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The Magnificent Seven

September 23, 2016
The Magnificent Seven

It feels like we just asked this a few weeks ago with Ben-Hur, which has already come and gone leaving nary a trace, but who felt that they just had to go back and remake The Magnificent Seven? What was wrong with John Sturges’ 1960 version? Or, for that matter, what was wrong with Sturges’ own source, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai?

As for Kurosawa the answer is still “nothing”, but as it turns out there’s still something worth squeezing out of this story in an Old West setting. For one thing, changing the town’s antagonist from a convenient pack of banditos to robber-baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) does add a little thematic heft, especially these days. Bogue has bought a mine next to the town, and he’s running it with little concern for its effects on the farmers’ land. “This country has always identified democracy with capitalism,” he tells them as a mouthpiece for co-writer Nic Pizzolatto, “and capitalism with God.”

Unfortunately there’s little follow-through to this idea, and it informs little else we see. Pizzolatto shares script credit with Richard Wenk, who co-wrote disposable action like The Mechanic and The Expendables 2 for Simon West, and The Equalizer for Antoine Fuqua, who directs here as well. And most of The Magnificent Seven is classic action-Wenkery.

After Bogue exerts his muscle in the town, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) sets out to hire someone to help defend the town. She finds bounty hunter Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), who enlists gambler Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt). On the way back to the town they pick up Chisholm’s old buddy Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his companion Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), devout mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and lone Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).

Most of these men have some sort of back-story, hinted at in offhand lines during calmer parts of the movie. And like Bogue’s political symbolism they’re largely immaterial. The seven return to the village and roust out the small contingent guarding it. And then, as in both other versions, they set to training the villagers and preparing to defend the town as best they can when Bogue returns in force.

Other than the skirmish when retaking the town, everything is setup for the extended battle sequence. Despite a few feints, this isn’t really a movie that delves into ideas or meaning. It does, however, offer some solid character work from the more recognizable faces, and the bits of back-story help flesh that out. It can get a bit heavy-handed when setting up Robicheaux as an echo of Robert Vaughn’s character from the 1960 version, and again when Chisholm dumps an eye-rolling load of exposition right at the end. But for the most part their characters are revealed as they should be in an action movie: through their actions.

Despite running over two hours, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t drag or feel padded. It does seem like there may have been more dramatic character work in the script that got cut out to keep the focus on the action. That’s always a tough hair to split, and despite wanting to know more about Billy or Vasquez or Red Harvest, I think Fuqua got the balance as good as he could this time.

The one truly sour note — at least for purists of the story — comes at the very end. In turning the story more towards the action, Fuqua, Wenk, and Pizzolatto have buried the moral along with the fallen gunmen. Emma’s closing monologue focuses on the valor and sacrifice of the seven, declaring them “magnificent” at last, but never mentions the most important victors in the fight: the farmers.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Lovers and the Despot

September 23, 2016
The Lovers and the Despot

Giant monster movies are a universal classic. The best known series has to be Godzilla, and the many so-called “kaiju” movies that Toho produced in its wake gave the genre its most popular fandom name. In retrospect, King Kong fits into the same style, and Hollywood continues to make movies like Cloverfield and Pacific Rim. And there were any number of giant lizard movies from other countries, like Britain’s Gorgo and Denmark’s Reptilicus. But understandably less well-known is Pulgasari, a 1985 kaiju movie from North Korea, of all places. And the story behind the movie is weirder still.

While at the time Kim Il-sung was still nominally in power as the President of North Korea — and, for what it’s worth, remains the “Eternal President” after his death — his son, Kim Jong-il was consolidating his own power. Even before the younger Kim was named his father’s successor in 1980 he wanted to improve his nation’s cultural image, particularly through its film industry. And so he did what any spoiled brat does when he wants something: he stole it.

In The Lovers and the Despot, directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan tell the story of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee. They met near the start of their careers, and married just after the end of the Korean War. During the 1960s, Shin directed almost fifty movies, and Choi starred in many of them. But as the South Korean film industry endured stricter censorship and government oversight in the 1970s, their careers petered out. An affair led to their divorce in 1976.

