Thursday, November 19, 2009

Weekend of Woo-xploitation

It was a big weekend of woo at the movie theatres this past week. I had been looking forward to getting out to see both 2012 and The Men Who Stare at Goats so I could do reviews for Skeptic North, but life interfered. My mom was in hospital for some scheduled surgery which understandably took a well deserved chunk out of my weekend.
So I wrote a totally irrelevant article when I had the chance. And then late Sunday the clouds parted and I suddenly found myself sitting in the theatre watching The Men Who Stare at Goats and thinking that I might even get to go see 2012 before the weekend was truly over... and I did!
And now, a few days of pondering and one epic behind the scenes Skeptic North chat later I'm ready to do some review and comparison... even if it's a few days behind the curve.  It's also not on Skeptic North - the 'irrelevant post' fulfills my quota over there for now, and I'm feeling like I'm neglecting this blog.  Besides, doing a review here lets me use bad words and worry less about form.
There is a clear connection between these two films in that they are both of skeptical interest. Both also start stronger than they end, but that is about as far as the similarities go.
In MWSG the skeptics are right. (IMO – there is some disagreement – see below.) In 2012 the skeptics are wrong.
In MWSG the film never quite fails utterly. 2012 has squandered all its stock by the halfway point.
MWSG knows it's place in absurdity. 2012 pretends to, but is sadly misguided.
MWSG is saved by nothing less than a bravura performance by its star. 2012 has several stars ostensibly at the helm and only one even comes close... but still fails...
Okay, one at a time. I'll start with the good, 'cause the bad is more fun. Be Warned: Thar be Spoilers Beyond this Point.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is ultimately a pretty good film. It inevitably reminded me of Three Kings. Not only is Clooney going back to the Middle East for the third time (Syriana
– which he won an Oscar for, I might add) but he is doing so in a film that is quirky and had me wondering where the fuck it was going from one second to the next.
Clooney is awesome in this film. His character, Lyn Cassady is a cap-full of whack and Clooney commits to it with all the devotion that Cassady devotes to his belief in his own psychic powers.
Oh yeah... I forgot – the plot: Ewan MacGregor is Bob Wilton, a journalist who ends up in Iraq following Cassady on a mission. Cassady is a former member of the New Earth Army – a group of US soldiers recruited and trained in psychic warfare by Bill Django. Half the movie is Bob and Lyn's haphazard adventure; the other half is Lyn's back story.
MacGregor is worthy of his role, and manages to admirably not play the meta-joke of an extended conversation with Clooney wherein Lyn tries to explain to Bob what a "Jedi" is. I was giggling feverishly throughout that, and I wouldn't have if for a moment I had got the feeling that they were winking at me.
MacGregor isn't the only stunt casting in the film. Jeff Bridges plays The Dude... er no – he plays Django. Django is absolutely not The Dude, but comparisons are inevitable simply because its Bridges playing the flake.
Add in Kevin Spacey and they have a nice trio of Best Supporting bookends.
And it's all very loosely based on the book by the same name by Jon Ronson. I haven't read the book, but very seems to be the key word. Though to my understanding a straight adaptation of the book would hardly make a movie of any sort except perhaps a documentary – which is a separate discussion really. The film starts off by announcing loud and clear that "More of this is true than what you might imagine." Which despite what it is literally saying, is clearly implying that a significant part of what follows is complete fabricated bullshit.
Such delightful bullshit it is. I spent roughly the first three quarters of the film not knowing where it was going next, and loving every moment of it. I can pretty much pinpoint the moment that the fun of having no idea where the film is going ended with a bang... literally. Cassady and Wilton's fourth or fifth ride comes to an end when they hit an IED. I was not expecting that at all. I even blurted out "Whoa..." in the theatre. It was the last time the film surprised me. As my cousin stated last night when we were discussing the film, the film didn't know where it was going. I think that's fair. Perhaps more precisely, it didn't know how to wrap itself up. The film, like the car that hits the IED comes to a screeching halt. The pace in the home stretch lags, and the film tries too hard to serve both the Hollywood ending master, while not giving up its skeptical cred.
