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On 9/11, terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers as acts of war.  In Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder utterly demolishes almost half of Manhattan for no other reason than to show off and to make the audience go “ooh” and “neat”; I’m sorry, but I think that’s sad and pathetic.   Man of Steel is a movie in which Superman’s adopted father suggests his son should let kids die rather than reveal who he is and in which his mother has no issues with sending a man to his death to save a dog during a tornado.   Not only is Man of Steel a movie that has its priorities shockingly out of whack, it’s simply one of the worse movies in recent memories. 
But it’s not like anyone should be surprised or shocked.  It’s not like Snyder and the writer David S. Goyer lied to anyone or misrepresented the movie in any way.  This is what studio films have become like in the last fifty years.  Some are better than others, true, but generally speaking they are more and more becoming soulless monsters and no one has a right to get mad at anybody about it because, by now, everyone knows the drill, everyone knows this is what they’re going to get before they buy their ticket (the audience is becoming more and more like Louise Renault in Casablanca: I’m shocked, shocked that studios are making such horrific films).   
However, even for a Hollywood blockbuster, this one is almost bottom of the barrel and is so bad, I just can’t bring myself to waste any more time and words on it.
Where Snyder destroys half of Manhattan, director and writers Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg destroy not just Los Angeles, but the whole world in This is the End.  Not only do they destroy the world, they kill off large numbers of people in particularly gruesome, offensive and horrifyingly grotesque ways.  But where Snyder’s film just seems sad and pathetic, Rogan and Goldberg’s film is often very, very, very funny…very.  
This is the End stars just about every friend Rogan has playing just about every friend Rogan has, and as themselves.  The result is a huge number of in-jokes that get quite the chuckle now, but may make the movie harder to enjoy years later when no one knows who the hell Danny McBride is anymore.   
The basic premise revolves around the Rapture and Armageddon literally happening and the few stars (i.e., the ones who have played leads in successful movies and/or earned an Oscar nomination) that manage to take refuge in James Franco’s earthquake (and apparently rapture quake) proof renovated house in the Hollywood Hills (which are hills, not mountains, since you can get over them in ten minutes by taking Cuhuenga Pass, a joke that will make sense once you see the film).   The humor is based on the same style as another end of the world comedy that came out this year, This is a Disaster: the people involved keep focusing on unimportant things, like the petty problems in their various relationships, rather than the world collapsing around them.
This is the End is not a perfect movie by any means.  It has a wonderful first third and the onset of the rapture and the resulting cataclysms is wondrously delightful, at times beautiful, and just rather clever.  But once the second act begins with Franco, McBride, Rogan, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and Craig Robinson barricaded into the house, the movie has difficulty finding places to go.  No one has an overall goal, no one is that interested in trying to figure out what is really going on, or coming up with a game plan for survival; so instead, the audience gets stuck with many of the same jokes over and over…and over, again.   It’s not that the laughs go away or that there are no interesting scenes here, but this section tends to lose forward momentum (in contrast, This is a Disaster is much tighter, more focused and in the end a much better written film).
However, what actually may be the most disturbing aspect of the film is that there are no woman around (well, Emma Watson has a fun little bit).  But Rogan, et. al., don’t need them, or even want them, really.  They can get all their emotional needs met from each other (one of the more than reoccurring jokes is the idea that the guys have no problems relating to each other like gay men–for no other reason, it feels, so that they all can prove to the audience that they are really, really straight, really, even if they take a demon’s cock up the ass).  And if they want sex?  Well, Franco has a porn magazine.   (In fact, they all seem amazingly sexless and make one wonder if that’s the real reason why movies are so female-less these days—filmmakers and actors are all like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory.)
Once the survivors are forced back out into the world, the whole thing picks up steam again and Rogan and Goldberg manage to somehow get their characters out of the corner they have painted them into.   Of course, the result is a heaven that resembles a James Franco party, and it’s a little disturbing that Rogan and Baruchel reveal that they like The Back Street Boys more than Hill and Franco, but based on Rogan and Goyer’s view of Revelation, the characters could have ended up far worse.


