well, maybe the way Miss Baylock kills Damien’s mom in the hospital. That’s properly sickening. But as far as sequels go this was, along with most of the other horror resets coming out at the same time, stillborn. Surely there’s a message here that we may not have needed any of these franchise offspring. It did, however, make a lot of money so I suppose we haven’t seen the last of this devil yet.

Team America: World Police (2004)

*. Team America: World Police is a product of the same partnership that gave us the television series South Park: director Trey Parker and writers Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady. And in both cases the comic hook is the same: cartoons or puppets doing “adult” things like swearing a lot and having sex. There’s some political satire and observational humour on American culture, but that shocking incongruity is what provides the foundation.
*. I’m not a big fan of South Park, and don’t watch it except by accident, but I have seen some funny episodes. Funnier, at least, than anything in Team America: World Police. This isn’t a bad movie — the puppetry, or Supermarionation as its known as in the business — is actually quite good and the effects are well produced and fun in their obviously fake way. I especially liked the giant black panthers. But as comedy it’s crudely written and not funny at all.
*. To begin with the shock factor I mentioned, here you’ll see puppets dropping loads of bombs and f-bombs, vomiting copiously, having their heads blown into pulpy messes, and fucking in every different kind of position (in the uncut DVD version anyway), including peeing and shitting on each other. Is any of that funny? I guess it depends on how old you are or how easily you shock. I wasn’t offended by any of it, but I wasn’t laughing.

*. Then there is the satire. This aims to be “fair and balanced” by attacking both rah-rah American patriotism (the team’s theme music is “America, fuck yeah!”) and left-wing Hollywood celebrities. But I thought all of this was overplayed. I mean, I get the jokes, but how funny are they? Look at the gung-ho Americans destroying the world in order to save it! Look at the precious actors — who are all members of the Film Actors Guild. That’s F.A.G. They even spell it out for you. Get it? Again: I’m not offended by any of this. But is it funny?
*. My sense is that sending up Hollywood might have been funny but it all seems tired now, and the puppets don’t look or sound at all like their models (not that surprising, as they’re all voiced by Parker). Without their being identified I doubt I could have recognized one of them.
*. Then there is the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. An obvious comic butt with his huge glasses and silly jumpsuits, he also turns his l’s into r’s in stereotypical Asian speech. I wanted to laugh at this guy. But what good lines does he have? The song where he complains about being “ronery”?
*. So I get it. I don’t think I’m missing anything here. I think it would be hard in a film this broad to miss anything. But maybe it’s just not my thing. It’s an “adult” movie in a way that has to use the quotation marks, but it’s not for grown-ups.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

*. I understand the love for Wes Anderson. That such a young director could make movies so polished, assured, and informed by such a knowledge of the entire history of film is remarkable. There is nothing in The Royal Tenenbaums, or his previous film Rushmore (1998) for that matter, that feels out of place. On repeated viewings you will see more and more at work, at least in the visuals.
*. Having said all that, as quickly as possible, I’ll now say I’m not a fan. I like Anderson’s movies but I don’t love them. This is at least in part because they seem so consciously designed to be liked.

*. What do I mean? Well, by accident I was rewatching this movie the same week I watched Left Behind (the one starring Nicolas Cage). The two films have probably never been associated in anyone’s head, but I was struck by how similar they felt. What I said about Left Behind (and it’s an observation others made) is that it has not just the look but the emotional weight of a Hallmark Theater production. Turning to The Royal Tenenbaums just a couple of days later I was struck by how similar it was in this respect. It is polished, yes, but to a point where everything seems artificial, while carrying a weightless, feel-good message about family, love, and then through love finding redemption.
*. The Tenenbaums are a dysfunctional family, with a penchant (inherited from patriarch Royal) for flaming out. But there is no drama. Perhaps taking their lead from Bill Murray, by now an icon of deadpan, the cast take dryness to Murray-esque extremes. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a zombie, and apparently isn’t even on drugs. The Wilson brothers both seem lobotomized. Danny Glover, dressed up in a Kofi Annan uniform, bears a truly unfortunate resemblance to a racist lawn ornament, and has the same stiff impassivity. Etheline (Anjelica Huston) appears to be surprised by feeling. Only Royal (Gene Hackman) and Chas (Ben Stiller) show any humanity at all.

