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November 30, 2009

Switzerland and its nuanced form of bigotry

Anti-minaret signs in Switzerland

In a spasm of racist panic, Switzerland voted in a referendum to ban all new construction of minarets. Muslims make up only 5% of the Swiss population, and there are only four minarets in the entire country, but enough people are scared of Muslims to "want to stop further Islamisation in Switzerland," according to the leading political party that sponsored the referendum, which sounds about as reasonable as hetero Americans being afraid of the approaching takeover of the country by the 5% of the population that's gay. Which, well, right, OK.

Yeah, minarets are just symbols: it's not like Islam itself has been banned. The Swiss just hate hate hate minarets! Muslims will just have to practice their religion more quietly and unobtrusively. Sort of like, say, sitting in the back of the bus.

Despite the fact that it's got a lot of reactionary bigots in it, Switzerland is a little like the New Hampshire of Europe. They're as close to libertarian as Europe probably gets: taxes are relatively low and they seem to want the rest of the world to just leave them alone and let them shelter questionably-gained cash for the world's shady businessmen. The Swiss are not joiners. They're not quite members of the EU, they're into direct democracy, and they still half-pretend to be neutral.

On the positive side, Switzerland offers civil unions for same-sex couples with most of the same rights and benefits as married couples. And true to its libertarian tradition of not messing around in other people's business, New Hampshire legalized gay marriage this year. It's helping to push the US in its jerky, slow-motion lurch toward marriage equality.

But come on. Switzerland just violated international human rights conventions by banning the religious buildings of a small minority. They look like backward morons.

So the real lesson of this story is: New Hampshire beats Switzerland in the battle of libertarian non-conformist weirdo states.

November 24, 2009

Coming up with a Top 10 Movies list every year is hard enough

Best Movies of the Decade

So doing a Top 10 list covering the last 10 years... I give up.

By which I mean, I'll do it, but I'm probably forgetting about all the best movies, and it's hard to judge comedies, dramas, and documentaries on the same scale. But assuming the movies that haven't come out yet this year--like Brothers (sorry I got busy with your hotter brother while you were dead, honey!) and Nine (Daniel Day-Lewis nails everyone in the whole world, while singing)--aren't going to blow my mind, I'll take a stab at a list.

But first, a bunch of other lists. A lot more of these will come out in the next few weeks, but so far, there's not much consensus on what the best movies of the decade are. A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips from "At the Movies" are doing a countdown of their Top 10 lists week by week, and they've gotten up to #6 so far. Already there's a lot of room for controversy: I've got some picks in common with each critic, but Million Dollar Baby?, 25th Hour? That movie was not that good--I liked it at first, but it doesn't hold up to repeated viewings. Last week, A.O. Scott picked The Best of Youth, which I've never heard of.

A writer from Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt, posted his Top 10 list, which is impressively unconventional. Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon hasn't come out yet, so no comment on that one, but he's got another Haneke movie on there, too, half of his picks are foreign, and he includes Far From Heaven (?) and Letters from Iwo Jima (?!!), a movie I more or less forgot all about 5 minutes after walking out of the theater.

A few other lists: a short one from Cinematical (with a surprise Anchorman in the top comedy spot), Top 50 from Paste Magazine, a list I like a lot except for the top 2 selections (Amelie and City of God--yawn), and a gutsy Top 100 list from the Times of London: in addition to all the usual stuff, they've got Bad Santa, Capturing the Friedmans, Casino Royale, and Grizzly Man.

So here are the movies that would be on my own top movies of the decade list:

Kill Bill, Vol 1 and 2: gorgeous, eye-popping, emotional, wildly stylish, tense, funny, and unstoppable. The coolest movie I've seen in at least 10 years.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: even if you literally get your memory erased, you still can't get over that one who dumped you. A wistfully beautiful and optimistic movie about brains and broken hearts.

No Country For Old Men/A Serious Man: I suspect A Serious Man might be a tiny bit better, but I have to see it again.

