If The Dark Knight was about the War on Terror, The Dark Knight Rises puts equal force and fury behind a tale about financial crisis and revolution. It’s the first Occupy Wall Street blockbuster, and that Christopher Nolan’s film was well underway before the OWS movement even got started is a tribute to his perspicacity.
The new film is a pleasure, sprawling in its storytelling, satisfyingly brawny, and occasionally moving, particularly in a terrific final act. In addition to all of that, the movie is so unabashed about its conservative message that you practically expect it to end with a dedication to Ronald Reagan. See if you can think of the last movie you saw that shows hundreds of big-city police officers lining up against a rowdy mob — and the police are the good guys. The movie is a counter-revolutionary document with as much damnation for populist revolt as Dr. Zhivago.
Like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises is slow to get started and features a lot of long, talky, somewhat painstaking exposition before Batman finally appears about 45 minutes in. After staying out of the public eye for eight years, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a mass of scar tissue who can’t walk without a cane due to a bum knee. Alfred (Michael Caine) is more or less a nanny to him, and at a fancy party he is helpless to stop a society jewel thief named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) from robbing him of his mother’s pearl necklace.
The Amazing Spider-Man is amazingly similar to 2002’s Spider-Man. But it’s a perfectly enjoyable and competent summer blockbuster, and though I’d estimate about two-thirds of this film’s DNA comes from the earlier one, it’s fun to notice the small differences between the two Spideys.
This time it’s UK-bred actor Andrew Garfield (whose American accent is, as far as I could tell, flawless) who plays high school loser Peter Parker, a dorky photographer constantly bullied by cooler classmates but who attracts the notice of pretty Gwen Stacy (The Help star Emma Stone, blonde this time). Peter pursues the unfinished genetic experiments of his scientist father (Campbell Scott), who disappeared one night and left him in the permanent care of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, slightly overdoing the doddering act) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Those experiments take Peter to the lab of Dr. Curt Connors (veteran Brit actor Rhys Ifans, still best known for playing Hugh Grant’s wacky roommate in Notting Hill), where, in one of the film’s many groan-inducing coincidences, Gwen also works. Despite heavy security at the super-secret lab, Peter sneaks into the unguarded inner sanctum where he learns more about experiments meant to regrow human limbs — Dr. Connors is missing an arm. It’s here that he’s bitten by a genetically altered spider.
The usual sequences of discovery of super-powers follow, and there’s even a scene with Peter getting the idea of wearing a costume from accidentally falling into a wrestling ring that features masked combatants. But to me Spidey 2.0 is more interesting than the likeable goody-goody played by the mild Tobey Maguire. First, Peter Parker has been picked on for a long time, and turning the tables on his tormentors gives him a license to act like a jerk himself for a while, for instance in a scene with the bully Flash (Chris Zylka) on a basketball court, where Parker’s arachnid grip and reflexes are simply used to humiliate the other boy. Peter is even unforgivably rude to his guardians. Making Peter less sweet and innocent makes him seem more human and real, and I think we’ve all seen that teens are fully capable of being arrogant and obnoxious.
Picture the kids from Glee trying to channel Def Leppard and you’ll have some sense of the weird culture clash that animates Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical based on a Broadway show. It goes wrong on every level from character and story all the way up to the spirit of rock itself. For those curious what Tom Cruise, in his musical debut, is doing here, the answer is: wearing buttock-baring leather chaps, of course.
Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are the leads and the most boring people you’ll meet in a movie this year, a couple of innocent kids trying to make it in rock while working at a Sunset Strip club called “The Bourbon Room,” a stand-in for the Whiskey a Go-Go. The club owner (a shaggy Alec Baldwin, looking like a used ashtray) and his helper (Russell Brand) face protests from a Tipper Gore-like activist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) as well as financial problems they hope to resolve with a free comeback concert by the band Arsenal and its Axl Rose-like singer Stacee Jaxx (Cruise, who co-stars with a giant devil’s head silver codpiece). Jaxx does a backstage interview with a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) that turns into a seduction, the two kids trying to make it in rock break up because of a misunderstanding settled with a ten-second discussion, and background figures like a skeevy band manager (Paul Giamatti) and a strip-club owner (Mary J. Blige) come and go.
