Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sleepy Time


Inception (2010) is regarded as revolutionary, state-of-the-art cinema and yet strong parallels can be found between this film and another film made more than seventy-five years ago. Peter Ibbetson (1935), a sentimental fantasy directed by Henry Hathaway, features Gary Cooper and Ann Harding as ill-fated lovers who find themselves driven apart when Cooper is sent to prison for murder. The couple comes to rely on a telekinetic link to carry on their passionate romance inside a dazzling dream world. Cooper, who finds that he can control their new surroundings, builds Harding a castle made of clouds and stardust. The world crumbles when Cooper loses his faith in the dream, but he is able to recover his faith and rebuild everything as it was before. The lovers grow old together and Harding, dying in Cooper's arms, tells Cooper that they will continue to be together in death. The couple's ideals - "death-cannot-separate-us" and "we-must-be-together-forever" - are no different than the morbidly obsessive romantic notions that are central to the plot of Inception.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How a Movie Gave Me Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

The challenge that Alan J. Pakula faced in directing All the President's Men (1976) was that he had to craft a gripping political thriller out of a story devoid of spies, assassinations, bomb explosions and car chases. Pakula basically had a story about two guys talking on the phone and typing. But Pakula was working with two charming superstars, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, and he had a script from William Goldman that played up the tension and paranoia involved in two young reporters digging up facts to topple the leader of the most powerful government in the free world.

In 1957, at a time when people mostly went to the movies to see giant radioactive monsters or widescreen Technicolor epics, Sidney Lumet had to turn Twelve Angry Men into a spellbinding courthouse drama without relying on the a single reliable dramatic device. The script did not include a hysterically sobbing mother or a shocking surprise witness. It did not include a cantankerous judge banging his gavel to declare a passionate defense attorney in contempt of court. It did not have a last-minute confession dragged out of a guilt-wracked witness during a heated cross-examination. Instead, Lumet had twelve tired, sweaty, rumpled jurors gathered around a conference table inside the sort of drab room that could only be found in a government building. But Lumet had as his hero the legendary actor Henry Fonda, who audiences had come to regard as noble, intelligent and true. Fonda expressed doubts that the man on trial was guilty of murder and the audience was willing to go along with his cautious examination of the evidence to assure that an innocent man didn't go to the electric chair. Drama came out of the complexity of the jurors' personalites and the deep conflict and prejudices that came from the jurors' tense interactions. Lumet kept the pacing taut and he adjusted lens and camera angles to make the room seem increasingly claustrophobic.

I could not help but be reminded of All the President's Men and Twelve Angry Men as I was watching The Social Network, a film that mostly consists of characters staring at computer monitors (sometimes while listening to music on headphones) and characters gathered around a conference table to come to a legal finding. The characters are not charming, sympathetic or complex. Henry Fonda, noble, intelligent and true, is not present to lead the audience to a just outcome. In place of Fonda, we are presented with a sour-faced, arrogant jerk as the film's protagonist. He hardly says much and, when he does, it is a snarky remark. I kept wanting one of the other characters to beat him with a sock filled with manure. It is unnecessary to examine the evidence as we know that the jerk is guilty. Reporters have no need to use their fact-digging skills to track down sources or uncover incriminating documents. We have no need to worry that a G. Gordon Liddy-type bogeyman will sneak up behind someone in a dark room to strangle them with fishing line. The outcome of this gathering will not bring about the downfall of a government or the execution of a man. Simply, large sums of money will be transferred from one greedy spoiled rich kid to other greedy, spoiled rich kids. Our protagonist, win, lose or draw, will leave the room a billionaire. Wait, before he leaves, I need the large polo mallet.

This movie made me feel icky as if I had watched torture porn. I felt like, to make myself feel better, I had to go to the opposite extreme and watch something inspirational and uplifting like The Sound of Music.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Is Television Production Safe for Young and Old Actors?


The title of Jackie Cooper's autobiography, "Please Don't Shoot My Dog," came out of the fact that, when Cooper was a child, director Norman Taurog got him to cry in a scene by telling him that he had just shot his dog. This came to mind as I was watching a scene in the premiere episode of Boardwalk Empire. The small girl in this scene is genuinely frightened to witness an argument between her pretend parents. The father shouts angrily, he curses, he shakes mommy, and he finally strikes the woman across the face. The girl finally bursts out in tears. The art of film making is not so important that it justifies scaring a little girl out of her wits to accomplish a dramatic scene.

