Thursday, June 24, 2010

Recent Movie Roundup 11

After a promising start to the year, it's been a dispiriting spring and summer at the movie theaters, and there's not much coming up that I'm looking forward to (well, Inception, of course, and probably Scott Pilgrim too though I doubt it'll have an Israeli release), but here are some of the films I've watched recently.
  1. Julie & Julia (2009) - I can't be the only person who would have liked this film a lot better as a straight-up biopic of Julia Child starring Meryl Streep as Child and Stanley Tucci as her loving and supportive husband Paul.  The juxtaposition of Child's early career as a chef and cookbook author--her introduction to French cuisine when Paul, a diplomat, is assigned to the American embassy in Paris, her studies at a Parisian culinary institute, her meeting with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she would write Mastering the Art of French Cooking--with the ballooning success of Julie Powell's blog and her struggles to meet the challenge she sets herself on it of cooking her way through the book in a single year, is profoundly unkind to Powell, but nowhere near as unkind as the portraits the film paints of the two women.  Child is, quite simply, a dame, a woman with a boundless and completely overwhelming zest for life, with enormous reserves of energy, generosity, and enthusiasm.  As portrayed by Streep, she doesn't simply make you want to cook and enjoy food, but to enjoy life and love and friendship as much as she does.  Powell, meanwhile, is an energy suck--a whiny, self-absorbed narcissist whose personal growth over the course of the film only seems to bring her to the point of being a functional adult (and it is anyway hard to feel much satisfaction at watching Amy Adams's version of Powell repair her troubled marriage when the real Powell went on to have an affair and wrote another book about that experience).  If Julie & Julia were trying to be an entirely different and much less frothy kind of movie (if it were, in other words, the harbinger of the upcoming trend of movies about the internet) it might actually have asked the questions that the forced comparison between Child and Powell raises--what, if any, is the value of a derivative work like Powell's blog (or this one) when set against an actual creative work like introducing a whole new way of thinking about food to a generation of Americans (or making a movie)?  One possible answer, of course, is that Powell's blog, and even more than that the movie itself, have helped to introduce Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking to a whole new generation (as a result of the film's release the book placed in the New York Times bestseller list for the first time in its fifty years in print), but that still doesn't make me any more interested in Powell's story.

  2. Iron Man 2 (2010) - the second Iron Man film suffers from much the same faults as the first one: unremarkable villains, action scenes rendered inert by the absence of recognizably human participants (and possibly the director's indifference), and a tendency to walk right up to a genuine engagement with the geopolitical issues the character is rooted in and then scamper back to a comic book, black and white mentality at the last minute. It also has the same strengths as the first film, namely Robert Downey Jr. as the title character and writers who recognize what an asset they have in him, and who, no longer hobbled by the origin story structure that made the first Iron Man a bit of a slog, have created something delightful. Realism has been both the holy grail and the albatross around the necks of most of the last decade's crop of superhero films, but Iron Man 2 comes rather close to it when it recognizes that being a superhero, especially for someone as narcissistic and immature as Tony Stark, is essentially the same thing as being a mega-celebrity. The film, in fact, is mainly reminiscent of the second half of most musician biopics, in which fame and fortune go to the subject's head, they alienate their loved ones, and have to be reminded of the days when it was all about the music. Downey's performance is sufficiently unsentimental, never surrendering Tony's arrogance, that unlike, say, Spiderman 3, his journey to rock bottom and back again doesn't feel trite. My only real problem with the film is its treatment of Pepper Potts, who after a promising start--she takes over from Tony as CEO of Stark Industries and breaks off with him when his behavior becomes too erratic--decides that the pressure of running a company is too much for her, quits after a week, and ends the film in Tony's arms. My favorite thing about Pepper in the first film is that she seemed to have too much sense to get involved with someone as high maintenance as Tony, and though I suppose I should have known better it's disappointing to see that the writers didn't stick to their guns, and to their source material, on this matter.