*. This is an ironic twist. We are used to family drama being dramatic. We revel in the bitchiness of family reunions, from The Lion in Winter to Ordinary People. Or we like to watch the fireworks in family comedies like Meet the Parents. But the Tenenbaum clan turns this on its head. They’re eccentrics, but they’re narcotized. There are no fireworks when they get together. They don’t seem to love or hate one another but instead only engage in half-hearted manipulative games.
*. What I thought most lacking was the pain. The Tenenbaum kids are supposed to be damaged, but they don’t feel like survivors of anything. They’re just zeroes. I found it interesting to read that both Hackman and Huston initially turned down their roles unless more material was written for them because they thought their characters lacked depth. I can only imagine how thin they were originally.
*. This thinness is what I find characterizes Anderson’s work. It’s what makes him so popular, and it’s what I don’t like. The Royal Tenenbaums is a very well made movie but it’s also a silly piece of fluff. I began by saying how, on repeated viewings, one can appreciate more and more in its visual texture, its art and design. At the same time, I find less and less actually going on.

Scarecrow Gone Wild (2004)

*. Worst. Scarecrow. Ever.
*. The “star” of the first Scarecrow movie was Tiffany Shepis, a name not many people will recognize but someone who does have a following as a scream queen in low-budget horror efforts. The star (I think I can fairly say it this time without quotation marks) of Scarecrow Slayer was Tony Todd, a name and face most horror fans will recognize from Candyman and the Final Destination movies.
*. The star, or “star,” of Scarecrow Gone Wild is “UFC Hall of Famer” Ken Shamrock. Unlike Shepis and Todd, Shamrock is not an actor. Nor, outside of fans of MMA, is he as well known. That said, he does as well in the acting department as anyone else in the cast here. This gives some idea of the trajectory the Scarecrow franchise followed, even after starting out at the bottom.
*. When I call this the worst Scarecrow ever I’m not just talking about the worst Scarecrow movie. The Scarecrow himself is the worst ever. For some reason he’s just a guy wearing an obvious scarecrow mask, of the kind that pulls down over your head, flaring out around the neck. What gives? The franchise had switched to a different production company so maybe they were trying to cut costs. I don’t know. I don’t care.
*. The gore effects are worthless. When people are disembowelled their guts just sit on top of their stomachs in a neat pile. Meanwhile, the rest of the movie consists of a lot of annoying bickering among young people (Shamrock’s part is little more than a cameo). There are some boobs on display though, and a scene where a couple of the jocks piss all over the face of a guy they buried in sand. No joke. This really happens.
*. I thought the title was kind of cute, conjuring up thoughts of the Scarecrow going crazy at Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break, but all we end up getting is a quick trip by the gang to a deserted beach for a party that the Scarecrow crashes. Ho-hum. I wonder just how low the budget was on this one. I mean, nothing here looks like it could have cost very much.
*. No more flips and tumbling rolls. And the Scarecrow doesn’t speak. But he does whistle. And he can swim. Figure that out.
*. The ending was a bit unexpected, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it interesting. Sadly, by that time I was so bored and frankly angry with Scarecrow Gone Wild that I just wanted it to end. Not caring what the end was, so long as some end might be, to paraphrase Browning’s Child Roland.
*. Absolute garbage. Bad without coming close to being so bad it’s good. Luckily, this seemed to be it for the man of straw. At least we can hope.

