Movies Archives

September 22, 2014

So long, Robot

Goodbye, Robot

So here we are in late September, and we're just getting around to writing about this year's Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit, or TUSH. Usually we try to identify this song in mid-July based on personal observation and cultural saturation, before the fall begins and it's obvious to everyone what song will stand as the one everyone knew and sorta liked that summer.

I guess it's "Fancy". But I came to that conclusion by looking at radio and sales charts and being aware that there's an Australian rapper called Iggy Azalea who people like now, and not really because I heard that song every time I was out over the past three months. This is because I don't go out much these days, and my kid's favorite playground doesn't pipe in Top 40 (thank God.)

My commentary about the video is coming months late, too. Here it is: I love that the video is a remake of all the best scenes in Clueless, but do 17 year-olds of today actually know and love Clueless, which came out while I was in college? I feel like my generation is the intended audience for the "Fancy" video, which strikes me as a misjudgment, since I don't really like the song. It's not a song for me, it's for people who are more into current pop culture, and are who are younger and go out more.

So this is a roundabout way of saying that it's time for this Robot to say goodbye. I'm not sufficiently in touch with TV, music, pop culture, and the peculiarities of everyday life to keep up a blog anymore, so I'll leave it to those who are.

These days I write about movies on Letterboxd, so come find me there. And hopefully we already admire each other's baby pictures on Facebook.

These 12 years have been fun. Thanks for reading!

July 31, 2014

Boyhood and real time

Boyhood, Ellar Coltrane

Richard Linklater has covered a lot of ground in his filmography, many different styles, genres, and time periods, but one thing his movies are not is rushed. He typically lets his stories meander along and unroll at their own pace, with plenty of time for characters to hang out and talk and talk and talk. If there's a theme he often returns to, it's shooting movies in something close to real time--Slacker, Dazed and Confused, each of the movies in the Before trilogy, Tape, and whatever the hell is going on with time, space, and reality in Waking Life.

So Boyhood, which covers 12 years of small but significant moments in a kid's life in just under 3 hours, seems like it would be a departure for Linklater, blasting through the years at a breakneck pace. But one of the things I love about this movie is how slow and easy it feels. There's nothing in the movie to clearly signal that we've moved forward in time, no "One Year Later" captions, or a few frames of black screen. The movie slides ahead a year with nothing but contextual clues to indicate it. If it wasn't for hairstyle changes, new sets, and the almost imperceptible aging of the actors, we might not even realize it was happening.

Which of course is how we all experience moving through time. As in all Linklater movies, the characters have a lot of philosophical musings that are often circular and logically hazy, but still endearing and fun to watch. I think of them as Freshman Dorm conversations. During one of these musings, Mason says something like, we're all living in a new reality each moment, all the time. In an interview about the movie, Linklater says, "Time is actually the lead character in the film," which is sort of annoying and trite, but also accurate, and I'm sure he meant it totally sincerely.

We in the audience watch Mason and his family move through their lives, and sometimes barely notice the changes they're going through. Most of the major plot points happen off screen. It's the cumulative effect of those changes that suddenly hit you, like seeing how confident and sure of herself Patricia Arquette has become, and how much more considerate Ethan Hawke eventually is. And how Mason grows from a little boy into a sullen kid into an artist and an adult. It's a real strength of the writing that these character developments feel the way real people grow and change, and never magically appear as new traits that exist to serve the plot. We only have something like 15 minutes to catch up with everyone each year, and Linklater quietly packs a lot into each year. With only one viewing, I couldn't say when the jumps ahead in time even happened.

But they do happen, and Mason grows up. My own baby turns one next week. Time flies.

May 8, 2014

Richard Linklater, in for the long haul

Richard Linklater

There are some filmmakers who make their movies, put them out, then move on to the next thing. Not Richard Linklater! After he completes his movies, it could be years (or decades) before he's really finished.

Consider his new movie Boyhood, which he took 12 years to shoot using the same actors over time. Or the Before trilogy, when he got Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy together three times over 18 years to tell the charmingly long-winded story of Jesse and Celine's romance.

At the time it was released, we didn't know Bernie would be another movie with a long time horizon for Linklater. But today we learned that, since the movie came out in 2012, Linklater has maintained some connection to the real life Bernie Tiede, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his rich and super-mean companion Marjorie Nugent. The movie apparently inspired a lawyer to revisit the case, and she persuaded a judge to let Bernie out on bail and reduce his sentence to time served (he's been imprisoned since 1997.)

The best part is that one of the stipulations of Bernie's release is that he live in an apartment in Richard Linklater's garage! "When Bernie comes out, he wants to take care of him," said Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the article that inspired the movie.

This means there's a pretty good chance that 15 years from now, he'll reunite with School of Rock's Miranda Cosgrove to be her campaign manager when she inevitably runs for President.

March 18, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ralph Fiennes and ladies in The Grand Budapest Hotel

There's all the expected whimsy and preciousness and adorably fussy set design in Wes Anderson's new movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, but there's some interesting stuff in this one that feels like a departure from his other movies. For example:

Ralph Fiennes. We all know he's a great dramatic actor with a talent for intensity and scariness, but how many comedies have we seen him in? Other than Maid in Manhattan? Clearly, he's also gifted at dry banter and wily charm, and he throws himself into the Gustave H. character with glee.

Gustave is an odd duck. He's an authoritarian taskmaster with the other hotel staff, a doting lap dog with the little old ladies, a sucker for romantic poetry, a vain peacock, and an art thief, and he can suavely stick it to the Nazi-esque barbarians without mussing his perfect manners. And he's sad and insecure, like most Wes Anderson characters.

But he swears a lot, too! Which brings us to the next notable thing:

Lots of swearing. Also nudity and sex, both of the old lady variety. Yeah. Whoa. I don't remember any on-screen sex happening in his other movies, right?

It's European. The tone of the movie was a little different, too, maybe because it's so intensely European. A few other Wes Anderson movies take place in other countries (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited), but even those feel as American as Bill Murray's flat a's.

This movie's story about the decline of the hotel from a once-great institution serving the rich and famous to a lonely dump could be a metaphor for the Continent and its gradual loss of global influence and power. The hotel's physical transformation from an ornate pink palace to an orangey-brown Soviet-era slab of drab mirrors what happened to much of Eastern Europe over the course of the 20th century. It was shot around Dresden, in what used to be East Germany. The wistful tone of lost greatness shows up in other WA movies, but the scale of loss is bigger in scale than in The Royal Tenenbaums. This one has actual fascists, who take over the Grand Budapest Hotel and shoot people.

Heavier stuff than we usually get from Wes Anderson. But M. Gustave's streak of nose-thumbing defiance amidst all the frivolity and mountains of pastel cream pastries actually works pretty well. If this is Wes Anderson doing a political-historical thriller, I'll take it.

March 3, 2014

Oscars and money for the pizza guy

Ellen asking for tip money for the pizza guy at the Oscars

Last night's Oscars didn't offer many surprises or memorable moments--I was pretty much OK with all the winners, and the night's predictability meant that I did *really* well in my office pool. My favorite moment was probably Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and their cute rhyming acceptance speech for Best Song. Robert Lopez was one of the writers of The Book of Mormon and is now a proud member of the very exclusive EGOT club.

But the weirdest moment was when Ellen, having ordered some pizzas in a folksy stunt, went around with Pharrell's hat asking all the famous audience members for money for a tip. The men dug out their wallets and obediently put some cash into the hat. But then Ellen started chiding them for their cheapness. She called out Brad Pitt for only contributing a twenty, and then things heated up. People started leaning over each other to put more money into the hat, and for a few seconds we had a bunch of celebrities literally throwing their money around on TV, showing the world how amazingly generous they were in their tipping of an anonymous low-wage worker.

I can't tell if Ellen was doing it on purpose--goading the very rich and very famous into competitive coerced generosity--but it made the whole night look desperately show-offy. We all know the Oscars are about self-congratulation, but we don't usually get to see all those glamorous celebrities be such transparent camera hogs.

I hope the pizza guy got all that cash.

(Oh, he did!)

February 20, 2014

Stop explaining, James Franco!

James Franco in a wig

I've had fun watching the ongoing experimental performance art that is James Franco's career. First he stars in the Spider-Man movies and a Julia Roberts romance. Then he's on "General Hospital" playing a tortured artist named "Franco". Then he's hosting the Oscars. Then he's directing tiny indie movies about Hart Crane and Sal Mineo, and an impressionistic adaptation of As I Lay Dying. Then last year he played an ingeniously unflattering version of himself in This Is The End, and Florida drug dealer Alien in the craziest movie of the year Spring Breakers. And also starred in Oz the Great and Powerful, which wasn't good by anyone's standards but was a huge hit. Oh, and he's also had shows in art galleries and appears to be pursuing doctoral degrees at several top universities simultaneously.

James Franco is the only person I can think of whose career is in itself a smart commentary/critique of what it means to be a movie star, while also actively being a movie star. He's wildly prolific, and takes on incredibly disparate projects that I assume he's doing because he's genuinely interested in trying new things. Especially if those things fuel speculation about his sexuality, like the "30 Rock" episode where his character, "James Franco", is having a secret romance with a Japanese body pillow, or last year's Interior. Leather Bar., which he directed and starred in, which re-imagines 40 minutes of gay S&M footage cut from Cruising. I don't know what he's doing, exactly, but I admire him for it.

But his latest trend of writing these explanatory pieces for the Times are starting to ruin it. Last year he wrote about why he posts so many selfies on Instagram, describing the up-close-and-personal access the public feels like they're getting through the celebrity selfie. Today he's got an opinion piece about Shia LaBeouf's recent anti-celebrity antics, which he thinks are part of LaBeouf's effort to "reclaim his public persona." It's a smart piece, and I'm sure his ideas about why famous people rebel against celebrity are accurate.

But he's too close to tipping his hand. I don't want to read James Franco's essays about how his appearances on "General Hospital" dismantle the hierarchy of entertainment. I just want the freaky, confusing experience of watching his scenes on YouTube, which he pretty much pulls off. I want to be confused. Whatever James Franco is doing is a lot more interesting when he does it without explanation.

Out of the ten (!) movies he's got scheduled to come out later this year, one is an adaptation of The Sound and the Fury. He's directing. And playing Benjy. It will also feature Seth Rogen and Danny McBride. This movie sounds utterly impossible and probably disastrous, but I want to see it anyway -- I just don't want to read Franco's philosophical musings about his craft and why Caddy smells like trees.

February 11, 2014

X-Men can't read my mind

James McAvoy reads minds

Superhero movies aren't usually my thing, but I really liked X-Men: First Class, and have been excited about the sequel coming out in May, Days of Future Past. In the first X-Men series, I liked the sequel (X-Men 2) even better than the first movie, so I have high hopes that this sequel will also be great, before some other director comes in and ruins the franchise with an abysmally disappointing third installment. Please keep Brett Ratner away from this series.

I liked almost everything about First Class, with one big exception. James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, and his insistence on showing the audience he's reading someone's mind by putting his fingers to his temple, every blessed time. Once or twice would have been OK. Putting your fingers to your temple is universally accepted movie-code for "I'm reading your mind", but after the ten thousandth time, it just got insulting. Xavier can read minds, we get it! Unless there's a physical Telepathy Activation button located on Xavier's temple that must be pushed in order for mind-reading to occur, all that gesturing was pointless and silly.

What's especially strange is that Patrick Stewart didn't use the mind-reading gesture in the first X-Men series, and neither did January Jones, who plays telepath Emma Frost in the same movie as James McAvoy. Those other actors just look intensely focused for a moment and squint ever so slightly, and, magically, the audience understands what's happening.

Since the world has been so thoroughly educated on Xavier's mind-reading ability, I sort of assumed we wouldn't be subjected to so much temple-pressing in the X-Men sequel. Then I got my special collectible X-Men Days of Future Past issue of Empire magazine in the mail, and was greeted with this cover:

Empire X-Men Xavier cover


February 3, 2014

Why it's especially awful to lose Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Pirate Radio

There's been shock, regret, and sadness in responses to yesterday's news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of a heroin overdose. It was public knowledge that he'd struggled with addiction in his youth, and again recently, but he wasn't exactly a hellion bent on his own self-destruction. Amy Winehouse's death was tragic, but not exactly a surprise.

Something about losing PSH feels like more of a personal loss. I'm more affected by it than other celebrity deaths, in part because of how talented he was and how much I love his movies. There's no better actor out there. I remember noticing him in some earlier roles, like in The Big Lebowski and Boogie Nights, and in a Broadway production of True West in 2000 I was lucky enough to see, and feeling like I'd found out about something big and important that the world wasn't quite aware of yet. Think about PSH in Happiness. Then think about him in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Then in Synecdoche, NY. Then in Pirate Radio. The guy could do anything, and he made so many movies.

But the best actor we had was also a middle-aged father of three and appeared to be a nice, smart, down-to-earth guy. He seemed to be genuinely respected and admired by everyone, both people who actually knew him and regular fans. It's hard to think of a person you admire doing something as foolish as getting sucked into heroin abuse. Again. This is what makes addiction so scary, and so hard to understand from the outside: he must have known how dangerous it was to start using again, and he couldn't stay away from it.

Here's how I'm thinking about it all:

1) We're lucky that the best actor we had worked so much and made so many movies, right up to the end of his life. I don't think there's a single actor who I've seen in more movies and plays.

2) We're unlucky that our best actor was addicted to heroin.

3) Heroin has gotten really incredibly dangerous lately, with spikes in deaths being reported all over the country. There seem to be batches out there that contain a lot of fentanyl. And as Russell Brand keeps reminding us, addiction kills.

Here's a great Times Magazine profile of PSH from 2008.

January 6, 2014

Top Movies* of 2013

Spring Breakers piano scene

*that I've been able to see

And we're back! Just in time to look back at 2013 and pick our favorite movies. With the new baby robot launch earlier this year, it's been hard to get to the theater, so there are a lot of movies that everyone seems to love that I haven't caught up with yet. Thankfully there were great movies coming out all year long, so even if the end-of-year representation is spotty, there's enough notable stuff for a list of 10.

Spring Breakers
Spring Break Forever! I just fell in love with y'all. This list represents my personal favorites, not necessarily The Best Films of the year, and no movie had a greater effect on me than Spring Breakers. It's a smart criticism of our culture's sexual exploitation of young women, and it's a nightmare of violence, drugs, excess, partying, and James Franco's cornrows. But it also works as an impressionistic fantasy and has some surprisingly beautiful hot tub sequences, Franco at a white piano (adding another chapter to the absurdist performance art his career has become) and a shotgun ballet musical number to Britany Spears's "Everytime". It added "Look at all my shit!" to the lexicon (A.O. Scott has a lot to say about that) and introduced the world to the scary and fascinating ATL Twins. I'm still picking my jaw up off the floor.

Inside Llewyn Davis
It's not an easy one to love, this melancholy movie about failure with a central character who's kind of a jerk. Little happens besides losing, finding, and losing a cat, but the tone of struggle and disappointment is what the Coen Brothers do best. What did you expect, a happy ending and a record contract? Llewyn's musical performances are so compelling and sad that we want it all to work out for him, even though most of his woes are self-created. The movie is full of tiny moments with big emotional impact, like Llewyn looking at a record sleeve of the album he did with his dead ex-partner, and driving past a highway sign reading "Akron". Sadly funny and beautiful.

Frances Ha
Somehow, this movie completely avoids being the self-involved, precious, twee little hipster quirk-fest that it so easily could have been, and ends up just about perfect. Frances isn't an adorable oddball, she's a real mess, but her flaws make her sympathetic and genuine. Things get wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly at the end, but the way there is sloppy and hilarious.

Stories We Tell
A fascinating documentary about Sarah Polley's nice Canadian family, that ends up exploring how we construct our family histories and whose version of the story gets passed along as "what really happened". Her family is more convoluted and mysterious than most, but it's the inventive way the central mystery is set up and investigated that makes it so good. It's also a sweet father-daughter story and a love letter to Polley's own father, the unexpected hero of the story.

The World's End
The funniest movie I saw all year, and the best/saddest/most touching of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Cornetto Trilogy. Simon Pegg's energetic performance as a delusional hyper-manic middle-aged early-'90's throwback was my favorite of the year.

Before Midnight
I love the whole series, and feel a particular resonance with Jesse and Celine's rocky romance because I've always been about their age when each new movie comes out. Their relationship is at its thorniest in this final installment, but watching them fight is more fun than watching them talk about the nature of consciousness. I especially admire Julie Delpy for writing and performing a lot of unflattering scenes in which her character is insufferable and nuts; conversely, Ethan Hawke let himself off easy with all his reasonableness and wit. Who's that clever when their relationship is falling apart?

Enough Said
I like all Nicole Holofcener's movies, and this is her best one yet. Funny and warm with a very delightful Julia Louis-Dreyfus--she's a lovable mess.

Beyond the Hills
Just like the director's earlier 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, this movie got under my skin with its oppressive sense of dread. This one feels even more like it exists in its own creepy universe, set in an isolated monastery with an overbearingly controlling culture. The two central characters are childhood friends/lovers, trying and failing to find a way to relate to each other within this scary, byzantine place. I love these movies, but they scare the hell out of me.

12 Years a Slave
An unflinching look at the brutality of slavery, but full of many beautiful shots and moments--you can really tell that Steve McQueen was a visual artist before he started making movies. This one has the same chilly, detached quality that Shame and Hunger have, which sometimes made it hard to feel involved in the action on screen, though given what much of the action consisted of, maybe I should be grateful for that.

The Renaissance of Matthew McConaughey continues.

I should point out that there are many recent movies I haven't seen yet, some of which would probably be on this list: Her, Short Term 12, The Past, All is Lost, The Wolf of Wall Street, Blue is the Warmest Color, Nebraska and American Hustle. Those last two movies are by directors I don't much like anymore (and have I told you lately how much I hated Silver Linings Playbook?) but everyone seems to love these movies, so, OK.

A few other movies I liked: The Bling Ring, Prince Avalanche, Blue Jasmine, The Lords of Salem, and Stoker.

There were also a few exceptionally good examples of otherwise tired genres: Gravity, an old-fashioned disaster movie with fancy new technology, Pacific Rim, the best big-budget monster-action movie I've seen in a long time, and Philomena, a perfectly constructed touching true-story human drama.

The year's biggest disappointments:

This is the End. Not funny enough.

At Any Price. Bahrani has made three really great subtle small movies about people living on the margins. Then he makes this mess about corn farmers in Iowa, with Zac Efron. No good.

To the Wonder. Terrence Malick finally blows it.

World War Z. Starts strong with a large-scale zombie attack on downtown Philly during rush hour, ends with a series of incredibly boring walks down long deserted office hallways. Terrible.

What were your favorites last year? Let me know what you recommend in the comments. Here's 2012's list.

October 8, 2013

Amy's Robot: On standby

On Hiatus

As you've probably noticed, we're taking a break over here. The recent launch of a new Baby Robot model has us pretty busy, and there's isn't as much time to spend watching movies and musing/complaining about pop culture and political minutiae.

But before we resume our hiatus, a few observations about recent stuff:

The World's End: My favorite of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost trilogy, and the funniest movie I've seen all year. I really like how perfectly they nailed both of the movie's hackneyed genres: Old friends who've grown apart get together for a reunion and learn they still really love each other, despite everything; and Invasion of the alien machines. The way the old rivalries resurface, and tough truths are learned about their friends... and themselves, every detail is perfect.

But the most impressive part of the movie for me is Simon Pegg's performance. The first half-hour especially, where he's simultaneously manic, obnoxious, desperate, pathetic, and hilarious, in one hyper-energetic, repellently appealing spaz-explosion in a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt. He just burns a hole through the screen. It's a performance at about the same energy level as Jack Black's first scene in High Fidelity, but he sustains it through the entire movie. He deserves some kind of award, even though really inspired comic performances like this hardly ever get the recognition they deserve.

Enough Said: I like all Nicole Holofcener's movies, and this one has the same agonizing social awkwardness and flawed but sincere characters that I like in all her stuff. This is one of James Gandolfini's last movie appearances, and it makes me wish he got to do more romantic comedy in his career--he's a big, gruff, hairy love interest, more convincing than you'd think.

And finally Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series. It took a while to get going, and its biggest problem is the main character, who is unappealing and less interesting than the far more colorful and interesting ensemble, but I still like it. A few episodes in, I thought, wow, it's great that there's this show with so many good roles for black and Latina actresses, older, bigger actresses, butch actresses, all roles for women that deviate from the pretty young white norm, that are so often missing from other TV shows and movies. Then I realized: that's because it's set in prison. Oh well.

We'll be back!

June 6, 2013

Some thoughts about Much Ado About Nothing, which I haven't seen

Much Ado About Nothing poster

The other day I saw this poster for Joss Whedon's film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, with its tagline, "Shakespeare Knew How To Throw a Party". I'm still throwing up.

I haven't seen the movie yet, and I'm trying to keep an open mind. Critics certainly seem to love it, and I can believe that it's a fun time. But I've been irritated by the whole idea of this movie since the trailer came out, and still have some reservations.

First of all, some marketing firm came up with that idiotic tagline, but Shakespeare and his alleged ability to throw a party shows that those involved in this adaptation think Much Ado is a lighthearted romp. Shakespeare is a blast, kids! Look at all these beautiful young people drinking and carousing in the trailer! It's not like school, it's cool and fun. While it's fine to claim that experiencing Shakespeare is a good time, it assumes that audiences are incapable of appreciating the other enjoyable aspects of Shakespeare: the language, the wise and timeless insights into human nature, the emotions, the jokes.

Also, as much as I respect Joss Whedon and his clever, whimsical style, when I think about filmmakers I would trust with modernizing Shakespeare, I'm not sure he's above #40 on that list. He uses actors that are great for his kind of writing. But hiring the cast of "Angel" and "Dollhouse" to do Shakespeare strikes me as a bad misjudgment. American TV actors are fine for disposable American TV shows with that Whedon-esque snappy dialogue, but they might not bring the gravitas, skill, and confidence you need to pull off Shakespeare.

British director Trevor Nunn once said, "I have yet to see [Much Ado] done with sufficient seriousness." That's because it's not a lighthearted romp, like Whedon's version appears to be--it's actually really dark. The story follows two not-young people (Beatrice and Benedick) who have been through the emotional ringer, and seem to have a kind of romance PTSD. The subplot (Claudio and Hero) is about the world's harshest case of (misguided) slut-shaming, regret, and death. I might be wrong here, but I'll bet that Whedon didn't pick up on any of that in his adaptation. In an NPR interview, he calls the play the basis for all modern romantic comedies. Yeah, the language is a lot of fun, but the themes are dark, dark, dark.

Also, why is it in black and white? The movie was shot in Whedon's own sun-drenched southern California home, so the stark, austere, moody look of black and white seems out of place. I think he did it as an easy way to manufacture a sense of artistic legitimacy. For a certain audience, black and white automatically means "arty and serious", so they'll watch this Joss Whedon movie with second-rate TV actors and think "I'm watching a serious Shakespearean film, it must be good!" and get to feel smart and cultured.

Maybe I'm being too cynical. Critics who like the movie like A.O. Scott have personal preferences that are different than mine; in his glowing review he says, "I prefer my Shakespeare in modern clothing and with American accents." One day, if he's lucky, maybe he'll get to see David Boreanaz's Hamlet!

May 28, 2013

We can't come up with a better name than Berberian Sound Studio?

Berberian Sound Studio

There's a fun new trailer for a movie coming out in a few weeks that I'm really excited about. Here's the story: an English sound engineer arrives in 1976 Rome to produce the sound for an Italian horror film. The Italian movie looks like a lovingly blood-soaked homage to the great Italian giallo movies of the 70's: it's called The Equestrian Vortex, and it's set at an all-girls riding school and involves witches and lots of graphic murder. Anyway, strange things start to happen at the recording sessions (featuring screaming voice actors and shots of Foley artists brutalizing heads of lettuce and large melons) that blur the line between movie and reality. The reel-to-reel editing scenes actually look tense and creepy, and I think the whole thing will be stylish, pulpy fun. Plus, Broadcast did the soundtrack, which is out on Warp. Cool!

But somehow, this gory romp ended up with the title Berberian Sound Studio, as though the Armenian-inflected name of a production facility in which scary things happen would somehow get audiences excited to see the movie. Dario Argento would be dismayed, especially since this movie sounds like a combination of his classics Suspiria (murderous witches at all-girls ballet school) and Deep Red (Englishman in Italy witnesses horrors).

Here's the trailer:

The actor playing the English sound engineer is Toby Jones, who's had the misfortune of playing Truman Capote immediately after Philip Seymour Hoffman, and then playing Alfred Hitchcock immediately after Anthony Hopkins. But this time Toby Jones is going to OWN the role of freaked-out English sound engineer.

May 17, 2013

Terrence Malick out-Malicks himself

To The Wonder

I'm a fan of Terrence Malick's movies. I love the dreamy, impressionistic, heart-achingly beautiful non-linear flow, the extended shots of the natural world, and the emotion in his stories and characters, even when they hardly say anything and nothing much happens. I love the whispered voice-overs and lazily swaying fields of wild grass that someone always seems to be lightly brushing with their hand.

And I'm totally OK with Malick taking 8-20 years to produce these movies. Which is why it was such a shock when To the Wonder came out recently, a mere two years after The Tree of Life. Is it possible to make a movie in his unhurriedly gorgeous style so quickly, and have it be good?

No! I was so disappointed by To the Wonder that I'm a little upset about it. The biggest problem with this movie is the story, which is this: the world's most annoying couple falls in love, then breaks up, twice. In the process, they move from a spectacularly Malickian Paris to a hideous sub-division in Oklahoma (that Malick still manages to infuse with incredible natural beauty) which is probably a big part of what goes wrong. But actually, we really have no idea why they're in love, or what goes wrong with their relationship, either time. "Love" acts as an external force that bestows itself upon them for a while, then goes somewhere else, probably to find a couple that isn't so insufferably irritating to be around.

Which brings us to the characters and actors. If you want to create emotional resonance and depth of feeling in your main characters, you probably shouldn't cast Ben Affleck and a Bond girl. Ben Affleck spends the movie brooding silently, and Olga Kurylenko mostly twirls around in blowsy outfits, probably going for "adorably free-spirited girlish imp", but coming across as "immature clingy woman-child who wants to be a pretty princess ballerina". These are not people I want to spend time with, and we're given no understanding about the workings of their relationship, so I found it impossible to care about them. I think this might be what people who don't like Malick's movies complain about--there's nothing to latch onto.

