In the future according to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, LA looks like the favelas outside Rio — a vast, dusty, treeless series of shantytowns covering those coastal hills as far as the eye can see. It’s overwhelmingly Latino — everyone speaks Spanish, or Spanglish — and we learn that the rest of Earth is similarly dark-skinned and downtrodden. A title card tells us that the world is diseased, overpopulated, and broken, and that the wealthiest have decamped from Earth altogether for a kind of space station called Elysium that looks like Bel Air on steroids, where they sip champagne, swim in glamorous pools, and speak French.

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It’s a great premise, fully in keeping with the brilliant work Blomkamp did with his earlier District 9 (2009) — a believable dystopia that reflects the worst tendencies of today’s world, the ways that the wealthy can hoard the best resources for themselves. In a brief flashback, a little boy called Max (who grows up to be Matt Damon) gets taught to read by a little girl called Frey (who grows up to be Alice Braga) as they pour over a book describing the wonders of Elysium. He gazes up at her with love, and promises to take her there someday.

We know he will. But how? and what will the consequences be? By the time we find the adult Max, he’s an ex-con on parole working in a factory making the robo-cops that terrorize the populace, and he and Frey have lost touch.

Add to this story a sharp-edged, power-hungry Elysium defense chief named Delacourt (Jodie Foster) with a sort of South African accent; Delacourt’s designated mercenary named Kruger, who solves problems for her with murderous glee (an unrecognizable Sharlto Copley, who played the hapless lead in District 9); and a crime kingpin on Earth named Spider (Wagner Moura), who sends shuttles full of illegal immigrants up to Elysium on the off-chance they’ll make it past Delacourt’s defenses. Those who don’t make it … well, what do the inhabitants of Elysium care?

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Don’t worry: we’ll warn you in advance about spoilers.

Film blogger JustMeMike and I sat down to have an extended conversation about this film as we have many times — most recently about The Great Gatsby. So, JMM, let me start by asking: were you as intrigued as I was by the film’s premise?

JustMeMike: I hadn’t seen District 9, so I may not have the same entry point as many did. But who could resist Matt Damon as a Mad Max type wearing an exo-skeleton suit rather than leather. I was also eager to see Foster as a villain. I loved Moura from his two Brazilian cop movies that I’d seen. But those are just the actors.

As for the premise, sure, with a dystopian/utopian combo it seemed like a can’t miss. And with Blomkamp at the helm of a 100 million dollar production, it seemed that he has been anointed as the new boy-wonder of the film world. So yes, I was eager to see it.  Show me a tasty premise and A-list actors? Where do I sign up?

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Didion: I loved loved loved District 9. Really: a stunner. It might have made me a bit overly optimistic for Elysium. But I have to say, the opening scenes of this film, with those miserable favelas and all the Spanish (Matt Damon does some good language work here) — well, I can’t remember a more believable dystopia, nor a summer blockbuster with so much Spanish being spoken. I was all in for the film’s setup.

JMM: We can agree, that when you add the imagery to the intellectual side of the premise — then you have created an immediate hook for the viewers with or without the language medley of English and Spanish.

Which leads to a question — why the Francais up on Elysium – or was that just for that particular cocktail party?

Didion:  I’m not sure we’re supposed to know, but I loved the contrast between the gritty, almost apocalyptic world of LA and the jolting scene of Jodie Foster, with her chiseled calves and perfect hair, schmoozing en francais with the hoi polloi. It was so jolting, in fact, that I wondered how much Blomkamp wanted his viewers to get angry about the impossible social divides that exist in our own world. District 9 was ultimately a story about race; perhaps Elysium is his commentary on class?

JMM: Of course it was. And that feeling is what has occurred to so many who have seen the film. I mean that he started with a premise of class issues (and the obvious divide created by money) — separated the two between Earth and Elysium, then switched away from that and made the film into an action/adventure yarn. I still enjoyed myself — but I wanted more thoughtful concepts than explosions.

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Didion: I’m with you there. I found myself oddly ambivalent at the end of the film — feeling as if some other director had arrived mid-stream and transformed the film into something more safe by distracting us with explosions and bad bad guys, away from the class issues.

