VIZ. ARTS
Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

A Joy Forever (Bright Star, 10/13/09)In such films as The Piano and Portrait of a Lady, New Zealander Jane Campion has managed to strike an interesting balance. Although she has worked the well-trod paths of the lush, Masterpiece Theatre-style costumier, she has consistently managed to defy our programmed expectations of such dramas...
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Souls and Selves (Cold Souls, 9/09/09) Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls sounds reminiscent of Dead Souls—Nikolai Gogol's classic novel about a con-man who goes around provincial Russia, buying title to deceased serfs for tax purposes. We don't have overt serfdom anymore but we do have our own kinds of misery, such as that of rich, mopey, self-absorbed Hollywood actors (Paul Giamatti) who are forced to live in their own skins. Barthes' movie imagines what would happen if there were somebody, not unlike Gogol's shyster Chichikov, who was willing to relieve us of our precious burdens...
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Deliverance (A Perfect Getaway, 8/17/09) The biggest industry in the world isn't computers, weapons, or narcotics—it's tourism. Yet strangely enough, Americans workers holiday less than those of any other industrialized nation: at an average of 13 days a year, that's half the time taken by South Koreans and Japanese, and about a third the average Italian or German. What does this have to do with David Twohy's popcorn thriller A Perfect Getaway? Nothing specifically—but the movie does exhibit nicely our national inability to slow down, tune out, and chill...
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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Smugness (Away We Go, 7/6/09) In theory, there's not much to dislike about Sam Mendes' alternative comedy Away We Go. In Dave Eggers and wife Vendela Vida, it's got a screenwriting team that The San Francisco Chronicle has called "the literary equivalent of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston" (which, incidentally, leaves us all wondering who the literary equivalent of Angelina is...). The director is Sam Mendes, who brought us marital apocalypse not once but twice with Revolutionary Road and American Beauty. It's got protagonists who look and talk like lifelong Ithacans, right down to the House of Shalimar couture and the olde-time, boxy Volvo. So what's to object to...?
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Send That Loan Officer to Hell! (Drag Me to Hell, 6/8/09) With everyone else heading to Pixar's Up this week, there's a certain perverse pleasure in aiming lower—much lower. For Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell has the kind of premise that is so in tune with hard times it almost qualifies as wish-fulfillment. About to lose your house? Want to scare away the guys aiming to repossess your car? Easy—just get your local gypsy crone to send that loan officer to hell...!
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Maximum Warp (Star Trek, 5/18/09) Shortly before the premiere of the
new Star Trek movie, CNN presented the spectacle of President Obama
and Vice President Biden trekking to Ray's Hell Burger in Virginia
for a quick lunch. Biden picked his meal and beverage in exactly 12
seconds. Obama's order, however, was an epic discourse...
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Caprica—Who Gives a Frak? (Caprica, 5/11/09) The end of Ronald D. Moore and David Eick's revamped Battlestar Galactica series this year was the occasion of much sadness in the fandom. Folks debated the choice of having the old battlestar and its ragtag fleet land on Earth 150,000 years ago, and aptness (or lameness thereof) of attributing some of the series' unresolved mysteries to the hand of God. What we didn't hear much, though, was the question 'Gee, I wonder what happened in the BSG universe 58 years before the series...?'
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Watching the Watchmen (Watchmen, 3/16/09) Love it or loathe it, you have to grant that a lot of thought has gone into Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's post-modern superhero epic, Watchmen. Take the title, which self-consciously evokes everything from Juvenal's Satires (Quis custodiet ipsos custodies—"who watches the watchmen?") to the Book of Isaiah ('I have set watchmen upon your walls, O Jerusalem') to the speech John F. Kennedy was supposed to deliver in Dallas in November, 1963 ('We...are the watchmen on the walls of world freedom')...
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Two Lovers, Half a Man (Two Lovers, 3/9/09) When it comes to collecting nubile lovers, chances are Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) has exactly two more than you. But that doesn't make him worthy of your admiration...
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Second Life (Coraline, 2/16/09) Once upon a time, movie animators didn't even need computers to do their work. Sound fantastic? Have a look at Coraline, the baroque, sometimes creepy, frequently spectacular fable made mostly with old-fashioned stop-motion animation...
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Hitler's Willing Executioners (Valkyrie, 1/12/09) The last battle of WWII is the struggle over the war's historical legacy, and it ain't over yet. For example, Edward Zwick's upcoming Defiance is ostensibly about three Russian-Jewish partisans who save their neighbors from deportation. What it's really about, though, is countering the popular impression that the victims of the Nazi Holocaust went down without a fight. Bryan Singer's Valkyrie tells the true story of a plot by a handful of conscientious German insiders to kill Hitler in 1944. Its real target is a possibly even more tenacious myth: that every last citizen and soldier in 1940's Germany was a boot-clicking, stiff-armed, genocidal Nazi—or as one popular book called them, "Hitler's willing executioners"...
