Roger EbertIn 2010, at the age of 67, Roger Ebert reviewed The Human Centipede (First Sequence) — a horror flick that seems to exist primarily to make viewers vomit. As a professional movie critic for more than four decades, Ebert could have been forgiven for skipping it altogether. Curt dismissal was another perfectly reasonable option.

A charitable senior-citizen writer might have picked the movie apart on moral, narrative, or aesthetic grounds, or used it as a launching point for a screed against the depravity of contemporary culture or the torture-porn genre.

But Ebert turned in a no-star-rating review that begins with an earnest rumination on the path to mortality: “It’s not death itself that’s so bad. It’s what you might have to go through to get there.” And he says that within the writer/director, Tom Six, “there stirs the soul of a dark artist.”

Ebert was interested in the movie, curious about its method and meaning. Ultimately, he didn’t interpret or judge it — “It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine” — but it’s clear he thought this film that most people would find inherently repulsive or worthless deserved consideration.

tdkr-prison.jpgDepending on how you choose to count, there are either three or four Batman resurrections in The Dark Knight Rises.

Superheroes — and especially Superman — have long been seen as Christ figures, and from its title to its returns from the “dead,” The Dark Knight Rises appears to impose that connection on Batman. Aside from the obvious savior similarity, the comparison is knotty — but worth exploring.

tdk-rises-1.jpgChristopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is an incredibly ballsy movie.

I don’t mean its scope and ambition, both of which are indeed impressive. I mean the audacity of choices that could have easily backfired: following Heath Ledger’s nuanced, razor-sharp Joker with the nearly blank thug Bane; recycling Batman Begins’ sinister plot, doomsday machine, and League of Shadows; inserting teenage-boy masturbation fantasy Catwoman into a universe largely devoid of sex appeal and camp (and non-Rachel Dawes women, period); crafting a lengthy, convoluted first act made even less comprehensible because of the sound design and score; and relegating Batman to captivity of one sort or another for the vast majority of the movie’s first 115 minutes.

The conditions Nolan imposes on Batman and Bruce Wayne are similarly challenging. He’s older and gimpy, still a scapegoat for the death of Harvey Dent, lacking purpose, and hiding in his rebuilt mansion. When he emerges from seclusion, he’s not facing individual foes but a disciplined, driven army, and a stunning plan for the destruction of Gotham that appears to have anticipated every eventuality — and ensures that the Dark Knight won’t be rising anytime soon.

Rises, then, feels like a triumph over much longer odds than either Nolan or Batman has ever faced, its success harder.

dark-knight-redux-1.jpgHow about a magic trick?

I previously pulled off David Copperfield-scale wizardry by turning Robert Zemeckis’ bloated, 150-minute Contact into a lean, 53-minute masterpiece. (Yes, that’s hubris. Have you missed me?)

This, admittedly, is a more modest feat — something you might see from a living-room magician rather than on television — but I’m rusty, and it’s impressive legerdemain nonetheless. So here goes: I shall transform Christopher Nolan’s 144-minute The Dark Knight into a significantly better movie by trimming eight minutes from it. I shall make two cuts, both from the first 17 minutes. (The 153-minute official running time includes the opening production logos and the closing credits.)

First, I eliminate the opening bank-robbery sequence, which on my Blu-ray runs from the 53-second mark to the six-minute, 23-second mark. Second, I delete the first courtroom scene and the bit of Jim Gordon/Harvey Dent small talk that follows, from the 13-minute, 53-second mark to the 16-minute, 29-second mark.

Ta da! They’re ... they’re gone.

My essay on David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch is now up at Edward Copeland on Film. I’ll post it here in a few days.

Gross Error

human-centipede-poster.jpgHow is The Human Centipede (First Sequence) not among the most transgressive and repulsive movies ever made?

For those not familiar with the premise of writer/director Tom Six’s feature, there’s no reason to be coy about it. The Internet Movie Database plot summary of The Human Centipede reads:

“A mad scientist kidnaps and mutilates a trio of tourists in order to ‘reassemble’ them into a new ‘pet’ — a human centipede, created by stitching their mouths to each others’ rectums.”

That sounds more random than it really is, and Roger Ebert’s no-star-rating review (“It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine”) provides a helpful diagram and is clearer on the concept:

“Heiter plans to surgically join his victims by sewing together their mouths and anuses, all in a row, so the food goes in at the front and comes out at the rear.”

Disgusting, right? Based on any description, Six’s film should belong to the torture-porn genre. Yet while the movie itself aspires to torture porn, it miraculously never gets there. The barest description of the story — and also the mad Dr. Heiter’s explanation of his plans to his three victims, and the movie poster — are far more unsettling than the results of the complicated surgeries.