Scarecrow Slayer (2003)

*. I didn’t have my hopes up. To be more precise, I was just wondering if it could possibly be any worse than Scarecrow.
*. It should have met my low expectations. The story isn’t that bad (I shudder as I write that, but keep in mind such a judgement is relative). There’s no continuity with Scarecrow but instead a vague alternative mythology is introduced which only keeps the idea of the Scarecrow being possessed of the spirit of some unlucky guy who dies at its feet. Then there’s a bunch of college jerks who play at being Marines, which is at least a bit more interesting than the usual gang of jocks. And finally we have Tony Todd in an abbreviated Ahab role. His character should be able to explain what’s going on a bit better, having written several books on the subject, but I’m not sure the screenwriters knew any more than he did.
*. All this might have been OK. Or at least, as I had hoped, no worse than the original. Unfortunately, it’s put across with total technical incompetence. This movie has some of the worst visual effects and lighting I think I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, it doesn’t need to be said but I’ll say anyway that the acting is at the same level. I’m talking about performances that are so bad they’re immediately annoying. They don’t even have to wear on you.
*. Complete garbage, without even the blessings of a few good kills. But for all that I have trouble saying it’s any worse than Scarecrow. On the whole I’m inclined to think it moves a bit better even if it makes (a lot) less sense. It’s really hard to look at though, and the only people who will find any entertainment value in it will be dedicated craphounds.

Scarecrow (2002)

*. It’s a given that most horror franchises go downhill, and go downhill fast. You can probably count the exceptions to this rule with the fingers on one hand. But most of them do, at least, get off to a somewhat promising start. The first Friday the 13th was OK. The Children of the Corn movies were a long tail of trash, but the original wasn’t bad. The first Leprechaun wasn’t . . . terrible.
*. There have been, as of this writing, three Scarecrow movies (this one was followed quickly by Scarecrow Slayer and Scarecrow Gone Wild), qualifying it as a mini-franchise. This is the first, and it is terrible. When a franchise starts off at the level of the later Children of the Corn entries then you have to wonder why they’re even bothering.
*. The opening credits take a long time to run through, as they throw everyone’s name up there. This establishes what will be a pattern. Despite being a short film (under 90 minutes) there is a lot of filler, from musical cues to cutaways of clouds. Among the many names that get splashed on screen someone may recognize Tiffany Shepis as the last girl. She’s a bit of a scream queen in these low-budget thrillers. The only other name that stuck out, because it comes up three times (for visual effects, make-up, and second unit director), was Anthony C. Ferrante. He’s the guy behind the Sharknado franchise, which he moved on to ten years after this. That’s right, he went on to Sharknado, which was a step up.
*. The story here has a high school loser named Lester who gets killed by the redneck jerk who’s banging his trailer-trash mom. Somehow Lester’s soul transfers into a scarecrow, which then comes to life and starts killing people off in ways that are very quick and uninteresting.
*. The only thing I liked is the appearance of the Scarecrow himself. He does look good. But he has a stupid voice when he probably shouldn’t have been talking at all (he doesn’t in the next movie) and he delivers a lot of stupid lines. When he kills Lester’s mean teacher he says “How’s that for a pop quiz?” When he kills someone else with a shovel he says “Can you dig it?” I don’t think this is supposed to be clever, but rather to make us laugh at how dumb it is.
*. Another aspect of the Scarecrow I couldn’t quite figure out is his penchant for doing gymnastic leaps and somersaults every chance he gets. At one point he even does a whole tumbling roll down the street. I’m not sure why, since this doesn’t strike me as something scarecrows are known for, or that Lester might have been practicing in his spare time. I guess it livens things up a bit though.
*. Well, it was apparently shot in eight days and couldn’t have cost very much. I don’t think there’s much to say about it other than to acknowledge the fact that it exists.

Contact (2006)