I’ll say this: of the summer blockbusters I’ve seen, this seems like the most original and substantial — that is, particularly compared to the superheroes and sequels — but I’m ultimately disappointed by Blomkamp’s ultimate privileging of action over ideas. Tell me, JMM, would you ultimately recommend this film — and why?

JMM: Sure I will and am recommending the film. Despite the flaws it is still a first class entertainment. Why? The execution of the technical side of the film is just perfect. I’ll say nothing bad about what we see. It is only when we start to think about it – and this is in the latter parts of the film, that we detect issues.

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The hardware, the robot-cops, the expansive factory setting – all of the was done superbly. So, I think it was a visual treat. Unfortunately, the visuals have to get the highest marks, which means other areas, key areas, like acting and writing suffer in comparison. Since we’ve already mentioned the conceptual change from a theme-based story to an action film, let’s talk actors. Tell me about Foster as Delacourt.

Didion: I’m usually of the opinion that the more Jodie Foster, the better. She’s certainly got the look of the icy, powerful bureaucrat down; think of her as the fixer in Inside Man (2006). She slinks through this film as the cat-like reason why Elysium’s days are numbered — the rot at the heart of the apple. When she speaks in her effortless French in those early scenes, you believe every single bit of her ruthlessness.

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But maybe it was her (weak) South African accent, or a big jump in the narrative in the second act, or the fact that we’ve seen this character before — I found her character to be too stereotypical and .. well, kind of boring. How about you?

JMM: Bingo! Hard to believe that Foster disappoints but she does. But at least half of that can be laid at the feet of Blomkamp. He wrote a one dimensional character and Foster gave him just that.

If I may make a more pointed and cynical observation. I think Foster was cast to sell tickets. As narrow as the role was, anyone could have played Delacourt. In fact I was somewhat surprised by the large number of women who attended the screening I did.  Did you have a similar audience?

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Didion: Now I’m laughing because I realize my complaint is just like in the old joke that I repeat all the time, in which two little old ladies go out for lunch and one says, “This food is terrible!” and the other says, “And there’s so little of it!” I wanted a different Jodie, and I wanted more of her.

But if you don’t mind, I’d also like to issue a larger complaint: the gender stuff in Elysium is bad and boring, too. We have two women: a perfect mother/angel in Frey, and the evil ice queen in Delacourt. The men are similarly stereotyped: Max is our hunky, tattooed superhero (with a nicely gratuitous shirtless scene early on) who wants to just live up to his promises; he hasn’t got much else to offer. And then there’s the ill-fated best buddy (Diego Luna); the dark-skinned crime boss (Moura), whose main original characteristic is his cane; the super-baddy (Copley), and the evil capitalist (William Fichtner). Isn’t the real problem that there’s not an interesting character in the bunch?

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JMM:  Actually there are three women that are important. The third is Frey’s sick daughter. I think once Max gets a look at her, the whole story changes.

Spider was a surprise for me. Moura, in his cop films, is a strong character, a tough guy that any guy would admire; but here he plays a geek crime lord. They could have dispensed with the cane and shambling gait entirely. But Copley as Kruger steals the film away from Damon.

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Damon was driven — not so much by his idealism, but more practically to stay alive. Once he makes a deal with Spider to stay alive, Delacourt brings Kruger into the picture — the type of guy we’ve not seen the likes of before.

Did you like Kruger as a monstrous force?

Didion: Now that I think about it, you’re exactly right: Kruger steals the picture, with his mountain-man cloak and mondo-weapons and can’t-die resurrections. I’m not saying he’s got much three-dimensionality, but I could have spent another few hours creeped out by his capacity for violence.

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I’ll say one more thing to agree with a point you made above: the look of the film, most of which takes place in this hell-Earth, is utterly believable — the visuals of Max’s job at the factory, getting harassed by the robo-cops — Blomkamp is a genius at creating and capturing a full world.

But let me return to your last note about Matt Damon. Do you think he lets the film get stolen out from under him, or was it a problem with the writing?

