Cool Morning Land (Weekly Links)

Art created from Waste Land.

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

Unstoppable. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

If you’ve ever watched one of Tony Scott’s action films, you may wonder why he includes so many shots of people cheering and clapping and high-fiving when the big climactic scene happens.

The reason is not complicated. If those people on screen are happy, you should be too. If the action hasn’t completely excited you, the cheering people are there to tell you what you’re supposed to be feeling. And if you aren’t happy and high-fiving the person in the next seat, what’s the matter with you?

Such thoughts are stirred by the climax of “Unstoppable,” Scott’s newest picture, his third consecutive feature with Denzel Washington. It’s not very good, but it’s an improvement over last year’s lousy “Taking of Pelham 123” remake. Both films feature extended train action. Washington plays a veteran train man, working a routine run in Pennsylvania. His companion in the engine car is a young conductor, played by Chris Pine, whose family, annoyingly enough, owns the railroad. That social divide exists to give the movie something to do until the real plot kicks in. Seems a couple of goofball employees have left an unmanned train in motion, which is now hurtling toward a series of towns.

Even worse—you knew there had to be more—the train is carrying cars full of toxic somethingorother. It doesn’t really matter what the cargo is, just that it will go boom if it spills. It falls to our heroes to try to stop the locomotive when all the official rescue efforts fail. Because this is a Tony Scott film, the company men, the people in suits, are sneering, elitist nitwits, foolishly pursuing the wrong tactic. This means we will cheer even louder when the good guys do their thing. That will be a challenge, however: Washington and Pike are driving their train backward in pursuit of the unmanned loco-bomb.

To ratchet up the tension, Scott cross-cuts from the trains to the operations room, where Rosario Dawson watches things on video screens and barks a lot of orders into her headset. As for Denzel Washington and Chris Pine (who made such an ingratiating bow as the new Captain Kirk in “Star Trek”), they do as little as possible, which is probably wise. This kind of movie isn’t really an acting showcase.

But the trains and the slightly unreal-looking countryside perform well. Tony Scott has certainly carved a profitable niche for himself: he has the soul of a TV-commercial director, but he gets away with making two-hour movies. This means his films look flashy, have great technical stunts, and create a dramatic spike at least every four minutes or so. Snippets of pop tunes—Scott is in too much of a hurry to play entire songs—give us quick emotional hits. Characters are either good or bad, so we don’t spend time worrying about that. And in the end, everybody cheers. This movie is perfectly titled, because Tony Scott is, alas, unstoppable.

Waste Land (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The internationally renowned artist Vik Muniz has an important revelation in the early stages of his ambitious new project. Things look very different close up from what they looked like from above and at a distance.

This is one of the lessons of “Waste Land,” a film that documents Muniz’s project. When he first looked at Google Earth photographs of the Jardim Gramacho garbage dump outside Rio de Janeiro, the place looked dangerous and unhealthy. We see his wife worrying for his safety. When he actually travels there, the close view changes things. The mounds of garbage are overrun by catadores, the rag-pickers who pluck recyclable items from the truckfuls of trash and sell them to make a living.

The place is hard and sad, yet Muniz finds amazing people working there. His goal is to create art out of Jardim Gramacho, by photographing the workers, blowing up the images, and creating new works with trash that has been taken from the place. Some of the workers help in that process, which involves using the refuse itself to create large-scale versions of the images; the resulting creation is then photographed (and when those photographs are sold at art auctions, the proceeds go to the catadores and their workers association).

This is interesting, but the film is strongest in its depictions of the catadores and their lives. The stories of the women cut the deepest; they endure their miserable jobs, yet point to the pride of having honest work, when the alternative they see for poor women is prostitution. One man retrieves books from the dump in hopes of creating a library for the pickers. The person we get to know best is Tiao, the president of the pickers’ association, who works to organize the catadores despite the ridiculous odds against him. This amazingly articulate man is, an end title tells us, being talked about as a future presidential candidate in Brazil. You will have already come to that conclusion after listening to him for five minutes.

Muniz must wrestle with his responsibility in showing the pickers a different kind of life for the weeks they work on his art project. As one woman says, “I started to see myself,” in making art—an unconscious echo of the overall theme of looking closely at something versus looking from far away.

“Waste Land” is directed by Lucy Walker, and co-directed by Joao Jardim and Karen Harley. Along with Muniz, they don’t take a wrong step; although the film sounds like a bummer to sit through, it barely has a minute without something astonishing, terrifying, or inspirational in it. Many documentaries on social issues labor to create a sense of hope along the way, but this one comes by it naturally. It goes on the short list of best non-fiction films of the year.