Twitter Review: Stay

2005’s ‘Stay’ is too aggressively off, fostering sensitivity to its head game rather than engagement in the story. Gosling holds it together

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Aussie crime thriller ‘The Square’ is poised to explore guilt in a handful of characters but instead becomes a ridiculous, contrived tragedy

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Against its Swede forebear, ‘Let Me In’ accumulates minor changes that make it too insistent. Fidelity is a pleasant surprise but not enough

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Swan Song

band-of-gypsys-cover.jpg“Happy New Year, first of all,” Jimi Hendrix says to the Fillmore East crowd at the dawn of 1970. “We hope you have about a million or two million more of them — if we can get over this summer.” He pauses and follows that with a “heh heh heh” that suggests a hint of self-loathing.

In hindsight, it might be the saddest recorded laugh in history, as Hendrix didn’t survive the summer, dying at age 27 on September 18.

Of course, it would be stupid to read anything into Hendrix’s audience banter beyond the irony of his imminent passing. He was simply acknowledging the lameness of his quip, and he moves on, dedicating the next song to urban warriors and quickly appending: “Oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam.”

And then: “We’d like to do a thing called ‘Machine Gun.’”

The next 12 minutes — captured on the Band of Gypsys [sic] album — almost certainly represent Hendrix’s finest live performance. And it’s not merely the guitar-playing; this “Machine Gun” is the pinnacle of rock musicianship, with the instruments indivisible from the song, its subject matter, and its pitched emotions.

arizona-1.jpgFor whatever reason, I’ve steadfastly avoided most of the Coen brothers’ sillier movies. (If forced to ascribe a cause, I would point to The Hudsucker Proxy.) But a friend’s earnest e-mail (titled “Urgent Coen Brothers symbolism inquiry”) pushed me to watch Raising Arizona, which in the context of a discussion of nihilism and No Country for Old Men led me back to Miller’s Crossing, which for the hell of it got me (for the first time) to see The Big Lebowski. (Understand that I do not put Miller’s Crossing among “the Coen brothers’ sillier movies.”)

Watching the three together was instructive. First, it reinforced that the Coens’ filmography is amazingly consistent in its concerns. In all three, the protagonist is at the mercy of forces and figures far greater than himself, and he can scarcely imagine the depth and scope of the mess he’s in. (You can also see that formula at work in the brothers’ three most recent movies: No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man.)

But I also realized that my resistance to the Coens’ absurdist films is not a fear of watching a bad movie; rather, it’s the certainty that my time investment won’t be rewarded beyond diversion.

Looking Forward

chloe-1.jpgAtom Egoyan has been on some kind of losing streak. Since his breakthrough masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter in 1997, his fiction features have gone from dense and compelling if awkward psychological dramas (1999’s Felicia’s Journey and 2002’s Ararat) to blunt, tone-deaf instruments to explore obsessions (2005’s Where the Truth Lies and 2008’s Adoration).

The shift is a subtle one, and the gap between artful and artless is in this case small. It looks to me that like the novelist Paul Auster, Egoyan ran out of new ways to narratively play out his interests; seemingly lacking the affinity and capacity for humor, thrills, and fully human characters — which can disguise a dearth of new ideas — both auteurs have in recent years tread water in an obvious and ugly fashion.

With the caveats that it’s a remake and not written by Egoyan, Chloe seems to chart a new path for the filmmaker, even though it collapses in a fit of silliness just as it threatens to become probingly nasty.

unbreakable-1.jpgIn the 10 years since I saw it in the movie theater, I’ve regularly planned to return to M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense. I wanted to see if it’s as strong as I remembered, and — as the writer/director’s star has fallen (and fallen, and fallen) — I was curious how this movie might look in the context of his career.

Sadly, Unbreakable hasn’t held up well. While I think it’s better than The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village, and Lady in the Water, it suffers from an inability to transcend the conceit. Shyamalan’s movies are never as compelling as their one-sentence pitches.

Dizzyingly fragmented, Welles’ ‘F for Fake’ builds layers of credible story exploring authenticity. ‘This is true, you know.’ No, you don’t.

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Attaboy, Jim

inception-pinwheel.jpgIn my hastily keyboarded notes after seeing Inception last weekend, I spent much time faulting Jim Emerson for his dismissal of Christopher Nolan and of the movie. Emerson made sweeping, unsupported generalizations in the service of his obvious dislike of Nolan’s movies. His pieces (and his responses in the comments sections) represented an attack rather than an argument.

It’s only fair, then, to praise Emerson for his essay yesterday, which restates his problems with the film but does so much more cogently and generously.

In at least four of Christopher Nolan’s seven feature films, the plots and/or fixations are initiated or propelled by the death of a man’s spouse or girlfriend. Considering that Nolan’s primary thematic interest is obsession, isn’t this a little strange?