JMM: Great question. It wasn’t Damon as Max. I think once Blomkamp brought Max and Frey’s daughter together, Max’s direction was set in stone. Max was an everyman, likeable because we all could identify with him. Hard working at his dull/dangerous job. Plus his demeanor to the cops — he was just below the rage phase with the street cops and his parole officer — but he kept himself in check as best he could.

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But it didn’t quite work for Max. Enter Kruger with his helo, his goons, his weapons, and his Afrikaner accent. And his near deadly efficiency. We feared him and were attracted to his strengths, yet we abhorred the thought of this guy getting his mitts on Frey. So I think it was no surprise that he stole the film away from Damon’s Max.

Didion: Sigh. It’s too bad, because I have a theory that no one can do complex, ambivalent characters better than Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bourne, etc). The problem with this one was that his character was set: even if he descended to do something illegal, it was because he was trying to do the right thing in the end.

Maybe now is the time to issue a ***SPOILER ALERT***. Because I have some questions about the ultimate direction of the story.

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JMM, my biggest disappointment came at about the ⅔ mark, when two disappointing things happen: Delacourt dies, and the whole story narrows down to become a question about whether everyone ought to have access to Elysium’s fantastic medical machines, which cure everything. That is, whereas the first part of the film heightens your awareness of a whole universe of class problems — endemic poverty, miserable jobs, tyrannical police, a failed health care system — the second half collapses them into the fantasy that if everyone had access to great health care, all problems would be solved.

JMM: Well I’m not sure all problems would be solved. The idea of making everyone a citizen (for health care or other reasons) was admirable, but I thought wouldn’t it be much easier to bring the med machines down to earth rather than bring the multitudes up to Elysium. But that was the inevitable happy ending — post Max and post Delacourt.

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Which leads to some questions I can ask as we’ve posted the spoiler alert.

You know that Blomkamp’s Elysium was a utopia with Earth a dystopia, so how was it that Spider not only had the means of transporting to Elysium, how was it that Spider had enough power to run his hardware? Seems like Elysium’s eye in the sky would have noticed this on the power grid. How did Spider’s transport which was called an Unidentified Shuttle get through Elysium’s sky-net defenses? Especially after we saw other ships get shot down.

Did any of this trouble you?

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Didion: Will it solve anything to permit everyone the chance to come to Elysium? Or is that access only going to allow people medical care, so they can live longer in that hell? Will inhabitants of Earth still pay exorbitant prices for transport? Will Elysium simply find a new way to ban that traffic? The ending is just a mess of unanswered questions.

I was left with an overriding sense that Blomkamp had created a dystopia so believable that it ruined his capacity to find a happy ending. I couldn’t believe some computer hacking and some luck against Elysium’s defenses would create any real change to the pervasive problems. Narrative problems like the one you mention — about Spider’s illegal transport system — paled in comparison to larger problems with the film’s conclusion.

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JMM: Yup. You got that right. Out of time and out of ideas — was that Blomkamp’s fault, or the suits who financed the film? Whatever the reason, it did highlight the fact that the the last ⅓ paled in comparison to the first ⅔.

But even if the film ended badly, which it did, should this result in a negative for the overall worthiness of the film. Above, you used the term “overriding sense of failure”, I mean, I didn’t leave the theater angry. As you walked out, what was your state of mind?

Didion: We can’t know who ultimately started chopping the ideas out of the third act. But we can comment on the effect, can’t we? My ultimate takeaway was the feeling that either our culture won’t put up with a film that imagines a real change to fundamental inequality, or that our culture is willing to raise the topic and then pastes an implausibly happy ending on it.

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Ultimately I’d give this film a solid three stars out of five, but I must say that I hope Blomkamp gets more work, and that perhaps he doesn’t get saddled with $100m projects like this one, but rather smaller and more thoughtful projects.

JMM: I’ll go to three point five, as I did call it a flawed first class entertainment. Speaking of smaller budgets as well as thoughtful projects, I guess I will move District 9 up to the top spot in my queue. Any last comments, gripes, favorite parts, least favorite parts?

