Hereafter

Watching Hereafter is like spending Halloween at church. Clint Eastwood has been directing a lot of Hail Marys at us lately; he’s made a career of repenting—of cleaning Dirty Harry’s blood off his hands. Here, working with the playwright Peter Morgan (who wrote The Queen and the light-on-its-feet Frost/Nixon), there isn’t a spot of blood, and yet an ice-water ablution continues to stream from the spigot. Their subject, the private tragedies of psychics, gleams with promise. Directors like Scorsese or von Trier might burrow into a soothsayer’s brain and illuminate what they see with a seriocomic torch; Eastwood lights every scene with all-is-lost, empty-existence fluorescence: It’s so unflattering that Matt Damon has the pallor of Klaus Kinski. But it befits their straight take on this skewed subject. They banalize the supernatural by turning it into a public-service announcement.

Eastwood’s no-frills, almost monastic, style can be very generous; and there were times when I took pleasure in the filmmakers’ mastery of their respective crafts. As a lifelong San Franciscan who’s been clairvoyant since a childhood illness, Damon performs beautifully, gripping the character’s inner life with tactful reserve. George, at the behest of his entrepreneurial brother (Jay Mohr), was once paid generously for his powers; but being able to communicate with the dead means that he absorbs everything from the survivors who commission him. No longer able to bear this level of intimacy, he has quit and cloaked himself in anonymity. (As a token of this character’s sensitivity—and the actor’s—Damon is at his most expressive when George whispers; this man is haunted by the souls of the living. But, possibly inspired by his freestyle voiceover in The Informant!, this player’s musty auguries sound like vivacious improv.) When the opportunity arises for a more traditional form of intimacy with a flighty hot mess named Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), Eastwood lingers on their cooking-class courtship; one wants to see them get together. Unfortunately, she doesn’t heed George’s warnings, and goads him into performing a mini-séance for her father. The medium then uncovers facts that should’ve stayed on the down-low. As a token of the director’s sensitivity—and the writer’s, too—we see George again alone, and Melanie awash with tears.

This de facto theme of responsibility, which is amplified here to paranormal proportions, is not unfamiliar to Eastwood or Morgan; but, by reducing Damon’s plot to a mere third of the overall storyline, they may need to host a séance of their own to get it back. One thread, which starts the movie off with a bang, involves a Paris T.V.-news personality played by Cécile De France. She develops her sixth sense after being whipped around by what appears to be, without any substantiation, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But it seems as if it would take more than an act of God to breathe life into this fuddy Frenchwoman. After a few setbacks, and her coworkers’ very reasonable skepticism about her sudden-onset spiritualism, Marie sees herself as the fortunetellers’ Joan of Arc; but, unlike Saint Joan—or most Eastwoodland creatures—her newfound tumescence doesn’t result in a social conscience. Marie is a mystical brat. It’s in the third segment—which concerns an English boy’s attempts to communicate with his dead twin—that Eastwood’s heart begins to hemorrhage. He and Morgan aren’t above killing the kid en route to the pharmacy, where he’s retrieving a prescription that’ll treat their mother’s alcoholism. His last line, before being brutally flung at an oncoming car, is the peppy “We’ll be just like a normal family!” Not anymore…

If the filmmakers’ patience seems lambent in some sequences, it seems like poor judgment in others; their solemn pacing is the cortège that delivers the plot to its funeral. (And this material isn’t buried alive, mind you.) I might feel more kindly toward Hereafter if I could unearth the point that Eastwood and Morgan had intended to make. Miss Cleo and her kindred may be tempted to thank the movie for advocating their cause, but it hardly does the hereafter any favors. Envisioning the afterlife is an unenviable task, but Eastwood takes it on timorously; he gives us a nondenominational blur, unfettered by any pesky moral or spiritual underpinnings. (It’s hell if it’s anything; the film’s only a few minutes short of being an eternal punishment.) And whenever Morgan has the characters wax philosophically about life after death, he makes their arguments so unconvincing that even a toddler would not be swayed. (I’ve had deeper conversations with people krunked by a bonfire—pontificating through their beer bottles.) Even the stunning recreation of the tsunami is, alas, arbitrary: It’s just a “cinematic” way to slap Marie with a near-death experience. (The flood must’ve conked her differently than the illness did Damon: She’s seen the light, but demonstrates none of George’s psychical empathy. However—because she lacks his burden, the momentum that smooshes them together seems to be blowing them off-course. Marie’s trouble is that nobody believes her; that’s a problem that George only wishes he had.) From its tone, you’d never know how indebted the film is to a fantastical T.V. series like the late Pushing Daisies; Hereafter is in roughly the same genre as Cold Souls or Air Doll, but it’s neither goofy nor poetic. It’s a SyFy-channel love story with the heat turned off.

