Barry Lyndon,
and a few more films

Eve's Bayou (1997)

#262  [archive]
MAR. 18, 2024

This is heavy drama like a soap opera, focused on one black family in 1950s Louisiana. Samuel L Jackson is cheating on his wife, but golly he still loves her and the kids.

Everything in the movie looks stylish, but it feels antiseptic and oddly artificial — hammy performances in upscale, tidy, almost Merchant-Ivory settings. Every actor poses perfectly for every close-up, and delivers all their lines like it's a stage play and they want their Tonys. The artificiality left me restless with boredom, and my attention wandered into the kitchen for a sandwich.

And voodoo, man. It's part of Louisiana culture, yeah, but that doesn't mean I have to respect it when people talk about it as if it's real. This movie's plot consults not one but two voodoo fortunetellers, and baby sister has second sight, too, and when there are allegations of child molestation, extra sensory perception is how we to decide what really happened. Just, no. ESP and voodoo and supernatural stuff belongs in scary movies, not in a film that's trying to be taken seriously. 

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Ex Machina (2014)

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, from About Time, but now without the accent) is a low-level dweeb at a giant high-tech corporation, who wins a company lottery where the prize is a week with the billionaire owner at his super-secluded Fortress of Solitude in the mountains. I'd bring a gun and a fork and eat the guy, but Caleb is nicer than me.

When he arrives at the underground mansion, the billionaire (Oscar Isaac) reveals that he's made an artificial woman with artificial intelligence. Caleb's assignment is to give the contraption a one-week Turing test, to see whether it could pass as human. At least, that's what Elon Bezos Zuckerberg says, but there's something else going on.

Of course, you'll know where the story's going once it's revealed that the AI entity is a Hollywood gorgeous woman (Alicia Vikander).

"One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa."

It plays like an episode of Black Mirror, with a bigger budget. I kinda liked the Turing on Turing tests I'd probably fail, and there are some conversations that seem 50% more intelligent than most movie dialogue, but it's obvious that one writer wrote both halves of the philosophical debate. The cocky bastard CEO is amusing, as he tries to be polite but can't pull it off, so he's always at least lightly insulting.

It's disappointing that in a movie with a rich, conceited CEO as one of the principal characters, and peppered with heady philosophical conversations, there's no questioning the morality of one man owning a compound the size of Connecticut.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, this is his first try at the helm. He'd previously written 28 Days Later, which was rendered unwatchable by bad direction, and the more successful but still partly cloudy Sunshine, as well as several other titles unseen by me.

This one's about as close to intellectual as Hollywood gets, which isn't all that close, but you could do worse.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Exam (2009)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

There's a job opening at some giant conglomerate, for a high-paying, upper management gig. Eight applicants are gathered in a room, and each is given a questionnaire to fill out. A mysterious man lays out a few ground rules — you have 80 minutes to fill out the questionnaire, and you can't leave the room, etc. Once the clock is running, though, we see that the questionnaires have no questions. Hmmm.

The whole movie takes place in one room, while the job applicants try to figure out what's going on. One of them is an obnoxious alpha male who takes charge of the situation, but they're all candidates for a high-level job so there's no shortage of obnoxiousness. Everyone insults and interacts with the others, trying to figure out what's the answer for the questionnaire, and also what's the question.

If dramas that lock people into a room are a genre, it's a genre I like — Cube, Das Boot, The Breakfast Club, The Man from Earth, Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, 12 Angry Men, etc. And indeed, Exam is an interesting film. The characters are stereotypes (which the film acknowledges), and it's more about the fun of solving the puzzle than the human condition or anything. Solving the puzzle, though, is enough.

The first half is tight, then it droops a bit and seems unlikely, but it rallies at the end, makes sense. Pencils down, I don't regret spending an hour and a half on this Exam

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Barry Lyndon (1975)
Streaming free at YouTube

As a 17th century Irish teenager, Redmond Barry has the advantages of being born to a white and genteel family that's not rich, but clearly not poor.

Unlike most literary protagonists, he is neither downtrodden nor born to great wealth, and also not a prodigy always destined for greatness. He's just a schlub. When he gets into a battle of insults, he'd be unarmed if not for wisecracks discretely fed to him by a friend. He's even unsure what to do when his pretty cousin declares herself open for sexual escapades. 

He's brash, though, and when an English officer pursues that pretty cousin, the boy takes great offense, provokes a duel, and in the aftermath he must flee the countryside. Thus begins a progression of events that finds him in the British, then Prussian armies, then becoming a spy.

He'll do whatever's necessary to be seen as a 'gentleman'. He doesn't want to be a gentleman, mind you, but it's important to be seen as one.

Eventually, renaming himself Barry Lyndon and pursuing a noble title, the uncertain boy of the first few scenes becomes such a fancy man he needs two employees to assist him with shaving.

This flick is better than I'd expected, and it's written, produced, and directed by Stanley Kubrick, so my expectations were high. 

Even describing it, Barry Lyndon is better than whatever you're envisioning. It's a costume drama, certainly, but the military uniforms and lord-of-the-manor's ruffles and all the stilted speaking is counterpointed with arch narration that, to my tender eye and ear, suggests the pretense of aristocratic life. Curiously, the narrator usually tells you what's about to happen, which allows you to look around and enjoy the magnificent views.

And it's beautiful. Dang near every shot looks like a painting in a museum, except that a painting just sits there, while this scenery crackles with tension and there's a grand story unfolding.  

"You can put down your hands now, Mr. Barry." 