*. Clocking in at less than 10 minutes, Hanro Smitsman’s Contact (Raak) is a perfect example not just of narrative trickery but economy. What’s even more impressive is how well these two attributes reinforce each other.
*. A boy (Rik) is bullied at school. His mom (Mirna) is bullied at home. A man (Martin) is rejected as a lover. These are all people trapped in a downward spiral of “what goes around comes around.” It’s a billiard-ball vision of human physics, with social interactions reduced to the act of people shoving other people away. Which sends them spinning off until they bump into someone else who they shove away in turn, often repeating the same dismissive epithets.
*. The way the story is structured helps drive the point home: not progressing in a linear fashion, or even in reverse, but turning in a circle around a climactic moment. This makes it all the more essential to pay attention to the matter of cause-and-effect, which is the film’s theme.
*. The editing is the way this all comes together. Note how, in the early going, there are skips in the action, where Rik is walking, and then the story seems to jump ahead. This doesn’t register as much more than a way of moving things along and getting rid of some connecting tissue, but these cuts are actually important because they lead us to think of them as not being essential. But later they will be.
*. This only becomes clear on a second viewing. In the break between Rik dropping the piece of cement we cut immediately to Martin swerving his car and yelling. The way we’re used to watching movies we think the cut is taking us directly from cause to effect, but in fact we’ve changed narrative streams. In a couple of other places there is similar sleight of hand. Because Martin and Mirna are still singing in the car we think, despite those gaps I mentioned, that no time has passed between the box hitting Rik and his retaliation from the bridge. Just as, when we cut from a shot of Rik running in one place to another shot of him running in another that the action has been more or less continuous. But it can’t have been. Those gaps were considerable.
*. All of this makes Contact a near perfect small package, paradoxically both rounded off and open-ended. Where does that brick fall? Or is it falling still? It may be, as I suggested, that these characters are caught in a downward spiral, but that spiral might also be an endless loop.

10,000 BC (2008)

*. If nothing else, at least the title made more sense than One Million Years B.C. (1966). So Hollywood was learning something about history. Very slowly, but they were learning.
*. 10,000 BC is full of historical inaccuracies as well. This is the result not so much of the Hollywoodization of the past as of the impact of CGI. An effects movie needs bigger monsters, bigger armies, and bigger buildings. The same thing was done to the Thermopylae story in 300.
*. It probably helped that Roland Emmerich, who likes to go big, was directing. Apparently a lot of people have expressed the opinion that this is Emmerich’s worst movie. I wonder what they think his best was. I don’t think there’d be much competition.
*. There is a lot of epic/fantasy New Zealand scenery to go with the CGI. One Million Years B.C., on the other hand, had Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. Give the ’60s the win. Cartoonishly sexy women are an essential ingredient for these flicks and I miss Raquel. Hell, I miss Rebecca Ferratti. Steven Straight and Camilla Belle can’t do much in the acting department, and merely looking pretty isn’t good enough.
*. The narration opens thusly: “Only time can tell us what is truth and what is legend.” Now how or why would time sort that out? Surely with the passage of time the line only becomes blurrier.
*. OK, enough fun. This is a silly movie that was savaged by critics but managed to do decent box office because it’s lightweight nonsense without any pretensions of being something more. It’s badly missing a sense of humour, and sure the CGI hasn’t held up. I’ve seen better CGI tigers in paper towel commercials. But the terror birds (Phorusrhacidae) are something new and the stampede of mastodons was a decent way to wrap things up. If I were still twelve years old I would have probably enjoyed it. But I grew up with posters of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. Things were better then.

The Time Machine (2002)