Mulholland Drive: like having a really stylish, self-perpetuating anxiety dream after watching too many movies. Naomi Watts is the greatest.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days: a slow, intense buildup to the most harrowing day ever. Quietly eloquent movie about the abuse of power and all the crap vulnerable people have to deal with.

The Piano Teacher/Caché: Two jaw-dropping movies by Michael Haneke, I can't decide which one is best.

The Descent: a smallish horror movie not a lot of people saw, but it's so amazingly great as both an action/adventure movie and as a standard attack-of-the-cave-monsters movie. Really holds up.

The Bourne Identity: the first one was the best. Has some of the greatest city-based action scenes ever.

Ghost Dog: this movie's tones and styles are all over the place, but it gets them all right. It's smooth, light, cool, dark, touching, cartoonish, funny, and sweet. Makes me feel cool just watching it.

My Winnipeg: I only recently got into Guy Maddin, and this one is the best I've seen so far. Originality isn't everything, but there aren't any other movies out there like this. Surreally nostalgic and really funny.

A few other stand-outs: The Departed, Pan's Labyrinth, Brokeback Mountain, Shaun of the Dead, The Royal Tenenbaums, Almost Famous, and United 93. I was going to say Being John Malkovich, but it came out in 1999.

You know what would be a good idea? Doing a Top Comedies of the Decade list. I'd put Wedding Crashers, Shaun of the Dead, Dude, Where's My Car? (really), Superbad and Dodgeball on there.

A few movies that are gonna keep popping up on other people's lists are Zodiac, Lost in Translation, and The Dark Knight. Eh.

OK, what did I forget and what are your favorites?

November 20, 2009

It had to happen eventually

Malibu, American Gladiators

The first item in weird movie news is the announcement of American Gladiators: The Movie. Of course! Ever since last year's revival of the original 80s show on NBC, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to come up with a one-word plot concept like "superheroes" and make a movie adaptation.

I'm going to guess that the superhero Gladiators will fight an evil foreign government that's making death robots, and the Gladiators will have to use their 100% all-natural brawn to defeat the robots in a trapeze jousting battle while scrambling over an exploding foam rubber pyramid.

(By the way, Wikipedia has an unbelievably extensive entry on all the events that were ever on the show, with sub-entries on each individual event, like Gauntlet. It's overwhelmingly thorough.)

The screenwriter for the Gladiators movie is Peter Iliff, which inspires a little bit of hope because he also wrote Point Break. Point Break is one of the most re-watchable movies ever made, so, naturally, a sequel is in the works, also to be written by Peter Iliff.

But now that I think about it, my love for Point Break might have more to do with Patrick Swayze and the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and neither of them are involved in the sequel (of course: RIP Swayze.) The sequel is called Point Break Indo, which presumably means it will be marketed to stoner pretend-surfers. It comes out next year, probably right around the time Kathryn Bigelow is getting nominated for The Hurt Locker.

Peter Iliff's other new screenplay with a drug-themed title, Chasing the Dragon, will star Wesley Snipes as an FBI agent going after an Asian drug lord to avenge his fellow agents' deaths.

To recap: Point Break Indo is probably going to be straight to video, Chasing the Dragon will come and go while Wesley Snipes keeps appealing his three-year jail sentence, and American Gladiators will make $300 million.

In other weird sequel news, did you know a Donnie Darko sequel came out this year? Richard Kelly has nothing to do with it. It's about Donnie's little sister, Samantha, and it's called S. Darko. The cast includes: the little dead girl in the well from the American remake of The Ring as Samantha Darko (she played her in the original Donnie Darko, too,) Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl, and Elizabeth Berkley. I think it went straight to video.

Considering how terrible S. Darko looks, I'm even more impressed that Donnie Darko was as good as it was. The IMDb plot summary for DD--"A troubled teenager is plagued by visions of a large bunny rabbit that manipulates him to commit a series of crimes, after narrowly escaping a bizarre accident"--sounds like a disaster, but even though I've only seen it once 7 years ago, I remember lots of great stuff about it.

