Movies or What? December 2006

by Mark Butterworth (Dec. 2006)

Stranger Than Fiction

Flushed Away

A Good Year

Casino Royale

The Fountain

Déjà vu


Fast Food Nation

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny



Stranger Than Fiction

A novelist, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is writing a book featuring a dull IRS agent, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), who has lived a life of devoted routine for twelve years. He counts the number of strokes he uses to brush his teeth, the number of steps it takes to walk to the bus.

Harold Crick, though, is a literary character, the kind you only meet in a book or movie. No one lives a life with the kind of numbing regularity he does except in fiction. Nor is life so generally reliable in keeping bus schedules, either.

As an IRS agent, Harold investigates Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young baker who has not been paying all the taxes she owes. Ms. Pascal has an ornate multi colored tattoo on her upper right arm, and spouts off about not paying the taxes which go to war, the military and so forth. She, too, is the sort of character you only meet in a novel since no one running a bakery is likely to avoid paying the taxes they owe since the result would be to put themselves out of business.

In the course of a day, Harold hears a voice. He looks around. No one is there. The voice talks about what he is doing moment to moment and what he’s thinking or feeling. Harold gets spooked. He tells a co-worker he is being followed by a woman’s voice. She’s narrating his life and with a better vocabulary than his. He seeks help. He’s told he’s schizophrenic. He denies it. He claims he’s a character in a story. Maybe he ought to see a literature professor instead?

He goes and meets with Prof. Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who becomes his angel/guide/mentor/advisor. Together they try to determine if he’s in a comedy or tragedy, and who the author is.

Then he hears the author mention that he’s going to die. He is told, “Harold, you don’t control your fate.” The Prof. advises him that it’s “Your life. Go make it the one you always wanted.”

The movie is an extended Aesop’s Fable as Harold discovers life — how to live it. He pursues the disdainful Ms. Pascal. He takes up the guitar. Since he has suddenly become aware he will die, he is finally awake to living, but he doesn’t want to die and must find a way to reach the author and get her to alter her book’s plan.

Kay Eiffel, meanwhile, is having her own problem. She has writer’s block. She can’t figure out how to kill her main character. She is an eccentric chain smoker.

Does Harold Crick have to die to satisfy the requirements of Ms. Eiffel’s narrative? The Professor assures Harold that the author of his fate has written a masterpiece and he must endure the fate she has written or it will ruin the book. But given the narrative, we aren’t convinced that her book is all that compelling or great so it’s hard to buy into the idea that Harold’s life is worth the sacrifice.

The other main theme — am I a character in someone else’s dream? — never gets more than a superficial glance (which is true about everything in this movie). The truth is that anyone who hasn’t got an actual raison d’etre or clear assurance of personal autonomy is at a loss to place himself in any greater scheme of things.

The movie’s answer to not knowing if one is entirely at the mercy of fate out of one’s control is to distract oneself by living more intensely or intently. How does that exactly help?

Flushed Away

A cloacal, animated comedy in the Wallace and Gromit style but far more frantic. A pet rat, Roddy, is flushed down a toilet into the London sewer and discovers a teeming underworld of singing slugs, an urbane and commercial community of rats, and a mafia frog boss.

Mad action ensues as Roddy seeks to return to his topside home, becomes involved with an adventuress rat and her enemies who seek the destruction of Rat Town.

The kiddies might like the pace but it’s the frenetic kind that makes coffee nervous. Not very funny although a few of the action sequences are tense and exciting.

A Good Year

Russell Crowe plays a high powered London bond trader or stockbroker with a take no prisoners attitude who learns that his uncle has died and he’s inherited his French chateau and vineyard in Provence.

Will the shark sell the estate or will his youthful memories of idyllic summers and warm moments with his uncle convert him along with a young Frenchwoman?

Is the American girl who claims to be his cousin and his uncle’s bastard child really who she says she is? Is the wine the vineyard produces swill or is there a secret vintage that is highly prized and extremely valuable?

This is a pleasant tour taken in a languorous mood but without any laughs or particularly touching moments.

Casino Royale

Daniel Craig resurrects a dying franchise with a hard as nails, SAS vet stepping up to becoming an “00” agent for MI6. Judi Dench continues her weak and tedious portrayal of “M”, James Bond’s boss, but at least all the gadgets, the silly quips, and super suave mannerisms are gone.