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I am always wary seeing small children and babies used in movies and television shows. The uncredited baby currently appearing weekly on the Fox sitcom Raising Hope is often in the middle of the show's broad physical comedy. The producers of the show assure the public that the baby is never in danger. Mikey O'Connell reported on the zap2it website, "[A]ll of the jokes at baby Hope's expense are smoke and mirrors." Still, it doesn't seem that this type of activity should be part of a baby's daily routine.

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Am I being the disapproving old woman snooping behind the curtain?

It has long been a pet peeve of mine to see a newborn used in a birth scene. I felt extremely protective of my son when he was first born and nothing could have persuaded me to put this fragile newborn fellow into the hands of a film crew.

In California, infants can start working when they are 15 days old as long as a doctor's note can be provided to assure the infant is in good health and is sufficiently developed to withstand the stress of film making. California has more regulations than any other state when it comes to protecting child actors, but these regulations may not be good enough. Paul Peterson, president of the child-actor support group A Minor Consideration, alleged that, in 1995, the production team of ER filmed a birth scene using preemies. "They were still four weeks short of their due date, and they were brought in to work," said Peterson. Peterson became aware of the incident when he was contacted by the nurse caring for the infants on the set. The producers denied this ever happened and no charges were ever brought against them.

Babies simply need more care and attention than they are able to receive on a film set. In 1994, a production coordinator on Chicago Hope asked the 20th Century Fox medical department if it would be acceptable to sedate an infant for a scene where the infant is supposed to be anesthetized. Janet Fisher, the supervisor of the medical department, put an immediate stop to these plans. She sent out a memo in which she explained the risk of sedating an infant and made it clear that an infant should never be sedated for non-medical purposes. The production coordinator embarrassed himself just by asking this callous question.

Filmmakers prefer to avoid animatronic infants as the results are less than convincing and sometimes even creepy. This is demonstrated by another scene in Boardwalk Empire.

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A recent episode of 30 Rock was able to do without a newborn in a birth scene and even got a couple of laughs out of it.

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The people busy making a television show are usually too preoccupied to consider a child's welfare. Gina Gillespie, who was a busy child actor in the 1950s and 1960s, remembered the cast and crew expecting child actors to act like adults. They were to know their lines, hit their marks, and never do anything to cause delays. Scenes had to be completed and no one had time to coddle a child. Gillespie said that her worst experience occurred when Loretta Young was directing her in a scene. Young asked Gillespie to move to another part of the set and, when the little girl failed to move fast enough for her, she snatched her up, carried her across the set, and dropped her where she wanted her to be.

Of course, all of these incidents pale in comparison to the tragedy that occurred during the production of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). The story is well known. Two children were placed in the middle of a war scene by director John Landis. The children, accompanied by actor Vic Morrow, had to race across a distance while pyrotechnic explosions were set off around them and a low-flying helicopter pursued them overhead. One of the explosions damaged the helicopter's rotor blade, causing the helicopter to crash on top of Morrow and the children. It was a shame.

Actors at the other end of the age spectrum also require special care and attention, but the actors and their fans find the effort to be worthwhile.

It is no secret that we are more fragile in our later years than we are in our early years and health and safety concerns need to become a priority when a lead actor is over the age of 70. . This is a timely subject as three veteran television actors have recently returned to series television. 88-year-old Betty White is a curmudgeonly old landlady in Hot in Cleveland, 79-year-old William Shatner is a curmudgeonly old father in $#*! My Dad Says, and 84-year-old Cloris Leachman is a curmudgeonly old granny in Raising Hope. It should be hard for these actors to distinguish themselves while having to play the same standard utility role, but none of these old troupers seem daunted by the challenge.

The producers of Hot in Cleveland admitted to arranging a less than rigorous shooting schedule for White. ''They were making all these concessions where I felt like a heel if I said no!'' said White. Still, the producers of these series generally keep mum about health and safety concerns as it can distract from the primary objective of the series to get laughs. Also, the actors do not want to reveal health problems as it could prevent them from getting work. This is the reason that 73-year-old Jack Palance found it necessary to perform one-armed push-ups on a live Oscar telecast. He was in fact able to continue acting for another twelve years.

