You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Shoulda Dragged This One Up, 2010
Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger begins with a Shakespeare quote: “[Life] is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Of course, he’s got the context all wrong. MacBeth, the character responsible for that quote, is suicidal because he killed a guy and his wife just died. Shakespeare never meant that quote to espouse his own world view, but to color MacBeth’s mental state. Woody Allen uses it to explain and excuse everything that comes next in his movie. He’s not revealing anything about his characters, but maybe he’s saying something about himself. And he gets it mostly right, except that You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger doesn’t even bother to muster up any sound or fury.
Anthony Hopkins is Alfie, a man in three-quarter life crisis who wakes in the middle of one night and decides to start working out and eat healthier. He ditches his wife, Helena (Gemma Jones), for bachelorhood. She reacts by overdosing on sleeping pills, surviving, and eventually rejecting her psychiatrist for a psychic. Her daughter, Sally, is in an unhappy marriage with a frustrated writer (Josh Brolin), but she wants a baby anyway. In other words, Allen’s four main characters are not only clichés, but they’re just about the most blatant clichés imaginable. The only ways any of them break from the expected are that Brolin’s character actually finishes his book a half hour in, and Watts plays a British woman with an Australian accent.
Although the film’s title turns out to be a double entendre for romance and death, Allen’s characters aren’t morbidly death-obsessed so much as just kinda bored and selfish. Each of them embarks on an affair. Naturally, Alfie marries a hooker half his age. Sally develops a crush on her boss (Antonio Banderas). But the best is Brolin’s character, Roy. In flashback, Allen shows his initial seduction of Sally. Sitting on a picnic blanket drinking Coronas, he recites “A Red Wheelbarrow” and adds “Sally’s ass” to the end of it, right beside the white chickens. In the present, he lusts after an Indian girl (Freida Pinto) playing guitar in the window across from his bedroom window (who is, yikes, a tall dark stranger). After watching her for weeks, he invites her to lunch and confesses that he enjoys secretly seeing her undress. She, of course, dumps her fiance for him. See! Creepiness works!
For me, the most compelling part of the movie was this: Alfie tells his daughter he’s fallen in love with a woman half his age. He takes Sally and Roy out to dinner to introduce them to her. She shows up late, so that Allen can have her enter and Be Revealed. The actual reveal is that the woman (Lucy Punch) is a tall, stacked bombshell, and obviously a hooker--like Mira Sorvino’s character in Mighty Aphrodite. But I thought the reveal was that Alfie’s mistress was a man. Because Lucy Punch has a serious man face. So, the second she walked on screen, I thought, “Oh, he’s dating a man!” and then I spent the entire movie wondering when he’d find out he was dating a man. The woman wore nothing but skin tight, cleavage revealing clothes, but I thought for sure she’d turn out to be a man. When a younger dude hits on her, I thought that he’d totally get her into bed and find out she’s a man. None of that ever happened, but the wondering was the most fun I had during the film. Turns out that role was supposed to be played by Nicole Kidman. That would have made You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger a whole lot worse.
aka: Endhiran, aka: Robot, 2010
There are moments in this film, most particularly those featuring prolific actress Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan writhing in a futuristic catsuit beneath a bejeweled purple cape and stainless steel headdress as the only human at a fascist dance party in the Flash Gordon lair of a maniacal android promenading electronic lions on fluorescent leashes, his villainy evidenced by an ‘80s X-Men skunk stripe hairdo as cloned footmen serve as backup hoofers, where you begin to think that India’s most expensive and highest grossing movie just totally beats the shit out of America’s. It’s a musical interlude, of course, many of which in this picture seem isolated enough with black leader and closing fades that they might have been conceived as potentially excisable for international markets. Well no fucking way: the robot themed musical scenes (less so the humans-cavorting-in-exotic-settings bits) come off as in direct competition with this film’s expansive action scenes, compressing as much visual flash as the gunplay and chases into tighter spaces. But then, within five minutes of the opening titles, the promised Robot is already both dancing and kicking; at times the project as a whole threatens to obliterate what small distance is left.