Other sequels/remakes/not remakes coming out today: part 2 of the Twilight "saga" ("saga"?!), (Manohla calls it "bloodless") and Herzog's Bad Lieutenant (A.O. Scott says Nicolas Cage's performance "requires adjectives as yet uncoined, typed with both the caps-lock key and the italics button engaged". Haha.)

November 16, 2009

An excuse to watch The Equalizer intro

Edward Woodward in The Equalizer

Edward Woodward died today, and while his career included many highlights like playing the main detective guy in the disturbing and insane The Wicker Man and the Ghost of Christmas Present in the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol, I'll always remember him for playing McCall in The Equalizer, the mid-80s show about a rogue secret agent protecting people in danger in a gritty, crime-infested New York.

No disrespect to Edward Woodward, but the best part of the show was really that awesome driving synthy theme song by Stewart Copeland, accompanied by a great montage of helpless New Yorkers getting menaced by thugs and rapists in elevators and a beautifully graffiti-covered 59th Street station:

November 12, 2009

Roger Corman created Hollywood as we know it

Roger Corman movies

Roger Corman, one of the most prolific movie makers ever, got his honorary Oscar yesterday. He's an award winner that seems unconventional for the Academy, but Corman's connections to mainstream Hollywood go deeper than I realized.

You might already know Roger Corman, King of the B's, as the guy who produced or directed hundreds of the finest American movies involving man-eating snake girls (Night of the Cobra Woman), bloodthirsty motel proprietresses (Mountaintop Motel Massacre), Peruvian cave monsters being sold as a snack food (Munchies), brain eaters (The Brain Eaters), and the Ramones (Rock 'n' Roll High School).

But did you know he also helped launch the careers of tons of respected actors and directors? Here are some of the people who owe it all to Roger Corman:

Actually, Jonathan Demme and Roger Corman have stayed pals since Corman gave him his first writing job in 1971 with Angels Hard as They Come (starring a young Scott Glenn) and his first directing job in 1974 with Caged Heat. Roger Corman appeared in small roles in Demme's Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate, and Rachel Getting Married.

He also played Congressmen in both Godfather II and Apollo 13.

At the Oscars ceremony, Peter Bogdanovich, another Corman protégé, said: "Roger Corman is responsible for the New Hollywood. He has made a tremendous impact as a director himself and made very stylish horror films and made them fast and cheap and made them look good."

Fast and cheap, no joke. Supposedly he shot Little Shop of Horrors in 2 days, and for a while there was putting out 6-7 movies every year. Corman certainly had an eye for real talent in the people he chose for his movies, though I guess when you're churning out that kind of volume, at least a few of your protégés are going to end up being the greatest actors in the world.

November 11, 2009

The future of the Basterds

Eli Roth and Inglourious Basterds

There was some news yesterday about a potential prequel to Inglourious Basterds, a rumor spread by my least favorite part of the whole movie, Eli Roth. He says Tarantino has most of a prequel written (probably because it was originally going to be included in the movie) and that there's enthusiasm among the actors to do it:

"All the time, Brad says, "Prequel, prequel!" All the basterds would jump on it in a second.

We have three scenes that we shot in Boston that take place before the war, and Quentin says if he does the prequel, he's going to use them."

Though one of the Boston scenes allegedly involves Cloris Leachman, who is fantastic, I'm guessing/hoping this prequel idea is never going to happen. I don't know about you, but I thought the Basterds were the weakest part of the movie. Every time they came on screen, I was pulled out of the action, they were hammy thug caricatures, and if you'd taken them out of the movie entirely, it still would have held together fine. Though I guess you'd have to do something about the title.

The engine driving the movie was Shoshanna's story, I thought, and it seems like Tarantino steered the plot in such a way that she had the biggest, awesomest victory and definitely the most incredibly cool visual moments. The memorable parts of the movie are all hers. It almost seemed like Tarantino came up with the Basterds idea first, then the other characters all eclipsed them and became much more interesting, but he still felt like he had to stick with his original vision of these Nazi-killing soldiers.