While Shatner's current working conditions have not been publicized, it is known that producer David E. Kelley took special measures to assure safe conditions during the filming of Shatner's last series, Boston Legal. Kelly kept well-equipped medics on premises. The law offices of the show were made to look as if they had waxed marble floors, but these floors in fact had a rubberized grip to prevent falls. Shatner was often depicted having a smoke on a high balcony in the chill of the New England night, but these scenes were actually shot on secure warehouse stages.

David Jason found that, at age 70, he no longer had the energy to play the feisty Inspector Frost and elected to end the ITV series A Touch of Frost with one last daring action scene.

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The long-running BBC series, The Last of the Summer Wine, features an assembly of pensioners involved in slapstick antics. The producers of the series learned better than anyone how to create madcap silliness with old actors while satisfying the insurance underwriters.

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All in all, I would like to see more old actors on television and less young ones.

The Lost Weekend Duology

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Summer of Sexual Deviance at the Multiplex



It never occurred to me that Frankenstein (1931) would have been a better film if it ended with the monster raping Dr. Frankenstein and his bride. Yet, this is the idea at the root of Splice (2010), a re-imagining of the Frankenstein legend that uses gene splicing in place of body part splicing and brings a sense of sexual allure and erotic tension to the misguided scientists determined to play God.

The storyline for My Favorite Year (1982) never suggested to me Peter O'Toole should arrange a threesome with Mark Linn-Baker and Jessica Harper. However, this is more or less route taken by Nicholas Stoller, the writer and director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), as he reworks the premise of My Favorite Year for Get Him to the Greek (2010).

In old horror films, a mad scientist would stitch together body parts to create a fascinating new creature. The Thing with Two Heads (1972) took this idea to a new level by depicting transplant surgeons joining two heads together onto a single body. It did not seem that this practice could get any more outrageous until the recent release of The Human Centipede (2009), which shows a sadistic surgeon joining three comely young people together by using his stitching prowess to fashion a gruesome mouth-to-anus union.

Sexual deviance does not breathe new life into an old story or make a trite film daring and edgy. These desperate updates come across as nothing more than juvenile, twisted and crass.


Friday, August 20, 2010

The Return of the Smoke Monster

I was surprised to discover that the finale of Lost was lifted directly from a 2006 television movie called Desperation, which was based on a Stephen King novel.  Here are screen captures from Desperation.

Tell me if the plot of Desperation sounds familiar. A ragtag group of strangers bands together to battle an evil force that has occupied the body of the local sheriff. When this force has worn out his host's body, it manifests itself as a smoke monster. In the end, a man who is seeking redemption chooses to sacrifice his life to seal "The Well of Life," a hole in the Earth concealed deep down inside an abandoned mine. The well emits a golden glow and it is surrounded by ancient religious artifacts. The last shot of the hero before he dies shows him lying on his back and staring upwards. The closing scene of the film reveals that the man has reunited in the afterlife with other victims of the evil force.

So, in other words, I waited six years for Lost to give me a recycled ending.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Morons are Back


The eighth volume of The Three Stooges Collection, which was released this month, brings together the last of the Stooges shorts released by Columbia Pictures from 1955 to 1959. This covers the last shorts with Shemp, who died in 1955, and the last sixteen shorts in the series featuring Joe Besser as the "third Stooge."

The obvious shortcoming of the series during this period was its extensive use of stock footage, which was often sloppily thrown together with new footage in a desperate attempt to create a new product for exhibitors. The sloppy editing is particularly evident in Triple Crossed (1959), a remake of He Cooked His Goose (1952) with Besser substituting for Shemp. Stock footage from the original film was so badly assembled with the new footage that, at one point, Shemp eerily turns up in the middle of a chase scene. This collection also includes the four infamous "fake Shemp" comedies that were made directly after Shemp's death. The Stooges had yet to find a replacement and finished pending productions by disguising another actor (Joe Palma) as Shemp. Palma is wearing a long wig meant to approximate Shemp's unruly, flyaway hair and he jerks his shoulders up and down repeatedly while sputtering Shemp's trademark "eeeb-eeeb-eeeb!" The results are not pretty. Right now, somewhere in Heaven, Lloyd Bentsen is telling Palma, "You are no Shemp Howard."


