Melancholia, on the other hand, wants to have its empathy and shove it down your pitiful, tiny throat too. Its characters are less despicable than they are dull—because the movie happens exclusively in a hermetically sealed metaphor (It’s a castle! That’s a hotel! That’s also a golf course! That’s about to explode!), the characters are allowed to reap nothing of context, nothing of reference: we watch them behave badly toward one another and are never asked to care why. Kirsten Dunst is some kind of arch saint for snobby girls, her big boobs a silent rebuke to all those who do not take her depression seriously: she’s seriously depressed guys!
Melancholia: rich people acting shitty and then the world explodes—the final act, in which Dunst gets to tell off Gainsborough for wanting to make the world’s end “nice,” but goes and builds the movie’s kid actor a teepee to sit in as the planet smashes to smithereens anyway, betrays Von Trier’s basic misunderstanding of the human condition. Take Shelter: even in ending-less form, so pervasively empathic as to let us see anew the thin line we all walk in the stories we tell, or try to tell, each other and ourselves.
Every line is a time-based pun like “I’m gonna clean your clock…” and “Time’s up!” and “Looks like we’re making good time…” and “Time to go get some more time before time runs out.” “Not this time!”
Justin Timberlake’s lingering falsetto, erupting at moments of emotional intensity, undercut his ability to wag a gun and grimace convincingly at an adversary.
There were pauses in the dialogue so vast and vacuous, Russel Crowe could’ve piloted the ship from Master and Commander through them.
In Time is a man running a marathon whose legs are suddenly hacked off and instead of going to the hospital, he just worms forward, desperately clutching the earth in front of him while gawkers turn away, covering their eyes with their hands, but their eyes aren’t crying, they’re smoking.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde
“If I am the exact same character in every movie, I can be in every movie.” – Olivia Wilde
Remember the highlighted blonde-poodle haircut Justin Timberlake used to have.
Byron: The world was void, the populous and the powerful was a lump, seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—a lump of death—a chaos of hard clay. The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still, and nothing stirred within their silent depths; ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea, and their masts fell down piecemeal; as they dropped they slept on the abyss without a surge—the waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, the Moon, their mistress, had expired before; the winds were withered in the stagnant air, and the clouds perished! Darkness had no need of aid from them—she was the Universe.
Couple things wrong with Hanna. No movie seen since more recalls Black Swan. Strengths similar. Strong central performance intersects ostentatious directorial style. Former never wavers, latter offers bursts of visual pleasure—e.g., prison-suited Saoirse Ronan escaping evil subterranean complex with pinpoint pistolry through pulsating flourescent light à la Goldeneye on N64, with the Chemical Brothers’ tribal electro jizz giving it to you in the ear. Or over the hodgepodge of land-, ethno-, aestheti-scapes the undisciplined script leapfrogs—Nordic forest pocked with ice floes dancing Wes Andersonianly, X-Files-ish Moroccan desert, Syriana-style city-state on eve of generic Arabian reverie, dueñde-eyed Flamenco dancers (whose feet we never see…) clapping in the glow of a bonfire—but like Black Swan, or the actioner of yore Hanna sadly most reminded me of, Boondock Saints, the overdosing on slow-motion, cheesy outfits, inorganic battles, and plotting discontinuity reduces our portrait of the titular naïf and her struggles to an excuse to peacock Joe Wright’s directorial tailfeathers. We can give Wright an “A” for effort—trying to hoist the genre out of a swamp sticky with little else but the buttsweat of Jason Statham—but as bad poetry repeatedly teaches us, a high-gloss literary stylism is no panacea, and often ends up offending us more than things that are meaningless, nakedly.
Cate Blanchett’s evil stepmother isn’t scary enough. One problem common to all bad action movies, no matter who they star or how florid their mise-en-scène: we never actually fear for our main character. I don’t think this is a difficult problem to solve. You don’t do it by weakening your hero. You strengthen your villain. If the big bad wolf is actually a big bad wolf, and little red riding hood defeats her, as we knew she would, that can still thrill us, especially if we don’t know—or can’t imagine given a set of seemingly incredible odds—how the inevitable reversal will be architected. But if the big bad wolf is just one woman with a gun stomping bureaucratically around in “scary forest green” half-inch heels, and little red riding hood is a genetically-engineered badass who has already effortlessly slaughtered a small army of armed guards in a high-security compound controlled by the CIA ten stories beneath the Moroccan desert, it’s hard for me to fear for her life. It’s hard for the endless chase scenes that power-fuck their way through Hanna to transcend routine. The only times I really sense Hanna’s humanity is when she adopts herself into a normal family of British travelers and almost has her first kiss, makes her first friend, and experiences adolescent intimacy’s sweet sting. I wish this would’ve been more of the movie. Or I wish the obligatory action orgy that gobbled it up would’ve had even a glint of equivalent ambiguity.