The plot is ludicrously thin. Long periods go by in which the characters seemingly forget about their various conflicts; for instance, most of the time, the Baldwin character doesn’t seem much worried about the Bourbon Room’s fortunes. The sole mission of the script is to scramble to set up each rock number: The movie rushes through and mostly destroys dozens of 80s hits that draw heavily from the hair-metal era (big numbers include “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” “Sister Christian,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “I Love Rock and Roll,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” etc.). But if you actually like rock, why would you want to hear bland, corny Broadway-style takes on them sung by celebrities instead of real rockers? I don’t doubt Cruise put a lot of work into his vocals, and he sounds on-key, but his high tenor is thin and colorless, nothing like Axl Rose’s glass-cutting wail. Nor does anyone in the movie have Steve Perry’s rasp or Lou Gramm’s richness. There’s a scene in which the actual recording of the Scorpions’ “No One Like You” is playing in the background, and it rocks harder than any of the goofy razzmatazz cover versions of the classics in the rest of the movie.
You expect rock stars to be liberal, even stridently leftist. Like movie stars, they don’t experience reality the way you and I do because they are hedged off from it behind phalanxes of security guards and ridiculous income levels. And their heedless naivety is, in a way, part of their childlike Peter Pan charm; they never outgrow their angry-high-schooler phase because in most cases they went directly from high school to show business.
Take Bruce Springsteen, who has been a professional musician since his late teens and has never held any other meaningful job. Springsteen sees himself as a liberal tribune of the working class in the mold of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, and his humble working-man shtick is appealing enough. His increasingly politically pointed songs aren’t his best work, but he has every right to perform them, though they threaten to cost him fans who don’t necessarily go to a rock concert in pursuit of nakedly partisan and somewhat droning appeals.
What he should not do is what he does on his latest album, which is to advocate violent revolution, class-and-politics-based bloodshed, and the murder of bankers and perhaps other capitalists.
Surely I’m exaggerating? I wish I were.
The Springsteen album released March 6th contains some of the most inflammatory and inexcusable rhetoric ever heard in a major pop star’s work. Even the 1960s upheavalists were rarely this reprehensible.
To celebrate the ascendancy of Barack Obama, in 2008 Springsteen wrote a song in praise of, and to, the then-presidential candidate. In “Working on a Dream,” Springsteen sang, “Out here the nights are long, the days are lonely I think of you and I’m working on a dream.” It’s a bouncy ditty — not much of a song compared to his shadowy epics like “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” — but even those who didn’t vote for Obama hoped he would be a good president.
Now Springsteen evidently feels his dream has been betrayed, and instead of blaming Obama, the “you” he sang to in 2008, he blames…Wall Street.
The new album quickly proceeds to a series of savage denunciations and explicit calls for violence.
On the second track, which is called “Easy Money,” Springsteen sings:
There’s nothing to it mister, you won’t hear a sound
When your whole world comes tumbling down
And all them fat cats they just think it’s funny
I’m going on the town now looking for easy money
I got a Smith & Wesson .38
I got a hellfire burning and I got me a taste…
True, Springsteen has written many times about lowlifes and crime — songs like “Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99” and “Meeting Across the River.” Often these songs are in the first person. But it was always completely obvious that a character, not Springsteen, was talking. Springsteen himself has never been a gangster, never urged these songs on his audience as imperatives.
There can’t be much doubt that HBO’s Sarah Palin movie Game Change, which debuts March 10, gives the former governor the beatdown of a lifetime. Somewhere, the shade of Richard Nixon is cringing and saying, “Yikes. At least they credited me with basic intelligence.”
As played by Julianne Moore with an overly heavy midwestern accent and a dazed expression, Palin is seen being ignorant of what World War II was about and not understanding that the prime minister of Great Britain, not the queen, is the head of government.
Famously, Palin seemed lost for an answer when asked by Katie Couric to name a single newspaper she read (instead answering, as though this were possible, “all of them”). But even assuming she’s a rank illiterate — wouldn’t she have come across a few TV shows and movies that could have told her about the Allies and the Axis? Didn’t she see Hugh Grant playing the prime minister in Love, Actually? Could Palin have ever been elected grade-school hall monitor, much less governor of her state, if she were such a ninny?
Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes is on record as saying he was “struck by how smart Palin was” when he and a boatload of other conservative pundits visited Alaska in 2007. Moreover, Palin has been a public figure for the better part of a decade now, and acquitted herself ably enough in her debate with Joe Biden, which led to no memorable gaffes. How did she pull that off if she’s such a mental midget?
