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Bush-era spin doctoring with a tobacco twist! Aaron Eckhart plays a slick tobacco lobbyist who tries to promote a world where people are free to make their own decisions, notably by continuing to make smoking cigarettes a viable option despite public health concerns. The story is clever, free of much fat, and mostly fun. We get enjoyable appearances by Rob Lowe as an eccentric film industry impresario, Adam Brody as his tech-bro assistant, Katie Holmes as an opportunistic journalist, and much more. Perhaps my favorite small roll is played by Robert Duvall, because he’s ROBERT DUVALL, and he can do almost no wrong in my eyes.

The one problem I see with this film is not that Eckhart’s character is an anti-hero of questionable likeability; we’ve seen this before many times, and to much darker degrees. My feeling, though, is that there is a morality claim being made in this film, one that isn’t pro smoking or pro spin, but also isn’t in favor of the righteously moralistic indignation we get from people like Vermont Senator Finistirre, played by William H. Macy. But what that morality is, however, is dubious. That we should think for ourselves? That we ought to remain loyal to the important people in our lives despite their faults? No, none of this seems right. And naturally this film is good enough that it should be more complicated than the moral of a fable. That being said, something doesn’t sit right with me about whatever it is trying to say, and that the film has an argument, I am sure.

Entertaining film, though, and doesn’t seem to have received as much attention as it deserves. Please don’t smoke, however.

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Here’s another film that I heard was bad, and racist, and and and. I didn’t find it to be so bad, myself. The premise is a bit hyperbolic, the script over-extended, and the acting doesn’t leave much room for accolades (yes, it’s true, this is not anything close to Jodie Foster’s best performances, even if it’s always fun to hear her speaking in French). But this isn’t a piece of garbage. It’s simply not the mind-destroying science fiction film that people seem to always crave and, therefore, expect. In the end it’s just a standard dystopian film, but with a little more Matt Damon than weird used to, and that incredible accent that makes Sharlto Copley almost incomprehensible.

As for the racism? Blomkamp was clearly trying to deal with racism in an exaggerated way, à la District 9, and the man is not what we’d call the sultan of subtlety. As it is, I don’t find it immediately unpalatable to think that the Los Angeles of the future is hispanophone. Is it not already? I don’t find the current prevalence of Spanish to be disgusting, so I don’t have any problem seeing it represented as such in the future. That it would play into the class war (which is what it’s really about) in Elysium, well that simply makes sense, even if it could have been done much better.

I will state, for the record, though, that I’m tired of characters named “Spider,” who are inevitably somewhat the same. The best spider remains Henry Rollins in Johnny Mnemonic (a fairly fun dystopian film, I might add, even if purely ridiculous):

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ps. Alice Braga is a knock-out.

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People said this film was the victim of bad direction. Bad pacing. Bizarre transitions. White washing to keep the gore from making it “not suitable for kids.” All those criticisms are probably true, but I didn’t really care. I didn’t come into this film with high expectations of any sort. I was prepared to see a Westernized version of Battle Royale (2000), and it was better than just that kind of rehash. Slightly better, and that was enough for me. It’s the kind of movie you watch with a box of cookies all by yourself, just because you don’t want to do anything intelligent. I mean, I’m glad that Jennifer Lawrence is an interesting celebrity, but this is still just a weird teen movie. Donald Sutherland doesn’t really make sense. Lenny Kravitz doesn’t really make sense. And I don’t understand why the movie gets all Fifth Element in the capital. But there it is. The girl knows how to hunt and THINGS HAPPEN and romantic tension. That’s modern movie magic in a nutshell, for you.

As a bonus, here’s the best response to the Hunger Games franchise that I’ve seen.

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Yes! I admit that I make up a member of the “generally liking Wes Anderson films” population, but Fantastic Mr. Fox is better than his usual. It has all of Anderson’s quirk, but forces him into a different mode thanks to the animation. The colors and the scenery are still Andersonian, sure, as is the script, but it takes a different weird angle that I can’t really describe. I laughed quite a bit more than normal. Maybe it’s the power of Roald Dahl underneath it? I don’t know. This is one Dahl story I haven’t read. In any case, this was a gem that I was glad to catch up on. George Clooney is pretty damn good. The way they deal with the “animal” side of things is hilarious. And OH OH OH: Meryl Streep! “If what I think is happening…is happening…it better not be.”

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Eric Hazan wants to make a bold suggestion: that not only is revolution still tempting, it is as pertinent and necessary as it ever was, and the thing to do now is not just to conceive of how to start one, but how to do it in a fashion that will be irreversible. Hazan wants us to take actions that cannot be undone…

[To read the rest of the review, click here.]

Aziz Ansari is one of the funniest men working in comedy today and he sure knows how to dress!

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As with his other comedy specials, Ansari is in form for Buried Alive. He’s dressed to the nines, has a strong routine, and looks comfortable throughout the show. As much as anything, he’s got style.

One of the things I appreciate most about Ansari, though, is the fact that his jokes fit pretty well with people of my age range. He’s always talking about that “starting a family” age, but as the outsider that isn’t starting one, so this naturally reaches me personally. But I also find he’s able to make jokes that have an edge to them, without ever really being nasty. So he takes shots at the parents obsessed with their own kids, but you never feel like it’s truly mean-spirited. I don’t come away from watching Ansari and feel like I’ve just spent time with a bad person who happens to be funny.