Still, with all that said, I still enjoyed this collection. The Three Stooges were undoubtedly giving it their all in the final years of the series. Shemp, despite his waning energy, remained funny to his dying day. Shemp performs an entertaining dance with a she-devil in Bedlam in Paradise (1955).


He has an amusing battle with an automatic dishwasher in Gypped in the Penthouse (1955).

The entire team is funny as they struggle futilely to free themselves after accidentally becoming handcuffed together in Blunder Boys (1955).

Joe Besser, as Shemp's replacement, made an acceptable Stooge. In the earlier solo vehicles that he made at Columbia, Besser played an angry, know-it-all character who was more often abrasive than funny. However, his character was softened in the Stooges series to make him more like the childlike character that Curly had played in the earlier years of the series. Besser was at his best in Flying Saucer Daffy (1958), which was unfortunately the last production of the series.





































The Stooge comedies from Besser years made little use of stock footage and the new material, while not the Stooges' best, was often enough funny or at least intriguing. The Nine Stooges make their debut in A Merry Mix-up (1957), in which it is revealed that the Stooges are in fact three sets of identical twins.

The Stooges meet up with cannibal amazons in Space Ship Sappy (1957).


On the topical side is Oil's Well That Ends Well (1958), in which the Stooges have to cork an oil leak. TS prove more capable at the job than BP. It leaves me wondering if BP CEO Tony Hayward could be made into a successful cork for the ongoing leak.


I felt like a kid again watching these comedies. No doubt, I was able to relate to the Stooges as a child because they seemed to have a lot of the same problems that I had at the time. A child can certainly relate to the Stooges' disagreeable response to being immunized for space travel in Space Ship Sappy.

Other volumes in The Three Stooges Collection included 21 to 24 shorts but this volume includes a total of 32 shorts at the same price. This is fair compensation for the shorts dominated by stock footage.


If I had a genie, I would first wish for a billion dollars and the end of war and disease. Then, I would wish for The Three Stooges Collection Volume 9 with all new shorts starring Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp.

Until the next time, I wish you all pleasant dreams.

14 Versions of the Mirror Routine that Never Dies


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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Nine Lives of Tyler Labine


Comedy is a treacherous business. I have a soft spot for a comedian who is having a hard time (unless that comedian is Dane Cook). Tyler Labine, a portly and wisecracking comic actor in the vein of Jack Black, has definitely been having a hard time. Labine may be adept at making me and my son laugh, but he has repeatedly failed to attract an adequate audience on television. He has starred in three short-lived series in the last four years. Invasion was canceled after 22 episodes, Reaper was canceled after 31 episodes and, now, Sons of Tucson was canceled after a mere 4 episodes. Any other funnyman would have exhausted his welcome with network executives, but Labine has something that the executives like. CBS has already cast the actor in a comedy series called True Love. Besides his television projects, Labine has a starring role in a forthcoming comedy-horror film called Tucker & Dale vs Evil. I extend my wishes for Lapine's eventual success.


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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Talk to the Hand

I feel bad about the passing of actor Robert Culp. I remember being in awe as a child when I saw Culp brandishing a computer hand in an episode of The Outer Limits called "Demon with a Glass Hand." For days, I went around my neighborhood pretending that I had a computer hand and that I, like Culp, had to do anything it took to escape sinister aliens who were out to kill me. I would make sure to stay out of sight by dropping behind a bush or ducking down an alleyway and then I would press pretend buttons in my palm to activate the computer for escape options. These days, I hold an IPod in the palm of my hand and punch keys to get movie times from my Flixster app. Sometimes, I still imagine that aliens are pursuing me and my IPod will tell me how I can get away.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

An Inert Man


I saw fifty-three of the films on the 2009 release schedule. I liked most of the films, which is a rarity for a film fan as finicky as I am. I did, however, have my disappointments. I am a big fan of Vince Vaughn but I didn't laugh at all seeing him in Couples Retreat. Other films were so unimpressive that I can barely remember them. For instance, I think that Virginia Madsen was in The Haunting in Connecticut but I could not tell you anything else about that film. The films that were bad were infuriatingly bad. The ten worst films that I saw this year were as follows:

2012
(500) Days of Summer

The Collector

Extract
Inglourious Basterds
Land of the Lost
Paranormal Activity
The Road
The Unborn
Up in the Air

Inglourious Basterds and Up in the Air may have won Golden Globes but this isn't enough to keep them out of Tony's Hall of Shame.