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Action Salad (Quantum of Solace, 11/24/08) The statement "Quantum of
Solace
is the new James Bond film" would seem to be beyond philosophical dispute—until we watch it. Like 2006's terrific Casino Royale, it stars Daniel Craig as perhaps the coldest, least unctuous, most magnetically physical 007 in the long history of Bondage. It features fast cars, exotic locations, and spectacular women (if not necessarily in that order)...
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Pictures of Kym (Rachel Getting Married, 11/17/08) Anne Hathaway is not conventionally beautiful. Like the prototypical sad clown, all of her features, from those big liquid eyes to her ample lips, seem oversized for her face. What Michael Phelps is to swimming, Hathaway is to facial expression: she has an unfair advantage, because her endowments are so much richer than those of ordinary mortals. Add that to her obvious intelligence and a talent that becomes more manifest every year, and she may well become one of her generation's most formidable actresses—the 21st century's Bette Davis...
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Gun Work or Slow Work (Appaloosa, 11/10/08) Once upon a time Westerns were Hollywood's "tent-poles"—one of a handful of story types that
dominated American movies. After a long dry spell, the Western has now settled into a supporting role, making mainstream appearances only two or three times a year (e.g. 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James, among a few recent others). Call them "boutique" Westerns, or "artisanal" Westerns, but whatever they are, they've lost the swagger of the old genre. When they do get made today, they often show tentativeness in working the old tropes, as if their makers are painfully aware of the weight of cinematic tradition. In Appaloosa, it's actor-writer-producer-director Ed
Harris' turn to don the black Stetson and spurs...
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Money's Too Tight to Mention (Days and Clouds and W., 11/3/08) Americans are justifiably proud of how we do things. But not everybody is so enamored of the American model of doing business. Europeans, in particular, see the ease in which U.S. employees can be fired from their jobs as frightful—to them, as Willy Loman said in Death of a Salesman, a man should not be disposed of like a piece of fruit...
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School for Scandal (The Duchess, 10/20/08) Is it possible for an actress to be upstaged by her eyebrows? Set in the sunny interiors of Austen-land, populated by a cast fully upholstered in 18th century chic, the new Keira Knightley melodrama The Duchess offers plenty of pretty things to look at. Arching above them all, however, are Knightley's eye-pelts, set up there on her forehead like two dozing woodchucks on a snowy hillside...
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O Ye of Little Faith (Religulous, 10/13/08) The title of Bill Maher's new documentary is supposed to be a neologism formed by the combination of "religion" and "ridiculous." It might as well be a combination of "religion" and "credulous," though, because Maher's targets are not just the ideas underlying many religions, but (to put it more tactfully than he would) the cognitive maturity of those who insist on accepting them. That includes the 92% of Americans who believe in the existence of God, according to a recent Harris poll—not to mention the 80% who insist that Jesus' face can spontaneously appear on a piece of toast, and the more than 50% who dismiss evolution...
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Confessions of a Desperate Mind (Choke, 10/6/08) Here's one piece of evidence that sex addiction is not yet taken seriously as a destroyer of lives: you can still make comedies like Choke about it. Imagine a movie about, say, a guy who abandons his family to go gamble away his kids' college funds, or about somebody who drinks himself to a dismal death, face down in a pool of Woolite-colored vomit. Not so funny, huh...?
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Strangers on a Train (Transsiberian, 9/29/08) With Russian tanks on the move again into places that aren't Russia, it looks like the Big Bad Bear is back. Brad (The Machinist) Anderson's drug-and-thug thriller Transsiberian has rolled into in town right on time, because dread of the new bear is different: instead of the dead hand of Soviet authoritarianism, Putin's Russia seems to embody lawlessness. It's a gangster state with nuclear weapons...
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It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Burn After Reading, 9/22/08) In the last few weeks, the nation's attention has slalomed between the following: a series of devastating hurricanes—lipstick on pit-bulls—the Bush Doctrine— lipstick on pigs—an epochal fiscal meltdown on Wall Street. If the 24-minute news cycle has accomplished anything, it has put us in a place where the momentous and the trivial, the urgent and the meaningless follow each other with the speed of protons spinning through that new particle accelerator in Switzerland. No wonder many of us can't tell the difference between them anymore...
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