Category Archives: 2010s

The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)

*. It’s fitting that the most famous split personality in superhero comics has had such a night-and-day history on screen. On the more serious side you have Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. But then, as though all this breathy and brooding angst were too much, at the other extreme you have the camp of Batman: The Movie (1966), the neocamp of Batman & Robin, and the metacamp of The LEGO Batman Movie.
*. The LEGO Batman Movie is a parody Batman movie, sending up all of the previous iterations of Batman, as well as any other comic book-movie clichés it can think of. Will Arnett, for example, is unrecognizable doing Batman’s gravelly voice, and the principle of villain inflation is pushed to overload with a roll call of bad guys that reads like Homer’s catalogue of the armies assembled at Troy. Then just for good measure there’s the summoning of a portal in the sky to another dimension, something that seems to pop up, needlessly, in almost every superhero movie.
*. Not all of this works. One fairly consistent thread in the Batman movies is that the villains are more interesting than Batman himself. Usually a lot more interesting. Particulrly the Joker (be he Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, or Joaquin Phoenix). But here the Joker isn’t interesting at all. Nor are any of the evil all-stars. Which means we’re stuck with the squares as they travel a well-worn moral arc that’s meant to teach us various life lessons. Like being nice to other people, if only because some day they may come in useful.
*. But even as The LEGO Batman Movie plays the sunny end of the dark vs. light spectrum it also occupies the mushy middle ground of a development in film, and indeed the culture more generally, that I truly deplore. This is the rise of the “kidult” audience, or movies (usually animated) that are aimed ostensibly at kids but that draw in grown-ups too with all their knowing references. I’m not sure where this got started. The Harry Potter phenomenon maybe. Or the Toy Story movies. But the LEGO movies are very much part of the same trend. It’s fun for the kids, but adults love it too!
*. Or at least some adults love it. I thought The LEGO Batman Movie was kind of clever in places, but I didn’t laugh at any of it, nor can I remember even smiling at the various jokes, all of which seemed pretty obvious to me. Certainly nothing about the basic premise struck me as having a lot of comic potential, which has jerky narcissist Batman having to learn how to play better with others. Also “friends are family.” Which actually strikes me as being a sort of anti-family sentiment, but I may be reading too much into it.
*. OK, so it’s not my thing. It’s a visual marvel, so bright and crammed with blowing confetti in every frame you can’t hope to take it all in. And it moves at such a frantic pace it seems to have no connecting narrative tissue at all. Characters magically pop from one physical place or point in the story to another. LEGO reality is plastic, meaning it can be torn apart and reassembled in any way imaginable. The categories of time and space have been tossed to the wind and the action is just a colourful blizzard of pixels.
*. There’s a lot to “ooh!” and “ah!” at, but I thought it was empty calories. A lot of empty calories. I know that sounds like a grumpy-old-man kind of judgment to make, but that’s all I got out of this. I can see people enjoying such fare, but it’s not for me.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