What if every time you read anything, you summoned the author’s mind into your own, housed it there on life-support, and for the duration of your attention span, that consciousness became a living thing. As long as you concentrated on this stranger’s words and let them overdub your own internal monologue, that writer was awake, alert, looking out through your eyes, feeling what you felt, thriving within your body. Then the moment you closed the book, or were distracted by a squirrel outside, or an email, or a phone call—the writer’s mind, as if struck by a freight train, is wiped from existence. It drifts without sensation or agency in the lightless void whose barest description belies a dimensionality it is defined by the lack of. Until the squirrel on the powerline runs out of your field of vision, or you delete the Facebook invite you just received, and return to your reading. Suddenly as if sucked out of purgatory and spit back into life the writer breathes again, or at least thinks, which is the breath of being. Once again the writer is smiling, weeping, opining, thrilling and being thrilled by the spongy, plangent joy of your form. As if to live in the empathetic present is the only heaven.
Reveling in the concept of a non-writer doomed to relive the same moment over and over is the primary Source of pleasure in Code. Watching whiskered, big-eyed Gyllenhaal grok his paradox isn’t nearly as wonderful as watching Bill Murray do it in Groundhog Day, but this sisyphean DeLorean gets adrenalized by shrinking down the existential loop from 1 day to 8 minutes. The other good thing Code does is blur in all its glossy, techno-thriller glory the line between the never-ending present and mother Death. Right now, reading this, you could be having a flashback on your deathbed, remembering when you read it long ago. Maybe we are all already dead, and the thing we call life is just one long, slow flashback. Something we lived before and now are falling through in a perfectly representational montage. Eternity, momentarity, the dream of forever realized through sheer faith in the infinity of now—in Code these venerable leitmotifs are like the most delicious Sicilian dough ever kneaded being grinded through the Play-Doh hand-crank of hackneyed idiocy that is the loud, plastic sacrament of blockbuster form. But it’s non-toxic, so you can still eat it. I’ve been eating it my whole life. It’s good!
Limitless is probably the malest piece of movie making we’ve seen in awhile. It’s not misogynistic, or even sexist—though Abbie Cornish’s bit part as Bradley Cooper’s love interest is pretty and perfunctory, we must admit it’s classily done—it is just really, really male. Like bong hits and video games male; like computer chess and burritos; like snappy puns traded at lightning speed and a mattress on the floor, “Chocolate and Cheese” on the stereo for old time’s sake. Bradley Cooper exudes a certain kind of large, safe, and tasty masculinity: he is equal parts the prom king who secretly befriended you in high school, and the pony-tailed philosophy major you dated in college. The zero-to-hero story this movie tells could be some kind of indictment of the American dream, or a clever retelling of the Faust myth, or a sly endorsement of drugs. Whatever it is, and whoever wrote it (former frat boys is what we’ve heard), it is the funnest action movie in theaters right now, its under-the-influence conceit consistently pushed to jaw-dropping extremes. We saw this movie in a crowded theater—one of the first in a long time and oh what a difference some public makes—and the middle-aged couple next to us seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. At one point, Bradley Cooper is required to drink some blood. Some shit happens and it’s his only way out of a bad situation and blah blah blah. But the way director Neil Burger allows us to arrive at this conclusion with Cooper, to vicariously assess all the possible scenarios and realize—with him, nay, as him—that this is truly the only way, is a mini-masterpiece of pacing and focus. An image that has been Twilighted to death suddenly became disgustingly pleasurable. As Cooper opened his lovely mouth to slurp at the black stain of sangre, the older gentleman in the exact next seat to us chuckled, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
It reminded us of the first few months of our friendship with Mark—in fact this whole movie is what it’s like to be friends with a man, to behold with bemusement and horror the quotidian workings of the bland, megalomaniacal logic that has somehow ruled the world for thousands of years—when we would engage in absurd thought experiments like: If all your poetic ambitions would be fulfilled but you could only eat tacos for the rest of your life, would you do it? Or: Would you rather be able to instantly know people’s darkest desire or have any kind of new car that you wanted? Would you drink blood if it allowed you to access 100% of you brain? If you could access 100% of your brain, would you use it to make an ass-ton of money, learn a bunch of foreign languages solely to prattle to a UN’s-worth of maître ds, and run for president? Or would you use your powers in some non-self-monumentalizing way? Eschew the priapic path in a true quest for empathy, and the maximum good? As the camera zoomed us down another montage of NYC’s streets and the club-music soundtrack pounded like the rain of a thousand remixed Adidas commercials, we didn’t care that Cooper was merely a cipher of contemporary male anxiety, his meteoric ascent the raging hard-on every white American dude knows he could at any moment have in the over-priced skinny jeans he has somehow found himself in. We were having fun, as one does, when one is hanging with the boys. Go see this movie if even the thought of illegal substances now makes you paranoid.
