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December 23, 2010

Directing Jeff Bridges in True Grit

The Dude in True Grit

[photo from Filmdrunk]

I don't know about you, but the thing I'm looking forward to the most this Christmas is heading out to the mall cineplex to see True Grit on Christmas night. In case you need any more reason to be excited about this movie, here are Ethan Coen's thoughts about what it was like to direct Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski and in True Grit.

The Coens say there isn't a lot of overlap between how Bridges played The Dude and Rooster Cogburn, except for one element:

The one parallel was, on Big Lebowski, pretty much the only directing we were called upon to do with Jeff is, Jeff would walk up to us before a scene and ask, "Did the Dude burn one on the way over here for this scene?" And similarly, on this, the question was, "How drunk am I in this scene?"

Merry Retribution, everyone.

December 21, 2010

The Fighter and sexy foreign films

Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams in The Fighter

There are lots of good things about Mark Wahlberg's boxing movie The Fighter (Christian Bale's flamboyant crack-addled performance, the Ward/Eklund sisters' hairdos, Amy Adams' willingness to be less than likable, the boxing sequences) and some not as good things (Mark Wahlberg being so understated he sometimes got crowded off the screen.) The opening sequence was my favorite part--watching Micky and Dicky Eklund walking around Lowell hamming it up for the HBO camera crew was one of the most vibrant and energetic scenes I've seen in movies all year.

But one detail bugged me: on their first date, Micky and Charlene go to Lexington to see a foreign film, Belle Epoque. When they come out of the theater, Charlene wonders why Micky took her to see that one, complaining "There wasn't even any good sex in it."

I lived in a small college town in the early 90's, and I went to see pretty much everything that came to my little arthouse theater, including Belle Epoque. There's NOTHING BUT SEX in this movie. It's about a Spanish soldier during the Civil War who deserts and hides out on a farm. The old farmer has 4 horny daughters. The soldier nails all of them. One especially colorful scene involves the farmer's butch lesbian daughter, who I believe gets very drunk, figures "what the hell", and mounts the delighted soldier in a scene that culminates with her woozily playing a trumpet while on top of him. It's pretty much the definition of good movie sex.

The movie ends with the soldier achieving his final conquest with the youngest daughter, a super-cute Penelope Cruz. They fall in love, and the whole family's happy for them, which probably would only happen in a goofy little 90's European sex comedy like this one.

Also, this is the movie poster:

Belle Epoque

One other note about The Fighter. The movie character smackdown I most want to see is between the super mean Aqua-Netted Ward/Eklund sisters in The Fighter and the terrifying badass Ozark lady gang who beat up Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone.

December 16, 2010

Tree of Life trailer

Tree of Life

Have you see this trailer for Terrence Malick's new movie, The Tree of Life? It's gorgeous. Lots of really beautiful, celestially illuminated shots. Looks like he stuck to his usual technique of waiting for the "magic hour" just before sunset to do most of his filming. That shot of the boys being sprayed by the DDT truck (above) is the most gorgeous image of toxic exposure I've ever seen.

It's scheduled to come out in May 2011, but this is Terrence "4 movies in 30 years" Malick we're talking about here. This movie has been in the works for so long that Heath Ledger was originally going to be the star instead of Brad Pitt. Filming took place in mid-2008, and it was originally supposed to open in 2009. Whatever. I'm happy to wait.

Here's the trailer:

December 15, 2010

This Christmas. Retribution. From a 13 year-old.

True Grit

Like everyone, except maybe the people who voted for the Golden Globe nominations, I'm really excited for the Coens' remake of True Grit. I've never seen the original, but the Coens say they "only dimly recalled" seeing it when they were kids, so I'm not too worried about not grasping the context. As my friend T-Rock said, the remake with The Dude and Jason Bourne is good enough for me.

There's starting to be some press about the movie's young star, Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the narrator and central character of the movie, Mattie Ross. A recent piece in the Times stresses how much time they put into casting that role. Joel Coen says, "We only cast her three or four weeks before we started shooting the movie, and we had been looking for a long time. But that was a crucial, maybe the crucial aspect of making the film."