According to Game Change, whose major source is apparently John McCain’s campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, she did it by borrowing some genius from…Steve Schmidt. Schmidt (played by an increasingly furious Woody Harrelson) is seen giving up on Palin’s ability to master policy details and deciding to simply supply her with 25 answers to the questions she’d be asked at the sole 2008 vice presidential debate. Reasoning that she was a great actress, he ordered her not to think but simply to memorize the answers. But could he really have predicted what questions were coming?
Even those who aren’t Palin fans may find Moore’s portrayal broad and harsh, though it allows her a few thrilling moments. The famous Republican convention speech in which Palin became an instant superstar (despite losing the services of her teleprompter) is treated with the awe it deserves, and a scene in which Palin is shown making a real connection with citizens afflicted with Down Syndrome shows off her magical personal touch.
With The Lorax, the entertainment industry and the federal government have joined forces to produce a candy-colored dollop of castor-oil. This woeful would-be message movie is about as jaw-dropping as a notable previous Potomac/Pacific joint effort — the pro-Stalin film Mission to Moscow ordered up by Franklin Roosevelt in 1943.
Dr. Seuss’ Lorax is a furry orange forest gnome who carries an overt anti-industry, anti-capitalist, pro-environmentalism theme, and in an effort to look as though they practice what they preach the backers of the film have lined up deals with supposedly green and eco-friendly outfits such as the detergent maker Seventh Generation, which is hawking a Lorax-branded bottle made of recycled paper. (Question: did anyone bother to measure the relative carbon emissions of making a plastic bottle versus making one out of paper, or is the overall feeling of groovy virtue all that matters?)
Another notable Lorax partner is the Environmental Protection Agency, which you might think (or fear) would have bigger things on its mind than promoting a big-screen cartoon, but the combination of Hollywood glamour (Zac Efron and Taylor Swift are in the cast) and the opportunity to push early propaganda on little minds proved irresistible to the EPA, which is using the Lorax brand to hype those supposedly energy-efficient appliances that never quite seem to deliver on their promises. (Click image at left to read.)
Unsurprisingly, given the rigid earnestness behind it, The Lorax isn’t much fun to watch. Every time you think it’s starting to get a little heavy-handed, it gets heavier still. The Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) features in both ascension and resurrection scenes, there is a hymn to greed called “How Bad Can I Be?” that would have embarrassed Bernie Madoff, and the bad guy, O’Hare (Rob Riggle), who wears a severely geometric ‘do suggesting the epic hairstyling errors of Moe Howard, Ringo Starr and Rooney Mara, is a loathsome little creep who has made a fortune selling bottled air.
The art department never got the memo from the Heavy Themes folks, though, and they created a delightfully Seussian candy-colored playland that hardly says “hellhole.” The skies are azure and the streets are clean, giving the lie to the opening song about how smoggy and rubbishy everything is.
More likely to repel little Jake and Emma is the forest critter and alleged hero the Lorax. Imagine the crankiness of your average Scotsman with the mustache of David Crosby.
The Lorax famously “speaks for the trees” but sounds much like a creepy Earth Science teacher who can’t stop talking about that time he met Joan Baez at a No Nukes rally. Briefly I considered reporting the little freak to the police, after he sneaks into bed with the adolescent Once-ler (Ed Helms), an initially well-meaning kid out to make a buck who falls prey to his worst instincts and cuts down all the trees to harvest a substance used in making a must-have clothing item called a “thneed.”
The Lorax (who is only the fourth most prominent character, not that I wanted more of him) fails to convince the Once-ler to be gentle on the land and the woodland creatures who live there. But he’s such a huffy little troll that it’s difficult to picture anyone taking advice from him, even before he slips himself between the sheets with a little boy. Nor is DeVito’s the voice of wisdom; the man sounds like a cabdriver in a 1940s movie, or maybe Ratso Rizzo’s less successful brother, not a sage.
You don’t generally go to bawdy R-rated comedies stuffed with drug abuse, profanity and nudity for political messages, especially conservative ones. So when such a movie comes along and it unashamedly makes the case for monogamy, stability and private property over collectivist ideals, you should pay attention.
