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It ends with a bang, and then another bang: 2012.

Killing Us Loudly

By Ann Morrow

2012

Directed by Roland Emmerich

The end of the world in Roland Emmerich’s latest doomsday disaster movie, 2012, is even less convincing than it was four years ago in The Day After Tomorrow, which at least had the dubious distinction of being topical: In it, the Earth is destroyed by massive sheets of ice caused by global warming. For 2012 (the title is taken from the Mayan Long Count calendar and its supposed prediction of an apocalypse occurring on Dec. 21, 2012), the cataclysm is produced by neutrinos emanating from the sun that warm the Earth’s core to destructive temperatures.

Yet 2012 is so eager to unleash its admittedly spectacular special effects that it dispenses with most of the pseudo- scientific mumbo jumbo that made a joke out of The Day After Tomorrow—and most of the end-of-the-world movies that made waves in the late 1990s. Little known factoids about neutrinos couldn’t be expected to raise the same kind of sociopolitical ruckus as global warming, and Mayan astronomy (comprising about two or three sentences of dialogue) is only meant to add a dash of mysticism to 2012’s blandly amateurish banter between experts.

And there are a lot of experts: Emmerich and his co-writer, Harold Kloser, have attempted a Babel and Crash-style narrative that connects characters across the globe. The flimsiest connection is between Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a failed novelist, and a Russian mobster (Zlatko Buric) buying up government influence. But hey, Curtis’ novel was read favorably by Adrian (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist who tries to warn the White House that plate tectonics is considerably more dangerous than the wrong china at a state dinner. Adrian’s contact is the chief of staff (Oliver Platt), an eco-cynic who is in on a secret project. As minimal as it is, the screenplay manages to give away the secret well in advance of any build-up in suspense.

Not that there’s time for suspense. As soon as the characters’ social and emotional connections are established, California begins to erupt. Jackson picks up his two kids from his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and takes them to Yellowstone where he meets a crackpot conspiracy-theorist hermit pirate-radio operator (an amusing Woody Harrelson) who also notices the park’s geological aberrations. Jackson races to get his kids home while the entire infrastructure of Los Angeles is torn apart by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

From there, plot is just something that happens in snatches while the continents skid and collide and send St. Peter’s Basilica crashing dome-first into oblivion. Before you know it, the Himalayas are peak-deep in oceanic disturbances. The destruction is impressively rendered, and Cusack does an admirable job of interacting with characters whose roles are even more cookie-cutter than his own. Danny Glover is in Morgan Freeman’s Deep Impact role as the wise and stoical American president; Thandie Newton is mere decoration as the president’s daughter and Adrian’s love interest; and eventually (the film is over two-and-a-half hours), Tibetan peasants will meet up with the Russian mobster’s bimbo—and none of it matters because the arctic poles are upside down, and the jaw-dropping CGI makes it look like the last, best thrill ride on Earth.


Low Wattage

Paris

Directed by Cédric Klapisch

It takes some serious stones to name your movie after a city. Robert Altman got away with it in Nashville, because he could focus his sprawling black comedy on the music industry and the political ennui of the 1970s. Wolfgang Peterson got away with it in Troy, through sheer, massive CGI overkill and by casting the biggest movie star in the world (Brad Pitt). The more subtle Cédric Klapisch gets away with Paris, because he’s not trying to make any grandiose statement beyond, “Go on, schmuck, live life to the fullest.”

This doesn’t mean that the slightly sprawling Paris is more than mildly interesting or more than fitfully entertaining. Because it isn’t.

Klapisch’s smartest move is not tying all the characters together neatly; most are just peripherally in each others’ orbits. At the center of this disorganized universe is Pierre (Romain Duris), a 30-something ex-dancer with a terminally bad ticker: No heart transplant, he dies. His social-worker, single-mom sister (Juliette Binoche) and her three kids move in, both to take care of him and cheer him up. It mostly works, on both counts.

There are a half-dozen other principle characters, including an emotionally desperate, middle-aged professor (Fabrice Luchini); the hot young thing he fixates on (Mèlanie Laurant, giving more-or-less the same diffident performance she gave as Shoshana in Inglourious Basterds); and his always flummoxed middle-class architect brother (François Cluzet). There are some hearty French workers who get way too much of the filmmakers’ benefit of the doubt for their earthy, life-affirming joie de vivre; there’s an illegal immigrant trying to make his way to Paris from Cameroon; and there are some high-society babes looking for a little lower-class action in one of the films’ less defensible sequences.

It’s nice that most of these characters are sour or grumpy most of the time; that’s life. It’s just that the filmmakers only bother to make a few of these characters worth our interest. Paris, the city, however, always holds our interest, photographed beautifully in muted colors, and in widescreen.

The most magical, effective part of the film is the opening-credit sequence. As the camera prowls around the City of Lights, and we see flash-forwards of what we’ll later realize were scenes to come, the credits pile up on top of each other, each white line fading slowly as another appears. It’s a nice suggestion of the fading mark each of us leaves behind in this world, as time eventually erases us utterly. Alas, nothing that follows is as poetic or to the point.