What's most upsetting is that Malick still uses his (and Emmanuel Lubezki's) cinematographic chops to create moments that are so quietly, perfectly gorgeous that they seem to take on spiritual meaning. There's a scene at the beach near Mont St. Michel and some magic hour scenes with Rachel McAdams in a field that are as beautiful as anything he's ever done. But when they're part of a movie with utterly hollow characters and the sketchiest of plots, they feel a little cheap. Yeah, yeah, nature is holy and beautiful, now can we maybe get a couple lines of dialogue, or one minute without Olga Kurylenko twirling?

Roger Ebert wrote his very last review about To the Wonder, and luckily, he liked it. Whatever he saw, I didn't see it.

May 6, 2013

Trance movie math

I'm a little behind on this one, but I thought I'd share some thoughts on Danny Boyle's new movie, Trance. Somehow I've seen every single one of Danny Boyle's movies, even the outright horrible ones like The Beach and that inexplicable one with angels in it. As an inadvertent completist, I think his movies are almost always a good time, fun to watch and really stylish, but ultimately, they're pretty fluffy. Don't think too hard about them and you'll enjoy the ride, but if you subject them to any real scrutiny you might start thinking that maybe this is a shallow, fatuous look at poverty and systemic oppression, and isn't that whole space freakout sequence a lesser rip-off of 2001?

Anyway, Trance has a lot of good things about it, and many themes he's explored in his other movies: non-criminals getting in over their heads when they attempt a major crime, secret psychosis, the allure and danger of altered mental states, and a really outstanding electronic soundtrack by Rick Smith from Underworld. It's also the only movie I have ever seen that has to feature a full-frontal shot of shaved genitals because it's actually required by the story.

So here's my equation:


Trance =

Shallow Grave

Shallow Grave +

The Thomas Crown Affair

The Thomas Crown Affair +

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind poster

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Crime gone wrong, sexy art thieves, and erasing emotionally painful relationships from your mind. Trance is a little less than the sum of its parts, but still a fun movie.

April 22, 2013

Rob Zombie and The Lords of Salem

The Lords of Salem, riding a goat

There's no real risk of spoilers being revealed in this response to Rob Zombie's new movie, The Lords of Salem, because I don't think I understood enough of what happened to give away anything like a plot. Sure, I can report on the unrelated sequence of nightmarish hallucinatory freaky images that flash across the screen in a chaotic, psychosexual, hilarious blur for the last 45 minutes, but as far as what actually happens in this movie? Your guess is as good as mine.

This much I do know: Rob Zombie's wife, Sheri, whose film career pretty much consists of her husband's filmography, is one game actress. She stars in Lords of Salem as Heidi, a DJ at a Salem, MA radio station who unwittingly enters a bizarre world of Satan worshippers and (of course) witches after she plays a mysterious record that shows up at the station one day. Over the course of the movie, as the witches insinuate themselves into Sheri's psyche, she encounters strange demonic beasts, descends into madness, rides a goat (see above; as a kind of meta-joke, her t-shirt says "Why the Goat?"), does heroin, is naked all over the place, and possibly delivers some kind of hell-squid baby, though everything had gotten so nonsensically trippy by that point that I'm honestly not sure.

Rob Zombie seemed to construct this movie by writing a coherent (though boring) set-up, then coming up with several dozen really disturbing visual concepts, then beautifully filming each one, and splicing them all together until he hit 100 minutes. The end. The movie really looks fantastic--he takes Stanley Kubrick's style of chilly wide shots and lots of slow tracking, and combines it with Dario Argento's hyper-stylized, surreal gore, all with a $2.5 million budget.

He understands the comic potential of horror, and the creepy potential of the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties". There are several references to silent movies in clips playing on background TVs, and in a giant still from of Melies' A Trip to the Moon on the wall behind our heroine's bed. But then there's also a demon toddler with slimy skin and flippers for hands who in one scene waddles up to this very bed, inexplicably looking at a sleeping Sheri Zombie. Nothing happens. Cut! The scene ends. I have no idea.

It's a cinematic version of a talented filmmaker's surrealist nightmare, and probably a helpful lesson on why you shouldn't take a lot of serious psychotropic drugs. It's an incoherent mess, but I find diabolical camp irresistible.

April 8, 2013

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers poster

(Warning: spoilers)

I saw Spring Breakers weeks ago and have been struggling to come up with something to say about this movie and what it all means: the partying, the beach, the kids, the boobs, the drugs, the guns, the booze, the murder. I can't quite get my head around it, but here's what I've got.

The four girls at the center of the movie are so desperate to go to the beach for spring break that they rob a chicken restaurant using squirt guns and intimidation techniques we've all seen a thousand times in every heist movie ever (yelling, swearing, threatening to bust everyone's skulls, etc.) They are completely successful, and go to St. Petersburg to party.

The interesting thing is that everything the girls do is something they (and we) have learned through endless examples in TV and movies. They dance on the beach to techno, douse themselves in beer, scream "Woooo Spring Break!", shake themselves all over the place, loll around in their bathing suits stroking each other's hair, and occasionally make out with each other. They wear neon string bikinis because any other kind of bathing suit would never be considered for even one second. They sing "...Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears and talk about how Florida is the greatest paradise they have ever known. Any person who has experienced MTV or a movie about off-the-hook teen parties in the last 20 years knows exactly how to be a girl going wild on spring break, because we've all seen it hundreds of times.

And we all know exactly how to commit armed robbery and be a badass gangster because we've seen it hundreds of times, too. The girls move from robbery with squirt guns to partying on the beach to doing drugs in a cheap motel room to getting into serious crime with real guns and real gangsters, but it all feels like a logical progression along a continuum of familiar, predictable pop cultural references. They're always performing.

There's a flattening of "bad girl" behavior at work here: taking your top off at a beach party is more or less on the same level as stealing in order to have a good time, and neither is really all that different from hitting up a local drug dealer and taking his cash. We've seen it on TV and in movies. By the time the girls hook up with James Franco, put on their My Little Pony face masks, and start doing some real damage with assault rifles, it bizarrely feels like just more of the same. As Manohla Dargis writes, it's "more of a horror film than a comedy."

So is Spring Breakers a criticism of our hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent pop culture? I think it is. It's also really dark and really hilarious. The culture that teaches teenage girls to think people will like them more if they take their tops off and tongue-kiss each other for the boys is the same culture that thinks organized crime and murder are cool. We live in a world where teenage debauchery and gangs are a little naughty, but so exciting! And when the girls start killing bad guys, does that make them good? Maybe?

This is a controversial viewpoint, but that's how it goes with Harmony Korine. I like the cultural criticism in the movie, but even better is the dream-like impressionistic way a lot of scenes unfold. There are many sequences with recurring loops of dialogue and non-linear, abstract camera shots of sky, ocean, body shots, and making out in a hot tub that all sort of blend into each other in a nightmarish haze. It's indistinct and gorgeous, which is more than I would typically say about a scene shot in a Florida motel pool.

April 4, 2013

Ebert's Leave of Presence turns into Leave of Absence

Roger Ebert

Just two days after announcing his "leave of presence" from the Chicago Sun-Times so that he could focus on the 10,000 other movie-related things he's doing, Roger Ebert has died.

In his latest/last essay, he explains "What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away." Was that just his own, kind way of saying goodbye? Or was his sudden downturn truly unexpected? We knew cancer had returned, but he was living his life as though he had plenty of time left and lots of projects still going. I'm stunned.

Growing up watching "Siskel & Ebert" on TV was what got me excited about movies, and Roger Ebert will always be a personal hero. His writing style and thoughtful approach to movies make him one of my favorite critics, even if I don't always agree with him. He was first and foremost a newspaper man, and he was incredibly generous and prolific--the guy was writing upwards of 300 reviews a year and thousands of excellent tweets even while sick and weak.

I can't wait for that Steve James/Martin Scorsese documentary about his life--it'll be a great story.

Esquire did a long feature on Ebert in 2010 about his life, and especially his struggles with cancer that left him without a voice since 2006. If anything, this limitation seemed to unleash an even greater commitment to writing and sharing his thoughts about movies, culture, politics, and Life Itself, and he faced all his physical problems with admirable strength, humor, and genuine happiness. It's a fantastic read.

March 19, 2013

Tina Fey, Actor

Tina Fey in Admission

We all love Tina Fey and can talk at length about all the amazing things about her: she's funny, self-deprecating, fearless, an inspired and successful comedy writer, and she helped Obama win the 2008 election. "SNL", Mean Girls, Bossypants, "30 Rock"--everything she does is great.

But I don't ever hear that Tina Fey is a talented actor. The Sarah Palin act was its own special kind of genius, but for all the praise she gets for her many gifts, it's not usually for her acting chops. Sure, she delivered the news on "Weekend Update" with an appropriately no-nonsense half-smirk, and we all saw a little of ourselves in the perpetually harried, big-sandwich-loving, grown-up nerd, Liz Lemon. But I think Fey gets more credit for creating Liz Lemon than for playing her on screen.

Which brings us to her new movie, Admission. Tina Fey plays a Princeton admissions officer who is very smart, a little uptight, and stuck in a safe but boring life. She's unfulfilled, but not sure what to do about it. This role isn't a big departure from Liz Lemon and the frustrated single lady in Baby Mama, but this movie is the first time I noticed it: Hey, Tina Fey can act! Her character goes through more emotional extremes than I've ever seen her take on before, and she carries them all with total credibility. The plot is a little convoluted, and it's not the greatest movie overall, but Tina Fey shows some impressive range--big emotional scenes and more subtle moments that all work.

The other great thing about the movie is the brilliant decision to cast Lily Tomlin as Tina Fey's aging radical off-the-grid mom. It's perfect. Everything Lily Tomlin says and does is hilarious, and it's like a symbolic passing of the torch from the 70's pioneer to today's gutsy comic superstar. Hard to believe they've never done anything together before now.

I really don't want to see Tina Fey try to become Kate Winslet or take on serious Oscar-bait roles like "feisty Depression-era widow cotton farmer" or "double-amputee killer whale trainer", but I hope she gets some recognition for being a good actor as well as a great comedian.

March 5, 2013

Hands On a Hardbody

Hands On a Hardbody

One of my favorite documentaries of all time is 1997's Hands On a Hard Body, which tells the story of an East Texas car dealership's publicity stunt of giving away a tricked-out Nissan pickup truck to the contestant who can keep one hand on the truck the longest. It goes on for many days. These kinds of contests aren't unusual, at least in Texas, but this documentary is the best kind of human drama--the stakes are high, the competition is physically and psychologically agonizing, and the contestants represent a wonderful cross-section of real-life Americans that I don't think the world's best casting director could have improved.

So of course I had to see the new Broadway musical Hands On a Hardbody, which is in previews. When you look at this production, it looks pretty weird: the book is by Doug Wright, who is most famous for winning a Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife, about a transgendered woman in Nazi Germany. BUT: Wright is from East Texas, so there you go. The music is by Trey Anastasio from Phish. I was a little worried about how jam band noodlings would work in a Broadway musical, but the songs are very catchy and represent a great range of American music: rock, country, soul, and gospel. I think it's going to do well--reviews come out in a couple of weeks.

One of the best things about the musical is that it adapts the fragmentary documentary into a narrative structure, and ties the contestants together into a coherent group, all driven by one thing: economic desperation. These people don't just think it would be nice to have a fancy truck, they really, really need this truck. There are stories of unemployment, families falling apart, and how much it sucks to be poor and stuck in a crappy little town. It's like if you take the original documentary and filter it through A Chorus Line, you'd get this musical.

Steven Soderbergh recently said that he's hoping to direct some theater now that he's stepping back from movies. This is just the kind of thing I think he'd be great at, if he decides to go big and commercial instead of doing oblique little Off-Broadway stuff. Lately his movies have been all about money and what people will do to get it. We don't often see poor, desperate people in big Broadway musicals, but maybe this will inspire him.

My main hope for this musical is that it will finally bring a proper DVD release for the documentary. Right now, used VHS seems to be the only way to see it (DVDs are selling for over $100!) It doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere, either. But if the show's a hit, maybe more people will get to experience the original in all its glory.

NY Magazine has an interesting explanation of the onstage truck, which the cast members move all over the stage with remarkable ease. It's a 2001 Nissan with the engine removed, on invisible rolling casters. Cool.

March 1, 2013

Craig Brewer's next movie that might be good

Craig Brewer and the Beverly Hills Gangster Princess

I'm a fan of writer-director Craig Brewer, the guy who made Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan. He's a good director, and I especially admire how unpredictable/crazy his storylines and characters are. If you like Terrence Howard like I do, he's really fantastic in Hustle & Flow, plus that movie indirectly generated my favorite ever Oscars one-liner: after Three 6 Mafia had won Best Song and accepted their Oscar with adorably genuine enthusiasm, host Jon Stewart came out and said, "You know what? I think it just got a little easier out there for a pimp."

And Black Snake Moan, aka Samuel L. Jackson Chains Christina Ricci To a Radiator, is a bewilderingly strange movie about addiction, mental illness, and the blues, and it's frankly a miracle that it's anywhere near as good as it is. Plus it features a not-bad performance from Justin Timberlake as a returning soldier with PTSD.

Then, Craig Brewer made the Footloose remake, a weird choice, but I was willing to go with it. But by all accounts it was not darkly gritty or interesting, or even entertaining in any way, and I lost faith.

Then I found out what his next project is going to be: a movie based on last summer's excellent Rolling Stone article about Lisette Lee, an alleged Samsung heiress/model/singer living in Beverly Hills and leading a life of glamour and self-indulgence, who in reality was a super-manipulative sociopath from a modest background with a messed-up family life, who was ferrying hundreds of pounds of marijuana from LA to Ohio on a private jet. Eventually she got busted.

Now that's more like it! A story like this lets Brewer get back to what he's good at: exploring the flamboyantly self-destructive impulses of charismatic, mentally unbalanced people who want a better life. Or in some cases, an entirely new identity. He's going to write the screenplay and direct. The title of this movie is probably still not certain, though the AV Club helpfully suggests the brilliant Beverly Hills Weed-Jets.

This story about normal people becoming obsessed with the celebrity lifestyle and doing illegal things to try to get it reminds me of another great story-turned-movie: The Bling Ring of teenagers who blithely robbed celebrity homes for months in 2009. Sofia Coppola's movie adaptation is coming out this summer.

So I'm glad Craig Brewer is clawing his way back to movie respectability through the world of spoiled, lying, narcissistic drug mules.

February 25, 2013

Surprises at the Oscars

Oscars acting winners

Considering that just about all of my picks for last night's Oscars were wrong, I thought there were a lot of surprises in the winners. My favorite movie, Zero Dark Thirty, was shut out of every award (besides that tie for Sound Editing,) so though I didn't agree with many of the winners, at least the awards got spread around a bunch of different movies, with no clear overall winning movie. If a piece of conventional rom-com mediocrity like Silver Linings Playbook can win a major award (Best Actress), at least a great movie like Django Unchained can take two (Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay.)

Same thing goes for Life of Pi, a visually beautiful and technically amazing movie that was pretty thin on every other aspect of moviemaking. Was Ang Lee the best director of the year? Probably not. But I take great comfort in knowing that a (generally) wonderful director like Ang Lee now has two Best Director Oscars, and Ben Affleck has zero.

Speaking of which, I wonder if Argo would have become such a popular choice for Best Picture if Affleck had been nominated for Best Director, and the Academy hadn't been driven to reconsider its lukewarm response to the movie when the nominations were decided? The directors' branch of the Academy, who shut Affleck out, wasn't nearly as impressed with the movie as the Academy as a whole was. Either way, whenever two different movies win Best Picture and Best Director (like when Crash won Best Picture,) it usually means they got at least one award wrong. In my opinion, both winners this year will look pretty questionable in the future--I just can't accept a movie that stars Ben Affleck winning Best Picture. He's gotten to be a pretty good director, but he's still so flat and unbelievable on screen.

As for Seth MacFarlane's hosting job, I liked the song and dance numbers intended to appeal to the geriatric viewer, but too many of his jokes were mean. If a joke is mean but really funny, that's one thing, but most of his jokes were mean and not nearly funny enough. (Gawker cut his jokes into one video.) The one exception was the video of him propositioning Sally Field in the green room, and I mostly liked it because of how game and funny she was. "I've got a bottle of wine and some Boniva, we'll have a great time" was his best line of the night (starts at 0:42 in the Gawker video.) I admire Sally Field for doing a skit that hinged on her admitting she had no chance of winning an Oscar this year, something I can't imagine hardly any other actor doing.

I was happy to see Quentin Tarantino get an Oscar for writing Django, but did you notice that instead of praising his cast, like most people would do, he pretty much said that he deserved an additional Best Casting Oscar for the amazing job he did casting them in his movie? Considering he didn't get his first choice cast members in many, well-publicized cases, maybe some of the credit should have gone to the actors.

My favorite comment about the night was Matt Singer's tweet: "Silver Linings Playbook is a movie made entirely of Oscar clips." Which describes why I don't like that movie better than anything I've come up with yet. The best suggestion I heard was from a friend who pointed out how much more awesome it would have been during the In Memoriam tribute (which included MCA!) if Barbra Streisand had sung "Sabotage".

February 20, 2013

Oscars picks

Oscars Ballot by a famous director

Every year around this time, I post my picks for who will win at the Oscars. This year, Hollywood Reporter offers a far more entertaining variation: a famous unnamed director's picks with running commentary. It's not just that I agree with just about all of this guy's selections, but also that he's a riot, unapologetic and blunt.

This guy, whoever he is, has been in the business for a long time, long enough to still be mad that "Live And Let Die" didn't win Best Song in 1973. He knows what he's talking about, and he isn't about to cast any votes for Michael Haneke because "he just hates human beings, and I happen to be a human being and don't like being shit on." He also spins his iPhone to decide between ParaNorman and Wreck-It Ralph. I love it.

So go ahead and read his votes--I'll include some choice comments from him along with my own italicized picks below. Add your own picks in the comments--I have doubts about a lot of my picks, and there should be some good surprises on Sunday!

Life of Pi
Lincoln [It's just cynical enough to be taken seriously, but still a feel-good movie about America's moral correctness]
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Silver Linings Playbook
Django Unchained [Mr. Famous Director: "basically just Quentin Tarantino masturbating for three hours."]
Zero Dark Thirty
Les Miserables
[Note: Nate Silver says Argo is a shoo-in. I'm biased against it because I didn't like it, but it's won the most awards that Academy members vote on, and it's all about the magic of Hollywood and movies, even non-existent movies. Silver's probably right.]

Michael Haneke (Amour)
Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Ang Lee (Life of Pi)
Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) [No one else has a serious chance. Do you think the loser-reaction camera will cut to Ben Affleck, who wasn't nominated, when they announce the winner?]
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
[Mr. Famous Director would have voted for Kathryn Bigelow. I love this guy!]

Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)
Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)
Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) [inevitable, and deserved]
Denzel Washington (Flight)
Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables)

Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) [she might be my favorite actress working today. If she doesn't win this year, she'll win soon. I'd be happy for Emmanuelle Riva to win it, too]
Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
Naomi Watts (The Impossible)
Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)

Alan Arkin (Argo)
Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) [this is my favorite category this year. Mr. Famous Director says people in Hollywood don't like TLJ because he's a "bitter guy". If he's right, it will probably go to PSH]
Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)

Amy Adams (The Master)
Sally Field (Lincoln) [Mr. Famous Director: "she's playing an annoying character, and she is rather annoying, plus she's about 20 years too old for the role."]
Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) [a really weak category, but Hathaway's got it. I predict her acceptance speech will be the most irritating of the night]
Helen Hunt (The Sessions)
Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook)

The Pirates
Wreck-It Ralph [I flipped my phone]

Austria: Amour [Probably the only award it will win]
Chile: No
Canada: War Witch
Denmark: A Royal Affair
Norway: Kon Tiki

"Before My Time," Chasing Ice
"Pi's Lullaby," Life Of Pi
"Suddenly," Les Miserables
"Everybody Needs A Best Friend," Ted
"Skyfall," Skyfall [If Adele is nominated for something, Adele wins]

Dario Marianelli (Anna Karenina)
Alexandre Desplat (Argo)
Mychael Danna (Life of Pi) [It's going to get a lot of the technical/art direction kind of awards]
John Williams (Lincoln) [Mr. Famous Director: "John Williams has enough f---ing Oscars."]
Thomas Newman (Skyfall)

John Gatins (Flight)
Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty) [A really tough category--every nominee has a strike against them or isn't beloved by the Academy. I don't see an obvious winner, but it's probably either Mark Boal or Flight]
Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained)
Michael Haneke (Amour) [Mr. Famous Director: "There's only so much diaper-changing that I can tolerate."]
Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom)

Chris Terrio (Argo)
Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
David Magee (Life of Pi)
Tony Kushner (Lincoln) [Lincoln's going to be the big winner overall]
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
How To Survive A Plague
The Invisible War
Searching For Sugar Man
[Mr. Famous Director: "In order to win, you usually have to make a film that makes people feel absolutely great or makes people feel like they want to slit their wrists."]

Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina)
Robert Richardson (Django Unchained)
Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi)
Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln)
Roger Deakins (Skyfall) [About time!]

Anna Karenina [All aspects of the Art Direction were fantastic]
Les Miserables
Mirror Mirror
Snow White and the Huntsman
[Mr. Famous Director: "This always goes to the nominee with the puffiest dresses."]

Anna Karenina
The Hobbit
Les Miserables
Life of Pi [It was all CGI, but it looked great]

Hitchcock [Mr. Famous Director: "Anthony Hopkins just looked like a man in a fat-suit."]
The Hobbit
Les Miserables [MFD: "I think they did a good job beating the shit out of Anne Hathaway."]

William Goldenberg (Argo)
Tim Squyres (Life Of Pi)
Michael Kahn (Lincoln)
Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers (Silver Linings Playbook)
Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg (Zero Dark Thirty) [I'm not good at teasing out stuff like this, and even I noticed the editing was fantastic]

Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty

Les Miserables [All that live vocal recording seems impressive, right?]
Life of Pi

The Hobbit
Life of Pi [It really looks great]
The Avengers
Snow White and the Huntsman

January 29, 2013

Side Effects

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh has been putting out a new movie every few months for the last couple of years, and somehow he finds a way to make each one both really Soderberghy, and also unlike anything else he's ever done. The latest one is Side Effects, a thriller about a young couple and their involvement with prescription drugs. Reviews are going to start coming out for this movie, and they're probably going to reveal way too much and ruin the many surprises make this movie so much fun.

Since I don't want to ruin anything, all I'm going to reveal is that Soderbergh might have invented a new sub-genre with this movie: the pharmaceutical noir. There's some really smart and wicked commentary in it about the pharmaceutical industry and its many tentacles reaching into the world of wealthy people, but that's all in the background. He doesn't belabor the heavy stuff. And besides, he's already made Traffic, so "drug economy dissection" has been crossed off the list.

My other thought is how Soderbergh's recent tear of surprising, unpredictable, and often great movies has been a lot of fun, but each movie is a painful reminder of his allegedly approaching retirement from directing, or sabbatical or whatever he's calling it. You know how "30 Rock" has suddenly gotten really funny again, which only makes this week's series finale that much sadder? It's like Soderbergh is reminding us how great he is right before he leaves us hanging. Right now, his HBO biopic about Liberace, Behind the Candelabra is the only thing left on his IMDb page, after years of many reassuring little "(pre-production)" and "(filming)" notes on there.

Maybe he'll direct some theater, he tells New York Mag. OK, but unless he starts producing 2-3 plays per year, it just won't be the same.

January 11, 2013

The Oscars and tokenism

Kathryn Bigelow after winning two Oscars

When Kathryn Bigelow won her Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker, I felt pretty sure that she won because she did the best directing job of the year, and not because the Academy decided to check "women" off the diversity to-do list and congratulate itself on being so broad-minded and progressive.

Fast forward to yesterday's Oscars nominations. Zero Dark Thirty is, in my opinion, even better than The Hurt Locker, and certainly represents a more ambitious and dazzling feat of directing in terms of actors and story and all the technical stuff. So I was disappointed that she didn't get a nomination (though ZDT got a Best Picture nomination,) but more than that, I was sad to realize that her nomination and win back in 2010 was probably more about the Academy deciding it was time to let a girl win than I had hoped. She deserves the Oscars she has, even if they turned out to be tokens.

On the other hand, it was nice to see some surprise inclusions: Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild and Michael Haneke for Amour were both wildly unlikely long shots. I guess this proves that the Academy loves heartwarming fantasies about adorable children, and also old people. Amour was one of my favorite movies of the year, but the directorial style pretty much defines "minimal": hire two of the world's greatest living actors, turn the camera on, and then don't do anything else. It's a great movie, but it's super small. For an Academy that typically equates "best" with "most", this is a really weird category of Best Director nominees.

I'm not going to discuss all the nominations Silver Linings Playbook got because I'm too bewildered and upset, but my main consolation is knowing that it has basically no chance of actually winning any of the big awards. The one exception might be Robert DeNiro, which I can live with. Let's just remember that David O. Russell last made a really good movie in 1999 with Three Kings and try to get on with our lives.

January 1, 2013

The Matthew McConaughey™ Top Movies of 2012 List

Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike

This year's list of my favorite movies is brought to you by Matthew McConaughey, who suddenly remembered that what he's really good at is not mainstream romantic comedies, but oddball indies by really awesome directors where he gets to unleash his inner manic lovable freak and/or wear a leather thong. He was the single best thing about movies this past year.

But here are my actual favorite movies--five of them:

Zero Dark Thirty
The best thing I've ever seen about America and the people fighting our War on Terror. A tense and exciting revenge procedural with taut, thrilling action scenes, no-nonsense acting, and characters and story that are made of determination and brains, but with an undercurrent of sadness and horror. This movie shows us the complicated problem of torture and revenge and bravely lets us figure out how to deal with it.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
An original, fantastical movie about a fictitious place in southern Louisiana, threatened by storms, floods, a government that's alternately intrusive and indifferent, and giant mythical bison creatures, and the wonderful misfits who live there. I feel more strongly about Hushpuppy than any other movie character this year, and the scene where the renegade little girls from the Bathtub find the offshore brothel and dance with the ladies to Fats Waller is my #1 favorite scene.

Django Unchained
In a slavery-era double feature with Lincoln, Django would be the wild, radical, bloody inferno to Lincoln's measured, determined plod. But the same moral outrage at the horror of slavery is at the center of both. Django just has a lot more style and magnetism. Plus, it's so much more satisfying to see a powerful black hero avenging his own exploitation than a bunch of Senators dithering. I can't wait to see it again.

A movie about a married couple dealing with aging, the loss of faculties, and death that doesn't pull any punches, but somehow isn't depressing at all. It's brutal, beautiful, and sad. Just by casting Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as the couple, two romantic icons of 1960's French cinema now in their 80's, Michael Haneke says so much about the reality of love, beyond passion and romance.

Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson really turns the twee up to 11 in this one, but it works. The conviction of those two 12 year-olds in love is simultaneously cute and steely. Beautiful, irresistible.