  3. Toy Story 3 (2010) - It's hard to even know where to start praising this film.  Should I begin by expressing amazement at the fact that Pixar have thoroughly beaten the second sequel curse, or at the even more astonishing fact that their films keep getting better and better?  Should I note how perfectly the film captures the magic and inventiveness of childish play, first in an opening scene that literalizes those flights of imagination, and later in a scene that simply shows us a child transforming the mundane into the magical?  Should I point out how the film deepens the dilemma that drives the first two films, of the toy protagonists' knowledge that their purpose is to provide the owners they love with the stimulation and support that'll help them outgrow their playthings and hasten their own obsolescence, and how it adds to it when Woody is forced to choose between loyalty to Andy and to his toy friends?  Should I talk about how, for the first time in this series, the feelings of the child characters are also given space, raising the question of the responsibility we owe to the childish things we've outgrown?  As usual for a Pixar film, there's meaty stuff here seamlessly combined with scenes that would warm the heart of a corpse and tug at its strings, and an impeccably structured, effortlessly involving plot featuring several incredible action scenes.  What's new to the franchise is the film's occasional forays into extremely creepy imagery--the monkey doll who stands guard at the preschool to which the dolls are donated, Mr. Potato Head's facial features wandering the playground while attached to a tortilla, a near-silent baby doll that deliberately evokes the uncanny valley reaction that early Pixar depictions of humans fell into unintentionally--that might make the film a tad too scary for its actual target audience.  But who cares about them.  Those of us who loved the original Toy Story as kids will find plenty more to love here.

    In fact, my only complaint against Toy Story 3 (aside from the fact that, like Up, it pays little attention to its 3D content and isn't worth the extra ticket cost) is that for the fourth or fifth year running Pixar has produced what is probably going to be the best film of the year, and that's a streak that paradoxically leaves me feeling a little dispirited.  I love Pixar's films, but every time I watch one it just reminds me of how poor and unimaginative most of Hollywood's other, adult-oriented, blockbusters are in comparison.  There's no reason why Star Trek and Avatar shouldn't have been as engaging and exciting as Wall-E and Toy Story 3.  Or rather, there is a reason, and it is that while Pixar encourages quality and fosters talent, in the rest of Hollywood creators have to struggle to bring some bastardized, watered-down version of their story to the screen, and the writers and directors who flourish are the ones who can best match some studio executive's notion of the cultural zeitgeist and best imitate last year's success story.  It's yet another manifestation of how poisonous the remake culture has become to the film medium, and while I'm glad there's at least one studio that seems immune to that poison, it would be nice if filmmakers producing material for adults could develop the same immunity.

  4. Agora (2009) - Alejandro Amenábar's film, about the mathematician Hypatia and her involvement in the struggle for supremacy between pagans and Christians in 4th century Alexandria, is remarkable for doing two things.  It tells a historical story, rather than treating history as the backdrop to a romance or an adventure--by which I don't mean that it is accurate, and in fact Agora takes copious liberties with history, most notably the circumstances surrounding the burning of the library of Alexandria and Hypatia's age at the time of her death, but that it refuses to impose a genre and a narrative on the past.  And it is a story about a female scientist whose choice to dedicate her life to the pursuit of knowledge is portrayed as valid and understandable, and who does not long for and is not saved by the love of a man (well, strictly speaking she is saved by love, but it's a gruesome sort of love and an even more gruesome sort of salvation, as Hypatia's infatuated former slave strangles her before the Christian mob can stone her to death).  These are both such rare attributes in modern cinema that it's tempting to praise Agora simply for existing, and ignore the fact that it is such a mess.

    There's a lot of good here--Rachel Weiss is quite fine as Hypatia, and does a good job of conveying both the fierce intelligence she applies to her scientific pursuits and the naivete with which she regards the political and religious upheavals around her, and the film strikes an impressive balance between conveying a sense of history (especially in its recreation of Alexandria, which is vibrant and yet deeply foreign) and of immediacy and familiarity.  But the plot simply doesn't work.  It's crammed with too much stuff--Hypatia's pursues a workable model of the solar system; her slave Davos becomes a Christian zealot; her former pupil Orestes, the Roman prefect, tries to reconcile the Christians' demands for ever-greater control of the public sphere, demands which are backed with violent displays, with his own civilian authority and with violence on the part of pagan and Jewish groups; another pupil, Synesius, becomes a bishop and tries to make peace in the city, but is also compelled by the epistles of Paul, which call for women to be meek and subservient, to question Hypatia's role as Orestes's confidant and adviser--and precisely because of its admirable resistance to genre and to a neat narrative structure, these elements don't come together into a meaningful whole.  One almost wishes that Agora were made in a different medium--the longer running time of a televised miniseries might have given the different plotlines and characters more room to breathe (Davos, who is in many ways the film's viewpoint character, would especially have benefited from this breathing space--Max Minghella tries his best, but he's not quite up to making up for the script's deficiencies in handling the film's most conflicted character), and the theater's more tenuous relationship to naturalism might have freed the story from the demands of a three-act narrative, leaving it to draw more impressionistic connections between science and politics, and between the different axes of privilege and oppression that drive its events.  The unsuitability of its own medium becomes particularly glaring as Agora draws to a close and tries desperately to wring some semblance of triumph or solace from Hypatia's unhappy end--by having her discover the Earth's elliptical orbit around the sun, by having her accept the inevitability of her death at the hands of the Christians, and by the above-mentioned mercy-killing--an attempt that seems a little pathetic if you know the historical record.  Still, though the film's greatest accomplishment is to create the impression of the greater work it might have been, I'm still inclined to praise it for making the effort to do something different and more sophisticated than the usual Hollywood fare, with history and with women in science.