Didion: I can hardly wait to hear what you’ve got to say about District 9. LOVE that film.

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I always forget that you love to ask about favorite/worst parts of the film, and I always forget to think about that while I’m watching! But there’s a teeny moment I loved which follows Matt Damon getting flooded with radiation poisoning at work. He’s lying on a hospital bed, and a mechanized robo-doctor is examining him, telling him exactly (brutally) how dire his condition is. And then it drops a paltry little bottle of pills on the bed. It’s possibly the most miserable and lowest Damon’s character gets during the film. In other words, with no gross-out operations, spectacular violence, or super-CGI, the scene pulls off a nice trick of making you feel his pain. A good example of what Blomkamp can do with a small scene. How about you?

JMM: That was marvelous. I don’t think I had that in mind at all — but wow. On the other end of the spectrum – with Max’s parole officer, they really went cheap. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse representation of a non-human interacting with a human in terms of visual and technological  expertise.

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But speaking of a small scene, that had significant impact. At the cocktail party, the robo-butler offers Delacourt a drink, and she dismisses him with a flick of the wrist. I noticed that and hated her for it.

Didion: In the end, JMM, I’m sorry to see that our August movie doldrums weren’t relieved by Elysium as much as I’d hoped. But the fall has lots of good stuff lined up. I’m hoping that our next convo will cover a different kind of film — perhaps a comedy? — that we can dig into. Looking forward to it, as always!

JMM: Thanks Didion. I am in full agreement about the doldrums. I’m calling it a summer-long down-turn. Elysium did brighten the summer while in the anticipation stage, and yes it might have been a lot better. Fall’s schedule does look delicious. See you then.

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As of Wednesday morning — the morning before Thanksgiving — I had yet to visit the market. For those of you unfamiliar with this family- and food-oriented American holiday, let me explain that the shopping for food alongside other, crazed shoppers is only one part of the anxiety. Thanksgiving stresses people out because it brings families together.

All our baggage of years gone by. All the ways we’ve disappointed each other — and let’s be frank, the ways we sometimes don’t even like each other — or perhaps just the way we think our families are disappointed in us, which is the same thing. The fact that Home for the Holidays manages to package all that up into a warm film that gets better on re-viewing is a small miracle … and let me say that I’ve seen this movie at least ten times, I love it so much.

This wasn’t Jodie Foster’s first directing job, but it was her last for more than 15 years (until she made last year’s The Beaver, a film I still haven’t seen) — perhaps because it received mixed reviews. I remain baffled by the large numbers of critics who haven’t rediscovered its virtues, for it’s truly one of those overlooked gems.

Start with the cast. Holly Hunter is our protagonist, Claudia, a down-on-her-luck fine art restorer and single mother who has flown home to Baltimore to see her family for Thanksgiving. Everything is going wrong — from the fact that she’s getting a cold to having just lost her job to the disturbing fact that her teenage daughter (Claire Danes), who’s staying in Chicago for the holiday, has pronounced that she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend while mom’s away. Claudia makes a piteous call to her young brother, Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.) begging him to come home too, and arrives in Baltimore to find that she has lost her winter coat somewhere along the way. No worries, because like clockwork, her mother (Anne Bancroft) has brought an extra, one of those awful, oversized, pink Michelin Man numbers that only moms seem to own.

You might think, at first, that Home for the Holidays might simply be about a bedraggled, 30-something woman surviving a holiday with her wacky family. Not that there’s anything wrong with the dysfunctional family narrative; it’s one of my favorites. But Foster and screenwriter W. D. Richter have no interest in writing simple screwball. Every single bit of this movie starts to feel real.

Take a small sequence of scenes at the airport. Claudia walks past the bank of public phones and overhears each one of the harried travelers having exasperated conversations with family members. When she gets into the car only to sit in a traffic jam with her chain-smoking, rambling mother, Claudia glances over at the next car to see a similarly middle-aged man looking desperately at her while listening to his parents in the front seat:

Claudia gives him a look over the top of her enormous coat to convey the identical emotion:

And then her mother leans over from the back seat and says, “I can see your roots, Claudia.”