Morning Glory. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

She’s over 30 and has been in movies for ten years, so Rachel McAdams may not be an ingénue anymore. Still, in her new film, the star of “The Notebook” and “Sherlock Holmes” has the unmistakable aura of a younger actress moving up to take her place in the pecking order.

“Morning Glory,” the movie in question, is almost too insistent on McAdams’ appeal. A smart and funny actress to begin with, she bobs and weaves and flounces all over the place here, as though the point of every scene is to convince us of her charm. Of course, she’s appealing anyway.

The movie draped around her is just amusing enough to get by with its creaky formula. McAdams plays a morning-show producer, freshly laid off from her second-rate gig in New Jersey, who gets an unlikely job offer on a network morning show. The program, “Daybreak,” is trailing its competitors by a wide margin, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Our heroine feeds the program a steady diet of pep, and morale and ratings both begin to rise. The new producer’s big coup is hiring a veteran news anchor for the co-hosting job—although he’s contractually obligated rather than enthusiastic about the prospect. Harrison Ford plays the role as a combination of Tom Brokaw and General MacArthur, and his crusty relationship with McAdams’s character is the main source of the movie’s energy.

Ford undeniably gets some good moments, especially because he’s the lemon in this otherwise sugary confection. A droll actor in straight parts, he has a tendency to overplay in outright comedies, and he’s guilty of that a few times here. McAdams’ romantic partner, played by Patrick Wilson (late of “Watchmen” and “The A-Team”), is strictly male bimbo material. Ford’s co-host is played by Diane Keaton, who gets to unleash a few enjoyably silly gags. The cast also includes Jeff Goldblum, as the network exec who gives McAdams an ultimatum (and a few of screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna’s better one-liners): The neophyte producer must raise her show’s ratings in six short weeks—but is that possible?

All right, there’s no suspense on that point. But you wish director Roger Michell, who has made better films than this (including “Venus” and “Notting Hill”), had tried to vary the formula somewhere: go slightly beyond caricature, or allow McAdams to catch her breath now and then. More than anything, “Morning Glory” reminds you of how good “Broadcast News” was on the same subject. Granted, a running gag in which McAdams struggles with heavy doors is pretty good. Maybe all the buzz about the “next Julia Roberts” is justified, maybe not. But this movie probably won’t hurt Rachel McAdams’ chances.

Boxing Gym (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Now 80 years old, America’s most distinguished documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, has turned to physical subjects in his latest films. Last year’s “La Valse” looked at the dancers and administrators of the Paris Opera Ballet; his new one, “Boxing Gym,” spends almost its entire running time in the title locale.

It’s a modest setting. Lord’s Gym, in Austin, Texas, is hidden behind a Goodwill store; inside, with its heavy bags duct-taped and old fight posters peeling off the walls, the gym’s cozy jumble is part of its charm (Clint Eastwood’s gym in “Million Dollar Baby” looks regal by comparison). Wiseman’s style has no narrator or storyline, just the camera observing the workings of a place. We do recognize certain regulars at the gym, and the owner, Richard Lord, interacts with a variety of folks throughout. He’s one of those people who seem to carry around an entire philosophy of life in the way they set their feet. Of course, how you set your feet is a key component of boxing, and Lord is just as eloquent when he’s working out a student as when he’s describing the very casual rules of the gym.

It might surprise viewers that women are a large part of the population here; some women bring their kids in to hang out while they train. In fact, almost anything seems allowed at the gym except a certain un-coolness; as one boxer observes, anybody who comes in acting loud and flashy will be flushed out by the system. Some people are training, some are learning self-defense skills, some are simply exercising. But all of them look intent and serious. You are reminded that boxing is considered a science by its practitioners, and not something to be trifled with.

Wiseman lets his camera catch whatever seems interesting, including one mesmerizing sequence of two boxers (one male, one female) dancing around the ring in their own separate workouts, as though fighting invisible opponents. The movie’s sound design is also important, as Wiseman layers in all the grunts and squeaking sneakers and thwacks of gloves hitting punching bags. This is a very exact slice of life, rendered as accurately as possible.

At 91 minutes, “Boxing Gym” is shorter than most of Wiseman’s projects, as though it offered less complexity than his bigger films. That’s probably true, but it leaves behind a curiously blissed-out feeling, a portrait of a small haven that is accessible to all.

Cool It. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Early in “Cool It” there’s some effort expended at trying to portray Bjorn Lomborg as a crusading, embattled voice against the global warming “establishment,” as though he were denying inconvenient truths about the state of the planet. But no, not quite. Lomborg, the Danish author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” completely agrees that global warming is real, that mankind is responsible for part of it, and that we’ve got to do something.