*. Pretty much nothing went right. Starting with Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne/Batman) giving us that deadly opening voiceover: “There was a time above . . a time before . . . there were perfect things, diamond absolutes. But things fall . . . things on earth. And what falls is fallen. In the dream, it took me to the light. A beautiful lie.” Is this Gotham, or Marienbad?
*. The rest of the script is just as bad. It is long, fractured to the point of incoherence, and full of portentous dialogue delivered, portentously, to soaring choruses and booms of thunder. I’ve quoted the first lines already, so here’s one of the last: “Men are still good, we fight, we kill, we betray one another, but we can rebuild, we can do better. We will. We have to.”
*. A lot of the talk is supposed to get us to think that this is a movie that’s really about something, or engaging profound political questions involving power vs. people. I’m not having a bit of this, though if you’re interested I’d direct you to Matthew Rozsa’s review in Salon, where he does his best to make the case. Personally, I found all the stuff about Superman being a god, and what that might mean for the rest of us to be a load of hooey. When did people start thinking Superman was a god instead of a guy in tights?
*. The script doesn’t even set up motivation adequately. I can understand Bruce Wayne being upset at Superman for destroying the Wayne Building, but does he spend even five seconds trying to understand what was going on? His homicidal (or deicidal) fury is, in the words of Christopher Orr, “vague bordering on incomprehensible.”
*. Meanwhile, what is driving Lex Luthor? Jesse Eisenberg seems intent on crossing Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight with Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network, meaning a psychopath with even less charm than a tech giant.
*. Should news personalities be doing this kind of work? If only to maintain their dignity if not uphold some professional code? Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Dana Bash, Andrew Sullivan, Brooke Baldwin, is it any wonder people despise the media so much? And there’s Patrick Leahy at the congressional hearings, playing Senator Purrington. Well, people despise government too. And I don’t think this movie is going to help with that.
*. As an aside, in The Golden Turkey Awards (1980) there was a prize for “The Worst Performance by a Politician.” It was won by John Lindsay, who was in the movie Rosebud after he retired from politics (he’d been a U.S. congressman and mayor of New York City). Since then there have been any number of politicians who have embarrassed themselves in front of the camera. For example, Anthony Weiner and Michele Bachman, both former members of congress, had minor roles in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! But Leahy was a sitting senator when this movie was made. And though he doesn’t do much but make an appearance, his sin must be judged greater.
*. I don’t think there’s ever been any explanation for why the title simply says “v” instead of “v.” or “vs.” Here’s my stab at it: it’s a kind of branding: language being reimagined as graphic design. Note, in this regard, how the future heroes of the Justice League are discovered by Diana Prince in computer files where each is identified by their own snazzy icon. It’s like she’s ordering something on Amazon, an association that may have been intended.
*. How many times do we have to see Bruce Wayne’s parents being killed? All these resets are starting to die through repetition. There’s nothing at all original being done here. The prologue is lifted straight from Batman Begins, to the point where they really should have just used the same footage and played it as a flashback.
*. What else? Well, there are a bunch of baffling dream-like fragments that will tie in to subsequent entries in the DC Universe, which is something taken straight out of the Marvel playbook. There’s a woman who’s taken hostage and tied to a chair with a clock counting down until she can be rescued at the last minute. And finally there’s the president of the United States ordering a nuclear missile strike and making sure to add “God have mercy on us all.”
*. I don’t blame the cast one bit. Ben Affleck is fine as Batman and Henry Cavill’s struggles with the worthless script are truly superheroic. Gal Gadot steals the show from both of them whenever she’s on screen. Eisenberg I’ll leave aside since I’ve never really liked him in anything and it may be that he just rubs me the wrong way.
*. At 151 minutes though I found this to be one of the toughest movies I’ve ever had to struggle through. And there’s even an “ultimate edition” (director’s cut) that runs 183 minutes! All of it culminating in the usual CGI slugfest between our three heroes and a boring Hulk-Godzilla figure who apparently goes by the name of Doomsday. I had to wonder while I was watching all this whether audiences actually find these apocalyptic beatdowns to be in some way cathartic. Is that possible? Whatever the case may be, I don’t want to waste more time thinking about it. This movie is awful.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

*. When he confirmed signing on to this third part of The Dark Knight Trilogy, director Christopher Nolan remarked that it would be a great chance to finish things off “rather than infinitely blowing up the balloon and expanding the story. . . . Unlike the comics, these things don’t go on forever in film, and viewing it as a story with an end is useful.”
*. This at least shows an awareness of how “blowing up the balloon” and infinite expansion (comic book storylines that do go on forever) had become an integral part of superhero franchises. As I said in my notes on Avengers: Age of Ultron, these movies only obey the rule of more is more (and I said that before we got Infinity War and Endgame).
*. So here are the numbers (I did a similar accounting in my notes on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End if you’re interested in these things): Batman Begins ran 140 minutes and cost $150 million, The Dark Knight was 152 minutes and cost $185 million, and The Dark Knight Rises came in at 164 minutes and cost $230 million.
*. Eight years have passed and Batman has retired. He’s been through some wars and taken a lot of damage, physical and emotional. No longer the billionaire playboy, he’s the billionaire recluse, and even walks with a cane that is not a prop. He has no problem though getting back in the suit and kicking ass like it’s still 2008.
*. This is one of the biggest problems I had with the story. I can sort of get on board with Bruce Wayne/Batman wearing a knee brace so he can get back in the game. But how can we credit for a second the idea that after he has his back literally broken by Bane, with the vertebrae sticking out of the skin, all he has to do is a few chin-ups in a jail cell for five months and he’s as good as new? That’s a rehab too far, even for a comic book (in the Knightfall comic book this story is loosely based on the rehab goes on much longer, and is aided by top-of-the-line medical care).
*. I do like Tom Hardy as Bane. The big guy has evolved dramatically from his bathetic appearance as a gorilla in Batman & Robin. Hardy’s old-man voice makes an interesting discordancy with his bearish physique, and his Bane really seems to be enjoying himself tearing Gotham apart, perhaps even more than The Joker did.