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Unstoppable

Like Depression-era bums, the director Tony Scott and his associates—late of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3—keep on riding the rails. I think that they identify with the unionized railway workers in Unstoppable, whose  job is to keep things running smoothly, and make sure that nothing goes off-track; these filmmakers are engineers rather than artists. But, akin also to Mussolini, Scott’s trains, tricks, and camera twists are always running on schedule.

Mark Bomback’s script, however, doesn’t kick into high gear until about halfway through; and before that, the film is like a “coaster”—a derelict locomotive that’s been cast adrift, engineless—save for the punchiness of the cast, and the director’s visual calisthenics. (It’s like pouring a can of Four Loko onto a potted plant.) But Scott feels our need for speed, and supplies it so liberally that he nearly outruns the unmanned freight train that’s on a collision course with a populous, if imaginary, pocket of Pennsylvania. The half-mile-long speeding violation benefits from its crimson paint job—borrowed from the real-life BNSF railroad; but Scott’s self-propelled Super Chief doesn’t puff vengeance from its smokestack—it lacks the anthropomorphic ire that Spielberg’s tractor-trailer fumed way back in Duel (1971). Any agency that the train does have, and any animosity that we’re invited to heap upon it, is redirected in ways that would make an A.M.-radio producerist grin with self-justification: The crisis is caused by a lazy railyard oaf; and it’s only made worse by the callously expedient folks at the top, who while the catastrophe away in board meetings or talk share prices while teeing off. (Scott’s shaky “politics” seem to run in the family.)

Still, Scott and Bomback have crammed for and passed Disaster Movie 101. I knew not to expect much when Chris Pine’s caller I.D. came up as an I.M.D.B. head shot; but Rosario Dawson, as a pert control-booth jockey, amps up the energy level in her scenes; and Pine, as a conductor, performs with some polish. That leaves the older, and blacker, half of the buddies-who-begrudgingly-come-to-respect-each other dialectic: Denzel Washington, Pine’s sagacious engineer. I don’t know how he does it. Was it in his contract that this 56-year-old hobble from car to car on top of a zippy train, even after he’s already spent an hour martyring himself for the working class? Like Morgan Freeman, he chooses roles so circumspect it’s contemptible; but Washington’s gritty charm deserves a monument. Perhaps he keeps making these crumbum buddy movies because every last soul on Earth wants to be his pal.

Due Date

Due Date should’ve asked for an extension. Maybe it’s some cracker-ass hipster thing, but I was beginning to fear that Zach Galifianakis was becoming overexposed. When he hosted Saturday Night Live last year, he played a bumbling creeper in most of the skits. Obviously, he intends to be laughed at, but these chortles at his expense were superficial; he was not, as they now say (all too often), “controlling the message.” His surroundings need to be in synch with him; but the director of Due Date, Todd Phillips, hasn’t the vision to support such a paragon of ookiness. The world crashes down from this puny Atlas’s shoulders, and falls into the comedic boondocks.

In the film, Galifianakis’s ample ass is squished into skinny jeans, and they mosey along with a coded-as-gay swagger. He’s playing an aspiring actor who’d fain be called Ethan Tremblay; and, as per the vaunted rules of the buddy system, he’s been paired off with a straight-laced Robert Downey, Jr. The fact that Downey’s character is named Peter Highman, and no joke is ever made of it, can be taken as butter on this milquetoast movie. Is the film too highbrow for gallows humor (answer: absolutely not); or does it take more than four screenwriters (Alan R. Cohen, Allan Freedland, Adam Sztykiel, and Phillips) to screw in that dim lightbulb? A few bulbs do indeed burn brightly—a wonderfully inappropriate gag featuring Danny McBride in a wheelchair, although it ends, shall we say, on the wrong foot; Juliette Lewis as a drug-dealing ditz—but, mostly, the light switch seems jammed.

The good news is that Downey and Galifianakis have a good rapport, although Downey—a loquacious catalyst in Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes—is literally plucked out of the driver’s seat in this road-trip movie. Galifianakis, further, defies my initial apprehensions; he isn’t just a bizarro, he’s rather sympathetically sweet—and more sincerely so than he was in The Hangover. It’s the sort of surprise that Russell Brand pulled in the cheerfully nostalgic Get Him to the Greek—that his rock star was a man of substance. But Due Date seems strictly for, and by, the narrow white/male demographic that yet made The Hangover a widespread success. What’s missing here are the moments of sublimely weird shit going down: The W.T.F. quotient that gave Hot Tub Time Machine whatever buoyancy it had. (If your timing is as slow as Phillips’s, you need some eccentricities to fall back on. Ethan is quirky, but the setups are offbeat when they should be absurd.) What’s missing from both of Phillips’s recent works is any thought that flits beyond its slender situation. Drained of star power, Jamie Foxx plays a gag setup that doesn’t pay off; and having a big name occupying that role is so unnecessary that his casting comes off as affirmative action. Women, too, appear to be alien life-forms; and, even despite Galifianakis’s quasi-queer inflections, this film’s too inflexible—or too pusillanimous—for kooky bi-curiosity à la Superbad or Humpday.