And here are some more movies I loved:

Holy Motors
The first of the two White Limo movies of 2012, Holy Motors features Denis Lavant transforming himself into nine different characters in a series of convincing but inexplicable "appointments", performances for an unknown audience. I guess the audience is us? This one is totally captivating and exciting, a statement about identity and performance and also a lesson in the power of real cinematic acting and technique over CGI and artificiality.

The other White Limo movie, this one with a surprisingly compelling Rob Pattinson being driven across Manhattan on 47th Street trying to hang onto his unfathomable wealth while all hell breaks loose in the outside world. David Cronenberg adapted Don DeLillo's book and made it better, funnier, and more unsettling.

Jack Black and real-life small town Texans in a fascinating look at how a close-knit community can support its most beloved members so fervently that even if they kill someone, maybe it's sort of OK.

The Cabin in the Woods
One of the smartest genre movies of the year, this one rewards horror fans with a gleeful fire hose blast of all the coolest stuff from every horror movie you've ever seen. A really fun time.

The Queen of Versailles
Everything that's bad about American consumerist values in an intimate look at a rich family becoming somewhat less rich. It would be so easy to cast this family as trashy irresponsible morons, but the movie takes an approach more like sympathetic disbelief. We can't seem to hear this message enough: money doesn't buy happiness.

The Master
This sure is a beautiful movie to look at, but I sometimes struggled to see past all the Very Serious Acting going on to get at something like meaning. I also thought Amy Adams was distractingly terrible. But then there are moments like PSH singing "On a Slow Boat to China" that are transcendent and mysteriously great. I don't know if I get it, or how much there is to get, but it's good on some level, so it's on the list.

And here's a bunch of other ones that I really liked:

Magic Mike
Killer Joe
Flight (Denzel is so great)
How to Survive a Plague
Not Fade Away
Hunger Games
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Oslo, August 31st
Red Hook Summer (the most uneven movie I saw this year: Clarke Peters is phenomenal, other actors are almost unwatchable)

A few disappointments:
The Dictator: not funny enough
Damsels in Distress: Whit Stillman had it, maybe lost it. Too wry and winking for its own good.
Silver Linings Playbook: I cannot figure out why people think this is good. It starts as an interesting unconventional love story, but ends up a by-the-book painfully cheeseball rom-com, and "character development" is little more than a series of gestures and catchphrases each character says or does over and over again with no variation. Really sloppy.

The one movie I most wish I had seen is This is Not a Film, the Iranian sort-of-documentary by a filmmaker under house arrest, forbidden from making movies.

What good movies did you see that I missed?

Here's the list from 2011.

December 30, 2012

Directors and their egos

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of Zero Dark Thirty Quentin Tarantino

The Times has an interview with Kathryn Bigelow that seems to want to be a character study of who she is, what her creative process is like, and what her body of work says about her as a person. But it almost completely fails: the interviewer concludes that she's incredibly self-effacing, generous in praising her crew, modest about her own formidable chops, and would rather let her work speak for itself than do much reflecting on her craft.

Case in point, after she goes on about her amazing production designer, editor, sound editor, and finally her cinematographer for Zero Dark Thirty:

Greig Fraser, her "tremendous" cinematographer, who pulled off shooting the raid sequence with night-vision technology after Ms. Bigelow decided that filming in the dark was the only way to capture that moment realistically.

At this point Mark Boal [the screenwriter], who had joined the lunch, interrupted.

"Kathryn, can you give yourself a little credit?" he said. "It was really risky — there was no precedent for that kind of technique — and you and Greig embarked on that risk together."

Ms. Bigelow said quietly, "That's true."

Contrast this with an interview the Times did about a week ago with Quentin Tarantino, which makes him sound so self-aggrandizing and egomaniacal that he would be repellent if we didn't already know, hey, that's QT.

In this bit, he's asked about how his actors seem to give wonderful performances in his movies. He responds:

I think it's a three-way thing. I write good characters for actors to play. I cast actors with integrity, as opposed to trying to just match whoever's hot with something going on ... And then I do know how to direct actors, how to modulate them, get the best out of them. And I understand my material. I know how to help them navigate it, and when they deliver something magnificent, I know enough to realize it's good and stay out of their way.

So the great performances actors deliver in Tarantino movies are attributable to: 1) Tarantino's writing, 2) Tarantino's casting, 3) Tarantino's direction, and 4) Tarantino's understanding of Tarantino's material.

I wonder if the movie industry and everybody would feel so positively about Kathryn Bigelow if she gave interviews like that. I don't necessarily think she's so highly regarded because she's modest and deflects praise so graciously, but these are traits that tend to be admired in women more than traits like, for instance, hogging all the credit.

Bigelow's got a good chance of winning another Best Director Oscar in 2013--Tarantino was also nominated when she won in 2010. I guess he'll probably get nominated again for Django Unchained, which is good, but not as good as Inglorious Basterds, or a bunch of his other movies. (It would be great if he won for writing, though.)

Basterds had great style, a few incredible scenes, and a phenomenal and glorious revenge sequence with the movie theater going up in celluloid flames and Shoshanna's laughing ghostly face. It was awesome. Plus the movie had Christoph Waltz, who is absolutely mesmerizing in everything he says and does.

Django is similar: stylish, a great revenge story, some really good scenes, Christoph Waltz. I hope all Tarantino's movies from now on will feature an exceptionally well-mannered German-Austrian professional killer for Christoph Waltz to play.

But the final showdown scenes (both of them) weren't as satisfying as any of Tarantino's other recent revenge scenes. Think about that burning movie theater in Basterds, or the girls making Kurt Russell cry in Death Proof, or every time The Bride killed one of her old partners in Kill Bill. Those sequences were a lot more creative and exciting than what we got in Django--we've all seen big final shootouts a million times in other movies, and this one didn't add much.

The best things about Django are the long scenes with Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio going through the charade of their evil business transaction, dripping with sinister charm. And the very end, where Django essentially blows up Tara. Slavery isn't something American movies have tackled well at all--before this, we pretty much had Gone With the Wind and Amistad. And in neither of those movies does a former slave get to mow down an entire plantation full of white people who uphold and profit from slavery in an extended sequence of righteous, bloody justice. So that counts for a lot.

I also like the beautiful montage sequence of our two heroes riding around in snow-covered western mountains, hunting bad guys and forming an unlikely partnership, with Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" on the soundtrack. It's always Super Sounds of the Seventies, even in a slavery revenge western.

December 19, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty: this is America

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

It already feels like the debate over Kathryn Bigelow's new movie Zero Dark Thirty has been going on forever, and it just opened in theaters today. I watched it last night and was totally knocked out. It's one of the best of the year: powerful, tense, complicated, heart-breaking--everything you want in a great movie. Plus, it shows how freaky Mark Strong looks with hair.

But the debate hasn't been about the movie itself; it seems to be about the access to classified information the filmmakers may or may not have had, and most of all, the morality and tactical utility of torture. Is the torture of our enemies ever OK? What constitutes torture? And does it work?

These are all the wrong questions, in my opinion, at least when talking about Zero Dark Thirty. The movie isn't asking any of these questions. Torture happened in our name, whether we like it or not. So did a lot of other things in our country's effort to avenge 9/11, kill bin Laden, and thwart terrorism: bribes, bombings, occupation of sovereign nations, many thousands of military and civilian deaths, and lots and lots and lots of public money spent on wars. These are all things our country did, and does.

The real question here, from the movie's perspective, is: was it worth it? After all that, did we get what we wanted? There isn't a clear answer in the movie, but those questions are a lot more interesting, and maybe scarier, than a rehashed debate over the effectiveness of torture. And for the record, no useful information is extracted during a torture scene in this movie. It's Jessica Chastain and her brain that find bin Laden, not waterboarding.

As technically amazing as it is, I found it hard to get inside the movie at first, because I wasn't feeling emotionally involved in the characters or the story. That all changed by the end, but the chilly, detached style of the movie and the characters is one of the filmmakers' strengths. Just like in The Hurt Locker, we see war and intelligence through the eyes of people who aren't ideologues or deciders. They're hunting terrorists or defusing bombs because it's their job, and they're good at it. It's a procedural about our national desire for revenge, as performed by the people who fight our wars and avenge our deaths for us. It's a view of who we are as a country that we don't often get to see, and it's not comforting. The Hurt Locker is about a guy happily doing the incredibly dangerous job he was born to do, but Zero Dark Thirty barely has any of that triumphant spirit. It all ends in tears.

This movie is going to win Best Picture, isn't it? That's gonna be one bleak clip montage.

Also, it generated my favorite movie poster of the year. The redacted one. So great.

December 13, 2012

Can we get some Coens?

Coen Brothers

That wan, listless feeling you're experiencing could be due to a number of things: not enough sleep, iron deficiency, or clinical depression. But it's probably related to the past two years we've been living on this planet without a new movie from the Coen Brothers. From 2007 through 2010, we had a new Coens movie every single blessed year, each one great in its own way (yes, I'm including Burn After Reading. It's funny, OK?) But True Grit came out back in December 2010, and life hasn't been the same since.

Thankfully, 2013 is the Year of the Glorious Coen Return! Two of their projects will arrive next year, returning sunshine and John Goodman to our land. In February, we'll get Inside Llewyn Davis, their movie about the folk scene set in the Village in early '60s New York, starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake (!), and the guy from Drive. It's said to be based on the life and career of Dave Van Ronk, aka The Mayor of MacDougal Street, an early folk figure who I think is famous but I only found out about just now.

Then there's Gambit, a movie about an art con that's been kicking around for over a decade. The Coens offered their services to rewrite an unfunny script in 2003, then it went through many potential directors (including Robert Altman and Alexander Payne) and actors before finally getting produced last year, starring Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, and Cameron Diaz as a Texas rodeo queen. Hopefully the Coen magic survived. It comes out, probably, in the Spring.

I feel better already.

December 12, 2012

The Hobbit: An Uncritiqueable Journey

The Hobbit

For a critic-proof movie, The Hobbit has had more than its share of problems from the very start. Guillermo del Toro backed out of directing, there have been labor disputes, animal deaths, and major skepticism about the 48 frames-per-second rate Peter Jackson used, which depending on your point of view either creates an immersive, magical viewing experience, or looks like a made-for-TV movie.

I walked into a screening last night with mid-to-low expectations, and had a great time. I found it a lot less ponderous and self-important than the last LOTR movie, the action scenes were raucous and fun, and the variety of bizarre life forms in Middle Earth are amazing and cool. The high frame rate makes it look a little like a telenovela, but a fantastical, other-worldly one--I got into it after a disorienting first few minutes.

I should point out that, in my view, The Hobbit was made for a target age of about 10. It's pretty much a children's movie; in some scenes, it's a children's musical. A children's musical that adults like, too. The mythology of the Tolkien books doesn't mean anything to me--I can hardly remember what the LOTR trilogy was actually about, other than lots of walking and throwing the ring into a volcano. The Hobbit is a good time, but not meaningful on any deeper level, which is OK by me but might be disappointing for Tolkien fans looking for melodrama and gravitas. This is a children's comedy adventure musical. That's a half-hour too long.

A Guillermo del Toro Hobbit might have been very different. The evil creatures would have probably be scarier and ickier, and some form of humanoid bug demons would likely have crept out of an oozing crevice at some point. Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth from 2006 was an excellent and scary fantasy, though since it's rated R, I guess it's not really a children's movie (except for children with cool/irresponsible parents.)

The director I really wish had made a Hobbit movie is Jim Henson. He would have had a blast with all those trolls, goblins, dwarves, elves, orcs, and hobbits, giving them all well-developed personalities and looks. Peter Jackson is good at combining comedy and the grotesque (Dead Alive is the funniest horror movie I've ever seen) but Jim Henson could have made something really inspired: funny, surreal, thrilling, and accessible to kids all at the same time.

I noticed that Jackson hung onto Tolkien's characterization of Dwarves that's uncomfortably similar to a stereotypical, derogatory version of Jews. Dwarves are greedy, they've got comically huge noses, and they've been driven from their homeland. Tolkien saw the Jewish-Dwarvish parallels in his book, but for 1930's England, his views probably weren't offensive. Dwarves are definitely "other", but they're worthy of being helped to win back their home. England's attitude toward Jews in that time seems pretty similar: help them establish a homeland that's located nowhere near England. I'm a little surprised Jackson didn't change this characterization at all, but I guess he can claim fidelity to the text.

Let's just be thankful that a real mess like The Lovely Bones is in the past and Peter Jackson is back to making Shakespearean actors wear absurd bulbous fake noses.

November 20, 2012

Hitchcock, the Underdog Auteur

Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock

The first movie director I ever heard of was Alfred Hitchcock. Actually, before I knew there were such things as movie directors, I knew who Alfred Hitchcock was. I used to watch reruns of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" on TV, and I assumed he must have written all those stories until my mom told me he was actually a director, not a writer. Then I heard that Alfred Hitchcock's movies were suspenseful and scary and had lots of murder in them, then I watched Vertigo and Rear Window, and then I thought maybe I should spend the rest of my life watching as many movies as possible.

The name "Alfred Hitchcock" is probably more widely known and recognized than any of his movie titles, and it's been that way since the 1950's. Pretty amazing! That's why it's so strange to see him as he's presented in this new movie, Hitchcock, as a scrappy underdog fighting the studio system to make his radical self-financed experimental art film, Psycho. This is where the movie is best: the scenes about the genius and sweat that went into making Psycho, from the original novel's inspiration by real-life murderer Ed Gein, to the money talks with the studio heads, the bickering with the prigs in the Production Code office over violence and nudity, casting, shooting the shower scene, editing, the score. All the technical stuff is fantastic.

Unfortunately, a lot of the movie deals with Hitchcock's relationship with his wife and collaborative partner, Alma Reville. She's played by Helen Mirren, who it goes without saying is fantastic, but their petty jealousies are nowhere near as interesting as the creative spark at the core of their relationship. Alma was Hitchcock's main collaborator in everything he did, and was already a successful writer and editor while Alfred was still learning his way around a set. (The Times has a great article about Alma in the two recent biopics about the Hitchcocks.)

Even though Psycho was massively popular and pretty much changed our definition of horror movies, it was seen as a risky proposition at the time. One of the reasons Hitchcock is so good at portraying Alfred Hitchcock as an unconventional indie hero is its director: Sacha Gervasi, who's only other feature is a great documentary about a metal band that never quite made it big, Anvil: The Story of Anvil.

Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, Anvil really are underdogs, admired by superstars of rock like Lars Ulrich and Slash, but still plugging away without major success, working cruddy day-jobs and going on depressingly mismanaged tours like an unfunny version of Spinal Tap. Sacha Gervasi calls himself "England's #1 Anvil fan", so this guy knows his lovable losers. I'm really impressed that he captured that same hardcore, outsider spirit in a movie that includes scenes of Alfred Hitchcock writing $900,000 checks and tossing back buckets of foie gras.

November 7, 2012

I don't care, I love Flight

Denzel Washington in Flight

Yay, Obama! OK, back to movies.

Flight is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who also directed Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Contact, and all that weird motion-capture animation stuff like The Polar Express. He makes big-budget crowd-pleasers, and even though I've seen and liked some of his movies, I have never once thought, "I don't know how good that movie's going to be, but it's a Robert Zemeckis picture, so I'm definitely seeing it."

But I did see Flight on opening weekend, and I loved it. It's a lot darker than the trailer makes it seem--I'm not going to give anything away, but it isn't as much of a legal thriller or disaster drama as it appears to be, and it gets into a lot of heavy, serious stuff about the awful things that people with addictions can do. The material is dark, the highs and lows are really high and low, and Denzel Washington, one of America's very favorite people, plays a disturbed jerk doing horrible things. This is not like Training Day, where Denzel was a super charming villain, having so much fun with his bad-guy character that we had to give him an Oscar for it. This guy is an unlikable mess, even if he looks like a million bucks in his pilot uniform and aviator sunglasses (see above).

Denzel is so good that he makes this movie, which is 100% predictable Hollywood formula, and 100% directed by Robert Zemeckis, into something nuanced and smart. This is extra amazing because the script is by someone named John Gatins, best known for anti-nuanced redemptive schlock like Hardball, and robot boxing cheese like Real Steel. Thankfully, Flight shows enormous restraint in not trying to explain why Denzel's character is so screwed up, and just presents him as he is, a screwed up guy in an impossible situation. There is, inevitably, some redemption at the end, but only for maybe 8 minutes after 2+ hours of the real deal.

Here's another knock against this movie: the soundtrack, which uses such absurdly over-played, on the nose songs to narrate the action that it almost ruins important scenes. A character scores some heroin: cue "Under the Bridge" by the Chili Peppers. Here's a drug-injecting scene: how about the drugged-up Cowboy Junkies' version of "Sweet Jane"? It's perfect! Enter John Goodman's scenery-chewing best buddy drug dealer/enabler. Time for "Sympathy For the Devil"! Frankly, it's a miracle no one decided to slap Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah" on a scene of quiet reflection on the poignancy of drinking a whole bottle of Jim Beam in one sitting.

Despite all that, it all comes together somehow and it's as great as a formulaic Hollywood movie about redemption can be. I'll say it: I love Robert Zemeckis! I certainly didn't think he had something like this in him. Too bad he won his Oscar for Forrest Gump.

October 31, 2012

The Loneliest Planet

The Loneliest Planet

The city's been quiet and dark these last couple of days, work isn't happening, and there's not a lot to do. If the movie theaters were open this would be an almost perfect scenario, but they're not, so options have been largely limited to 1) TV, 2) bar, or 3) Video on Demand.

One of the new little indie movies that's out right now is The Loneliest Planet, which is about a cute young couple in love, Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg, who are traveling in Georgia (the country) with a local guide. They're into being playful and adventurous and having a lot of sex.

It's a good thing I didn't have anything else to do, because this is a movie where nothing happens. For a good 2/3 of the movie, it's almost an exercise in travel photography, with majestic Georgian mountains and careful composed shots of the lushest, greenest patch of foliage contrasting the girl's flaming red hair. Then something does happen, and it colors the rest of the movie and threatens to permanently mess up the couple and their cute relationship. There are some interesting themes explored, like the struggle to communicate, independence and vulnerability, protection and self-sacrifice, and how traditional gender roles play out in a young, unconventional couple. (Spoiler alert!: very conventionally.)

The problem is that writing those last sentences was the most enjoyable thing about this movie for me. There are momentary interactions between characters where you can tell through subtle gestures that things have shifted one way or the other, and seriously, the only truly fun part of the movie is trying to catch a glimpse of those, then rewinding it when you or your viewing partner misses them. As my friend said, some movies get better when you talk about them afterwards, but they still need to grab you and make you care while you're watching.

This movie reminded me of Kelly Reichardt's movies, which are also subtle, slow-paced, and light on dialogue, but even though not much happens in Wendy and Lucy, for example, I cared about what happened to Michelle Williams every second of that movie. Reichardt's characters are more compelling, the risks are bigger, and even the slow moments where nothing's happening feel meaningful instead of tedious. Reichardt's characters don't talk very much because they express themselves in other ways. In The Loneliest Planet, they don't talk very much because they're terrible communicators, and also kind of immature. The actors were pretty good, but not quite expressive enough to make me care about them when they had nothing to say.

Maybe I just prefer movies where nothing happens and everyone talks non-stop (The Trip, Slacker) to ones where nothing happens and no one talks. Or more likely, maybe slow-paced indie movies should all star Michelle Williams.

October 15, 2012

Seven Psychopaths loves movies, hates women

Seven Psychopaths

I'm a big fan of Martin McDonagh's dark, funny, misanthropic plays, and I went nuts for his 2008 movie In Bruges, which somehow achieved a perfect balance of touching, offensive, disturbing, and hilarious that I don't think I've seen anywhere else. His characters are racist, sexist, angry, screwed up disasters with a strain of morality and sweetness that they can't quite obliterate, no matter how hard they try.

So I was super excited for his new movie, Seven Psychopaths, about a struggling writer trying to come up with a screenplay for a non-violent action movie about murder. Did it live up to my expectations? No! It didn't. This movie explores other movies that use senseless violence and misogyny as easy crutches when filmmakers don't have much of substance to say, which was interesting. But it also relies heavily on that same senseless violence and misogyny in order to make its points, which are confused and sort of sloppy. It's a mess, but a fun mess.

But here are the things I liked: all the references to other movies that show a real love of movies themselves, especially the ones that also wrestle with violence and morality. Sam Rockwell's character is named Billy Bickle, who shares a name with Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, and is also an unhinged, wildly unpredictable lunatic. I already loved Sam Rockwell, but he captures something really unusually mental in this role as an actor with a single-mindedly passionate interest in getting his friend's writing career back on track.

There's also Christopher Walken and his wife--their last name is Kieslowski, the same name as the wonderful Polish director who explored confounding moral puzzles and the complexities of human relationships in his Three Colors and Decalogue series. Christopher Walken and his wife are the most bloodthirsty, badass couple named after a Polish movie director you could ever dream of.

There's also Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker psycho out for revenge, who bears a strong resemblance to another menacing man of the cloth, Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter.

These little movie references are all throwaways, and there aren't any big arrows pointing at the ideas they seem to suggest. But they've got to be intentional (who comes up with a name like Kieslowski? For Christopher Walken?) and a deeper level of thought about what it means to make a movie in which just about everyone (SPOILER ALERT) gets brutally killed and all the women characters are flimsy sketches who also get brutally killed. And then to go ahead and make that very movie, and to make it entertaining and funny so your audience is left not sure of what just happened, but totally in love with this image of Tom Waits holding a bunny and a gun next to a woman dressed like Bonnie Parker:

Tom Waits in Seven Psychopaths

As McDonagh said in an interview with the NY Times: "But there's a rabbit in that scene. There's a lovely rabbit. It's not all violent."

October 4, 2012

Horror candy

Combining two of life's greatest pleasures, horror movies and candy, Cadbury has come out with a funny series of ads for its exciting new candy: Screme Eggs. These have been available in the UK since last Halloween, but it looks like we're just getting them for the first time.

Here's my favorite ad, a riff on werewolf/mummy movies, complete with egg gore:

And a good zombie-attack/"Thriller" video one:

And an apocalyptic news cast:

The ads are all on Cadbury's Creme Egg Canada YouTube channel, so I doubt they'll be aired in the US. (Too scary?) Since they were made for Canada, there are both French and English versions, but conveniently, the only line of dialogue in either language is "goo". The international language of candy snot.

Here in New York, they're priced at a borderline outrageous $1.00 per egg, and the only real difference from the regular Creme Eggs is that the cream/snot on the inside is green instead of yellow. And they're still so ridiculously, brain-meltingly sweet that they produce the all-too-familiar sequence of symptoms:

1) euphoria
2) delirium
3) disorientation
4) nausea

Maybe it's best to just stick to the ads.

September 29, 2012

Looper math




12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys


The Terminator



Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

And a little sprinkle of Source Code. It's just about as good as the median goodness of all those genre movies, too.

It's got everything: existentially messy time travel, wistful memory erasing, love, guns, extermination of a people who share one characteristic with a Sarah Connor-like target, and a Terry Gilliam-esque combination of futuristic technology and old timey set design. And the third great performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt this year (and he's in Lincoln, too!) It's a good one.

September 28, 2012

The cool deleted stuff from The Master trailers

Girl With Gun shot from The Master trailer

When then trailer for The Master came out a few months ago, this image was one of the most exciting parts for me. I thought at the time that the woman with the rifle was Amy Adams, and the thought of little musical theater sweetie-pie Amy Adams blasting a big gun in cowboy boots was pretty irresistible, especially considering the other clips of her in the trailer made her look like a menacing, cold-blooded, baby-faced nutjob.

It took me a few days after seeing the movie to realize there was no such scene in the actual movie, which partially explains why I didn't fall over and die for it like a lot of other people have (the kind of people who mysteriously insist that you won't "get it" unless you watch it twice, in the theater, with a 70mm print.) I also think the girl in the clip is [SPOILER ALERT] actually Philip Seymour Hoffman's flirty daughter, and not Amy Adams, who's big and pregnant and definitely not wearing any cute cowboy boots in this movie.

Apparently there's loads of other stuff from the various trailers that also didn't make it into the movie, which has of course been exhaustively compiled. To satisfy all the devoted Master completists out there, a long new trailer has been released, weeks after the movie actually came out, which has even more deleted clips in it.

Warning/Recommendation: boobs.

September 17, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson and Maya Rudolph, the great mystery

Maya Rudolph and Paul Thomas Anderson

I went to see this week's big new movie, The Master, which is the latest one from the talented and intense Paul Thomas Anderson. He's made six movies, and they all fall somewhere on the great-to-masterful spectrum. It's been a long 5 years since his last movie, There Will Be Blood, but the time he takes always pays off.

A lot of The Master is pretty inscrutable, but as a character study and a reflection on power, control, and the magnetic appeal of cult leaders, it's dead on. Anderson's main man Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a charismatic leader of a pseudo-scientific spiritual organization called The Cause, which purports to unlock human potential and relieve suffering by helping people understand their past lives. It's a lot like Scientology, but that doesn't really matter: Anderson's interested in his characters, not Scientology. Hoffman's character is a gifted performer, and laser-like in his ability to identify weak, disturbed people who need someone to follow and obey.

Joaquin Phoenix is back, and actually really good, as Freddie, a ferociously messed-up alcoholic vet who returns from WWII with major problems with sex, violence, women, men, and most human interaction. He falls hard for PSH, but he's pretty much the definition of an unreliable narrator, and sometimes it's not clear what's really happening and what's only in Freddie's deranged mind. It's also not at all clear whether his involvement in The Cause helps him in any real way, but it sure is interesting and strange to watch. The movie is visually beautiful, the soundtrack is amazing, and the songs in the movie all speak to the kind of devotion and fidelity that followers like Freddie want to give to their leader.

It's a good movie and all, but here's what I really want to know: What is life like at home for Paul Thomas Anderson and his longtime partner Maya Rudolph?

They've been together for around 10 years, they have three kids, they seem to be happy, and they're both gifted in their lines of work. But while PT Anderson is writing and directing these dark, wrenching, intense portraits of emotionally disturbed people and exploring the deepest recesses of history, the American dream, love, success, evil, violence, and self-destruction, Maya Rudolph is doing her own thing, such as pooping in the middle of the street in a wedding gown.

I don't mean to imply that Anderson's craft is somehow better or more important than Rudolph's; on the contrary, watching Maya Rudolph do Bronx Beat or play Whitney Houston on SNL is vastly more rewarding than that opening oil-well digging sequence from There Will Be Blood. They're both talented and successful, but their styles could not be more divergent. The closest things PT Anderson has to a comedy is probably Punch-Drunk Love, which is actually more about alienation, intimidation, and rage than it is about love. His '90's relationship with Fiona Apple didn't work out, but it made more immediate sense.