*. I wonder how much of Bane’s Bolshie rhetoric he actually believes in. Or is he another anarchist like The Joker? But then I also wondered how much of an anarchist The Joker was in The Dark Knight. Or is that, another alternative, that Bane is so smitten with Talia that he’s just her bulldog?
*. These are questions worth asking because Selina Kyle/Catwoman seems to have a similar anti-capitalist agenda, which extends to being against the wedding of Big Data and the power of the state. At least that’s how I read her. But she probably also gets a kick out of dressing up.
*. Anyway, I mentioned in my notes on The Dark Knight how iffy the politics, which were seen as loosely addressing the fallout from 9/11, were. My point here is that they are even more confused in this movie. Critics saw some link to the Occupy Movement in Bane’s overthrow of Wall Street, but this may be cynical opportunism on his part, and anyway he’s a bad guy. As Anthony Lane points out, “nobody is richer or whiter than Bruce Wayne,” who actually lives in a castle. “Also,” Lane continues, “the outcome is positively Victorian, in that its dread of disorder far outweighs its relish of liberty uncaged; the throng is faced down and tamed by ranks of growling police officers.” It’s Peterloo all over again.
*. In Batman Begins I didn’t understand what the League of Shadows was up to. Something-something about unleashing chaos to re-establish, if not order, some kind of balance to the world. I don’t think Talia is interested in completing her father’s work but just in exacting a measure of revenge. Which at least makes her easier to understand.
*. There are more characters than we need here. I could put up with Talia’s late appearance just because she helped draw the trilogy together a bit at the end. I never saw the need to make such a big deal out of Harvey Dent. Catwoman has very little to do, wasting Anne Hathaway, an actor who lights up the screen pretty much whenever she’s on it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake (Robin) seemed to just get introduced for an imaginary sequel. All these faces become hard to follow. I was genuinely surprised at the end to realize that Commissioner Gordon didn’t know that Batman was Bruce Wayne. By then it seemed like everybody else in Gotham had figured that much out.
*. I’m sure there are fans, maybe many fans, who find something profound in all of this. I don’t, but I think this may be the best we can expect out of such material. The fact that Nolan remained at the helm as both writer and director gives the trilogy a creative integrity and coherence. A couple of the villains are memorable, even if what they’re up to isn’t. Everything is turned out in properly epic fashion. If it’s all kind of ponderous that’s part of the epic treatment too.
*. Christopher Nolan would go on to other things. Or would he? I can’t say fresh woods and pastures new. In the fourth edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, which came out just prior to the release of Batman Begins, David Thomson would give us this capsule appreciation ; “without meaning to be crushing, I have to say that his [Nolan’s] work has already become progressively less interesting.” Still, he held out hope. “I suspect that his future will find a way to guide him back to modesty and limitation.”
*. Clearly that didn’t happen. I’m still not sure Nolan has much of a personal vision to offer. He strikes me as being another one of Hollywood’s talented engineers (which I don’t mean as a put-down). Meanwhile, The Dark Knight trilogy didn’t change the movies so much as it represented a step in the transformation of the blockbuster that was already underway.
*. Playing by the new rules of the game, however, it did mark a real advance over previous attempts at bringing Batman to the big screen. A dead end too.

Batman Begins (2005)