Claudia is saved by the surprise appearance of brother Tommy in the middle of the night along with a handsome friend named Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), adding depth to the story. Who is Leo, and why hasn’t Tommy’s longtime boyfriend come? Deeply unserious and an inveterate practical joker, Tommy offers no answers.

Maybe this sounds like a series of easy stereotypes, from wacky parents to gay brother. But the story keeps changing up, subverting your expectations. For example, when her mother phones a still-single acquaintance from high school, Russell (David Strathairn in a brilliant bit part) to “take a look at the boiler,” the ensuing conversation starts out awkward and becomes bittersweet:

Russell: I’m just lettin’ the guys have the day off, you know, so they can visit their families, since I’m all alone this year. 
Tommy, whispering to Leo as they watch from the next room: This is the saddest sack in the universe. 
Russell: Yeah, I don’t have anybody anymore, my brother and sister got canned and they left town, and then my parents went and died on me. 
Claudia, softening to Russell’s situation: I’m so sorry. I had no idea. 
Russell: Yeah, well, you know — it was a car wreck, last summer, drunk driver, cut right across the, uh, what was it, you know — meridian, and, pow! pow! Head on. So, y’know, I don’t have anybody anymore, nowhere to go today, no family or nothin’ …

Eventually he pauses and says, “You still look so beautiful, Claudia.” It’s a wonderful little scene, as she’s both flattered and ashamed of her behavior toward him and says, almost flirtatiously, “Oh, god, I do not.”

“Maybe next year will be better for you,” she offers at the end. “Yeah,” he says with affected lightness. “Or worse.” Finally he says, “You have a nice life, Claudia.”

That’s the way of this movie: it doesn’t let you laugh at human foolishness without poking you and pointing out the ways you’re implicated in it.

And so it continues through the arrival of sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her self-described “normal” family, allowing the director to open up the complicated relationships amongst the siblings. These scenes are played as much for laughs as for the genuinely toxic moments amongst people who don’t like each other. “We don’t have to like each other, Jo,” Claudia tells her. “We’re family.”

But perhaps the one thing that always gets me about this film is its quiet little theme about the disconnect between memories and commemoration. Each of the characters have special moments, treasured memories that were never captured in photographs — tiny little moments that crystallized something perfect. Some regret not taking those photos, but for others the memory is all the sweeter that it is theirs alone.

And then, by the very end, as many of the harsh edges have gotten chipped and the characters have voiced things that needed to be said, the film shows us a few of those memories: a father watching his little girl stare fearlessly up at a plane taking off; a mother and daughter snorkeling with fish; a gay marriage on a beach in Massachusetts, surrounded only by friends.

Those layers upon layers of memories, with piles of Thanksgiving flavors and family fights on top … isn’t that what the holidays are all about? Take care and enjoy your weekend, friends.

I’m not the type to cry about how children’s movies aren’t as good as they used to be — far from it, as we seem to be living in a golden age for terrific kids’ movies.  But there’s something exceptional about Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone (1976) that’s worth discussing.  Last night our home-for-the-holidays family watched it again and I struck by its appeal to both adults and children – a rarity in the 70s, an era of corny Disney features like The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) that, I’m guessing, don’t hold up all these years later.  The difference, I think, is that the child actors in Bugsy Malone are pretending to be adults in a Prohibition-era world of gangsters, molls, torch singers and showgirls, and wannabe prizefighters.  Because they inhabit their pretend-adult roles so seriously, the movie evokes a sweet melancholy for disappointments, lost chances, and broken dreams, moods discordant with other children’s films.  In fact, I think it’s the film’s juxtaposition of its sometimes dark themes, its terrific child actors, and its joyous final song that rejects cynicism in favor of youthful hope that makes it so watchable.  (Friends, it’s available in full on YouTube.)

