Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011)
I actually hate this movie more every time I think about it. Emily Browning plays Lucy, a college student working a variety of jobs that all dehumanize her in some way, and in response to that dehumanization she's decided to become, I guess, monstrously selfish about her life. She's just waiting to be fired from her copy girl job; she freezes out her wayward mother; she treats her roommates like shit and burns through the rent money she owes them even though she's able to pay; she has sex with only the rudest and most arrogant of men who approach her; she reserves her genuine affection for a dying alcoholic whom she seems to hold herself back from openly loving simply because she enjoys the power dynamic; and she ends up being recruited as a server and later some kind of sex toy at these weird, high end erotic parties. This is all done with total detachment from any emotions; Lucy seems to feel nothing and the writer-director Julia Leigh seems to feel even less, indulging in an admittedly good-looking film (there's an icy beauty to the art direction that's just as cold as Browning's performance) that shows zero nuance or humanity. But at some point, Leigh pulls a trick that is, in this viewer's humble opinion, detestable. The film's already about humiliation and cruelty, but with a sense of inhuman detachment that's not interested in consequences or even emotions. But then Lucy starts participating in the next level of these erotic parties, where she's given a powerful sleeping agent and left nude in a bed while old men from the parties are allowed to do whatever they want to her--no penetration and nothing that will leave a mark (though one man burns her with his cigarette in a pointlessly cruel sequence). The old men aren't really able to get it up anymore, and seem more interested in mourning their sexual vigor rather than sparking it. They just want to own this young girl for a night. And it's here where Leigh really starts taking her main character and her premise far, far too seriously. And not only that, but there's a marked shift in the point of view that plays a trick on the audience in a way that's unbearably smug. After three-quarters of detachment, the film decides it's portraying something very serious indeed, and Lucy starts to question what's happening to her in that room, as if she really doesn't know. And when she discovers it she lets out a series of screams that I have no sympathy for, because in the end it's Leigh tacking on a moment that, apparently, is supposed to make this a screed against, what... masculine cowardice? Pride? It's done in the most childish way possible, like a kid saying "I told you so" just to make their rambling story about what happened at school today seem urgent. Leigh isn't brave enough to create anything but the most shallow characters and the most spare premise in order to make whatever the hell she thinks her point is. It's just an empty, hollow film, and I think I just truly despised it. In the end, Leigh clumsily and cruelly puts the viewer in the same position as the men who molest Lucy, turning the audience into the ones who are "really" molesting this girl by even watching the film. Leigh hasn't made a point; she's engaged in a cynical cheap trick. And the worst part is that it sounds like I had a bad, stereotypically male response to being called out for my male gaze, when I'm really just responding to terrible, disingenuous filmmaking. My response to this film is the same response Lucy gets from an ex-boyfriend who, at the funeral of the alcoholic writer she truly cared for, she demands leave his girlfriend and marry her at once: Fuck you. Fuck you to death. *

TARZAN OF THE APES (1918)
Surprisingly faithful adaptation of the first half of Burroughs' novel (according to Wikipedia, the second film that has the second half is lost), even given some improvements for the sake of expediency. Elmo Lincoln is pretty big and barrel-chested for Tarzan. The film doesn't apologize for the more racially-charged bits of the story; I wonder how you could actually pull off a faithful adaptation today or if it should even be tried, honestly (though I liked Disney's animated version, horribly marred though it was by the inclusion of Rosie O'Donnell). The ape costumes are truly laughable; the gorilla costume is even worse. Still, it captured the spirit of the novel and has some great second-unit animal footage. Even though they shot this thing in Louisiana, it blends well with the second-unit stuff and has the distinction of being one of the few Tarzan movies to get across a sense of actual danger and mystery in the jungle. ***

GAME CHANGE (2012)
Julianne Moore is excellent as Sarah Palin, choosing not to play her as a caricature or for laughs (or for unearned sympathy), but instead humanizing her--which makes her much more terrifying. This is an insider's view of the campaign that changed American politics for the worse, in which Sarah Palin--a woman who had to be educated on basic policy and the workings of the government she was almost the vice-president of, right down to a crash course in who our enemies were in World War II--made ignorance not just a political virtue, but a political platform. The movie doesn't even attack Palin on her ignorance, it simply observes a campaign falling apart because the most dangerous kind of person--one who is charismatic and can move a crowd but who is inept and self-aggrandizing and with nothing to say--was inserted into it for all the wrong reasons. It's a fascinating and honestly scary and frustrating movie. If I have one complaint, it's that it lets McCain off the hook a little too easily, painting him as a basically honest and sincere man who was undermined by a woman who acted less as part of a campaign and more like she was trying to win her own election. Which basically ignores some of his more childish outbursts and his weird behavior during the debates. But this is an essential movie about modern American politics and the peril they've been placed in by this disaster. ***1/2

OCEANS (2009)
Beautifully-shot documentary about life in the oceans. It's even better if you just sort of revel in the pretty footage and zone out on the narration in the version Disney released, which is the kind of twee silliness that says "We're purposely aiming this at little kids who think sea creatures are magic." DisneyNature seems to have brought back some of the worst excesses of the True-Life Adventures series (the messier ones, like The Living Desert) and combined them with the silly pro-divine being parts of March of the Penguins. But I'm still giving it **** because it's just stunning to look at.