*. I think it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the villains Batman fights have always been more interesting than the Dark Knight himself. On screen Batman has always been a bit of a plank, as stiff as his armoured suit. He just stands there and delivers his breathy dialogue while Burgess Meredith or Jack Nicholson or Michelle Pfeiffer or Heath Ledger do their thing.
*. That said, here’s a fun trivia question to ask people, and I mean people who have seen this movie (not hardcore fans, but just casual moviegoers): Who is Batman fighting against in Batman Begins?
*. I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question before this rewatch. I had completely forgotten the name of Ra’s Al Ghul. I think that was for several reasons. In the first place, the movie has a strange way of introducing its slate of villains serially. First there’s Ducard, who is really R’as Al Ghul but we don’t know that and in any event we think he’s a good guy, sort of. Then there’s Falcone, who’s just the usual crime-boss figure. Then there’s Dr. Crane/Scarecrow. By the time R’as Al Ghul shows up again it’s too late. We don’t care about him anymore.
*. Then there’s the plot R’as has hatched. In itself it’s kind of interesting, flooding Gotham with a halucinogenic panic gas and letting everthing go crazy. But why? Apparently Gotham (and Western Civilization in general?) has grown too corrupt for the League of Shadows. That is, the very people who have corrupted it.  (We are also told, just by the way, that the League sacked Rome. Though it’s not made clear which of that city’s many sackings is being referred to.) None of this made sense to me, and when things don’t make sense I tend to forget them.
*. Finally there’s Liam Neeson. A decent actor but terribly miscast here. He’s just too bland, especially for a guy who believes in being theatrical. I mean, he doesn’t even have a cool costume.
*. Instead of a scene-stealing bad guy, Batman Begins, as the title announces, is that most dreaded of all superhero movies: the origin story. Two hours and twenty minutes of origin story. The focus is all on Bruce Wayne, and the source of the darkness inside him. Unfortunately, despite all the effort put into it, I didn’t find any of this stuff very interesting. Young Bruce falls into a cave full of bats when a child and it scares him. Then he sees his parents getting shot, which sends him off on a spiritquest which ultimately lands him in a monstery where he’s trained in ninjitsu by an Irish Fu Manchu. A nice observation by Roger Ebert: “The movie is not realistic, because how could it be, but it acts as if it is.” Now ask yourself if that’s a good thing.
*. With no charismatic villain and more Bruce/Batman a lot of weight is put on Christian Bale. And he does better than expected. It’s just that I wasn’t expecting much. What a curious blend of intensity and low energy he projects, in almost all his movies. About the only good thing to say about him is that he’s a good fit for the part, playing a scowl-in-a-cowl plastic action figure who seems to have a bunch of platitudes programmed into his voicebox. “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” That’s the movie’s theme!
*. I think it probably goes without saying that Bale and Katie Holmes have zero chemistry. Because I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them have chemistry with anyone on screen. This makes the ending more satisfactory, but also makes you wonder what the real point was in introducing Rachel’s character. Except to have a damsel in distress in a couple of scenes.
*. The fight scenes, bane of every Batman movie, are again poorly done, having to be edited into micro cuts to conceal the fact that nobody can move fluidly or quickly in a suit of armour. The Batmobile has been made over, once again, this time as a Tonka trunk.
*. This may make it sound like I didn’t like Batman Begins. But that’s not the case. I actually think this is pretty good superhero movie, all things considered. One of those things being the baggage Batman was carrying from his previous screen appearances. There’s nothing camp about Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Indeed, there’s little humour at all. Nolan was clearly going for an epic, operatic treatment. (More trivia: in the original Batman comic book Bruce’s parents were killed when coming out of a movie, in some sources The Mark of Zorro, but here they’ve gone to the opera.)
*. One misses a lighter touch, and a tighter script, but overall I think this is a successful handling of difficult material. I find its rating by both critics and the public to be on the high side, but perhaps after Batman & Robin people were just happy to have a hero, any hero, back. Ebert could announce that “This is at last the Batman movie I’ve been waiting for.” A lot of people felt the same way.

The Mule (2018)

*. I think The Mule is a slightly stranger movie than was first appreciated. Yes, it’s a slow-paced swan song from a very old star (which was actually becoming a familiar subgenre at this time). It’s a movie about a driver for a drug cartel, but without any car chases. Or, for that matter, anyone driving above the speed limit. Earl Stone has never even had a ticket, despite never wearing a seatbelt. People of his generation didn’t wear seatbelts. Did you ever see anyone in Smokey and the Bandit wearing a seatbelt? No you did not.
*. In addition, despite being a movie about violent gangsters I think we only see one person being shot, and even that’s done out of frame. This isn’t Scarface. There’s always the threat of violence, but that’s something different. Real violence explodes without a warning. Threats of violence don’t impress Earl, who is a vet, very much.
*. But while all this is different, I don’t think it’s what makes The Mule strange. Nor is there anything untoward about the story itself: the old man who breaks bad in order to better provide for his family. In doing so he manages to reconnect with his wife, daughter, and granddaugter and at least to some degree make amends. It’s a feel-good message and we’re left thinking that perhaps crime really does pay. Hell, of course it does, and if you’re a good man you can use the money to help others. And if you’re really lucky you may even have the story of your life sympathetically adapated for the big screen, in a film starring Clint Eastwood.