Throughout, you struggle not to loll in simple exoticism, because of course these tropes on screen are built in part from long-honed domestic expectations -- to say nothing of the frentic, wire-flying man-on-multitude brawls notable in Southern genre pictures, albeit here choreographed by the august Yuen Woo-ping -- but there’s little denying that Enthiran seems nonetheless prone to hitting every happy button on a certain breed of North American cinema cultist - it’s bright, forthright and giddy in mixing genre movies and comic books and gaming and music into a proudly gaudy contraption of determined, unashamed artifice. I mean, the robot even sings in Auto-Tune! And you know you’re in the presence of stardom of some excellent vintage when the lead actor doesn’t get just a pre-title credit, but his own logo. Like, you know how all the studios and whatnot have their fancy logos play onscreen before the movie starts? That’s what mononymic cash cow Rajinikanth (or: “Rajini”) gets in this one, and he’s not a producer or anything - his logo merely broadcasts the imminent arrival of The Awesome. Unbuckle your seatbelts, we’re almost there.
The saga of a passionate inventor (Rajini) who invents the world’s most sophisticated peacekeeping military robot (Rajini!), only to witness (and sometimes facilitate) his creation’s upgrading into a feeling, emotional entity manipulated into murderous villainy by the avarice of humankind, Enthiran bristles with references to sci-fi epics from Metropolis onward and namedrops Asimov with no less vigor than the Ramayana, but it’s maybe most directly comparable to the manga of Osamu Tezuka, encompassing both the extended theme of a fundamentally peaceable robot driven to tragic violence, and a predilection toward zany, often slapstick humor -- sometimes sped up, Benny Hill-style -- including a gratuitous sequence of comedic fancy set among talking insects. Pop culture gags and in-jokes abound, so that attentive viewers might catch a reference to the 60-year old star’s off-screen baldness (the wig budget on this thing must have exceeded 10 crore on its own) before soaking in a prolonged cop-killing car chase seemingly in homage to Grand Theft Auto. That it’s all fairly contrived in terms of storytelling and almost determinedly adverse to divining any meaning beyond that accumulated from its myriad influences seems nearly beside the point.
But there’s also backwash from so many troubled, outright dystopian ingredients. The film labors under delusions of misanthropy; basically every human character contributes in some way to the madness and ruin of this poor, nice robot, who just wanted to be loved, and while the stain is certainly spread to the romantically troubled inventor Rajini himself and an obligatory malevolent mentor/rival -- the latter with connections to terrorism, as embodied by a German arms merchant, who I guess is there to foreshadow the fascist theme of the Robot’s eventual turn to mecha-authoritarianism -- most of the earthy beatings are directed at singularly aggressive street thugs of a noticeably race/culture-coded sort. Rai-Bachchan is saved from rape twice, once by each incarnation of Rajini, as if to keep the heroics even; the grosser scenario sees a bumbling seaside native taking the Heroine’s teasing too far, only to be bluntly and simply outwitted by our gallant man of science, but the Robot does enjoy a far flashier mass fight scene against a vicious dastard in leopard print attire surrounded by goons prominently clad in hip-hop gear (this after the robot heroically destroys their home theater for playing their damn music too loud). It’s an odd middle ground, where composer A.R. Rahman fuses hip-hop and contemporary R&B sounds into his score, while director/co-writer S. Shankar uses hip-hop attire as unambiguous shorthand for “violent crime.”
Maybe he’s implicating himself in humanity’s fallen state, but the dim-bulb characterization of Rai-Bachchan’s romantic object, a goofy, studying-is-soooo-boring teenage type transposed to medical school, speaks mainly to the ease with which damsels in distress and other easy characterizations fit into the picture’s popular blend. It can still be potent, believe me - to call the last 45 minutes of this film ‘over the top’ doesn’t begin to address the Treasure boss fight delirium of several dozens of CG Rajinis fusing into a rolling metal sphere spiked with jutting arms clutching automatic firearms. Yet mostly the lasting impression is one of agreement with the story’s ultimate moral: no, for all the flash and awe, the future isn’t quite ready to arrive yet.
