The Best Romantic Comedies of the Last Twenty Years

The Best Romantic Comedies of the Last Twenty Years

In making this list of the best, or maybe just my favorite, romantic comedies of the last twenty years, editors Matt Zoller Seitz and Max Winter and I set out to make clear goalposts. The list would be as inclusive as our memories and subjective tastes would allow. It would span the last 20 years. The best film of each year, from 1993-2012, would be elevated above the rest, but other worthwhile films would be frequently mentioned so as to better contextualize my choices. Also, in the case of foreign films, I’ve chosen films based on the year of their production, not the year of their US release.

Ranking any kind of comedy is challenging because I often have to compare drastically different kinds of movies. It’s harder still to quantify what a “romantic” gesture is. Because your mileage may vary, I wanted to start with two preferred definitions of “romantic.” The first is taken from a Google search: “Inclined toward or suggestive of the feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love.” A good romantic comedy does not always end with a promise of commitment. Several of the films on this list conclude with a heartbreak or a break-up, but I still find them to be both very funny and moving because they nicely approximate the confusion and, yes, mystery of romance. Because love isn’t just a gesture or visible connection: it’s also a lot of guesswork and well-intended misinterpretation. Some of the movies mentioned below are romantic not just because they’re about love, or sex, or both, but because they maintain a certain romantic mystique.

That being said, the other definition of “romantic” I used for this list is less opaque and was taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “consisting of or resembling a romance.” This obvious definition gave me a little wiggle room: as long as the film was a comedy that was also about love, romance, amorous complications, etc., it was fair game.  Which isn’t to say that I went mad with power or anything. In fact, some superior films were passed over in any given year because I didn’t want to equivocate about whether or not they really are romantic comedies. In discussing my picks with Matt, he gave me a great litmus test for this piece: how much breath do I need to waste before I realize I’m just arguing for the sake of argument? If the answer was a lot, then I wouldn't pick that film.

With these guidelines in mind, let’s get started.

1993: The Wedding Banquet

nullFor this year, it’s tempting to stump for Groundhog Day, but while I love that film’s Capra-inspired understanding of what makes humanity great (the ability of humans to universally empathize and care for each other), the romance between Andie McDowell and Bill Murray isn’t as central to that film as Murray’s transformation is. I tend to think 1993 was dominated by two films: Sleepless in Seattle and The Wedding Banquet. I’ve chosen the latter film because while I love Sleepless in Seattle’s episodic, observational sense of humor, I don’t think the film is as generally thoughtful or as touching as The Wedding Banquet. While both films are essentially progressive, the latter title doesn’t romanticize courtship to the point where gestures are more important than the feelings they connote.

Sleepless in Seattle is about the seductive power of wish fulfillment. Annie (Meg Ryan) wants to believe that a relationship with Sam (Tom Hanks) could work because she wants her life experiences to be just like the romantic comedies she loves to endlessly rewatch, especially An Affair to Remember. It’s a sweet thought, but compare that to The Wedding Banquet’s notion of romance as a feeling that may or may not survive a seemingly endless series of rituals. Ang Lee’s film has a touchingly finite and matter-of-fact understanding of how romance works that makes the mysterious three-way attraction between Wei-Wei (May Chin), her landlord Wei Tong (Winston Chao), and his boyfriend Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) that much more compelling. To hide the fact that he’s gay, Wei Tong has to convince his conservative parents that he’s straight. So he marries Wei-Wei, who already has a crush on him, and uses the sham wedding to get her green card.

What’s most touching about The Wedding Banquet is the refreshingly open-ended resolution that Wei Tong reaches with his parents, particularly his proud father (Sihung Lung). Lung’s character confesses to Simon that while he doesn’t understand how his son could love another man, that’s the reality he’s facing. He doesn’t make a big show of re-assuring his son, or even suggest that he approves of Wei Tong. But, along with a handful of scenes where it’s unclear whether or not Wei Tong still loves Simon, this quiet moment of acceptance underscores the film’s biggest virtue: a willingness to see love as a series of decisions that maintain one’s feelings based on how much those feelings are worth, not how much face they save.

1994: The Hudsucker Proxy

null1994’s top two contenders are Barcelona and The Hudsucker Proxy, neither of which neatly qualifies as a romantic comedy. I was initially tempted to pick Barcelona since writer/director Whit Stillman does a fantastic job of re-contextualizing romance as one of a series of theoretical conflicts for Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols), an American yuppie living in Barcelona. Ted only realizes the extent to which his own neuroses make him ideologically opposed to everyone around him after his gauche cousin Fred (Stillman regular Chris Eigeman) comes to stay with him indefinitely. Ted’s not the empty-headed fascist many Spaniards assume he is because of his nationality, nor is he as stubbornly contrarian as Fred thinks he is when confronted with that reality. Fred’s romance with local Spaniard Montserrat (Tushka Bergen) is doomed because he’s looking for a level of commitment that doesn’t come naturally to her. Ted’s not even sure whether it’s inherently foolish to act on his instincts and pursue women that he’s physically attracted to.

Still, Stillman’s not primarily concerned with romance in Barcelona. By contrast, while The Hudsucker Proxy is a screwball comedy first, and then a romantic comedy, the film’s main catalyst is podunk savant Norville Barnes’s (Tim Robbins) romance with Pulitzer-winning busybody reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Norville even realizes this later in the film, murmuring to himself that everything after his appointment as the head of Hudsucker Industries happened because of Amy. Apart from being a masterful tribute to New York City, The Hudsucker Proxy is fantastic because Amy and Norville’s romance is just one iteration of the Coen brothers’ Herculean pastiche, a comedy that combines elements from Frank Capra movies, Preston Sturges screwball comedies, and even German expressionist classics like Metropolis. I love Norville and Amy because they comprise a hearty composite of the Coens’ interests, and the most charming and vital part of one of their best comedies. Go, Eagles!

1995: Kicking and Screaming

nullHaving watched and rewatched French Kiss so many times with my sister, I was tempted to give that corny but infrequently cute film a shout-out (Hi, Daphne!). Because, what the hell, I do like Kevin Kline’s goofy French accent. But while I like both French Kiss and Sydney Pollack’s disposable, but perfectly adequate Sabrina remake, I ditched both options as soon as I remembered that Kicking and Screaming was also made in 1995. The way that writer/director Noah Baumbach’s characters talk to each other, totally absorbed in their own anally specific theories on the world at large, is similar to Whit Stillman’s style of banter. But unlike the two films that Stillman made prior to Kicking and Screaming’s release, Baumbach’s movie is directly concerned with a trio of young egocentric post-grads who eventually realize that just knowing they’re shallow and self-centered is not the same thing as actively trying to change that sad fact. Grover (Josh Hamilton) can’t get over the fact that his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) elected to study abroad in Prague instead of living with him in Brooklyn. At the same time, Max (Chris Eigeman, again) is shaken out of his own adolescent complaisance by Kate (Cara Buono), who, unlike Max, is not well-read, well-spoken, or particularly self-satisfied—basically, she’s nothing like Max or his friends.

Grover’s story is particularly well-resolved because it’s the exception that proves Baumbach’s rule. While best friends like Max are able to eventually move on from their collegiate-centric glory days, and move farther off-campus, Grover can’t. Eventually, Jane has to come back to him, which leads to one of my favorite scenes in any of the films on this list. Grover and Jane look like they’re about to make up, but she can’t further over-extend herself, and he’s too paralyzed with fear and expectation to do what he knows he needs to. That non-resolution is incisive and well-tempered by Baumbach’s Lubitsch-like banter, as when Kate chirps, “I’m going to be 17 tomorrow,” and Max cruelly replies, “Wow, now you can read Seventeen Magazine and get all the references!”

1996: Shall We Dance?

nullWhile Walking and Talking is tempting, and Iris Blond is staid but perfectly enjoyable, Shall We Dance? is a must. I especially love that writer/director Masayuki Suo (I Just Didn’t Do It) doesn’t shame his married protagonist for falling in love with someone other than his wife. After all, Shohei (Koji Yakusho), a nebbish accountant, only takes up dancing after seeing Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), a beautiful competitive dancer, standing at her dance studio’s window. Shohei’s interest in dancing starts with romantic attraction, thus creating a power dynamic that doesn’t really go away once wife Masako (Hideko Hara) and daughter Chikage (Ayano Nakamura) have entered the picture.

In fact, Shall We Dance?’s most endearing moment is the scene where, after Shohei realizes that he’s grown more interested in dancing than in Mai, she invites him to dance with her one last time before she moves away to pursue dancing professionally. The private detective that Masako hires to snoop on Shohei is right to say that Mai and Shohei never had an affair. But had circumstances been different, they could have. That ending matters because it proves that, as the film’s opening intertitle declares, ballroom dancing is treated as a taboo social ritual in Japan. The fact that the ember of a potential extra-marital romance persists by the film’s end makes Suo’s blockbuster hit that much more endearing.

1997: Chasing Amy

nullChasing Amy may not hold up as the progressive alternative to formulaic romcoms that many of its contemporary defenders thought it was. But it remains a moving unrequited romance, and a juvenilely funny comedy. Here, Smith’s greater ambitions pay off in his actors’ superior performances, and in his relatively polished dialogue. Smith inspires his regular cast of actors to try harder by giving them better roles, and while his direction was never exactly rigorous, his confidence is evident from the film’s pace. Comic book penciller Holden’s (Ben Affleck) vain attempts at understanding why he can’t be with Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) are fittingly clumsy, and uninsightful, but his behavior is true to the way a character of a certain mind-set and a certain upbringing might behave. Smith has never stopped writing about what he knows, but in Chasing Amy, he also applies his self-knowledge to a broader canvas, and it pays off. There are big emotional stakes in play, though the three-way gambit that Holden uses to try to win Alyssa back is painfully dopey. Still, Holden’s apparent earnestness comes across thanks in no small part to Affleck and Adams’s palpable chemistry. In the scene where Holden breathlessly confesses his love to Alyssa, you actually believe that such a guilelessly confused character would do anything to win over the girl he knows he can’t have. While it may not sound like much, Chasing Amy remains Smith’s career best, by a sizable margin.

1998: Buffalo ‘66

nullOnly a list like this could make me want to compare apples and oranges like There’s Something About Mary? and Buffalo ’66. Realistically, most films come up short when compared to the latter film, a blisteringly weird black comedy that suggests that finding someone with a compatible sexual hang-ups is a great foundation for a relationship. Newly-released ex-con Billy Brown (writer/director Vincent Gallo) kidnaps and persistently berates Layla (Christina Ricci), a slavishly submissive kook who grows to like being abused by Brown’s impotent lover. Everyone in Billy’s hometown is sexually screwed-up, from his best friend Goon (Kevin Corrigan), a guy who's obsessed with strip clubs but can’t think how to describe them (“that place where women take their clothes off…") to his equally deviant parents. While Ben’s mom goes into an orgiastic fit at the sight of a college football player on TV, his dad (Ben Gazzara) tries to seduce Layla with his golden voice, proving that the psychotic apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree. And amidst all the decibel-piercing screaming, Gallo’s film establishes itself as a singular, hilariously strange comedy of inter-related anxieties. If you can watch this movie with a date, and remain on speaking terms with her/him by the end credits, you’ve got yourself a keeper! 

1999: Sweet and Lowdown

nullOf the handful of memorable 1999 romantic comedies, a couple stand out. Shakespeare in Love’s tedious, winking style of humor has none of screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s characteristic genius for romantic banter. Runaway Bride has two great leads trapped by a trite story. And while I really like the infectious energy that Ten Things I Hate About You’s cast brings to the film’s already likable update of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, I much prefer the two top choices for the year: Notting Hill and Sweet and Lowdown. I ultimately chose Sweet and Lowdown because it’s not only a fantastic star vehicle for Sean Penn, who plays the second-best guitar player in the world after Django Reinhardt, it’s also another terrific riff on writer/director Woody Allen’s pet themes. As a tongue-in-cheek docudrama, Penn’s Emmet Ray is treated like a historical footnote, one who’s remembered for his music but was a bigger failure in love because he always saw himself as an also-ran.