So more Basterds would not be a good focal point for another movie, and more Eli Roth would be a flat-out disaster. Watching him on screen was painful; he had this "Look! I'm acting now!" weirdly intense self-consciousness that was completely distracting and out of place, no matter how handily he wielded that baseball bat. I know the Basterds were all meant to be broad cartoons, but he was on his own level of overacting that was too much even for Tarantino.

Just put the prequel scenes on the DVD and be done with it.

November 9, 2009

An obligatory thing on the Mad Men season finale

Mad Men season 3 finale

Lots of exciting stuff on last night's Mad Men season finale, for example: all the main characters banding together to gleefully steal filing cabinets full of proprietary material to start their own upstart rip-off agency. But by the end, it felt like we were right back where we started before this season began. After a lot of muddling around, the main storylines -- Don and Betty pretending to be happily married, Peggy maybe leaving the agency, Joan working at a department store, and the British being in charge -- are all over and done with. Just about everyone we like at Sterling Cooper is together again, back to being a big happy work family.

If there's a feel-good message about this episode, it's that the people you work with are more like family than your real family, which isn't much to feel good about if it's your actual life, but it's a great direction for the show. There were so many agonizingly slow episodes this season about private life (Don and Betty going to Italy, Henry and Betty almost having an affair, Betty sulking around the house, anything involving Betty) while the best episodes have always been the ones about work. So now Betty's been more or less jettisoned (I hope!), Joan's back on the job, and all seems right with the world.

Actually, Betty was the biggest disappointment of the season. Last season, she stood up for herself and told Don off, got busy with a stranger in a bar bathroom, and didn't let Don come home until he admitted he was wrong. This season, she's back to whining and needling and becoming smitten with every guy who pays any attention to her. She's been reduced to a cold, bratty 13 year-old, like last season never happened. Betty needs to either discover radical feminism or become criminally insane.

The biggest surprise of the season: Pete Campbell not being a jerk. One of my favorite shots was of him sitting on the couch watching assassination coverage with his arm around Trudy, when she pulls her feet up and they decide not to go to Roger's daughter's dumb wedding.

Hopefully next season they'll unload some extraneous characters that were making the show too cumbersome and top-heavy. Conrad Hilton has basically turned into a caricature of a plot device, trundled out after a mysterious absence to reveal the British firm's impending sale then disappear again. Miss Farrell--gone, for now. Duck--gone, again. Joan's husband Greg--already probably pretty much ditched and gone. Will Joan actually divorce him or will he just ship out with the military and be forgotten about or maybe killed? Who cares.

Next season: the new agency hires back Sal, then brings in my new favorite character Mona to lead a brassy, no-nonsense gay intervention for the closeted Lucky Strikes guy.

November 6, 2009

The men who really do stare at goats

Men who stare at goats, Clooney and Spacey

The Men Who Stare at Goats opens today, and while it has some great cast members (Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, and Jeff Bridges, who all buoy up the Kevin Spacey deadweight) and some funny visual jokes about the woo-woo era of the US military in the 70s, it might not be the greatest movie. Manohla Dargis liked it OK, but says it "doesn't add up to anything. It's wacky, amusing."

Even if it's light and inconsequential, it sounds like there are a few transcendent moments, and the story is based on the delightful and real Stargate Project, which Manohla describes as "born in the fields of Vietnam and baptized in the hot tubs of the New Age movement, it brings together Buddhism, pantheism, militarism and old-fashioned hooey-ism, the idea being that war can be waged with love, eagle feathers and assorted paranormal techniques -- with a few martial arts moves thrown in."

Since the real Stargate Project is probably the most interesting thing here, Wired analyzed the military operations and experiments that appear in the movie and reports on how much of the wacky stuff was real. A few highlights:

Actually, it might be more fun to just read Lt Col Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion field guide, which tells you how to create a movement of peace, positive visualization, and harmony with the universe, but within the US military.

Was there ever a decade as self-confidently goofball as the 70s?

November 4, 2009

Risk: the movie that takes at least 8 days to watch

Risk board game

Risk, the favorite board game of global domination nerds who think nothing of playing same game for days at a time, is going to be adapted into a movie. I'm hoping it'll be pretty good, with lots of cool, unstoppable characters from all corners of the world strategizing for epic takeover, which since this game involves human soldiers and not just robot machines, could actually happen.