The movie is a Jennifer Aniston-Paul Rudd comedy produced by Judd Apatow called Wanderlust. The pair play a married couple who try to find fulfilling work in Manhattan but can’t afford it. (She is a classic artsy but barely employed type who is working on a documentary about penguins with testicular cancer.) George (Rudd) loses his finance job, so he swallows hard and accepts an offer to stay with his well-off but obnoxious brother (Ken Marino) in Atlanta. George and Linda (Aniston) pile their possessions into their tiny car and head South. Along the way, they pull over at what they think is going to be a bed and breakfast, but the establishment turns out to be a hippie free-love commune full of wacky characters such as a bald and chubby little man whose salient characteristics are that he is writing a novel that seems destined never to be finished, he’s always carrying a glass of red wine and he’s always naked.
Having stayed the night at this strange but friendly place, they move on to George’s brother Rick’s house, where things quickly turn unbearable. It turns out Rick’s fortune is in portable toilets, and his personality is as cuddly as his job. He keeps making bad dirty jokes, calling his brother a loser who doesn’t understand the importance of hard work and making his wife (Michaela Watkins) so bored and alienated that she drinks margaritas all day. Lost for a place to go, George and Linda decide that they at least feel loved at the commune. They move in with the hippies and try to fit in with the ethos of the place, which is led by a furry but charismatic dude named Seth (Justin Theroux) and was co-founded by a crusty old survivor (Alan Alda) of the Flower Power generation.
The expected clash of yuppies and hippies leads to some hilarious moments (as well as some jokes that are repeated too often), but it’s the way the movie allows disillusionment to settle in on George and Linda that gives it meaning. The commune renounces meat eating, capitalism, materialism and individualism while celebrating love, egalitarianism, honesty, openness and drug “experiments.” Each of the latter ideas is gradually shown to be unworkable and flawed as the advantages of the former come to light. For instance, a scene in which the Theroux character commands everyone to sit in a circle and be absolutely forthright with each other leads to bad blood between George and Linda. The compound has no doors, which yields a scene in which George tries to use a toilet and is bewildered to find other residents gathering around him to chat. Drugs are held to be a wonderful way to explore one’s inner self — until Linda climbs into a tree while high on hallucinogens and nearly dies because she thinks she can fly.
The year 2011 went almost as badly for moviegoers as it did for Barack Obama. Nevertheless, a few titles sparkled and some of them are already on DVD. So consider this list of the top ten must-see films of the year:
War Horse: Remember Steven Spielberg’s Munich? Neither does he, apparently. With this return to David Lean-style sweep, Spielberg veers away from his failed attempts to make political statement films and proves that when he’s doing what he does best, no one else alive can match him. This wonderfully heartfelt and entirely irony-free story follows “Joey,” a stallion who gets separated from his young owner in England because of World War I. As we experience the horrors of the war through the horse’s eyes, Spielberg plays on the heartstrings like a virtuoso. (Some scenes may be a little intense for younger kids, but there is no explicit violence.)
Captain America: Marvel’s Thor was a disappointment but the studio that gave us Iron Man is back on track with this patriotic superhero story set in World War II. A scrawny little guy from Brooklyn (endearingly well played by Chris Evans) gets a chance to be the guinea pig in a scientific experiment that turns him into a super soldier. Contrary to Hollywood expectations (lefty execs thought having America in the title would be a problem), the movie was even a hit in Europe.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A cool, dense, cerebral thriller set in dismal 1970s London, this adaptation of the John le Carré spy classic stars a superbly self-controlled Gary Oldman as retired spy George Smiley. Smiley is re-hired to figure out which member of the upper echelon of Britain’s intelligence service is actually working for the Russians in a sobering and skillfully designed puzzle that reflects on the Cambridge Spies. A top-notch supporting cast includes John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth and Mark Strong.
The Artist. Believe it or not: A silent film is one of the year’s freshest, most original efforts. This throwback movie starring little-known French actor Jean Dujardin is about a hambone silent movie star discombobulated by the advent of talkies. Thanks to his noble retainer (a dryly funny James Cromwell) and his trusty Jack Russell terrier, though, he gradually finds his way back to the limelight. This delightful comedy is likely to get a bunch of Oscar nominations.
Crazy, Stupid, Love: Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling make one of the year’s most surprisingly effective comedy duos in this complicated romantic comedy for mature audiences. Carell plays a sad-sack office drone who, after being dumped by his wife (Julianne Moore), gets his groove back with the help of a local lothario (Ryan Gosling) who turns out not to be as shallow as he looks. Raunchy and hilarious moments mingle with more lyrical scenes in an expert mix.