Then, in 1978, Choi disappeared. Shin fell under suspicion, so when he received word that someone in Hong Kong knew where Choi was, he jumped at the chance for a meeting. And then he too dropped out of sight. It was years later that anyone found out that both of them had been abducted by agents of North Korea, acting on the orders of Kim Jong-il himself.

The two were kept in captivity for five years. Shin was held as you might expect for a political prisoner, but Choi was under something closer to house arrest, and even accompanied Kim Jong-il to a range of cultural events. And then in 1983 they were released — kind of — nudged into remarriage, and into making more movies for the North Korean cinema.

Adam and Cannan have assembled a great lineup of talking heads to discuss this whole story, from Shin and Choi’s son, to American and Korean foreign service officials, to film critics who knew Shin’s work, to Choi herself (Shin, unfortunately, died in 2006). To keep things interesting, the events are illustrated with appropriate clips from Shin’s vast body of work.

But for all we see of those movies, we hear almost nothing about them. It’s clear that Shin was a prolific director, and that he was highly regarded in the earlier phase of his career, but from a cinephile’s perspective there’s little about his style, or themes, or anything of real substance. In focusing on the facts of Shin and Choi’s capture and eventual escape, The Lovers and the Despot whistles past the movies that were the whole reason Kim Jong-il had them kidnapped in the first place.

And it really does undercut what this documentary could have been. Supposedly Shin was told that he could make whatever films he wanted with no interference from the North Korean government — a better deal than South Korea was offering at the time — but is that really true? Even if nobody was explicitly telling Shin what to do, he must have known what would keep his captors happy.

Pulgasari, as one example, is shot through with Juche ideology. It’s an allegory of a people oppressed by feudalism, who find liberation through industrialization, but end up creating a monster that can only be put down through the collective action of the people. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the North Korean government’s self-image, and it’s available on the internet if you know where to look.

The Lovers and the Despot is another such glimpse into the notoriously secretive regime. It’s less fanciful and entertaining than a giant monster movie, but it’s not controlled by the regime itself. It may not stand the test of time, but when it comes to understanding North Korea we have to take what we can get.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

Storks

September 23, 2016
Storks

This is shaping up to be a big year for Nicholas Stoller. After writing Zoolander 2 and both writing and directing Neighbors 2, Warner Animation has tapped him to write and co-direct their animated feature, Storks.

This is Warner’s first foray into traditional computer animation, as opposed to 2014’s The LEGO Movie. They’ve pulled in Pixar alum Doug Sweetland in to co-direct, and the movie certainly looks more polished than those of most also-ran animation studios. The script, on the other hand, shows a lot of Stoller’s own sense of humor, which we’ve seen in his other family-mode projects like The Muppets.

The cast is anchored by Andy Samberg, playing the up-and-coming stork Junior. He’s caught the eye of Hunter (Kelsey Grammer) and is next in line to replace him as the boss of the storks’ biggest operation: Cornerstore.com. Baby delivery, it seems, was a high-risk, low-reward venture, especially after a stork was overwhelmed by cuteness and tried to kidnap one of them.

Speaking of whom, the orphan Tulip (Katie Crown) is still hanging around eighteen years later, much to Hunter’s chagrin. Now that she’s an adult, he wants Junior to get rid of her to prove he can be as much of a cutthroat CEO as Hunter is. But as clumsy and accident-prone as Tulip is, Junior can’t bring himself to kick her out, so he stashes her in the disused mail room.

Which is where Nate (Anton Starkman) comes in. With his parents (Ty Burrell and Jennifer Aniston) busy all the time as realtors, he wants a little brother to play with. He finds an old brochure and writes a letter to the storks. Which, with Tulip in the mail room, ends up in the hands of the one person in the place who doesn’t know to ignore it. And so Junior has to take care of both the baby and Tulip before Hunter finds out.