I'm glad these two are so happy together, and sincerely hope that they never work together on any projects.

August 14, 2012

The Dennis Hopper-ification of McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe

2012 is the year of Matthew McConaughey. Not the McConaughey of bland romantic comedies co-starring Kate Hudson or Jennifer Lopez, but the McConaughey of strange, surprising, dark, dirty movies where his Texan charisma has a serpentine streak, and audiences get unprecedented exposure to his ball sack.

I watched Killer Joe last night. McConaughey plays the title character, a Dallas detective who moonlights as a hired killer. This movie got an NC-17 rating, which we hardly ever see anymore, but this one really deserves it. There's a ton of brutal violence and leering menace, with clear shots of the aforementioned McConau-junk, but I'm guessing what earned the rating are a couple of scenes of sexual engagement that are at times so disturbing and inexplicable that I can't say for sure if I understood what was going on, but I'm positive it was filthy. McConaughey delightfully describes his character as a "black panther", by which I think he means a mysterious and dangerous animal, not a '60's revolutionary leftist. He's a sadistic sociopath, but at the same time he's so controlled and dominating that he's magnetic to watch.

See that black leather jacket McConaughey's wearing above? Check this out:

Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet

It took Dennis Hopper decades of cultivating his particular brand of wild, unpredictable genius to become the only actor who could play Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. We knew he was talented (Easy Rider, Cool Hand Luke, a million Westerns) but we also knew he was a maniac (Apocalypse Now, a seemingly impossible daily drug intake, the time he blew himself up with dynamite.) Then in 1986, David Lynch cast him as Frank Booth. Next he was in River's Edge as Feck, a reclusive delusional murderer in love with a blow-up doll. Dennis Hopper was back.

I feel like McConaughey is having a similar moment. He's spent all these years cementing his brand as the flamboyant golden-boy stoner, shirtless in a do-rag, holding a surfboard, playing the bongos, and supporting his lifestyle with endless disposable crappy movies that make tons of money. But all the while, he was building that charismatic energy into a force field of gonzo intense star power. Enter: Steven Soderbergh and Magic Mike. McConaughey plays the owner/MC at a male strip club who is actually named Dallas, a role so consummately made for him that it would teeter into self-parody if McConaughey wasn't so irresistibly, sleazily charming. Plus, the ball sack.

Next we'll see him in The Paperboy, where the Times says he's "playing a closeted gay reporter with a taste for rough sex and a raging death wish." Keep riding that wave, MM.

August 9, 2012

Next celebrity to get weirdly naked in a Lars von Trier movie: Shia LaBeouf

Shia LaBeouf in Sigur Ros video

Today we learned about an exciting new collaboration between two people who are into nudity that's kind of arty, but if we're being honest, is mostly just freaky and unsettling: Lars von Trier and Shia LaBeouf. Von Trier is known for emotionally apocalyptic movies involving gang rape, genital mutilation, and the end of the world, and Shia LaBeouf is a super rich and famous action movie star whose current relationship with celebrity is either estranged or outright hostile.

LaBeouf's latest role is in an arty, inexplicable 8-minute Sigur Ros video for an instrumental song, in which he appears totally naked, bearded, and getting busy with a blonde (above). Clearly this is an actor who's not afraid to get naked in front of the camera for a director who's into taking risks and/or being nuts.

Enter: Lars von Trier's new movie, Nymphomaniac! Shia LaBeouf is in talks to appear in this movie, which will follow title character Charlotte Gainsbourg through a lifetime of sexual exploits, including during completely inappropriate ages, such as infancy. There will apparently be both "hardcore" and "softcore" versions filmed, though I sense that the softcore version will be no less bizarre and perverse.

In the meantime, Shia LaBeouf will appear in some movies that don't include full-frontal, including Robert Redford's The Company You Keep (assuming Redford hasn't made a radical genre shift since The Legend of Bagger Vance.)

July 30, 2012

The Extremely Serious Dark Knight Rises

As part of my preference for avoiding death threats, I'm not going to say anything outright negative about The Dark Knight Rises, a movie that was the subject of so much anticipatory fantasy and hyperventilation before it came out that it couldn't possibly live up to everything we wanted it to be. I've got just two things to say:

1) I wish everyone involved with this movie, including me, had half as much fun with it as Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy did with their roles.

2) The big climax at the end features a red LED screen ticking down the seconds on a time bomb. Really?! That's the climax of the summer's best and most intelligent superhero action movie? From the guy who came up with storylines as complex and creative as Memento and Inception, I expected something that the whole world hadn't already experienced in ten thousand other action movies and half the episodes of "The A-Team".

I suppose that one unusual use of the red LED screen counting down the time bomb was that, the first time we see it and realize that a bomb is going to go off, it reads something like 19 minutes. Which, for an action movie, might as well be a week and a half for all the tension it creates. Look at the bomb timer now! What does it say? It's at 16 minutes! Hurry! And how about now? 12 and a half minutes! about now? ... ... Oh, sorry, I must have nodded off there.

As interesting as the political attitude of this movie is (still trying to untangle the Occupy Wall Street side from the Law & Order side) and as confusing, dark, and cool as its vision of superhero-dom is, I can hardly believe all the predictable by-the-book elements came from someone like Chris Nolan. Well, at least it's over and now he can go back to making more of the movies I really like.

July 23, 2012

I love Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I'm getting to this party late, but I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild a few days ago, and it's clearly the best movie I've seen yet this year*. So here are a few things about it, even though it's no longer news to anyone that this is a really special movie.

Beasts was shot in the Southern-most part of Louisiana, in lower Terrebonne Parish, a part of the country where land and water are one and the same indistinct swamp, except that these days it's getting so it's all water. The movie is about people who live in a place called The Bathtub, so outside mainstream society that the levee system that protects coastal Louisiana from the ocean was built north of where they live. There's no health care, school, government, or social services, and the only store is really a bar. On the first day of shooting, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and the worst oil spill ever began. The vulnerability of the characters in the movie is totally real.

But this is America, and these people love their hometown and can get by just fine on their own. Coastal erosion, government indifference, and every storm that comes along threaten to destroy everything, but they're not going anywhere. They share what they have, help each other, and get along, banding together to party like crazy on holidays and muscle through every other day. It would be a lame cliché to say these people are poor but happy. More like, they're poor but ecstatically joyful and exuberant and more full of life than just about anything I've ever seen. It's impossible to say whether this is a conventionally liberal or conservative ideology--it's an ideology about being free.

The central character is 6 year-old Hushpuppy, a girl who is so fiercely self-assured that she actually makes me wish I had a daughter so I could show her this movie. She's played by the magnetically charismatic Quvenzhané Wallis. Hushpuppy is one gutsy little girl, but watching her worry about her sick father and miss her absent mother is heart-wrenching. She can tear apart a crab with her hands and stun a catfish with her fist, but she's still a child who's pretty much on her own, trying to survive in a dangerous world full of terrifying things.

My favorite scene involves Hushpuppy and her girl posse (see photo above) venturing off-shore to a waterside crab shack/dance hall/brothel. They momentarily enter into a softer, gentler, prettier world where the ladies who work there talk to them, pick them up, and dance with them while Fats Waller's "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" plays in the background. It's beautiful to watch, and such a relief to see adults treating these abandoned kids with some kindness. But the girls leave that magical place and go back home to their waterlogged, dying, broke-ass town, because when self-determination is all that matters, that's what you do.

In addition to the girl who plays Hushpuppy, there's another non-professional actor, Dwight Henry, who plays her father Wink. He is not the greatest actor, because he's really a baker at his New Orleans shop, the Buttermilk Drop Bakery. He told Roger Ebert he's not pursuing an acting career (though he just got a small role in Twelve Years a Slave.) His character can be stubborn, cruel, and exasperating, but even though it was difficult to watch how he treats his daughter, he got me to understand him. If he coddled Hushpuppy, she would never make it. It's not because he told her she's a pretty princess that Hushpuppy can climb up on a table in the town bar, raise her fists, and look as powerful as an ox with an Afro (see wonderful photo.) His performance is rough, but it gets the message across.

The movie opened wide last week and has finally made a little bit at the box office. I think it's going to keep building through word of mouth. It's fantastical, magical, and completely authentic at the same time, and the most original movie I've seen all year.

Here's the trailer.

* Actually, I think it's tied with Goon.

July 18, 2012

Maybe now Katie Holmes can be an actress again

Katie Holmes and Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys

It's been many years since Katie Holmes was primarily known as a TV and movie actress, and her marriage to and masterfully-orchestrated extrication from Tom Cruise, Inc. are probably going to be the subject of most of the attention she gets for the next few months. But one of these days, Katie Holmes will emerge from the cloister she's more or less lived in for the last six years, and will be talked about because of stuff she does that isn't related to her ex.

Katie Holmes isn't the most talented actress out there, and she sometimes falls short of spectacular. But back in the late 90's, when she was a TV actress first making her way into movies, she had a run of roles in some of my favorite movies from that period. The movies weren't necessarily great because of Katie Holmes, but she was respected enough to get the attention of really good directors, and held her own against many excellent famous actors. Michelle Williams is the major talent to emerge from "Dawson's Creek", but Katie Holmes did OK, too.

Let's take a look at some of her career highlights:

  • The Ice Storm. Ang Lee's movie from 1997 about sad rich families in the 70's. She plays Libbets, Tobey Maguire's unrequited high school love interest. Her most memorable moment is at the end of a booze-and-pharmaceuticals party in her parents' apartment, when she states, "I'm so wasted," and passes out in Tobey Maguire's lap.
  • Go, Doug Liman's 1999 movie about the LA rave scene and nice kids in over their heads in drug deals gone bad, it's like the fun, light, inconsequential version of Pulp Fiction. Katie Holmes is a grocery checkout girl who unwittingly ends up serving as collateral with hot and menacing drug dealer Timothy Olyphant while her friend Sarah Polley goes out to sell a lot of fake ecstasy. Memorable moment: an enthusiastic make-out session with Olyphant on a staircase.
  • Wonder Boys from 2000 (photo above), directed by Curtis Hanson, adapted from Michael Chabon's book about a washed-up, shambling writer at a small college (Michael Douglas) and his exploits with his students (Katie Holmes, together again with Tobey McGuire, their scenes together are good), flamboyant agent (Robert Downey, Jr) and mistress (Frances McDormand). A wonderful, strange little movie.
  • The Gift, Sam Raimi's excellent (and undervalued) Southern Gothic supernatural thriller about Cate Blanchett, a psychic single mother, trying to help solve a missing person case. There's all kinds of grisly stuff in here as Blanchett's visions get more scary and violent, and I'll admit this movie scared the bejesus out of me when I first saw it. Katie Holmes plays the first role that was a real departure for her: she's a rich, entitled, bitchy little Georgia princess, all sweetness and propriety on the outside, with a raunchy, slutty side that we in the audience get to lap up. Here's a clip of her first scene. Plus: brief topless shot!

About The Gift: it's a worthwhile movie (has Sam Raimi ever made a bad movie?) but uneven. The setting is the kind of overgrown, swampy Southern backwater that's both beautiful and decrepit, and the whole movie is kind of like that. Some performances are great, like Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, and even Greg Kinnear as the likeable guidance counselor who Katie Holmes the princess is inexplicably engaged to. Hilary Swank and Katie Holmes are both good as women living on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Then there's Keanu Reeves. He plays a redneck villain, who is presented as so evil and sociopathic that he not only beats his wife and threatens everybody he doesn't like with violence, but he also claims to kill cats for no reason other than that he is evil. Keanu Reeves doesn't possess any of the menace or scariness to pull this off, so he mostly just glowers and rasps his way through lines like, "Messing with the devil's gonna get you burned." It's bad, but everything besides Keanu and his dead cat holds up.

But back to Katie. She starred in Pieces of April in 2003, a small movie that defines indie quirk, and the first Chris Nolan Batman, but her movie career since then has been slow and unremarkable, probably because it was so tightly controlled by Cruise, Inc. Now that she's on her own, she's going to star in a modern retelling of The Seagull with a great cast (Allison Janney, Jean Reno, Cherry Jones.) If casting agents can pretend the last seven years never happened, hopefully she can get some movies with great directors again. She'll never be the best actress around, but she's good, and at a time when Kristen Stewart is our highest paid actress, I'm happy to have her back.

UPDATE: Katie just got cast as the star of Theresa Rebeck's new play, Dead Accounts, which will be on Broadway in the fall. Go, Holmes!

July 11, 2012

Janis Joplin biopic surges boozily back to life

Janis Joplin and Nina Arianda

There have been Janis Joplin biopics in development for the last 12 or 20 years, with all kinds of problems related to rights to songs and biographies preventing such a movie from actually getting made. There's also been the problem of finding an actress to play Janis. If you're going to create a credible movie version of Janis Joplin, you've got to find someone who can sing, has magnetic charisma and bold sexual swagger, combined with agonizing vulnerability and self-doubt. (See the great Vanity Fair feature on Janis and the early San Francisco hippie scene.)

And, most of all, she can't be pretty in a conventional Hollywood kind of way. Clearly, this last point has been the toughest, stickiest point for producers. This isn't the 70's, when Sissy Spacek could pull off Coal Miner's Daughter, win an Oscar, and bring in loads of money at the box office. Now if you need an actress to play a real-life person who wasn't beautiful, you cast Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman, and if you need someone to play the dorky, not-pretty girl on TV, you choose Lea Michele or Zooey Deschanel.

Deschanel was one of the many actresses briefly attached to a Janis Joplin movie over the years. Here are some others:

Britney Spears
Scarlett Johansson
Lindsay Lohan (in retrospect, maybe a smart choice?)
Renee Zellweger (in a rival project that was going to be called Piece of My Heart)
Lili Taylor
Brittany Murphy

The wrongest candidate to date: Amy Adams.

And maybe the best candidate to date: Pink. Pink had the flamboyant grit, gutsy voice, and appropriate unattractiveness to be a compelling Janis, but dropped out in 2006 when the project floundered. Clearly, casting for this movie has always been more about popularity than getting the right person for the role. Pink said at the time, "They're trying to turn it into some circus pop contest - who's the 'it' girl who wants to play Janis."

Today's it girl is apparently Nina Arianda (above), who in yet another iteration of this tired old story, got cast in a movie called Joplin. BUT: this one sounds good. It has a producer, a budget, and even a director--Sean Durkin, who did last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene--and might actually get made.

Arianda has only done a few movies (a small role in Midnight in Paris as Michael Sheen's wife, and a better role in Higher Ground as Vera Farmiga's drug dealing sister) but her real claim to fame is her freaking super-humanly amazingly sexy and incredible performance in Venus in Fur, which was on Broadway until last month. In this play, she goes from desperate to absurd to funny to seductive to ferociously powerful to actual human embodiment of a Greek god in 90 minutes.

She's really unlike any actor I've ever seen on stage, and she is gonna play the shit out of Janis Joplin. But can she sing? Of course she can! She can do anything! The New Yorker says she grew up singing both the male and female arias in Rigoletto, and it's just a tiny baby step from opera to ballsy Texan Southern Comfort-soaked blues, so, there you go.

Just one thing: couldn't we get a better title than Joplin for this movie? Something like, say, "Sing Them Blues, White Girl: The Jackie Jormp-Jomp Story"?

June 27, 2012

Cannibalism comes to the theater


The last few weeks have given us an alarming number of cannibalism stories in the news, so what better time to launch a new production that brings this trend disgustingly to life, onstage in the theater?

Horror director Stuart Gordon, who also made 1985's outstanding mad scientist classic Re-Animator (above), will direct a new play called Taste, which is based on the story of Armin Meiwes, the German man who killed and ate a guy he met online, and videotaped the whole thing in some extreme instance of sadomasochism, so he claimed.

Stuart Gordon is a guy who clearly understands the comedy of horror--his last play (which opened in LA, like Taste will) was Re-Animator: The Musical, because the only way you could make that movie more gleeful and sick is to add some "cheerfully perverse" song-and-dance numbers, to use Gordon's own phrase. The audience in the first few rows get totally covered in blood. It's coming to New York in July!

Taste will be one of many artistic interpretations of Armin Meiwes: several European metal bands have written songs based on his story (including the excellent "Mein Teil" by Rammstein, which has a phenomenally disturbing video) and Keri Russell starred in a movie called Grimm Love where she studies a Meiwes-like cannibal in Germany for her graduate thesis. Meiwes delayed the release of the movie in Germany when he sued, claiming the movie used his private story without permission. Eventually the German court decided he didn't have much of a privacy claim because he'd done loads of interviews and signed a marketing contract with a production company after his arrest.

I'm sure this will be a fun, gross-out, freaky kind of play, but how about if after this we all decide to put the brakes on eating each other for a while, OK?

June 25, 2012

World gets ready to scream, tear the spangly thong off of Magic Mike

Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum at the Magic Mike premiere

Magic Mike premiered in LA over the weekend, and today's Hollywood Reporter is like a hormone-addled divorcée going into a frenzy over a catwalk full of tan manflesh in fringed chaps. As we all get ready to head to the Xquisite, the fictitious Tampa venue in which Channing Tatum and his stripper buds collect dollar bills in their American flag thongs, I thought I'd share some of the finer moments of the recent press surrounding the movie.

At an interview before the premiere, dedicated Method actor Matthew McConaughey relates the moment when he was concluding one of his routines on set, and the women in the audience (who now that I think about it probably weren't professional actors) rushed the stage, jumped McConaughey, and ripped off his thong, leaving McConaughey "naked in a pit of screaming women." I'm sure when audiences see this scene, we'll all be transported by McConaughey's commitment to absolute artistic integrity and truth.

When asked what criteria they all used in selecting their individual thongs, by color, size, or fabric content, Steven Soderbergh, that coy little minx, modestly stated, "It was a very personal process. I know what I like, and it didn’t take long."

Stripper costumes featured in the movie include: fireman, cop, soldier, sailor, cowboy, and in the case of Matthew McConaughey, "black leather pants with the butt that comes off."

OK, this is quickly devolving into a journey into the mind/soul/ass-less leather pants of Matthew McConaughey, but the man is just a quote machine. When asked what it was like to work with Steven Soderbergh, here's what he said, with his no-rules approach to word usage:

He's very much a minimalist as far when he implements himself. He hires people for a reason, so you better show up with your bags packed and ready to work, and know your man. That kind of schedule is great for an actor because as time suppresses, you don't have time to over think stuff. Don't talk about it; show me. Press 'record' is what I like to say.

As for McConaughey, when he implements himself as club owner Dallas, the Hollywood Reporter review describes him as a "hilarious self-parody", a "gonzo showman in leather vest and tear-away pants", and a "self-deifying nut job". That's our McConaughey!

I'm not quite sure how to read the tone of this review, especially when it pointedly describes the stripper posse as "a heterosexual rethink of The Village People", then immediately describes their routine to gay anthem "It's Raining Men". Which reportedly begins with trench coats and umbrellas and, I'm going out on a limb here, probably ends with a row of naked dudes with shaved chests. I guess all strip clubs that feature male strippers have a similar aesthetic, whether it's women or men in the audience. At least in Tampa.

June 4, 2012

Who'dat?™: On-screen grit, off-screen glam

In today's edition of Who'dat?™, we consider an actress whose look in her movie career bears pretty much no resemblance to her look as created by stylists for the red carpet. The photo below was taken at a recent movie premiere, but it had me completely stumped.

To play, look at the photo below and try to figure out who this is. Then click on the photo to see if you're right.


[tx ADM!]

I like this actress a lot and am glad to see her get more high-profile movies this year. Click below for news on her upcoming movies, which look like they'll be some wonderful combination of lurid, salacious, and bizarre.

Continue reading "Who'dat?™: On-screen grit, off-screen glam" »

May 23, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom: resistance is futile

Moonrise Kingdom, scouting

I got to see Wes Anderson's new movie Moonrise Kingdom last night. For a while, I tried to maintain some critical distance in my consideration of all the twee mid-60's set design and nostalgia-porn props and the adorable story about two kids in love. But watching this movie is like watching a fluffy mewling little kitten wearing a just-so blue grosgrain ribbon collar frolicking outside on a spring day: you can try mightily to resist the cuteness, but eventually the defenses fail. It's all so sweet and tender and dear that you just want to pick it up and squeeze it and rub noses with it. I just can't help it.

The plot centers on a love story between two kids, Sam and Suzy. They're 12, and they talk like 12 year-olds, not like the ironic Comparative Lit grad students that kids in some movies talk like (ahem, 500 Days of Summer). Their relationship develops over a year of writing letters to each other in a fantastic extended montage, and the movie takes the relationship seriously. They love each other, but they're matter-of-fact and unsentimental about it. They're also unhappy misfits in their own lives, misunderstood by their peers and families, so they plan to run off together. Since they live on an island, and since they're 12, they don't make it, but their resolve to be together is never made into a joke or a whimsical little folly. What they have is childish, but real.

I think Anderson made a good decision not to go with the usual super-cool indie soundtrack this time. This soundtrack sticks to classical (Benjamin Britten) and Hank Williams--simple, square songs that are emotionally honest but reserved, too. One excellent scene incorporates Francoise Hardy's "Le Temps de l'Amour", but that's as hip as it gets. This goes a long way in clearing any whiffs of preciousness that tend to seep into his other movies.

The cast is incredible, of course--both of the kids are talented first-timers, and the adults are all great. Bruce Willis is especially good as a sad, sweet cop, and Ed Norton (where's that guy been lately?) seems to totally embrace the nerdiness of his Eagle Scout camp counselor role. Jason Schwartzman, Anderson's regular guy, is in only one pivotal scene, but he's utterly hilarious and perfect. (Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton are maybe a little underused.)

Anyway, this is as good as anything Wes Anderson's ever done, and it gets back to what worked about Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, minus the pretentiousness: it's nostalgic, wistful, sad, beautiful, funny, and irresistibly adorable. Plus it's got excitement and rebellion straight out of a 6th grade adventure book. You don't stand a chance.

May 18, 2012

Bernie: the best little murder movie in Texas

Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine in Bernie

Richard Linklater's new movie, Bernie, came out three weeks ago. It stars Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. Somehow, it's only made $540,000 so far. Whoever's job it was to promote this movie has majorly blown it, because this is probably the best movie I've seen this year--it's funny, dark, and strange, and it's full of hilariously wonderful East Texan townspeople that are so charming and believable they reach a Coen Brothers-level of grotesque authenticity.

The movie recreates the real-life story of Bernie Tiede, a warm and gregarious assistant funeral director in small town Texas who shocked everyone by murdering Marjorie Nugent, the rich (and mean) old lady who had become his companion. Shot her in the back and hid the body in the freezer under the Marie Callender chicken potpies.

What makes it even more bizarre is that Bernie was so popular and beloved by everyone in town, that even after he confessed to the murder, people either refused to believe it or thought it would be best to just forget about the whole thing and let Bernie get back to singing in the church choir and directing high school musicals. Oh yeah, Bernie's gay and closeted.

I'm a Jack Black fan, and I think this is by far the best role he's ever done. He's just as magnetic as he is in High Fidelity and School of Rock, but he's less manic and shows some real range. Bernie isn't just a version of Jack Black, even if he still does a lot of singing and dancing and chewing of scenery--it's a more measured and focused performance than the other stuff he's done. The townspeople who give documentary-style commentary are so exuberantly flamboyant that I really wasn't sure if they were actors or not. A few real residents of Carthage, TX were apparently hired to play versions of themselves, but most of the townspeople are played by character actors, many of whom were also on "Friday Night Lights", so you know they're the real deal.

The nephew of the murdered Mrs. Nugent, Joe Rhodes, wrote a great piece in the Times Magazine a few weeks ago called "How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze" that includes anecdotes about growing up with his incredibly mean and probably psychotic aunt, and stories from the movie set. He also interviewed the real Bernie, who's serving many decades in prison. Some family members are upset about the movie, and some townspeople are offended that a comedy was made about their tragedy (of losing Bernie, not Mrs. Nugent.) But the nephew, to his credit, understands why this movie is a comedy:

The whole thing felt like farce from the moment it happened, even to the family. I mean, seriously, under the chicken potpies? Shot and then frozen by the nicest man in town, who spent her money to finance the Boot Scootin' Western Wear store (and also, it turned out, some German gay porn)? How is that not funny? There has been some talk that, if the movie does well, a producer might even be interested in a Broadway musical version. This does not strike me as a terrible idea.

Here's the trailer, which might be part of the marketing problem--it's heavy on the quirky camp, while the movie pretty much plays it straight. Here's a clip of Jack Black singing along with The Florida Boys' excellent southern gospel version of "Love Lifted Me". And here's a great interview with Linklater about this project, which he's been working on for 10 years!

May 8, 2012

Dark Shadows and 70's horror camp

Dark Shadows, Johnny Depp

Dark Shadows, the TV show, was a daily afternoon soap that premiered in 1966 just as The Munsters and The Addams Family were ending. This period was clearly the heyday of pulpy goth television, and the lovably creepy families from all three shows have lived on through multiple reincarnations, which I sort of doubt we're going to see with, say, The Vampire Diaries 40 years from now.

I went to see Tim Burton's Dark Shadows movie, which is a nostalgic tribute to a TV show that Burton and Johnny Depp obviously loved when they were growing up. But the sad reality of Tim Burton these days is that he doesn't make very good movies anymore (possible exception: Sweeney Todd), and this one is an incoherent mess.

The style is cool (it's set in 1972,) and the gothier he goes with the story, characters, and design, the better. Tim Burton is great when he's dark. But several characters and entire plotlines felt tacked on and arbitrary, like the only reason he included them in the movie was that they were in the TV show. It doesn't hang together as a cohesive movie and probably would have been better if he'd made an episodic TV show, or series of vignettes about flamboyant Victorian vampire Johnny Depp, his creepy and possibly supernatural modern-day family, and Eva Green's cleavage.

The best thing about this movie is that it prompted revisiting of the half-hour daily TV show, which ran from 1966-71 for an astounding 1,225 episodes and was one of the most popular daytime soaps during its run. The Times has a wonderful article about it (the most repeated word in the piece is "weird".) It turns out that the show's creator, Dan Curtis, didn't set out to make a supernatural soap, he just started throwing in ghosts and vampires to chase ratings, much like today's soaps keep audiences guessing with evil twins, amnesia, or resurrections from the dead. Barnabas Collins, the Johnny Depp character, didn't even show up until 200 episodes in! Here's an excerpt from the Times:

In the context of late-'60s daytime drama these choices were, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. A few years later we would learn to call such desperate moves "jumping the shark," but what Dark Shadows proved at the moment Barnabas's cold, pale hand reached out of his coffin was that soap-opera narrative is in its essence an act of desperation, like the telling of bedtime stories by weary parents to wakeful kids: the stories just seem to go on and on and on, and the longer your audience stays with you, the more sharks, inevitably, will have to be jumped.

