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Review: Thank You For Smoking

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The recent documentary Workingman’s Death examined some of the world’s most dangerous and/or dispiriting occupations, including that of a guy in an open-air abattoir whose daily task is to slash the throats of several hundred goats and cattle. Still, at least that dude isn’t charged with selling the lamentable beasts their own machetes and blithely asserting on talk shows that no credible evidence has demonstrated that razor-sharp edges can cut flesh. Thank You for Smoking, adapted by Jason Reitman from Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel, makes a game, surface-skimming attempt to explore the internal contradictions of just such a man.
    In his most substantial role outside of the Neil LaBute oeuvre, Aaron Eckhart is in top charming-sleazeball form as Nick Naylor, a tobacco lobbyist torn between the “moral flexibility” required by his profession and his desire to impart something vaguely approaching values to his young son (Cameron Bright, almost as eerily self-possessed as he was in Birth). Knocking back shots with his fellow merchants of death, a liquor apologist (Maria Bello) and an N.R.A. spokesgoon (David Koechner), Nick has no trouble laughing off the grisly statistics he’s required to obfuscate; place him in front of a microphone and a torrent of credible-sounding lies automatically issues forth. But biology, alas, has conspired to create the one human being on the planet whom Nick Naylor doesn’t feel 100% okay about spinning. Only, say, 96%.
    Sharp and funny when it sticks to the delusional world of Big Tobacco, Thank You for Smoking becomes somewhat broad and tired when it stoops to satirizing Hollywood narcissism, introducing Rob Lowe as an unctuous superagent whom Nick entreats to help him make onscreen smoking cool again. Meanwhile, not once does anybody ever light up in this movie, a bizarrely deliberate choice that I suppose could be viewed as admirable, but that somehow comes across, like much of the movie itself, as safe and gutless. Still, it’s refreshing to see our culture of knowing mendacity treated with such sly candor. A scene in which Nick explains his job to his son via an argument about the merits of chocolate vs. vanilla ice cream, subtly but decisively changing the terms of debate in a way that puts the kid on the defensive, ranks alongside Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in the annals of doubletalk. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: V for Vendetta
Our Brand Is CrisisOh boy, this will go over well. Chances are, the relative merits of this Wachowski Brothers-produced adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel will get lost amid the tornadoes of controversy it will set off. To wit: The plot centers around the relationship between a talky, futuristic terrorist named V (Hugo Weaving) who prowls London in a Guy Fawkes mask destroying major landmarks, and a young, idealistic woman who becomes his protégé (Natalie Portman). Of course, this isn’t any old London — it’s a blackened proto-Orwellian nightmare swarming with secret police, a melting pot of every dystopian tale you can imagine. And in the Wachowskis’ hands (not to mention the film’s director, former Matrix assistant director James McTeigue), it bears some eerie similarities to twenty-first-century America, with shout-outs to terror warnings, media monopolies, bird flu, and sexual bigotry. Heck, there’s even a Bill O’Reilly clone.
    V’s great dream is to destroy the Houses of Parliament — less an act of terrorism than of demolition, justified (in the film’s mind) by the notion that a corrupt political system cannot be brought down until the symbols it uses to hold onto power are destroyed. But surely the filmmakers realize the semiotic heft carried by the sight of big important buildings going ka-boom. No matter what its producers say, and despite the fact that the original comic was a veiled critique of Thatcher’s England, V for Vendetta is a great big “fuck you” to our current political zeitgeist.
    So how ’bout them relative merits? Never has a film veered so dramatically between the electrifying and the idiotic. McTeigue and his overlords, much like V himself (and also not unlike such propagandists of yore as Leni Riefenstahl, Sergei Eisenstein, and Frank Capra), can manipulate an emotion until the desperation takes your breath away. I’d be lying if I said that the sight of this fantasy fascist kleptocracy being taken down didn’t give my knees a little charge. But for all its exhilarating setpieces, V for Vendetta is also often just stupid: Weaving does his best to slog his way through V’s endlessly verbose lines, but his words sound like a high schooler’s idea of learned discourse. And the tiresome exposition of the first half suggests the film thinks its bleak vision is more original than it actually is; after all, this totalitarian state is instantly recognizable to anyone who read 1984 or, heck, saw Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The result is a film whose scandalous politics are matched only by its shocking unevenness. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: The Big Question
