VIZ. ARTS
Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

Back Door Draft (Stop-Loss, 4/7/08): "It's been endlessly parodied, but Winston Churchill's observation about the Battle of Britain might as well be about the current war: "Never before have so many owed so much to so few." If nothing less than Western civilization depends on "victory" in Iraq, if it's worth thousands of lives and foisting $3 trillion in debt on our children, then not instituting a draft to relieve the strain on the all-volunteer army is not just the President's conceit. It's a bit of hypocrisy you and I been more than content to live with for more than five years..."
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And the Band Played On (The Band's Visit, 3/31/08): "I defy anybody not to be charmed by Eran Kolirin's small, quiet comedy, The Band's Visit. Unreasonably high expectations of the film are immediately relieved by its first words: "Oncenot long agoa small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this. It wasn't that important." Writer-director Kolirin has his tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course: in the Middle East, major consequences always seem to follow events that shouldn't be that important (e.g. who visits this holy site here, who digs a tunnel for tourists there, etc.). Beyond that initial bit of coyness, The Band's Visit finds plenty of relieving humor in a setting that is, frankly, one of the most not-funny in the world..."
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Funny Games, or Neither (Funny Games, 3/24/08): "Michael Haneke's taut, sadistic Funny Games wants to be the kind of movie people either love or hate. By that measure, it's a failurethe vast majority of people just plain hate it... "
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It's All in Your Head (The Orphanage, 3/17/08): "Dread scary movies? Still prefer to shut that closet door before going to sleep? Then stay the hell away of Juan Antonio Bayona's seriously creepy The Orphanage..."
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The Shrink's Mind (In Treatment, 3/10/08): "I have to admit, I'm obsessed with the new HBO series In Treatment. It's true that the show, which focuses on the analytic travails of psychologist Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne), doesn't seem like chancy materialcharacters from just about every hit series, from Six Feet Under to Nip/Tuck , end up on a shrink's couch at one time or another. Tony's sessions with Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos were as much a trademark of that show as pork for lunch at Satriale's or ogling strippers at the Bada Bing. Couples therapy also figured large in another recent HBO series, the otherwise quite physical Tell Me You Love Me. But In Treatment is different..."
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Iron Maiden in Tehran (Persepolis, 3/3/08): "The Iron Curtain is long gone, but the theocracy in Iran has stood in well as the West's latest, forbidden "other." In 2004, as some read Lolita in Tehran, and others wouldn't flee without their daughters, Marjane Satrapi published Persepolis, the acclaimed graphic novel about growing up before and after the Islamic Revolution. The French-produced film versionan animated feature that replicates the spare, almost iconic style of the booktells a deceptively powerful tale that may be the most enlightening yet about what it's like to come of age in modern Persia..."
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A Pause in God's Waiting Room (The Savages, 2/11/08): "If humanoids of the distant future ever watch our movies, they will gather the following about us: 1) there are few middle-aged women in our society, 2) males tend to get kicked in the gonads a lot, and 3) all our families are dysfunctional. Tamara Jenkins' The Savages will do little to counter impression #3, but at least it suggests we had a sense of humor about it..."
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A Hole in the Heart of the West (There Will Be Blood, 2/4/08): "It's not news that Americans prefer to romanticize the Western landscape. Long after the "frontier" vanished, we yearn to read freedom, opportunity, and the promise of personal reinvention in those panoramic vistas. The phrase big sky still has a positive connotation. The mirror image of the daydreamthat the big sky can seem awfully empty, and those landscapes swallow up as many souls as they liberateis less pleasant to contemplate. A few visionaries have gone there, including directors John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and novelists William Vollmann and Cormac McCarthy. With his desolate epic There Will Be Blood, we can now add Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) to the short list of the West's cautionary rhapsodizers... "
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No Country for Old Men (The Kite Runner, 1/28/08): "If there really is a place that is 'no country for old men,' it must be Afghanistan. Although we've been at war there two years longer than in Iraq, and Osama bin Laden lives on in the neighborhood, Hollywood has been strangely loathe to deal with the place (Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs is the only major attempt so far). Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar and Afghan Siddik Barmak's Osama are two creditable but relatively low-budget attempts that saw limited release here. Now we have something in the middle: Marc Forster's The Kite Runner was made with a modest budget and an unknown cast, but has the advantage of being based on a novel that has sold something like five million copies..."
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Things Fall Apart (Atonement, 1/21/08): "While little sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) watches from a mansion window, big sister (Keira Knightley) shares an erotically-charged moment with the son of a servant (James McAvoy). Thirteen year-old Briony draws the wrong conclusions about the nature of the encounter, which lead to misunderstandings in the family. These, in turn, cause no end of trouble for the unlucky lovers. This kind of premise seems best suited for sex farces set among Britain's quince jam-and-jodhpurs class..."
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When Reality Happens to Ironic People (Juno, 1/14/08): "Wise children are catnip to screenwriters. Whether we're talking about the emotional precociousness of a Dakota Fanning, the solemnity of a Haley Joel Osment, or throwaway gags in comedies like Annie Hall ('The universe is expanding!'), wise children can convey all the fun without risking any of the backlash. The pre-pubescent Webster (Emmanuel Lewis) was an adorable moppet; an 18 year-old version looking more or less the same, and dropping more or less the same pearls of adult wisdom, is pathetic. Which brings us to Juno. ..."
