In this remake, Richard Roundtree, the original John Shaft, graciously passes the torch to Samuel L. Jackson. The new film’s director, John Singleton, gives Roundtree some major respect, including a scene where Roundtree exits a Harlem bar with two foxy ladies on his arms. Right on: after all these years, still a sex machine to the chicks. (That’s Gordon Parks, the distinguished American artist and director of the first Shaft, in a cameo at the same bar.)
The Big Short (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Adam McKay is not necessarily the guy you look to for dramatic outrage at the greed and failure behind the economic collapse of the last decade. He is, after all, the director who guided Will Ferrell through such comedies as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys. Yet here he is, adapting Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book on the reasons behind the financial collapse and coming away with a hit movie, five Academy Award nominations, and an Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Charles Randolph).
The Big Short is serious and angry. It’s also very funny, which is its secret weapon. What’s a subprime mortgage? Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it to you. Need to explain what a CBO is without driving audiences away? How about Selena Gomez at a casino?
In the hands of McKay and his co-conspirators, the financial fraud of the 2000s is nothing short of a criminal farce with dire consequences. For us, that is, not the folks who perpetrated the crisis out of greed, criminal neglect, and reckless abandon. In this company of thieves and accomplices, the heroes of this story are a few men who saw through the façade and proceeded to bet against the house. They are, of course, outliers with idiosyncrasies.
I recently watched two art films, one set in Hollywood, the other in Thailand, that take on meaning-of-life matters in strikingly different styles and stories. Terrence Malick’s KnightofCups and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s CemeteryofSplendor both take the form of pilgrimage by sleepwalkers and dreamers, drifting rather than driven toward unexpected or desired revelations: Knight tracks the progress of Christian Bale’s pilgrim (call him the sick soul of Southern California) whose privileged life sucks when it comes to meaning or purpose. In Cemetery, we wander through a numinous Thai landscape in the company of a serene soul (Jenjira Pongpas) whose world is slowly permeated and perhaps shattered by revelations.
Weerasethakul’s unforced, visually mesmerizing excursion into metaphysics makes KnightofCups look all the more pretentious, an airless exercise in aesthetic solipsism. Malick overloads Bale’s dream-quest with Portentous Signifiers, from allusions to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’sProgress, that 17th-century best-seller about the journey of an Everyman in search of his soul, to the Tarot card that features a knight-errant who symbolizes new opportunities and change, unless he’s upside down; then all positive bets are off. Then there’s a solemn prologue, all about a prince who went off on a quest for a legendary pearl, only to fall into a deep sleep along the way. His father the king—Malick the director?–continues to send out signs and guides to provoke epiphany. Malick means to cast his hero’s journey in a strong mythic light, but all this philosophical footnoting fails to provide illumination in Knight of Cups.
One of the many beautiful women in the screenwriter’s life turns to him and says, “It’s time for you to tell me something interesting.” I suppose this line in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is included as a measure of the screenwriter’s empty world, his material success in Hollywood having come at the cost of spiritual blankness. But for a moment, the viewer might quicken to the possibility that something is going to happen in this movie—that the hero might say something definitive, or begin a story, or blurt out a need to visit the men’s room. But he will not, and the moment passes, as all the moments in the film pass—like sands through the hourglass, or tears in rain, or whatever other greeting-card profundity you want to offer.
The gulf between Moses movies can be measured in beards. For The Ten Commandments (1956), Charlton Heston unrolled a splendid carpet of chin-hair; for the latest incarnation, Christian Bale offers realistic, scraggly whiskers that might belong to the third apostle from the right in any average biblical epic. Exodus: Gods and Kings prefers angst over showmanship, and the picture suffers accordingly.
Surely the film’s director, Ridley Scott, has been waiting all his life to get a crack at the florid yarn-spinning of the Old Testament.
We should mention right off that the New York Film Critics Circle, which decided it needed to be first in the stampede of awards groups doling out accolades this year, bestowed its best-picture prize on American Hustle. That was back on December 3, which means NYFCC members likely saw the film a few days (if not a few hours) before voting on it.
This suggests something about American Hustle: If this isn’t a great movie, and it’s not, it sure is a fireworks display, designed to make an immediate and dazzling impression. The latest concoction from director/co-writer David O. Russell is full of big roundhouse swings and juicy performances: It’s a fictionalized take on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, in which the FBI teamed with a second-rate con man in a wacko sting operation involving a bogus Arab sheik and bribes to U.S. congressmen.
When I first saw Rescue Dawn—in fact, when I saw the preview trailer—I said to myself, Aha! After a whole generation, here’s another green film from Werner Herzog.
Herzog has made a lot of remarkable films. But so long is the reach of Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, and so profound their visual stamp, that it is impossible not to see Rescue Dawn as their cousin—perhaps even their completion. Here again is the green of the jungle, both inviting and forbidding, both enchanting and deadly. Here again is the stubborn determination of a half-mad man not to be beaten by nature at its rawest and most implacable. Here again is civilization and its power politics ebbing away to insignificance in the face of a single man’s grandiose vision and relentless will to win.
Werner Herzog has always been interested in men like this. It’s shallow to say that he has outgrown or otherwise abandoned the vision of his celebrated earlier films (particularly the Kinski films), with their obsessive dwelling—literal or metaphoric—on German culture, German politics, German guilt. Whether it’s Don Lope de Aguirre or Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald or Timothy Treadwell or Dieter Dengler, and whether the film is fiction, documentary, or adaptation, Herzog remains committed to an exploration of the powerful, charismatic personality, and its tug of war with the world.
If movies indeed tap into the zeitgeist, Terminator Salvation, director McG’s grim reboot of the 25-year-old man vs. machine franchise, speaks to a demographic in awfully low spirits. Will this relentless, episodic slog through post-apocalyptic drear, punched up by paroxysms of extreme violence, deliver at the box office and resurrect the Terminator series (sequels are already in the works)?
Set in 2018, after nuclear Judgment Day, Salvation‘s ruined world has been leached of all color and signs of life. The days are steeped in sickly beige-brown, the noirish nights drenched in rain. Hunted down by machines of assorted shapes and sizes, the few remaining humans, always starkly lighted, resemble gaunted concentration-camp survivors stripped of any expression but a reflexive hunger to stay alive. (“We’re in the cattle car now,” despairs a fellow picked by an Ã¼ber-machina transporter.)
Lock-jawed Christian Bale plays grizzled resistance messiah John Connor as if programmed to project nothing but single-minded rage laced with unstoppable courage. Happily, Connor’s unlikely brother-in-arms (Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington, soon to star in James Cameron’s Avatar), a convicted killer reformatted by Cyberdyne, occasionally permits himself a welcome break from the stoic mode. On screen more and longer than Bale, permitted to act human once in a while, Worthington, like homeboy Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, steals the film away from Bale. Call it minimalist charisma.