Sweet and Lowdown defines Emmet’s failure as a musician as his over-arching inability to see beyond his reputation. He performs beautifully, as in the handful of scenes where Penn throws himself into Emmet’s music (he was coached by jazz composer Dick Hyman). But when he stops playing, Emmet can’t stop fussing. He’s an egotist and therefore can’t see his accomplishments for what they are. This is certainly true of his romance with Samantha Morton’s Hattie, a mute laundress who he falls in love with and inevitably leaves to pursue Uma Thurman’s Blanche, a smarmy socialite. Blanche looks down on Emmet the same way he looks down on Hattie. And while that kind of doomed love triangle is par for the course for Allen, he develops that relationship and the world it’s situated in to an uncommonly sophisticated way. Which stands to reason given that his script for Sweet and Lowdown was rewritten from an earlier script he wrote decades before (it was originally titled The Jazz Baby, and was shelved because it was considered too ambitious). Like The Hudsucker Proxy before it, Sweet and Lowdown is an exceptional comedy not just because it’s a repository for its auteur creator’s best ideas. Because even if you ignored the film’s speculative historical narrative and its lovingly tenderly filmed musical performances, Sweet and Lowdown would still be a terrific Woody Allen movie because its doomed threeway romance applies Allen’s usual “the heart wants what it wants” dictum to a devastating effect.

2000: The Tao of Steve

nullThere’s not a lot of really good choices for 2000, so it’s a very good thing that Matt Zoller Seitz cautioned me against putting Dr. T and the Women on this list, just to see if anyone was still reading by this point. Still, The Tao of Steve stands out in the year in which What Women Want is the year’s top-grossing romantic comedy. While the latter film insists that a man can learn how to get in touch with his feminine side, the former maintains that Donal Logue’s schlubby lothario, can’t just assume he understands women because he knows how to manipulate them. Dex (Logue) is over-educated, over-weight, and under-stimulated. So he makes a game out of casually and effortlessly seducing women, tricking himself into thinking he’s irresistible because he knows how to play hard-to-get. The “Steve” of the film’s title are mythic badasses like Steve McQueen and Steve Austin, men of action that let women come to them. Mel Gibson’s character in What Women Want essentially does that, too, letting a pseudo-mystical meteorological event push him to transform his character rather than naturally realizing why he needs to stop being such a know-it-all prick.

In that sense, The Tao of Steve is like a couple other films on this list, films where self-centered men grow a little wiser after realizing their own limitations. But what distinguishes Dex from those other characters is that he’s a guy whose tendency to live for short-term enjoyment comes back to bite him in the ass. (SPOILER-OILER-OILER) The fact that Syd (Greer Goodman), Dex’s new love interest, is also a former love interest who he doesn’t happen to remember is a perfect way to demystify Logue’s Don Juan as a unconsciously forgetful lover. This doesn’t mean he has a tortured past or is trying to get over any one girl in particular. Instead, Dex has just forgotten what it’s like to shut up and really enjoy himself. As corny as it sounds, the scene where Logue is beaming like a little kid while night-swimming with Goodman is effectively disarming.

2001: My Sassy Girl

nullOne of the reasons why the 2008 American remake of this records-busting Korean romcom failed so miserably is because the original My Sassy Girl is so painfully earnest. The creators of the original 2001 film try very hard and mostly succeed at impressing viewers with their characters’ spontaneity. This is partly because My Sassy Girl is based on a series of hyper-popular, fictitious blog posts that were later collected in a novel. Though a slapdash pattern emerges later in the film, My Sassy Girl hastily reduces its womanizing protagonist Gyeun-woo (Tae-hyun Cha) to a puling schoolboy through the use of a playful, shit-stirring heroine, simply called “the Girl” (Ji-hyun Jun).

One of the best things about My Sassy Girl, a romantic comedy which spawned several lesser subsequent Korean romantic comedies (the best of which is probably Please Teach Me English), is its creators’ lapel-shaking zeal. They want you to know that the Girl is unusual, that she’s not passive, and that while she is flighty, she’s not really a manic pixie dream girl. That last point is what the film’s tone-shifting second half establishes most forcefully: the Girl has a past, and she is behaving a certain way because she wants to avoid further heartbreak. My Sassy Girl feels lived-in, and slapdash, and alive, in a way that most romantic comedies aren’t because its creators are always seemingly negotiating their characters’ next moves. So while I could have gone with Amelie, Bandits, Love on a Diet, Monsoon Wedding, or even Va Savoir, I chose My Sassy Girl because it’s messy, and boisterous, and totally charming.

2002: Punch Drunk Love

nullThere’s no real competition for this year: not the drecky My Big Fat Greek Wedding, not the poignant About a Boy, not even the half on-target Kate and Leopold. 2002 belongs to Punch Drunk Love, a movie that is best whenever falling in love makes already emotionally-stunted Adam Sandler and Emily Watson regress even more. Take, for example, the scene where Barry Egan (Sandler) helplessly runs around Lena Leonard’s (Watson) building, trying to get back to her apartment–after she has called him at her building’s front desk, just to say that she wanted to kiss him. This is one of many perfect, anxiety-producing moments where you can’t help but wonder how screwed up these characters really are until they magically come together.

Punch Drunk Love is a neo-noir screwball comedy, a film where long shadows and the threat of imminent emotional violence is not only nerve-wracking but also very funny. There are, in other words, lots of weirdly related and apparently momentous events in the film, from the car crash that leaves a harmonium on Barry’s doorstep to Barry and Lena’s seemingly random garage park meet-cute. But few of them are really random. That haze of anticipation and excitement is, as the film’s title implies, is what makes romance so simultaneously funny, and scary in Punch Drunk Love. Sandler’s volcanic performance is often heralded as his only worthwhile role because here, he’s actually pushing himself far enough that you’re both scared for and of him. Watson’s equally great, hiding so many conflicting feelings behind her nervous smile. Punch Drunk Love’s operatic scope makes Barry and Lena’s mad love affair so unassailably great.

2003: Running On Karma

nullPitting Running On Karma against any other romantic comedy is unfair because Running On Karma is like the Ever-Lasting Gobstopper of movies. It’s not just a great romantic comedy, it’s a great cosmic plea for guidance, a great, bizarro CSI-style fantasy, a crazy Buddhist kung fu film, and so much more. While working with screenwriter Ka-Fai Wai often brings out the crazy in Hong Kong director Johnnie To (Sparrow, Mad Detective), Running On Karma is by far their most exciting, and yes, batshit collaboration yet. Big (superstar Andy Lau, wearing a bulky prosthetic muscle suit) is a body-builder that can see people’s past lives. A former Buddhist monk, Big flees his monastery and becomes a stripper after realizing that he can effectively see people’s karma. When he’s busted by Lee (Cecilia Cheung), a kind-hearted undercover cop, he sees her karma: in a past life, she was a Japanese soldier that murdered innocent civilians during World War 2.

Apart from having an especially memorable meet-cute (she tries to bust him, but only after he starts to liberally apply canola oil on his rippling, Montalban-sized pecs), Lee and Big’s romance is fantastic because their romance is mostly implicit. He heroically tries to keep her alive, solving crimes with her and selflessly pushing her out of harm’s way. He even fights a killer Indian contortionist that somehow manages to cram his entire body into an eensy aluminum can. And if that’s not romantic enough, there’s also the scenes where Big literally sees the good in Lee, as when she gleefully cheers him on at his muscleman competition. Running On Karma would be in a class all its own even if it weren’t so utterly unclassifiable, but it’s also incredibly moving because it’s one man’s uphill struggle to literally banish the sins of his lover’s past. Lee and Big’s story encompasses pretty much every genre that you can think of. Running On Karma is not just the best romantic comedy of 2003, it’s pretty much the best anything of 2003.

2004: When the Sea Rises

nullThe year 2004 was an especially difficult one to call since it’s the year of Sideways, Shaun of the Dead, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Love is Eternal While it Lasts. Both Eternal films are excellent, but I chose French comedienne Yolande Moreau’s When the Sea Rises instead because it’s somehow melancholic without being overwhelmingly sad. Of the films on this list, Moreau’s film best shows how euphoric romance can make even seasoned lovers feel. In When the Sea Rises, love is a momentary respite from the crushing weight of living alone. Moreau, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, plays Irene, a version of Moreau. Irene is a traveling performer who makes a living from her one-woman show, A Dirty Business of Sex and Crime, the same play Moreau made her reputation with in the ‘80s. Having performed so often on the stage, and then later in so many prominent films, like Amelie and Seraphine, Moreau clearly understands the emotional distance that performing for a live audience has on an actor. She shows that every time Irene mounts the stage, and makes her own morose uncertainty her schtick.

While in character, Irene jokes that the fact that her husband is dead is paradoxically both all-consuming and totally inconsequential to her. Irene’s obviously not a happy person, but she is when she’s with Dries (Wim Willaert), a foreign migrant worker. Love isn’t a panacea-like tonic, and it doesn’t make Irene feel a million years younger, sexier, or more invincible. But it does make her unmoored life a little more grounded. Neither Dries nor Irene is comfortable thinking about their relationship in the long-term because neither person knows where they’re going to be in the next five months, let alone the next five years. They just drift together, and eventually part ways. But when they meet again, it’s a very moving reversal of their typical roles as performer and accomplice.

2005: The 40 Year-Old Virgin

nullThe 40 Year-Old Virgin is the best Judd Apatow-brand film because it’s the one where he most tenderly shows us why it sucks to be an arrested adolescent. While Apatow-directed films like Knocked Up and Funny People show how much harder it is to be juvenile as one gets older, The 40 Year-Old Virgin follows an immature character after he takes steps to grow up and try to overcome his insecurities. It’s accordingly tempting to view Apatow’s more recent films as being more accomplished and/or ambitious, but Virgin is as good as it is because it doesn’t just assume that being gawky and sensitive makes you a diamond in the rough. Andy (Steve Carrell) is an old geek: he carries emotional baggage with him, stuff that makes his awkward-ness more than just goofy. He’s well-meaning, but ill-equipped to talk to single mom Trish (Catherine Keener) or her daughter Marla (Kat Dennings). And while Trish wants to be with Andy, she needs someone who can adapt to her social situation just as well as she can adapt to his.

The reciprocally dysfunctional nature of Trish and Andy’s relationship is that much more winning because The 40 Year-Old Virgin also features some of Apatow’s best sex jokes. They’re more casually gross than the dick-joke-centric films he’s produced since, partly because this film makes greater hay of how intimidating sex can seem to someone that’s never actually done it. The mechanics of the act are mystifying to Andy, but they’re just as beguiling to his moron friends. Andy’s friends want to get him laid because they want to regress to a time when they had fewer responsibilities and more opportunities to screw up. But Andy knows better, and in this case, waiting so long to make a move just makes everything after that preliminary decision all the more exhausting.

2006: I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK

nullSouth Korean director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Joint Security Area) makes movies about characters who realize the loaded ideas and defense mechanisms that they use to define themselves are wrong. His protagonists often force themselves into revelatory confrontations that irrevocably change the way they protect themselves from dealing with the world. They’re never totally cured of their delusions, not for long, anyway. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is a fantasy of projection, a romantic comedy where two emotionally unstable people try to bond in spite of their respective problems. Young-goon (Soo-jung Im) is admitted to a mental institution after she tries to kill herself. She thinks she’s a robot that can talk to other machines but can’t process human food. She bonds with Il-soon (K-pop idol Rain), a kleptomaniac who steals people’s personalities when he takes their most prized possessions.

Park’s lovers’ respective character-defining tics are also the way they process the world. But while Il-Soon is well enough to recognize that there’s something wrong with Young-goon, he doesn’t really succeed in curing her. To Park, there’s no way to cure someone who doesn’t know that they want to get better. While many detractors might assume that Park is condescending to his characters, he never treats them like pitiable freaks. The scene that best establishes that is the film’s ending. Young-goon wants to kill herself, and everyone around her, so Il-soon promises to help her. They wait in pelting rain to be hit by lightning. She’s waiting for a transformative act of divine destruction, but he knows it’s not going to happen. The image of them sitting together, neither one expecting to see the world the same way as the other, is one of Park’s most tender.