The show eventually included "a staggering number of witches, warlocks, doppelgängers, mad scientists, werewolves, and, of course, ghosts," which Tim Burton tried to recreate by introducing a seemingly random slate of supernatural characters at odd moments in the movie. It feels like an arbitrary, disjointed mess, but even if the movie doesn't work, I can appreciate the homage to what sounds like a delightfully bizarre show.

Jonathan Frid and Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows

A box set of the entire 5 season run of Dark Shadows is being released on DVD in July, packaged in an adorable coffin, for $420. A staggering 131 discs! That's a lot of vamping. You can also watch 160 episodes on Netflix streaming and catch some of the show's alleged line flubs and crew members visible on screen.

Here's a clip from the TV show from the episode when the Barnabas character is introduced. It's not as hammy as it could have been, but there's some excellent suspense in delaying the first time we see the face of Jonathan Frid.

May 5, 2012

MCA's other hugely successful career

Adam Yauch at Tribeca Film Festival

You can look at Facebook, Twitter, and all global media to witness the explosion of love that poured out yesterday when the news hit that MCA had died of cancer. We all love The Beastie Boys, and it seems like hardly anyone knew how sick Adam Yauch really was, or that he was in serious decline. I can't think of another recent death that my generation felt this personally.

Beyond his Beastie status, Yauch was also a major force in indie film. In just four years his distribution company Oscilloscope Pictures (a division of his larger company, Oscilloscope Laboratories that also produces movies and music) has put out a whole lot of awesome movies, including some of the best things I've seen in recent years.

Here's the whole list of movies they put out--highlights include Exit Through the Gift Shop, Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff, Treeless Mountain, Dark Days, The Messenger, his own directorial debut Gunnin' For That #1 Spot, and Bellflower. I haven't seen that last one, but this EW article includes an interview with the writer/director of Bellflower, who spent time with Yauch last year when the movie was coming out:

I've hung out with him a couple of times. He's awesome. He took me to go meet Jack White when I was in Nashville. I was like, 'What the hell has my life come to? This is crazy!' Adam, oddly, has a lot in common with me. When I met him he was like, 'Were you one of those kids who used to make bombs?' I was like, 'Yes. This one time I almost blew my friend up.' And he was like, 'I did the same thing!'

When Criterion released a DVD anthology of Beastie Boys videos (with many directed by Yauch under the name Nathaniel Hornblower), Adam Yauch listed his Top 10 Criterion Collection movies, with funny non-sequitur commentary that almost (but not quite) hides the fact that he was a major movie buff.

Also related to his film career, here's a funny, goofily defensive proto-Borat attack letter he wrote as Hornblower to the NY Times in 2004 in response to their review of the B Boys' "Ch-Check It Out" video. This letter's having a second life since yesterday; the Times reviewer, Stephanie Zacharek, tweeted that he was right.

Here's MCA crashing the VMA's in 1994 when "Everybody Hurts" won best video instead of "Sabotage". He's in character as Nathaniel Hornblower, Swiss filmmaker, both pre-empting and outdoing Kanye and Sacha Baron Cohen. He comes on at 2:48.

April 23, 2012

I am powerless to resist you, Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum in Magic Mike

I don't know how this happened, but about half an hour into 21 Jump Street, I suddenly became a Channing Tatum fan. I'd seen him in other movies, and he's always been fine, I guess, but not especially memorable. He delivers his lines a little flat sometimes, he's got that tan and those eyes that are set close together and that thick neck and muscle-bound body--he's someone else's kind of movie fantasy guy. Ladies like me, we go for Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Clive Owen. Guys who at least occasionally appear in movies where they don't take their shirts off.

Well, so much for that. Those days are over and now I love Channing Tatum. It turns out he's really funny! I don't think he had done a comedy before 21 Jump Street, not that I've seen, but he's got excellent timing and reactions, and when he pretended to hump a new arrest or stuck his fingers down Jonah Hill's throat to try to make him barf, I was won over forever. I'm never watching The Vow or the dozens of other romances he'll probably do in the next ten years, but any comedy where he says "Let's just finger each other's mouths," I'm there.

Cue: the Magic Mike trailer. Now that Steven Soderbergh has cast Channing Tatum in two movies in a row, I think I've got some cinematic credibility to cling to. He's good! Steven Soderbergh says so! In the Times article about Tatum's inevitable Next Big Star status, Soderbergh says, "I certainly would never place him in that category of young actors who get hired just because they look good. He comes with ideas that are well thought out but also doesn't take himself too seriously, which is really refreshing." This guy is so good at not taking himself too seriously that he can star in a movie (based on his own life) as a super hunky stripper in which he comes off as a modest, decent, kind of sweet guy. (In the trailer, which is good enough for me.)

Of course, he's got Matthew McConaughey as his flamboyant father-stripper-figure foil, who, as my friend T-Rock said, steals the show in the 5 seconds he's on screen ("I see a lotta law breakers up in this house!") I predict this is going to be one really fun movie with irresistible charm and unstoppable abs, and I don't want to discuss how many times I've watched this trailer.

The Cabin in the Woods, meta horror comedy

Cabin in the Woods

I'm showing up late to the Cabin in the Woods party, and I strongly believe that it's a movie you should see with as little prior information as possible. But I had a blast watching this movie, and so, without giving anything away, here are a few thoughts about it:

  • It's a movie that works for different audiences. It's not too scary, so non-horror fans can watch it without getting embarrassingly terrified and insane every time they're home alone at night for the next three weeks (thanks a lot, The Ring.) And for true horror/sci-fi fans, it offers many rewards for having watched a ton of horror movies over the years.
  • It does this in part by examining the rigidly predictable structure that traditional horror movies follow, and makes you think about why we as audiences want to see the same essential story about teenagers being horribly killed rehashed over and over again, when we all pretty much know what's going to happen. But it's better than Scream because it's smarter and more creative, it's funnier, and it takes a kitchen sink approach rather than just drawing attention to its cheeky by-the-book slasher scenes.
  • It also rewards horror fans with some truly hilarious and wonderful tribute moments that I will not describe here. JOKE SPOILER ALERT: If you've already seen the movie, you know why "Angry Molesting Tree" is my favorite joke of the year, and you'd probably be interested in seeing a screenshot of the white board. Here it is.

Joss Whedon is going to get a much bigger hit this year with The Avengers, which will utterly overshadow The Cabin in the Woods and probably offer a more bloated, expensive version of fun, but for my money, I'll take the meta horror molesting tree satire.

April 9, 2012

Goon: Canadian minor league hockey = comic gold

Goon with Seann William Scott

The most overlooked movie out right now might be Goon, the raunchy comedy starring Seann William Scott that doesn't involve Stifler or his mom. Goon is a hockey comedy and it's the best extremely realistically violent movie I've seen in a very long time. The violence in Goon isn't about being artistic or stylized, it's about showing you what it's like to stop a puck with your face while a bunch of Quebecois meatheads spit on you. Hilarious!

There are lots of reasons this movie should be doing better than it is (it's only made $4 million at the box office.) Hockey is a perfect subject for a filthy-mouthed sports comedy (e.g. Slap Shot), the script is by Evan Goldberg (who wrote Superbad with Seth Rogen) and Jay Baruchel, two Canadians from the Judd Apatow school of inept, lovable man-children and and good-natured dick jokes. It stars Seann William Scott, who bulked up into a thick-necked bruiser for this role. An inspired casting choice, Liev Schreiber plays an aging icon of Canadian hockey brutality with a spectacular handlebar moustache and authentically flat a's. I think it's the best role I've ever seen him do. And Alison Pill as the rowdy, slutty hockey fan love interest--she's fantastic in everything I've ever seen her in (Scott Pilgrim, Milk, Midnight in Paris) and she's a riot in this.

Sometimes Seann William Scott goes a little too far with the dumb lug routine, but mostly he plays the character as a sweet, sincere boy from Mass who loves beer and mashing the opposing team's faces with his big meaty fists. The character is based on real-life Doug Smith, an enforcer in 1980's hockey. The biggest change to the character was to make him Jewish (his last name is now Glatt), which was important because it allowed Eugene Levy to be cast as his dad and for fans at the games to hold up signs saying "GLATT is Hebrew for FUCK YOU!"

It's probably not going to be in theaters much longer, but you can watch it on demand. Here's the red-band trailer.

April 6, 2012

Damsels in Distress

I'm a fan of Whit Stillman, and I've missed him as much as anyone. Metropolitan came out when I was in high school, and I rented it on VHS many times from my local video store. I loved the window into the lives of rich smart kids in Manhattan, and the way they spoke like they were confident, well-educated grownups, though they were really just teenagers who spent most of their time hanging out with their friends at their parents' houses talking about movies and playing truth or dare and mildly risqué card games. It was funny and smart in a way I hadn't seen outside a Woody Allen movie, but it made fun of these rich kids and their privileged lives, too. When one character explains his new term "UHB" ("urban haute bourgeoisie") to describe themselves, another says, "Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms of French phrases to make ourselves understood?"

Anyway, we all missed Whit Stillman in the 14 years or whatever since his last movie (Last Days of Disco). So maybe that explains why the reviews of his new one, Damsels in Distress, are so positive. I saw it last night, and thought it was a failure. The movie makes a valiant attempt at creating an imaginary world where college girls offer tap dancing as therapeutic treatment for suicidal students and date comically moronic frat boys as part of their charitable efforts to improve the world, and other twee little things like that. But the plot is all over the place--it's a series of events and revelations that are barely connected to each other except by their tweeness.

Lots of mildly humorous things happen, there are small triumphs and mishaps and a lot of pastel cardigans, then there are two song-and-dance numbers, then roll credits. The fact that both my viewing partner and I fell asleep during the last 20 minutes or so is only a partial explanation for my failure to grasp any larger ideas at work. A movie with a plot that reads "and then", "and then", "and then" with no direction apparently isn't enough to keep me conscious for an hour and a half.

The story is hardly a story, and the actors don't seem to know what to do with it. The dialogue is contrived to a Wildean level, which could be a good thing, but only Greta Gerwig seems to be able to handle it. She delivers every bizarre, perfectly constructed sentence with precision and possibly-crazy conviction, and she's always fun to watch. Everyone else seems to think they're supposed to be winking at the camera, which doesn't work. Aubrey Plaza tries hard, but even she's wasted.

This movie is like Clueless if it were remade as a bad Wes Anderson movie. It's Clueless plus Metropolitan with most of the good parts taken out. Glad you're back, Whit Stillman! Please make a better movie next time!

March 27, 2012

Today's Carrie: she's really pretty

Chloe Moretz in Dark Shadows

There's some more news today about the remake of Carrie, which I've been curious about since it was announced last spring. Maybe no one will be able to top the perfection of Sissy Spacek in the original (one of those rare perfect casting choices, as That Fuzzy Bastard noted) but the success of the remake will rest with the lead actress and her gym-incinerating prowess.

And hey! It's going to be Chloe Moretz! Wow. She's only 15, but she's definitely got the guts to pull off a dark, violent role (see Kick-Ass, Let Me In). The only problem I can find is that Moretz looks a lot more like one of the popular pretty girls who torment Carrie than a social reject whose rage bursts out of her in a swath of telekinetic scorched earth.

Chloe Moretz looking very pretty

But what are you gonna do, cast an ugly girl? In a major motion picture? Please.

The other news is that Kimberly Peirce is directing, who has exactly one good movie to her credit (Boys Don't Cry). But at least she knows how to make movies about rebellious young women who don't fit in and experience major trauma when they get their period.

For Carrie's scary psycho-religious mom, I still like Amy Ryan, or maybe--think about it for a second--Courtney Love. Terrifying, right?

March 26, 2012

Cronenberg's Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis trailer

A mini-trailer is out for the David Cronenberg adaptation of Don DeLillo's book Cosmopolis. Last year's A Dangerous Method was Cronenberg's first time making a sorta-biopic period piece, and overall it was OK but a little disappointing. Cronenberg just doesn't do Protestant repression and propriety as well as he does fatalistic descent into uncontrollable chaos, savagery, and squishy sexual weirdness.

Thankfully, we've got all that delicious Cronenbergian perversity and mayhem packed into this new 30 second teaser trailer (that's in French, and not exactly SFW.) Cosmopolis is about a 28 year-old coolly-detached rich guy and his journey by limo down the entire length of 47th Street in Manhattan. Things don't go as planned, and it gets pretty surreal and horrific. It might not be DeLillo's greatest book (reviews were "mixed to negative") but it gave Cronenberg plenty of disturbing material to work with: riots, naked people, stabbings, freaky limo sex, and what appears to be Robert Pattinson shooting himself through the hand.

By the way, Cronenberg has been touting Pattinson's acting chops all year, and recently said he was a dream to work with on the (Toronto, obvs) set. "A ray of sunshine." So sweet! I believe him when he says Pattinson's got more to offer than Twilight would suggest.

Here's the trailer:

The rest of the cast includes Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche, and Jay Baruchel--pretty great! We'll probably end up seeing most of these people get either naked or eaten by a giant rat.

March 9, 2012

Johnny Depp as Tonto

The Lone Ranger

Have you seen this still image from Gore Verbinski's new action movie and probable first installment in an inevitable trilogy, The Lone Ranger? We've got Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger, and Johnny Depp as that embarrassing reminder of bad cultural stereotypes in entertainment, and genocide, Tonto.

So, what's with that look, Johnny? If Captain Jack Sparrow was the flamboyant union of Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew, Tonto appears to be a mishmash of Captain Jack Sparrow, a Victorian milliner, the Village People Indian, and either Peter Criss from KISS or a Juggalo. As to how that will play out in his characterization, I can't wait, but considering that Depp is doing this role in part to reinvent how Native Americans have been represented "throughout the history of cinema", I wonder what bizarre vision of cultural sensitivity and reimagining of post-racial frontier male bonding we're going to get.

My favorite imagined caption for the photo above comes from the AV Club: "So who's got the most distracting hat now?"

February 23, 2012

Oscar Predictions

The Artist

I can't say I'm looking forward to this Sunday's Oscars with enthusiasm or anticipation. But like the folks over at the AV Club, I embrace the mediocrity of the Oscars. Sure, there were many really great movies that came out last year, but hardly any of them are going to win any awards. What will probably win are the movies, actors, and other artists that are pleasant enough, easy to like, or that the Academy suddenly realizes it forgot to give an award to after all these years.

Here's what we have to look forward to: Sasha Baron Cohen, who the Academy has sternly instructed not to show up in character as The Dictator, which I'm hoping he will interpret as a thrown gauntlet. The list of presenters includes people like Zach Galifianakis and Tina Fey, but don't we know better than to get excited about actors we like presenting Oscars, when they have to stand there and dutifully read limp jokes that aren't any funnier than the ones they give to Angelina Jolie?

I'm only going to make predictions for the categories that I know anything at all about, to spare myself the annual admission that I barely watch any documentaries and don't know the difference between sound mixing and sound editing.

Here are the nominees, and the ones I think will win:

The Artist [It's become the inevitable winner, but that doesn't mean it's a bad movie]
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Demian Bichir in A Better Life
George Clooney in The Descendants
Jean Dujardin in The Artist [He's expressive as hell and out-charms Clooney. Still, I wish Gary Oldman would win.]
Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt in Moneyball

Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis in The Help [She's gonna win, right? This isn't the strongest category, in my opinion. Where's Charlize Theron? Elizabeth Olsen? Kirsten Dunst? Tilda Swinton?]
Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn

Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill in Moneyball
Nick Nolte in Warrior
Christopher Plummer in Beginners [Wait, we never gave an Oscar to Christopher Plummer?! Whoops!]
Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Bérénice Bejo in The Artist
Jessica Chastain in The Help
Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer in The Help [The one thing that would make me love the Oscars is if Melissa McCarthy won.]

Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist [It's a fluke, but at this point he can't lose.]
Alexander Payne for The Descendants
Martin Scorsese for Hugo
Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life

Guillaume Schiffman for The Artist
Jeff Cronenweth for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Robert Richardson for Hugo
Emmanuel Lubezki for The Tree of Life [It's not going to win any other awards, but this guy really deserves it.]
Janusz Kaminski for War Horse

EDITING (living with an editor means I'm required to include this category)
Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
Kevin Tent for The Descendants
Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Thelma Schoonmaker for Hugo [Hugo looked really good, so I think Thelma will get it. Remember, "Best" usually means "Most" for the technical categories.]
Christopher Tellefsen for Moneyball

Belgium, "Bullhead"
Canada, "Monsieur Lazhar"
Iran, "A Separation" [Glad it's the favorite, maybe a few more people will see it if it wins.]
Israel, "Footnote"
Poland, "In Darkness"

"Man or Muppet" from The Muppets [Could have easily been an all-Muppet category.)
Music and Lyric by Bret McKenzie
"Real in Rio" from Rio
Music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown; Lyric by Siedah Garrett

The Descendants [Most of the other nominated scripts were actually quite bad.]
The Ides of March
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Artist
Margin Call
Midnight in Paris [This is my favorite category--these movies are all great and well-written. Giving it to Oscar-dissing Woody would be a very mature gesture on the part of the Academy, which might mean it's not happening.]
A Separation

Any other predictions you want to throw out? Any guesses on how long it'll take to watch the Oscars on our DVRs, once we fast-forward through all the montages and boring parts? Less time than it takes to watch an episode of "Louie"?

February 21, 2012

Lena Dunham: a voice of a generation

Here's a trailer for Lena Dunham's new series on HBO, "Girls". If it's as good as it looks, it's my new favorite show that I won't get to watch for another 18 months when HBO gets around to releasing the DVD.

A few notable cast members:

Lena Dunham's line delivery somehow achieves a balance of self-confident, self-righteous, needy, wry, and deadpan, which magically adds up to funny and likable. She's amazing.

February 19, 2012

Chronicle movie math

Social rejection, bullying, and stress caused by our ineffective health insurance system lead an enraged teen to use newly-discovered telekinetic powers to wreak havoc on his enemies, and everything else. All captured in somewhat-contrived found footage!








[Cloverfield + Carrie + Sicko = Chronicle]

February 17, 2012

More from the Linky

Jeremy Lin Hey Girl

The Robot Linky over there on the right of the screen is still having technical problems (how 'bout supporting an RSS feed for Plus, huh, Google?) so here are a few things from the past few days:

  • Inevitable: Jeremy Lin Hey Girl Tumblr.
  • A good piece about the ongoing battle between Presbyterian minister Jane Spahr (an old family friend of mine) and her church. Spahr was the first out lesbian minister leading a congregation and has been marrying same-sex couples within the church for years. She's an inspiring crusader for gay rights in a religious context, and has always spoken about marrying same-sex couples within the church as her spiritual calling, which pretty much means the Presbyterian church is arguing that God is wrong.
  • Nicolas Cage has been talking for years about his innovative acting technique he calls "nouveau-shamanic" and the rest of us would probably call "mental", but now he's comparing his inexplicable career choices to Led Zeppelin, which I hope means he's going to play a Norse hermit blues guitarist wizard soon.
  • Ken Jennings' response to yesterday's "aspirin between the knees" attempt at folksy contraception humor by Foster Friess that became an instant self-parody:

    I call b.s., BOTH my kids have been conceived with an aspirin between my knees. (Long story, pharmacy-themed roleplay.)

[tx, Cushie!]

February 15, 2012

Britney is indestructible

Britney in Chaotic

The Robot Linky feed isn't working today, so here are a few little things about politics and Factory Records and Britney Spears:

  • Over at the AV Club, Nathan Rabin continues his "My World of Flops" series with a look at the brief, unwatchable reality TV show that Britney Spears created during her ill-fated romance with Kevin Federline, "Chaotic". This "Flops" series is a continuation of Rabin's "My Year of Flops" in which he takes a fresh look at a movie (or TV show, or album) that was a commercial and critical failure, and considers why it flopped. Sometimes he finds heretofore unacknowledged value in the flops, which is not the case with his review of "Chaotic", possibly the worst TV show ever made.

    Rabin comes away hating Kevin Federline with such intensity and venomous rage it's almost worth reading just for that. But his analysis of the disaster that Britney was unwittingly getting herself into, in the form of a marriage and subsequent breakup that was so awful it made her literally insane and probably almost killed her, is the interesting part. If Britney could survive being married to someone as horrible and parasitic as Kevin Federline, he argues, she can survive anything.

    Here's an excerpt:

    [The show] captures the bizarre, counterintuitive power imbalance at the heart of Spears and Federline's relationship. Spears may be the world-famous, multi-millionaire sex symbol ogled and desired by tens of millions, but Federline is the one with all the power in the relationship. In "Chaotic", Spears looks to Federline for the approval, validation, and affection she gets constantly from the entire world, but he's able to control and manipulate her by strategically withholding them. In her mind, she's the lucky one. She's the one dating an older, wiser, more sophisticated man who's kind enough to let her experience the benefit of his wisdom.
  • In excavating the old bank that will be the site of his new restaurant in Manchester, Jamie Oliver stumbled on some Joy Division master tapes in a safety deposit box. [!?!?] Whoa! What's on them? Are there any new songs? Covers of "Louie, Louie"? Was it Factory Records founder Tony Wilson's safety deposit box? I worry we'll never get the follow-up this story deserves.
  • With the camps pretty much over, the Occupy movement is looking at one-day protests and actions, which I think is great--this has to be about something more than camping in public spaces. But a story today reports a planned event for February 29th: "Shut Down the Corporations Day". Um. I want to get behind this movement, but moronic non-strategies like this make it hard.
  • Kraftwerk is coming to MoMA! Ralf is going to do a series of 8 shows, one for each of their albums. Cool.
  • And if you didn't find Romney's insistence that he is "severely conservative" creepy enough, how about this: he mistreats dogs. Dogs Against Romney is doing two protests this week. If it takes stories about dog abuse for people to think twice about voting for Romney instead of his policy ideas, that's fine by me.

February 13, 2012

When Abraham Lincoln Comes Around

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

A new trailer came out for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that isn't that remarkable, except in two ways: it's strangely humorless and po-faced, like the movie itself is completely unaware that it's titled "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter". And it uses Johnny Cash's menacingly biblical spoken word section of "When The Man Comes Around" as the soundtrack.

Johnny Cash released "The Man Comes Around" in 2002, and it was one of the last songs he ever wrote. I don't know if you've noticed this too, but this song gets used in movies and TV shows A LOT. I understand why it's become the go-to soundtrack choice for horror movies or any apocalypse-themed entertainment form. It's like a more poetic version of the (pretend) Bible verse that Samuel L. Jackson pulls out in Pulp Fiction: in Jules' words, it just sounds like some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker.

So here's Johnny Cash quoting Revelations in the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter trailer. Here he is again in the excellent opening credits sequence in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. And in the season 1 finale of the short-lived "Terminator" TV show, and in a (fan-produced) trailer for season 3 of "The Walking Dead". Any movie or TV show in the sci-fi/horror genre that involves a day of reckoning and/or the undead, this song fits so perfectly that producers probably need to stop using it for the next 10 years or so. Stick it in the penalty box along with the all-time champion of irritating soundtrack ubiquity, Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah".

I hope the Lincoln movie is goofier and more fun than the trailer makes it look--two hours of a solemn presidential hunk in a stovepipe hat screaming and swinging axes around in slow-motion sounds like undead tedium.

January 31, 2012

Casting The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

The movie adaptation of The Hunger Games is coming out in a couple of months, and since I just recently finished reading the book, I've joined the swarms of 14 year-old girls who are braiding back their hair and perfecting their rabbit-skinning skills in anxious anticipation. I'm just starting to understand how important these books have become to young fans of dystopian fiction, so I can imagine how big a deal it was when the role of Katniss Everdeen was cast.

The first time I heard about the books was when Jennifer Lawrence was cast back in March. After reading the book, I feel like I can work backwards and envision director Gary Ross looking around for young actresses that could bring a combination of toughness and teenage vulnerability to the role.

Cue Winter's Bone. Lawrence's character in that movie, Ree, is so similar to Katniss I almost feel like Debra Granik should get some sort of retroactive casting agent fee. After all, Granik is a small independent filmmaker who spends years raising money between movies. She cast Jennifer Lawrence in a difficult role where she lives in a poor, rural, dangerous environment, she's lost her father, her mother is distant and useless, she's responsible for the care and feeding of her younger siblings, and knows how to shoot and skin squirrels to make really gross-looking stew. She can get the crap beaten out of her and keep on going. She's a gutsy-yet-terrified survivor in pretty much exactly the same way Katniss is. Gary Ross says putting her in The Hunger Games was "the easiest casting decision I ever made in my life."

(By the way, Gary Ross may not be the most exciting director (Seabiscuit) but he wrote and directed Pleasantville, which was OK, and he wrote Big, one of the better 80's hits and, I would argue, the best work Tom Hanks has ever done.)

I think Lawrence is perfect, but there was some outrage when the casting decision was announced, partially because of Katniss's indeterminate race in the book. The character has straight black hair and "olive skin", and many readers assumed she was probably racially mixed. But the casting call requested only white actresses, and the selection of blonde, blue-eyed Jennifer Lawrence was regarded as white-washing by some readers eager to see a non-white ass-kicking heroine. In stills from the movie, she's dyed her hair brown, but she's definitely a big ol' white girl.

The male leads also show how their characters were translated for the movie: Gale is played by Liam "Thor's little brother" Hemsworth, and he's hot and hunky. Peeta is played by the kid who played Laser in The Kids Are Alright. I worry that they'll make the character too sensitive and wimpy and lovelorn--the unrequited teenage romance isn't the greatest part of the book, in my opinion. But I guess protracted love triangles are the name of the game for young adult fantasy series, so I'll just have to cover my eyes for the mushy stuff, i.e. any time Katniss has to suspend her survivalist awesomeness to pretend to like Peeta.

Here's the trailer. I'm very excited to see Woody Harrelson as the hero-turned-drunk, staggering around boozily and slurring "sweetheart" to the girls.

Here's the cover of this year's Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, with a re-blonded Jennifer Lawrence front and center.

January 25, 2012

Haywire! (Which deserves an exclamation point)

Gina Carano and Ewan McGregor in Haywire

Haywire is not a complicated movie, and it would be silly for me to try to fabricate a complex analysis of a movie whose primary pleasure is watching Gina Carano beat the daylights out of her co-stars. Hopefully others will share their reactions to the movie and thoughts about how it fits into Soderbergh's large and ever-growing assembly of genre movies.

First: it's a genre movie. There are aspects of the plot that don't 100% hang together (like, what exactly is the business of Mr. Studer, the evil French-Irish businessman who will kill people to protect his industry? Does it matter? Of course not!) and the part of the plot that does matter can easily be described in one sentence. Some critics saw this as a sign of the movie's flimsiness; I see it as a sign that we should look elsewhere for the thing that makes the movie good.