His brief, as laid out in this movie, is that the current conversation about climate change is going in the wrong direction. For starters, he doesn’t much care for the pumping-up of anxiety on the subject. This results in the weakest passages in the film, as Lomborg talks to schoolchildren in England and Nigeria. In England the kids appear to believe that the world is going to end in an imminent cataclysm of melting ice caps; in Africa they want health care and education. Lomborg and director Ondi Timoner (who made the annoying “We Live in Public”) seem to think this proves a case, which it doesn’t. And why, exactly, do we see Lomborg visiting his ailing mother? I’m willing to concede that he is a good son.

However, if we can get past that, and adjust ourselves to Lomborg’s carefully sculpted public image (his “casual” T-shirts seems just as calculated as Michael Moore’s schlubby persona), there’s a chance to hear his argument. Like Al Gore in “The Inconvenient Truth,” Lomborg spends some of the running time of the film giving an illustrated lecture. In his case, he’s running down a series of alternative solution to the problems Gore outlined.

The gist of it is that Lomborg feels that some proposals—Cap and Trade, for instance, or the Kyoto Protocol—offer relatively little climate-change bang for the buck. By taking some of Gore’s points one by one, he offers his own alternative solutions. Among his contentions is that, despite the possibility of low-lying cities being inundated by rising ocean levels, the real rise will likely be about a foot, which he claims the Earth can handle without a great adjustment. He also lays out a series of geo-engineering schemes, which taken together would lower the Earth’s temperature only slightly, but enough to offset the larger increase. And they wouldn’t cost very much, relatively speaking.

These sound zany, are but fun to hear about: harnessing the power of waves, sending out sailboats that spew ocean water into the air (thus turning clouds whiter and reflecting away a percentage of sunlight), and extending a hose into the stratosphere (buoyed by balloons) that would emit something that would produce the cooling effect of post-eruption volcano ash.

A movie reviewer lacks the scientific expertise to assess Lomborg’s arguments—although that never stopped U.S. politicians or radio talk-show hosts from speaking authoritatively on climate change. As a movie, “Cool It” is fine once it gets over its initial foolishness, and if Lomborg’s solutions can be debunked by experts, they will be. The film does seem like a useful tool in the ongoing conversation, however, which could use some moderate voices.

Brutal Beauty: Tales of the Rose City Rollers (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The 21-century revival of Roller Derby is a curious phenomenon: part aggressive outlet, part female empowerment, and part (if I’m not mistaken) ironic reclaiming of a weird old sport.

And so you get Drew Barrymore’s “Whip It” and other depictions of tattooed, elbow-throwing woman chasing each other on roller skates around a track. The newest such example is a Portland-made documentary, “Brutal Beauty: Tales of the Rose City Rollers,” which introduces us to a troupe of Derby competitors on and off the track. Like so many Derby skaters, these gals have campy stage names. (You will recall that Ellen Page’s character in “Whip It” was known as Babe Ruthless.) Here we meet Blood Clottia, Madame Bumpsalot, Marollin’ Monroe and the literary-minded Scratcher in the Eye (a J.D. Salinger fan, that one).

We see a few glimpses of home lives, where boyfriends and husbands provide reasonably excited support. Roller Derby is very much a grassrootsy sort of endeavor, where the participants need to juggle their regular jobs while making time to practice and compete—that’s part of the appeal. Another draw is the elaborate costuming and personal style on display, which is inflected by heavy metal and punk. If skating-champion-turned-1930s-movie-star Sonja Henie had been reincarnated as Courtney Love, she might be the prototype of the take-no-prisoners modern Roller Derby star.

So what about the movie? Well, the personalities are likable and often funny. Director Chip Mabry steers us through a competitive cycle, with a championship match amongst the Portland teams, and then a couple of traveling tournaments in the Bay Area and Denver. It’s a shaggy sort of structure, held together by a very loud soundtrack. The music fits the overall vibe, which is to say it’s not exactly tuned for quiet contemplation.

At one point a team manager (male, if that matters) tries to explain the basic rules of Roller Derby by arranging the donuts on a table in his donut shop. It comes as close as anything to illuminating the simple but somehow peculiar way the sport works. Although—let’s face it—the niceties of a rulebook do not seem all that relevant here. I can’t repeat some of the goals of the competitors, because of their unprintable nature, but let’s just say that inflicting punishment on the opposition is frequently mentioned.

Hey, “It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle,” as one participant says. “You either do it or you don’t.” These women really do it.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Marcie Sillman about recent movies on terrorism (Four Lions and Carlos) and other subjects ripped from the headlines, which leads to some calls about movies that attempt to capture their times in new ways. It’s here; the movie bit kicks in at the 14-minute point.

And I said something to Tim Appelo about Frank Sinatra and From Here to Eternity that worked its way into Tim’s Hollywood Reporter blog: here.