2007: Music and Lyrics

null2007 wasn’t a great year for romantic comedies. There was a mediocre remake of The Heartbreak Kid, the mostly sweet Waitress, and the puppy dog-cute Enchanted, and that’s about it. That having been said, Music and Lyrics isn’t anything more than a breezy, formula-based romantic comedy, but the jokes are consistently funny, and the stars have chemistry, two traits sadly rare for a studio-produced romantic comedy. Writer/director Marc Lawrence (Miss Congeniality, Two Weeks Notice) clearly knows what he likes about star Hugh Grant and takes great pleasure in giving him a comfortable but fitting role. Grant plays Alex Fletcher, a has-been pop music composer that gets inspired by Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), the woman he hires to water his plants. She helps him while he predictably has his eye on ex-girlfriend Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), the pop star that Alex rode the coattails of some years ago. The scenario is a familiar one, and is distinguished primarily by how consistently effective the film’s superficial gags are, from music video parodies to frustrated lyrics-writing sessions (“Why would you put a clown in your bed?” “It would not be the first time…”). In that sense, the film is a fitting homage to bubble gum pop songs: it doesn’t go anywhere you don’t expect it to, but it doesn’t need to, because its charms are immediate and plentiful.

2008: Ghost Town

nullScreenwriter David Koepp (Stir of Echoes, Premium Rush) has only directed a handful of films, but Ghost Town is the best example of why his distinctive light touch makes him an invaluable modern B-moviemaker. It’s also a good star vehicle for Ricky Gervais, which is a major relief given how lousy Gervais’s American roles usually are (The Invention of Lying and both Night at the Museum movies are both especially lousy, though for fairly different reasons). Koepp is precise and knows exactly what kind of actors he needs to achieve the kind of effect he’s going for (ex: it’s particularly nice to see Greg Kinnear get a decent role). Gervais is perfectly cast as Bertram, a misanthropic dentist who starts to see ghosts after a routine colonoscopy goes awry. Koepp revels in the absurdity of this dilemma by making Bertram’s laughable inability to talk to people, dead or alive, the biggest hurdle in his quest to romance the recently bereaved Gwen (Tea Leoni).

Ghost Town is as breezy and charming as it is because Koepp has a great sense of proportion. With the exception of the film’s very last scene, there’s nothing in the film that feels unnecessary or inappropriate in light of the film’s characters or situational comedy.  Paced wonderfully, it has several memorable exchanges between Gwen and Bertram. And while light, exceptional banter is a virtue unto itself (“I love you!” “Don’t call me!”), Koepp’s film is also unostentatiously wise. His ghosts linger on Earth not because they have unfinished business, but because their loved ones do. Gwen gets to the heart of why Koepp’s modest, pragmatic style of comedy is so satisfying when she explains to Bertram that you are only as happy as you are able to cope with life as it unfolds: “We just get the one life, you know. Just one. You can't live someone else's or think it's more important just because it's more dramatic. What happens matters. Maybe only to us, but it matters.” Bertram loves Gwen because her presence makes being surrounded by the needy and the undead a little more bearable.

2009: Duplicity

nullRole-playing and role reversals are everything in Duplicity, writer/director Tony Gilroy’s comic follow-up to Michael Clayton. Gilroy excels at disorienting viewers by seemingly focusing on everything but what’s important: the love affair between two knowing competitors/accomplices, played by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. His lovers’ relationship is, in that sense, a perfect foil to the film’s depiction of corporate espionage. The main difference between rival CEOs Dick (Paul Giamatti) and Howard (Tom Wilkinson relationship and Ray (Owen) and Claire (Roberts) is that the latter couple secretly loves each other while the former couple not-so-secretly hates each other’s guts. While determining the extent to which Ray and Claire will double-cross each other is more than half the fun of Duplicity, that’s only because the pair’s apparent attraction can’t really be sublimated. Owen and Roberts make for fantastic sparring partners, Roberts tartly rattling off one-liners while Owen growls rejoinders back at her. While the film’s plot eventually gets distractingly convoluted, Owen and Roberts’s dueling performances are always the film’s main attraction.

2010: Love in a Puff

nullHong Kong writer/director Edmond Pang excels at making comedies where friends, enemies, and lovers are all related by elaborate conspiracies of pleasure. They know each other because in their heads, they’re all involved in a grand scheme whose holistic importance is never the sum of its many vaguely-related parts. In Exodus, a security guard stumbles upon the real reason why women spend so much time in the bathroom while in Men Suddenly in Black, a covert bachelor party gets hunted down by its participants’ spouses. Love in a Puff, similarly, is about two lovers who fall in love through various half-understood urban legends and half-truths, stories that nobody believes but everybody gets taken in by. For example, Jimmy (Shawn Yue) hears a story about a girl who gets her lover’s freakishly-long pubic hair stuck in her bracelet, and consequently draws unwanted attention at a dinner party. The story is the kind of innocent fiction that characters tell each other for the sake of remaking the world as a series of funny, nonsensical anecdotes. It’s no wonder then that Jimmy first meets Cherie (Miriam Yeung) while smoking a cigarette outside his office building. Like the butt in their mouths, the stories Cherie and Jimmy tell each other are unimportant in and of themselves, but their associative power really makes Love in a Puff, recently followed by the decent, but inferior, Love in the Buff, stand out.

2011: Extraterrestrial

nullThis year’s comedies are primarily distinguished by their various whimsical milieux: Lost Generation-era Paris in Midnight in Paris, Seven Oaks College in Damsels in Distress, and, uh, the magical Franklin Park Zoo of Zookeeper, simultaneously the worst and the highest-grossing romantic comedy of 2011. But Extraterrestrial, assuredly the best romantic comedy of the year, could take place in any city as it’s set in the shadow of an alien visitation. City-spanning flying saucers descend on Madrid like angry black clouds, and then do nothing. Extraterrestrial is not in that sense really a science-fiction story. Julio (Julian Villagran) wakes up in Julia’s (Michelle Jenner) apartment, not knowing what happened, but assuming that they slept together. While the slept, the city was evacuated. Now, the only people left are Julia’s nosy, jealous neighbor Carlos (Raul Cimas), and her boyfriend Angel (Carlos Areces). Julia’s feelings for Angel persist but never diminish Julia and Julio’s relationship, nor vice versa. In fact, Julio and Julia have sex while Angel’s out looking for supplies.

That indecision is a good part of what’s so funny about Extraterrestrial: even a city populated by four people feels crowded when only two people are nervously enjoying themselves. As in Timecrimes, Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s endlessly rewatchable debut film, Extraterrestial follows characters that are actively figuring out the extent of their agency. They can only do so much with the resources available to them, but for the sake of making their lives even simpler, Julio and Julia have to get rid of Carlos and talk to Angel about their affair. It’s funny because the characters are constantly clueless, and it’s romantic because Vigalondo just assumes that two adults that are attracted to each other will have sex and be together until one realizes that something greater has got to give. It’s not really a science-fiction film so much as a neo-screwball comedy with spaceships.

2012: Moonrise Kingdom

nullWhile I’d love to give a final shout-out to Amy Heckerling’s Vamps, her long-awaited follow-up to Clueless (No, sorry, Loser and I Could Never Be Your Woman never happened), Moonrise Kingdom really does tower above that film. I can’t help but love the dizzying speed with which Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola establish Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop’s (Kara Hayward) affection for each other: the scene where the two exchange letters is hilariously succinct. The direct-ness with which Anderson establishes Sam and Suzy’s relationship allows him to focus on what he really likes about them. They each have inner lives that nobody else sees because nobody else knows enough to look for them. No revelation is too shocking to these kids, not science fiction novels nor survival skills. Sam and Suzy act as if whatever they haven’t seen can be handled as it comes up, even the tantalizing prospect of sex (“It feels hard.” “Do you mind?” “I like it.”). Anderson and Coppola don’t smother Suzy and Sam in cheap sentiment. In fact, these kids are more emotionally mature than the film’s adults! Seeing them pulled apart from each other on the beach after they’ve danced, and even slept together is heartbreaking. Sam and Suzy really do seem to belong together.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

The Technology, the Art, and the Ethics of Watching: Talking With Brian De Palma at Toronto

The Technology, the Art, and the Ethics of Watching: Talking With Brian De Palma


"I suffer from the fact that people have so many preconceptions about the kinds of movies I make," Brian De Palma lamented, "that they don't really look at what's on the screen." At the time, the 72 year-old New Jersey-born filmmaker was talking about how his reputation as a cynic made it impossible for some to see his sincere attempt in the 2000 sci-fi oddity Mission to Mars to replicate the sense of "awe" astronauts get when they visit space. "The exploration of space fascinated me when I was in high school: going to the moon was all we thought about," De Palma said, in a recent conversation during the Toronto International Film Festival. "I'm fascinated by this technology. And what you discover when you talk to people that have done these missions is that they're extremely idealistic, they're extremely awed. They've seen things we've never seen. And their reaction is that of, how can I say? Awe."

The way that De Palma sought to achieve such an ecstatic effect is intriguing: like the hard science fiction sub-genre of literature that inspired it, De Palma's film is primarily concerned with the mechanics and terrestrial procedures that allow the film's astronaut protagonists to see and experience more. Seeing better through technology is a recurring thematic concern for De Palma, from Passion, his most recent thriller, to the 1974 black comedy/cult musical Phantom of the Paradise, and even earlier. For instance, in films like Phantom of the Paradise, where cutting-edge technology is represented by the bulky recording machinery in the Phantom's studio, technology is impossibly big. However, more recently, in films like Passion and De Palma's provocative 2007 war drama Redacted, technology is tiny, and it’s everywhere. 

"That's what inspired me about Redacted, the way that the soldiers were communicating, either with their loved ones or in their diaries," De Palma explained. "Everyone has these digital cameras and now they're getting smaller. Everyone’s phone's going to get a camera that's even better, and we're going to see this stuff all over the place. So, I don't know. Am I a big investigator of this? Absolutely. I'm fascinated by all the new forms that pop up on YouTube, all these video forms. Plus, all the surveillance cameras that are around all the time. Everything's being watched by somebody."

This is just as true of Passion, a remake of the 2010 French thriller Love Crime in which two business colleagues, played by Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, use various cameras to implicate each other in convoluted schemes. In a key scene, one of these two characters has a meltdown in a parking garage, and the other uses surveillance camera footage to publicly humiliate her at a company party. To De Palma, the surveillance camera is inherently cinematic, an extension of the point-of-view shot.

"What's unique to cinema is that you shoot the point-of-view shot," De Palma suggested. "The audience is getting the same information as the character is getting. We're seeing what the character is seeing. And then, in Hitchcock, you cut back as he's smiling or leering–it depends on how you react to visual information that's being presented to you. But the fact is: the point-of-view shot is a unique tool of cinema. So when we start moving into surveillance cameras, that's an extension of the point-of-view shot. And much of cinema is about watching. Watching people do things, following people—which is what we do when we're sitting around. We're looking over here, we're looking over there. We're living a point-of-view shot."

The fact that De Palma sees this as an extension of human nature speaks to the amoral nature of voyeurism and watching in his films. In Passion, McAdams and Rapace's dueling anti-heroines photograph themselves using camera phones and are in turn furtively filmed by each other using those same miniature phones. This creates an interesting power dynamic: according to De Palma, if the voyeur's subject knows that they're being watched, there is nothing to implicate the viewer in whatever act they are looking at. "It's like a keyhole that everyone's looking through," De Palma explained. "If everyone's looking through it–otherwise it's on the internet. I don't know, you have a kind of anonymous complicit-ness. Who's looking at it? The world's looking at it. So because I'm part of the world looking, does that make me part of the crime? I think it's more to do with exhibitionism. I think anyone that's taking a photograph of themselves or a video for themselves is posing for the camera. If they're posing for the camera, they want to be seen. So anybody looking is hardly complicit, they're basically fulfilling what the exhibitionist wants to do: expose themselves."