*. In my notes on George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) I mentioned how the novel by H. G. Wells introduced two longstanding subgenres into SF’s bloodstream: time travel and socio-economic dystopia. Pal’s film really wasn’t much interested in either, preferring to amuse itself with nifty effects (though an enjoyable enough movie for all that). This version, directed by H. G. Wells’ great-grandson Simon Wells, engages a bit with the first but makes an even bigger hash of the second.
*. When I say “time travel” here what I’m referring to isn’t the science of time travel but the way time-travel stories draw attention to the operations of narrative. They involve, indeed highlight, twists and conundrums and paradoxes that challenge the linear way we usually experience a story. This Time Machine does a lot more of this than Pals’ or Wells’ version, making the need to change the past and/or the future a part of the plot. Not that it makes a lot of sense, or is even comprehensible in this regard, but that’s the kind of movie it is.
*. Unfortunately, the business about the split between the Eloi and Morlocks makes even less sense, and completely jettisons any sort of political reading. From the 1960 film the idea is taken that a disaster (or quirk of fate) has led to the great divergence (a nuclear war in the first film, an explosion on the moon here). There is no sense of a division of labour that has become so rigid that the Upperworld and Underworld begin to follow different evolutionary tracks.
*. In fact, these Morlocks are perfectly comfortable in the upper world, not the usual troglodyte albinos afraid of sunlight and fire. They’re also not more advanced than their Eloi cousins. The Eloi are far more intelligent and resourceful than in previous versions of the story, while the Morlocks here only growl and even run on all fours, sort of like the gorillas in Planet of the Apes (2001). It’s hard to believe they still understand metallurgy or engineering.
*. And I’m not sure they do. Apparently they are all being mind-controlled by Jeremy Irons, who seems to be a third kind of creature known as an Über-Morlock. These Über-Morlocks have both psychokinetic and telepathic abilities, and maybe Jeremy Irons is the only one who knows how to keep the machines running.
*. But why keep the machines running? And why eat the Eloi? Whatever devastation the exploding moon wrought, the Earth seems plenty habitable now. The Eloi are feeding themselves. And raising humans as cattle makes zero sense from whatever way you look at it. But perhaps this is being too reasonable.
*. I mentioned how the revolutionary angle in the George Pal film was less British than American. Here the film is actually set in New York, and once again the Eloi are getting lectures on the need to fight back. Needless to say, this is a message the Time Traveler in Wells’ story doesn’t bother with.
*. Guy Pearce is OK as the Time Traveler (who goes by the name of Alexander Hartdegen this time out). At least he looks somewhat different from the usual action star, and like someone who might actually be a scientist. Orlando Jones provides necessary exposition in an amusing way as a holographic librarian. Aside from that I don’t have much nice to say. One big problem is that all the extra plot in both this film and the 1960 version (and the earlier screenplay is actually given a credit here) doesn’t fit that well with the Eloi-Morlock storyline. Here we have the extra detours Alexander makes on his way into the deep future as well as a new back story involving the death of his fiance, which sort of gets the plot up and running but is then dropped rather quickly.
*. It’s hard not to feel, despite all its nods to Wells and Pal, that this is a movie that really didn’t want much to do with either the 1895 or 1960 Time Machine. Instead it plays out like a bunch of bits and pieces taken from various other SF-fantasy films of the period that don’t really go together. The Morlocks haven’t just regressed in evolutionary terms, they’ve turned into orcs. This isn’t the past or the future, but Hollywood Now.