Which is this: watching Gina Carano and her incredible athleticism and physical confidence on screen. The fight scenes are great, of course (especially the brutal hotel room sequence with Michael Fassbender that's in the trailer--they really look like they're laying into each other) but my favorite scene might have been Gina Carano evading the people chasing her around Dublin. She nimbly hauls herself up drain pipes and ledges and leaps across rooftops with amazing muscular grace. Watching Gina Carano solve physical problems within a Steven Soderbergh movie means that there's just enough narrative and stylistic substance to make Haywire a fun movie, but it might not be categorically better than watching her destroy her opponent in an MMA cage.

One of my favorite lines in the movie involves two men plotting to kill Gina Carano. The intended assassin expresses some hesitation, saying "I've never done a woman before." "You shouldn't think of her as a woman," replies the other man. "That would be a mistake." Maybe it doesn't say very good things about the variety of roles for women that it's still such a pleasurable novelty to see a physically powerful woman utterly dominate her male co-stars in an action movie. But, hey, it is. I'll take it.

As for the formal stuff, I liked the out of order scenes and some of the non-linear stuff that Soderbergh is so good at. I wish some of the fight scenes had been just a little better lit (especially the scene at Gina Carano's dad's house) and I could have done with even longer shots and fewer cuts, to really let the audience watch the fights. But I was grateful to see as much as we did in the action sequences, without all that Greengrass-style shaky cam and edits that are so fast they seem intentionally disorienting.

David Holmes' soundtrack was super cool in a very Out of Sight/The Limey kind of way.

Other reactions?

January 18, 2012

Gina Carano and Haywire

Gina Carano

Steven Soderbergh's newest movie (his 25th!) Haywire comes out this week, and one early review from Hollywood Reporter has a lot of enthusiasm for Gina Carano and the ass-kicking she delivers to pretty much the entire cast. Carano is a top mixed martial arts star who Soderbergh caught on TV by chance one day--she's an experienced performer, but this is her first time doing conventional movie acting. I'm not expecting a nuanced story or anything like realism, but the fight scenes are going to be freakin' amazing. From the review:

Soderbergh shoots her half-a-dozen or so fight scenes without doubles or cheat editing, emphasizing his star's abilities to the extent that the semblance and extremity of the combat's reality becomes the film's entire raison d'etre.

As solid as all the male actors are, in the end the show belongs to Soderbergh, who took a risk with a largely untested leading lady, and Carano, whose shoulders, and everything else, prove plenty strong enough to carry the film. The director shrewdly determined what she could and perhaps couldn't do, and she delivers with a turn that makes other actresses who have attempted such roles, no matter how toned and buff they became, look like pretenders.

Soderbergh also cast performers who weren't conventional actors in The Girlfriend Experience, which was a pretty good movie, but I was left cold by Sasha Grey's flat, slack-jawed performance. Since Soderbergh gives Gina Carano something to do in Haywire, and seems to rely on her ability to throw a punch and not on her emotional expressiveness, I'm expecting better things. Plus, I'm delighted to see a female action movie star with arms that actually look like they could pound someone. As evidenced by her excellent photo shoot in this month's GQ (which praises her "debutante prettiness and skull-crushing thighs"):

Gina Carano in GQ

There's a great in-depth interview with Soderbergh at The AV Club about how he found and cast Carano, how he conceptualized the script, and why he doesn't use a handheld camera for fight scenes when his actors actually know how to fight (yay.)

A few excerpts that make me really excited for this movie:

I basically said, "Look, it's kind of a female version of The Limey. I want it to be nonlinear, and it's a revenge movie. I want her to beat her way through the cast." And [screenwriter Lem Dobbs] said, "Got it."

It took Gina a while to learn how to pull her punches. She hit a couple of the coordinators by accident. But she got there. That was a tricky scene for her, since we were able to give Michael Fassbender a little bit of padding, because she's really strong. She hits really hard. But she didn't get any padding, because she's in a cocktail dress. She had to keep telling him, "You can hit me harder than that. It's not going to look good if you don't."

I just find it annoying that in these [fight] sequences, traditionally, there's music trying to pump you up. I don't like that, personally, as an audience member. There were days, especially for the scene on the beach on the end, where some people were trying to convince me to put score over it, and I just wouldn't. I just thought, "No, it's great. We have the waves, we have the sound of their feet on the sand, and the sound of her punching him in the face."

Soderbergh's got three more movies in the pipeline, but still claims he's quitting after that. Hmph.

January 13, 2012

Totally Unacceptable Ricky Gervais, back again

Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes

Even if you couldn't care less about movie awards shows, there are two good reasons to watch the Golden Globes on Sunday night: to listen to celebrities try to pronounce "Hazanavicius", and to see Ricky Gervais find new and interesting ways to insult the very people who came to be celebrated. Last year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association said his offensive references were "totally unacceptable", but hey, the ratings were pretty good, so get ready for jokes about Glenn Close in drag and anal rape.

Here are the nominations. There's some pretty good material for Gervais to work with in this list. Two movies with nominations in Comedy categories make jokes about cancer (50/50) and racism (The Guard), so we're off to a promising start.

The Times has a good feature on Gervais in this weekend's magazine, which suggests that Hollywood's relationship with him has reached a comfortable equilibrium. "He has become the entertainment industry's favorite irreverent person, because he manages to be irreverent in such a deeply reverent way." I hope he'll take this accusation of "reverence" as a challenge to come up with some really unsettling, perverse stuff Sunday night.

Gervais has a new show called "Life's Too Short" (coming to HBO next month) about the career of a little person actor. The Times piece references a wonderful scene with Liam Neeson, who appears in one episode as himself, interested in starting a career in sketch comedy. I love this clip:

[thanks, sbk!]

January 3, 2012

Top movies of 2011

A Separation

There were loads of good movies this year, and many of my favorite ones come from new sources--there are a lot of exciting directors and actors I'll be paying more attention to after what they did this year. Also, Steven Spielberg.

Here are my favorite movies of the year, then a bunch more that I liked a lot.

A Separation
It's no longer original or cool to say this is your favorite movie of the year, but what can you do when it's this undeniably great? An Iranian movie about two families whose lives intersect badly, it looks at things like justice, class, pride, and the law as the tangled, personal, universal messes they are. I saw it as a feminist story, about how the systematic oppression of women in Iran leads to all kinds of problems for families trying to get by and live happily, but part of why this movie is so good is that other viewers probably don't see it that way at all, but love it as much as I do.

This movie also made me eternally grateful that I don't practice family law.

The Tree of Life
My other favorite. The Tree of Life is the most ambitious movie of the year, with childhood and family as the lens through which all the biggest questions about life, the universe, and everything are viewed. It's not a straight narrative, and it makes sense emotionally more than rationally. There are extended sequences of children running through wild grass; there are nostalgic sun-dappled backyards; there are visions of the cosmos and galactic birth; there is spiritual redemption; there are dinosaurs. I ate it up. Terrence Malick, as he often does, got the best performance yet out of an otherwise non-amazing actor, Brad Pitt.

A melodrama set at the end of the world that embraces hopelessness and depression as rational responses to living on a doomed planet. There's no patience for romance and sentimentality, but plenty of time for Wagner and Renaissance paintings and classically-framed slow-motion sequences, which are finely dissected by Manohla Dargis. When Lars Von Trier decides to raise his production standards, he makes some really beautiful, strange, dark images.

The Artist
The best kind of movie-watching experience is transcendent and exhilarating, and The Artist gives us that in a package most of us probably aren't used to getting. This simple, black and white, silent movie uses its genre limitations with more creativity than the most expensively-produced, FX-heavy movies do. It's not a cutesy gimmick, it's the real thing.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Most seductively terrifying view of a cult leader who simultaneously boosts your sense of self-worth and annihilates any concept of you existing as an independent human being. But in a different way, normal life outside the cult is pretty messed up, too. By the end of this movie, my sense of reality had become as paranoid and confused as the main character's. A great psychological thriller that really stayed with me.

Stylistically bizarre and completely unpredictable, this movie felt like it was made by somebody who had either never seen a movie before, or had done nothing in their entire life but watch action-romance movies of the mid-80's. Between the Tiger Woods hot dog-throwing incident and the funny spoof trailer "Drive-Thru", this movie seems to have taken on a fittingly crazy life of its own.

Higher Ground
Vera Farmiga as a woman in a Christian congregation/commune who starts to get the sense that the brand of patriarchal spirituality and self-denial she's bought into is a load of hooey. The movie doesn't follow predictable lines of feminist awakening we've seen before, but even though her story is quietly introspective, watching Farmiga's expressive face while she's thinking is absolutely riveting. I hope she can stop taking cardboard action movie roles and direct more great stuff like this.

Other movies I liked:

Weekend, about a one night stand that turns out to mean a lot more than the characters think it will. It quietly questions and subverts the usual start-of-the-affair story, and considers the different ways people are closeted and out. Sweet and sad.

13 Assassins is the most fun medieval Japanese badass movie I've ever seen. I got to really know and care about these characters in a way that's rare for this genre. Plus: flaming boars.

Young Adult takes a long, hard, clear-eyed look at maturity, self-actualization, and American small-town values, then insults everyone, does 37 shots of whiskey, and passes out face down with its high heels still on.

Take Shelter is another movie about paranoia and the end of the world, with one of my favorite performances of the year by Michael Shannon. There's one pivotal scene in a tornado shelter that rang false to me, otherwise it's a compelling, tense story about going nuts in a dangerous world.

A Dangerous Method isn't my favorite Cronenberg movie, but the scenes between Freud and Jung are subtly hilarious and great.

Attack the Block and Bridesmaids took genres we've all seen loads of times (alien invasion, vulgar buddy comedy) and injected tough London project kids and Melissa McCarthy to excellent effect.

Incendies and Meek's Cutoff look at the horrors of life during wartime and on the pioneer trail--I liked them, but don't want to watch either one again.

A few notable trends of the year: Incredible child actors. The kids in The Tree of Life and A Separation in particular gave some of the best performances I've seen all year. I don't know how directors started directing kids so well in recent years, but they're doing something right.

John C. Reilly. This year, he's done Cedar Rapids, Terri, Carnage, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. He's done a lot of great stuff over his career, but this year is really a standout.

The demise of writer/director David Gordon Green. He used to do good indie dramas, then Pineapple Express was a little ehh, then he comes out with two of the most awful comedies of the year, Your Highness and The Sitter. Big disappointment.

Speaking of comedies, it hasn't been a great year for anything funny. The funniest movies I watched this year were probably The Trip, even though some of the funniest parts from the TV series were edited out, and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas, which included a wonderful 3D bouncing spooge scene. Our Idiot Brother was OK. Overall, not a great comedy year.

Movies I haven't seen yet: War Horse (Spielberg tear-jerker?), The Skin I Live In (creepy skin horror?!), and unfortunately, a lot of the documentaries that sound good: The Interrupters, Tabloid, Into the Abyss, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

What did you like? What good ones did I miss?

Here's 2010's list.

December 19, 2011

The Artist vs. Hugo

The Artist and Hugo

In some kind of spasm of nostalgia for old Hollywood, there are currently two movies out that celebrate the silent era: Hugo and The Artist. These two movies have won several critics' awards already, and movie audiences that don't otherwise know or care about silent film might find themselves inadvertently watching some of this stuff this season.

I liked The Artist a lot, and didn't love Hugo, in part because of how each movie deals with their common subject matter. Hugo has a few problems, but the biggest one is that half the movie goes by before you get to the part about early cinema, specifically French pioneer Georges Méliès. The first half is sometimes wistfully fun in a fantasy children's film sort of way, but it's also full of plodding exchanges between Hugo and a surly toy store owner played by Ben Kingsley. These exchanges go like this:

"Give me back my notebook!"

"I will not give you your notebook."

"Give me back my notebook!"

"I am not giving you this notebook."

"Give me back my notebook!"

"I'm not going to give you your notebook."

It's not good.

Then, rather abruptly, the film becomes an adoring history lesson on early cinema. This is by far the more interesting part of the movie, because it includes a dramatic recreation of the career of George Méliès, and clips from actual Méliès movies, which are wonderful. (Watch the special effects in "The Merry Frolics of Satan"--made in 1906!) Even though the second section is better than the first, the tone is a little academic and preachy. As The AV Club's Tasha Robinson writes in her Overrated Movie section, Hugo's message seems to be "You should love cinema because cinema is magical!" It comes off like a mission statement for Scorsese's film preservation nonprofit, and not enough like an original work of art. Also: I've yet to meet the kid who is going to want to sit through this.

A criticism I've been seeing for The Artist is that it's a cute piece of insubstantial fluff, fun to watch, but ultimately just a novelty. I think it's a much more effective argument for the glories of the silent era, and the magic of cinema in general, than Hugo is in all its 3D glossiness. The Artist is, for the most part, a silent movie. Maybe that's a novelty, but how many directors have the guts to make a black-and-white silent movie in 2011? Yeah, it's fun and cute, but I found it sincere and heartfelt, not syrupy.

The Artist is constructed to introduce a contemporary audience to both the story of Hollywood's conversion from silent films to talkies, and to the actual experience of watching a silent film. There are self-referential jokes and a few stylistic winks at the camera, but there's also reflection on the ephemeral nature of fame, and what it means to be an artist in a commercial medium. The movie has echoes of Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, Singin' in the Rain, and The Wizard of Oz. It doesn't tell you that early cinema is important and fun to watch, it shows you why it is. I'm not going to criticize a small-scale movie for being too charming when it's as fascinating and surprising to watch as this one.

Somewhere in LA right now, an editor is working on a silent movie montage for the Oscars.

December 14, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the cool, ugly 70's

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I watch a lot of movies, but every time I watch a spy movie, it's like I forget every convention used in filmmaking. I'm utterly confused by story twists, can't keep track of which character is on which side and who's double-crossing who, fail to catch 100% of subtly drawn hints about the central mystery, and often completely miss major plot points. All those shadowy whispers and code names and messy political alliances are completely lost on me.

So I was majorly relieved when my moviegoing partner came out of the theater after watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and was just as clueless as I was about pretty much everything that happened in the entire movie. That's not to say I didn't like it: when I decided to forget about trying to understand anything and just enjoy one of the best casts I've ever seen in my life and some truly phenomenal stylish/ugly set design, everything was great.

Apart from the central story about uncovering a mole in Britain's MI6 in the mid-70's, which I only faintly grasp even now, there are some wonderful subplots that I found much more compelling. Benedict Cumberbatch, whose name sounds like it's made of tweed and leather elbow patches, as Peter Guillam was my favorite part of the movie. He has the movie's most exciting scene, and its closest thing to an action sequence, involving a file room, a luggage tag, and a phone call from a mechanic. My other favorite automotive part of the movie is Guillam's car, a gorgeous 1966 Citroën DS 21 that looks like this (though as commenter Maddy points out, the photo is a 1970 model):

Citroen DS 21

Other than that cool, sleek car, the movie revels in cluttered dinginess. As the revealed mole says at the end of the movie, "I had to pick a side, and it was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly, don't you think?" The movie's design is amazing--it's as dedicated to drab 70's bureaucratic mustiness as "Mad Men" is to early 60's tidy modernity. The office scenes are like catalogs of outdated technology. In his review, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky notes that they must have had one hell of a typewriter budget.

My other favorite performance is by Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr, the conflicted AWOL spy in love. The role was originally given to Michael Fassbender, who I guess was unable to squeeze it in around the 7,000 other movies he's done this year. Fassbender would have been good, sure, but Tom Hardy is probably a better rogue agent with that voice and those lips and all that handsomeness.

Director Tomas Alfredson, who also made the wonderful Let the Right One In, really knows what he's doing with casting, mood, and set design. Maybe if he'd been directing in his native language he might have illuminated the opaque script a little better. Or maybe I should have just read the book first.

December 12, 2011

That Diablo Cody, she's really got something

Young Adult, Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt

Let me tell you, I wasn't wild about Juno. The acting was pretty good and I liked the characters OK, but the dialogue (especially the first 20 minutes) made me want to stab myself, the soundtrack was a catastrophe, and the whole storyline was just a little too cute and tidy. Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her script, which I conceptually support because I conceptually like Diablo Cody, but there's no way that cutesy hyper-indie-self-aware script was the best one that year.

Her new movie is Young Adult (with Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, above) which like Juno was directed by Jason Reitman. I love this movie. It seems like Diablo Cody had to get all that contrived, pretend-hipster-teen-speak out of her system with Juno and, to a lesser extent, Jennifer's Body, then started doing some good, funny stuff in "United States of Tara", then finally arrived where she was always meant to be: back in small-town Minnesota, in Young Adult.

Young Adult starts with a classic romantic comedy plot line: What if your high school love was actually The One? Let's get him back! But this movie realizes that this particular story line is totally insane, and a person who decides that she and her (married) high school boyfriend are meant for each other is not really a hopeless romantic ready to rediscover love in her hometown, but a mentally ill jerk.

Several scenes in this movie fall within rom-com standard operating procedures, but they all get subverted and end up going in a totally unexpected direction. The heroine from the big city does not learn the value of family and small-town life, she doesn't come to see that the ex-boyfriend's wife that she initially loathes is actually a wonderful woman and that he belongs with her now, and she does not realize that high school is over and she should love her besotted but un-handsome best friend.

Mostly, she just gets hammered and complains about her relatively glamorous, comfortable life, until she realizes the following important life lesson (spoiler alert): she doesn't give a shit about small-town losers, and she's better off without them. Who has the guts to make a movie like that? It's phenomenal.

Charlize Theron is completely amazing and great. Her character, Mavis, is beautiful, selfish, and mean, and over the course of the movie doesn't really experience any growth as a person. Though she does come to embrace the same self-confidence/self-righteousness that she possessed as a popular girl back in high school. Plus she's a drunk. It's not a likeable character, but she's totally compelling and I couldn't take my eyes off her. She plays Mavis in a way that expresses the character's entire life--she feels like a real person that you want to watch in spite of how horrible she is.

And it goes without saying that Patton Oswalt is very funny and excellent as a high school outcast type who never left his hometown. He's just as bitter and miserable as Mavis is, but sees things a little more clearly than she does, which forms the basis of their strangely believable world-hating alliance. Their scenes together are so natural and fun to watch, it's not surprising that they seem to have become legitimate drinking buddies in real life.

Diablo Cody's last movie, Jennifer's Body, didn't do so well, but between that one and this she's creating a weird, dark body of work about the prettiest girls in high school. She's good at subverting femininity and all that post-feminist-stripper stuff, but she's so much better with boozy, un-romantic comedy than horror and teenagers. It's probably one of this year's more warped movies, and one of my favorites.

December 5, 2011

Shame and New York

Shame, Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender

You know how when you watch a Woody Allen movie set in New York, he always make the city look beautiful and sophisticated, but also personal and lived-in, and after the movie you might feel that, just by walking around the streets, this wonderful city belongs to you a little bit?

Well, Shame is like the exact opposite of that. Steve McQueen's new movie about a sex addict living in an expensively bland Manhattan makes New York look impersonal and bleak. His New York certainly doesn't belong to you, but you probably wouldn't want it to, anyway. A young Steve McQueen lived here for a while with his family, and briefly attended NYU ("hated it"), but seems to have retained none of the tenderness that other directors have for the city. Though he did find his childhood experience with the 1977 blackout "quite exciting. A lot of people were stealing."

"New Yorkers live and work in the sky," he said in an interview in Time Out. "You're always in the perspective of this metropolis, aren't you? Who are you, in the context of this city? It can make one feel very small. Maybe it's just too much."

That feeling of being lost in an overwhelming city fits with the movie, which isn't a complete success but is really good in some ways. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a quiet, handsome, corporate guy who is uncontrollably addicted to sex. You could watch an interesting double feature at the movies right now, with Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, trying (and failing) to understand and control the interplay of sex and mental illness in himself and his patients, and Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in Shame, not even really trying to understand or control his self-obliterating behavior. He's great in both, and a lot nakeder in the second one.

Anyway, Shame's New York is a place where hardly anyone has normal sexual or romantic interactions. The married people cheat, the emotionally open people are also suicidal disasters who always fall for the wrong person, and everyone else seems to regularly have sex with strangers in public or is in fact a sex addict. Only the prostitutes seem to be totally fine with themselves and their sex lives. It isn't beautiful or glamorous; one of the movie's recurring locations is the Standard Hotel, a hulking grey slab that looks simultaneously ugly and expensive. In one hotel room scene, a character looks out the window and comments on the "amazing view", which is not anything like amazing. It's a dingy industrial wasteland, like this:

Shame, in the Standard Hotel


Another reason the Standard might not use scenes from Shame in its marketing materials is the hilariously rude exchange between McQueen and a manager of the hotel's roof bar, Le Bain, that the Times captured in an interview with McQueen and Fassbender.

McQueen was rather annoyed when a loud crunching bass line began pumping through the bar's speakers. It was 4 p.m., and the place, the exclusive celebrity-friendly Le Bain, was nearly deserted.

"Excuse me?" Mr. McQueen bellowed. "Can you turn the music down?"

He was met by a manager, clearly unmoved. "I have people coming in," he said, talking over Mr. McQueen's protests.

The director stayed polite -- "Look, I don't want to fight with you," he said -- only to be met with a smirk. "I don't want to fight either," the manager said. "Whatever," Mr. McQueen said, waving him off, but the manager persisted. "What does that mean?" he asked, in a mocking tone. "What is 'whatever' about?"

It was a bizarre, aggressive moment, and Mr. McQueen seemed to sour after that. He had lost track of his earlier point, and, as the manager walked away, he uttered a quiet, vigorous expletive.

That's New York for you. Sex addicts, hookers, and bitchy bar managers.

November 28, 2011

Face-melding movie posters

Have you seen the poster for David Cronenberg's new movie, A Dangerous Method, with the main female character's face in the middle blurring into the faces of the two main men?

A Dangerous Method

If it looks familiar, that might be because it uses the same idea as the poster for one of my favorite Cronenberg movies, Dead Ringers:

Dead Ringers

Back in the 80's, when Dead Ringers came out, Cronenberg was known for making creepy psycho-horror movies where characters tend to have sex with and, usually, kill each other in remarkably perverse and usually disgusting ways. In the earliest of his movies that I've seen, Rabid, he cast porn star Marilyn Chambers as a woman who accidentally becomes infected with some kind of virus that causes a penis-like protuberance to emerge from her armpit and attack other people, turning them into zombies. You can see it in the first five seconds of this video clip.

Lately he's backed off most of the gross, oozing body stuff, but his characters are just as driven by their desires for sex and violence. I liked A Dangerous Method a lot, and it was fascinating to see Cronenberg take on well-known historical figures like Freud and Jung for, I think, the first time in his career (Naked Lunch only half counts.) But the familiar themes are all there: violence, sex, violent sex, uncontrollable obsessions, and weird science, this time in the form of early psychoanalysis. Talk therapy might help explain his characters' strange thoughts and behavior, but it doesn't really stop them from happening. A.O. Scott's review proposes a great idea: the "Cronenbergian principle of uncontrollability."

As psycho-kinky as some of the stuff in A Dangerous Method might be, though, it's nothing compared to Jeremy Irons in those red surgery robes and mutant gynecological implements of torture from Dead Ringers. Shudder!

November 21, 2011

Muppet Domination

Muppets Twilight poster

The world is bracing itself for the explosion of Muppet adoration that's going to burst all over everything in an avalanche of felt and chicken feathers when The Muppets opens on Wednesday. I thought I'd point out a few things about the funny and ingeniously creative marketing campaign, which has been so good it makes me a little worried that the movie can't possibly live up to my expectations.

The parody trailers. My favorite is "The Pig With the Froggy Tattoo", a funny take on the greatest trailer I've seen all year, the one for David Fincher's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake that still gets me so revved up I want to hurl a golf club at a serial rapist every time I see it. They also came out with a pretty good Bollywood one a week or two ago.

This morning NPR's Susan Stamberg did a good interview with some Muppeteers about the technical aspects of their work (lots of squatting, no CGI) and some of the voice actors about their characters. The funniest part is a segment with Muppet captain Bill Barretta, who does the voice for Rawlf, the Swedish Chef, and new character Pepe the Prawn. He based Pepe's outrageous accent (which I assumed was Cajun) on his wife's Spanish aunt: "She only spoke in statements. 'Iz a black shirt, OK. Come on, Beulah, we go to the mall, OK.' That's what she said all the time: 'OK,' at the end of everything."

Over the weekend, the Times released a video of Bret McKenzie, of "Flight of the Conchords" fame, singing his Muppets theme song "Life's a Happy Song" with Kermit--if the movie itself is this sweet and unpredictable and weird ("Life's a taco!") it's going to be as good as we all hope.

But the real question while watching all the ads: What about Frank Oz? The voice of Kermit hasn't been Jim Henson since he died in 1990--it's been Steve Whitmire since then, and he comes pretty close to the original.

But Frank Oz is alive and well. He was also, I just learned, writing his own Muppet movie script when Disney went forward with the Jason Segel-written one. Oz decided not to be part of the movie, saying he doesn't like Segel's script: "I don't think they respected the characters." Other veteran Muppeteers seem to agree, and some said they thought about taking their names off the movie.

You know what really bugged them? Fozzie's fart shoes. They're featured loudly in the trailers. "We wouldn't do that," a veteran Muppeteer said, "it's too cheap."

I agree, fart jokes aren't exactly Muppet orthodoxy, though I guess you could argue that Fozzie's always making bad dumb jokes. I still have faith.

November 13, 2011

Lars von Trier is psyched for the end of the world


After sitting through that interminable implement of character/audience torture that is Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, I thought I swore off his movies for good. They're so disturbing and sadistic they make my stomach hurt, and he seems to equate bad lighting, awkward camera angles, and no score with cinematic virtue.

But I broke down and watched 2009's Antichrist on streaming video--all those reports of psychosexual anguish, talking animals, and genital mutilation made it sound like Lars von Trier had actually out-Lars von Trier'ed himself. I still can't figure out if that movie is pro-woman and anti-misogynist, or anti-woman and anti-misogynist, or anti-humanity. Whatever it is, it's ridiculously graphic, and it's really something to behold. I can't tell if it's good or not.

Anyway, Melancholia is better in pretty much every way. When von Trier decides to use some decent production values, he can make one gorgeous movie. The opening scenes that show the end of the world are spectacularly beautiful, sort of an apocalyptic bookend to Terrence Malick's dawn of the universe sequence from The Tree of Life earlier this year. And that soundtrack! (Here's a video with some of it.) The movie is available on demand, but if you watch it at home, be sure to use the good speakers and turn the stereo up really loud: Wagner works best at maximum volume.