This is an important distinction, given that Rapace's character in Passion is one of the two subjects of a sex tape filmed without her knowledge and then circulated. Funnily enough, De Palma did not have to give his game cast members detailed instructions on how to film this touchy scene. "In the [sex tape] they made in the hotel room in London, I just gave them a camera and said, 'Go in there and make a sex tape,'" De Palma shrugged. "I just gave them the camera and closed the door. And for when they got into bed, I said, 'Make sure the camera goes here, because that's what we're going to use to show when [Christine] humiliates [Isabelle].' They did five or six takes, with one wild thing after the other. And Noomi is quite aware of being photographed. They're posing for the camera together, but they're making a sex tape together."

He continued: "And if you've ever looked at sex tapes, both participants—in the ones I've seen—seem to be aware of the camera. They don't say, 'No, no, don't do that,' they're sort of passively aware that the camera is there. Well, as I found when I was editing the movie, it makes Noomi more sympathetic if she's not. She's not aware that she's being photographed. He's making the video, like a guy that takes a girl into a bedroom and has a hidden camera somewhere. And that to me made her more empathetic, as she's a victim of this sex tape."

The fact that this violation could only be caught on film because of the small size of the camera filming Rapace's character is a vital detail. But the fact that cameras are now almost invisible does not mean that voyeurism is now exclusively the province of camera phones. Again, De Palma insists that all roads lead back to the point-of-view shot. When asked if the way that his films treat sex and violence as spectacle spoke to the fact that cinema, as a medium, could best represent the id, De Palma’s response was impatient but insistent.

"You're pointing to things that are intrinsic to the cinematic form. You're pointing to the point-of-view shot, you're talking about violence, so you're talking about images that are quickly cut together that exist in no other art form except cinema. So you're talking about unique building blocks of cinema. So when you say, 'Can this be considered exploitative,' or 'excessive,' or whatever other pejorative you want to use, the fact remains: these are colors in the palette of the filmmaker."

With that in mind, it makes sense that De Palma is not anti-3D so much as he opposes the constant abuse of the technology. De Palma's innovative aesthetic takes the Eisenstein-ian concept of montage as the collision of individual shots with each other to its logical conclusion: the collision and juxtaposition of moving people and objects on separate visual planes within a single shot. But he considers 3D, as used in films like Avatar ("Cameron knows what he's doing with it."), to be "just another technique, and you'd better know how to use it." "But to shoot everything in 3D is debasing the form," De Palma added.

But to return momentarily to Mars: it's also not surprising that De Palma is fascinated by the recent Mars photos from the Curiosity rover. To him, these photographs represent the apex of what technology can allow us to see. He added that he can't imagine a future where the act of looking wasn't dependent on the limits of the technology we use. "What happens is that you discover things the technology reveals," De Palma said. "You just have to be attuned to see—it's like Curiosity, wandering around on Mars. It's fascinating to me, because we're seeing images that we would never see any other way. It's so awe-inspiring."

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.




"Human nature is violent," William Friedkin tells me, going on to say that he also likes Immanuel Kant's phrase "the crooked timber of humanity." As an artist, Friedkin is as blunt, matter-of-fact, and masterfully cynical as his initial statement suggests. His films indicate that a character's environment is, more often than not, what he reacts to when he snaps. Superior dramas like The French Connection (1971), To Live and Die in LA (1985), Cruising (1980), and Sorcerer (1977) are all about myopic obsessives, characters who are desperate to the point where they can't see how their actions have led them to become fatalistically self-involved. That same tendency towards self-harm is what makes many of Friedkin's movies bleakly and corrosively funny. For example, the hanky code scene in Cruising, where Al Pacino's undercover cop is comically baffled by the semiotics of the hanky code, is humorous because we're being encouraged to laugh as a man denies his own latent attraction to the subcultures he's investigating. 

So in that sense, it's not surprising that Killer Joe (2011), which Friedkin describes as his "darkest film yet," is a comedy. In it, Matthew McConaughey plays a corrupt, schizoid cop hired by desperate white trash to kill one of their own kin in order to collect a $50,000 life insurance policy. "Yes, it's a black comedy, in the way that Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy, nonetheless disturbing because of its subject matter," Friedkin told me Wednesday. He went on to tell me that with Killer Joe, he wanted to make a dark comedy that was direct and brutally "unsentimental." You can see that lack of sentimentality in the way that Friedkin uses Clarence Carter's "Strokin,'" a song that is about exactly what it sounds like what it's about, twice in Killer Joe. "I love 'Strokin'!' I think it's very funny and courageous. It's sort of a character on its own. It's kind of a statement on the all of the bullshit that surrounds today's films, kind of a reaction to that. It's not sentimental and the movie is not sentimental. It's funny, and if you really listen to it, it's a little dark." 

It actually makes sense that "Strokin'" is used during a scene in which a major character gets beaten to a pulp, a nasty choice but not excessive to the point of being gratuitous. For a filmmaker who has, over the years, continually pushed the envelope in his portrayal of violence on film, especially in films like The Exorcist (1973) and Cruising, that's saying a lot. "I thought I went as far as I needed to and no more or no less," Friedkin remarked.  He went on to say that he and his crew were surprised that the film got an NC-17 rating, in spite of its handful of scenes of full frontal nudity and over-the-top violence. Despite his surprise, Friedkin does not contest the rating: "None of us thought we'd get an NC-17, but when we did, I think we realized it's the correct rating. Because I'm not targeting teenagers. Once I got that rating, I knew I could hack that movie to pieces to get an R, but I didn't want to do that. I just didn't want to do that. So once they gave us an NC-17, the distribution company appealed it and they lost the appeal. So we left it alone."

Violence and sex are often the source of dark humor in Friedkin's films, a debt traceable to Friedkin's affinity for Henri-Georges Clouzot's films. Many of Clouzot's movies, like The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942) and Le Corbeau (1943) have a vicious sense of humor and are character-based. In fact, Friedkin's Sorcerer is a remake of Clouzot's Wages of Fear (1953), a masterful thriller about a group of broke truckers who go on a suicide mission to deliver highly unstable dynamite to a construction site deep in a South American forest. Friedkin has said in the most recent issue of Film Comment that he'd probably seen Clouzot's Diabolique upwards of 50 times, but he would never consider remaking it. "I love Clouzot's films," Friedkin beamed. "They're hard-edged and they're not sentimental. Diabolique is a very scary film. That nine minute sequence, without a word, is one of the most terrifying scenes I've ever seen."

But what makes Friedkin's films so unique is that sense of acidic humor stems from a perceptive view of the apathetic environments that breed his characters' obsessive and often inexplicable behavior. For example, in Rampage (1987), Friedkin follows the trial of a disturbed mass murderer shown to have Nazi paraphrenalia in his room, which is situated in the root cellar of a house ostensibly presided over by Twin Peaks star Grace Zabriskie. Both the defense seeking to prove that Zabriskie's son is legally insane and hence not in control of his actions, and the prosecuting attorneys who try to prove the defendant's guilt, produce evidence and witnesses that support their claims, leaving it up to the viewer to decide who is right and which factors matter most. 

Similarly, the abrupt demise of the corrupt cop William Petersen (of CSI and Manhunter) plays in Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA is not that shocking, given the context of the drama preceding his death. Petersen plays a character so myopically focused on arresting the counterfeiter responsible for the death of his partner that he can't see anything else around him, not even the vibrant Los Angeles that Friedkin practically makes a central protagonist of his story. "A lot of people found [the death of Petersen's character] shocking at the time, just as they found the death of Janet Leigh shocking in Psycho," Friedkin protested. But at the same time, it's only immediately jarring. Thematically, that violent death is hardly gratuitous.

That same focus on the ways environment and setting shape a character's identity is true of Cruising, a film possibly even more notorious than The Exorcist. In it, Pacino plays an undercover cop who descends from a position of feeling above-it-all—though reluctant to fully embrace the almost god-like, condescending perspective that comes with being a cop—into a struggle to repress latent feelings of homosexuality when he goes in search of a killer in the Meatpacking District’s S&M Clubs. The self-loathing mania that defines Pacino's character has been unfairly called a sign that Friedkin considers homosexuality an abnormal disease, but his character's actions tell a different story when looked at in context. For example, a pair of cops on patrol deliberately paraphrase Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle when they say, "Some day, a rain's going to come to wash all the scum off the streets." Friedkin says he remembered "overhearing that dialogue from cops that were patrolling the Meatpacking District, as it was then. That district is now completely gentrified. But that's the way cops talk. That's the attitude: all these people on the street, they're scum!" 

Friedkin went on to add that Randy Jurgenson, a NYC beat cop who worked with Friedkin on three films, including The French Connection, and was the main source of inspiration for Pacino's character in Cruising, didn't need to explicitly tell him how his undercover search affected his psyche. "[Randy] sort of resembled the victims, who were all dark-haired, with swarthy complexions and mustaches," Friedkin remarked. "And he was about the same height and the same build and he was assigned to attract the killer. And he told me his experiences and how the whole thing really screwed him up and bent his mind. And I remember never asking him further what he meant; I got it! "

The impotence and sociopathic feelings of powerlessness motivating characters like Pacino's character in Cruising and even McConaughey's in Killer Joe are crucial to what makes Friedkin's films so rich and also rather ugly. They have a pragmatic despair at their hearts because, to Friedkin, human behavior is gross and uncontrollable. When I asked him why he thought people were grasping at straws to qualify the "evil" motives behind the recent killings in Aurora, Colorado, Friedkin exclaimed, "Because there's no way to control human behavior, not even in China, where they basically have a dictatorship. And they have no ethnic differences whatsoever, no color differences. The reason why China has made such leaps forward economically is because they can control human behavior and punish it severely if it's at odds with the norm. In this country, we don't. We cannot control the norm. In this country, when you have democracy, there's nothing you can do to modify people's behavior." 

With that in mind, Friedkin's films appropriately function as Rorshach ink blot tests for viewer reactions. For example, the ending of The Exorcist comes after an exhaustive battle for the soul of a young child. That battle is eventually, though hardly inevitably, won, after one priest forcibly defenestrates himself. The calm following this cure is uneasy, at best, making it very easy for viewers to see what they want in that calm after the storm. "The ending of The Exorcist is in the mind of the beholder," Friedkin told me. "What you take from the film is what you bring to it. If you think the world is a dark and evil place, that’s what you will get back. If you think there is hope for a power of the good that is constantly at war with the power of evil, you'll get that."

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, But Not Quite High Enough

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, But Not Quite High Enough



Christopher Nolan's selective use of naturalism and realism in his three Bat-films has always been a double-edged sword. His literal-minded representations of the character, complete with declarative speeches that leave no symbol, gesture, or character motivation unexplained, can be maddening. Nolan's films’ biggest successes come from their massive scope. But The Dark Knight Rises is a half-baked success, a finale whose ambitions ultimately exceed the Nolan brothers' abilities.

The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight (2008). Bruce Wayne has hung up his cowl as Batman to reinforce the myth that Batman killed "white knight" district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The decision to hide the real reasons for Dent's death—he was driven mad after his face was scarred in an explosion, leading him to become the monstrous villain Two Face—supposedly weighs heavily on both Wayne and Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), but that is something we are more often told than shown (more on this later). Still, this secret is the sticking point for criminal mastermind Bane's (Tom Hardy) plans to discredit Batman and "break" his soul.

Much of The Dark Knight Rises' colossal 168-minute running time is spent watching Bane's plan come to fruition. But The Dark Knight Rises isn't all it aspires to be, because its creators fumble key establishing events, many of which are needed to convincingly establish the film's grand scope. For example, all three of Nolan's films use dialogue excessively to spell out what each character represents. While Batman Begins has a self-serious charm which is smothered by the Nolans' need to psychologically enrich the character through lame, posturing dialogue, The Dark Knight Rises often feels emotionally skimpy.