The plot has to do with an illegal banker who invests the millions of dollars in ill gotten gains from various dictators, terrorists, and drug lords. Using their money, he gambles on stocks losing their value after he has terror acts committed against the companies. Except Bond thwarts the evil acts, the companies don’t lose their value while he has lost his clients’ money.

In order to make up the losses, the evil banker sets up a poker game with a ten million dollar buy in with five million more added if needed. Thus the evil banker can recoup up to 150 million. Ahh, but if Bond can win, then they can turn the banker into their creature.

That’s when the girl comes in. Vesper Lynd (the beautiful Eva Green) is MI6’s accountant, there to transfer the funds and watch over Bond. And that’s where the movie will eventually fall apart as it runs long after the climactic card game and ensuing difficulties of bringing the evil banker to justice.

Tying up the loose ends leads Bond and girl to Venice and a number of reversals, but by then we just want it to conclude despite how previously entertaining the movie has been.

There’s a great deal to be said about the contrasting acting style of Craig and all the previous Bonds, but credit has to be given to the writers’ re-imagining the character and trying to return him to his literary roots which took the secret agent much more seriously than the subsequent movies ever did.

Having re-vitalized the Bond brand, I have to wonder where they can go from here. Previously, each Bond offered new gadgetry and wilder stunts along with megalomaniac villains, mad scientists, corporate billionaires, and worldwide evil organizations – SMERSH and SPECTRE.

If they’re trying to “keep it real” what’s left? Terrorists. Yeah, but they just did a bit of that in this one. Greedy pharmaceutical companies? We just had The Constant Gardener. Big Oil and international corruption? Syriana.

Also, the initial sum of 100 million that the evil banker loses seems like chump change these days and hardly enough to finance such wide scale murder, double crosses, and nefarious doings when you consider that junior bond traders deal in the billions on any given day. 100 mil isn’t enough to get your shoes shined in even foul, high finance these days.

The Fountain

Goofy New Age spiritual twaddle. A timeless romance that makes time crawl. Man can’t save his wife from a brain tumor but creates immortality from a tree. Or does he? He’s also a conquistador and she’s the Queen of Spain. At least according to a story she has written.

He travels through space in a glass bubble sitting in a lotus position like Buddha. Or does he? He travels through a tunnel of light like Gustave Dore’s picture from The Paradisio of Dante, or lots of other iconographic visions of going through the tunnel to the light. Ah, the Beatific Vision of death. Or does he?

Or is he just a guy who makes a metaphorical journey through his grief and plants a seed of a tree at his wife’s grave?

Whatever it is, its absurd and dull tripe.

Déjà vu

Speaking of twaddle, Denzel Washington’s newest police procedural (this makes it over a dozen movies where he plays a cop or an authority figure) has a sci-fi twist just as Virtuosity was a sci-fi cops and robbers adventure thriller.

Denzel plays an ATF agent in New Orleans. A ferry has just been blown up killing over five hundred men, women, and children, many of the men Navy sailors. Also, a beautiful woman’s body has been found killed in the same way as the ferry victims but two hours earlier than possible if she was on the boat.

Denzel investigates the girl and she is connected to the terrorism. Trace her life and they will find the killer.

The explosion of the ferry is a chilling and realistic reminder of just what we are facing now in the world as Jihadis seek every means of doing harm to large numbers of people, and Americans in particular. The opening scenes of the movie brings that home to us, but I won’t be giving anything away when I tell you that the villain turns out not to be an Islamic Jihadi but a home grown, Tim McVeigh type played by Jim Caviezel.

Yup, your angry, demented, extreme, right wing nut, white male is the threat to our society over and above everything else. Isn’t that special?

But the twist is this: a secret government agency has a time machine. It can look four and a half days into the past and even send things back when push comes to shove.

As in all time travel stories, the paradoxes pile up and turn everything into nonsense; except by making everything one big exciting chase at the end, no one is supposed to notice that it’s absurd due to the frantic pulse pounding action and danger. Hurry, hurry, hurry. He’s going to kill her! He’s getting away! He sees what you’re doing! He’s coming back! Hurry, hurry, hurry! Shoot him! Shoot him NOW! Hurry, hurry, hurry!