Joyeux NoelWhatever your opinion of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, you probably never thought it was produced by people uncertain about their religious beliefs. But sure enough, Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari’s documentary, shot during that controversial blockbuster’s production and consisting entirely of cast and crew discoursing about all matters spiritual, suggests a more open-minded reality behind the camera: Here we see Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, even one guy who appears to be a pagan. Of course, the once-elusive Gibson himself also appears, to discuss how he found his way back to his faith, what he thinks God is, and his vision of Paradise (if it doesn’t exist, “bring on the harem and the cocaine, man”).
    The Big Question, despite the magnanimity of its approach, will probably please very few people. Fans of Gibson’s film won’t have much patience for a hippie-dippie portrait of a crew of sensitive doubters; detractors, on the other hand, are likely to stay away entirely. But The Big Question certainly offers more insight into the nature of belief than The Passion itself. If anything, it suggests that even the most committed among us are ultimately just looking for some comfort: A startling montage of individuals professing they’ve seen actual miracles leads to a montage of the same folks describing the horrific car accidents they survived — presumably, the very same “miracles” they claim to have witnessed.
    That said, Cabras and Molinari do make plenty of unwise choices: Their refusal to identify their interview subjects, while it may hold some conceptual interest, results in a mish-mash of views. Likewise, their constant cutaways to a white dog running among fields and empty small towns, surely meant as a symbol of some kind of spiritualism, gets tiresome faster than you can say “padding”. In essence, this is a fascinating short film that gradually wears out its welcome — but until it does so, it’s surprisingly worthwhile. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Stoned
Joyeux NoelThe latest dead-rock-star biopic, Stoned tells the story of Brian Jones, the paranoid musician who founded the Rolling Stones in 1962 and seven years later was found “dead by misadventure.” The film intercuts a straight biograpical account of the cocaine-clouded three months before his death by drowning with scenes from his hedonistic, LSD-saturated time with the Stones.
    There’s an innate codependency between sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, and you’d think a biopic of Britain’s longest-lived band would be bursting with all three. Unfortunately, director Stephen Woolley leaves out the music almost entirely. All the sex and drugs in the world can’t make up for such a glaring absence. — Michael Mitchell
Review: Find Me Guilty
Joyeux NoelIn Sidney Lumet’s first film shot on high-definition digital video, Vin Diesel plays the kind of mobster who turns the other cheek when his addict cousin busts into his bedroom and shoots him five times. Jackie Dee is a charming criminal who refuses to rat out his fellow Jersey mobsters to shorten a thirty-year sentence, then becomes his own lawyer in what turns out to be the longest criminal trial in U.S. history. Diesel is almost unrecognizable with his slicked-back hair and lasagna gut, and many of his scenes as a thug turned lovable lawyer are laugh-out-loud funny. — Michael Mitchell
Date DVD: A History of Violence
Dog Day Afternoon Historically, films by the freakish Canadian director David Cronenberg have not been great date films. Knee-jerk feminists have jumped on his evil women, like the demon-spawning wife of The Brood, whose every deviant desire became a monstrous child, and lamented his wildly sadistic men, like the twin-brother gynecologists of Dead Ringers, who invented some sexual instruments that would make Alien‘s sci-fi goth artist H.R. Giger blush. But the best — which is to say, the most disturbing — horror films have always played on some sort of sexual terror, from Frankenstein pawing a young blonde girl by the pond to a menstruating telepath named Carrie, and, of course, Cronenberg’s disgustingly tumescent appendages and protuberances in films like Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ.
    Sex, in Cronenberg’s films, has always been provocative in some dark and malignant way, but never so straight-forwardly sweaty as it is in his Oscar-shafted film A History of Violence. Maria Bello (who made her name saddling William H. Macy in The Cooler) and Viggo Mortensen (who made his by playing the studliest being in Middle Earth) star as a middle American couple who live in a kind of Andy Griffith suburb, seemingly safe from Mortensen’s dark history and the scary bad guys who seeem to know him. More importantly for our purposes, these two know how to get it on inside their cute farmhouse. The first sex scene was one of the year’s most charming: Bello flounces out of the bathroom in her old cheerleader costume to seduce her man. It’s as sweetly kinky as film sex has ever been, and completely different from the film’s brutish highlight — a rough tumble on the hardwood stairs, with bodies slamming into handrails and walls, after Bello discovers her husband’s dark side and decides that it turns her on. Messy and violent, it’s as hot as sex got in the movies last year. If you’re lucky, it just might give your date a few ideas. — Logan Hill

   

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