I saw The Collector by mistake. One night, my son and I made a last-minute decision to see a movie. The Collector had just opened and I had not heard anything about it. My knowledge of the film came exclusively from a poster on display outside of the theater. I found myself intrigued by the creepy poster art despite the fact that I was not sure what it represented. I later learned that the central image, which was somewhat murky and distorted, was supposed to be a serial killer in an orange ski mask. At the time, though, I assumed that the image was of something more fantastic - a Hellraiser-type demon with a bald, pock-marked, orange head that goes around collecting souls. Yes, I know, this old man is losing his sight. The point is that I would never have seen the film if I realized that it was just another Saw retread. This year, the torture porn of Saw was given a strong moral basis in Law Abiding Citizen and Last House on the Left, both of which were much more substantial and satisfying than The Collector.

The children's films were exceptional during 2009. I saw a number of these films accompanied by an enthusiastic five-year-old boy named Nathan. I was amused, intrigued and sometimes even moved by these films, which included Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Monsters vs. Aliens, Planet 51, Ponyo, Up, and Where the Wild Things Are. I saw a number of entertaining action films, including Star Trek, Angels & Demons and The Taking of Pelham 123. I would like to have seen more human dramas, but the few that I saw were good. This includes Sunshine Cleaning, Fish Tank, Brothers and Disgraced. I enjoyed as my one guilty pleasure the 3D carnage of The Final Destination. The best comedy was, without a doubt, Hangover. Most of my favorite films this year were dark genre films, including Watchmen, Moon, Drag Me to Hell, District 9 and Pandorum.

Avatar was a truly magnificent film, although I have a couple of philosophical differences with writer/director James Cameron. Avatar is critical of the human race for shutting themselves off from the natural world and yet it allows people to shut themselves inside movie theaters with a candy-colored illusion of nature that offers to take the place of the real thing. The film, as journalist Jeet Heer pointed out, "represents both an alienation from nature and a nostalgia for nature." Also, I didn't agree with the portrayal of the military as bloodthirsty murderers. A military colonel is shown to be the ultimate brute of the film when, in fact, the true brutes are the scientists who demand the planet Pandora's mineral stores and have created the horrible weaponry with which it is to be obtained. I am inclined to agree with other criticisms put forth about the film. Some critics found it odd that Cameron used advanced technology to make an anti-technology film. Cameron denies that he is anti-technology. Has he seen his own Terminator movies? Heer found the film troubling because it "rehashes many familiar tropes from the history of European/First Nations contact, particularly the myth of Pocohantas" and "regurgitates the myth of the white saviour." Still, I enjoyed the story and the characters, admired the direction, and was blown away by the effects.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the dentist office and my dentist asked me if I had any plans for the evening. I responded that I was going to see Up in the Air. My dentist didn't say anything at first. But then, at the risk of ruining my plans, he finally spoke up and let me know that I might not want to see this film. He said, "I should warn you, my parents saw the movie and they said it was depressing." I was about to get two teeth drilled and this guy was worried about me being bummed seeing a movie. But he was right about Up in the Air, a painfully depressing story about corporate downsizing in the wake of the financial meltdown and the growing alienation of hip corporate robots in the Internet age.

In the days of the Great Depression, Hollywood producers saw it as their job to make America happy. They found, as the perfect antidote to joblessness and poverty, Shirley Temple, a cute little moppet who sang uplifting songs like "Be Optimistic." Temple, brimming with charm and energy, sang:

Be optimistic!
Don't you be a grumpy
When the road gets bumpy
Just smile
Smile and be happy!