*. Sure Earl runs out of time at the end, but that’s going to happen to all of us. The inevitability and indeed imminence of death is something Earl reacts to with the same look of insult whether it be in the form of his wife dying of cancer or a burly gangster pointing a gun at his head. We may even feel there’s a certain immaturity in Earl’s attitude toward death, with his horticultural pursuits being a sort of escape from human mortality. At one point he seems to recognize as much, but this is only glanced at.
*. So its message and pacing are not all that surprising. Nor is the political point about how Earl’s success is at least partially grounded in his invisibility to police profiling. Old white guys aren’t a criminal type, which is something that plays to Earl’s advantage. Even Bradley Cooper refers to Earl as one of “you guys,” meaning “you old people,” which is a politically incorrect faux pas he has to backtrack from but which reveals a lot. Of course Earl himself is genially incorrect in his own way of addressing people, but he has no bad intentions and that seems to count for something.
*. Instead, what strikes me as strange here is how basically reasonable and decent the gangsters are. It’s significant that when Earl suggests to Julio that he give up the gangster life, Julio responds that they are his family. Earl argues that they don’t really care about Julio, but he’s wrong. In fact, for all their brutality the cartel are a sort of family, and show themselves to be considerate and understanding to Earl. They even show real sympathy for him after his wife dies. Sure they rough him up, but this is a business and Earl has been endangering all of them by going off on his own. Meanwhile, don’t expect any scenes hinting at the personal or social damage caused by the drug business. This isn’t Traffic, which should be a good thing but instead made me feel like something was being airbrushed.
*. I don’t know how much of this was intentional and how much was part of Eastwood just wanting to soften the tone of the proceedings. Whatever the reason, The Mule is a very mellow trip. This makes it comfortable enough, but I don’t see where it leaves it with much to say. What’s interesting about it is downplayed so that the more conventional elements can be indulged. I guess after all this time Eastwood figured he knew what audiences wanted, and on that count I’m not going to say he was wrong.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

*. I’m sure I should hate this movie. I’ve railed enough times against the CGI revolution that in the twenty-first century has brought us a seemingly endless stream of video game/comic book/superhero fantasies (though I won’t say inexhaustible, since I think the genre was quickly exhausted). And since Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is clearly a CGI blockbuster video game/comic book/superhero fantasy that means it’s the Enemy.
*. I’ve also remarked on how the career of Luc Besson has just kept sinking after Nikita. In large part, but not entirely, because he fell in love with that same video game/comic book/superhero genre of filmmaking.
*. But I didn’t hate Valerian. To be sure, I didn’t think it was a great movie, but I was surprised at how little I disliked it. Even the leads, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, sort of grew on me once I got over just how strange they both look and how alien their delivery is. Is DeHaan trying to sound like Keanu Reeves, or is that just the way he talks?
*. And, also to be sure, there is much to dislike. It’s far too long, with an episodic plot that just slams from one far-fetched action scene to the next with little attempt at connection. There are whole effects sequences that have no purpose whatsoever other than to assault our eyes (for example Valerian’s short-cut through Alpha to intercept the kidnappers). The main aliens seem to have immigrated straight from Avatar, and their back story is weirdly analogized to the Holocaust (six million of their people die in what is described as a genocide but which appears to have been collateral damage).
*. Still, I didn’t find myself bored and some of the critters, when they weren’t trying too hard to be cute, were interesting. It was also a labour of love for Besson, who independently crowd-sourced and personally funded its $180 million budget, which made it not only the most expensive non-American and indepedent film ever made but testifies to just how great a labour of love it was. It would be weird if that kind of passion for the material, no matter how conventional it seems, didn’t show up on screen.
*. So, no hate from me. Yes it’s just a giant light show with plastic characters and no plot to speak of, but . . . I didn’t hate it. I really didn’t.