I happened to meet the person responsible for casting Mattie Ross at my local old-timey bar, the kind of place that opens at 8 AM and offers its patrons free unlimited hot dogs. This woman had been in charge of extras casting for a couple of Coen Brothers movies, and if you think about the actors in memorable small roles that are such a great part of movies like No Country For Old Men (the "where does he work?" lady) or A Serious Man (all those swearing boys on the school bus), you know this is maybe one of the world's best jobs.

Anyway, she was charged with casting Mattie because of her experience in finding unknowns that have that certain Coen-esque combination of everyday familiarity and weirdo strangeness. Specifically, they wanted a girl who could ride a horse, act convincingly tough, and hold her own with really famous actors who tend to dominate every scene, like Jeff Bridges. And most important, the casting director said, she had to be completely devoid of sexuality or flirtatiousness. If there was any suggestion of creepy sexual tension between this actress and Jeff Bridges, it would be a disaster.

She told me they went through well over 10,000 actresses (the article says it was 15,000) over the course of 8 months of constant searching. The casting team basically moved to Texas and went to hundreds of rodeos and riding demos all over Texas and Oklahoma, introducing themselves to young riders and cowgirls and screen testing anyone who possessed the appropriate combination of badass and unsexy. They got videotapes of thousands of midwestern girls and local actresses. The Coens didn't like anybody. She said that finding a 13 or 14-year old who could appear to be unaware of her own sexuality was almost impossible.

Eventually they got a taped audition from Hailee Steinfeld, who's from LA and has an agent and has done some TV and commercials. So much for the real-life cowgirl. If you've seen the trailer, you can see how awesome this girl is. Apparently, regular 13 year-olds from America's heartland can act sexy on film, no problem, but finding a no-nonsense kid who doesn't look like she wants to hump Jeff Bridges while the cameras are rolling is basically out of the question.

Things might be changing for Hailee Steinfeld already. She's got a profile in Vanity Fair and the platform heels are coming out full-force for awards season.

December 13, 2010

Black Swan, ballet horror

Natalie finds a black feather in Black Swan

I saw Black Swan and liked it very much, though it took me about 24 hours afterwards to calm down enough to figure out why it freaked me out so much. It shouldn't have been surprising: Aronofsky's earlier movies Pi and Requiem for a Dream weren't exactly light entertainment, and though I liked both of those a lot, I never want to see them again.

But other than a shared fixation on icky bodily wounds, which seems to make an appearance in all Aronofsky movies, the one that Black Swan has the most in common with is The Wrestler from last year. The story and themes are really similar (performing artist gives up everything for the pursuit of their art, with catastrophic and glorious results) and there are a few shots and scenes that are almost identical. There's the same total dedication to performance in spite of everything, the same willingness to endure physical and psychic pain, and practically the same tights.

But Black Swan is a horror movie as far as I'm concerned: Natalie Portman goes off the deep end amidst terrifying hallucinations, self-mutilation, and all kinds of scary face-stabbing shit. The whole movie is a "delirious, phantasmagoric freakout", as Manohla Dargis says in her review. And it really made me want to go clubbing with Mila Kunis.

It's got some flaws, though: the dialogue is sometimes weak and occasionally ridiculous, and I really wish the writers had thought of more than one thing for Vincent Cassel, the ballet company's artistic director, to repeat over and over again about the whole white swan/black swan dynamic. Also, when every single time Natalie backs out of a room away from something scary, then turns around and runs smack into something that's also scary, it stops being scary.

But it still got under my skin. I came out of this movie in some kind of unspecified indignant, freaked-out agitation about what happened to poor Natalie. More than anything else, this movie reminded me of Rosemary's Baby, which I group together with The Stepford Wives (also based on a novel by Ira Levin) as nightmare fantasies about What The World Does To Women. I don't know why Ira Levin was so pissed off about our culture's repressive and cruel expectations of women, especially in terms of how women relate to men as wives and mothers, but he sure loved to write really disturbing books about it.