Where's our cute little moppet? It wasn't long ago that Dakota Fanning was a cute little moppet in The Cat in a Hat (2003) and Charlotte's Web (2006). But, before the age of fifteen, Fanning was raped in Hounddog (2007), tortured people as a glam vampire in New Moon (2009), and engaged in lesbian smooching in The Runaways (2010). I suppose that in 2010 it is time to put away childish things and face up to the harsh realities of the world.

Hollywood no longer believes that, in hard times, they need to produce happy escapist films. We, as Americans, have become dispirited by war and downsizing. So, what does Hollywood do about it? They rub our faces into this mess by giving us depressing films about war and downsizing. It is the art of miserablism. This year, we even got Food, Inc., which is a documentary exposing the foulness that is our food production. The hunters in Avatar respect their animal prey, comforting them as they die and bidding for the safe passage of their souls. We, as depicted in Food, Inc., needlessly defile and torture our prey before turning them into a Happy Meal.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a passive man in turmoil in A Serious Man. As abuses are inflicted on him, Gopnick cringes, he frowns and, most of all, he questions again and again why this is happening to him. But never does this man put up a fight against his abusers. Sy Ableman, a creepy, pretentious windbag, has seduced Gopnick's wife, who is now determined to divorce Gopnick. Ableman is full of rationalizations to justify the affair and acts towards Gopnick as if they have no reason at all to be at odds. He talks of them handling the situation in a calm, "adult" manner, doing what makes "eminent sense," and taking "the appropriate course of action." Gopnick fails to react to Ableman's actions as the intolerable aggression that it truly represents. Ableman may tell Gopnick that there's "no cause for discomfort" and he may insist, "We're going to be fine." But Ableman is lying. Ableman, who wants to be regarded as a devout Jew, suggests that his romantic relationship with Mrs. Gopnick has not been consummated. Gopnick is more than willing to believe him.

Gopnick's brother, who lives with Gopnick and his family, refuses to deal with people and has withdrawn from world. "I think his social skills have held him back," says Gopnick. But Gopnick's own social skills, in all their refinement, have not proven very useful. Gopnick puts himself at a great disadvantage by following social rules in an effort to be a "serious man" while no one else around him could care less about those rules. Civilization creates much sublimation and deception. Thriving beneath the artifice is the jungle law - "every man for himself," "anything goes," "might makes right," "survival of the strongest" and "eat or be eaten." Gopnick has imagined orderliness where none has existed. The overdeveloped civility that he shows towards others has proven a liability for him. Gopnick has a nightmare where Ableman slams him against a blackboard while shouting, "I seriously fucked your wife." His subconscious mind, unfettered with notions of fellowship and propriety, recognizes the painful truth of the situation.

It isn't much of a story when the protagonist plays no active role in the events that are unfolding around him. Richard Corliss contrasted A Serious Man with Philip Roth novels, including Stern. Corliss wrote, "The men at the center of Philip Roth's novels may rage and flail, but Larry doesn't dish out insults, he takes them." He sees the film as not being about Gopnick but about the actions that surround Gopnick. He found that, in this instance, "action is character."

Gopnick visits three different rabbis in an attempt to make sense of his problems. A junior rabbi tells him about God being in every place in the world and he needs only to open up his eyes to recognize him. He points outside of the window and tells him that God could even be found in the parking lot. He babbles further and, when his speech reaches a fevered pitch, he turns towards the window, sighs, and feebly gushes, "Look at the parking lot." It was one of the most ridiculous moments in the film.

Blogger Steven Menashi wrote, "When Larry, standing on his roof, spies Mrs. Samsky sunbathing naked, it recalls 2 Samuel 11, in which David, on the roof of the palace, sees Bathsheba bathing naked." In the Bible, David commits adultery with Bathsheba, who is married to Uriah the Hittite. The Lord, displeased with David's actions, curses David's house with turmoil. In the end, David's son Absalom leads an insurrection against his father that plunges the kingdom into civil war. The film suggests in more than one instance that God will punish wrongdoers, plunging their lives into turmoil if not outright striking them dead. But, for most of the film, Gopnick finds his life in turmoil without having done anything. A scene features Gopnick on the phone with a bill collector working for Columbia Record Club. The bill collector explains at length that records were automatically sent to his home when he failed to return postcards indicating that he did not want the monthly selection. Does this mean that we can invite misfortune simply by doing nothing? The only time in the film that Gopnick finds peace is when he takes refuge next door smoking pot with Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker). Sin, it seems, is the only relief from the tyranny of civilization.