As has been noted elsewhere, the skill of the actors in Nolan’s films often carries the weight of their emotionally heavy dialogue. In this film, Christian Bale's performance as Batman and Anne Hathaway's as Catwoman are both impressive. However, the most chatty character is Tom Hardy's Bane, a guy who sounds like the descendant of Kenneth Mars's character from Young Frankenstein. Bane's speeches are not only sometimes hard to understand, they're also stilted well past the point of credulity. The scene where he reads Gordon's speech before freeing and arming the inmates of Blackgate Prison, a facility erected with the help of the Harvey Dent-supported, uh, Dent Act, is a dud. It’s a dud for a couple of reasons, chief among them its excessive fixation on the mechanics of what it is trying to convey, to the point where it fails to give good reasons why it’s necessary in the first place. Do Gotham City residents really believe that much in Dent and his heroic image, which Wayne and Gordon helped to establish? If his martyrdom matters so much, Nolan should have slowed down and let the implications of Bane's speech sink in. He doesn't, however, and as a result, a crucial scene has little impact.

Bane's dialogue is flatfooted throughout the film. At one point, he tells Batman that he too was literally raised among the shadows; at another, he enters a room with the line, "Speak of the devil, and he appears." It's impossible, at moments like these, to take him completely seriously. Nolan and his screenwriters have no ear for juicy dialogue, so their villain just sounds like a maniacal windbag missing not only an impressive backstory but also the ability to gloat properly (his most dry taunt line has to be when he compliments the "very lovely" sotto voice of the little boy singing the National Anthem during the stadium scene). 

But again, the Nolans' characterization of Bane and The Dark Knight Rises' other key characters is not, in theory, off-the-mark. The script contains several reverent allusions to the way its characters have previously been portrayed in comic books. Two of the most apparent examples of this can be seen in the way that Selina Kyle traipses around with gal pal Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), a meaningless but cute nod to Frank Miller's portrayal of Kyle in Batman: Year One. But then poor execution makes an ostensibly huge moment such as the one where Bane breaks Batman's back by slamming him down over his knee (as he does in the now infamous Knightfall comic book story) feel weightless. There is no appreciable eye for detail in this scene, no sign that Nolan wants the big, spine-crushing moment of impact to be felt. If this is Bane’s triumphal moment, why does this moment feel so inconsequential? 

I don't just mean to ask why Nolan didn't make Bane scream longer or have Batman’s back crack in slow-motion. Instead, I wonder why he chose to follow this seemingly pivotal scene with one where Bane explains to Wayne that he will continue to break his "soul," lessoning the power of the moment where he destroys his body. Likewise, Wayne's rehabilitation seems more perfunctory than grueling. Nolan should have taken a page from The French Connection II's book and not been so impulsive when fleshing out these pivotal lulls between action scenes. The effectiveness of these little moments and details distinguish an epic narrative from an over-reaching one.

The Nolans fumble in a couple of other small but salient ways, mostly because they don't know how to modulate the pitch of their representation of the character or his world. The Bat, the plane Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) creates for Batman, looks like a flying tank. That sounds trivial, given that that's essentially how the Tumbler, Nolan's spin on the Batmobile, has been described. But when it whooshes in out of nowhere to break up a tense standoff between bedraggled policemen and heavily-armed Bane supporters, its clunky appearance really ruins the scene.

The same heavy-handed approach makes it hard to take Miranda Tate's (Marion Cotillard) character seriously. It might seem unfair to complain that Nolan did a poor job of foreshadowing the revelation that Tate is secretly Talia Al Gul, the daughter of eco-terrorist and arch-Bat-foe Ra's Al Gul (played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins). But Nolan really does do a poor job here, both in foreshadowing the betrayal and conveying its importance. You don't have to be a fanboy to anticipate that Tate is somehow related to Ra's, given that she is initially defined in Rises by her pro-environmental politics, a position that defined Ra's in Batman Begins (2005). Bane is also repeatedly presented as a representative of the League of Shadows, the group Ra's led in Begins, even having Bane go so far as to insist that he "is the League of Shadows."

The obviousness of Tate's real identity is a glaring problem. Nolan likes to get his audience to focus so intently on breadcrumb-sized morsels of information that it's often very easy to lose perspective on what pattern he's establishing as he builds a story. We are meant to be impressed with the complex nature of Rises' narrative but its details, both on a micro- and a macro-level, are frustrating. The scene where Tate cozies up with Wayne by a fire establishes adequately Tate’s significance to Wayne by the time she betrays him. But the scene where she does betray him, by actually thrusting a knife into his back, is emotionally slack. Is Nolan so creatively constipated that he has to make Talia a literal back-stabber?

Or take a look at what Talia symbolizes in the grand scheme of things. The political subtext of Nolan's pseudo-timely Bat-films has always been willfully evasive, which is striking since almost everything else in these films is blatantly spelled-out. But here, Talia tells Wayne point-blank that she is a foreigner in Gotham's midst, an alien who was only posing as a native-born citizen. While surely one can tease out an anti-Obama message from this, what's most striking about this political attack is how incomplete it is. Nolan only seems to point out Talia's foreign-ness and Bane's foreign accent, too, as a means of pointing out that the threat to Gotham has arrived disguised as an ally to Wayne, Gotham's real native son. But again, so what? That kind of weird, self-evident xenophobia does nothing to enrich our understanding of who Wayne is or why Batman is needed as a symbol for Gotham. If the answer is simply that he's not a mean false friend with a chip on his shoulder and a goofy accent, then maybe it's a good thing there won't be a fourth Nolan-directed Batman movie.

Then again, apart from good supporting characters like James Gordon and Joseph-Gordon Levitt's John Blake, the Nolans do get one central character just right:Hathaway's Catwoman is, for the purposes of this last film, mostly well-realized. Her trepidation in her fascination with Wayne is largely believable, and she makes for a decent bad-girl-turned-good. But even this characterization is only relatively successful. The camaraderie that serves as the foundation of the Wayne/Batman and Kyle/Catwoman is more than believable in the scene where Catwoman half-leads Batman and half-struts into Bane's midst at Batman's request. But once Catwoman slinks back into the shadows and lets Bane take control of the scene, her passivity becomes unbelievable. It's hard to believe that a character who later appears to have suffered from serious pangs of guilt would, in that key moment, watch and not even recoil forcefully while she watches the man she just betrayed get his back broken. Even the stuff the Nolans get right in The Dark Knight Rises is frustratingly imperfect. Here's hoping that the creators of the next Bat-tent pole are a little more flexible and a lot more detail-oriented.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Could TRISHNA Really Be a Michael Winterbottom Film?

SIMON SAYS: Could TRISHNA Really Be a Michael Winterbottom Film?


If you sat down to watch Trishna, a modern-day adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles reset in contemporary India, and didn't already know that it was directed by Michael Winterbottom, you probably wouldn't be able to tell. Trishna has none of the finesse, charm, or nuance of Winterbottom's better films about raging narcissists and the supporting characters who love them. That's right, a film that is ostensibly about Trishna is in reality largely defined by the thudding obviousness of Winterbottom's feeble class-warfare-minded social commentary. The one-note characterization of Jay (Riz Ahmed), the wealthy and highly irresponsible young man from the rich part of Mumbai who marries working-class Ossian peasant Trishna (Freida Pinto), typifies the film's weaknesses as both a social critique and a drama. Winterbottom's latest is so alarmingly flat that it's not even an ambitious failure like 9 Songs (2004): it's just unremarkably bad. Which begs the following question: where did the idiosyncratic, calculating young artist go, who helmed both the hilarious Tristram Shandy (2005) and the provocative Code 46 (2003) and also co-directed with Mat Whitecross the rousing Road to Guantanamo (2006)?

In Trishna, class rules everything surrounding the titular heroine, a working-class girl who accepts Jay's offer to work at his father's hotel. The inequality inherent in this relationship is clumsily foreshadowed during the film’s introductory scenes with Jay, a self-absorbed young man who, when hanging out with his airhead friends, rides around in a car blasting a song with hateful lyrics like, “I’m the king and she’s my queen, bitch.” Apparently, Winterbottom thought that telling us through a song cue how being raised with a silver spoon in his mouth affected Jay’s character was a good thing, at one point.

Still, Jay unwittingly broadcasts his own insensitivity throughout the film, even as he gives Trishna a personal tour of the family's hotel's manor estate. Jay doesn't even know how to thank the men that work on the grounds in their native tongue, but that's presumably forgivable at this point since he's still more sheepish and obnoxious than aggressive and obnoxious. That will gradually change, which is realistically where Trishna differs most with Hardy’s source novel. It takes Tess far less time to realize that she doesn’t like the smarmy and rich Alec. But in the beginning at least, Trishna willingly allows herself to be tempted by Jay's offers of financial security for her family and herself. 

The world of the rich is populated by louts of all stripes throughout Trishna. That kind of ham-fisted commentary is the last thing one would expect from Winterbottom, an artist who has over the last decade or so proven just how thoughtful his general understanding of the human condition can be. And yet even Jay's father, a man who bemoans his son's insensitivity and lack of business sense, is obnoxious. Jay's father casually remarks that he can hear pheasants chirping. That casual display of knowledge is meant to drive us to him, especially since Jay petulantly protests that his father couldn't possibly identify birds based only on their unique call. But ultimately, Jay's dad is only endearing insofar as he's the opposite of his son. He disappears from the film's narrative and is never seen again. For that one scene, he serves as a human sandwich board, reflecting in big bold letters what is wrong with Jay's character before those points are only further accentuated through his interactions with Trishna.

Speaking of which: boy, are this movie's sexual politics guileless. How could the director of 9 Songs, a notoriously anti-romantic (but ambitious) drama that used graphic scenes of un-simulated sex to chart the gradual decline of a relationship, have made this film? Trishna has none of that earlier film's sophistication. When Jay dominates Trishna in the bedroom, it's obvious when his domination is a good thing and when it shows his callousness as a character. You always know exactly how you're supposed to feel when you watch Trishna, making the film's first 90 minutes a slow but blatant march towards an unenlightening over-the-top climax. In 9 Songs, Winterbottom tried to get viewers to examine and draw their own conclusions about the minute but telling gestures that define his two lovers. Where the hell did that Winterbottom go?

(Spoiler!) The most immediate example of this film’s weakness can be seen in the scene where Trishna confesses to Jay that she aborted their baby. The scene understandably goes on after Trishna, who at this point still loves and trusts Jay, tells what she did. But it doesn't need to go on for as long as it does. Winterbottom conveys all of the malice the scene needs with the worried and increasingly distant expression on Ahmed's face. And yet, the scene continues to accommodate and needlessly communicate Jay's uncomprehending narcisissm: he's upset with Trishna and wants her to know that she should have involved him in this important decision. Again, we know we're supposed to come down on Trishna's side because of the way that Winterbottom allows Jay to have the final say in this scene, dazedly berating Trishna about how hurt he is that she didn’t consult him. That kind of ceaseless chiding manipulates the viewer into wanting to tsk-tsk the bratty Jay for insisting that his needs supersede Trishna's. But really, the only thing this scene proves is that an obnoxious character who was always obnoxious can get away with being obnoxious for a while because he has a hold over someone as impressionable and disadvantaged as Trishna. Because nothing is done to make Jay more sympathetic, there's nothing more to Trishna than bad histrionics and self-righteous anger. Just as Godzilla fans call the 1998 American version GINO (Godzilla in Name Only), Trishna should henceforth be called Db-WINO: Directed by Winterbottom in Name Only. 