There is some argument out there that the film fails to maintain its skeptical position. One of my Skeptic North collaborators stands firm that the film sides on the position that Cassady does in fact have psychic powers. I cede that the interpretation is there to be made and is indeed the easiest choice a viewer can make. But I think the film is smarter than that.
Specifically, Cassady practices 'cloud bursting' successfully. Well, he does attempt cloud bursting and eventually the cloud breaks up... but anyone with skeptical acumen will recognize that if you stare at a cloud long enough it is going to break up. It is going to break up if you aren't staring at it too. All one has to do is wait – you'll get the 'confirmation' eventually. In the film we don't have the luxury of time. We must move on, so through the magic of editing the cloud breaks up fairly quickly. Wilton doesn't call him on his bullshit, but I'm going to play the artist card and lay down on the notion that it's far more interesting a film if we are forced to make our own conclusions and interpret his response ourselves.
Cassady successfully stares at a goat. I should clarify. He stares at a goat 'til it dies. Ultimately this is the same argument as the cloud bursting – it's merely less likely that the goat will die in any given moment. But further than this, the titular incident happens in a flash back – which though never explicitly said, is clearly the interpretation of what Cassady has told Wilton. Who knows what really happened. Even if the goat did die there are a barnyard full of possible explanations that are far more likely than Cassady's intense stare. I didn't for a moment interpret this as the gospel truth in the eyes of the storyteller.
When Cassady reveals that he has been the recipient of the 'death touch' – which has yet to have any effect on him – Wilton's response is un mistakable incredulity, and from this point onwards there is precisely zero representation of successful psychic practice (barring the bookend, which I shall deal with separately below). Indeed, when the travellers reach their destination – a military base where Cassady's former New Earth Army cohorts are involved in odd, but decidedly un-psychic or even paranormal pursuits – some nutty but very real-world ideas are all that is left of their former outfit.
Spacey's character by all appearances seems to be a charlatan (unlike the others who are true believers) and nothing he does ever falls outside the realm of sleight of hand, mentalism and/or the standard grab-bag of faux psychic tricks like cold reading employed by Sylvia Browne. Should it be a surprise that his pragmatic manipulation rises to the top of the heap and he become the new leader of the New Earth Army remnant? It all leads me to the conclusion that the film – though not outright saying so – ultimately takes the skeptical stance.
The film is bookended by two attempts at displacing one's molecules and running through a wall. In the first case Brigadier General Hopgood finds himself on his ass on the failure-side of the wall, stunned. At the end of the film Wilton keeps right on going through the wall and into the film's final credit sequence. This is the one point in the film that I feel cannot be cleanly explained by a skeptical position on the part of the director Grant Heslov. I'm not going to make the argument that it was a strong artistic choice, but I do think it is a defensible choice. Several other artist friends of mine and I believe that the audience at least wants to have the illusion of structural flourish in their art. And I do believe that this is an illusion, not actual cleverness. Bookending is a simple trick, but it is tried and true, and even when executed poorly it can go a long way towards creating a false sense of structural completeness. To that end I am led to declare that Wilton walking through the wall is, once the decision to use these scenes as the bookends, the best option. It gives a patina of 'feel good' to the movie, where MacGregor landing on his ass would simply be playing the same note over again from the beginning. Take it a step further and you can call it a metaphor. A metaphor for what? I do not have a solid answer for yet. That could be my failing, but I suspect it's the film's. But simply because I don't understand the metaphor doesn't mean it isn't a metaphor. And if it is a metaphor we can assume it doesn't really happen. Even in the world of the movie. I'm going to loft that Wilton – who embarks on his adventure in the first place in order to prove his value after losing his wife to another man – is moving on "into the next room" in his life. Yeah, it's a crappy metaphor, but I prefer it to "Wilton discovers he has psychic abilities" which seems to be at the core of the complaints of many skeptics. Shermer doesn't specifically say this, but his review is typical of the "whaa whaa, Hollywood is stomping on the truth" attitude that pervades most of the reviews I have been witness to. For Christ sakes guys, it's a movie. If it isn't a documentary – which this isn't – you can't fairly read it literally.
In the evening I decided, what the hell and headed out to the theatre again for a somewhat bifurcated skeptical double feature.
2012, to not put too fine a point on it, is a piece of shit.