You can take Black Swan as a story about striving for artistic perfection at all costs. But if you take it at face value, it's also about a woman who tries to embody the ideal that women should be good, nice, modest girls, and the ideal that women should be horny sluts, and as a result, goes crazy. Our culture demands both opposing ideals, and tends to punish women who fail to achieve either one. What happens to Natalie when she tries to be both white and black swans is like a bloody, hallucinatory horror vision of how mental all this is.

I'm not the hugest Aronofsky fan, but his movies sure do get me in the guts. Speaking of which, it's probably not a good idea to see this movie if you have an eating disorder.

December 10, 2010

Steven Soderbergh and Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray

Somehow I had never seen any of Spalding Gray's stuff, never seen him interviewed, or seen him in a single movie (except, I guess, for How High.) Until today, when I saw Steven Soderbergh's new movie And Everything Is Going Fine, which is a good introduction to Spalding Gray, because there's nothing in it at all except for Spalding Gray.

It's such a fantastic introduction, in fact, that now I feel like I fell in love with someone and then lost them forever in the space of an hour and a half.

I suppose the movie is technically a Soderbergh documentary, but there's nothing in it that identifies Soderbergh at all. Considering Gray made a career out of talking about himself and his own experiences, it's fitting that a documentary about him is constructed solely of clips of Gray, talking about himself, and a few people he interviewed on stage during his shows. There's great stuff that goes beyond his funny and intimate monologues, like TV interviews that range from what you'd expect from a serious New York art scene kind of celebrity (Charlie Rose) to those that made me realize how mainstream-famous he actually was (MTV).

Nathan Rabin at The A.V. Club starts his review by saying, "What can anyone possibly say about Spalding Gray that he didn't articulate more eloquently himself?" Soderbergh takes the same approach. He constructed the movie like a posthumous autobiography, and it's only through an interview in the Times from earlier this year that I would have known anything about his own relationship to Gray. Talking about how he avoided Gray for the last three years of his life, Soderbergh says, "I was totally absent in a way that is inexcusable to me. And this entire movie is in part an act of contrition. The irony is that I spent the better part of three years immersed in something I tried to avoid."

If there's any sense of Soderbergh's presence in the movie, it's that feeling of regret. I hardly knew anything about him and his work when he was alive, and now I can't believe it's over already.

December 7, 2010

Christian Bale and Dicky Eklund

Melissa Leo and Christian Bale in The Fighter

An early review of The Fighter from an AP critic David Germain (he's pretty good) is positive about the movie overall, but says that Christian Bale is especially great. He plays Dicky Eklund, Mark Wahlberg's half-brother, and a flamboyant and confident successful boxer himself, until he had some losses, then eventually became a crack addict and a wreck. Compared to Wahlberg's unsmiling, hard-working, blue-collar guy with a dream, Dicky Eklund sounds like a wonderfully colorful, exuberant wastrel: a complete disaster, but a lot of fun to watch.

Germain thinks that Christian Bale might have taken some inspiration from Heath Ledger's scene-stealing performance in The Dark Knight. While he had to stand there with his jaw clenched, reciting dull moralisms in that suit of armor, Ledger got to swagger around in his fright wig, gleefully smacking his lips through all the good lines. "Two years after Ledger's posthumous supporting-actor win at the Oscars, Bale might take home the same honor, for inhabiting a role with a different but equally ferocious sort of abandon," he writes.

You can see the real Dick Eklund, who's still alive, in HBO's 1995 documentary about Dicky and some other Lowell, MA crack addicts, High on Crack Street. It's available for instant viewing on Netflix, and you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

The Best Supporting Actor Oscar race might come down to Geoffrey Rush for the hyper-British The King's Speech, Christian Bale, and John Hawkes in Winter's Bone. Hawkes is the kind of character actor I totally love, appearing in loads of big-budget and tiny movies and TV, and being entirely different in every role and completely memorable.