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Local Heroes: The New York Asian Film Festival Strikes Again (And Again, And Again)

SIMON SAYS: Local Heroes: The New York Asian Film Festival Strikes Again (And Again, And Again)

The New York Asian Film Festival, now a pop culture institution unto itself, started eleven years ago. Its movies were first screened at the Anthology Film Archives in the summer of 2002. For a while, the festival was just a colossal labor of love for fest founders Goran Topalovic, Nat Olson, Paul Kazee, Brian Naas and Grady Hendrix. The air conditioning at the Anthology broke a lot during the festival's first few summers, and the programmers paid for much of the festival's expenses with their personal credit cards. Most years, the festival earned just enough to break even, but each following year, they'd come back stronger and more determined than ever to show attendants genre films and arthouse experiments from across Asia. 
nullWith raffle drawings before each film, surprise screenings, and a plethora of special guests, the festival has become a staple of adventurous New York cinephiles' annual calendars. So while this year's program may seem like it's filled with familiar titles and faces, that's only because the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) helped those titles and faces to become familiar. Oldboy, the poster child for the short-lived "Asia Extreme" movement of the early aughts, screened this past weekend with star Min-Sik Choi in attendance. And the first two Infernal Affairs movies, the crooked cop/gangster saga that inspired Martin Scorsese's The Departed, will screen this Friday. Which is fitting, since Infernal Affairs previously screened at NYAFF in 2004, while two of Oldboy director Chan-wook Park's films screened at the festival in 2003 and 2007, respectively. These guys don't jump on bandwagons, they get people on them: Park's Joint Security Area screened at NYAFF (before it was officially NYAFF) a year before Oldboy came out in America, and Infernal Affairs played NYAFF a couple of months before it got a miniscule limited theatrical engagement, thanks to the Weinstein brothers. 
NYAFF also got Janus Films to dig up Nobuhiko Obayashi's psychedelic House, a film that has gone on to be one of the Criterion Collection's biggest sellers, from their vaults. They've started cults around filmmakers like Katauhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea; Funky Forest: The First Contact), Johnnie To (Exiled; Throw Down) and Ji-Woon Kim (I Saw the Devil; The Good, the Bad and the Weird). These guys may have started from (and with little!) scratch, but they went on to become wildly influential taste-makers.
This year, the original NYAFF programmers are not present: Olson and Naas have left the festival, while a couple of other succeeding NYAFF curators have assumed diminished responsibilities. And the festival's venue has changed over the years, too; this will be NYAFF's third year at Lincoln Center's fully air-conditioned Walter Reade. But not much else has changed. The festival continues to show support for the artists they've previously championed, further fostering a sense of community, with high-energy events for each of these screenings. 
nullFor example, Hong Kong filmmaker Edmond Pang has had a film screen at the festival before (Pang's Exodus screened in 2009). But this year, NYAFF will screen two of Pang's features and an eclectic shorts program called Pang Ho-Cheung's First Attempt. First Attempt was a one-time-only reprisal of an interactive experience where Pang talked about four of his early short films before, after and while they screened. Pang made these shorts with his mother and two brothers when he was 11, 12 and then 26 years old. The earlier shorts, where Pang improvised slow motion effects and spliced in footage from John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow, were definitely the highlights of what was shown. Their make-do aesthetic has a cockiness to it that makes every boombox song cue and every spliced-in scene of buildings exploding that much more endearing.
Better yet, before a screening of Pang's romantic comedy Love in the Buff, Pang and Hendrix re-enacted (with hand puppets!) the events of Love in a Puff, the romcom to which Buff is a sequel, for anyone that hadn't seen it. The NYAFF gang will do anything to make first-time attendants feel welcome, and they do it with such a unique combination of storied grace and aw-shucks charm that it's almost scientifically impossible to not be won over.
nullAnd the festival hasn't stopped making new discoveries either. On Sunday, the festival screened The Sword Identity, the directorial debut of Chinese screenwriter/action choreographer Xu Haofeng. Haofeng is the screenwriter of The Grandmasters, Kar-wai Wong's upcoming martial arts epic. Watching The Sword Identity, you can easily see a similarity between Haofeng's interests and Wong's. Haofeng has made a genre film ideologically grounded in the notion that actions reflect character and that physical gestures and techniques always express the essence of things. That's the kind of story that the protagonists of both In the Mood for Love and 2046 dream of writing and the kind that Wong tried to make in Ashes of Time
Still, The Sword Identity, which screens again on the 11th, is very much an accomplished self-sufficient work and a compelling festival find. In his Sunday introduction to the film, Hendrix probably overplayed the fact that the film got a blase critical reception at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. But The Sword Identity is now very much a NYAFF find, a film whose vision of heroism perfectly matches the festival's ethos. NYAFF programmers know that, when it comes to screening exciting and innovative films, it's not just the thought that counts. These guys never program in a half-assed manner; they always pull out as many stops as they can. To paraphrase Harlan Ellison, the most important thing about NYAFF is not that they became a great film festival–it's that they've remained a great film festival. Here's to another eleven years of discoveries at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.




Steven Soderbergh's recent use of digital photography in Contagion (2011) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009) has a painterly quality. With Haywire, he proved that he could effortlessly achieve a nuanced look using the still burgeoning method of video photography. But with Magic Mike, he continues to hone the kind of glassy, flat but simultaneously elaborate aesthetic he's used for his more recent films. The broad beats of Magic Mike's narrative may be contrived, but Soderbergh enriches his usual main theme—of getting what you want by consenting to be exploited—through the film's highly stylized look. Soderbergh’s latest is at its best when its camerawork is most eccentric.

Based loosely on star Channing Tatum's own time as a stripper, Magic Mike is full of sequences designed to subtly disorient or dazzle viewers. Soderbergh constantly calls attention to the artificial nature of his imagery, using lens flares and, in a scene where Tatum raises his voice, unpolished audio to draw attention to his aesthetic and alienate viewers.

Magic Mike's story may not initially seem like it's all about Mike, but that's because it reflects his disillusionment with his job rather than narrating events in his life. At first, Mike thinks he’s an active agent in his life story—but he’s not. He realizes this after recruiting Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a naive, unemployed 19 year-old, to work with him at Xquisite, his strip club. Mike gives up his agency long enough to bond with Adam and develop a crush on Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam's sister.  But predictably, Mike eventually realizes that stripping is only a stopgap solution, and it has actually made it difficult for him to become financially independent. He grows to realize that he's only valuable to Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the owner of the club Mike dances at, as long as he's doing what Dallas wants him to. 

Mike has contrived, generic reasons for wanting to divorce himself from his scantily clad livelihood. But they're inconsequential; Soderbergh establishes his character's true motivation in a thoughtful, albeit blunt, way. Bear in mind: sophistication is rarely combined with audiovisual elegance in Soderbergh's films. This is apparent in the way Soderbergh uses so much soft focus; his visual compositions all have uniform, flat look backgrounds. Shapes move behind the main figures, but the shapes are relatively indistinct. Additionally, Soderbergh's characters are constantly being projected on. In a crucial scene, Dallas teaches Adam how to dance at the club, posing in front of a wall-sized mirror. We see Adam learn to dance as it happens in the mirror, not directly; this neatly establishes the film's main concern with symmetry and obstacles. When characters want to really see each other, they appear to be positioned symmetrically. But the more out of sync with each other the characters get, the more visually different Soderbergh’s camerawork makes them appear, and hence the harder it is for audiences to actually see Mike and his friends (Brooke pointedly admonishes Adam by telling him, "I can fucking see you"). 

For example, Mike and Adam immediately form a shaky bond. The camera cuts back and forth between the two men as Mike drives Adam in his car for the first time. The men occupy separate spaces, but there is total symmetry to the shot-reverse shot visual structure of their conversations in the scene. The second time, Mike drives Adam home and, if you look hard enough, you can see that Adam is slightly better lit than Mike, that his head's not as close to the right side of the frame as Mike's is to the left side. The two have imperceptibly begun to drift apart. But in the third drive, Soderbergh shows the full-blown divide between the two men by creating a visibly rippling effect, suggesting that Mike and Adam are an outburst away from literally exploding at each other.

Soderbergh's visual flourishes establish Magic Mike’s concerns better than anything his characters say. In one blunt but effective juxtaposition, Soderbergh first shows a rain-streaked window pane and then transitions to a shot of a bust Dallas has made of himself. Another thoughtful visual cue is when Soderbergh literally shows us the barriers between Brooke and Mike disappearing through a tracking shot. As the shot continues, fewer objects clutter the image's foreground, leaving just Brooke and Mike, alone. Ironically, Magic Mike is probably dullest when most focused on its subject: when Mike and his colleagues strip on-stage, Soderbergh's approach is at its most basic.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: The Roberto Benigni Problem

SIMON SAYS: The Roberto Benigni Problem


The imminent release of To Rome with Love, the latest movie directed and written by Woody Allen, should have you wondering the following: what exactly do people see in Roberto Benigni, and why has his career sustained itself for as long as it has?

In Allen's new movie, Benigni plays a man whose actions are scrutinized publicly and in minute detail on TV. He plays an overnight reality TV celebrity, which is especially funny since the image that Benigni has projected of himself is completely divorced from his comedies before Life is Beautiful. While they used to screen all the time on IFC, dumb but satisfying lowbrow comedies like The Monster (1994) and Johnny Stecchino (1991) are Out of Print on DVD. You can't even get the original Italian language version of Benigni's Pinocchio (2003) here in the States: the film's original language version had a limited theatrical run in the US, but now, Netflix only carries the English-language cut. Incidentally, Pinocchio was originally supposed to be co-helmed by Federico Fellini, who worked with Benigni while making his final film, The Voice of the Moon (1990). But even that movie is (legally) unavailable anywhere with English subtitles.

In Italy, the only other popular comedian who has also sustained himself in terms of popularity, but not consistency, is Carlo Verdone. Verdone’s and Benigni's careers are roughly contemporaneous and while Benigni cranked out a number of films as a director and actor in the '70s and '80s, Verdone, a fellow comedian-turned-filmmaker, has managed to remain very popular. And yet, with the exception of the bitingly self-loathing 2004 divorce comedy Love is Eternal While it Lasts, Verdone is pretty much washed-up. He directs a film every two or three years, featuring Italy's hottest young pop stars, and he appears in about one film per year.

By contrast, Benigni is equally popular, but his output has become far more inconsistent. After Benigni's awful 2005 tragicomedy The Tiger and the Snow got a 2006 US release, Benigni came to America in 2008 and 2009 for limited English-language theatrical playdates for TuttoDante. In Benigni's live, semi-improvised routine, he extemporaneously recites The Divine Comedy and talks about the puissance of Dante Alighieri's language, even relating the poet's words to contemporary events, including some anti-Berlusconi gags. Bear in mind: Benigni is also the recipient of a whopping nine honorary collegiate degrees from around the world. He has honorary PhDs in Modern Philology, Philosophy, Letters and Communication Arts. Five of these degrees are from Italian institutions. So, unlike Verdone, who seems to have stopped challenging himself a decade ago, Benigni is still sometimes as impressive as he'd like to appear to be. It's just that American audiences don't get to see that side of his persona very often.

Because the difficulty of seeing many of Benigni's more eccentric projects, I'm forced to talk about the Benigni we know, rather than the Benigni we don't know. I've elected to ignore the image Benigni projects of himself in Jim Jarmusch's films, because those films are either not an authoritative means of understanding the calcified Benigni persona as we now know it (Down by Law, Night on Earth) or are just riffs on a previously-established persona (Coffee and Cigarettes). And that's really the ultra-serious question: Benigni has worked with a couple of great filmmakers. He's a hit in his home country, or was (the budget for Pinocchio was estimated at about $45 million, the biggest budget for an Italian film until then). So how is it that he's been able to be so irreducibly annoying for this long?

For most American viewers, Benigni is the guy who pulled a Johnny Weismuller and made like Tarzan when he accepted an Oscar for a mediocre Holocaust movie. The Tiger and the Snow confirms Benigni's self-identification as a hyper-caffeinated, bleeding-heart eccentric. To quote Jennifer Beals' description of Nanni Moretti in Dear Diary, Benigni doesn't present as "crazy;" in fact, he's "harmless" and "whimsical." But his current sense of whimsy stinks, mostly because it's dishearteningly anti-intellectual, as well as simultaneously manic and flat-footed.