One final note. Although it’s not so egregious here, the schmaltz syndrome that’s afflicted so many mainline comedies is present in Due Date, too. The Hangover, despite its “irreverence,” hit the same wall that Wedding Crashers impacted a few years earlier. Are the producers to blame for decreeing that the caustic cad (Bradley Cooper) revert to family-friendly goo when reunited with wife and daughter? As soon as the buddies found their missing friend—and even beforehand—the movie was sputtering forward, running on fumes. “Irreverence” in Hollywood comedies seems to mean sticking to the playbook, and sacrificing laughs to suck up to illusory saps.

Inside Job

Sometimes I wonder if the raison d’être of the financial-services industry is exacting payback for all those kids who were dunked in the toilet in middle school because they were good at math. Fortunately, Charles Ferguson, the documentarian who made Inside Job—and earned a degree in mathematics from Berkeley—has a much more nuanced take on the subject. On the evidence he presents, the neighborhood in the United States with the most dangerous crime rate is not in South L.A. or the South Side of Chicago. It’s Wall Street. (And I’m not particularly concerned with the prostitution and drug use running rampant on it, either. Although one of the film’s esteemed talking heads, Eliot Spitzer—whose formidable head doesn’t get to talk in the movie enough—may still be a tad squeamish about certain vices.) With the probity of someone who’s boned up on his subject—and then some—he digs deep into the industry’s interminable refuse bin, and elucidates the three decades’ worth of deregulatory bacteria that’s eaten away at its own utility—and everyone else’s savings. Ferguson directs with surgeon’s gloves on; the result is a sterile but illuminating primer: a handy-dandy cheat sheet for your real-world civics exams.

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t agree with the director’s general assessment, and have since before the big meltdown in the fall of 2008; and I’d be lying, too, if I didn’t admit that his “gotcha!” smash cuts, which get the better of his interviewed grandees, unaccustomed to having their own philosophies questioned, are pleasures as guilty as they are. (It’s not always editorial foul play. An economics professor who pimps out his good name and imprimatur for kickbacks is no mere stooge. The issue of Wall Street gurus penetrating higher education is raised as a salient counterpoint to the more frequently reported liberal takeover of academia.) It’s a cheap technique, but fascinating to watch: Ferguson, no showboater, is trying to straddle the line between public television and cable news. Yet he doesn’t quite reach Michael Mooregasm. This is a good thing and a bad thing. People—liberals in particular—often pretend that they’re interested in nothing short of pure factitiousness in nonfiction film. Well, that right there is probably fiction. A supreme documentarian—that is to say, a compleat artist—can use the mind to temper the heart while using the heart to beat the mind (bad metaphor?). Why is there only one scene with a destitute Latina, whose family speaks no English, and who was swindled into foreclosure and debt by predatory lenders? Her tears are more symbolic of unscrupulous practices and bursting bubbles than any graphic of six-, seven-, eight-digit figures scrolling across the screen. But Ferguson leaves her by the wayside, just as the does the country of Iceland, which he posits in the opening scenes as the former testbed for, and current graveyard of, extreme economic liberalism—now that such policies (in concert with fragile globalism) have left it a shambles.

I am not, by any means, promoting that a polemical documentary like this one be placed squarely on the shoulders of anecdotal evidence; that sort of piggy-backing is an open, and most likely welcome, invitation for a game of fact-check chicken. But I think it’s a fair criticism of this particular movie because the director—who, aside from holding a degree in mathematics, has been an entrepreneur and a policy wonk—hasn’t learned the venerable device of intercutting a narrative anchor, like a rudimentary arc to encompass that bereaved woman’s story, into the stormy waters. It wouldn’t have to be the dominant thread—just an illustrative lifeline. Some informed audiences may go to see a movie like this one on principle, or just to see the corporate élitists get their due; but I think it would be wise if Ferguson, who has an exceptional knack for dumping a bucketload of facts and figures on a viewer that are still sopping wet the night after the viewer sees the movie, made the next leap toward mass-audience entreaty. He needn’t curb his statistics, or even the graphics that, despite being effective, look soporific next to the digital news-ticker-tape parades on cable; allowing for a little extra personality (even if it’s that of Matt Damon, who makes a humble voice of God here) would not foreclose on Ferguson’s integrity.