Déjà vu coulda been a contender for a decent police thriller, but first they made the villain a passé and irrelevant threat. No one cares about Tim McVeigh anymore since so many Muslim lone wolves have gone jihadi in this country like John Mohammed and Lee Malvo, the various Arabs who have gunned down or run over people around the country in a fit of religious pique and Islamic insanity, not to mention 9/11 and the anthrax letters. (And there is good reason to believe the Oklahoma City bombing was tied to Islamists, and not simply the work of two crazed, militia type, whack jobs.)

Secondly, they introduced an impossibly arch sci-fi dimension that robs the movie of any relation to reality, thus leaching it of concern for anything but the plot, and turns it into an eminently forgettable action flick.

The movie is well made, the action is gripping, the denouement has some emotional weight which is then immediately thrown away in a manner I won’t elaborate upon since it gives too much away, but the movie disappoints if anyone spends ten seconds afterwards thinking about what they just saw.


Bobby is tedious, tendentious and smug. A day in the life of the Ambassador Hotel up until the moment of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the movie follows a set of characters who provide a canvas for preachy 60’s clichés.

Half the characters’ plot lines involve the hotel staff, and half the guests or political staff for Kennedy. “Bobby”, RFK, of course, is presented in hagiographic terms as the true man on the white horse who was going to save the country from all its folly. The problem is that we never get to actually know and care anything about the man since he only appears in news clips, and then at the end, in more clips.

The people in the movie might admire RFK, but we don’t have any reason to and so the predestined moment of doom and tragedy never crushes our souls as intended.

The murder is a sad reminder of that day for those of us who do remember it, but it doesn’t seem as sad now as it did then as it followed on the heels of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the assassination of the President five years earlier.

The movie opens with a montage of newsreel items illustrating every conflict in the country at the time. The racial demonstrations and violence, the anti-war demonstrations, clips of the Viet Nam war being fought, and so forth. Kennedy is shown as the man who will pour oil over all the roiling waters and bring us peace and happiness at last. All the turmoil of the times seems rather quaint in retrospect. I found myself thinking — that was the stuff that caused all the angst and anger?

Compared to periods like the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, everything of the 60’s seems like small beer, including the assassinations.

In the film we have down trodden illegal immigrants in the kitchen complaining about their lives here. There is a girl who is marrying a boy who’s been drafted and somehow thinks that marriage will get him sent to Germany instead of Viet Nam. She’s willing to sacrifice her happiness for this noble cause, but the young man (Elijah Wood) only ends up looking like a coward hiding under a woman’s skirt to evade his duty.

At the end we get a montage of the event and a voiceover of RFK delivering a speech preaching the great liberal values of his time as a cri de coeur against violence and division. After all, we’re all brothers; we all just want to get along, live nice lives, have good times and peace; there is no reason for any of us to fear anyone else because no one is truly a problem to anyone else since we can all agree we all want the same things; violence only breeds violence, and repression creates retaliation. It’s just that simple. You don’t need God, just RFK to lead you to the Promised Land.

The movie distinctly insists that RFK was killed because America is a violent and divided place rather than that an Arab shot him because he supported Israel. Sirhan Sirhan may well have been a stooge for Arab terrorists and Yassir Arafat, but you’d never know it from this film.

Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation is the kind of sophomoric nonsense you get when you turn a Berkeley teach-in into a fictional film. Made by the folks at Participant Productions, funded by an idiotarian eBay billionaire who has given us such weary, coprolitic goodies as Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, and North Countrythis movie does have a few surprises in it. Such as — what’s Bruce Willis doing in this thing? I thought he had some adult sense. ,

As in Bobby, numerous celebrities make cameo appearances in order to demonstrate their Hollywood solidarity in this low budget, even worse than Al Gore lecture. We get Ethan Hawke, Kris Kristofferson, Patricia Arquette, Greg Kinnear, and a pop tart, Avril Lavigne, pops up to lend her considerable weight to the role of serious college student who will save the world from the evil, white male, corporate bad guys.

This cinematic polemic was like strolling through an anti-war demonstration and catching snippets of conversations expressing righteous indignation at the Man, man. Like, see man, the Man is raping the planet. Cutting all the trees, having their cows pooping all over the ground so we can eat their feces laden burgers that the Madison Avenue Man made us want to eat by making us conform to the uniform straightjacket world, man. And the Patriot Act. That’s really out to get us. . . . . man!

“I can’t think of anything more patriotic than violating the Patriot Act,” as one character insists his little group become eco-terrorists as they hearken back to the really lame Bless the Beasts & Children of 1971. Save the buffalo. Save the whale. Save the bovines. Don’t eat that hamburger! Free! Be free, you lovely, bucolic creatures!