Von Trier says he made the movie as a reflection on a period of severe depression, as represented by sad bride Kirsten Dunst. She's really good. As grimly fascinating as it is to watch her depression destroy her reception, career, relationship with her family, and brand-new marriage, all in the space of a few hours, the cooler part is the second half of the movie, when rogue planet Melancholia threatens to destroy Earth and kill everyone in the world. Kirsten Dunst handles impending doom with impressive calm, while everyone around her is losing their minds. If you already believe that life sucks and the whole world is total bullshit, who cares if the end is nigh?

The movie is one big vindication of being incredibly depressed. There's a righteousness in depression: as long as the end of the world is at hand, it's actually the correct state of mind. It reminded me of Take Shelter, another movie that seems to argue that being mentally ill, in that case delusional and paranoid, is a pretty reasonable way to be.

plays a rational, scientific, resolutely non-depressed brother-in-law (a lot like Willem Dafoe's character in Antichrist), and things don't go so hot for him. One thing we learn about Lars von Trier is that he can't stand rational people who wish their depressed family members would just cheer up already.

Another thing Lars von Trier hates: big elaborate weddings. Kirsten Dunst's total lack of interest in her own hugely expensive wedding is a little gleeful and rebellious, and in a few scenes he makes it look perversely fun to be depressed, because then you can bail on your wedding and drive off in a golf cart with your poofy dress spilling out the sides and not care. Then when the end of the world comes, you can watch in wonder as cool electrical filaments start twisting out of your fingertips before the planet explodes in fiery obliteration.

It makes for a good movie, but I doubt von Trier's therapist would say this counts as a breakthrough.

October 20, 2011

Women in Cults! double feature

Elizabeth Olsen and Vera Farmiga

I've seen two movies lately that would make a great double feature if you're interested in creepy patriarchal societies and how they squash independent-minded young women: Higher Ground, starring (and directed by) Vera Farmiga, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring non-twin Olsen sister Elizabeth Olsen.

I really like both of these movies. Each of the protagonists first conform to the rigid and oppressive rules that other members of their group have accepted as the only way to live, then start to rebel against them, and ultimately look outside their groups for something else.

And it's pretty amazing how much they have in common. Both are about insular communities led by charismatic, charming, authoritarian male leaders. These communities appear to be about cooperation and togetherness and love, but as soon as our quietly rebellious female leads step out of line, all that goes out the window, and suddenly the purpose of the group seems to be the men controlling the women and not a whole lot else.

The two leads even look a lot alike: they both have those luminous, translucent, moon-like faces and big bright eyes. It's easy to be interested in the inner struggles of these women to figure out who they are when they're as expressive and beautiful as Vera Farmiga and Elizabeth Olsen.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (which I keep wanting to call Maggie and Milly and Molly and May) is a lot more extreme. People are talking about it as the Girl Escapes a Cult movie, which is accurate, though no one in the movie ever says the word "cult". Martha doesn't know she's part of a cult, which makes watching her decide to leave it and struggle to get her head together afterwards kind of maddening, because neither she nor anyone else around her realizes how completely fucked in the head she is. I kept wanting to grab her oblivious older sister, whose house she goes to after escaping the cult, and shake her shouting "Your sister was seduced by an evil brainwashing cult and is now extremely obviously displaying every PTSD symptom that exists! Call a shrink NOW!" It's a little frustrating sometimes, but it's still good.

Higher Ground is a lot less culty (and less violent and rapey.) The community Vera Farmiga lives in is like a Christian fundamentalist version of a '70's hippie commune or the Dharma Initiative from "Lost". It's a more subtle movie than MMMM, but it also didn't make me feel like hiding under my bed after watching it. I'm still a little shaken by MMMM.

That's mostly because of the one actor who's in both movies: John Hawkes. This is the year that everybody starts knowing who John Hawkes is. This guy is phenomenal. He plays Vera Farmiga's dad in Higher Ground, who loves his family but blows it as a husband and father, and the suave, manipulative cult leader in MMMM. He said in an interview that he didn't research cult leaders in preparing for the role, but he nails every quality that famous cult leaders possess. He's totally terrifying and great. (coincidence: he also played Lennon, member of the Dharma Initiative!)

Potential Future Oscar Nominee Elizabeth Olsen
is getting a lot of attention, and she's good, but it's hard to see what kind of character is underneath all that clinically diagnosable crazy-girl stuff. I wonder if people would be exclaiming about her so much if she were less beautiful or less naked in front of a very unhurried, lingering camera, but she does OK.

But Vera Farmiga--wow. I could watch her in anything. She's one of the best things about every movie I've seen her in, probably one of the better actresses around now. And a pretty great director, too! Hope she keeps getting good parts in movies without having to direct all of them.

October 19, 2011

David O. Russell being David O. Russell

Mark Wahlberg and David O. Russell talk about The Fighter

I just heard about the surprising, but probably inevitable, destruction of the friendship between writer/director and Level 10 Tantrum Thrower David O. Russell and his frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg. Russell hasn't made a lot of friends in Hollywood, and since his screaming matches with Lily Tomlin got out, many people probably think he's borderline mentally ill.

But Mark Wahlberg has stood by him ever since starring in Three Kings (probably Russell's best movie, looking back on his career.) He was, in my opinion, the only really excellent thing about the confusing and uneven I Heart Huckabees, and it's because Wahlberg wanted him that Russell got to direct his biggest hit, The Fighter, after the original director Darren Aronofsky dropped out.

Now that he's back on top and has lots of movies lined up, David O. Russell decided he would rather not cast Wahlberg in their next project, The Silver Linings Playbook, but would instead go with the cheaper and less talented Bradley Cooper. The story about the ensuing friendship-destroying fight came from Russell's cousin, Matt Muzio, who has appeared briefly in some of his movies and, interestingly, also had a recent fallout with Russell.

This Silver Linings movie is about a guy returning home after years in a mental institution and trying to piece his life back together with his parents and ex-wife. Robert DeNiro and Jackie Weaver (the evil grandmother from last year's Australian gangster movie Animal Kingdom) play the parents, but get this: Jennifer Lawrence plays the ex-wife. 21 year-old Jennifer Lawrence. She's a full 20 years younger than Mark Wahlberg (15 years younger than Brad Cooper), and her character would have theoretically married him when she was a teenager. Not sure why Russell decided to cast such a broken down old hag for that role--was Elle Fanning not available?

Other projects that Russell and Wahlberg had been planning together are now in question, like Cocaine Cowboys, an adaptation of the 2006 documentary, and what sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, The Fighter 2. I can't believe this movie was actually going to get made, which probably explains why I will never get hired by a movie studio. When a $25 million movie brings in $130 million, you ALWAYS DO A SEQUEL.

I feel bad for poor jilted Mark Wahlberg, but I guess this is what happens when you throw in your lot with a creative partner who drove James Caan from the set of the never-released Nailed because of a fight about whether it's possible to choke on a cookie and cough at the same time.

October 10, 2011

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you

Take Shelter

Remember two years ago when Up In the Air came out, and people said it was the perfect movie for our times because it was about layoffs? How simple life was back in 2009. Here in 2011, Take Shelter is the perfect movie for our times, because it takes every paranoid thought you've ever had about our unhealthy, unfair, and dangerous world and how it's going to ruin your life and/or kill you, then shows that those thoughts are 100% correct.

Michael Shannon plays a regular Midwestern family man who slowly becomes consumed by paranoid delusions about violent storms, attack dogs, shadowy evil figures and other nightmarish stuff. His delusions create all kinds of problems for his confused family and co-workers who pretty much think he's nuts. He figures he must be nuts, too: his mother is schizophrenic, and he assumes he must be going down the same path.

Except here's what makes this movie so great, and so important to watch if you've ever felt overwhelmed by the terrifying realities of our world and tried to convince yourself that you're just over-reacting. YOU'RE NOT. Look around! If you watch the news, you know the terror is real. Masses of birds really do fall dead from the sky. Tornadoes destroy towns and kill hundreds of innocent people. Tsunamis and earthquakes level cities. Unethical banks have ruined our economy. It's enough to make a sane person become unglued. If this world doesn't sometimes make you feel like you're going crazy, you're probably not paying attention.

Take Shelter might be the greatest vindication for rational paranoia I've ever seen. It's like if Signs and Don DeLillo's "White Noise" both represented logical responses to everyday life. Michael Shannon has made a career out of playing unhinged people, from a wild-eyed, contamination-obsessed maniac in Bug to the truth-speaking institutionalized neighbor in Revolution Road. No one's better at making insanity look both agonizing and like a perfectly reasonable response to being alive. Ebert describes him as "an actor of uncommon force." This guy's gonna to win himself an Oscar some day soon.

October 4, 2011

"Prohibiton" and the Carrie Nations

The Carrie Nations

Are you watching the new Ken Burns documentary "Prohibition"? So far I've seen the first episode, and it's really great. As with all his stuff, the images and film clips he's collected are truly amazing: he's gathered loads of video of ecstatic partiers in the 1920's cavorting in jazz clubs and guzzling bottles of gin and looking like they're having more fun than you've ever experienced in your life, which he intercuts with shots of stern crusaders hacking apart barrels of liquor with axes and gloating as all that devil's brew gushes into the streets. You can watch the full episodes online.

Even though it's titled "Prohibition", he looks at a broad history of alcohol in early America, when we were a nation of immigrants unified by our love of drinking. The Temperance movement was pretty much synonymous with feminism in the 19th century, and there are some great photos of hordes of women kneeling in prayer in their voluminous skirts outside of saloons and marching through city streets to protest the sale of liquor at a time when marching wasn't something women generally did.

But the best story of all was about the violent firebrand anti-alcohol hellraiser, Carrie Nation. She was such a compelling figure at the center of a bizarre episode in our country's history that Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer were inspired to name their busty, gutsy, all-girl rock band in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the Carrie Nations, after her. You can see some truly wonderful stills from the movie and revel in a moment in American cinema when a lurid piece of surrealist sexploitation trash would reference early feminist crusaders. Ah, the 70's.

Ken Burns, sadly, makes no mention of the Russ Meyer film in his documentary. The real-life Ms. Nation had a rough life plagued by alcoholic men, and lived in Kansas, where liquor sales were illegal but bars still flourished. In her 50's, she decided to take justice into her own hands, and with God's alleged support, started going from town to town, attacking saloons with rocks.

From her Wikipedia entry:

Announcing "Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard's fate," she began to destroy the saloon's stock with her cache of rocks. After she similarly destroyed two other saloons in Kiowa, a tornado hit eastern Kansas, which she took as divine approval of her actions.

After she led a raid in Wichita her husband joked that she should use a hatchet next time for maximum damage. Nation replied, "That is the most sensible thing you have said since I married you." Alone or accompanied by hymn-singing women she would march into a bar, and sing and pray while smashing bar fixtures and stock with a hatchet.

My favorite Carrie Nation quote from the doc: "I tell you ladies, you don't know how good it feels till you begin to smash, smash, smash!"

Sure, she was probably mentally ill, and claiming you're doing God's work by throwing rocks at bartenders is never OK, but I can't help but love her and her take-no-prisoners style.

Maybe the Occupy Wall Streeters could take some inspiration from Ms. Nation and start carrying hatchets and Bibles and using her slogan, "Good morning, destroyer of men's souls," to greet bankers heading to work.

September 28, 2011

Roger Ebert at the NY Times

Roger Ebert at the NY Times

I've been watching and reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews for just about as long as I've been able to watch and read, so seeing him at the NY Times last night was one of the most exciting movie-related experiences I could have. A big reason I'm so into movies is that when I was growing up, I watched Siskel & Ebert talk about movies every week on TV. Because those two smart, thoughtful, funny guys were excited about movies, they got me excited about them, too. I don't always agree with Ebert, but he still writes about movies more compellingly than just about anyone, and I'm always interested in what he has to say.

Since Ebert got cancer and lost the ability to talk about 5 years ago, he stopped appearing on TV, but he's become unbelievably prolific in his writing. He reviews a bunch of movies every week (A.O. Scott, who interviewed him last night, said Ebert reviews at least twice as many movies each week than any one else he knows), writes a blog, an excellent Twitter feed (500,000 followers!), plus he has a new memoir out and, my personal favorite, a cookbook for rice cookers. He'll probably never speak again, but the man still has a lot to say.

A couple of things about the interview, which Ebert conducted by typing into a talking laptop:

  • He got into movie reviewing entirely by accident. The former movie critic at the Sun-Times retired, and Ebert got assigned to take over because, he claims, he was the youngest journalist and had the longest hair.
  • A.O. Scott talked about 3D and Ebert's well-publicized, unwavering contempt for it, and said that Ebert was on the record saying he thought 3D was a "disaster". Ebert immediately corrected him, via talking computer. "Abomination," he said. Preach it, Roger!
  • He told a story about the legendarily tough critic Gene Siskel about a time Siskel took his young daughters to see a movie. When they were leaving the theater, he asked his younger daughter what she thought of it. "Daddy," she said, "I didn't like it." "I've never been more proud!," he told Roger.
  • A.O. Scott asked Ebert for a few of those movies, among the hundreds of thousands he's watched, that are most special and meaningful to him. He named four, which I thought were surprisingly arty and relatively obscure, considering he's probably the best known mainstream movie critic ever:

    Ikiru, by Kurosawa. I think I watched this for a class on Japanese film when I was 20 years old, and almost definitely fell asleep. Ebert says it's a wise film about mortality and death, topics that probably don't resonate with a junior in college who still thinks Goldschlager is a very nice drink in the same way they would with someone who's survived cancer.

    Floating Weeds, by Ozu. I haven't seen it. Actually, I still haven't seen any of Ozu's movies, probably because I've heard they're lengthy, quiet studies of Japanese family life, and I always end up picking something less lengthy and quiet instead.

    2001: A Space Odyssey, by Kubrick, which Ebert said "knocked his socks off". Maybe sometime he could explain to me what happens in the last 20 minutes.

    Gates of Heaven, by Errol Morris. This is the one about pet cemeteries, definitely one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. As A.O. Scott pointed out, it's impossible to tell if Morris has compassion and respect for the people in the doc who select these cemeteries as the final resting places for their beloved pets, or if he thinks they're a bunch of lunatics that make good punchlines. Maybe both?

One other thing about Siskel & Ebert and their lasting legacy. I was out at karaoke last week, and someone performed Bloodhound Gang's "The Bad Touch", a song that's very popular at karaoke despite it being almost impossible to get through. When the line "Yes I'm Siskel, yes I'm Ebert, and you're getting two thumbs up" line came along, the lyrics displayed on the screen read: "Yes I'm Sisco, yes I'm Evil, and you're getting two thumbs up." An unintentionally surrealist lyrical reworking, there.

Whoever transcribed that line perhaps doesn't speak English as their first language, but still, it made me wonder if young people don't actually know what "Siskel & Ebert" means anymore.

Many old "Siskel & Ebert" reviews are archived, so you can watch them argue about, for example, The Big Lebowski. It's still fun to watch the two of them.

September 23, 2011

Community and the autism spectrum


I haven't seen last night's season premiere of Community yet (you can watch the episode online.) But based on what I saw last season, and a fantastic profile in Wired on the show's creator, Dan Harmon, I'm prepared to say that, even if not every episode quite delivers, it's the funniest show on network TV. (Sorry, 30 Rock! That joke about the gas leak wasn't even funny the first time.)

It's definitely the strangest. As evidenced by the My Dinner With Andre-themed episode from last season, which is just the kind of abstruse extended joke that I can't believe made it onto a mainstream show, but turns up on this show all the time.

Until I read the Dan Harmon profile, I had no idea what kind of mad genius was behind this show (Wired says: "even its 'normal' episodes have a deeply weird velocity") but key passages shed a lot of light on where this stuff comes from. Such as this anecdote, about Harmon in the writers' room working on a scene featuring new cast member John Goodman:

Harmon begins pacing the room, slowly launching into a discourse that’s part Socratic inquiry, part one-man improv show. He lists examples of anything in the culture that might show how powerful men treat the weak: Goodfellas, Neil LaBute films, Freudian theory, even the actorly essence of John Goodman himself. The whole spiel is immensely entertaining—like hearing a version of Billy Joel’s "We Didn't Start the Fire" that’s been rewritten by a semiotics-obsessed video-store clerk—and it concludes with Harmon reenacting Ned Beatty’s famous monologue in Network.

No wonder I love this show.

Over his lifetime, Harmon developed a highly structured algorithm that he uses for every scene, episode, and season of Community, and says he searches every TV show and movie he watches for his algorithm underlying its structure. How some of the show's plot devices, like a magical secret trampoline, fit in is a mystery, possibly explained by his practice of drinking vodka at work.

Another thing that explains some of the psychologically unusual characters: Harmon innocently started taking online tests for Asperger's syndrome to see if his character Abed (above) really did fit the profile as fans have suggested. And guess what? Dan Harmon has Asperger's! Doctors say he's on the part of the autism spectrum where people have both empathy and inappropriate emotional reactions. And also think about life in terms of episodes of Taxi.

Not really a surprise, but the ratings are pretty awful. If NBC keeps putting up with its roster of weird shows that nobody watches, hopefully it'll survive the season.

September 20, 2011

Who's Older?™ Birthday boys

Hugh Grant and James Gandolfini: Who's Older?

Two celebrities had birthdays recently, and the two men chose to celebrity their special days in ways that show what matters most to them.

Hugh Grant has been loudly protesting the British police and Conservative government's failure to stop News Corp's media outlets from hacking people's phones, which now looks like wasn't simple failure but some kind of evil right-wing parliamentary corporate collusion. Speaking to the press shortly after his birthday, he said he was glad British politicians had finally "grown balls" over this issue, which he hopes they'll keep. He's heading to Scotland soon, where he'll shoot Cloud Atlas with the Wachowskis. I bet he'll be playing Adam Ewing out on that South Pacific island.

James Gandolfini spent his birthday partying at a restaurant in Soho with friends, which he reportedly departed by hoisting himself onto the seat of Mario Batali's Vespa, which was also supporting Mario Batali, and lumbering off into the night like a half a ton of beef cheeks balanced on a gravy boat. "We thought they were going to die," said one partygoer, who I'm pretty sure was not joking.

Now let's think about how many candles were on each man's formidable birthday cake. It's time to play Who's Older?™!

To play, pick which one you think is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Hugh Grant or James Gandolfini?

One note about Hugh Grant: I'll admit that I loved his sensitive romantic-lead style when I was in high school and he played a wispy Chopin in Impromptu, but since Woody Allen cast him as a scheming double-crosser in Small Time Crooks, he's had a string of great movies where he's gotten to do some excellent work playing selfish jerks. He's gotten crinklier since the early 90's, but he's finally found the delicious kind of role he's best in, which has nothing to do with floppy haircuts and stammering.

September 14, 2011

Drive and the 80's

Drive movie poster

I went to see the new arty action movie Drive last night, which I think is this year's 28th movie starring Ryan Gosling. I liked it for its unabashedly stylized approach to action movie standards like car chases and people getting shot in the head, and especially for all the 80's design. As much as I liked this stuff, I don't understand it at all.

Take a look at that movie poster, with the inexplicable anachronistic hot pink cursive font. What's that about? Some people have drawn comparisons to classic 80's movie posters, like the one for Heathers, but I see some other inspirations. Like this:

Risky Business poster

And a little bit of this:

Purple Rain

And let's not forget:

Tiffany album cover

The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, stopped by for a little Q&A after the movie, and he came right out and said he ripped off the Risky Business poster. He explained that, as a Danish director coming to America, he found LA to be a city stylistically trapped in the 80's. I'm not sure I totally get what he means, but I'll admit there do seem to be an awful lot of restaurants that incorporate glass bricks and walls unironically painted turquoise out there.

Then there's the music. The soundtrack (by Cliff Martinez, Steven Soderbergh's main man) is hyper-self-conscious 80's pop synth. The theme songs sound a lot like OMD's "Souvenir" or Q Lazzarus's "Goodbye Horses", which is featured in both Married to the Mob and Silence of the Lambs.

What all this 80's stuff is doing in a contemporary action movie is beyond me, especially one with scene after scene of gruesome, brutal violence that seems to explode out of nowhere. The killings in this movie are so graphic and violent that audience members started laughing in disbelief.

Then there's the acting. It's the opposite of the horrific violence and the synth soundtrack. It's terse. Minimal. Dialogue is sparse, stylized, and often sort of weird. Ryan Gosling is, as one reviewer says, a closed book. But, wait, then there's also Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks, playing smaller roles with funny, snappy dialogue, plenty of warmth, and a dollop of sinister fiendishness.

The director explained that he used the lush, warm, synthy music to balance out the harsh violence and the (sometimes) cold acting style. But watching the movie, I wasn't sensing "balanced" so much as "mentally ill". The word that describes the feeling I got from the collective tones and styles of this movie is crazy. Specifically, either Nicolas Wearing Refn is crazy, or I am.

The poster font, the soundtrack, acting that's all over the place, Albert Brooks saying lines like "I used to make movies in the 80's. Action films, sexy stuff--one critic called them European." People getting stabbed in the eye with a fork. It's like if you took Michael Mann's Thief, Collateral, and the first season of "Miami Vice", then went nuts, then remade them into one crazy Scando-American movie. And it's good!

I was curious about Refn's next project, which will be a movie called Only God Forgives, also starring Ryan Gosling. Here's the description: "A Bangkok police lieutenant and a gangster settle their differences in a Thai-boxing match."

So maybe it's not just me.

September 13, 2011

Lana Wachowski

Wachowskis and Arianna Huffington

Some articles floating around today about Hugh Grant joining the cast of the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas highlight an interesting bit of Hollywood gender confusion: what to call Larry Wachowski, erstwhile Wachowski Brother, now that he's become Lana Wachowski. On IMDb and everything.

That's Lana up there on the right with the adorably cartoonish fake pink dreads, next to her brother and, for some reason, Arianna Huffington. A lot of articles, including one by the trans-insensitive AP, refer to the directors of Cloud Atlas as "The Wachowski Brothers", the name they've used in credits of their other movies like The Matrix. Hollywood Reporter is one of the few publications I've seen today that just calls them Andy and Lana Wachowski.

Back in January of this year, the Wikipedia entry for "Wachowski Brothers" was redirected to "The Wachowskis" after what looks like several years of passionate, politically-charged debate over what to call them and how to refer to Larry/Lana. I'm glad we settled on that rather than the clunky Wachowski Siblings.

If Cloud Atlas is twice as good as Speed Racer, I'll gladly call them anything they want. German director Tom Tykwer is co-directing with the Wachowskis. If Cloud Atlas is half as good as Run Lola Run, I might start remembering his name, too.

I love the book, and I'm glad to see the adaptation is looking pretty great, and a little unconventional. The rest of the cast includes Susan Sarandon, Ben Wishaw, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and other people like Academy Award Winners Tom Hanks and Halle Berry who I guess will be OK. According to Ben Wishaw, the actors playing the main character in each of the 6 storylines that make up the book will also appear in smaller unexpected roles in the other storylines. For example, Wishaw plays three characters: a 1930's era pianist, an American woman in the '70's, and an extra in a nursing home in the 2000's.

About the movie's casting, Wishaw says, "Everybody's swapping race and gender, so it's very ambitious and quite fun. I'll really love playing a woman!"

Any guesses on whose idea that was?

September 12, 2011

Contagion, social distancing, and lots of dead bodies

Jude Law's biohazard suit in Contagion

Watching the Contagion trailer, I thought this was the movie Steven Soderbergh was born to make. Is there a single genre or sub-genre he can't do? He's done a political crime thriller (Traffic) and a sexy crime thriller (Out of Sight) better than just about anyone, so it's time he got around to a virus thriller. Chilly scientists, dogged scaremongers, aversion to human contact, and total, panicky desperation--this is the stuff Soderbergh eats up. Plus, Elliott Gould! I was all over this one.

The rest of the country was ready for a big deadly disease movie, too--Contagion was easily the #1 movie this week. I'm not sure exactly what our country has learned over the last decade, but the 10th anniversary of 9/11 seems like a good time to indulge in some old-fashioned social paranoia.

The movie is a terrifically good time, tense and fast-paced and almost relentlessly pessimistic. It reminded me of that incredible moment in Traffic when a well-dressed, very pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones says "Get out of the car and shoot him in the head!" into a cellphone. One reason it's so good is that it never stops long enough for you to think about why the disease is happening or what it means, or if it represents some ethical or political message. It doesn't. It's just a great big disaster movie with some of the planet's most famous and beautiful people getting sick and dying horribly right in front of our eyes, and it's a blast. As Soderbergh once said about his style, "It's harder to be pretentious when you're moving really fast."

My favorite part of disaster movies like this is the moment when things go from bad to total catastrophe, social order breaks down, and all the rules we normally live by go out the window. Soderbergh has a scene outside an ill-fated FEMA truck that could be a case study in a seminar on Breakdown of Social Order in Disaster Movies. He's got a few scenes of every-man-for-himself mayhem that, along with sequences of people unwittingly handling contaminated touchscreens, water glasses, and cellphones, make you realize how screwed we would be if an epidemic like this ever happened. We're so sloppy about germs and cleanliness we might as well be rubbing each other's snot all over our faces.

The cast is great. Soderbergh gets excellent, understated performances out of Matt Damon, and he's great in this as a bereaved man who's going through emotional hell, but keeps his head down and holds it together to keep his daughter healthy. You know who else is really good? Gwyneth Paltrow! She's surprisingly believable as an average married Midwestern corporate manager who maybe likes to have a little too much fun on business trips. I haven't seen a lot of Jude Law lately, but I loved his morally ambiguous, possibly deranged, self-promoting blogger/prophet with his homemade biohazard suit (above).

As in every Soderbergh movie, the music is fantastic, with his usual collaborator and former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez keeping things moving with a cool, bass-heavy electronic soundtrack.

Thanks to Matt Damon (who Soderbergh said is "as discreet as a 14 year-old girl") we know that Soderbergh isn't retiring right away. He's still got Haywire (the one with the mixed martial arts champ and former American Gladiator Gina Carano), Magic Mike (the one about male strippers with Channing Tatum and (yes!) Matthew McConaughey), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remake, and Liberace (with Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his boyfriend.) But I guess the planned 3D rock-opera about Cleopatra with music by Guided By Voices, Cleo, was too crazy be true.

August 31, 2011

Paul Dano as Karl Rove, conniving nerd

Karl Rove in college

Richard Linklater has chosen his star for the upcoming College Republicans, his movie about young Karl Rove when he was campaigning for Nixon and running for chairman of the national College Republicans. Rove's political talent emerged early: he worked on many local and national campaigns, and toured the country training campus conservatives in tactics he'd engaged in, like going through his opponent's garbage to look for dirt. At age 19 while campaigning for the Republican candidate for Treasurer of Illinois, he stole his Democratic opponent's letterhead and made fake rally flyers advertising "free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing." A corrupt little strategic genius.