The interesting thing here is that the game was created in 1957 by a French filmmaker, Albert Lamorisse, who called it La Conquete du Monde. Considering France's experiences in the first half of the 20th century, it must have been a great fantasy for French people wanting to experience taking over the world instead of getting invaded and occupied.

But Lamorisse actually had a much gentler career as a short filmmaker: he made The Red Balloon, the 1956 short movie about a turtlenecked boy, Pascal, who befriends a friendly, sentient balloon. His own kids played the boy and girl in the movie. I feel like this movie was on PBS all the time in the 80s, and it's sweet and kind of mesmerizing, almost like a silent film, with a lovely score and almost no dialogue.

And it's online, so you can watch the whole thing!

It would be great if the new Risk movie was produced in the same style as The Red Balloon, with some pensive soldiers in turtleneck sweaters running through picturesque city streets, followed by bands of inquisitive colorful pinwheels as they amass their empires through whimsical, French military domination.

November 2, 2009

Halloween highlights

Foam Monster

This year's Halloween Parade was certainly as wild as ever, but I arrived later than planned, so I stood around in the big crowded holding pen of costumed folk on 6th Ave until it started raining hard enough for one of my companion's white nylon costume to be compromised. And then bailed.

In the time I spent swarming around at the foot of the parade, Lady Gaga and Max from Where the Wild Things Are were by far the most represented, and there were (thankfully) very few unfunny political statement costumes. Here are a few highlights from the parade, and from the series of bars that I sought shelter in:

The blue foam monster in the top photo--anyone know what that is?

Lots more photos on Flickr.

November 1, 2009

(Untitled) and Adam Goldberg


The biggest reason that I went to see (Untitled) is Adam Goldberg. It's promoted as a satiric look at the avant-garde art world, it got mixed reviews, and it's only playing at the Angelika, one of my least favorite movie theaters, but that Adam Goldberg is so funny and compelling in everything I've seen him in, even when he's playing a hapless grump who hates the world. Hell, especially when he's playing a hapless grump who hates the world.

Experimental art galleries and atonal concert music are tricky subjects for a comedy, but this movie really knows its stuff. Some of the performance scenes of Adam Goldberg's trio are straight out of one of the better Christopher Guest parodies, but what sets them apart is that these characters are completely unaware they're in a comedy. There's hardly any caricatures or winking at the camera, just people who genuinely believe in their music with non-melodic piano, clarinet, yowling, bubble wrap, and bucket. Though it reflects some of the experimental art out there that's meaningless hogwash, the movie also includes some really cool, beautiful music, which redeems it from getting too mean. All the music was composed by David Lang, who obviously has a sense of humor about his genre.

In the movie, a beautiful gallery owner falls for Adam Goldberg, so we see a lot of crazy conceptual art and the people who like to talk about it. There are some jabs at real artists, including a wildman English superstar specializing in taxidermy who's clearly based on Damien Hirst, played by Guy Ritchie standby Vinnie Jones. And there are references to Jake and Dinos Chapman's disturbing child mannequins with genitals attached to their heads and Robert Gober's legs coming out of a wall, and probably a lot of other stuff I didn't recognize. It's an easy field to make fun of, but the jokes are smart and subtle, and even if the people who collect these kinds of pieces can be gullible phonies, they're sort of sweet, too. It's good to see a satire with real, believable characters.

The rest of the cast is good too: there's Marley Shelton who played the doctor in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, and Zak Orth, a hilarious comic actor from all the David Wain/Michael Showalter movies who plays an art collector more into the investment than the aesthetics ("Art does not look as good when it goes down in value.")

Here are a few reviews, from the Times, Kurt Loder, and Arts Journal, and here's the trailer. Time Out hated it, but their movie reviews have been weird and unpredictable lately.

Now I've got to consummate my love for Adam Goldberg by finally seeing The Hebrew Hammer.

About November 2009

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in November 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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