Junior is pretty much the same sort of outsized Samberg character he voiced in Hotel Transylvania, but now taking a leading role. Stoller allows him plenty of space, but does try to keep the movie from turning into the Andy Samberg show. Cutting away to the Nate storyline provides a nice counterpoint to Junior’s more outlandish hijinks, and there’s a rogues’ gallery of talent — from Key and Peele to Danny Trejo — working against him in the main story. But Crown is the real revelation here, with a timing and delivery that can match up to Samberg’s from start to finish.

In its latest incarnation, Warner Animation is too new to have really settled into a house style yet. Storks is perfectly adequate, and certainly as good or better than what we’re seeing out of studios other than Pixar and Dreamworks. But it pales in comparison to the studio’s debut, The LEGO Movie. Even The Master, the Lego Ninjago short attached to Storks, is more consistently and intensely funny. Warner may eventually come into its own with this smoother, more conventional style of computer-generated animation, but for the time being it seems their future is built out of Lego.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Vessel

September 16, 2016
The Vessel

Maybe it was a coincidence that I watched The Vessel — first-time writer/director Julio Quintana’s meditation on long-held grief — on the anniversary of September 11. The tragedy that befell the village was not nearly the same scale, but proportionately it may have been far more devastating. It was a tsunami that struck, demolishing a schoolhouse and washing away 46 children inside.

Ten years later, Leo (Lucas Quintana) is among the survivors. His brother Tigo was in the school. His mother, Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey), seems to have drifted away from reality. Leo takes care of her while the rest of the village shun her for being the first to break ranks and stop wearing black mourning dresses. Or maybe they envy her madness that provides an escape from the grief.

Ten years since the tragedy, and life refuses to move on. The schoolteacher’s widow, Soraya (Aris Mejias), straightens up the tables and chairs, but without a roof and with holes still gaping in the walls, they’ll only get blown around again by the elements. It doesn’t really matter, though; nobody is having children anymore anyway. Father Douglas (Martin Sheen) wants to help the people move on, but they seem to have lost all faith. As he ministers to the sick, some of them seem to look forward to death, so they can see the lost children again.

The village is slowly dying, with the young people moving away to the city. The night before Leo’s best friend leaves, they get drunk together and fall off a wall into the sea. But three hours after their bodies are fished from the water, Leo gets up. Is it a sign that God hasn’t forgotten about them? Maybe this is the foundation on which the life of the village can finally rebuild.

Julio Quintana started out working cameras and cinematography for Terrence Malick on his own contemplatively Catholic films The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, and the influence is clear. The pace is slow, inched forward by Leo’s voiceover that hangs between narration and a true interior monologue. Quintana’s own cinematographer, Santiago Benet Mari, examines the surroundings much like Lubezki has been doing with Malick for years.

But where Malick spends his meditations on the universals of the human condition, Quintana here focuses on one of its pathologies. While grief and mourning are necessary steps in the human response to loss, they can be seductively comfortable places to remain stuck. Normally they affect only a handful of people at a time, and while they might pull tightly inwards, the rest of the world will start to move on. Given time, the need for social interaction will begin to pull the mourner out of their shell and back onto their old footing. But here we have an entire village reinforcing their unhealthy response to trauma. Rather than providing a network of support, they pull each other back down into their pain. Anyone who tries to move on must either leave or be ejected.

On a day-to-day level, society appears to have moved on from the tragedy and horror of September 11, but scratch the surface and we’re still very much stuck. We continue our funerary rituals to ward off evil spirits every time we board a plane. We still give the evil eye to anyone in the public sphere who dares show up without a flag pin. We jump at shadows, seeing phantom terrorists around every corner, and the imagery of that day infests our consciousness. Like Leo’s village we need to let ourselves move on. It will take a faith that can clearly see how little difference there is between miracle and tragedy, and how small both of them are when measured against the enormous scale of our entire lives.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Finding Altamira

September 16, 2016
Finding Altamira

For the most part, there’s not a lot in Finding Altamira that you wouldn’t expect from a story about a breakthrough in the study of human origins — or, as they called it, “prehistory” — a mere twenty years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. It promises a period drama setting the emerging science against the established, usually religious authorities. And that’s more or less what the script, by José Luis López-Linares and Girl with a Pearl Earring writer Olivia Hetreed, delivers.