Gopnick's neighbor Mr. Brandt (Peter Breitmayer) is introduced with blood smeared on the front of his shirt and a dead deer tied to the roof of his station wagon. Gopnik looks appalled when he learns that Brandt allowed his young son to take a day off from school to go hunting with him. It is not a surprising reaction from Gopnick, who demonstrates great respect for authority and institution. This civilized man, who spends most of the film dressed in a tie and carrying s briefcase, supports advanced social development represented by schools, businesses and communities. Guns and a blood-stained shirt are, by all indication, repulsive to this modern man. Yet, Brandt may be a good role model. To start, Brandt has a better relationship with his son, who treats his father with respect and obedience. A number of scenes feature teachers giving stultifying lectures in stuffy classrooms. It does not make education look as rich and rewarding as the bonding experience that a father and son could enjoy while spending a day in the woods together. One of Gopnick's harassers, the father of a cheating student, shows up in Gopnick's driveway making threats. Gopnick winces when the grim-faced Brandt approaches with hedge clipper and asks in a threatening manner, "This man bothering you?" It looks as if Brandt is ready, on Gopnick's word, to clip off the man's head. This aggressive, hard-nosed man is a throwback to simpler times when a man relied on personal strength and will to survive. Brandt, who is no passive victim, would be ready if this corrupt civilization were to collapse. He would fit in well with his hedge clipper and hunting rifle in the post-apocalyptic horror comedy Zombieland. Zombie movies are a freeing experience because zombies, as adversaries, lack the pretense that characterizes predatory modern man. Zombies do not hide their predatory natures and we are allowed to dispose of them with a well-aimed shotgun blast to the head. Gopnick, outside of jungles, woods and post-apocalyptic ruins, must engage in futile debate and negotiation that only end up frustrating him.

Gopnick seems to believe that, in the evolution of man, the spine has become a vestigial appendage. I found that this character, in his unwillingness to erupt in rage, was useless to me. Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) of Law Abiding Citizen erupts with great rage after his wife and daughter are murdered during a home invasion. The rage does not come immediately. Shelton, like Gopnick, is initially inclined to trust authority and institution and calmly follow the rules. He is, as the title suggests, a law-abiding citizen. But, then, the criminal who actually committed the murder agrees to testify against his accomplice for a reduced charge, which will put him in prison for a relatively short time. The deal appeals to prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who is unwilling to risk his high conviction rate to take the murderer before a jury with a less than air-tight case. The man whose wife and child were murdered is subject to gibberish from Rice as ridiculous as the junior rabbi's "Look at the parking lot" speech. The film establishes Shelton, the aggrieved man suffering the loss of his wife and daughter, as the protagonist and Rice, an arrogant prosecutor whose career ambitions take priority over empathy and justice, as the lead antagonist. Our highly developed laws, which are too abstract to deal with a social reality as fundamental and blatant as murder, fail to assure justice for Shelton. Shelton sets out to take revenge by murdering the criminals, the lawyers and the judge. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are too cowardly to stand by Shelton once the violence escalates and they abruptly try to make their protagonist and antagonist switch roles in the third act. The turnaround doesn't work and ruins an otherwise gripping film.

Gopnick never takes charge. He doesn't mount his roof with his neighbor's hunting rifle to blast away malefactors like a man battling zombies in a post-apocalyptic world. He does not, in the manner of Clyde Shelton, plant bombs to destroy corrupt social institutions. A Serious Man ends abruptly without a climax or a resolution. The film, in its ambiguity, is open for endless interpretations. In the blogosphere, a number of people have desperately dissected the film for clues as to its meaning. At one point, Gopnick meets Ableman at a restaurant called Embers. The name of the restaurant is stated repeatedly and with great emphasis. Is "Embers" supposed to relate to Gopnick entering the firey pits of Hell? The following dissection appears in the Trivia section of the Internet Movie Database: "In his argument with the Columbia House records employee over the phone, Larry Gopnik repeatedly rejects the album Abraxas by Santana, in a variety of ways. He did not order Abraxas, he doesn't want Abraxas, he won't listen to Abraxas. Abraxas is a Gnostic term for God, particularly a God who is encompasses all things from Creator of the Universe to the Devil, and an etymological root for 'abracadabra.' It is thus implied that Larry Gopnik is vehemently rejecting God and magic." A film that can mean everything risks, in the end, meaning nothing.

