April 2014
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

I finally caught up with Gravity (2013), directed by Alfonso Cuaron, on DVD on a very small screen, which downplayed the spectacle and allowed me to think more about the merits of the movie. Its still thrilling and rather dignified for a Hollywood movie, and allows Sandra Bullock great strength, though she spends a chunk of the movie being hauled through space on a tether by George Clooney. As my wife pointed out, the back story--Bullock's dead child, Clooney's ebullient jockiness--is rather nominal, but is redeemed from stereotype by the performances. I liked the fact that science fiction has merged with the contemporary thriller; everything which happens in the movie is within our capabilities and circumstances now. An interesting footnote to the movie is the discussion I found on a web site as to whether it passes the feminist film test of having two women characters, with names, who talk to each other about something else than men. Since only Bullock is on screen the whole movie, and Clooney more briefly, the contingent that claims the movie passes has to resort to a specialized argument. I missed it, but Bullock is apparently heard talking on the radio briefly to the unseen female shuttle captain, who is later seen dead, and who has a name, at least in the credits.

I was sensitive to the chatter about Orson Scott Card, and think he has decayed into an appalling bigot, but also caught up with Enders Game (2013), directed by Gavin Hood, on DVD. The film, which reportedly bombed and will have no sequel, is a completely respectable science fiction effort, and rather faithful to the novel. The strange is rendered as normal, which is what good science fiction does, as we watch the training of a teenager to be a consummate war machine. I enjoyed watching Ender blossom into doing what he was best at, functioning as an amoral and brutal tactician who instinctively knows that, if you are striking out in self defense, you should hit to kill. His insight in the wargame room on board ship, how to capture the adversary's gate by not caring how many of your own troops you sacrifice, is recapitulated when he takes the enemy's home world using the same tactic. The "reveal", when he discovers that what he thought was a simulation was a real battle, is very satisfying. Ender proves you can make an intelligent science fiction movie which is not about bug-eyed monsters (the alien adversary is only briefly seen at the end, and then compassionately) but unfortunately also that such movies don't attract enough millions of viewers to be profitable. Ender would make an interesting double feature with Starship Troopers, which is basically the same story even involving an ant-like adversary, but was ruined by jingoistic violence. Ender ends with the protagonist saving an ant, Troopers with the main characters torturing one.

Bethlehem (2013), directed by Yuval Adler, is the latest entry in a devastatingly stark and rather beautiful genre, the despairing, remorseful Israeli war movie, made by directors who know (unlike many of their countryfolk) they are trapped in the almost inescapable contradictions of their country's hypocritical policy. It is the story of a Mossad handler and his Palestinian source who bond with one another, and become almost brothers, whose relationship is full of rage and misunderstanding and yet cannot dispense with one another. At the end, the Mossad agent makes two fatal errors, one of trust, going to see the teenager alone, and then one of dishonesty, declining to bring him to Israel, preferring he remain in place close to Hamas. At this moment, they are both utterly painted into a corner, and the teenager shoots the Israeli, as he has been bullied into doing by his Palestinian peers, crushes his head with a rock when he runs out of bullets, and then sits disconsolately touching the body and apparently waiting for the arrival of other soldiers who will take him to Israel at last.

Renata Adler's Reckless Disregard (1986) is a thoughtful account of two prominent libel lawsuits against the press which were heard at the same time in the New York City federal courthouse in 1984, Sharon v. Time and Westmoreland v. CBS. Both defendants had reported erroneous stories; both responded to the lawsuits with consummate arrogance and ferocity, attempting to scorch the earth instead of admit their mistakes. The impression which emerges is that of the press as one more powerful monster in the American landscape, not a permanent dissident carefully exposing truth but simply a fourth estate, a branch of government, hanging on to its prerogatives with stunning entitlement and complete lack of self-examination.

George Rude's Ideology and Popular Protest (1995) is a well-written short analysis of the phenomenon by which working people first rise up viscerally in protest against inequity or want, and then acquire a Narrative, Marxism, Chartism, union or other, within which to place their needs.

Noah (2014), written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is colossally bad, a miscalculation on such a grand scale it makes movies like Waterworld and Heaven's Gate look modest. Aronofsky is an intelligent writer, dealing with grand themes, who goes irretrievably overboard in almost every effort, but this is the most grandiose. At the core of the movie is an interesting inquiry whether the human race deserves redemption. Aronofsky chooses the tritest, silliest Old Testament story for his vehicle, and then almost ignores the animals at its center. Every other Noah story ever told had cute little critters, lined up two by two. Aronosky has dirty, comatose beasts, whose only role is to be bloodily butchered on board by an extra-Biblical Tubal Cain, who stows away. It is a feature of Aronofsky's extra-mad kitschy genius to include fallen angels in the story, and then represent them in what appears to be cheesy Claymation. Not since Braveheart have I had the overwhelming impression that the characters in a movie, grimy and dressed in uncured skins, would smell like rotting garbage.