The Cave of Altamira was discovered just off the Basque coast in 1879 by amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (Antonio Banderas) and his precocious eight-year-old daughter María (Allegra Allen). Inside, María led her father to rooms where the walls and ceilings were covered with charcoal and ochre drawings of animals. Deer and wild boars were identifiable, but most prominent was a herd of steppe bison, which went extinct almost ten thousand years ago. For humans to have possessed this sort of culture that early was astounding, even by the standards of the day’s prehistorians. And for religious authorities it was tantamount to blasphemy.

This authority is here invested in the local Monseñor (Rupert Everett), a real fire-and-brimstone sort, who has Marcelino’s wife, Conchita (Golshifteh Farahani) worried. And she worries not just for Marcelino himself, but that by encouraging María’s inquisitive nature he may be leading her astray. Unfortunately, the Monseñor is played almost to the point of parody, hating modernism simply for undermining the Church’s position. It’s a tempting story from our much more secular position, but it flattens all contrary opinions into mere mean-spirited and jealous tribalism.

But it’s not as if Marcelino is the picture of nuance either. His drift towards atheism is suggested to have been prompted by the death of a son, which is about the oldest trope in that particular book. It’s tempting from a theist perspective to view all atheists as at heart unable to deal with adversity, bitter over their injuries, and turning away from God out of spite. But this too flattens the character into a stereotype.

This is hardly the first or only movie to use those particular cardboard cutouts, though. More interesting is the way Finding Altamira examines the nature of science itself as a social undertaking.

All of prehistory offends the Church, but that hardly means that prehistorians are all in agreement. When Marcelino presents his findings at a conference in Lisbon, no less than the eminent Émile Cartailhac (Clément Sibony) shouts him down. The idea of 10,000 year old cave paintings flies in the face of “established prehistory”. It doesn’t help that this was a Spanish discovery, but the field was dominated by the French.

And here it would be easy to fall into yet another tempting simplification: that science is “merely” a social construct. That was the takeaway of any number of poststructural academics after Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, leading to skirmishes with scientific realists that culminated in the “Science Wars” of the 1990s. But in the most interesting turn, Finding Altamira dodges this trap.

It’s true that science does not proceed as smoothly and straightforwardly as the positivists of the early 20th century would say. The acceptance of Altamira’s implications was held up by largely social obstacles, rather than scientific ones. But where religion stamps its foot and holds fast, science at least tries to raise objections. In this case: if prehistoric people painted these rocks, then where is the soot from their torches? These obstacles can then be argued with and overcome.

Science may be a social undertaking, and subject to social forces, but it comes with a mechanism to modify and refine its statements. And while the currents of society may make the going more difficult for some people, in principle this mechanism is open to everyone. The key insight that opens up new worlds of understanding can come from a Spaniard, or his maid, or his eight-year-old daughter. If all the simplifications make Finding Altamira more accessible to a younger audience that can internalize this essentially democratic message, I’m willing to overlook them.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Bridget Jones’s Baby

September 16, 2016
Bridget Jones's Baby

The year of inexplicable, long-delayed sequels continues with Bridget Jones’s Baby. Except that unlike, say, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, there already was a theatrical sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary: 2004’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Didn’t remember that? neither did I, to be honest.

And yet it did a fair amount of business. Not quite as much as the first one, but it turned a tidy profit on its modest budget. So when Helen Fielding released a third volume of her alter ego’s comedic exploits, it was only a matter of time before they made another movie having little to do with the new novel.

It is, however, based on Fielding’s columns from shortly after the period covered by the last movie. Fielding herself is back writing, with help from Dan Mazer — better known as Sacha Baron Cohen’s writing partner — and Emma Thompson. They’ve even got Sharon Maguire back directing again, after she sat out the second round.