The Conspiracy (2012)

*. A couple of guys working on a documentary about conspiracy theories find themselves sucked into the granddaddy of all conspiracies, which turns out to be real.
*. That’s the premise, and while not head-spinning it’s a good enough place to start. The problem with The Conspiracy is that the premise is pretty much all there is.
*. Here’s something by way of praise from Dylan Scott: “There isn’t much more here than a killer premise and a memorably creepy finale, but that is one beauty of the found-footage genre: These movies often don’t need much more than that to be successful.”
*. I don’t think I agree, at least completely. I think for a film this formulaic you really do need something more. And I didn’t think there was anything that memorable or creepy about the finale. How many people didn’t know exactly where this was going through every step of its three-act plot? I don’t think for a moment that I’m the most perceptive or knowing moviegoer, but how could you not know that the boys were going to try and crash the Tarsus party, and what was going to happen there? And the way things played out at the ceremony was so obvious it was hard not to feel five minutes ahead of the action. I think that might have been a good thing, giving the proceedings a sense of doom and inevitability, but not to this extent. It’s all fairly predictable.
*. On the other hand, while saying that I don’t think I’m all that perceptive I’ve read a number of reviews of The Conspiracy online that seem to have missed or misunderstood what was going on completely. I sure wasn’t surprised by the sacrifice at the end, but I can understand why Christopher MacBride was upset at the use of the mirror image in the publicity material giving that part away.
*. The Conspiracy isn’t a bad movie. In fact, I liked it quite a bit. I was prepared to go along with its ridiculous premise, and even thought they got away with a real gamble in shooting the final act of the movie with a spyhole camera effect. The blurred faces at the retreat are kind of spooky. The idea of the new (or old) masters of the universe being a Mithraic cult was cute. And there is one twist at the end that actually does a good job of explaining the framing narrative. But . . .
*. Writer-director MacBride mentions how caught up he got doing research for this film, staying up all night watching conspiracy theory movies. I think he meant documentary-style movies which represent the conspiracy theory phenomenon (things like Loose Change or Dark Secrets Inside Bohemian Grove); I don’t think he meant dramatic movies like Conspiracy Theory or the classics of ’70s paranoia like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor.
*. I thought this movie, and in particular its script, needed further development along those lines. Something more interesting going on in the plot or some step forward in the usual found-footage template. Is it supposed to make a difference that these aren’t just a crew of young filmmakers but a crew of young documentary filmmakers? Because it doesn’t.
*. I guess in the end I found The Conspiracy more frustrating than anything else. It’s smart enough that it left me wanting more. The conspiracies mentioned cover all the usual touchstones without suggesting any explanation or connection between them. They’re just stage dressing. What did Tarsus have to do with the JFK assassination or 9/11? If they were involved in these, why? How does the running around in the woods offering sacrifices relate to the founding of a new world order? What is “the” conspiracy?
*. Given the first-person narrative I suppose it’s fair enough that there’s no further explanation. Aaron and Jim never put it all together so why should we? But without something more this is all too much familiar ground. It’s a fine movie for what it does, but I thought an opportunity was missed to do something a little different. If all of these conspiracies are the same in the end, then if you’ve seen one conspiracy you’ve seen them all.

Christine (2016)