I'm going to refrain from touching any of the science. Others have gone there already, and even so, this film is a skeptical washout. The film is SO scientifically illiterate that to even approach it with the pretense that you expected more if it is to reveal that you came into the theatre looking for it to fail. It fails so egregiously on the science front that it makes Roland Emmerich's last disaster-porn flick The Day After Tomorrow look like an episode of Cosmos. At least The Day After Tomorrow had internal logic and while stupid; was stupid fun. I recall fondly sitting in the exact same theatre and crying out "Run or the ice-age will catch you!" 2012 quit offering anything engaging enough after the first half hour to be inspired to such mockery.
Have you seen the preview? You know, this one:

There. Have you seen it now? You just saved $12. That was the best part of the film – the mad-dash out of Los Angeles. If you must, go and watch a few other previews – watch the ocean pour over the Himalayas and wipe out a venerable Monk and his mountain temple; see the USS. John F Kennedy wipe out the Capitol; watch the Vatican disintegrate on top of a bunch of faith-foolish creationists. Whatever you do, do not bemoan that you'll be missing the actual plot. The world ends. That is the plot. No more context is really necessary. Okay, to be fair, there is a 21st century Noah effort, but by the time the film meanders there, it has already been thirty minutes too long and there's still far too much left.
Perhaps if the film treated the audience with a bit more respect for its intelligence, it might have earned more of its 2 and a half-hour running time. But instead we are expected to buy-in as time after time characters make illogical choices (Obstruction ahead, valley on the left, mountain on the right – which direction do you fly your plane? Answer: NOT towards the mountain. Yes, in a video game there would probably be a power-up hidden between the obstruction and the hillside – but this is (ahem) real life.); we are asked to enjoy the same basic 'action' set-up three separate times – if you watched the trailer, you've seen it – taking off in a plane while the ground disintegrates around you; and in the best of those three iterations – sadly also the first – we are presented with the ludicrous situation (watch the trailer again – it's right there) that once the plane takes off, somehow it is below the ground/city and has to dive the ensuing debris. Seriously. How the fuck does that happen? To give credit where credit is due, in the third iteration they do come up with a plausible reason for having to put the plane in a steep climb to narrowly avoid hitting the city it is below – but the same explanation is demonstrably absent in the first version. ARGH!!!
Let me rant on randomly for a bit...
You are flying across the Pacific with the intention of re-fuelling in Hawaii. It has already be clearly established that damned near everything anywhere near a coastline has sink beneath the waves, and you were just in Yellowstone Park when it turned into a super volcano... do you think maybe just maaaaaybe the infamously vulcanistic islands might not be a good plan?
So they AREN'T a good plan it turns out and now you haven't got enough fuel to make it to the mainland. The cargo plane you are in is filled with a metric fuck-tonne of cars. Does the concept of unloading weight occur to anyone? Of course not. Even if you accept that a car is necessary for the ensuing crash-landing escape, that only required one fucking car! Narratively it strikes me that any half-decent film-maker could find a reason to not unload one last car – say... the car aficionado in the group (and there was one) tearfully begs to preserve one single high-performance masterpiece – still a weak reason, but at least it has a dash of sense to it.
When the plane is finally going down (the aforementioned crash landing) rather than crash into the ocean, the dues ex machine raises its head (just an example of lazy lazy lazy plotting) and the Earth's crust has shifted by over 1000 miles – conveniently allowing them to crash land an easy drive from their final destination... what are the chances?
Okay, I'm going to stop there. The film is almost entirely crap. Emmerich seems to think that he's accomplishing something artistically valuable by upping the ante on older efforts. Rather than destroying the White House like in Independence Day, he destroys a plethora of landmarks in Washington, Las Vegas and the Vatican as well as other places with less visibility. Not content to drown New York like in The Day After Tomorrow he dumps California into the Pacific.
Allow me to stretch to find a point of light in this disastrous (by any definition) miasma... I'll watch Chiwetel Ejiofor in just about anything (though I won't watch him in this again) and I have to applaud Thandie Newton for having the cajones to step inside a movie-land Oval Office again after her totally fucking awful portrayal of Condoleeza Rice in W.

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