Monthly Archives: January 2007

THE HISTORY BOYS

Let me preface this post with the caveat that there are a few movies about which I agree with the hype (uncomfortable though it makes me), namely Children of Men and Little Children.

Now then, besides the obvious Pan’s Labyrith whose hype outshines all other examples (still only 5 negative reviews out of 135 on RT?!) I’d say the biggest disappointment for me was The History Boys.

I don’t know whether or not it was hyped in the US like it was here, where it was also followed by universal accolades, but it was sold as the British Dead Poet’s Society (not necessarily a good thing but still…) and I’ve never felt so tricked into buying a ticket (apart from Pan).

SPOILERS:

I rarely judge a movie for its content but the fact is that The History Boys is a delusional pedo fantasy. At first the pedo aspect just seems like a quirk of one of the teachers, a relatively innocent flaw that makes him human, but in the final act (with a revelation I won’t spoil) it becomes clear that the whole movie is about this.

Furthermore the behavior of all the boys, not just in tolerating their tutor’s predeliction but light-heartedly indulging it, is incredible to the point of delusion on the part of the playwright, and one of the straight boy’s proposition of another male tutor can be explained only as the fantasy of the author.

It attempts to avoid criticism by portraying its theme as the struggle of being homosexual, presumably in order to decry condemnation as homophobic, but I ask you would the movie have been acceptable if the students were girls instead of boys?

This isn’t to say I wasn’t involved in the movie as a drama, but at the same time I had to fight against successive waves of disbelief. It purports to be about the transmission of knowledge and its historically erotic associations, but it turns out in the end that education is only a metaphor (or pretense) for teacher-student relationships rather than vice versa.

I grant that it was cleverly written, using gay rights as a kind of human shield for breaching the trust that ought to exist between a teacher and his students without quid pro quo, and offering a nostalgic eulogy for sexual abuse in British education by romanticizing classical notions of the erotic transmission of knowledge.

So it is expertly crafted in the sense that it is ingenuously muddled, making us root (rightly) for education over exam-passing, attempting a transference of sympathy to the sexual politics of old-fashioned education, and then sucker-punching anyone who wouldn’t be fooled by it into associating themselves with the new tutor who is finally revealed to be a repressed hypocrite. It’s like when Christopher Walken told the centaur applicant on SNL, “Sorry, it was a horse!”

But I guess the universal admiration for it proves the point of the young tutor who said it doesn’t matter if your essay is right, what matters is whether it’s interesting. And what’s more interesting than putting the pedo back in pedagogy?

On that level I suppose the movie might be a self-conscious satire that contains within it its own critique. The play/movie is like one of the student’s essays which is written purely to be provocative but obviously is rubbish if not morally irresponsible. But could playwright Bennett be that self-ironic?

The movie also cheats by having an unforseen circumstance preempt the teacher-student “date”, so that the movie never has to deal with the consequences of its message. I think that is simply dishonest.

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SMOKIN’ ACES

If there was a common thread through 2006, it was the use of trailers to prime false expectations in the viewer. A couple of times I think it was used well (Children of Men, The Prestige) but most of the time it was just misleading (Pan’s Labyrinth, The History Boys, Stranger than Fiction).

Smokin’ Aces is another movie that has a misleading trailer, so I was disappointed by the film, but the trailer was at least an extension of the movie’s own purpose to frustrate your expectations. Unfortunately I haven’t read any critics who provide any insight about the movie, and it has been unfairly treated like a merely stylish action flick. Not to say I liked the movie, but it is admittedly underrated.

I hate paraphrasing the plot of a movie but analysis of Joe Carnahan’s anti-action film is impossible without describing how it unfolds. Spoilers following:

hotel.jpg

The first hour of the movie is spent familiarizing us with several groups of assassins who are competing for a hit on Buddy Israel (a.k.a. Aces) while it is the cops’ job to protect him. It is an extremely slow and tedious hour, but one’s patience is sustained only by the promise of the fantastic conflagration sure to erupt when everyone descends simultaneously on the target’s penthouse suite.

This expectation, however, gradually begins to erode as a series of short, premature confrontations take the momentum out of the impending conflict until there is no one left to fulfill the seemingly promised set piece of unparalleled senseless violence. It is as if the movie’s plot is undermined by truly “senseless” violence.