The realization struck me the day I saw Inception, in which everything Cobb does involves “being with” his dead wife Mal or being reunited with his kids, from whom he’s separated because of how Mal died. She leaped from a window, but Cobb feels (and is) responsible. Cobb also convinced her to lay down in front of a train in their “limbo” world.

dead-women-inception.jpg

Incepted

inception-2.jpgIn taking down Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Jim Emerson writes:

“[W]hat this movie’s facilely conceived CGI environments have to do with dreaming, as human beings experience dreams, I don’t know. ... [T]he movie’s concept of dreams as architectural labyrinths — stable and persistent science-fiction action-movie sets that can be blown up with explosives or shaken with earthquake-like tremors, but that are firmly resistant to shifting or morphing into anything else — is mystifying to me.”

The complaint is fair enough, given that Inception regularly refers to “dreams.” But what’s going on is only marginally related to how “human beings experience dreams.” The movie’s plot concerns espionage that uses as its tool a shared, drug-induced dream-like state with environments created by external “architects.” And if one does a little thinking, one realizes that the technique of the premise is effective only if scientists and practitioners can exercise control over the dreaming — that is, if they eliminate the inherent fluidity, randomness, and chaos.

I understand that if you want to make a good movie about baseball, you need to be true to baseball. But this is a case of sloppy word choice rather than botched fidelity. I suppose the movie could have made up some stupid term for its alternate realities — say, “The Matrix” — but I prefer the simplicity of the inaccurate “dreams.” Bitch about Inception’s presentation of “dreams” all you want, but I think a filmmaker should get a pass on the core narrative given.

Acts of Hashem

serious-man-2.jpgI was surprised after watching (and then reading reviews of) the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man that there was such a fervent (if small) backlash against it. The movie — about a Job-like Jewish professor in a Minnesota suburb in the late 1960s — struck me as so right that I didn’t allow for opposite reactions.

Yet there they are. Some critics have placed the movie comfortably, derisively in the Coen canon, which is to say that they find it empty and mean — gorgeously made cinema that has no interest in or respect for humanity.

The movie generously allows for (and perhaps embraces) accusations of misanthropy. Whether you love it or hate it, find it cruelly godless or searchingly spiritual, see affection or scorn for the characters, the film will not peep a word of protest. By design, it is what you think it is. And what you think it is depends in large part on how you look at it. Is it a synagogue parking lot, or evidence of Hashem?

But even though art can be interpreted many ways, the text has a voice, too. And the essence of A Serious Man is faith in Hashem, which is illuminated rather than confused by the film’s cryptic core.

‘Dragon Tattoo’ has a damaged, sharp heroine; compelling depravity; a fair mystery; and no fat. But it’s oddly amorphous and fixated on rape

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‘It Might Get Loud’ never does, and the guitar-star summit lacks chemistry. Still, it’s always engaging, and The Edge deserves his own movie

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On Re-Creations

watchmen.jpgWhen I say that the filmed version of Watchmen and the horror remake Quarantine are faithful to the point of tedium, I intend that largely as a compliment. Great talent, care, time, and money have been spent not fixing what ain’t broke. Considered separate from their sources, both movies work.

But they’re damned depressing.

I found Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’ merely highly competent (and far too fetishistic), but given that the comic was ‘unfilmable,’ he did damned good

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Reclamation Project

shondes.jpgDescribing the Shondes’ new album My Dear One, violinist Elijah Oberman noted in a recent interview that “it’s basically a break-up record. ... We’re both happy and terrified to be participating in that tradition. On the one hand, it’s a very universal topic, and something that most people can relate to. And on the other hand, you really have to work to make it your own.”

Mission accomplished. Because the New York-based band so masterfully blends its atypical identities into rock music, this break-up record sounds like no other.

Unlike most monster movies, ‘[Rec]’ builds horror along with chaos. Near the end, it tells when it should hint, but it’s invisibly skillful.

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‘Treme’ S1 starts slowly, has some tedious characters, and is too proudly authentic, but Simon’s team remains expert at resonant microcosms.

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‘Adoration’ is a dispiriting Egoyan misfire, a too-blunt but intriguingly indirect meditation on terrorism that then excavates dull motives.

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Follow the Character

woodrell.jpgOne thing you might notice picking up Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone is how thin it is — less than 200 pages.

And when you start reading, you might be struck that it’s been carved incredibly lean. While relatively plainspoken, the sentences are dense, with a mix of dialect from the Ozarks and artfully turned idioms that feel instantly right. One has to sip Woodrell’s language.

“I do like to make it apparent to the reader that you need to probably read everything,” Woodrell said in a phone interview in April. “‘I won’t put in any flab, but you have to read what’s here’ is kind of my deal with the reader. ... Pay attention to the sentences.”

Aside from canonizing its subject -- especially in the excruciating bookends -- ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ is crackling, sharp, and outraged fun

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‘Justified’ S1: Sly performances, character ambiguity, sharply natural dialogue, and propulsive violence elevate this backwoods pulp fiction

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‘The Messenger’ is unerring on its own dramatic terms but misses an opportunity by offering character over punishing war-death notifications

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