Now You See Me is a very enjoyable shaggy dog story about magicians.  However, the biggest sleight of hand by writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt and director Louis Leterrier is how they’re able to make the audience overlook what is at times an unconvincing and questionable plot and go along with the often preposterous goings on, and like any spectator at a Las Vegas Show, love every minute of it.
The story opens with four practitioners of the art of prestidigitation receiving mysterious summonses from a total stranger—and they actually show up at the time and place requested—why?, well, you’re so busy looking at everything else going on you don’t notice that there is no convincing reason given.  From there it proceeds to a story that too often depends on predicting how people will act in situations where actions of people can’t possibly be predicted.    And as a friend pointed out, you would think that if they were as great at the art of illusion as they claim, the group would come up with better getaway plans than simply running away (there’s a lot of running here, more than in an episode of Dr. Who).
But it’s hard to focus on such minor pickinesses when you are caught up in a story that rarely stops to catch its breath; has a plot that is clever and filled with sly and dazzling magic tricks (well, except for whenever hypnosis and mind control is used—these sections never felt convincing); and is headed by a first rate cast who is given a whirlwind of staircase wit in which everybody’s snarky attitude only makes them more ingratiating than alienating.  
The gang of four is lead by Jesse Eisenberg as J. Daniel Atlas and you can tell how much Eisenberg’s star has risen in that he plays the magician in the opening with the least interesting magic trick and yet he’s given the most screen time and is made the leader of the act made up of the other three.   His manic line deliveries, that are unmistakenly Eisenberg’s and no other, are backed by a Greek chorus made up of Isla Fisher, David Franco and Woody Harrelson, all of whom deliver their lines as if they were acting in a restoration comedy. 
Mark Ruffalo uses his hangdog looks to great effectiveness here and elder statesmen Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman do what elder statesmen do—the same thing as the others, but with a lot more ease.  Melanie Laurent is also on board.  She is given nothing to do and she proceeds not to do it.   Well, she is there as the love interest to Mark Ruffalo, but unfortunately, magic can only go so far, and the people involved could never make this part remotely believable.
The Future Folk is a blue grass music duo who dress in space suits pretending to be aliens.  They’ve been entertaining bar crowds in NYC for many years now (they have a certain campy quality like that of Flight of the Concords).   The movie, The History of Future Folk, is a tongue in cheek “origin” story of the singers and how they came to earth and became musicians.     The duo is made up of Nils d’Aulaire (General Trius) and Jay Klaitz (Kevin) and while their music is clever and upbeat and catchy (and not enough of it is played in the film), the movie that’s been made about them (written by John Mitchell and directed by Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker) feels tepid and unimaginative, as tepid and unimaginative as the emotions that register on d’Aulaire’s face.  
The basic idea is that a comet is headed toward the Future Folk’s home planet, so Trius is sent to earth to wipe out civilization so his home planet can come and live here; but he is overcome by the beauty of music, something that doesn’t exist on his planet (leading to one of the movie’s more effective campy ideas since the music he hears is the type played in a Target).  He decides to stay and become a singer and start a family.   The pacing is slow and the plot turns run of the mill (it’s an example of the movie’s clunkiness that you don’t find out until half way through that Trius has been trying to contact his home planet since his arrival, but hasn’t been able to, leaving you to think for the majority of the film that this guy’s a real douche for deserting his planet as it’s about to be destroyed). 
The most pleasing performance is probably given by April L. Hernandez as Carmen, who has the perkiness of a Rosie Perez.  Her role is to fall for Kevin and only a talented actress could make this remotely convincing (in one scene Kevin paralyzes her with a spray and then kisses her against her will, and no one seems to think there is anything creepy about this).  Onata Aprile plays Trius’ earth daughter; she’s the cute as a button little girl in What Maisie Knew.


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Before Midnight is the third in the series of films (the first two being Before Sunset and Before Sunrise) about Jesse and Celine, two young people who first met almost twenty years ago while bumming around Europe.  All three films have been directed by Richard (Slacker) Linklater and the last two written by Linklater as well as the two stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. 