Not back is Hugh Grant. As Bridget (Renée Zellweger) turns 43, her ex-boss and ex-lover is dead. It’s at his funeral that she runs into her other notable ex-lover, Mark “Mister” Darcy (Colin Firth) along with his wife. Or, rather, soon-to-be ex-wife, as she learns whens he runs into him again at a friend’s child’s christening. Which, in the circles Bridget and Mark run in is evidently an all-day and overnight affair with catering and an open bar.

That’s all well and good, but a week previously she’d been dragged on a birthday outing to a music festival, at which she’d drunkenly stumbled into the yurt — and then into the bed — of American billionaire Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey, looking and sounding for all the world like an off-brand Rob Lowe). And when she turns up pregnant, she has no idea which of the two is the father.

From here the action is largely predictable. First we get an obstetric version of the sitcom trope about scheduling two dates on one night. Soon enough Mark and Jack are informed of each other’s existence and both try to participate in the birth preparations together. And then everything goes to hell just in time for Bridget’s water to break, turning the labor into its own comedy of errors.

There’s nothing really wrong with any of it, that awful possessive form in the title aside. It’s just not very surprising. And there’s a certain comfort in the familiarity of its humor, and in knowing it’s not about to challenge any but the most regressive sorts who probably think the idea of a woman having even one lover before marriage is already wicked.

The most central tension, for instance, is “who’s the ‘real’ father?” where the genetic basis of fatherhood is never questioned. The script jumps through one hoop to avoid an early amniocentesis that would have settled the issue, and conveniently avoids it from then on. But what does it matter anyway? isn’t it more important who would be the better partner both in life and in raising a child? Of course, that would require a lot more work to make a competition between these two men remotely believable.

No, it’s easier on writers and audience alike to just give us exactly what we expect. Far from ambitious, but just as far from offensive, Bridget Jones’s Baby delivers exactly the sort of pleasant distraction it promises.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story

September 16, 2016
Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Unlike the subject of last week’s mainstream release, Sully, nobody would be expected to know offhand who Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was. The literary wunderkind of 1999, “JT” was revealed in 2005 to be a concoction — somewhere between a pseudonym and an alter ego — of a woman named Laura Albert. It didn’t help that this all came out in the wake of high-profile fabrication scandals like those of Jayson Blair and Michael Finkel in the New York Times, and just as cracks were starting to appear in the façade of James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces. Over the last ten years, Albert has largely fallen out of the public eye, but she returns in documentarian Jeff Feuerzig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

And I have to jump in right at the subtitle to nitpick this little rhetorical trick. Positioning this as “the” story presumes a singular, objective truth that is difficult enough to find in a case like this one. But when it’s being relayed in the first-person by the fabulist herself, the idea of objectivity is little more than a joke. Maybe I should be glad that, unlike what we saw in Weiner, Feuerzig doesn’t even try to hold up the fig leaf of fly-on-the-wall verité documentary here. Still, presenting this as “the” story, rather than merely a version curated by Albert herself, is the first of many frustrations.

JT was presented as a teenaged boy, born in 1980 to a West Virginia truck-stop prostitute and later following her into that life. The novel Sarah and the fiction anthology The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things were received as autobiographical, or at least as lightly fictionalized memoirs, and it’s from them that most of the JT character has been derived. Trans before that concept had really hit mainstream awareness the way it has in the last few years, JT was emotionally, physically, and sexually exploited throughout his life, and hustled in truck stops for drug money like his mother had.

In fact, Albert was nearly thirty when she created JT in 1993. She would call San Francisco’s suicide and child crisis helplines, not knowing what persona she would adopt each time. To be clear, these don’t seem to have been prank calls, but actual cries for help from a young woman struggling with some very serious issues of identity and depression. One call was answered by Dr. Terrence Owens, and Albert gave her name as “Terminator” — a name she says she “never would have chosen because it was a stupid name” — a thirteen-year-old homeless male prostitute.

