How bad has political discourse in America become? Next to the douchebag spittle of Beck and Limbaugh and their stable boys, perennial docu-carny Michael Moore looks like a homegrown Marcel Ophüls. Still, now older and visibly fatigued, Moore hasn’t lost his sledgehammer snark: Capitalism: A Love Story kicks off by crisscrossing between a kitschy ancient Rome movie and the White House before touring the ashes of our fallen empire. "Business was good while it lasted..." His timeline leading to the nation’s economic abyss, from Jimmy Carter warning about debt and oil dependency to Ronald Reagan letting the Wall Street bull loose, is a simplistic but workable foundation for inquiries into the continuous circle jerk between politicians and CEOS. Facing what Al Capone once dubbed "the racket of the ruling class," Moore here seeks the root of the toxic blossoms of Roger & Me, The Big One and Sicko. Unfortunately, his slapdash approach withers before the sprawling canvas, and his dot-like anecdotes rattle around. Lingering close-ups of grief-scrunched evicted farmers segue into pilots testifying about dreadful working conditions before an echoing Congress chamber, then to infuriating "dead peasant policies" and craven "vultures" making a mint off foreclosed condos. When in doubt, Wallace Shawn is wheeled in to explain the concept of free enterprise. As usual with Moore, I share his outrage while seeing him as a pulpit-pounder with a penchant for cute sarcasm, easy metaphors (Wall Street dissolves into Las Vegas -- geeet it?), bumper stickers ("Wal-Mart doesn’t care about you"), shots of shifty authorities shaking hands in ominous slow-mo, and complex issues minced into wooden letter blocks. Momentarily away from his faux-naïveté and time-wasting antics, he crafts a stirring sequence around a Chicago workers’ strike, and resurrects a 1944 clip of Roosevelt proposing a second bill of rights. Capitalism may pine for a neo-New Deal, but in the end its tactics are closer to those of the neo-tea parties.
Moore scrambles to forge whirlpools, but Lucrecia Martel prefers stagnant ponds. The Headless Woman, her latest swamp of tantalizing formalism and humid physicality, is a horror story. The affluent Argentine protagonist (María Onetto) drives home from a picnic and, distracted by cell phone chimes, hits something. A dog? A boy? It barely takes a second, but afterwards the world seems to have shifted; she parks and wanders dazedly outside for a moment while Martel’s hypersensitive camera, sitting in the passenger’s seat, picks up fingerprints smudged on the window, the gray sky, a truck passing in the distance. Unmoored, she wanders in and out of rooms, gardens, indoor pools and offices as if underwater. A dead animal on the kitchen counter accuses her, off-center framing decapitates her, enervated chatter surrounds her ("I don’t know where she finds these people ... That voice doesn’t sound like yours ... The branches can’t move themselves. How stupid"). All Onetto has left to negotiate these pixilated alien dots is the bourgeois defense mechanism of smiling politely. The feeling of life mercilessly moving on as the simplest of connections cease to make sense gives The Headless Woman its horror and its comedy. The style Martel developed in La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl has crystallized, with composition after composition attuned to the metaphysical dread of a woman who helplessly puts on and takes off shades, tries to purify (baptize?) herself in the shower, changes her hair from chlorine-faded blonde to raven black, and desperately yearns to vanish. Hitchcock’s Marnie, Antonioni’s Red Desert, Fassbinder’s Fear of Fear and Haynes’s Safe are the antecedents, Martel’s drifting car rides and muddy canals add to their list of indelible waking nightmares. With all due respect to George Romero, this may be the decade’s greatest zombie movie.
Zombieland, on the other hand, may be the worst. (And yes, I have seen The Dead Hate the Living.) The setting is an America slightly more devastated than Michael Moore’s, where a mad-cow hamburger has snowballed into an apocalyptic wasteland of flesh-gnawing ghouls. Jesse Eisenberg, impressive earlier this year in Adventureland but here reduced to a Michael Cera stand-in, plays one of the sole survivors, a multi-phobic shut-in who’s forced out of his Warcraft-playing bubble and into the crumbling world. He’s also the narrator, rattling off rules for survival ("Beware of bathrooms"), stale jokes ("The first girl I let into my life and she tries to eat me"), and assorted lame asides to remind us that this is a cool splatterfest, and that the characters know they’re in a cool splatterfest. Also pretending to have a blast is Woody Harrelson, Bruce Campbelling through as a snakeskin-clad redneck with a passion for rifles and Twinkies -- a gig, like the movie, stitched together from bits of high-concept zaniness. Nerd and cowboy head west to a supposedly undead-free amusement park, joined along the way by a pair of grifting sisters (Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin). The model, I suppose, is Shaun of the Dead, which, overrated as it is, has a wit and fondness for the genre that are utterly missing from Ruben Fleischer’s simultaneously frenetic and boring gore-farce shambles. When it attempts to evoke nihilism, Zombieland merely suggests vandalism; when it wants to parade its hipster credentials, it beats a Secret Special Guest cameo into the ground and references outdated pop culture. (A Titanic nod? Do you dare?!) And any movie that wastes the opportunity to locate the pint-sized ghoul inside Little Miss Sunshine herself is clearly more in need of brrrraaains than the zombies.
Whip It more successfully showcases a young actress expanding her persona: Ellen Page, hitherto doomed to roles of nothing but bristly self-possession, has energy, speed and, for the first time, vulnerability as a teenage tomboy who trades the beauty pageants of her dead-end Texas hamlet for the rough-and-tumble vigor of the Austin all-female roller derby circuit. The heroine’s clashes with her well-meaning parents (Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern) and romance with an indie-band mimbo (Landon Pigg) are predictable, but the bruisers-on-wheels leaping, whooshing, and shoving in the rink provide some of the most exultant glimpses of female physicality since Tarantino’s marvelous Death Proof. Drew Barrymore directed it, with little sense of scene-to-scene style but plenty of big-sisterly generosity toward her gallery of witty actresses (Juliette Lewis, Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, and Alia Shawkat are the standouts). No point in overrating a lively trifle, otherwise you sound like the team coach (Andrew Wilson) exasperated at the skaters cheering their second-place status: "Yeah, let’s celebrate mediocrity!" Barrymore has a lot to learn behind the camera, but she loves her actors and she loves her characters. That’s a good start.
Reviewed October 7, 2009.