You can literally smell the cheap glue holding together the pages of the mass market paperback from which The Lincoln Lawyer was adapted. You can smell the airport bookstore in which thousands of upwardly mobile ants of capitalism purchased it, desperate to inexpensively distract themselves from the emptiness of endless, meaningless travel. Meeting Hannah in the food court of the Hampshire Mall before the movie, I immediately sensed disillusionment emanating from her demeanor. Something to do with school, or money, or work had piled up in her mind and was bearing down when she she looked up at me and said, “It’s all a scam.” Then she listed off everything in her life that had been beating her down, and it was not a vain whine, but a true and tragic perception, and while I felt nothing but empathy as her litany intensified, I decided it nobler to risk offense by challenging her doom-warble than to let it run on unchecked, malingering through her mind like a vile river, tainting all the beautiful parts, so I interrupted her mid-sentence by slamming my fist on the table, “Snap out of it!” Some heavily-pierced teenagers turned to look at us, as did the overweight security guard with his elbow on the ATM, as did the Mexican mother in a black hoodie bouncing an infant on her hip, as did the white slave behind the glass at Subway. “Not everything is a scam, Hannah,” and as the words came out of my mouth I wondered if I believed them. “Friendship isn’t a scam.” I gestured to the surrounding mall. “This isn’t.” I touched my heart. “Love isn’t a scam.” I held my arms out wide. “Family isn’t.” Then I paused and tried to summon into my face everything I’ve learned about acting from the 27 movies I have seen in the theater since last November. I stared into Hannah’s eyes. “Your soul isn’t a scam.”
Here Hannah laughed—barely—which is always enough for me. Half an hour later we were seated, relaxed, ready to be drawn into the Los Angelesy glow of The Lincoln Lawyer. Matthew McConaughey reprises his wily Southern lawyer role from A Time to Kill, which is what you’ll want to have, and about all you’ll accomplish, by buying a ticket. There are two okay things about the movie. Cast and concept. No one is a bad actor, and the legal finger trap at the center of the plot is mildly clever. But Brad Furman’s direction is strictly by the numbers. Remember when Danny Boyle used his camera in crazy ways to make James Franco’s one-scene battle with mortality feel miraculously expansive and multi-dimensional? This is like the opposite of that—a great cast with lots of plot twists and locations filmed through such a flat, lifeless lens that nothing at all appears to happen. The script is equally dead on arrival. I wish I was a two-bit gangster so I could corner screenwriter John Romano in the alleyway behind Hollywood and say, “You wanna write a courtroom drama, Johnny?” Romano would nod. “You know what makes a good courtroom drama?” He would shake his head. “Verbal sparks.” And here I would punch him hard in the gut. He’d double over and his fedora would fall off. I’d pick it up, dust it off, then throw it at him and say, “As in you ain’t got any.” At this point he would struggle to stand upright and shout, “You poets, you don’t know what it’s like to write under the gun we write under! They’re throwing literally thousands of dollars at us! Real money!” And I would just keep walking, not looking back, but muttering over my shoulder, “If you can’t take the heat, Johnny, stay outta the pictures.”
Romano’s flaccid screenplay and Furman’s sloppy, castrated direction are like jury tampering and attorney-client conflicts of interest motivating the Your Honor of my suspended disbelief to throw his hands up by the middle of the first act and declare a cinematic mistrial. Go back to film school, you hacks! Or wherever it is people go to learn about form. After the movie Hannah and I attempted to restore some semblance of respect for ourselves by strolling around the mostly shuttered-up mall, past the empty Bath & Body Works, past the GNC with towers of protein supplements stacked outside, past the two adjacent mani-pedi salons sans customers, home to two different clans of Koreans eying us grimly from within, past the combined Verizon and WE BUY GOLD kiosk; and we talked about how The Lincoln Lawyer represents the kind of plodding narrative young writers so often reject in favor of experimentation, hold up as straw men in order to flagellate convention in “lyric essays” chic journals publish by the bushel, shrilly decrying the scam of realism, its pat, capitalistic parables, its edification of consumption, objectification, imperialism—objection! Realism isn’t what is codified. It’s like the universe—always expanding—by definition. And its fulfillment necessitates our infinite gymnasium of experimentation and invention. Airport fiction and its filmic correlatives are just the bathwater, baby. As in don’t throw yourself out with it. If you decided to become an atheist because all the Christians you ever met were ignorant, angry, and warlike, you would still be a fool. How many self-proclaimed experimental writers make the same mistake. The defense (never) rests.