The original title of the massive bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was “Men Who Hate Women.” Its author, Stieg Larsson, intended to leave his fortune to the Communist Party when he died in 2004 (though a mistake in his will prevented that from happening). If you are unfamiliar with the story (which was, along with the rest of the trilogy, made into a successful series of Swedish films released in the U.S. last year), put your expectations for subtlety at the level marked “undergraduate.” This series of potboilers, like The Silence of the Lambs, involves a serial killer, sadism, women in peril, a secret cell where awful things happen to captured victims, and an unusual crime-solving partnership between a man and a woman. What it doesn’t offer is the slightest instance of plausibility, psychological depth, or even clever dialogue. And as directed by David Fincher, the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t far from being rated X.
The young woman of the title, played by Rooney Mara (who is best known for having played the exasperated girlfriend of Mark Zuckerberg at the beginning of Fincher’s last movie, The Social Network), is a mohawked, multiple-pierced (even, as we learn, in her nipples) Swedish punk computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander. At the start of the film, she is hired to investigate Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a crusading journalist who has just lost a major libel lawsuit against a corporate giant who, like all capitalists in the film, obviously came by his fortune dishonestly.
Salander has a history of antisocial behavior and petty crime, so she can only access a trust fund meant to support her if she can prove she is an upstanding citizen to a court-appointed guardian who naturally takes the opportunity to tell the girl she can’t have the money unless she provides oral sex to him. Whether it would be wise to ask a violent and hostile person to perform this task against her will is one of many legitimate questions the movie simply ignores in its quest to provide an ever more-revolting series of gruesome images. This scene is only the first of what will turn out to be three unbelievably sick and lurid encounters between the pair, but don’t worry: Lisbeth is capable of defending herself.
She and Blomkvist join forces (well into this 158-minute movie) to investigate the case of a girl who went missing in Sweden 40 years ago. Her great-uncle, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), wants Blomkvist to write a family history and maybe solve the crime while he’s at it. Vanger mentions that his family of wealthy industrialists is — just as you’d expect — full of Nazis. What else would you expect a communist writer to come up with if not the idea that making a fortune means you’re probably a National Socialist?
Clint Eastwood’s woeful, inept biopic J. Edgar may not be the worst movie he’s ever made (that’s debatable), but it’s so histrionic, one-sided and unserious that it will stand as the Mommie Dearest of G-man pictures.
J. Edgar is a “Please don’t” picture; mentally, you’ll find yourself saying “Please don’t” when, for instance, Eastwood shows Leonardo DiCaprio’s J.Edgar Hoover lounging around in silky dressing gowns with Clyde Tolson (a campy Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) making bitchy remarks about Desi Arnaz’s shoes. Please don’t, Clint. And if a squabble should break out between the two of them, please don’t let it end with Clyde straddling a breathless and sweaty Edgar on the floor and forcefully kissing him.
Yet that’s exactly what happens, and it’s not even the worst scene in this dreadful movie. That honor must go to the soon-to-be-notorious scene in which Edgar, stricken by the death of his domineering, gay-hating mom (Judi Dench), puts on first her necklace, then her dress, then breaks down in tears.
We can take J. Edgar Hoover as a self-aggrandizing creep who abused his authority and served eight presidents, mostly as FBI chief, by making them fear he might blackmail them with his confidential files. But must he also be a crybaby?
DiCaprio is awful. He spends most of the movie under about four inches of makeup as he plays Hoover in the 1960s, reflecting on his youth while trying to bring down Martin Luther King Jr. and blackmailing the Kennedy brothers. The device of Hoover telling his life story for posterity, which screenwriter Dustin Lance Black effectively used in his Oscar-winning script for Milk, this time feels forced and false, not to mention stiff and unoriginal. An FBI agent who takes down Hoover’s reminiscences keeps cross-examining and second-guessing him, as indeed do virtually all of the characters Hoover encounters in the movie.
The incessant attacks on Hoover that constitute this movie don’t even fit together. If he was such a terrifying, nearly omnipotent figure, why does everyone he meets feel free to tell him everything he’s doing wrong?
The Ides of March might be the first post-Obama movie, and as such it’s an important film — not for what it thinks it is saying but for what it is actually says about the neverending disillusionment of liberals who, despite heroic efforts, can never quite escape reality.
