The Men Who Stare at Goats boasts a terrific performance by George Clooney and an incredible true story about the U.S. military's New Earth Army. Elsewhere, Precious finds the heart in a potentially predictable inspirational tale.
Psychic warriors, impoverished inner-city denizens, freaky paranormal activity – these are some of your choices at the movie theater this weekend. My reviews for all three films are below – as well as a belated appreciation for what may very well be 2009’s best album.
The Men Who Stare at Goats (Overture Films)
When the Ocean’s Eleven remake was announced several years ago, my immediate worry was that Steven Soderbergh would bring together a bunch of big, hip stars who would be too busy congratulating themselves for all their witty banter to focus on entertaining an audience. Others felt that is what happened with the resulting film, but to my mind Soderbergh’s skill kept that breezy juggernaut humming right along. Flash-forwarding to the present, The Men Who Stare at Goats is the latest film to risk getting snagged by this particular trap, and while I think it’s largely an effective satire, there’s still a bit too much self-satisfaction on display for my taste.
Based on reporter Jon Ronson’s book, The Men Who Stare at Goats largely invents a narrative to flesh out the incredible true story of a top-secret U.S. government unit established over 30 years ago that was charged with defeating the enemy by using the mind’s untapped psychic power rather than conventional warfare. The film, directed by George Clooney’s producing partner Grant Heslov and written by Peter Straughan, follows the misadventures of a Midwestern journalist (Ewan McGregor) who decides to go to Iraq right after our invasion in 2003, only to stumble upon an apparent nutjob named Cassady (Clooney) who claims to have been involved with America’s secret New Earth Army. Cassady is in the Middle East on a mission, and the journalist follows him on his quixotic quest while Cassady tells his story through flashbacks.
The Men Who Stare at Goats has such a fantastically odd story that Heslov would have been well advised to stay out of the way and let the bizarre details stand on their own. But not unlike Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Heslov’s film is a little too quick to underline its own clever ironies, perhaps most notably when McGregor’s character discovers that the New Earth Army considered themselves Jedis, which inspires him to ask how he too could be a Jedi. (Get it? He played Obi-Wan Kenobi in those terrible Star Wars prequels.) But on a larger scale, The Men Who Stare at Goats somewhat disappoints because the narrative Straughan has come up with isn’t that engaging – the best stuff is in the flashbacks where Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey do battle for the future of the New Earth Army, which contains the most actual material from the original book.
The film’s nagging deficiencies keep The Men Who Stare at Goats from being as terrific as it could have been, but I can’t deny that I found this to be a fizzy, funny little romp regardless. Though he’s not as fantastic as he is in the forthcoming Up in the Air, Clooney is starting to corner the market on aging alpha-males coming to terms with their own obsolescence, and he gives this movie a gravity it lacks elsewhere. Likewise, Bridges is playing a type that he knows so well – those pining for a Big Lebowski 2 will have to make do with his turn here as the hippy genius behind the New Earth Army. Don’t think too much about The Men Who Stare at Goats, enjoy it for its comic zing, and try to ignore Heslov when he gears up for his Big Political Commentary near the end, and you’ll have a fine time.
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (Lionsgate)
Precious presents you with a choice: You either admire how this urban drama enlivens a conventional storyline with a tough-minded, vibrant approach, or you shake your head because the filmmakers are peddling the same inspirational bill of goods with new packaging. I take the former stance – but I can see how others will pick the latter.
A sensation since its premiere at Sundance, Precious tells the true story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a black teenage girl living in Harlem in the 1980s with her no-account mother (a truly frightening Mo’Nique) and a mess of personal issues that include incest, rape, illiteracy, poverty, and obesity. Precious is about how this young woman tries to finally assert herself in the world, which has the possibility of turning the film into some unholy combination of a Jerry Springer episode and an Oprah Winfrey special. (Interestingly, Winfrey came on as an executive producer after its success at Sundance, where it won three awards.)