The first part of the movie is made up of a series of conversations, especially two lengthy ones by Hawke and Delpy, but also one with the now married couple and a group of people who gather for a lunch, in which nothing much happens except that everyone talks.  These conversations are directed as a series of long takes and move in a relaxed, leisurely manner.  The acting is stunning in many ways.   Hawke and Delpy are so comfortable in their roles and so believable in their relationship, the most surprising thing about the film is probably that the two aren’t married in real life.  The most unbelievable aspect of it all might be that the two still have so much to talk about after being married as long as they have.
The second part of the film is a long argument the two have in a hotel room that has been rented for them as a present.  At first the two try to bow out of the generous gift, which might actually be a major foreshadowing of what was to come.  Though the two have been getting along far better than many couples do after being married the length of time they have, they do seem to have a strange aversion to being alone, really alone, like without the children or friends around to distract them.
And when they get to the argument, boy do the two argue.  It’s not quite Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but it’s not nice either.  The only problem for me is that I never quite bought it.  In fact, what I thought somewhat odd is that while the earlier conversations, the ones the two had while they were getting along, all had the feeling of photographic realism and were delivered with a compelling naturalness, the argument in contrast seemed more forced and fake to me, there not because these two would argue, but because the writers wanted them to.
This falseness begins with the timing of the argument itself.  It doesn’t really come when an argument might come.  It comes with all the precision and obviousness of a well oiled formulaic movie.    You can see it arriving structurally, rather than emotionally.
And the argument itself is one of those you’ve seen so often before, made up of clichés and overly familiar conflicts without any original or clever insight given to any of it.  What also doesn’t help is that it’s also one of those arguments by a couple in which they almost never really argue about what they are arguing about, but constantly get off subject and go down a side road (you know when Celine complains about having to take care of everything when she comes home from work and that when Jesse says that since he is home all day he is responsible for the children before Celine gets home, that they are not really talking about whether they equally share chores at home, that there is something else going on that they aren’t talking about). 
Delpy’s Celine makes a, what was to me, very telling reference to a movie about a married couple who visit the remains of Pompeii and the couple’s coming upon a man and woman, clinging to each other, frozen in time because they got caught so quickly by the volcanic eruption.  This is the movie Voyage to Italy starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders and directed by Roberto Rossellini.  The reason it is so telling to me is because Voyage to Italy is basically one long argument by the married couple, but it’s an argument that never makes any sense, never has any real context.  You never really know what they are arguing about and it’s all so vague and unclear (Sanders was constantly calling home upset because he just didn’t know what was going on).  And it’s a tough movie to get through, watching people argue and never knowing what they are arguing about, people yelling at each other without it all going anywhere.  And that is what Celine and Jesse’s argument felt like to me, almost a serious reenactment of the classic Monty Python routine, The Argument Room. 
At the same time, the way the argument is constructed might have had an intriguing method to its madness because it leads to a very original and even profound resolution at the end.  Celine walks out on Jesse and Jesse runs out to find her and what he basically tells her is that they are arguing in many ways not because of anything specific, but because they are unhappy.  But it’s not really each other who is making the other unhappy.  They are existentially unhappy, filled with the ennui and malaise that is part of the human condition.  And he knows, therefore, that breaking up won’t solve their issues.  As Jesse says, they will always be unsatisfied to some degree, there will always be something wrong for no other reason but that they are humans.  So he asks her to make a leap of faith, to accept the fact that they will never ultimately resolve these issues, and to decide to once again be distracted from it and simply decide to continue the relationship no matter the hurtful things they have said to each other.   It’s a close call ending, but in many ways a deeply moving one.


What Maisie Knew is the lovely, at times magical, even transcendental, new movie directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright.  The description might seem a little odd, even ironical, since the movie is a study of a vicious and acrimonious divorce by two people who would feel right at home in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
What Maisie Knew is Kramer v. Kramer as seen from the eyes of the true victim in stories like this, the child.  Maisie is still in pre-school.  She’s old enough to know that something is going on, but not old enough to know exactly what it means.  Hence, she spends most of her time playing her reactive role with all the cuteness and charm the directors can get out of her.   Maisie’s parents divorce and then each remarry.  But they don’t remarry because they’re in love or want a relationship—they remarry in order to gain the upper hand in a custody battle.  Not only that, they each marry someone younger than they are with what seems to be the express purpose of having a live in babysitter.  If it weren’t so damn serious, it would be a comedy; but it’s not. It’s just sad and pathetic. 