The movie is entirely a far-left project, based on a play by a former Howard Dean aide, produced in part by Leonardo DiCaprio, and starring George Clooney, who also co-wrote and directed it. Watching it is like being a fly on the wall in a room full of ardent liberals who don’t realize they’re being watched, or how ridiculous they look — especially when they believe they are being very mature, deep, and serious.
The Ides of March takes place on the eve of an Ohio Democratic primary in which two contenders are neck and neck. One of them, a liberal Arkansas senator, we barely meet. The other is the handsome, charming Gov. Mark Morris (George Clooney), who incessantly defends liberal social issues (there is scarcely a word about economics in the entire film). Despite the extremism of this character (who disavows any religious beliefs and believes gay marriage is a basic civil right, in both cases placing him well to the left of the 2008 Obama campaign), we are led to believe that he will easily win the general election if he can defeat his Democratic rival. To stop this from happening, Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives launch “Operation Chaos,” in which they exhort the right wing to vote for Morris’s rival in the open Ohio primary.
Morris’s chief tacticians are his crusty, cynical campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a young, idealistic deputy (Ryan Gosling) who is only 30 but is already a political superstar due to his skill at spinning reporters such as Ida (Marisa Tomei), a New York Times writer who is constantly trying to leverage gossip to force the players involved to give her bigger scoops.
Spoilers lie ahead, but it wouldn’t be proper to write about the film without mentioning how idiotic its plot is. For all of the “insidery” goings on and the air of knowingness that accompanies the scenes inside the campaign office, we are obliged to believe that it constitutes a major scoop when Ida finds out the Gosling character had a beer with the chief (Paul Giamatti) of the rival campaign. There are all sorts of innocent reasons why these men might meet (they are, after all, both liberal Democrats), and even in the Times it would hardly constitute a major story. What would the headline be: “Political Operatives Have Conversation in Bar”? Yet this paltry item of micro-trivia sets off a chain reaction that could have historic consequences.
The other unbelievably moronic plot element involves a slutty intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who, after a one-night stand with Gov. Morris, gets pregnant — and is unable to come up with $900 for an abortion. Her dad is a Catholic ex-senator and the head of the DNC whom she dare not ask for the money (even though, back in reality, virtually all Catholic Democrats are vehement defenders of abortion). But a girl who grew up in the upper reaches of Washington must have hundreds of rich friends she could ask to loan her $900. Instead, she goes directly to Gov. Morris to ask him for the money, which threatens to derail his campaign.
Moneyball is a highly polished piece of entertainment that knows how to please an audience. Does it matter if this movie is essentially wrong?
Based on the celebrated bestseller by Michael Lewis, the film is a diluted version of The Social Network – a tale of a misfit who hit it big by bucking the system. But picture a Social Network that was made by people who actually liked their subject — liked him so much they hired Brad Pitt to play him.
Pitt is Billy Beane, the (now-legendary) general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team during the glory years when they won so many World Series titles — in the early 2000s.
Except the A’s haven’t won any World Series lately. Or even made it to the World Series. That is a problem for this film, which instead uses as its climactic moment an (ultimately trivial) 20-game winning streak the team enjoyed in 2002. That glorious season came after Beane, whose small-market team had a budget roughly one-fourth the size of that of the best-funded one, the New York Yankees, lost three of his best players to free agency and then, seemingly in a fit of pique, traded away a couple of key starting players in midseason.
Beane is a perfect character for this moment — he’s portrayed as being ruthlessly empirical, technocratic, concerned with results instead of the appearances that obsess his staff of old-time baseball scouts and their avatar, the team’s recalcitrant, traditionalist manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Pitt’s Beane is also one of the few bosses in the history of movies who is portrayed as doing the brave, smart, and proper thing every time he fires or demotes one of his workers.
His partner as he bucks the system is a nerdy Yale graduate, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, in straight-man mode), an economics graduate and budding genius who teaches Beane about how to analyze players using raw number-crunching. A great level of detail about these numbers is in Lewis’s book, but the big-screen version (directed by Bennett Miller, who previously made Capote) is almost devoid of stats. What we learn about Beane and Brant’s newfangled way of looking at baseball is that some players are worth much more or less than their apparent market value, that a walk is as good as a hit, and that bunting and base-stealing are bad ideas.