*. I really like how Christine opens, with Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) on screen acting out her dream of interviewing actors in the Watergate saga. Then we see the reality behind the image: this is a performance only for the camera, she is talking to herself in public mode.
*. I guess the reason I like this is because it underlines the crazy, and crazy-making, zone that media personalities inhabit. Who are they when they’re not performing? Or are they never not performing? It’s interesting that later we’ll see Christine pitch the idea for what today we’d call a reality-TV program with herself playing the leading role. And we all know how fraught the label “reality” is with those shows.
*. I think this is a point that gets at the heart of what Christine is about. Obviously it’s a movie about a mentally ill woman having a breakdown, but there are various ways of approaching what’s wrong with Christine. It may be clinical depression, which means she could use the pills that are recommended to her. It may be the result of her working in a male-dominated world, though I don’t see much of a feminist message here. All the men are trying to help her, no one is taking advantage of her, and the news industry does use female anchors.
*. It may be that she’s just repressed, with her desire to have a child in conflict with her fear of getting into a relationship (and, later, her medical condition).
*. In fact, it’s probably all of these things. But what I find most interesting is that conflict between the private and public self. What happens when the latter breaks down? Is there a private core able to stand on its own?
*. That split is also central to the movie’s most impressive scene, and the one that apparently was the kernel of the original script. This is the back-and-forth between Christine and another woman at the therapy session. On the DVD commentary with Rebecca Hall, director Antonio Campos and writer Craig Shilowich they discuss her wardrobe in this scene, which is key. Hall thought it might be too sexy, but her sexiness turns into exposure as the date takes a bad turn. What they don’t mention on the commentary is the effect of her faux nudity, with her long hair covering up the straps on her dress so that her solo shots make her seem totally naked. This must have been deliberate.
*. It’s a powerful scene, and it’s a powerful film, driven mainly by Hall’s standout performance (the two main supporting characters of George and Jean struck me as relatively weak). Hall captures the scary or at least unnerving quality Christine’s mental state has without turning her into a freak, something not easy to do. This is a real-life horror story, and it should evoke pity and fear.
*. There’s a special challenge to making a movie like this, where you can assume the audience already knows the story and how everything is building up to that one big scene (the film even comes with a warning for “a disturbing scene of violence”). But then, that’s the way a lot of tragedy works. We know the tragic hero is doomed.
*. How sad is that little record player Christine has in her bedroom? I remember those. They really were pathetic.
*. Much as I liked the film, I thought they flubbed the ending. First there’s the suicide scene, which is well done but then immediately goes off the rails. It’s really strange that the second reaction shot is that of Mitch, a nothing character we don’t care about. Meanwhile, the responses of George and Jean struck me as being played wrong. George (Michael C. Hall) in particular really undersells it, even though he doesn’t seem to be registering either shock or disbelief at what has just transpired.
*. Then there is the turn to Jean at the end, as she finds comfort at home by watching TV and singing along to the opening of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. There’s an obvious thematic relevance here (Moore was a television producer on the sitcom, trying to “make it on her own”), but since I didn’t think this was really the main theme of the movie, and that there were significant differences between the two characters, I thought it inappropriate. Even in death it felt like Christine was being cancelled and replaced by someone perkier and with more upside.

My Friend Dahmer (2017)

*. What is this movie trying to be?
*. I don’t think it’s a biopic. Even though it’s based on a non-fiction graphic novel written by John “Derf” Backderf, the character played by Alex Wolff, from what I’ve been able to gather Dahmer was far more mixed-up, in a bad way, as a high-school kid than this movie lets on.
*. Is it trying to explain Dahmer? Again, I don’t see it. The film gives us some indication of Dahmer’s drinking problems, but apparently he was a total alcoholic at this age, which is something we are left to infer here. Meanwhile, his homosexuality is only lightly glanced at and he’s not really a victim of bullying or a broken home, in so far at least as many kids have suffered much worse. In Backderf’s book Dahmer is explicitly “the victim of torture” and “relentless humiliation.” That’s not at all what we see in this movie. Dahmer is borderline cool, and while his parents aren’t the greatest, he wasn’t abandoned.
*. Maybe this was the point Backderf and writer-director Marc Meyers were trying to make: that Dahmer was essentially unknowable. Though weird he could effectively pass as at least semi-normal. But I don’t think even this works because there does seem like a real attempt being made to make us feel some sympathy for Dahmer. But how can we sympathize with such a total blank?
*. You’ll have guessed from this that I had a lot of trouble getting into My Friend Dahmer. There’s little story to follow, or even sense of rising action. When we see Dahmer at the end about to embark on his criminal career do we have any sense of his being a powder key about to go off? I couldn’t track any progression in his madness. The scene at the end where he says goodbye to Derf is the only time I had a feeling of his being a real threat to anyone, but it quickly passes.