But Maisie is a lucky little girl.   Her situation is terrible, but in the two people that her parents marry, she finds a loving couple who are willing to put Maisie first.  Another of the ironies here is that her “babysitters” are better parents than her parents are.      And she has a happy ending.  I’m a little ambivalent about that, if truth be told.   It’s straight out of Kramer v. Kramer and I Am Sam, both of which had resolutions that grew out of sentimentality and wanting to please the audience; as a result, neither were remotely believable or satisfying.   And the ending of What Maisie Knew also seems a little pat and formulaic (the ending in the book by Henry James—yes, this is an adaptation of a novel by that Henry James, one of the more original adaptations of a Victorian novel, if nothing else—and the characters of the “babysitters” are handled differently).  At the same time, I think What Maisie Knew comes much closer to earning its fairy tale ending than those earlier child custody films.   And one just sighs with relief as the credits come up.
The actors are made up of a cry of players who handle their parts with great skill.  Julianne Moore as Maisie’s mother plays the character given the least sympathy, the working woman who is neurotic and unhappy because she is a working woman; but she gives a marvelous performance nonetheless.  Steve Coogan demonstrates that he can play drama as well as comedy with ease.  Joanne Vanderham plays the new wife of Coogan’s character (Maisie’s governess) and has one of those accents where you never want her to stop talking.  Alexander Skarsgard makes good use of his gangly body, awkward teeth, and goofy looks as the person who can relate to Maisie on her own terms since he is basically a child in a man’s body.   And Onata Aprile is Shirley Temple ingratiating as the long suffering Maisie. 
Early on in the movie The East, Patricia Clarkson, who plays the boss of the central character, Sarah, says something to the effect that Sarah reminds her of her when she was young.  At this point, I thought, “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride”.  And it was as The East quickly became a rollercoaster of clichés and formulaic, second hand plot turns. 
Sarah is played by Brit Marling and in many ways, she has done something of genius.  Not getting the parts she wanted in movies, or parts she felt were worthy of her, she decided to write her own parts and produce her own movies.  The result was the highly imaginative and deeply moving Another Earth.  Since then, she has made two other films in this manner, Sound of My Voice and now The East, neither of which have apparently risen to her debut attempt.  This really isn’t all that unusual.  Someone once said that everybody has at least one story in them.   I would hate to think this is true of Marling, not after Another Earth, but to be ruthlessly honest, the omens are not favorable at this point.
Sarah is an up and coming, hungry to prove herself, agent at a private intelligence firm.  She is to infiltrate a group of eco terrorists.  Two things happen that always happen in movies driven by formula and cliché.  First, Sarah becomes empathetic to the terrorists’ cause.  But second, and even worse (because it’s the most insulting cliché of all), since she’s a woman doing a man’s job, she has to find herself romantically conflicted as well.   I told you it was a bumpy ride.
The strongest aspect of the films are the jams (what the terrorists call their missions), attacks that are ironic in the way they go after their target (the first is to take an anti-toxin with deadly side affects and slip it into the champagne at a party by the manufacturers in order to give them a…wait for it…taste of their own medicine).  There is something clever, if not straight out poetic, about these attacks on the 1%, and they’re directed as if they were in a Hitchcock film.  And the general background of eco-terrorism has a certain feeling of realism to it.  But what seems strange is that if that much thought was given to this part of the film, why couldn’t as much thought be given to character, dialog and plot?
The supporting characters are played by talented actors like Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard.  But you leave wondering why they took such flat, expendable and unchallenging rolls in a small independent like this.  Even worse, almost all the actors have to at one point give that speech, you know the one, about what drove them to do what they are doing, invariably reducing their motivations to pop psychology.  Page has an especially painful one to sit through where she emotes that her reasons for becoming a terrorist was not to save the environment, but because she has daddy issues.