When I saw this at a relatively young age, I wanted to visit the set and play there.  They drive kid-sized replicas of early autos that operate by bicycle pedal, it’s full of eminently singable song-and-dance numbers, and best of all, the plot pivots on a gang war over guns that shoot whipped cream.  The acting isn’t always seamless, but the best characters are played by the transcendently good Jodie Foster and, of all people, a pre-Happy Days Scott Baio as Bugsy.  Bugsy’s a scrapper – a good guy who’s a bit down on his luck but manages to get along.  He flirts with all the girls, but he really takes a shine to the solemn-faced Blowsey Brown (Florrie Dugger), a would-be singer who carries a baseball bat in her suitcase.  She shows up at Fat Sam’s speakeasy to get a job; Bugsy gets pulled into working for Fat Sam during the gang war; and their budding romance gets complicated by the worldly, wise-cracking Tallulah (Foster), a torch singer who vamps it up with the guests at the club.

What I find so remarkable about this is the prevailing sense of cynicism in the early parts of the film.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a group of 12- and 13-year-olds voicing such quasi-noir skepticism about the world.  When the club’s janitor hears again that he’ll have to wait till tomorrow to try out for a tap-dancing job, he resolutely picks up his tap shoes and sings a slow dirge:

Tomorrow
Tomorrow never comes
What kind of a fool
Do they take me for?
Tomorrow
A resting place for bums
A trap set in the slums
But I know the score

I won’t take no for an answer
I was born to be a dancer now, Yeah!

Tomorrow
Tomorrow, as they say
Another working day and another chore
Tomorrow
An awful price to pay
I gave up yesterday
But they still want more

Likewise, when Bugsy thinks he’s found a new boxer of extraordinary talent, he takes the poor guy to Cagey Joe’s gym to have him trained.  Joe looks him up and down and begins a warning-off song, eventually joined by all the other boxers in the room:

So you wanna be a boxer
In the golden ring
Can you punch like a south-bound freight train
Tell me just one thing

Can you move in a whirl like a humming bird’s wing
If you need to
Can you bob, can you weave
Can you fake, and deceive when you need to?

Well, you might as well quit
If you haven’t got it.

I should mention that this is really a catchy song, with lots of quick cuts to boxers in training.  But “you might as well quit / if you haven’t got it”?  When have I ever heard that before in a kids’ movie?

Now, no adult today will find the movie’s central plot about the growing arms race to be terribly remarkable — after all, the “splurge guns” at the center of the story shoot whipped cream — but as the film was made in 1976 it’s worth pondering whether it had the Cold War and the US/Soviet arms race on its mind.  Splurge guns prove to be infinitely more “deadly” than earlier weapons (that is, throwing whipped-cream pies into people’s faces), and without them Fat Sam is losing his territory quickly.  The film ends with an utter white-out battle in the speakasy, hitting everyone mercilessly in a way that at any other point would have signified death — in fact, it might have led to an even bleaker conclusion to a film that already has a lot of bleakness on its mind.  But when a pie hits the piano player and he hits a couple of notes, the battle halts; he begins singing in a rueful way, “We coulda been anything that we wanted to be,” a song that grows into a promise to change, to make friends, to live, to love:

It’s been lost, hasn’t it — the sense that the world is precarious, and that we have to become better than we are to save it.  It’s a mood I grew up with as a kid in the 70s, with children’s shows that advocated a social conscience.  All the more reason to watch Bugsy Malone.  Remember that Scott Baio was once a froggy-voiced kid with a sweet Brooklyn accent, a kid who could really act; remember that children’s films had something to say about politics; remember that 1970s message about children being the future.  It’s a pleasure to remember.

Has anyone else noticed that articles like this one in New York Magazine don’t get written about young female actors?  “The Brainy Bunch” is about five young men (Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) who, according to the journalist, bust a bunch of stereotypes because they play twitchy, complicated, and most of all brilliant characters.  The author marvels that these smart actors “bring the raw nerve of indie sensibility” to the screen; moreover, “in so doing, they are reimagining the mainstream.”  Articles like this one are inevitably about men — not because actresses aren’t smart, but because they’re not playing smart onscreen.  This has lathered me up into a rant because I think this is yet another example of the exceptionally disturbing moment we’re living in, during which women’s primary value is their hotness, not their smartness.  Considering that I grew up in an age when the tomboy/ smartypants Jodie Foster was the pre-teen It Girl — a multilingual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Yale — I’m not prepared to let men be smart while women commit their energies to being hot.