chance said...

I loved the Julia Child sections of Julie and Julia - the Julie sections were only emphasized how uninteresting she is. (Which, fair enough - I assume I am a snooze compared to Child as well, just no one makes a movie about it.) Julie's blog/book, on the other hand, just plain stinks. I couldn't even read it.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree re: Julie and Julia. I found Powell incredibly unpleasant and her husband an ugly cardboard cutout of a human. But the joy of getting your first book published struck me hard, and of course Streep can make anything amazing.

Anonymous said...

I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. You're right that Amenabar distorts some history in service to his art, but that's what artists do. I don't go to the movies for history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog ( - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

Nathaniel Katz said...

My big problem with Iron Man 2 is that it brought up big issues, but then shied away from addressing them in any meaningful way. There was the question of whether some vigilante like Stark could ever be in the right, or whether this power should be the government's (and how is it acceptable for them to get it), but instead of actually delving into any of that, the opposing arms dealer turned out to be cartoonishly evil (or to have someone like that on his payroll, no real difference) and it just devolved into a shootout.

Tansy Rayner Roberts said...

I thought that Pepper Potts was actually doing a really good job running the company and was shown to be competent and more attuned to the process than Tony - the frustrations that she had and the reasons she wanted to quit were purely because her idiot former boss was making it too hard for her to do a good job! That was my reading, anyway :D

Also I haven't seen Toy Story 3 yet - glad to hear it's a winner - but I don't think creepy imagery is new to the franchise. There are some very disturbing scenes in the original film, based around the hybrid "mutant" toys and the little boy next door who enjoys torturing them.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chance, Cat:

It's probably one of worst things that Julie & Julia does to Powell's image that it leaves it an entire mystery why the Julie & Julia blog became such a success. I can sort of imagine its appeal - one of the things I like best about cooking blogs is how their writers' enthusiasm for the food they've cooked makes you want to take a stab at it yourself (and they don't even need to write about specific recipes - I love Charlotte Freeman's Cookbookslut column in Bookslut - if her essay about Mastering doesn't make you want to make Boef Bourguignion, there's something wrong with you) - but the film doesn't really sell it. Of course, maybe that's because, as Chance says, it isn't a very good blog.


I agree that the distortions of history aren't necessarily a deal-breaker, but I did think that the toned-down version of Hypatia's death in the film was a copout. It felt very much like the screenwriter throwing their hands up in despair and announcing that they couldn't make compelling cinema out of a woman being raped and skinned alive. Which, you know, is probably true, and I'm not sorry to have missed that scene, but it's probably a telling commentary on the wisdom of trying to bring this story to the screen in the first place.

Evil Hat:

As I said, both Iron Man films do this, and though that's a flaw I can't quite find it in myself to wish that they'd actually go the distance and deal with the big issues they raise because there's really no way of doing that within the superhero story framework unless you're writing Watchmen. Superheroes and reality just don't mix, so I'd much rather that the Iron Man films steered clear of big issues completely.


Yes, I agree that Pepper was shown to be competent, but that doesn't make me any happier about her quitting. It's not as if she hasn't been babysitting Tony for years. Why not do it on a CEO's salary?

Foxessa said...

Gack the Julie parts. Did you know that this same person then followed up her blog-book publication by a book that describes her infidelity with a butcher, with blow-by-blows about how it affects her husband and her marriage? How. Could. She. O, I know! Attention Glutton. Any attention better than none, but the more the better. Time to purge.

Love, C.

Athena Andreadis said...

In Agora, Hypatia is portrayed as beautiful and young(ish) when killed. The real Hypatia was in her fifties when she was raped and flayed, possibly while still alive. It's heartrending to see someone photogenic getting killed but to me, at least, this is yet another case of making older women invisible.

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