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Carlos (The Cornfield #5)

One of the scintillating issues about movies is the problem of villains: movies can officially disapprove of a character who does bad things, but if that character is played by an actor with great glamour or charisma and gets the best nasty lines in the script, we have a tendency to gravitate toward that person regardless of the film’s official stance. The issue is even thornier when the villain is the central figure, as in Bonnie and Clyde or the two versions of Scarface, although there are many films, Bonnie and Clyde among them, that consciously explore the problem.

Olivier Assayas is part of a generation of filmmakers who frequently try to drain their movies of traditional seductive melodrama, although he also knows how to turn that stuff on when he wants to. In the case of Carlos, Assayas has built a five and a half hour TV miniseries around the misadventures of the notorious and highly visible terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and the plain recounting of various facts (and some speculation) about Carlos’s life makes for a less than romantic take on the criminal career. Assayas emphasizes the more absurd interludes in the arc of this career, as well as Carlos’s egocentric taste for the glory of infamy, so that most viewers will be unlikely to come out of this movie impressed by the coolness of the villain.

It also helps that the actor who plays the central role (a heroic performance by any standard), Édgar Ramírez, has the broad, handsome, self-satisfied face of a born self-satisfier. You take one look at him and think, Man, what a dick, and Ramírez never lets that first impression fade – even if Carlos evinces a few apparently authentic true-believer-in-the-revolutionary-cause moments early in the film, he conveys no sense of reflection or gravity. More shark than jackal: just the kneejerk evolutionary promotion of the self, in whatever situation.

By portraying the levels within the terrorist antfarm, Assayas creates both gripping suspense and black comedy – the latter approaching the gold standard of the rivalries and internecine power struggles taking place between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian. Along with Carlos’s father/son mindgames with Palestinian terror honcho Wadie Haddad (spellbinding performance by Ahmad Kaabour), the game of lethal Risk is best played out in the movie’s longest sustained sequence, the 1975 hostage-taking at an OPEC conference in Vienna, which becomes both terrifying and ludicrous.

Assayas automatically tilts toward the absurd and the Kubrickian (not in Kubrick’s style, but in attitude – Assayas still favors the handheld, seemingly casual approach to scene-covering, with his usual technique of cutting frames in mid-shot to jump things along); a large part of this world’s population would find all of this deadly serious, another large segment would find this all laughable. Assayas seems to have gone through a process similar to the one Kubrick went through on Dr. Strangelove: the more research he did, the more hilarious it all got. (See Four Lions for another application of terrorism’s realities to create pitch-black comedy.) Whether or not you find Carlos funny probably depends on which part of the population you belong to.

Even though Carlos (and Ramírez) has his rock-star moments, the accumulation of mundane detail works against any possible glamorization of the character. During Carlos’s endgame, as he packs on the pounds and spins his wheels in Yemen and the Sudan, he endures ongoing testicular pain while pondering liposuction. These things tend to detract a bit from the grandeur.

The five-hour running time wears away the appeal, too. You can’t come away from the film too jazzed about the sociopathic doofus whose life we have been viewing, especially as the engrossing strategic plays of the film’s first two sections give way to the disorganized action of the final section, a third act that tends to grind on. I like the movie, find it an admirable thing, but it is really long.

At one point Carlos, getting on in age now, is seen clowning around with a little kid, a scene that stirs memories of Brando goofing with his grandson in The Godfather. Now that’s a movie that creates warmth and nostalgia and plenty of movie-star glamour around its Mafia characters, contra its intended lessons about the bad decisions made by Michael Corleone and all that. Who can go against the idea of family and the fat, lovable Clemenza’s recipe for pasta sauce? Assayas and Carlos deserve some credit just for undercutting that kind of movie romance, and wearing you down with the banal and the dead.

Movie Diary 10/25/2010

Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010). This is a black comedy from Britain about Muslim blokes who aspire to be suicide bombers, and one of the most amazing movies of the year. It has some of the blackest jokes since How I Won the War. Ricky Gervais, meet Stanley Kubrick. See it. (full review 11/5)

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010). Sure enough, five and a half hours long. Really scoots along for the first two-thirds, and Edgar Ramirez is perfect casting as the famed terrorist: he radiates such assholiness that we’re never in danger of finding Carlos glamorous or dashing. Assayas throws off entire long sequences with great moviemaking instincts – it  is frickin’ long, though.

Unstoppable (Tony Scott, 2010). More trains for Denzel Washington and Scott, this time a runaway in Pennsylvania. This one can be said to be marginally better than the Taking of Pelham 123 remake. (full review 11/5)

Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole, 2010). From the director of Calendar Girls and Saving Grace, and yes, at that point, you should be running for the exits. (full review 12/17)