Still, Benigni's two recent movies are governed by a shallow and manipulative, but sincere, ethos. This is a guy who, as he explains in The Tiger and the Snow, looks down his nose at abstract metaphors in poetry and art. If he wants to show his affection for something, he will not hide it in veiled metaphors or, y'know, complex ideas, but rather through effusive, hackneyed images. This retroactively explains why Benigni chose the Holocaust as the setting for Life is Beautiful. To make a pat, pseudo-empowering statement about how beautiful life can be, Benigni needed an event that would immediately bring to mind the worst of humanity, an inciting incident both simple and direct. So he chose the concentration camps and the loss of one's parents. 

(Spoiler!) Similarly, The Tiger and the Snow is about a man who fantasizes about winning his wife back, so he heroically rescues her from Baghdad during the Second Gulf War. Tiger is a sort of fuddy-duddy artistic manifesto in that way. Benigni plays Attillio, a poetry professor who laughs at the notion that we have to dream or write poetry about what we want with complex metaphors. Attilio, a scatter-brained romantic, dreams of marrying the same woman every night. His colleague scoffs at this as being "primitive," suggesting that Freud's psychoanalytic theories demand that Attilio imagine this woman as an animal, not directly as a person. But therein lies the charm or lack thereof of Benigni's recent films: they are blunt and proud of it.

If Benigni's character faces a problem, he will not give up until he has begged, cajoled and demanded aid from everyone within the immediate vicinity. Case in point: the woman of Attilio's dreams flees to Baghdad. He follows her there, only to find her being treated for a terminal illness. He takes it upon himself to save her, against all odds, and consequently runs around war-torn Baghdad looking for a cure. This means he has to insert himself into madcap situations, and he winds up being confused for an Iraqi insurgent. How is this the same guy that knows Dante's work by heart? Is Benigni's attitude really just a matter of, as Attilio says, encouraging aspiring poets to acknowledge their limitations and not try to be as lofty in their artistic goals as the author of Inferno? If so, then Benigni's comically jumpy persona really isn't merely self-deprecatingly modest, but rather that of a con-man who’s pandering to a crowd he's not sure is all that smart in the first place.

Benigni's filmmaking and his personality as an extension would be fairly inoffensive if he weren't so strident about being, well, a fuddy-duddy. His films wouldn't, in other words, be so bad if he didn't take acting goofily so seriously. Today, Benigni looks like the constipated King of the Manchildren; he's a self-fashioned populist, a guy who wants us to think he's both a poet and a regular guy. Abstraction in poetry is poopooed outright in The Tiger and the Snow for the same reason that the Holocaust is the subject of Life is Beautiful: because a film whose bathetic message uses the most gut-wrenching context can be understood by anyone. Somewhere along the way, Benigni has somehow confused importance with self-seriousness, and he’s become a popular artist that only people that really want to buy what he's selling can stomach. He's not, in other words, a monster because he's a narcissist, but rather because the version of himself he's in love with is insufferable.

But a lot of people like Benigni almost as much as he does. His fans enjoy his manboy schtick, which is understandable since he makes such great displays of his sincerity as a humanist comedian in the Chaplin mode. He's perfected his slapsticky public persona to the point where his recent ideas make him look more like a juvenile intellectual than a facial-tic-ridden anti-intellectual reactionary. So it's simultaneously fitting and rather strange to think that Benigni is also the guy whose most versatile comedic performances—that American audiences have had the privilege of seeing—are probably in The Monster and Johnny Stecchino, comedies where his protagonist is respectively confused for a rapist and a gangster. If anything, what's most refreshing about Benigni is that he's still trying to figure out who he wants to be. If only he took himself less seriously while doing it.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Pure Ideas: Dropping Science (Fiction) with EXTRATERRESTRIAL Filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo

SIMON SAYS: Pure Ideas: Dropping Science (Fiction) with EXTRATERRESTRIAL Filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo


Nacho Vigalondo’s films are about ideas. The Spanish filmmaker's two recent science fiction films, Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial, suggest that the drive towards scientific discovery or self-discovery doesn't need to be motivated by personal reasons. Vigalondo also makes the best contemporary high-concept science fiction movies. Timecrimes is a time travel thriller, and Extraterrestrial, his equally worthy 2011 follow-up, is an alien invasion story. At the same time, Timecrimes's story also concerns a struggle between free will and determinism; Extraterrestrial is also a romantic comedy about two people who slowly learn to make the best of their lots in life.

Extraterrestrial is especially striking since it's not about aliens' actions once they've arrived on Earth, but rather the actions of two characters who have elected to hole up in an abandoned apartment building after a UFO arrives. Our heroes never directly make contact with the aliens; Extraterrestrial isn’t about first contact. Instead, Vigalondo’s latest shows two indecisive, amoral protagonists reacting to extraordinary circumstances. 

I sat down with him this Tuesday to talk about the philosophy of time travel, Primer, Stanislaw Lem, and Red Planet Mars, among other things.

I know you’ve said before that Extraterrestrial is sort of an unconventional alien invasion film, unlike [Steven Spielberg’s] War of the Worlds, because your characters can’t see everything that’s going on. When you set out to write Extraterrestrial, what else did you set out to do?

Nacho Vigalondo (NV): I think that significance in your films comes from the movies themselves. Directors don’t always need to be aware of everything they’re doing. For example, when we talk about science fiction films from the ‘50s, we don’t know that those movies were cathartic expression—sorry for my English. When I speak about abstract ideas, it becomes complicated even in Spanish. [laughs] But those movies in the ‘50s talk about global fears about the war, about the unknown, about the others. Communists, for example.

Those films give symbolic expression to that fear. But those filmmakers were not aware of that. So I always try to let my movies talk instead of me. I think my movies have more interesting things to say than I do. So when I’m writing, I try to ignore my motives. When I started to write Extraterrestrial, my first idea was, “Ok, what if we were to tell an alien invasion story from the point-of-view of normal people instead of the heroes, people who would be occupied with everyday things?” That would describe most of us. If you have a toothache, and the end of the world comes, you still have a toothache. So you’ll be desperate for painkillers. So: “What if we talked about this big event from the point-of-view of people who are just waiting for things to happen, who are just waiting for things to be solved by someone else?”

That’s a little childish, I think. It’s a way to amuse myself when I write this sort of thing. But then, I let my movies talk about something else, which is more important. For example, in Timecrimes, what I wanted to do is prove to myself I was able to write a time travel story in which everything happened in real time, and the killer, the instigator and the victim are the same [person]. So I think of those stories as formal challenges.

But later, I found out that both movies are about guilt as well as the feelings you have when you find out you are the other. In both movies, the main guy realizes that he’s not just a good guy, that maybe he’s “the other.” So I feel it’s important, in any art, to let your body of work speak for itself. That’s a religion to me. Movies are more intelligent than their directors. I promise you that that’s the case with me.

Well, that’s also true of viewers and your films. When I was rewatching Timecrimes, I noticed new things that I missed the first go-around, like the way that the main character’s wedding ring is constantly emphasized. So at the end, when he talks to his wife’s hand, it’s sort of a re-affirmation of their relationship. Although at the same time, that gesture is, after the film’s grueling events, almost like a way for the character to silently say, “Well, I accept the fact that there’s only so much I can change in my life. Time to exhale and move on.”

NV: They’re looking up at this dark sky and don’t know what will happen next.

Right. I didn’t remember the ending of Timecrimes, so while I was rewatching it, I was debating with my roommate [Bill Best] whether or not the film was in favor of determinism or individualism. And he was insisting that it was definitely not an individualistic movie, and then I saw the ending again and I thought, “Oh yeah, it isn’t.”

NV: [laughs] This is one of those nice interviews, where you prefer listening to answering.

And in Extraterrestrial you start from the premise that everyone’s gone, so all that’s left for the main character to do is hunker down in an apartment and just move from there with a limited amount of options. So it’s not about the fact that aliens have invaded: that’s a given. The spaceship is in the sky, we can see it. What happens next isn’t even a matter of waiting for people to do something—it’s waiting for this guy to do something. By comparison, since you mentioned ‘50s science fiction movies, I have to ask: have you ever seen the movie Red Planet Mars?

NV: Hm. Sometimes the title gets changed in Spain. Red Planet Mars?

It’s a film based on a play where a radio signal is emanating from the far side of Mars, and people think it’s the voice of God.

NV: Oh, I haven’t seen it. I would remember that, definitely! [both laugh]

The idea is that the Americans and the Russians are competing to find the source of the transmission. And ultimately there’s a complicated conclusion where they find out it was a Russian plot the whole time. But wait, no, it wasn’t the Russians, it was the Americans pretending to be Russians. But then they realize, oh wait, it was God, after all. So ultimately, it’s just people figuring out that however much they think they’re in control, they’re really not.

NV: Oh, great! Who made this film?

I’m not sure…

NV: Because it really sounds like Stanislaw Lem, the guy who wrote Solaris. I’ve been reading this guy all my life, because he’s writing about conspiracies in which, after a certain point, characters have to assume they can’t know what’s going on. And I wanted to take this feeling and put it in Extraterrestrial, in a comical way. In my film, one character says, “Well, why are you here?” And the other replies, “Well, we haven’t thought of that.” That’s a metaphor for the script itself, and it’s something I wanted to play with consciously.

The latest Lem novel I’ve been reading—I’m not sure if it’s been translated into English—is called Fiasco. In it, we find evidence of extraterrestrial life in the universe, and they are expecting us to do something. We react, trying to communicate, but the nature of both civilizations is so deep that we are not able to communicate with them. We don’t understand them, and they will never understand us. It’s not because the language is different: the nature of the language is different. What if we realized that rocks were secretly alive, but we were not able to talk to them? Or we don’t get their references or the way we ordinate reality is totally different? I love when science fiction gives us the chance to look at ourselves as human beings. Instead of picturing ourselves as conquerors or limitless beings, we are just humans, and we have to face the fact that humanity has its limits. I love that, and I wanted to work on that in a different way in Extraterrestrial.

That’s interesting since there’s a rumor that you’re working on a film adaptation of a comic book written by [Kickass and Wanted co-creator] Mark Millar, called Supercrooks.

NV: Not exactly an adaptation, because we wrote the script together. In fact, the comics’ script and the screenplay were made in the same location. So at the end, I appear as a co-plotter. Our collaboration was really intense and one of my best professional experiences ever.

But while your stuff and his have cursory thematic similarities—they both ask how a “normal person” would behave under extraordinary circumstances—your characters are much more indecisive. Your characters are much more amoral than immoral.

NV: One thing I’ve noticed is that when Mark writes comic books, even when it’s just a Marvel comic like Wolverine or Fantastic Four—I have a theory. I’m not even sure he’s aware of this; it’s his nature as a writer. I’m not sure that he’s working on this in a conscious way. But every time he picks a character, he lets us intuit what the darker side of his characters are. So when we see the Fantastic Four in a Wolverine comic, the way you perceive the Fantastic Four is so dark. It’s not in a nasty way; he’s not being a punk writer to them. But you can guess—I don’t know, I’m being a bit crude now, but you can guess that there’s no sex life between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. That’s nothing explicitly said but it’s something you can feel based on the kind of relationship they have. He’s too into his job and she feels invisible in many ways.

To get back to your movies: what’s interesting about these two films is that, while they’re science fiction films through and through, they’re also high concept.

NV: I really like to push for a starting point that feels striking and surprising but I don’t like the idea of making a movie that is just a high concept. For example, in the case of Extraterrestrial, the starting point is a mix of two genres that are apparently incompatible[: science fiction and romantic comedy]. But that’s the way it’s going to be described from this point. So we try to work every sequence in a way that we can forget about this starting point.

As in Timecrimes, I wanted everything your intuition says will happen at the end of the movie to happen in the middle. I want to work with audiences on that level. I want to take their hand and push them into different directions they were assuming the movie would take. So for me the idea of high concept is attractive but I don’t want to feel comfortable with that concept.

Not many people are making science fiction without a big budget. Horror movies are prolific because filmmakers know that they can do that on a low budget. But making a low-budget science fiction film is—not many people are doing it.