It’s much to the credit of director Lee Daniels that Precious, for the most part, avoids the sleazy or the lazily inspirational. Instead, the film keeps undercutting our expectations for what this sort of film should look or feel like. For instance, newcomer Sidibe spends little time making us “love” Precious – she’s been dealt a bad hand, but she’s hardly a saint. When she comes into contact with a teacher (Paula Patton) who actually gives a damn about her, the results aren’t quite Dangerous Minds. Even the film’s obvious subtext – that Precious and her friends and family are victims of Reagan-era economics – remains nicely beneath the surface without much notice. Moment by moment, Precious walks a predictable path but keeps us off-balance because Daniels consistently executes scenes slightly differently than what we expect.
Sidibe and Mo’Nique are getting a lot of the press, deservedly so, but I think a more telling sign of this film’s accomplishment is the fact that Daniels gets two strong performances from musicians who’ve never been stunning thespians. Lenny Kravitz is quite good in a small part, but Mariah Carey is something of a revelation here – you may not even recognize her, in fact. I don’t think either of them are bound for greater things – as with so much of what’s gone into Precious, they seem to have stumbled into something that inspired them to raise their game.
Paranormal Activity (Paramount Pictures)
In my last Consumables column, which appeared right before Halloween, I mentioned that there wouldn’t be a scarier fright-night film this season than Antichrist. Of course, a few people objected: What about Paranormal Activity? I think it’s more fun and inventive than really frightening, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have a significant amount of creepy-crawly moments that are very, very effective.
You probably know the story by now, which means that if you haven’t seen Paranormal Activity yet, you’re almost guaranteed to be underwhelmed by the film. A couple living in San Diego starts to be visited by strange occurrences in the middle of the night, which inspires the boyfriend (Micah Sloat) to start recording all the events with his camcorder. The film we’re watching is meant to be the footage he shot, calling to mind a similar technique used in other horror films like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project.
Writer-director Oren Peli had a minuscule budget, so the scares in Paranormal Activity are largely of the stuff-we-can-hear-but-not-see variety. Consequently, part of the film’s charm is akin to the kick you get watching martial-arts movies that don’t use stuntmen or effects – the how-did-they-do-that? factor is such a valuable, untapped commodity at a time when filmmakers can do lots of impressive things on the screen that we know are totally fake.
For a while, Peli squeezes every last bit of juice out of this low-budget concept, perhaps even hinting that the couple’s supernatural problem could be in some way a symptom of their relationship. Alas, Paranormal Activity isn’t Open Water and so we’re left with a movie that, ultimately, is just about the scares we don’t see. It’s a really fun stunt, but the movie never evolves beyond the stunt.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz! (Interscope)
If this album ends up being my favorite of the year, it won’t be because of factors like creative brilliance or formal mastery or anything so highfalutin. More than seven months after its release, It’s Blitz! simply remains what it’s always been – one great song segueing into another great song, each one with its own unique pleasures. Searching around for any sort of comparison to make to get at the heart of what the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have achieved on this superb record, I landed on PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. After almost a decade of harrowing wails and seething creepiness, Polly Jean dropped the personas and delivered an elegant album of sophisticated, complicated emotions that was lovely and poignant and, in its own way, more real than all the bloodletting she’d done earlier. Karen O still has that frightening bob haircut, but the softening of her band’s indie-punk aesthetic has similarly streamlined their attack into songs that you want to get lost in. Like with Harvey on Stories, this calmer approach will undoubtedly get the Yeah Yeah Yeahs branded as sellouts in some quarters, but the very real sadness, hope and fear on It’s Blitz! is bravely expressed and always entirely genuine. Oh, and one more parallel to Stories – this album kicks off with its most euphoric track, “Zero,” which is so goose-bump wonderful that it seems to give the singer the freedom and courage to be as candid as she’s ever been. Rereading my review of their over-hyped 2003 breakthrough, Fever to Tell, I see that I longed for some songs that could do justice to her strong feelings. Six years later, I got my wish.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.