The Failure of Microbudgets Continues, 2010
Monsters doesn't open with promise, but with apology: night-vision cams, stock military types, an inexplicable homage to I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, and then, the beast untamed. And while the audience will certainly will have been prepared by the hype the film has gotten to see what a no-budget special effects man can do with off-the-rack technology, it's still a bit of a shock. Not because it's scary--make no mistake, nothing in Monsters comes close to that word--but because it's even worse than the most cynical might have imagined. A corny, digital squid, resting on top of a gas station, noisily hurling shit around. The only thing that makes it different from the clips of those five dollar SyFy channel originals is the lack of Joel McHale's never-ending wit to lessen the sting.
While this is the first moment in the film when a gaping plot hole opens its mouth to puke idiocy upon you--the soldiers have fought these beasts for years, and yet still show up to do battle with useless machine guns?--there's so many of those to come that, by the time we return to this scene (because, of course, this is one of those flicks that begins at its conclusion, only to work its way back) one might even find it quaint. After all, you've already gone through this once. It's the kind of stupidity you're ready for.
Yes, this is one of those: a shit movie, through and through. Aimlessly stocked with an assortment of contextual swipes--there's Babel's cinematography, here's some illegal immigration scenes too didactic for Harrison Ford, let's marathon Before Sunrise for all the romantic bits--Monsters isn't just lazy, it's in your face, poking your chest about being so. Why is the main female character in Mexico? Fuck you, no answer. Why does she have to get back home so urgently? Fuck you, no reason. What kind of desperate, down-on-his luck photographer would aggressively try to bang his boss's soon-to-be-married daughter right after meeting her? Fuck you, this guy.
In the interest in keeping things brief, Monsters isn't just laced with moments of narrative incoherence, it's actually constructed out of them; a film whose first thirty minutes don't make any logical sense whatsoever, with two characters who consistently make choices that serve only to prolong the film's runtime. By the point in which they've put themselves in danger--an alien danger that is depicted mostly through the violent slaughter of some Mexican "coyotes" who, in a previous scene, have just explained that the beasts mainly dislike Americans, because they're not all people-of-the-Earth like us good old fashioned AK-47 toting people smugglers--you can't help holding on a bit longer, desperately yearning for a scene where one of these dime-store Linklaters will get their tongue ripped out and all will feel right with the world. Spoiler alert: don't bother.
There's a hope in this country, probably the world, that the ease of digital production will break the backs of the behemoth movie studios. It's a hope propagated solely because there's a portion of the audience who, like those American Idol contestants who Just Don't Get It, think they've got something to say, and that something is better than those talentless fucks who get all the chances. Sure, you'll find others who say that the rest of the world is clamoring for these things as well, but it isn't true, don't believe it for a second. Audiences are fine with Pixar's fables, they're creaming their jeans for Christopher Nolan's sterility, they're packing stacks of cheddar for big budget sci-fi remakes of Dancing With Wolves. If they want individual works of art, unique, personal films--well, they've got plenty of those. Godard's still around. Haneke's got plenty of life left in him. The Criterion Collection is selling pillowcases. Besides, the dream on the horizon for our hopefuls isn't a sea of Slacker remakes (those are available as well, they just call it "film school" and "the Sundance Institute"), it's shit like Monsters, fan-fiction and a dream of remaking Die Hard, propelled by the belief that all it takes to make great genre is a wholly unwarranted belief in oneself and hilarious self-created "writing" schedules that involve lots of alarm clocks. It's the old LA joke gone viral--you're not a bartender, you're a screenwriter, wait until you see this buddy cop story. And while Monsters isn't responsible for any of that, it's an outgrowth of it, and that's why you're going to be hearing about this one for a couple of hot minutes when it finally hits theaters. Oh, the print critics won't praise it--five will get you ten that Armond White and Roger Ebert will team-up against this nonsense--but the wanna-bes will be out in droves. They don't have a choice. This is the kind of crap that's going to buy them the sandcastles of their dreams.
-Martin Brown, Joe McCulloch, Tucker Stone, 2010