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Blood But No Heart (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 1/7/08) "Tim Burton is nothing if not consistent. Most of his biggest successes (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Batman) have come in a more-or-less consistent mode of macabre pastiche, like an explosion in a Halloween kitsch factory. Many have also featured Johnny Depp in the lead. The Burtonization of the Stephen Sondheim slasher musical Sweeney Todd, with Depp as the homicidal barber, therefore seems about as surprising as yet another Nicolas Cage sell-out, or a gross-out gag from the Farrelly brothers. Isn't every Tim Burton movie a version of Sweeney Todd...?"
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The World Without Us (I Am Legend, 12/24/07) "It's one of those egghead culture criticsSlavoj Zizek, perhapswho has talked about how popular culture (and its audiences) have any easy time conjuring the End of the World, but can't imagine a small change in our nation's politics. Want to see the eastern seaboard scoured flat by a three hundred-foot tsunami? No problem! Contemplate getting rid of the electoral college, though, and we worry that the audience would never buy it. Need to visualize New York City as a ghost town infested by hairless, flesh-eating albino zombies? Certainly! Imagine our system reformed so corporations aren't considered legal "persons," or a universal, single-payer health care system, or a clean-running electric car in every garage? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves..."
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The Lion, the Witch, and the Dirigible (The Golden Compass, 12/17/07): "Gather 'round children, and let me tell you the tale of The Golden Compass: Once upon a time, there was a universe with an infinite number of parallel worlds existing adjacent but isolated from each other. One of these worlds is a lot like Earth except the people don't have souls living inside their bodies but outside them, in the form of particular animals that reflect their personalities. And yeah, since children's personalities aren't set yet, their "daemons" are shape-shifters..."
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The Furies Come to the Strip Mall (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, 12/10/07): "It must be a sign of the strength of this year's crop of movies that this column has fallen so far behind in covering the good ones. Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which has been around a while, is a small gem that's easy to overlook in this season of rampaging trolls and golden compasses..."
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High Noon on Blood Meridian (No Country for Old Men, 12/3/07): "Ask the friendly folks of North Dakota about the Coen Bros. thriller Fargo and you might get a surprisingly uncivil answer. True, it remains one of the brothers' most popularly acclaimed films, winning Oscars for the Coens' screenplay and for actress Frances McDormand. But it all came with what many consider a patronizing portrayal of our brothers and sisters of the upper Midwest, who come off as affable but somewhat dimwitted rubes..."
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Grendel Meets Grover (Beowulf, 11/19/07): "In Annie Hall Woody Allen offered the timeless educational tip, "Just don't take any course where you have to read Beowulf." It's not clear if the same advice was supposed to apply to movies, but director Robert (Back to the Future, Who Killed Roger Rabbit?) has forged ahead anyway. In at least one respect, Woody can rest easy: Zemeckis' computer-animated Beowulf no more resembles an old Norse epic as it does every other overly busy, overblown Hollywood sword-and-sandal fantasy. Nor will there be a test afterward...?"
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Gangster vs. Geek (American Gangster, 11/12/07): "On a certain level, the qualification American gangster sounds about as necessary as "French chef" or "English bobby." In fact, the vaguely antique word "gangster" has become nothing more than an honorific these days anything can be "gangster" (or "gangsta") if it's radical, uncompromising, cool. The crimes traditionally associated with gangsters, such as intimidation, protection rackets, drug trafficking, contract killing, etc., have been completely detached from the term. Nobody will be making a movie called "American Racketeer" anytime soon..."
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A Grim Tale from the Brothers Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, 11/5/07): "Don't look now, but with its second World Series win in four years and a growing list of Hollywood movies (e.g., The Departed, Mystic River ) set in its grittier precincts, Boston is the new New York. Or at least the new Brooklyn—a place close to the center of power, but that might as well be a million miles away for the hard-boiled provincials. Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, a policier with a fine sense of its setting, is the latest entry in the Beantown canon..."
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Prairie Tragedy (The Assassination of Jesse James..., 10/29/07): "Chris Rock has a bit about slain rapper Tupac Shakur that goes: "Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Malcolm X was assassinated ... that n-g-r [Shakur] was shot." Something similar might be said of calling the death of Western outlaw Jesse James an "assassination"—just what cause, what greater ideal, was endangered by the ignominious demise of a man like James, a thief who gunned down more than a dozen men? Indeed, the manner of his death only burnished his legend. Which is another way of saying that terrific movies like Andew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford can still be based on imperfect premises..."
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Back on the Long and Winding Road (Across the Universe, 10/22/07): "From a certain angle, the world needs another Beatles-inspired musical like it needs a third Bush Presidential term. I mean, there are those of us who adore the tunes, but don't see the need for a Cirque du Soleil Beatles show, or to have "breakfast with the Beatles" every week, week in and week out. Can't buy me love, sure, but can money please buy me brunch with the Who now and then? Or mimosas with the Stones? Admittedly, those of us who see it this way don't visualize things from Julie Taymor's angle. ..."
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Moon Men (In the Shadow of the Moon, 10/15/07): "According to a recent AP wire story, the chief administrator of NASA now concedes that China, not America, will next put its bootprints on the Moon. Not to take anything away from the Chinese and their valiant "taikonauts," but this prediction bears repeating: sometime before the fiftieth anniversary of America's "giant leap for mankind," we will lose our preeminence in space. What could testify more clearly to a legacy of visionless political leadership than squandering a half-century lead...? "
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