Yet I’ve been putting some muscle into coming up with a similar list of remarkable young female actors who play smart onscreen and it’s really hard.  Not hard for older women, mind you; as a culture we seem perfectly willing to grant brains to women over 35 (witness Helen Mirren, Holly Hunter, Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Rampling, Frances McDormand, Judy Davis …).  The one vivid exeption to the rule is Mia Wasikowska (above), she of that remarkable 1st season of In Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, as the teenaged daughter in The Kids are All Right, and the upcoming Jane Eyre.  Other than that?  Can you think of a single young actor who plays smart onscreen from one role to the next?

I can’t.  As much as I loved the fast-talking smarts of Carey Mulligan in An Education and Emma Stone in Easy A this year, there’s one thing that ruins those tales for me:  ultimately these smart characters are shown to be dumb when it comes to men and sex (respectively).  Get it?  Smart girls aren’t smart about everything. I can think of a couple of one-off performances this year — Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Noomi Rapace in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, but I have yet to be convinced that these actors can translate one excellent part into the kinds of careers that New York Magazine‘s favorite young men have achieved.  Consider the career of Harvard grad Natalie Portman, who’s now getting close to 30 (and therefore into the age range wherein Hollywood allows women to be brilliant) — has she ever played smart onscreen?  And don’t even get me started on the fact that the last time I saw a smart young Latina, Asian, Native American, or black woman onscreen was Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson (2006) — and where have the roles gone for Epps in the meantime?

If any of you doubts the perversity of this trend, consider one of the prevailing cultural anxieties appearing in major media of the past six months:  the idea that boys are falling behind girls (or, in Hanna Rosin’s trademark hysterical terms, THE END OF MEN).  At the same time that we watch smart boys and hot girls onscreen, we’re also supposed to feel anxious about the fact that girls do better in school and young women are going to college in vastly larger numbers than boys (they make up roughly 60% of college populations).  This has prompted Rosin and her ilk to proclaim that women are “winning” some kind of battle against men.  Thus, the fact that our films persist in peddling some kind of retro fantasy about boys’ smartness seems to reject our anxieties that girls might be pretty and smart, and reassures us that smart dudes will always bag the hotties.

If you need an explanation for my bleak mood, it’s because I just finished reading Gary Shteyngart’s incredibly disturbing dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story.  In this America of the future, women wear clothes made by the JuicyPussy brand, Total Surrender panties (which pop off at the push of a little button), and have their hotness level perpetually broadcast to everyone around them via a version of a smartphone called an äpparät.  It’s a brilliant characterization of the future (I cringed and laughed at the fact that the hero’s love interest, Eunice Park, majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness in college — we all know that’s where we’re heading) but ultimately one that reiterates that tired trope:  shlubby, bookish, imperfect, aging hero falls for very beautiful, very young, very anti-intellectual woman — and wins her, at least for a while.  You know what?  I love shlubby men in real life (hi, honey!), but I have grown to despise their perpetual appearance in narratives.

So to cleanse my palate of the oily aftertaste of Super Sad, I’ve plunged myself into Muriel Barbery’s wonderful novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which moves back and forth between the interior monologues of two brilliant women:  the autodidact Renée, who hides behind her mask as an unkempt, sullen concierge in an elegant Paris apartment building; and Paloma, the precociously intelligent 12-year-old who lives upstairs and despises the pretentions of her family, teachers, and classmates.  They seem to be on a path to discover one another — but I’m at the point in the novel when I’m so enjoying just listening to them think out loud that I’m not sure I care whether the narrative goes anywhere (Paloma has a diatribe about why grammar is about accessing the beauty of language that’s so wonderful I’m thinking of plagiarizing it for use in my classes).