Beane says he wants not just for the A’s to win but to “change the game,” and the movie makes it clear that he at least succeeds in this latter goal. But did he? Moneyball is about rigorous facts, so it wouldn’t want us to be so sentimental as to say that, because the A’s made the playoffs five times under Beane’s system, they’re a great team or even an above-average one. This year will mark their fifth straight year of missing the playoffs in a system in which almost thirty percent of the teams make it to the postseason.
Contagion is a biohazard thriller that shows off the considerable talents of its occasionally infuriating director, Steven Soderbergh, to a degree rarely seen since the film that won him his Oscar, Traffic, back in 2000.
As in Traffic, Soderbergh deals with nonstop tension and harrowing situations with a vivid, near-documentary style. Dialogue occasionally overlaps and the more fortunate actors (particularly Matt Damon) often look doughy and pale. As for the less fortunate performers, well…this is a film about a lethal virus that takes control of and kills its victims within a couple of days. More than half a dozen Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated actors appear — including Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, and Marion Cotillard. Not all of them make it to the end.
Contagion is similar to Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak, which arrived in a mid-90s period during which much of popular culture was suffused with a terror of contagious diseases (the Ebola virus was the hottest name in infection). The most memorable moment in Outbreak (which Soderbergh can’t quite find an answer to) is one in which moviegoers — cleverly placed to make the audience think of itself — start infecting each other with coughs as animation shows the alarming progress of each virus-packed exhalation.
But Outbreak eventually settled into the comfortable patterns of a rote thriller, whereas Contagion sticks to a more sober approach. It explores the social consequences of a pandemic that kills more than three million Americans in the first 30 days and is compared onscreen to the 1918 influenza that may have killed as much as one percent of the world population.
Grim stuff, and even as the movie ends (with an unexpectedly beautiful moment) it isn’t quite clear what the point of all the suffering Soderbergh depicts might be. Is this a cautionary tale? Not especially; the virus gets started because of a chance transmission of disease from a bat to a pig to a person. There isn’t much we can do about that. Is it a whodunnit? Again, not really. Nor is Contagion a horror film, scary though it is. The deaths of important characters don’t provide catharsis or voyeuristic thrills, and though a central character is morally compromised, this information is presented in an off-hand way, not as a kind of justification for a grisly fate.
Yet the film has a propulsive power thanks to Soderbergh’s tight grip on realism and his (sparing) use of a pulsing synthesizer score. When humanity is really up against it, what will we do? The answer, according to Soderbergh and his sharp screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, is a dark one. Some people will seek profit through fraud; others will loot and riot in pursuit of any conceivable cure, or merely to survive. There is a telling scene in which Damon’s character calls 911 after witnessing an armed break-in at a neighbor’s house: Due to the volume of calls, he gets stuck in a phone tree. Those who followed the story of the recent looting in Britain will note that, at a moment when the rule of law has broken down, ordinarily reliable services like an emergency hotline quickly become useless.
The Help, a drama that takes place in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, is yet another of Hollywood’s curiously tangled efforts to invite a paying audience to congratulate itself for not being racists.
Is it really that simple? Yes, it really is, and it’s easy to imagine left-wing black viewers reacting with a certain amount of astonishment as they realize that all of the travails of a group of black maids suffering from prejudice in the Deep South are supposed to be balanced out by the fact that a cute white girl (Emma Stone) gets a book deal out of them.
Stone’s character, Skeeter, is a young newspaper columnist who writes up housekeeping tips which she borrows without credit from her helpful black domestic, Aibileen, who is played with quiet, suffering dignity by Viola Davis. The nanny who raised Skeeter, Constantine, has moved to Chicago under mysterious circumstances that Skeeter’s mom (Allison Janney) doesn’t want to discuss.
Meanwhile, a friend of Aibileen and fellow servant Minny (Octavia Spencer) confronts racism with a much less accepting style, earning herself considerable turmoil in the bargain. She is heading for a showdown with a racist friend of Skeeter’s, Hilly (played by Ron Howard’s elfin daughter Bryce Dallas Howard). Hilly’s main political issue is bathrooms: She doesn’t want “colored” people anywhere near any that might be used by a white person, and is horrified by white people who share their facilities with their help. Blacks, it appears to Hilly, carry different germs and should be made to use outhouses.
Within 20 minutes it is obvious that these characters are set up in a nice, reassuring quadrant pattern. On one side are whites, who are either racist or not; on the other side there are black people, who either choose to be submissive or rebellious in the face of segregation.