What started as a story about eco-terrorism and big brother spying at the end becomes a love story, and not a particularly convincing one at that.  Even worse, there’s a coda during the credits where Sarah is shown going off and changing the minds of all her fellow agents.  It’s ridiculous and preposterous.  If you see the movie, be sure you keep that seatbelt on until the very end. 
Hannah Arendt is a biopic of the Jewish German philosopher who covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel for the magazine The New Yorker.   Like so often happens when someone writes a lengthy and intensive article about a sensational subject, it’s usually only one or two small sections that get focused on once it is published.  For Arendt, it was a suggestion that Eichmann had no real feeling about Jews, was not exactly anti-semitic, but was only following orders; and that Jewish leaders, by helping organize their people, contributed to the number of deaths, whereas if they hadn’t cooperated at all, far fewer people would have died.   In many ways, her most memorable contribution to the subject of Nazism and the Holocaust is the idea that Eichmann’s attitude (that he was no more than a petty bureaucrat and that he was not in many ways essentially evil, but was just doing his job), is a reflection of the idea of the “banality of evil”, controversial at the time, but now commonly accepted. 
In talking about the movie, there are two aspects to be covered.  One is the aesthetics of the film, i.e., just how good it is as a movie.  Another is the ideas it tries to communicate.  On the first, the movie is perfectly all right and gets the job done.  It’s not much more than that, and in some areas, a little worse.  The strongest aspects of the film are whenever it focuses on Germans when they are speaking German.  Whenever there are Americans speaking English, the movie becomes clunky and sometimes almost surreal.
The film is directed by Margarethe von Trotta, one of the filmmakers who contributed to the German new wave of the 1970’s (which also gave us Herzog, Fassbender, and Wenders), and written by von Trotta and Pam Katz, and it’s possible they just weren’t that comfortable when it came to the scenes with the American characters.  Everything that happens in the U.S. feels forced, with the actors’ emotions pushed just a little too much.  Almost no non-German actor seems comfortable in their roles, with line readings that feel a little faked, as if they were dubbed.   Even an actress as talented as Janet McTeer, who plays author Mary McCarthy, can’t seem to overcome a certain awkwardness to her scenes.  In fact, only Nicholas Woodeson, as New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn, looks relaxed in his role, giving the exact amount of restraint to be convincing.   
Barbara Sukowa as Hannah, though, tears into the part with a fury.  She fully invests in the role and is at times mesmerizing and charismatic, even when the philosophical arguments go over one’s head.  Sukowa has been in many a von Trotta film from the early years and hopefully this collaboration will continue.
When it comes to the themes of the movie, the ideas of Hannah Arendt, I and my friend had a very intense discussion afterwards, so if nothing else, the movie is intellectually stimulating.  We both questioned some of the Arendt’s conclusions (that it’s a fact, not an opinion, that the Jewish leaders only helped enlarge the number of Jews that died—how could anyone know that for a fact; and that Eichmann was only a petty bureaucrat—well, as any of us who have dealt with bureaucrats know that, petty or otherwise, there are ones who do nothing; there are ones who do their job and no more; and there are those who go at it with a vengeance, going way beyond their job description, which seems to be the category Eichmann fell into, something Arendt doesn’t seem to recognize). 
But what really struck me is that, as her critics suggested (at least to me in the audience), she wrote her article without any concern about the consequences of it.  Even she basically admits that.  She’s a philosopher and, as such, all that matters is her ideas and being honest about them.  In fact, from her perspective, it wasn’t her place to worry about anything else.  She was just doing her job.  But isn’t that the excuse Eichmann used?   


Much Ado About Nothing is the comedy by William Shakespeare that gives us the phrase, “a Beatrice and Benedick relationship”, i.e. two people who loathe each other so much, it’s obvious they have the hots for one another.  For those who don’t know what I mean, this play has in many ways been the basis for many successful a TV series, like Cheers, Moonlighting and Northern Exposure. 