There are a few things that weren’t great though. A few times, the structure of the jokes was too obvious, especially when Ansari got into a series of jokes that were always oriented around patterns of three. When the structure of the joke becomes too predictable, it removes one element of surprise, and so takes away some of the power. One other critique is related to how Ansari tries to cross something of a taboo line by making a joke about black people. I won’t spoil the joke, but the point is that while it isn’t the most offensive thing I’ve ever heard, it also simply isn’t that funny. If you’re going to break taboo, you have to make it work, and I’m not sure that Ansari pulled that one off.

Overall, though, a solid performance. I’m not sure Ansari will ever do better than his thread count bit, but Buried Alive is a fine follow-up all the same.

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It’s hard to talk with any clarity about my admiration for Susan Sontag’s work. Her books have been able to change my daily habits, direct me to writers I hadn’t known previously that I loved, and dictate a new line of inquiry for my own writing. Under the Sign of Saturn is familiar in that sense; as a collection of essays, it both reoriented my thinking about familiar topics and introduced me to new ones. Even when I disagree with her, I can’t help but admire the strength and ferocity of Sontag’s thinking.

[Click here for the rest of the book review]

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Humor and gore and milking a dead cow.

The first Kick-Ass film was alright. It had some cheap funny lines, some ridiculous action, and the novelty of a hyper-violent preteen vigilante character. Kick-Ass 2, on the other hand, screens like fan fiction. If the first one had any substance, this one has significantly less.

A few problems. First: a gimmick only works once. So, for example, abruptly killing off a character that seemed like he would stick around? Works once. Twice, thrice? Not so much. Second problem: too many heavy-handed symmetries. Hero team vs Villain team ; promises to two dead dads ; revenge for two dead dads ; etc. Third problem: trying to run on the fumes of the motivations of the last film doesn’t work. The whole opening movement is just wimpy tie-ins. Fourth problem: we’ve managed to kill that John Murphy theme that has now been prominently featured in both films of the Kick-Ass franchise, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine. Killed it dead.

I suppose this is still a little entertaining, to a certain degree. It still manages to be a bit surprising in how it mixes light teen-movie tone with explicit violence and the crude handling of sex and shit and other things. There’s still a plot with things happening. Some of the jokes are funny. It has the surprise bonus of featuring John Leguizamo and Donald Faison (honestly, seeing these two guys on camera was my favorite part of this film–well, that and the bit where Mindy gets worked up seeing the “Union J” music video). But after that?

This film is ultimately not recommended. It does nothing better than the first film, and mostly doesn’t do as well with what it repeats. And it carries many faults on its back. Better to watch the first one a second time. Or watch Watchmen. Or, best, read the Watchmen graphic novel.

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There might not be anything  bleaker than the idea of death in outer space. Alfonso Cuarón decided to make a film that hinges on the fear of exactly that, and about the human ability to struggle for survival in that most inhospitable of realms. Based on premise alone, Gravity is terrifying. But let’s say just a bit more.

Cuarón has set a high standard for himself, having already made such excellent films as Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men, and in many ways, Gravity lives up to that standard. The visuals are beyond belief. There is simply a level of imagery that has never been achieved in cinema before. Likewise, I found that this was the first time that it felt like the 3-D format made sense (and added to the film experience). The mix of photography and CGI is just amazing. The soundtrack was also excellent, even if we might not call it cutting edge–prominent use of Shepard tones is perfect for the tension in the film, if not original. And the acting is fairly solid. Both George Clooney and Sandra Bullock do something of their standard performances, but they fit well in this script.

The only real downer about this movie comes in the sentimental parts, where the emotions are fairly crude, the themes are overbearing and obvious, and in general it feels like Cuarón didn’t trust his audience to understand more nuanced fare. Emotionally, this has nothing of the finesse you have in his earlier work.

But if you can get past the sledgehammer thematics, the action and the visuals are worth it. Space, beauty, stress, action, weightlessness, and then so much weight… Now I only hope Cuarón keeps it coming, and that he has a long and fruitful career.

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I hated this film.

It’s just an extended apology for male violence, and would be so even if you took out all the rape. Yes, let’s be clear, Paul rapes Jeanne multiple times, not just in the scene with the butter. But even if we had removed the rape, Paul is a man who uses force to get what he wants, uses his body, and a few scenes of him crying doesn’t redeem him.

There are plenty of films with unredeemed, nasty characters in it, even plenty of films with rape in them, that are able to be stomached, sometimes even liked, because of how they treat the topic. I’m not for cinema that pretends rape doesn’t exist or that men never use force to take what they desire. But I can’t happily sit through an apology for it. Yes, sure, Paul is tortured, but that doesn’t excuse him, or the film that tries to make him its antihero. You can feel it, that Bertolucci loved this character. Not me.

Besides that: Brando speaking French is pure horror. Seventies faux-jazz saxophone. Mostly bad dialogue. And the playful side story of Jeanne’s cineaste fiancé, well it just reminds me of Godard playing with the cinema industry, but it’s not as good. There are some beautiful shots. Bertolucci should have stuck to that. And maybe made Maria Schneider all the film was really about. Maria Schneider walking through Paris, that would have been wonderful. But that’s not what we got. We got saxophone, rape, and a bullshit excuse for a resolution.

On last summary: fake French from Brando; fake jazz saxophone; fake arthouse cinema; fake pornography; real rape. I can’t wait to see another film, even a bad one, to get Last Tango in Paris.