Here’s what it would take to cultivate a generation of young actresses known for their braininess:

  1. Just jettison the smart vs. hot binary for women onscreen already.  If I see glasses used as the “smart” signifier one more time…
  2. Write some stories in which young women aren’t just interested in dudes all the time, but have wholly stand-alone loves of language, art, math, con artistry, biology, music, sports, comic books, religion, killing demons, other girls, or food — even drugs or booze, for gods’ sake — just like actual women.
  3. Stop resigning smart girls to the sidekick position in kids’ films like Harry Potter, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and TV shows like Buffy, etc.
  4. Show that smartness isn’t just a magical quality endowed by nature, but is something that takes work.
  5. Show that smartness can pose a problem beyond scaring off potential dudes — when young women face idiotic, paternalistic bosses, teachers too tired to teach to the top 1% of a class, or families in which no one has ever gone to college.
  6. Let girls play brilliant anti-heroes along the lines of Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg — or, hell, just weird antisocial types like Lisbeth Salander.
  7. Let girls play funny.
  8. Let young female actors fail occasionally in a part the way we just keep forgiving failures by Jonah Hill, Zach Galifianakis, Ashton Kutcher, even Robert Downey, Jr. — the list goes on — without career consequences.
  9. Give me a central female character besides The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who’s a computer whiz.
  10. Display explicitly feminist characters onscreen, and have them explain their opinions.

Maybe then we won’t experience that odd whiplash of suddenly having our actresses arrive at the age of 35 and suddenly become smart (does this read as unattractive and/or ball-busting to male viewers, I wonder?).  I, for one, am looking forward to my movies looking a bit more like reality.

Child actor

23 March 2010

Last night I watched Tarsem Singh’s “The Fall” on DVD and wished I’d seen it in the theater — not just because of his truly amazing visuals (and please, just for pleasure tick through a gallery of stills here), but because of the terrific Catinca Untaru, a 9-year-old Romanian actor who nails her part.

I’m generally not big on films about children, and if it weren’t for Untaru’s acting this one could have been treacly in its portrayal of an imaginative little girl listening to tall tales.  She is the film, insofar as she expresses so well being transfixed by the tale told by a paralyzed, depressive fellow patient played by Lee Pace.

Her acting is unexpected enough that it’s full of tiny little delights. Her broken left arm is trussed in one of those ridiculous casts that cocks it up at shoulder level, yet she insists on carrying in that hand the cigar box where she keeps treasures she collects from her friends. When she wanders unchecked through the hospital grounds, she moves her tubby little legs like a real child — awkward, un-selfconscious, determined. There’s a great scene in which she steals wafers from the hospital’s chapel and expresses genuine confusion when Pace demands if she’s using them to save his soul. When she cries with despair, real tears stream down her cheeks; and when she lies to him, she sticks to the lie for what seem to be realistic reasons unique to children. [update: YouTube has removed those clips, but you can watch the trailer here.]

It’s to Pace’s credit that he lets her so perfectly express the viewer’s wide-eyed pleasure in the rambling tale. After all, it should have been his movie, after a series of lame TV parts that mostly demanded that he be memorably cute. But in letting Untaru be the utterly believable character — and turning himself into a caricature — Pace demonstrates a degree of actorly generosity that doubtless enhanced the little girl’s translucence.

A final note I haven’t quite figured out yet: The imdb.com mini-biography of her (which sounds like it was written by a family member) insists that Untaru had a remarkable ability throughout the film to distinguish herself from the part she played — an insistence that, oddly, reminded me of Scorsese’s description of Jodie Foster’s child prostitute in “Taxi Driver”: that she had a piercing understanding of the difference between reality and the part she played. Untaru may well have a similarly well-adjusted perspective. But the fact is you’d never guess it as you watch her emotions flit across her face in all her scenes. In a movie that should be memorable for its fantastic imagery — those shots of whirling dervishes, the view down onto the village of blue houses, the strange man who emerges from the belly of a tree — I can’t stop thinking about her very real little girl’s face as she listens to stories. I’m not sure why we need to hear that child actors are able to distinguish between reality and movie fantasy; because the one thing that potentially makes them so great onscreen is when they seem utterly real, and whatever artfulness they might possess as actors falls away.