—Shawn Stone


Their Generation

Pirate Radio

Directed by Richard Curtis

Jammed with simply fab music, Pirate Radio is the cinematic equivalent of lolling at the beach, inhaling Coppertone fumes while toe tapping to your big sister’s transistor radio. For those of us of a certain age, the sounds of the Kinks, the Who, and Hendrix pounding out aural magic is nostalgia at its best, being that that nostalgia is tinged with suspense over what next might come out of the DJ’s playlist. As with records, however, there’s the flip side to Pirate Radio, this one being that the narrative and its ill-formed characters combine to serve no greater purpose than the throw-away B-side to a Top 10 hit.

Ah, what a waste—a waste of a great soundtrack and cast. Pirate Radio, directed by Richard Curtis, details the magical times had by a group of DJs who broadcast rock & roll from a ship in the North Sea, at a time when the venerable BBC controlled radio content in Great Britain. Needless to say, rock was not deemed necessary to morally uplift and inform the postwar population. Curtis floods his film with everyday people bopping to the pirate station, and thrilling to the off-color antics of its storied DJs. The ship itself is perhaps more of a character than any of the individuals, serving as domicile, workplace and overall boys’ club for a variety of shaggings and shenanigans.

Without fail, the music takes a backseat to furtive couplings between the DJs and their occasional female guests, including a bristling cameo by January Jones as a duplicitous American bride. There is one woman on board, but she, a lesbian, serves mainly to underscore the fact that the guys were getting three squares a day. Pirate Radio’s depiction of women is not much more evolved than the views of a 12-year-old boy. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an American expatriate, “living for the music, man,” which basically means that he’s willing to risk near-death rather than go off-air. Rhys Ifans works a Brian Jones riff, but behind the mod glasses and feathered hats, what’s he about? Tom Sturridge plays a prep-school dropout bent on losing his virginity, and, at times, figuring out which DJ could be his daddy. Mom (Emma Thompson) isn’t saying, being too busy during a brief ship visit doing her Mrs. Robinson impersonation. Bill Nighy, as always, provides incomparable support as the Hugh Hefner-type ship owner, but why exactly is he footing the bill? A number of other DJs amble amiably about, distinguishable mostly by their sartorial choices.

Pirate Radio’s intended great dramatic moment is hammy and overwrought. A subplot involving monomaniacal bureaucrats (Kenneth Branagh having a field day) trying to stop the evil of “the music” offers a lot of funny moments, but the longed-for confrontation between youthful anarchy and entrenched bureaucracy never happens. The DJs get teary-eyed realizing that these are the best days of their lives, but what did they expect? Apparently, it’s all about the music, but we never really get what that music means to any of them—unless it’s just a backdrop to another shag. The movie’s coda points out that where once there were no rock stations, now there are, like, hundreds of thousands; of course, I’m sitting there thinking, “But where are the ones that are going off the proscribed playlists???” As if in answer to that plea, the movie ends with the credits rolling alongside a wide variety of album covers of the past 40 years; the breadth of style included, and the emotional power the seeing those images provokes—that’s what the music is about.

—Laura Leon


Press the button! Press the button! (l-r) Marsden and Diaz in The Box.

The Botch

The Box

Directed by Richard Kelly

A schoolteacher (Cameron Diaz) and her rocket-scientist husband (James Marsden), are having a run of bad luck when a mysterious man with a disfigured face (Frank Langella) presents them with a wooden box and an unusual offer: If they press the button inside the box, they will receive $1 million, but someone, somewhere—who they don’t know—will die. Spooky!

Seems like premise enough for a conventional morality play, right? Based on the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button,” The Box starts out as more-or-less just that: In one agonizing scene, Marsden and Diaz toss a bunch of hamhanded existentialist queries (“What is it to really know someone?”) back and forth as the mystery box sits in the foreground. Of course it’s all foreplay for the inevitable button-pushing, without which this wouldn’t be much of a film.

Set in Richmond, Va., in December 1976, which allows for the plot to incorporate the Viking 1 Mars lander, The Box begins as a charmingly slow-moving, mildly stylized throwback shot with long, panning camera movements and a hint of sepia-tone for effect. Perhaps due to the hammy dialogue, and Diaz’ earnest attempt at a mid-Atlantic accent, this first hour plays like one of Matheson’s Twilight Zone episodes—it’s no surprise, then, that “Button, Button” was adapted for that series in the mid-1980s.

Director-screenwriter Richard Kelly does a game job of trying to stretch the rather slight source material beyond its stated capacity. But The Box precipitously descends into gobbledygook as soon as the button is pressed—coincidentally where Matheson’s story leaves off. The first hour is innocuous; the second hour is a fourth-rate X-Files episode.

While his most popular film, Donnie Darko, got by on an overarching surreality—a clever way of saying the film is borderline incomprehensible—Kelly’s latest work reveals him to be a big-idea hack in the vein of M. Night Shyamalan. There’s no suspense to be found, just a series of obvious twists and a lot of needless foreshadowing. On that: Foreshadowing is a common and sometimes crucial element of storytelling, but at no point in The Box does it serve the story. Rather, it softens the impact of later events. The “internal memo” about Langella’s character, which runs at the film’s open, takes the buzz out of the entire first hour.

Some of the film’s conceptual shortfalls could be ignored if it weren’t for the modern trappings. When the musical soundtrack (by members of indie-rock band the Arcade Fire) first makes itself apparent, around the time Langella’s first appearance, it’s well-timed and suitably creepy. But then it never goes away. And the visual effects are nicely underplayed, mostly limited to a half-dozen bloody noses, until it’s all blown in one suspicion-confirming, maddeningly awful CGI sequence.

—John Brodeur


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