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?

Whatever it is, its absurd and dull tripe.

Virtuosity was a sci-fi cops and robbers adventure thriller.

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

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.

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.


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.

Fast Food Nation

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.

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 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

The same thing is true with this.

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.

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.

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.

Just a suggestion.


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