Josh Whedon’s film version of this Elizabethan rom com is the sort of movie where whether you like it or not will depend on whether you like it or not.  I know that sounds ridiculous, but what I’m trying to get at is that it’s the sort of movie where you might like one actor’s performance, but your friend won’t, whereas your friend might like another’s performance that you find to be pretty awful; or you’ll like a scene that others will find lacking, whereas the scene they like will give you apoplexy.  In other words, this version of Much Ado… Is not a success by any means, but it’s also not a failure.  It has some wonderful moments, with others that fall quite flat.  It’s not unentertaining, but it never quite comes together in a wholly satisfactory manner either.   I guess what all this means is that it is what is termed…uneven.
The roles are filled with actors one might usually find on network TV with the somewhat bland and safe talents that the likes of ABC, CBS and NBC usually prefer (HBO and Showtime thespians were noticeably absent).  None of them give a great performance.  At the same time, with some exceptions (like Sean Maher as Don John, he of the truly dull line reading), no one gives a bad one either.   Most of them get the job done.  The exception to all this might possibly be Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as the Inspector Closeauish Dogberry and his assistant, both of whom not only wrest every possible physical laugh from their roles, but also wrest every possible laugh from their often clever line readings as well, reminding one of the great James Cagney and Joe E. Brown stealing the 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The strongest aspects of the film are the ones that are mainly visual.  This includes a truly lovely, dream like party, where everyone slowly gets drunk while two acrobats strut their stuff on a trapeze above them while someone sings Shakespeare’s poem “Sigh No More, Ladies” to a lovely tune by Whedon himself.  In addition, Whedon and his two leads (the slightly more than adequate, but hardly inspired, Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick) make the most of the de rigueur slapstick that usually accompanies the scenes where the two erstwhile lovers eavesdrop while the others around them play out the central joke (or “meet cute” aspect) of the play.   There are also some nice visual gags here and there (Benedick and Claudio forced to share a room filled with dolls and other frilly accoutrements and Dogberry and his assistant having “car trouble”). 
Whedon, though, isn’t as successful with the love story between the two younger characters, Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz).  Again, both give solid enough performances, but neither are even quite as strong as Acker and Denisof.  In addition, Whedon bungles the scene where Borachio sets up Claudio to “catch” his love cheating on him (it’s dramatized in a rather vague, fog like flashback that doesn’t allow you the full horror of what is really being done).  The vigil scene over Hero’s grave (a key plot and character development moment) has been mostly excised.  And finally, Much Ado… is one of Shakespeare’s plays where a woman is publicly humiliated by a man, but in the end, for some reason that is never quite convincing (and often feels even more humiliating for the woman than what was done to her in the first place), takes him back (see also The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale, among others).  There’s little one can do to make this turn work except to so fully commit to it and give it all the acting chops one can that the audience overlooks what is really going on underneath.  It can be done, it has been done, but I can’t really say with a clean conscious that it is done here.
The rest of the film is a mixed bag.  Like the acting, it gets the job done, but it never really rises above what it is and in many ways one can say the same thing about it as one can say about Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby—it’s more an interpretation of the play rather than a successful production in its own right.    
I know I’m supposed to love Sarah Polley’s new documentary, Stories We Tell.  Everybody else seems to talk rapturously about it and people in the audience find it deeply moving.  I wish I could feel the same way.  I wish I could even understand why they are feeling the way they do about it.  But for me, Stories We Tell just never connected with me emotionally.
The basic subject matter is Polley exploring the life of her late mother and the discovery that she, Sarah, is not really her father’s child, but the result of an affair her mother had.  Now that certainly sounds like a fine basis for a riveting boulevard drama, but it takes so long for Polley to get to the meat of the matter, that all tension is wrung out long before the revelations start, well, revelating themselves.  And I’m not sure I’m the only one who has some issues with this.  One of the people interviewed even asks her why she’s making this film (which based on the movie up until then, seems like a very astute question).  Her answer has something to do with her claim that she is interested in the stories we tell ourselves about our past and how they differ from one person to the next.
The only problem I have with this is that everybody’s story basically seems the same.  No one seems to divert that seriously from the basic history and all the facts seem to be the same no matter who presents them.  As far as I can tell, this is hardly a Rashomon type situation.  So in the end, I’m back to square one and asking, as the character did, why Polley made this movie.