Having disappointed us, the tone of the movie then changes as it tries to make us feel bad for wanting to see a “traditional” 90s-style action movie where lots of people get shot. The camera lingers on the dead characters and tries to evoke sympathy for their deaths as if it were a drama not an action movie. Thus one realizes Smokin’ Aces is not an action movie but an anti-action melodrama that uses the familiar style and conventions of the action genre to make the audience feel guilty for enjoying violent movies with a high body count.

(I recognize this is an extremely personal reading of the movie, but I think the “grammar” of the editing is fairly obvious in terms of the emotional effects it intends to produce.)

The final act of the movie then draws out the political subtext heretofore latent in the film (protecting “Buddy Israel” and bad intelligence as a result of misinterpreted surveillance) and extrapolates an anti-war message from it by making “action movie” an allegory for “war.” A late twist, which had been telegraphed earlier, then portrays the government as hypocritical because the #1 bad guy (read: Osama, Saddam, or even Stalin) is revealed to be a former ally. Meanwhile the crusading cop confronts his superior about his partner (=soldiers) being allowed to die in the field on false pretenses.

bateman.jpgFor all its cleverness, however, I don’t think the political allegory really works; it is just too convoluted to make sense and feels more like two or three inconsistent conspiracy theories being patched together. The movie’s story makes sense on its own terms, but loses coherence when viewed from the political angle (unless the mob boss is supposed to represent Palestinians or Arabs or Islam in general?).

In any case Smokin’ Aces has a provocative if pessimistic ending, but the movie is more fun to think about than it is to watch, and probably suffers from trying to cram in too many big ideas. The single memorable performance is two short cameos by Jason Bateman playing what could be Michael Bluth in ten years.

There are also some truly bizarre interludes involving a hyperactive child who gets excited by imitating the Karate Kid, but I think Crank made the same point more effectively using a similar gag, and mercifully restricted its satire to action movies without also tackling foreign policy for the heck of it.

LITTLE CHILDREN

As a lead-up to the it-will-totally-be-worth-it ranking (with comments on each) of every movie worth and not worth seeing in 2006, here are a few random thoughts on a flick I saw a couple months ago. Guess what position it will be ranked at?

The trailer (one of the best of the year) makes it look like Little Children is a quite serious tragedy but I found it quite humorous and entertaining thanks to a disembodied omniscient narrator, whose baritone descriptions of the characters makes their lives seem all the more frivolous. The idea of having a voice-over by someone who is never shown in the movie itself, even as an author or something, is such a filmmaking no-no that it made me love the movie.

During our criticism summit this Christmas, Nate Bell said “never has a movie felt so directed” and I take his point, but I liked its colorfulness and the very surreal tone of many scenes, especially one at the pool, and there is a football scene that suddenly takes on the style of a sports movie. It could be called over the top at times but I think its style allowed me to simultaneously sympathize with and pity every character. And as affair-movies go it had a daring ending that pleasantly surprised me.

The first scene made me think it was going to be very polemical and mean-spirited but it turned out to be fairly compassionate in its satire. By confining itself to a single neighborhood, it also acheived the currently popular formula of “interconnected storylines” (Magnolia, Crash, Babel, any others?) remarkably without straining credulity.

It doesn’t contain profound revelations about the human condition, but I think it is a much better movie than American Beauty which was just a little too snotty.

Sunshine

There aren’t many films in 2007 I’m particularly looking forward to other than Spider-Man 3, but one of them is Danny Boyle’s sci-fi adventure Sunshine. You can see the new teaser here and will that Requiem for a Dream score ever get old?

Homeward Bound

For those of you awaiting it with bated breath, I just want to let you know I’m probably going to wait till the end of the week to post my complete ranking of 2006 films.

In any case, before I catch my flight home this morning let me say it’s been a great three weeks. It feels like the best Christmas vacation I’ve had in three years and I especially want to thank the couple dozen friends who made time to see me while I was in town. Thanks guys, I had a blast!

Now that’s a teaser

I don’t know how I missed this when it was released a week and a half ago (wait, now I remember: Christmas) but the teaser for Fantastic Four sequel took me by surprise with simply a minute-long chase between the Human Torch and the Silver Surfer. Inspired by the Devil Wears Prada single-scene teaser? Time will tell if this becomes a marketing trend.

Elevating a secondary character’s name into the title of a movie is an unconventional decision but it shrewdly announces to victims of the previous movie:

Don’t worry, it’s not just the “Fantastic” Four again! This is really a Silver Surfer movie merely using the FF as point-of-view proxies for the audience!

And I can’t think of a better use of a Fantastic Four movie. I predict the Surfer himself will be the runaway hit character of the year: the Gollum of 2007!