Armageddon week. In The Road, some vague disaster has turned the world into a vast ashtray, leaving The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smith-McPhee) to trudge in the monochromatically devastated landscape. A handful of feeble memories (garden flowers, a nuzzling horse, Charlize Theron sunning herself) are all that’s left of life before the wasteland, father and son must now face unspeakable barbarism ("Cannibalism is the great fear...") to survive in a world pared down to gnarled animal instincts. (Sample light conversation: "It takes a long time to die of starvation.") The struggle is to "keep carrying the light" in a time of encroaching darkness, but how bad can an apocalypse be if you still have to deal with product placement? Determined to forge a death march to out-moan his gory, fly-infested anti-Western The Proposition, director John Hillcoat turns to fellow William Blake-wannabe Cormac McCarthy’s punitively allegorical novel. His new movie is also a Western, and a dismal one -- there are leaden demonstrations of macho resolve, old-timers eulogizing the way things used to be, and, for all the lip-service about the rampant dehumanization going around, never any doubt about who the "good guys" are. A slave to every syllable of McCarthy’s prose yet afraid to spoil anybody’s evening, Hillcoat composes tableaux of prosaic, tasteful horror and sets them to an unaccountably sappy Nick Cave score. (Even Herr Debbie Downer himself, Michael Haneke, was able to find light at the bottom of Time of the Wolf’s pit without resorting to moist-eyed puppies.) What power it has derives from Robert Duvall’s cagy cameo as the sightless Old Man, and from the sheer physical urgency of Mortensen, who, scraggly-bearded and sunken-cheeked, grimaces through enough ordeals to make Mel Gibson green with envy. Unfortunately, it’s all at the service of an ode to paternalistic solipsism, filmed as if dictated by Jehovah but ultimately boasting only a fraction of the artistic value of, say, Terminator: Salvation.
Escapist popcorn to The Road’s art-house pea soup, 2012 is global disaster according to Roland Emmerich, who by now has envisioned the end of the planet more often than Nostradamus. Rather than aliens or a new ice age, his doomsday devices this time are pesky solar farts. Once the earth’s core is unsettled, Emmerich’s hordes of digital demolition-doodlers go to work. Temperatures skyrocket, lava spurts, the sea rises. "See that huge canyon? That wasn’t there this morning." The centerpiece is the leveling of Los Angeles, during which the camera, frenetically in awe of crumbling skyscrapers and exploding pavement, slows down for a second to watch the concrete sign atop Randy’s Donuts barreling through the mayhem. Among those gawking at the flickering blue screens are John Cusack (a sci-fi writer with family trouble), Chiwetel Ejiofor (a government geologist), and Danny Glover (Mr. President). Long before some faux-Lama is brought in to do the old overflowing-cup Zen trick, Woody Harrelson as a cracked radio prophet voices the spiritual side of annihilation: "The Mayans saw this coming thousands of years ago!" A visionless hack whose C.B. DeMille crassness grows more swollen with each film, Emmerich deals in crayon-kit characterizations and shots of famous monuments crumbling into dust. (France gets it, natch -- between this and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the Eiffel Tower really isn’t having a very good year.) Still, compared to the ghastly 10,000 B.C., there are nifty bits amid the rubble. The sudden silence before an angry volcano bursts through the Yellowstone Park forest is effective, even if Emmerich feels the need to interrupt it with a close-up of Harrelson’s plumber-like ass crack. And then there’s the obnoxious Russian plutocrat’s blond mistress, who deep down regrets having been surgically turned into Paris Hilton. Hang on to such morsels -- room in the finale’s secret Noah’s Ark may be a rare commodity, but not as rare as traces of wit in a Roland Emmerich movie.
The end-of-days derring-do of 2012 is a walk in the park next to the dictionary of miseries the heroine slogs through in the overwrought and overrated Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. She’s a semi-illiterate, obese Harlem teen (played by Gabourey "Gabby" Sibide) who, repeatedly raped by her mother’s boyfriend, is pregnant with her second child. (Her first was born with Down Syndrome.) The mother (Mo’nique) is a parade-float ogress, ungluing herself from her Archie Bunker throne only to berate her daughter ("Take yo ass down to welfare, ya uppity bitch"), molest her, or hurl TV sets at her. Precious (ironic monikers, see -- Mommie Dearest is named Mary) takes the abuse stoically, occasionally escaping her world of self-loathing, crackhead neighbors and greasy frying pans via badly-filmed fantasy sequences. Kicked out of public school, she enrolls in an alternative class, where the serenely nurturing teacher (Paula Patton, perpetually bathed in celestial light) plays hip-lesbian Annie Sullivan to Precious’ inner-city Helen Keller. Sanctimoniously hyped since its Sundance debut, the film offers itself as a raw, wounding portrait of spiritual growth in the face of pain. Werner Herzog’s The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser pondered the role of education in a protagonist’s battered struggle, while Ida Lupino’s criminally unnoticed Outrage investigated a rape victim’s consciousness in heightened dream/nightmare scenarios. But easy, depoliticized shock-effects are all director Lee Daniels is after here, and he rushes from Grand Guignol to uplift like a demented streetcar conductor, ringing every bell imaginable. (Oprah Winfrey may be one of the picture’s "presenters," but Jerry Springer seems far closer to Daniels’ directorial model.) Beware of any triumph-of-the-human-spirit story that tries to sell an Oscar-clinching monologue as "catharsis," and the faint mustache on a deglamorized Mariah Carey’s upper lip as "grittiness." Sledgehammer hogwash of the shrillest kind, Precious suggests the Eddie Murphy of Norbit parodying one of Lillian Gish’s silent-movie bludgeons.
The Twilight franchise knows its audience: The lads may sprout fangs and fur and warn the heroine about the mortal threat of being close to them, but they’re really out of that Non-Threatening Boys magazine Lisa Simpson used to leaf through. "Red Riding Hood" sans the danger is just a horny old aunt’s limp fantasy, though that hasn’t stopped Stephenie Meyer from crafting a cottage industry out of neutering the knotted sexuality inherent in the horror genre while pandering to the hormonal yearning of young readers. And so it goes with New Moon, the second screen adaptation of a "saga" aimed at those who think of the wands and spells in Harry Potter as too abstruse. Robert Pattinson is the same neurasthenic harlequin as before, but Kristen Stewart does herself no favors by following her performance in Adventureland with this mope-a-palooza retread. This time, Stewart’s dopey Bella is torn between two supernaturally hunky suitors, Pattinson’s epicene, chalk-faced vampire and Taylor Lautner’s muscle-headed, Native American werewolf. Gory paper cuts, cliff-diving, and ceremonial shirt-removal pave the road to a confrontation with all-powerful Euro-trash bloodsuckers (with queenly Michael Sheen and arch Dakota Fanning among them) in what look like outtakes from the last Hellboy flick. With Chris Weitz at the helm, sailing with nary a sweat from the airbrushed anti-evangelism of The Golden Compass to Meyer’s Mormon wet dreams, it all boils down to teens gazing at the floor while wanly mouthing lines like "Leaving you is the hardest thing I’ve done in 100 years." If not quite at the level of The Roads’ cannibalistic abattoirs or 2012’s city-flattening tsunamis, surely the colossal popularity of these abysmal books and their movie versions is a signpost of some kind of apocalypse, no?
Reviewed December 7, 2009.