*. Maybe it would have worked better if they’d played off of the idea of this being a horror movie. I thought there were a couple of nods to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with the opening shot of roadkill and the loopy drug-dealer friend cutting his hand with a knife. But I guess that was a direction they didn’t want to go any further in.
*. You may think this is a poor suggestion. Why turn Dahmer’s story into the stuff of cheap genre thrills? I only offer it up as a possibility. The same week I watched this movie, I also watched The Death of Stalin, which took another non-fiction(ish) graphic novel and adapted it as a comedy. That was a bold move, and it worked. Something just as counterintuitive might have helped with My Friend Dahmer, making it both more interesting and more insightful.
*. In addition to its general reticence I think the movie is really hampered by Ross Lynch’s performance. Given this was an indie picture and he was the brooding star playing a difficult role he received a lot of critical praise. This baffles me. Lynch doesn’t strike me as someone who can act much at all. In a lot of scenes, especially those between Dahmer and his parents, there was a real need for him to give some indication of what Dahmer was thinking or feeling, but we get nothing. Yes, one understands that Dahmer was a non-emotive kind of guy. But Lynch gives us even less than that.
*. He also looks like a male model. With that Charlie’s Angels hair, high school girls in the 1970s would have been swooning over him. This makes it hard to buy his Dahmer as a social outcast who just wants to fit in.
*. I can see why people might think all of this compelling. We have a fascination with serial killers and naturally want to know what makes them tick, what matrix of forces conspired to create them. But My Friend Dahmer doesn’t want to go there. I’m not sure where it wants to go.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

*. The Death of Stalin is a movie I admire. Not so much for its achievements, though I appreciate these, but for its boldness. And not political boldness, since I don’t think it is daring in its politics. I mean its bold creative choices.
*. Foremost among these is doing Stalinism as comedy. That wasn’t there, at least to this extent, in the source material, a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury (writer) and Thierry Robin (artist). It’s something director Armando Iannucci, whose background is political satire, brought to the table.
*. Furthermore, Iannucci manages just the right register for the humour. He didn’t want the cast to play the material as comedy, but more-or-less straight. The absurdity and black comedy was all there already. It’s interesting to see how all the deleted scenes included with the DVD go just over the line. They’re too funny in an obvious way. They could have been left in (they don’t amount to much additional material) but they’d upset the balance.
*. I think the same reasoning lies behind a couple of surprising cuts from the novel. Beria finding out that Stalin is reviving is a natural comic reaction shot, but it’s left out here, as is the mess of Stalin’s autopsy. Would such moments have been too obvious? Too loud?
*. A good example of the film’s quiet and understated sense of humour plays out in the struggle between Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and a guard for the guard’s pistol. There’s no music, nobody says anything, and we just watch, along with everyone else in the room, as the two go at it, pointlessly. Finally everyone has had enough, and it’s as though the director calls “Cut!” It’s a little scene that does nothing to draw attention to itself, but I thought it was great. Funny, and in a fresh way.
*. Historically accurate? I think it depends on what you mean. The authors of the graphic novel were inspired by real events, but considered their work to be fiction. Nevertheless, they also asserted that the truth was far crazier than anything they could have come up with.
*. Any work of art based on true events at least aspires to get at some kind of truth behind those events. For Iannucci that truth was “what it must have felt like at the time.” He wanted to capture that mixture of absurdity and anxiety that characterized Stalin’s regime: perhaps not the whole truth about it but one part of that truth. I feel like he succeeded, and I think it took this kind of approach to achieve that goal.
*. Put another way, Martin Amis wrote a book titled Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million that came out in 2002 where he struggled, unsuccessfully I think, to understand the grim gallows-humour of Stalinism (why do we laugh at Uncle Joe and his Terrors but not at Hitler and the Nazis?). I didn’t care for the book much, perhaps because it was so pleadingly earnest. It seems to me that Iannucci cuts to the heart of the same matter more effectively taking the route he does.

*. Another creative choice that works is letting the actors speak in their native voices. I couldn’t imagine this movie with everyone doing fake Russian accents. Instead Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is a cockney Georgian, Simon Beale and Michael Palin (Beria and Molotov) are establishment Brits, Jason Isaacs is a bluff, northern Zhukov, Jeffrey Tambor is the hushed and doughy Malenkov, and Steve Buscemi is Steve Buscemi, surprisingly plausible as the peasant Khrushchev. It’s a great cast, and everyone does their bit, with Beale (who I only knew as Falstaff) leading the way. Perhaps Tambor overplays his part somewhat, but otherwise this is a great ensemble.
*. Given what was happening in the U.S. at the time there was a tendency to find some contemporary political commentary in it as well. I don’t think this works, though one does think of the den of vipers more than a team of rivals. In any event, such analogies probably miss the point, which I think is a more basic or universal one about power, and how it corrupts not just those who wield it but the entire social fabric. Totalitarianism leads to a total system failure, a political disorder that is both horrifying and makes no sense. But all politics, removed far enough from reality, turns into such a mad circus. That seems to me to be the lesson to draw for our own day.