Disgraced also features a passive protagonist. Professor David Lurie, a middle-aged, divorced scholar of romantic poetry, is forced to accept the hardship of life after becoming a victim of a vicious criminal assault. After a period of raging and flailing, Lurie resigns himself to the fact that life, with all its brutality and anarchy, is essentially a difficult and often painful experience. Unlike Gopnick, Lurie does not consult a religious authority to ask why he has become a victim. Lurie ends up more passive than Gopnick, but he is more admirable than Gopnick in that he has come to earn his passivity. He arrives at an inner peace only after his struggles have shown him that he is powerless to resist forces much bigger than himself.

Prior to his assault, Lurie found himself in another predicament. Like Gopnick, this college professor found himself entangled in a prickly situation with a student. Also like Gopnick, he came to a distorted view of this relationship by looking at it through the prism of his academic speciality. Lurie interpeted his feelings for an attractive student by referring to the work of Wadsworth and Byron. The misbegotten affair brought to his life a passion he so desperately needed. He failed to understand that what he saw as romance was sexual harassment to the student, whose own extreme passivity failed to challenge the professor's deluded notions. Gopnick, functioning as a physics professor, struggles to find the perfect calculation to explain his problems. But his knowledge of Schrodinger’s Cat and the Uncertainty Principle are not useful to him in this situation. Physics, with all its mathematical equations, works independent of everyday realities and cannot be relied upon to solve the mysteries of life.

This brings us back to Up in the Air. It is abstract mathematics derived from classrooms that has plunged the world into the current financial crisis, which forms the backdrop to this film. Further dollars-and-cents calculations also create the film's central controversy. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate downsizer, travels around the country conducting employee layoffs for bosses too cowardly to do it themselves. Bingham's boss (Jason Bateman) has been convinced by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), an ambitious young employee, that the company could greatly cut costs by grounding staff members like Bingham and having the firings done by way of a remote, on-line video conference. Bingham argues that this impersonal new system will not work and asks that Keener travel with him to see how the layoff process works. During his travels, Bingham meets a glib mystery woman in a travelers lounge. After trading banal banter, they go up to his anonymous hotel suite to hop into bed for anonymous sex.

It was not at all appealing spending time with these characters. The characters, worse than being unpleasant, are inconsistent and therefore unbelievable. Keener, despite a purported degree in psychology, does not seem to comprehend the emotional trauma a person experiences losing their job. But she later proves to be an extremely sensitive young woman. I cannot explain where she obtained this sudden sensitivity, tears and all, unless it is something they sell at the duty-free gift shop. Bingham, a cold and detached corporate hatchet man who likens himself to a shark, also makes an abrupt and radical character transformation. One blogger described this transformation as no less than "miraculous." Bingham, who has warmed up to this woman from the travelers' lounge, wants to change his life to pursue a relationship with her. This frequent flier, who has happily been in flight for 10 million miles, suddenly wants to settle down on terra firma with this woman with whom he had a meaningless booty call. The film is, in the end, vapid and dishonest.

Up in the Air has a few obvious plot elements in common with The Messenger. In both films, two characters are at odds as they collaborate in a sad mission to deliver traumatic news to a bunch of regular folk. Both films have a third act that centers around a quandary at a wedding. But these films could not be more different. The Messenger is a film with heart, which is something glaringly absent in Up in the Air.

The Up in the Air tagline - "The story of a man ready to make a connection" - could also apply to Avatar, where an alienated man becomes part of a "people" and develops a strong bond with nature by plugging his pigtails into flora and fauna. Avatar shows that jungle law can be simple and basic and at the same time include fundamental social codes that prohibit savagery. I personally dream of a simple, honest and meaningful existence for myself. It could be for this reason that I see in last year's films conflicts between nature and technology, physics and common sense, and alienation and community. After the stock market crash, we certainly need to look at who we are and get back to community and common sense.


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