Bale's performances have been so uneven lately that I can't tell if he's good or not anymore. For every great, smart, subtle role he's done (I'm Not There, The Prestige, Rescue Dawn) he's done another one where he's a bland drip who gets upstaged by everybody (Public Enemies, 3:10 to Yuma, The Dark Knight).

The Fighter comes out Friday. Can't wait to see Bale chew some Lowell crackhead scenery.

How have the Democrats caved today?

Obama caves on taxes

Today's "deal" between Obama and Republican members of Congress is yet another example of Democratic insecurity and timidity that is starting to border on some kind of pathological political personal disorder. OK, Obama felt like it was more important to get extended unemployment benefits than to go to the mat over the Bush tax cut issue, and everybody seems to like the payroll tax cut (even though it doesn't help poor people in any particular way.)

But also lowering the estate tax for multi-million dollar inheritances?! As the Times wrote in an editorial, "That is not compromise. It is capitulation."

Here's a perfect illustration of how desperate the Democratic self-esteem problem has gotten. On NPR this morning, former Democratic representative and current political commentator Martin Frost said, "The worst thing that can happen for Democrats right now would be to block anyone from getting a tax cut because we're mad about the wealthy getting tax cuts, and then have the economy continue to deteriorate – then we'd be in real trouble."

But, Morning Edition asks, wouldn't the Republicans actually be blamed for refusing to compromise and raising taxes for the middle class?

Martin Frost replied, "You're asking me why the Democratic Party isn't very good at messaging right now? I don't have an answer for that."

That's it right there: even when the Republicans make it glaringly obvious how little they care about anybody but rich people, the Democrats still willingly take the blame for bad policies and a bad economy.

Democrats need to stop being so weak and start feeling strong and powerful. This party needs a hot bath, a cute new outfit, lots of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and some inspirational posters with unicorns on them to hang up around the congressional chambers.

Believe in Yourself poster

December 6, 2010

Four Lions: suicide bomber slapstick

Four Lions

Four Lions

You know this new movie, Four Lions, the terrorism satire? Just by being a terrorism satire, it's shocking. It's always going to be too soon for some people to handle this movie, and there are a couple of moments that made even a hardened cynic like me gasp. It's the blackest movie I've seen in years, but it's also a light and occasionally sweet comedy about some very humanized jihadists in the UK.

Watching this movie in the theater is an especially strange experience because of all the weird times that the audience laughs. Sure, everybody laughed at the funny costumes and the scene of the terrorist rapping on one of his video messages (above) but what about during the suicide bombing sequences, which got more than one weirdly shrill giggle from the audience? Are suicide bombs funny? Not usually, but apparently sometimes, yes, they are.

Let's remember that the UK suffered a more recent lethal terrorist attack than we did, so it's arguably too soon for them to be laughing about this stuff, too. The director, Chris Morris, is probably best known in the US as the guy who plays the over-confident boss man on the show "The IT Crowd", which has been on IFC lately (video). He also anchored an early TV news spoof called "The Day Today", which was on in the UK in 1994 and also featured Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci, who went on to do In the Loop.

Four Lions and In the Loop would be good to watch together: they're both about the War on Terror and the useless morons on either side who are fighting it. The same two guys, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell, wrote both movies. In the Loop has a purely cynical view of the incompetent and selfish idiots who started the war in Iraq, but Four Lions is a little more complicated. Its characters are nicer and goofier than the In the Loop guys, so they're less odious on the surface. But their goals are much worse. As lovably inept as they are, they still want to kill people. As Chris Morris says, "Terrorism is about ideology, but it's also about doofuses."

A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert both liked the movie a lot, which isn't surprising, but conservative talk radio star Michael Medved LOVES it. Medved interviewed Morris on his show a few weeks ago. Maybe we'd be better off if we all start thinking of terrorists, in Morris's words, as scary but also ridiculous.

Here's the trailer.

About December 2010

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in December 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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