"Starring Ryan O'Neal," the screen announces, which seems like an obstacle, but Kubrick uses his leading man's limited acting ability to the film's advantage. O'Neal brings no charisma, and sometimes seems blank as an epic movie happens all around him, but that fits the character's often-accidental finding of good fortune, despite being frequently in over his head.

The movie is more than three hours long, but when I paused it to pee I was amazed that only twenty minutes remained. I was into it all the way, and by the end it was one of the rare movies that left me wishing there was someone to have a cup of coffee with, and talk it over.

It ends with this on-screen epilogue: "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now." When I first read that, I thought Kubrick was saying there's equality in death, that paupers and the wealthy are both destined to be eaten by the same worms. 

A few minutes later, freezing the frame to type those words, the sentence jumped at me from a different direction. Maybe he's saying that this story was from an earlier era, but that now, in our allegedly enlightened times, all men and women are of the same status before man and god. Yeah, I think that's what he's saying, and being no dummy Kubrick is of course saying this sarcastically.

Based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, this took Oscars for John Alcott's cinematography, as well as set direction, costume design, and the music by Leonard Rosenman (who later wrote my favorite Star Trek score, for Star Trek IV). For Best Picture, script, and direction, Barry Lyndon lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which is a movie I like quite a lot, but it's frankly ordinary compared to this.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
Streaming free at YouTube

Art is beautiful, and 'art' is a scam. That's my takeaway from this fluffy profile of Thierry Guetta, aka street artist Mister Brainwash.

When the movie starts, Thierry is a very financially secure Frenchman living in Los Angeles. He owns a high-end boutique, and probably has other assets unmentioned, because instead of working or worrying about the boutique, he spends all his time carrying a camera and filming whatever he sees.

When Guetta sees people clandestinely painting and postering sidewalks and buildings, he films them, and begins buddying around with some of L.A.'s more famous street artists, including Space Invader and Shepard Fairey.

This eventually leads to a connection with Banksy, the anonymous celebrity artist, who appears in this film (if it's really him) in shadows and with his voice disguised. He's also billed as the film's director, which is certainly bullshit, but what's he gonna do about it? Can't sue without unmasking himself.

Meanwhile, Guetta keeps filming everything, leading these artists to believe he's making a documentary, but in reality he only films because he likes holding a camera, and he's quite possibly a little hollow in the head. He never looks at the video footage, though, never edits it, just stores it in boxes, and he has no idea how to make a movie. 

So he puts his camera away and decides to re-invent himself as one of the famous street artists. He uses his considerable wealth to stage a huge show of his art, and it's a laugh watching the hierarchy of street art respond, as Guetta christens himself Mister Brainwash, and a new star is born.

Narrated by movie star Rhys Ifans, the film is an unintentional exposé of the art scene. At a baseline every piece of street art is a prank, and I do love a prank, plus many of the works are good.

Pinch yourself and get real, though: Famous street artists like Banksy or Mister Brainwash have agents and connections and un-cited sources of income that make everything possible. They're famous artists because they're rich, having fun with their free funding and time, but nothing created by any of these celebrities is inherently 'better' (and most of it's probably 'worse') than the work of artists you've never heard of, and never will.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Exotica (1994)
Streaming free at YouTube

It's complicated. Take notes. I did.

Francis (Bruce Greenwood) frequents an exotic dance club, where he's mesmerized by Christina's feigned underage strip show. Christina (Mia Kirshner) used to babysit for Francis's daughter, who's missing and presumed dead. His niece Tracey (Sarah Polley) is the babysitter now, and Francis has whispered too-adult conversations with her, and pays $20 p/hour.

Thomas (Don McKellar), meanwhile, runs an exotic pet shop, where the real business is smuggling and incubating exotic birds' eggs. He's developed a deep appreciation of ballet, and the boys who accompany him there, but he's intrigued by Christina too, although not for the same reasons.

In this maze of unsavory characters and sleazy motivations, director Atom Egoyan makes some unexpected turns, but knows where he's going. 

One thing I'm skeptical about is that in the strip club where much of the movie takes place, there's little stripping or nudity. And the club has a DJ, played by hairy Elias Koteas, who talks over loudspeakers during the dances, announcing to the crowd how sexy each particular dancer is, and egging clients to buy private lap dances and et cetera. I am not a regular as such places, but if I'm ogling pretty ladies someplace the DJ is like hairy Elias, I'll be gone as soon as he starts talking.

Be forewarned that even with brief nudity and adult themes and the strip club and all, none of this is particularly sexy. If you're looking for that, look elsewhere. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Extract (2009)

From Mike Judge, maker of Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill and Office Space, this is a live-action comedy set in a bottling plant. They bottle flavor extracts, hence the movie's title.

Joel (Jason Bateman) is the boss, hot for an untrustworthy new hire (Mila Kunis) but reluctant to cheat on his wife (Kristen Wiig). To solve this problem, he hires the world's dumbest gigolo to seduce his wife, a fuck he imagines will free his conscience and allow him to pursue the new hire.

The movie has some laughs, but it's featherweight compared to Judge's best work, and actually kinda lowbrow. Bateman's Joel is the only character in the film who isn't a dimwit.

The best part of Extract is Joel's next-door neighbor, who's in only a few scenes. He's like my flatmate Dean — he always wants to talk, but has nothing interesting to say, and there's no escape but slamming a door in his face.

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

The Face Behind the Mask (1941)
A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Faces (1968)

Fallen Angel (1945)

The Fallen Idol (1948)

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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