He wasn’t the first young boy Albert had adopted as a persona, but somehow he stuck around. When Dr. Owens asked him to call back the next day, Albert obliged. Or, as she would say, JT did. Soon more details were fleshed out. His “real” name, “Jeremy”, was revealed. When asked to meet, Albert showed up in the inexplicably British persona of “Speedie”, a friend of JT’s. Dr. Owens encouraged JT to write more as a form of therapy.

And then Albert, as JT, contacts a literary agent, who puts her in contact with Dennis Cooper, and from there on to a network of literary memoirists that eventually leads to the first publication of Sarah, using a surname lifted from one of Albert’s phone sex clients. But the jump from Dr. Owens to the agent is never really explored or explained, and it feels like something’s being hidden there.

For that matter, Owens’ own thoughts about JT aren’t ever really explored either. Did he believe JT’s story? or once Speedie showed up did he intuit what was going on and continue to treat Albert for some sort of personality disorder through the persona she was willing to show him? He shows up on camera once to give his name, but the rest of his involvement is through the tapes of JT’s telephone therapy sessions.

Which raises another irritating question: why did Albert record and save seemingly every telephone conversation and answering machine message JT ever got? At some point it starts to feel like some sort of premeditation. Why did she feel like she’d need these recordings? The issue is never even raised, and most audiences will probably never notice.

Once she gets published, Author continues to chronicle JT’s rising star. Fêted by critics and a veritable who’s-who of Gen-X music and film stars, it seems more dangerous than ever to admit the ruse, as unintentionally as she insists it started. She enlists her boyfriend’s half-sister Savannah Knoop to play JT during public appearances, which she also attends in the guise of Speedie. JT’s fame culminated in Asia Argento’s adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and its premiere at Cannes. And then, in early 2006, Warren St. John breaks the story in the New York Times.

One thing Laura Albert wants desperately for you to believe is that JT LeRoy was not a hoax. The books published under his name were explicitly positioned as fiction, rather than memoir. But while that’s true, they were clearly being received as memoir, and she hardly went out of her way to correct that misapprehension. It’s hard not to see doubling down and creating a fake person for public appearances as pretty hoaxy.

Albert and her defenders will cite a long history of authors using pseudonyms, and maybe if JT had been just a pseudonym people wouldn’t have had such a problem. Even if the persona was “real” in some gender- and identity-fluid sense, she fabricated an entire history for this person, and carried on dozens of interactions with meticulous documentation that surely helped her keep the stories straight.

Lawerly ruses about whether or not she ever said what she wrote was true don’t hold up. She clearly knew that people believed it was, and that a large part of the praise it garnered was precisely because they believed it. Even if she didn’t set out to, Albert created something that was perfectly designed to appeal to the avant garde sensibilities of the late ’90s and early 2000s. They were all ready to love an abused, queer, teenage junkie — they’d been romanticizing luridly about all of these subjects for years — and that’s exactly what she gave them.

And in playing directly to their preconceptions she drowned out any chance of actual queer youth to speak their own truths. Everyone rushed to embrace as fact what a woman pushing 40, born in Brooklyn and living in northern California, imagined it must be like to be a homeless trans hustler in the heart of Appalachia. She got to hang out with grunge rockers and movie stars as Speedie, and taking their personal calls as JT.

At the very end, almost as an afterthought, Albert speaks of her own abuse. I have no reason to believe that she’s lying, but its inclusion at the tail of her story is a final maddening touch. It comes too late to inform what might have gone through her mind during the rest of the movie. Rather, it seems to hang on like an appendix, useless and vestigial. It may help explain where JT came from, but it makes her writing no more true, and makes her career no less dishonest.

It may come as a surprise that I speak well of Feuerzig’s film. Albert’s story is convenient and self-serving and frustrating and irritating, and Feuerzig allows her to speak for herself. It’s a story — I still object to calling it “the” story — that’s certain to inspire passionate discussions, and there’s little better you can ask from a documentary than that.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.