The only businesses that aren’t depicted as essentially evil done by white men in a conspiracy to rob everyone of their money and their lives is the smuggling of illegal immigrants, and the making of Hollywood entertainment (which we recently learned is major polluter of Los Angeles).

The movie loses track of its various characters who only exist to educate us about our unrighteousness anyway, and then we get the grand finale – the Kill Floor. A nice little tour of the slaughterhouse where we get to watch cows killed, skinned, hacked, disemboweled, and so forth. It’s supposed to take us back to visions of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but it doesn’t work. It isn’t that pleasant to watch large animals butchered, but it wasn’t horrifying, and the circumstances are rather clean all in all rather than the filthy abattoir we’ve been previously warned about.

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny

I like Jack Black. I’ve enjoyed bits of Tenacious D, his musical duo, from time to time. But Jack Black has a big problem when it comes to choosing his movie projects rather than having his agent do it for him. Jack Black has no taste, judgment, or ability to discern what is funny and entertaining (see Nacho Libre. Or rather, see it for a few minutes and walk out because it only gets worse the farther it goes).

The same thing is true with this.

Black, who co-wrote the movie, believes not only is the F word the most hilarious of intensifiers or ejaculations in the English language, but that the C word regarding a penis hasn’t been used nearly enough in the past and sets out to rectify that error in the history of cinema.

Rock and Roll and its musicians was best satirized by This is Spinal Tap, of course, but there’s still plenty of room to send it up. This film missed nearly every opportunity to do so.

It’s as bad as American Dreamz was earlier this year which attempted to eviscerate the already self-parodying American Idol TV show.

Repeated exposure to Black’s infantile approach to comedy is beginning to wear out what little was found amusing in him to begin with and will taint regard for him in any other roles we find him in.

When an actor proves himself to be an idiot over and over, we can’t believe him in any other role where he’s not supposed to be a fool. Just as we can never believe that George Clooney is smart, that Alec Baldwin is wise and sensible, that Tim Robbins isn’t a creep or a lunatic, and so on.


Babel is this year’s Crash, a quartet of interlocking stories (we don’t get to see how they connect until the end). Kind of like O’Henry meets Rimbaud in that each tale reflects part of a season in hell with a twist.

Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are tourists in Morocco apparently for no good reason. While traveling in a bus on a tour, an Arab goatherd tests his rifle to see if he can hit something from a long distance and Susan is shot. The rest of their segment deals with the incident of trying to get help in a third world country where positive response is tenuous and slow.

The goatherd and his family figure in their own series of events which precede and follow.

Brad Pitt proves once again that he is a fine actor when he’s secondary and plays a character rather than the lead as he is here in a fine ensemble cast.

Then there is the story of a Mexican housekeeper of two American children, perhaps five and seven, who is ordered to remain with the children until the parents can get someone else to relieve her. But she wants to go to her son’s wedding in Mexico, and so she goes off with the children. One bad decision leads to another and the children’s lives are endangered.

The fourth story has to do with a teenage Japanese girl in Tokyo (I assume) who is a deaf mute, carries a chip on her shoulder and behaves sexually inappropriately in a few instances. We come to learn that she and her father share a truly inchoate sorrow.

As the various fates play out, we are seriously concerned, wanting to know where they are going and how things will conclude, but at the same time fairly certain that we are more than likely being led to a desultory ending, and a depressing commentary on the general misery of life or what the poet, Vergil, called “lacrimae rerum”, the tears of things.

There are many strong and powerful scenes in the film because we clearly see the consequences of bad choices spiraling away out of control of the choosers. You cannot help but wince with recognition of the grim realities which are set in motion by thoughtless actions.

The director, Mr. Inarritu, and the writer are Mexicans and bring an unsentimentality and grimness to the movie making it a hopeless, atheistic, and joyless tale. Not exactly the kind of thing that gets folks lined up outside the multiplex. Mexicans look around and see an unchanging and corrupt world order filled with people of little competence or awareness carrying on the cycles of misery and destruction like packs of barely sentient dogs.

The movie is well made and engaging, but ultimately empty and depressing. Oddly enough, the director has a dedication at the end to his children who provide him with the only “light amidst all the darkness.”

Well, gee, Mr. Inarritu, thanks for relieving the gloom. Maybe you need to take a look at Sullivan’s Travels. Just a suggestion.


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