NV: That’s because science fiction films have become related with production values. Even B-movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, most of the time they were trying to fake production values in their trailers. So that was the thing that always—sorry, two steps back. I feel sometimes, when I’m talking in English first thing in the morning, like I’m Danny from The Shining when he’s inside the labyrinth and he has to walk backwards [laughs].

But I think if you’re a true science fiction fan, you read novels. Because there aren't so many science fiction movie masterpieces. But if you read science fiction authors like Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick, you’ll realize that science fiction is based on ideas, not descriptions of planets or other civilizations, but pure ideas. In fact, I’m not really sure science fiction is a genre. That's something I love to talk about. Because most of the time, people think science fiction is a genre. But a genre is based on rules, and there are no rules in science fiction.

There are rules in the western, in the crime movie and some horror subgenres. But in science fiction, you don’t have rules. The only rule in science fiction is that you can take ideas to the edge in many ways. You can say I have made two science fiction films, but I have also made a giallo and a romantic comedy. In a common romantic comedy, if you want to lie to someone else, you have this set of lies you can play with. But if there’s a UFO on the horizon, you can say, “Maybe this guy’s an alien?” It’s like giving new truths or new artifacts to a character in a Billy Wilder comedy.

I was recently thinking about the western and how it goes from the classical period to the spaghetti western to the acid western. And the further you go, the more the genre’s rules and tropes become decontextualized. Do you think that in science fiction, contemporary filmmakers just don’t know how to push and break down those ideas? Put another way: have you seen any contemporary science fiction films whose ideas have really impressed you?

NV: Yeah, but I’m not going to surprise you. I think the titles I’m going to give you are the titles you already know.

Go for it.

NV: For example, when I was writing Timecrimes, Primer had just come out. And I was horrified because the shape of the movie was close to mine. But then I saw it, and I saw that it was totally different. But I love the fact that in that movie, there’s no melodramatic implication to the fact that they’re going back in time. There’s no human impulse rather than the excitement of the scientific experiment itself. So you’re not going back in time to save the world, and you’re not going back in time to save the girl: you’re just scientific. I really liked the idea of applying that scientific impulse to the film. I like this film and I even really like an older film like Silent Running.

Oh, I love Silent Running!

NV: What’s amazing about that film is that it runs on ideals. In most movies, filmmakers tend to be universal through the intimate human experience. So it’s easier to tell a story where you’re going to protect your wife than wanting to protect a forest. It’s an unusual film in that the main character is pushed by pure ideals.

What comes next for you? Is Supercrooks filming…?

NV: At this moment, my next film is going to be called Windows. It’s a movie I’ve been developing for a couple of years. In fact, Windows is going to be like Timecrimes in so many ways that I decided to make Extraterrestrial first to prove to myself I can push a different button. Because those two movies—Windows and Timecrimes—are like narrative labyrinths in which, on every page of the script, you find another little twist. The nature of what we’re telling is changing all the time. It’s really plot-driven. I wanted to make something that was totally the opposite of me, so I made Extraterrestrial. I was trying to fight against myself.

And Windows is going to shoot this October, if everything goes well. I wish the casting were finished, so I could tell you about that, but we’re doing the negotiations right now. It’s going to be a really special thriller again in the Hitchcockian tradition. But this time, I really had Brian De Palma on my mind. I don’t want to make explicit references in my films because I want those references to be felt, not told. So if I had in my Vertigo and Psycho all the time while making Timecrimes, the movie I had in front of me for Windows is Blow Out.

Oh my God.

NV: So it’s a movie with an erotic element, and a chase element and the tricks with perception of the characters—it’s really in front of you all the time.

When you said “De Palma,” I was hoping you’d say, “Body Double.” But still.

NV: But you know, Body Double is too Timecrimes for me. I saw Body Double when I was making Timecrimes, and I thought, “This is the movie I’m making now: one guy falls into a trip, there’s an erotic impulse that is manipulated, and this guy has to move from his house to another place, but it’s a trap. Timecrimes is the same kind of film, except that the bad guy is also the good guy. But it’s the same kind of trick. It’s the same bait in both films.”

There will also be a lot of technical tricks in Windows that are going to make it really special. It’s not a found footage film but . . .

Oh, thank God.

NV: But I’m going to play a different game. I’m not going to fake a camera . . .

Oh, thank God.

NV: But I love found footage! Some of it’s good. I was so amazed when I saw Chronicle recently. When you see people flying in that, it’s like you’re seeing people flying on film for the first time. So I find it weird. People tend to criticize the movies, not the tool. And I think found footage is just a tool. This is not a found footage film. But I’d love to use found footage someday.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Trying Harder: What PROMETHEUS Gets Right

SIMON SAYS: Trying Harder: What PROMETHEUS Gets Right


One character in Prometheus sums up why Ridley Scott's return to his 1979 science fiction milestone is as refreshing as it is, in just two words. The protagonist in question is an android, arguably the first in the series since Aliens who’s more than an extension of the people who programmed him. Typically, androids are understood to be mental blank slates in the Alien films, so it makes sense that in Prometheus, David (Michael Fassbender) is treated as a tabula rasa. In fact, one character points this out late in Prometheus's plot, reminding him that he can't feel the emotions he professes to. So it's fitting that, when asked what his boss has communicated to him, David says: "Try harder." 

Prometheus, more ambitious than any other Alien sequel, has an impressively massive scope, both literally and figuratively. The film's mammoth CG and concept art-heavy sets are matched only by its over-arching theological speculation. Of course, because Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection both went through production hell, their stories are understandably incoherent. But even Aliens, James Cameron's perfectly adequate follow-up to Alien, has relatively staid aspirations. 

The Alien franchise, up until Prometheus, delivered less and less of a payoff. This is most evident in the degrading of the relationship between three key figures in each film: the lead human protagonist (usually Ripley); the robot; and the Xenomorph. In Alien, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was the last survivor of the Xenomorph's attack on the Nostromo. She manages to escape the hazards of A mission whose main directives are unclear to all but one of its crew members. Ash (Ian Holm) is the voice of "the company," a phrase over-used in the Alien movies to describe the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The company's motives are hidden and in this case, immediately dangerous. The Xenomorph thus represents an idiosyncratically weird fusion of technology and primal sexual tension (holy freeholey, H.R. Giger, to what libidinal depths did you plunge to come up with that concept art)—as well as all the trauma and emotions the otherwise bloodless company has suppressed. So it stands to reason that Ash admires the perverse "perfect[ion]" of the Xenomorph's feral but chilly behavior. The Xenomorph is the monster that Ash wants to become but cannot, since he was made in his creators' image.

Ripley's relationship with the Xenomorph is similarly not personal. In Alien's futuristic office space, Ripley is just one grunt among many. For the longest time, she's not the lead protagonist, just a survivor, more a concept than a character. This is striking given who Ripley is presented as in the forthcoming sequels. Each time, she's treated as the reluctant host to the Xenomorph's parasite. In Aliens, the aging Ripley's ticking biological clock gives her nightmares about motherhood, including one in which an alien shoots out of her guts. Her relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn) is simple: she is the child that Ripley wants, but the Queen Xenomorph is blocking her. The aliens are thus once again extensions of Weyland-Yutani, but this time they ultimately represent the monster the company might gradually turn Ripley into. 

The most complex character in Aliens is thus Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the one representative of Weyland-Yutani consistently portrayed as both an emissary of "the company" and an individual. In Alien, Weyland-Yutani employees only start to exist as individuals once they reject the mandates of their bosses. This is also true of David in Prometheus, who says that when his master dies, he "will be free." So it's refreshing to see that Bishop, at the end of Aliens, stands by Ripley and Newt in their final fight against the Queen. In that one moment, Bishop sets up the archetype that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaights will follow for David in Prometheus. Bishop's nature as a more human-like model is apparent in his lack of interest in the Xenomorphs. He, like Ripley, is there to save lives. The mission that he's on is thus not one that sympathetically associates him with the Xenomorphs. Instead, it's assumed that Bishop is trying to be, as the saying goes, "just one of the guys," a point succinctly illustrated during the famous knife trick scene.

Unfortunately, the next two sequels only perpetuate the more psychologically lacking aspects of the franchise. In Alien 3, Ripley grapples with her nascent feelings of survivor's guilt on a prison planet full of convicted murderers and rapists, some of whom have reformed. Ripley relates with the prisoners, all of whom are at least nominally atoning for their crimes. But that identification inexplicably makes the alien the cause of Ripley's feelings of impotence: in her head, the Xenomorph’s survival  is her responsibility and her fault. That theme is never fully explored but it's assumed that Ripley, who tries to get a prisoner to help her kill herself before she (and the alien she will soon give birth to) cause further damage, feels responsible for the Xenomorphs. Her death at the end of Alien 3 is not cathartic, however, because it's a drastic reduction of Alien's themes to a surreal fight between a specific character and a world-ending monster.

Furthermore, the man who created Bishop returns in the last scene of Alien 3, predictably representing Weyland-Yutani's psychopathic interest in studying and profiting from the Xenomorphs. Ripley briefly revives the robo-carcass of Bishop earlier on—meaning the Bishop android that was pretty much destroyed by the Queen at the end of Aliens. But Bishop's human creator's random appearance at the film’s conclusion is as good a sign as any of how un-nuanced that film's portrayal of "the company" and its androids have become.

That being said, Alien: Resurrection, a consistently entertaining but often ridiculous and mostly brain-dead sequel, is even more unambitious. The film starts with a heady theme: what does a post-Ripley Alien movie look like? Ripley's clone is the film's main heroine, once again restructuring the “Alien film” as a personal fight between her and the Xenomorph: ironic, given that the film's main theme is supposed to be evolution and the way that time has changed things. The Xenomorph may have transformed into a weird human-alien hybrid called a "Newborn" by film's end, and the robot Ripley deals with may be a lady (Winona Ryder), in fact. But there's nothing to suggest that anything that Ripley's relationship with these emblematic characters has grown or drastically changed from what we've seen in the last three films. Call (Ryder) is a sympathetic companion and is defined as an individual throughout Alien: Resurrection. There are thus no substantial stakes in her relationship with Ripley. And the Newborn is still just a dangling thread that Ripley has to get rid of so she can die easily. Call also has no real fascination with, or even strong hate for, the Xenomorphs or the Newborn. She just wants to kill the monster and not "die."

This thankfully brings us back to Prometheus, a film that finally builds on the foundation that Scott built with screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is circumstantially different than Ripley: she gets in over her head in her quest for answers. Shaw's actively searching for the unknown, unlike Ripley, who just happened to stumble upon it. Shaw is thus guided by the same impulses as David, a character who embodies a potentially pure drive towards scientific exploration. David is only corrupt because his master is corrupt. The deaths of a couple of other characters in the film suggest that Prometheus has a naive but intriguingly moralistic through-line: discovery for flawed reasons is dismissed. 

Unlike some other characters, Shaw has no ulterior motives. She genuinely wants to see, do and learn more than anyone else on the Prometheus, the ship that has replaced the Nostromo. The aliens in Prometheus, called Engineers, are the tantalizingly close realization of Shaw's search but ultimately, her encounter with them is not what it could be.  She does not learn anything from that originally wanted to. The aliens that Shaw encounters have no answers for her, leaving her right where she started at the film’s beginning.

That having been said, there is a serious danger inherent in these creatures, made clear when David suggests that the Engineers may have just made humans for the same reason man made androids: "because [they] could." But at the same time, there's a romance to David's actions. He idolizes the Engineers, and calls them "a superior race." But he also admires Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia, even going so far as to dye his hair an Aryan blond to match his messianic hero. David stands in awe of the Engineers and gets to "live" ultimately because he has that drive to learn and do more to learn about Prometheus' aliens.

By film's end, David and Shaw choose to continue their search for answers to big questions. And while that resolution's thematic bottom line is fairly simplistic, it's also what makes Prometheus's conclusion the second most satisfying in the series. To dream, to continue to strive for something greater than yourself and, yes, to try harder, in the face of the horrifying and the cruel is a very noble thing.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.