W. (2008)

*. By 2008 Oliver Stone was pretty much a spent force, at least in terms of the creativity and imagination he was showing in his work. W. continues his longstanding fascination with political matters (it’s virtually all he talks about on his DVD commentary), but it’s so flat a film you have to wonder why he bothered with it.
*. What he offers up isn’t a new or insightful interpretation on Bush or his presidency. There were a pile of books that had come out covering the same ground, which are linked to on the DVD’s Official Film Guide (a document over 100 pages long) and referenced by Stone throughout the commentary (those cited the most being the ones by Weisberg, Susskind, Isikoff and Corn, Woodward, and Mayer). I read all these books when they came out and my impression of the film was that it was only skating on the surface of things, while taking some liberties throughout in trying to condense the material and make it more dramatic. Stone: “This is a movie, we’ve gotta get to the point.”
*. So expect all the greatest hits, though sometimes placed in different contexts. There’s the enunciation of Cheney’s 1% doctrine and Powell’s Pottery Barn rule. There’s Rumsfeld talking about the absence of evidence not being evidence of absence and George Tenet proclaiming a slam dunk. There’s Jr. offering to take on his dad mano a mano. And of course there are the infamous Bushisms such as his mangling of the “Fool me once” line and his asking “Is our children learning?” But does all this add up to a script?
*. Not really. Stone does have two angles on Bush that he uses to turn this into a real character study. These are his foregrounding of the dynamic between father and son (with W. as the elder son who is never able to measure up), and Bush’s coming to Jesus.
*. About the latter there is very little to say. Was it just a ploy to get elected? Who can tell? We do hear Bush say that he doesn’t want to be out-Jesused again after an early election loss. But his moment of conversion, which comes after a jog in the forest, is presented in such an insipid way (looking up at the light shining through the trees) that it’s hard to feel like much of anything has occurred. The moment is totally unexpressive and dramatically inert.
*. The father-son conflict is more developed, but in the end struck me as banal. It’s a point that’s easily made, and once made where do you go with it? In fact, I was left wondering where this movie was going right through to the end, which just leaves everything hanging out in center field (or at the end of Bush’s first term). The baseball dreams being another example of the film’s relentless inanity.
*. Critics thought it looked like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch, and they had a point. Some of the impersonations work better than others. Here’s my breakdown.
*. Good: Richard Dreyfuss steals the show as Dick Cheney, capturing the quiet and cynical way this dark figure led from the shadows in real life. Bruce McGill is a great George Tenet, portraying a schlub way out of his depth. Thandie Newton is the most SNL, doing a perfect comic turn as Condoleeza Rice, and Toby Jone is almost as good a caricature as the dweebish Karl Rove.
*. Bad: Jeffrey Wright isn’t close to Colin Powell (and the script’s Colin Powell — presenting him as the cabinet’s voice of conscience — isn’t credible to begin with). Scott Glenn is invisible as Rumsfeld. James Cromwell isn’t convincing at all as Bush Sr., not conveying any of the energy or anger that made his media image as a wimp so curious.
*. Then there’s Josh Brolin. A late choice, coming after Christian Bale, who would go on to play Cheney in Vice a decade later. I think he does well enough, though he looks a little too serious for the role. I always thought Bush had a bit of goofiness about him. Might Will Ferrell have done the part just as well, if not better? It’s not an idle question.
*. The real problem here though is that Brolin has so little to work with. That’s partly the fault of the script (for example in the presentation of his conversion, already mentioned), but it’s also a problem, I think, with Bush himself. Was there really all that much there? The father-son relationship gave Stone something to hang his hat on, but aside from that there just isn’t much else to go on. So cue the newsreels.
*. As a small example of the need to make something out of nothing take the scene when the inspector David Kay shows up and admits that he couldn’t find any WMDs in Iraq. We see Brolin’s Bush seething and lashing out. But in Kay’s own account of that meeting he was surprised at the lack of response. In his own words: “I cannot stress too much that the president was the one in the room who was least unhappy and the least disappointed about the lack of WMDs. I came out of the Oval Office uncertain as to how to read the president. Here was an individual who was oblivious to the problems created by the failure to find the WMDs. Or was this an individual who was completely at peace with himself on the decision to go to war, who didn’t question that, and who was totally focused on the here and now and what was to come?” Questions without answers. Because Bush was an American sphinx? Or because there was no riddle to be solved?
*. Another example of just how little Stone was working with can be seen in his decision to include so many scenes of Bush stuffing his face with food (and speaking with his mouth full). He even eats so much at one point that he chokes on a pretzel. On the commentary Stone explains this was all done to show Bush’s common touch and to give him a certain visceral quality: “a sense of being in touch with common needs.” Like eating. You can see how basic all this is. Personally, I think the eating motif goes better with Stone’s vision of Bush as “a man filled with wants.” But then, I’m not sure what those wants were.
*. Some people were expecting more of a hatchet job. I think there are some subtle critical touches that are easily missed, like Bush’s spoiled whining about how tough it was being born with a silver spoon in his mouth or not being able to run his three miles a day any more and his knees hurting. But overall it’s quite a generous portrait, and Stone even says on the commentary that it’s part of the nature of such a movie to make people look good. At least, I suppose, if you don’t want to be sued. “Who knows what the real George Bush is really like?” he offers up at one point, saying only that his Bush seems right to him. The kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with, as Rove would have it. Or see a ballgame or a movie with. Or a movie about.
*. Finally, one can’t leave a film like this without wondering at how quickly the oddity of Bush was surpassed by Trump. I mentioned the pile of books that immediately came out on the Bush presidency, but that pile would be as nothing compared to the avalanche of insider accounts of Trump’s court. And while Bush had his SNL send-ups they were, again, far outdone by that show’s coverage of the Trumpster fire. Stone mentions near the end of his commentary how most conservatives were aghast at Bush’s presidency and its flouting of precedent. If they were, they learned to change their tune eight years later.
*. One expects Trump biopics to arrive soon, but how can they take any form other than comedy? As it is, there are several moments in W. that lean in that direction, and Vice would take things even further. Was the presidency following the culture in this, or was it the other way around? Either way, in the twenty-first century American politics came to seem a lot less serious. I think this was a scary development.