He was also, in his own words, a complete nerd. In an interview with a youthful Dan Rather on CBS News in 1972, he already wore his full head of hair in a comb over [video]. You can see 21 year-old Karl Rove talking to Dan Rather starting at 4:00--it's so freaking creepy to hear that familiar voice coming out of such a skinny little kid.

Anyway, Paul Dano is going to play college-age Rove in the Linklater movie. I'm not the biggest Paul Dano fan, but he was convincingly earnest and self-righteous in There Will Be Blood and believably lily-livered in Meek's Cutoff, so he'll probably do OK. Plus, he often wears his hair in a 70's Rovian sweep. Add the sideburns and those hipster glasses, and he'll either look like young Karl Rove or a member of Animal Collective.

A couple things I just learned about Karl Rove: he was student council president his junior and senior years of high school, he never finished college, his mother committed suicide when he was 31, and his stepfather was gay.

I'm sure Linklater will do a good job with Rove and his Republican activist friends, but I wonder if he'll be able to resist filling up the supporting roles with dozens of bohemian stoner types who dominated campuses in the early 70's. And oh, please God, let Matthew McConaughey play an acidhead adjunct sociology professor and part-time bassist for Iron Butterfly.

August 22, 2011

Jerry Leiber wrote the hits

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

Jerry Leiber (right), the lyricist of the famed songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller, died today at age 78. Leiber and Stoller wrote loads of the great R&B songs recorded in the 1950's and '60's, and you could argue that they were responsible for rhythm and blues crossing over from black performers and audiences to Elvis, white audiences, and everybody in the world.

I love lots of songs by Leiber and Stoller, but my favorite might be The Coasters' "Down in Mexico", which is featured in a great scene from Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof", the second half of the undervalued Grindhouse.

Here's the whole 7 minute scene, featuring a dazzlingly menacing Kurt Russell, which leads up to the greatest lap dance ever performed in flip-flops, by Vanessa Ferlito. "Down in Mexico" and the accompanying dance start at 4:25 if you want to skip ahead.

A few other Leiber and Stoller favorites: The Exciters' irrepressible "Tell Him", Big Mama Thornton's original 1952 version of "Hound Dog", Elvis's pep talk for nerdy girls everywhere "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care", and the Coasters' tremendously fun "Youngblood".

August 18, 2011

"The Hour" on BBC America

The Hour on BBC America

Broadcast News

The first episode of a new BBC series "The Hour" was on last night. It's pretty great! Watching something good on TV again was so gratifying that I didn't realize until now how long it's been since I got excited about a new show.

Every single review I've seen for this show has gone out of its way to stress how "The Hour" is nothing like "Mad Men", though both are set in the workplace in an era when people dressed sharply while behaving terribly, and drank whiskey and smoked, both have ambitious, compelling female characters who want more than their chosen industries are comfortable with giving them, and both are located in a mid-century period when the world is about to change forever.

But "The Hour" is about TV news. As far as I'm concerned, News > Ads, so there's pretty much no way I wouldn't be into this show.

But, OK. It's not really like "Mad Men". The mid-50's London setting is a lot darker and dingier than the bright, shiny offices of early-60's Sterling Cooper. The news rooms are small and cramped, and oppressive class distinctions are positioned front and center. Life in post-war London probably didn't feel sleek, modern, and hopeful, it probably felt stifling and hard. Rationing was in place until 1954, and the empire was disappearing.

I love this stuff, so I'm all over this show. The actors in "The Hour" are fantastic--Ben Wishaw as the scrappy, talented journalist with an investigative instinct, Romola Garai as the hot, brassy, but insecure producer (have you see this woman in other stuff? She's phenomenal) and Dominic West as the slick, charming news presenter who seems to get his way a little too easily, and is even better looking than Don Draper.

This triangle is literally exactly the same as the one in Broadcast News, the movie with Albert Brooks as the talented journalist who lacks social graces, Holly Hunter as the fiesty producer, and William Hurt as the style-over-substance ladies' man news presenter. Broadcast News is just about a perfect movie, so I have no problem with lifting the characters straight out of it and plopping them in the early days of BBC TV news.

Let's watch one of the great scenes from Broadcast News that will probably be more or less recreated in some dark, ugly bar or basement news room sometime in the next few weeks:

Even with the food rationing and all those cigarettes, everyone in "The Hour" is a whole lot handsomer than anyone was in Broadcast News. Really, how did we ever see William Hurt as a sex symbol?

The scrappy Albert Brooks-like investigative journalist basically serves as the Don Draper of the show, and watching him speak passionately about news in one great scene where he predicts the next day's headlines (accurately, we later see) is as good as Don Draper's best sentimental pitch.

In later episodes, we'll learn more about the ghoulish Peter Lorre-like figure who keeps murdering prominent people for some shadowy political reason, and watch Dominic West dashingly seduce everything in a skirt.

August 15, 2011

Why I don't go to the Bryant Park film series anymore

Bryant Park, Monday night film series

Back in the summer of 2001, I used to go to the Monday night Bryant Park film series every single week. I'd go by myself most weeks, rushing home from work to wolf down a quick dinner and run over to the park. Even though a lot of other people had arrived much, much earlier to stake out their spots (there were a lot of unemployed people in 2001) as long as I got there by about 6:20, I could get a decent, smallish space for myself, and relax for a while before the movie started. At that time, it was one of the few good free outdoor film series, and I saw some really great classic movies: Viva Las Vegas, The Wild One, You Can't Take it With You, The Philadelphia Story, Stalag 17.

As tough as it was in 2001 to snag a good spot if you had an office job, it got worse every year. More people started showing up each week, everyone started having cell phones and talking on them during the movie, and, like everyone who's lived in a city for a long time and found themselves inevitably sliding toward the crinkly end of the demographic spectrum, I got more and more irritated at all the 22 year-olds who loudly dominated on Monday nights in the park. I went less and less often, and now it's been a few years since I even thought about going.

Which I've just learned is a good thing. A recent Times article about this summer's series begins with a regular Bryant Park attendee who shows up each week at 5:00 PM with an entire suitcase that allegedly contains two dozen sheets, which he uses to countermand an absurdly gigantic swath of real estate for himself and his friends. "We make sure all of the sheets overlap so that no one can seize a patch of grass," he says.

Sure, he gets there early and has to wait in the park for hours before the movie starts, but this kind of land grab at a free public event sounds suspiciously like the behavior of a greedy asshole to me. Or, OK, I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he and his many friends just really love classic movies under the stars.

Then at the end of the article, the writer notes that not everyone at the park appears to be there to watch the movie: "Some checked their phones nonstop. Others fell asleep. A few ducked out early." Then there's a quote from the Bryant Park Conquistador himself: " 'It's not about the movie. It's about having a picnic in the park.' "

What?! Dude. If it's really about having a picnic in the park, couldn't you maybe pick any other park in New York City for your picnic? Or come to Bryant Park for your ridiculously expansive picnic on a Wednesday night? It's because of people like this guy that I'll be missing Dirty Harry next week.

Uh oh. I think I sounded like Glenn Beck for a second, there.

July 22, 2011

The state of movies

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 4

I have only the flimsiest understanding of the Avengers superheroes and their related movie and merchandising tie-ins, but I think Chris Evans is pretty good, so I went to see Captain America this afternoon. Ehhh. While I barely remember anything about the movie just a few hours after watching it (probably because I fell asleep more than once), the trailers that came before the feature were very memorable. Specifically, I remember thinking, dear lord, if this is the best Hollywood is coming up with, I sure hope the Paul Thomas Andersons and Nicole Holofceners of the world keep picking up the slack.

A few notable things about these trailers:

This is hardly news, but we appear to have run out of new ideas for movies. I don't attach any sacred value to existing movies and am totally OK with remakes and sequels, as long as they're good in themselves. It just feels like we have very few new ideas to look forward to in the action movies Hollywood is lining up. Mission: Impossible 4 [trailer]. Rise of the Planet of the Apes [new trailer]. And especially the trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man. I had somehow convinced myself that the "rebooted" Spiderman series would be some kind of interesting variation on the series that Sam Raimi just made less than 10 years ago (2002-2007).

I assure you, it is not. This new Spiderman movie that stars Andrew Garfield looks like the exact same movie that Sam Raimi made in 2002. Except that it has different actors, and it won't be as good, because Sam Raimi didn't make it. The last movie the guy who directed the new one did is (500) Days of Summer, which would be OK, I suppose, if Spiderman was about pretty Los Angeles architecture and twee little emo hipsters.

If Hollywood is looking for successful movies to rehash, I've got a great series remake idea for you right here. Harry Potter. With the final installment's release last week, it's due for a reboot!

At least the new Planet of the Apes movie is an origin story, adding a new angle to both the original series and the Tim Burton movie from 2001. And it offers more fodder for all those people irritated by James Franco's tendency to blithely turn up in every single genre and art form that exists.

Also, two of the major Pixar directors are branching out into live action. Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) is directing the latest in the Mission: Impossible series, in which Tom Cruise will presumably do all his own stunts and scenery chewing. The movie also features the wonderful Jeremy Renner, who I guess has decided to go full-on action since The Hurt Locker.

Andrew Stanton, who did Finding Nemo and WALL-E, is directing what I think was the only movie with an original concept whose trailer I saw today, John Carter. This one's about a Civil War veteran who is magically transported to Mars, and has a great cast (Bryan Cranston, Samantha Morton, Ciaran Hinds, and the guy from "Friday Night Lights".) It's also not a remake of any other movie that I can identify. Cool.

July 12, 2011

Horrible Bosses and Donkey Kong

Billy Mitchell in King of Kong

I haven't watched Horrible Bosses (but I kind of want to after reading A.O. Scott's half-embarrassed positive review, in which he compares the crude, idiotic, absurd style of humor to snorting cocaine) but there are a couple of interesting things about it that I thought I'd point out:

  • It's directed by Seth Gordon, whose first movie was one of the more entertaining documentaries I've ever seen, The King of Kong, about the world's most dedicated classic video game players and champions of Donkey Kong. The most memorable figure in King of Kong is Billy Mitchell, reigning Kong champ, extravagant megalomaniac, and collector of dazzling patriotic ties (see above).
  • Colin Farrell allegedly based his horrible boss character on Billy Mitchell, after Seth Gordon gave him a copy of Kong to watch. Gordon says, "It was wonderful that Colin was open to the role and really breathed life into it. At the first meeting, we talked about giving him a belly and a clubbing enthusiasm -- and Colin wanted a comb-over. As soon as we saw the first attempt at that I knew it was right."
  • Seth Gordon now says that he wants to remake King of Kong, a straight-up documentary, as a mockumentary. The original has such grandiose and over-the-top characters that it sometimes edges into mocking territory, but Gordon was inspired by his recent experience directing episodes of "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" and wants to try that style with the Kong remake.

    In my opinion, the reason the original is so wonderful is that the characters are all real people who are completely sincere in their dedication to video games. They say things like, "I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to be the center of attention. I wanted the glory, I wanted the fame. I wanted the pretty girls to come up and say, 'Hi, I see that you're good at Centipede' " or "No matter what I say, it draws controversy. It's sort of like the abortion issue." And THEY MEAN IT. A mockumentary about these people could easily slide into mean-spiritedness and winking at the camera.

  • One more thing about Horrible Bosses: do you know who wrote that cinematic cocaine that made A.O. Scott so giddy? Sam Weir! John Francis Daley, who played little Sam in Paul Feig's "Freaks and Geeks" now writes offensively vulgar comedies! I'm so proud.

July 7, 2011

Let's make Phife Dawg some money

Michael Rapaport and Phife Dawg

I can tell you exactly what I'll be doing tomorrow when the office closes: heading to 42nd St to watch Michael Rapaport's A Tribe Called Quest documentary Beats Rhymes & Life [official site]. I bet a lot of other people are going to do that, too, for the following reasons: it's the maybe the only feature-length documentary about a single hip-hop group; it's about one of the greatest groups ever; and the drama surrounding the movie and the group's vocal lack of support for it have just about eclipsed the movie itself.

The arguing about the movie seems to be mostly over at this point, especially since both Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad attended the screening at Tribeca and Ali said he was "representing Q-Tip" and that they were all happy with the finished version. Good thing for director Michael Rapaport, the world's biggest Tribe fan, who at times sounded like he was coming unhinged trying to get this movie out. In a letter to Landmark Theatres, he writes, "I didn't realize the movie was going to be as interpersonal as it turned out!" which I think is code for "I love these guys, but working with them has been a total f'ing nightmare!"

Here's what I think the drama was really about: 1) money and 2) Q-Tip's ego.

First, the money. Michael Rapaport initially promised the band 50% of net profits, which sounds pretty good, but then Q-Tip wanted the band to be credited as producers, too. Then some idiot producer, in a classic example of a cc screw-up, sent an email suggesting that they rush the movie poster into print without the band listed as producers, "then we'll fuck them on everything else." And Q-Tip was copied on it. So they freaked out (understandably), Michael Rapaport relented, and they got their producer credit (see full credits here.) Plus, drama and ticket sales have a dependably direct relationship.

Second, Q-Tip. I don't have any insider knowledge of the dynamics of the band members, but I think Q-Tip and Phife Dawg had a relationship reminiscent of other great two-headed groups that ultimately blew apart. Lennon-McCartney. Strummer-Jones. André-Big Boi. A tactfully written Slate piece on the movie describes the basis of their rift as "the simple fact that Q-Tip has always been the group's star despite Phife's abundant talent."

Here's my prediction about how the two of them come off in the movie: Q-Tip will seem like a consummate front man, and a little bit of an egomaniac who needs to have total control over his image, and Phife will seem like a funny, beleaguered, sympathetic guy who's been through hell. He really has had it rough: Phife has diabetes and apparently goes through a lot of medical difficulties in the movie. The band's 2008 reunion tour largely happened to help him pay his medical bills.

So let's get him some cash money! Maybe he's never had a cavity, but Phife needs his dialysis.

June 30, 2011

Pixar remembers girls like movies, too

Merida in Pixar's Brave

A new short trailer is out for Pixar's 2012 feature, Brave, which I'm pretty sure will be the first Pixar movie with a female lead character, the fiesty, curly-headed Merida. And it's definitely the first Pixar movie written and co-directed by a woman (Brenda Chapman).

Here's the trailer:

We don't know a whole lot about the story yet, except that it's sort of vaguely pagan and mystical and Scottish, but the Pixar Wiki says it involves Princess Merida, an aspiring archer who has no truck with ancient Scottish tradition, which she defies at every opportunity. This leads to problems: her attempt at being a contrary little feminist unleashes "chaos and fury" into the kingdom, then when she's granted a wish from a witch to try to fix all that chaos and fury, she blows that too. Somehow, I'm going to guess, it all works out.

But it sounds cool! Not only a female protagonist (about time) from the most consistently great mainstream animated producers out there, but a protagonist that screws up a lot! And then has to shoot a lot of fierce beasts with her bow and arrow and generally save the kingdom! Disney is certainly no stranger to female protagonists in its long history, but rarely have its heroines been what you could call tough or gutsy or even especially flawed (though I didn't see Tangled, which sounds kinda weird.)

Kelly Macdonald is the voice of Merida, which sounds more like a Mexican city than a Scottish princess, but, OK. I totally love her accent in Trainspotting and Gosford Park, so listening to her sass some druids for 90 minutes sounds great to me.

Just cuz, let's look at Kelly Macdonald's funny, sarcastic speech to a flustered Mark Renton outside the club in Trainspotting, when she describes to him his unsophisticated approach to meeting women:

You don't normally approach girls - am I right? The truth is that you're a quiet sensitive type but, if I'm prepared to take a chance, I might just get to know the inner you: witty, adventurous, passionate, loving, loyal. (Taxi!) A little bit crazy, a little bit bad. But hey - don't us girls just love that?

(I can only find the video of that scene dubbed into Spanish, though it actually works pretty well.)

The movie also stars Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson as the King and Queen, and it comes out next June.

June 22, 2011

Footloose remake

Footloose remake

The trailer for the remake of Footloose is out. If you're like me and you watched the original over and over again back in the 80's, you'll notice that there are many near-identical shots and sequences:

But because this is the 21st century, there's also 100% more backing it up.

Though the world has known this for over a year, I somehow totally missed that the guy directing this remake is Craig Brewer, who also made Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, two movies about poor people living in Memphis, driven by their situations to extreme, desperate behavior, such as working as a prostitute, laying down a crunk track with DJ Qualls, or chaining Christina Ricci to your radiator. They're flawed movies, but they have incredibly compelling characters, excellent soundtracks, and dark story lines that stay with you even though they're wildly unrealistic.

So, Footloose? It turns out that Craig Brewer is an intensely devoted fan of the original, and used to listen to an audio recording he made of the entire movie on his way to and from school. "I know every moment of Footloose," he said in an interview from back when he started working on the remake.

He also wrote the screenplay, scrapping an early, probably far sunnier version, and putting his own spin on the story. He calls it an example of "working-class cinema", so I'm guessing it's grittier and a lot weirder than it started out.

One other good sign: remember Willard, the rhythmically-challenged kid who befriends Kevin Bacon and adorably succeeds in learning some smooth moves in the "Let's Hear It For the Boy" sequence, which was one of Chris Penn's better roles? Willard is going to be played by Miles Teller, who was totally great as the teenage boy in last year's very heavy Rabbit Hole. Looks like the original sequence is faithfully recreated (see above) except that the guys' outfits are, sadly, nowhere NEAR as tight as they were in the original.

Basically, if you're interested in watching Footloose, but with more bare midriffs and less Kenny Loggins, this is your movie.

June 16, 2011

Laundry horror

Woolite ad by Rob Zombie

The Times has a funny story about a recent ad campaigns that use elements of horror and action movies to sell laundry detergent--a nice departure from the usual earnest white-bread Mom vexed by dingy whites.

The best one is a new TV ad for Woolite, featuring a Leatherface-like maniac hauling a load of laundry through a barren, muddy field to the yard outside a ramshackle old house. Surrounded by classic horror movie props (abandoned dressmaking mannequin, scarecrow) he proceeds to "torture" some preppy women's garments, including an argyle sweater and a pink t-shirt (featured in my favorite shot, above.) He stretches, fades, and shrinks the clothes with rusted hooks and a scary looking medieval rack.

Here's the video:

The reason it's so simultaneously classic and campy is that it's directed by prolific musician, horror director, and vegetarian Rob Zombie. The best quote in the article is from Zombie about his relatively tame ad: "It's not like it's scary." The central character is "like Uncle Fester, not like some child killer out in the woods."

The other, less good ad campaign, for Era, is basically a rip-off of the sometimes funny Chuck Norris Facts that were making the rounds a few years ago. The print ads and Facebook posts just adapt the online Facts and claim Era is Chuck Norris Approved. (Yawn.) Hope he got a fat paycheck out of it.

June 13, 2011

Neil Patrick Harris can do anything

Neil Patrick Harris hosting the 2011 Tonys

I only caught the last 45 minutes or so of the Tonys last night, but did you see this rap that host Neil Patrick Harris did during the closing credits that recapped the entire show? It's good.

Doing the recap was NPH's idea, but it was written by two of the creators of "In the Heights", who wrote it really fast in the basement of the theater while the show was happening, throwing in references to the big winners and the funny, spontaneous stuff that had been happening throughout night. Then NPH learned it, while also keeping the show moving, then performed it like he'd been doing this kind of thing his whole life.

Can we get NPH to host every awards show from now on? He made the Tonys more fun than any Oscars I can remember.

June 9, 2011

The Trip is funny

The Trip

A new movie from prolific filmmaker Michael Winterbottom is coming out tomorrow: The Trip, which was originally produced for BBC TV last year. It's a largely improvised, loosely structured comedy about Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing unflattering alternate versions of themselves, on a fluff-piece assignment for a newspaper to drive around northern England and eat at fancy restaurants.

All 6 episodes of the BBC version used to be on YouTube (some seem to have been taken down) and it's hilarious, though the following description isn't going to make it sound like it is: The two guys ride around, eat dinner, bust each others' chops in a way that usually sounds like friendly competition between actors, but sometimes crosses into open hostility and jealousy, and do lots and lots of impressions that are, surprisingly, funny. It's better than it sounds.

Here's a clip of some impressions, all taken from a single episode:

If you've seen Tristram Shandy, also by Michael Winterbottom and starring the same two guys, you've seen how good they are at funny endless improvised bullshitting: both are unattractively desperate to build themselves up and brag about their careers, and would occasionally seem like they genuinely loathe each other if they didn't work together so often and play off each other so wonderfully.

I'm doing a terrible job at making this movie seem like it's worth watching, but I'm psyched for it. For what it's worth, Time Out gave it 5 stars. Cutting 6 episodes of the TV show down to 107 minutes is going to make it tighter and better, while hopefully still leaving in things like the great circuitous riffs on medieval period piece speeches:

and singing Kate Bush in the car:

May 31, 2011

The Tree of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is only open in New York and LA, so it'll be a few more weeks before most people can spend 3 hours of their lives watching a non-linear, highly conceptual art film with hardly any dialogue about the dawn of the universe, the questionable existence of God, and a family in 1950's Waco, TX. The guys at Filmspotting wrote on Twitter, "Can I just call it the greatest movie ever and not see it, thus not spoiling the illusion?" It's a daunting movie with dangerously high expectations, but I loved it. Here are a few notable things, before I forget.

This is Malick's 5th movie, and if you've seen any of his other stuff, you know the story. Lingering shots of natural settings, gorgeous cinematography, whispered voice-overs that seem like audible subconsciousness. Light on plot and structure, heavy on mood and emotion.

But this one made me realize how much he relies on his actors to convey what's happening in a scene and with the story, often without letting them say anything. Most scenes don't have much action, but we learn something about each character through everything they do on screen.

This is especially true of Brad Pitt, who plays the father of the family at the center of the movie. I'm not a Brad Pitt fan, but he's great in this. It's not a likable character or a flashy role, and he has to embody internal conflicts and strange, seemingly contradictory aspects of his personality. A lot of the time I forgot I was watching a big star. Jessica Chastain is good as the loving, nurturing mother, but one of the movie's few flaws is that her character doesn't have much depth. She's all loving, all nurturing, all the time. She's the emotional core, and maybe her consistency as a source of goodness gives some answer to the question at the center of the movie.

Which is something like: Where is God, or are we alone in a meaningless universe? It's basically the same question the Coen Brothers ask in A Serious Man, but Terrence Malick asks it with wise-eyed children and dinosaurs instead of Jefferson Airplane and rabbis.

Malick really goes all out with the unconventional storytelling. We jump between 1950's Texas and a contemporary city (Houston?) where a morose Sean Penn, the oldest child in the family, wanders around his office building and appears to be completely untethered from his current reality. There's a long, unstructured visualization of the dawn of the universe, with spectacular, cosmic images of the natural world that are so overwhelmingly beautiful that they're sometimes hard to take.

A few months ago, I posted something about the movies that make you cry. This one's not only on my list, but I think it sets some personal record in terms of volume. I was a pathetic weeping mess. Which brings me to my main question about this movie: Is it just an expertly crafted tool of emotional manipulation? All those scenes of kids running around in fields glowing in the magic hour sun, playing kick the can and climbing trees: Malick really nails our collective American nostalgia for lost childhood. I experience something like cinematic patriotism watching it. It's uplifting and devastating at the same time.

Most of the heartstrings-pulling impact of the movie is sincere, but one or two moments toward the end, set in some mysterious communal time and place of reunification, veer toward emotional button-pushing. In general, it's admirably restrained and precisely controlled, so I can let some of the mushy stuff go.

One other thing: I don't know how Malick found the three young actors that play the boys, but he got some amazingly great performances out of them, and they carry some of the movie's best scenes. It's their first movie for all three.

May 25, 2011

Woody's leading men

Woody Allen and Owen Wilson on the set of Midnight in Paris

Over the years, we've seen lots of actors play the classic Woody role in Woody Allen's annual, whether you like it or not, movie release. This character is a man (usually) with neurotic tics and an overpowering fear of death who wears a lot of tweed jackets, loves high culture but loathes pretentiousness, and inadvertently falls in love with a beguiling woman who he (usually) can't have.

My favorite actor to play this role is still Woody himself, who plays it with a lightness and self-deprecation that makes the hapless character sort of charmingly, exasperatingly likeable, in spite of everything.

I wasn't expecting to think much of Owen Wilson, who stands in for Woody in his new movie Midnight in Paris, but as it turns out, Owen Wilson is absolutely perfect. He's sweetly bewildered at the English-major fantasy that forms the central plot. He's romantic, funny, and passionate, yet holds onto his standard chilled-out goofball aura that makes it seem like he ripped a gigantic bong hit right before the cameras turned on.

Somehow, it works. Owen Wilson's performance reminds me of the last time the Woody surrogate was cast so perfectly: in Melinda and Melinda, where Will Ferrell plays the Woody role. Both actors play it for laughs, but without any winking at the camera or an embarrassing attempt at a full-on Woody Allen impersonation.

Some less successful actors in the role are the people that you'd consider respected dramatic actors, like Anthony Hopkins and Josh Brolin in last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, and whatever Woody was trying to do with Scarlett Johansson in Scoop. Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is probably the only time he's given the Woody role to a woman and made it work.

Maybe he should stick with casting actors known for broad physical comedy to play the Woody role. Those actors can tone down their usual style and make the character funny in a light, believable way, and don't fall into the the neurotic impersonation trap that serious dramatic actors often do when they take on this style of comedy. Woody himself will appear in his next movie, which also stars Jesse Eisenberg, who could be either the greatest Woody role actor in history, or a stammering caricature in hyper-Jewish overdrive.

It also stars Alec Baldwin. Because someone's got to get all the best lines.

I loved Midnight in Paris, and it's good to be able to say that about a Woody Allen movie again. It's smart and literate, but not snotty. It makes jokes about the storyline of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. And it features the awesome Alison Pill, who I want to see in a whole lot more movies. Glad to have you back, Woody.

May 23, 2011

Casting the Carrie remake

Sissy Spacek as Carrie

We heard last week that Stephen King's classic adolescent horror revenge-fantasy Carrie is going to be adapted into another movie, and is supposed to be more faithful to the book than the 1976 Brian De Palma movie that made a star of Sissy Spacek and filled millions of pre-teen girls with abject terror about getting their periods.

Carrie is one of the few Stephen King books that I somehow didn't get around to reading during those heady days of 1989-90 when I went King-crazy and read everything the library had, even The Tommyknockers, which now that I think about it, had to be some kind of joke, right? Anyway, I don't know exactly what elements from the De Palma movie won't make it into the remake, but I'm guessing most of the big ones will still be there: Carrie's social reject status at school, her religiously oppressive and terrifying mom, the pig's blood at the prom, and the explosive and fiery demise that her telekinetic powers wreak on all those bastards. Probably, as The AV Club predicts, in 3D.

But the obvious question is: who's gonna play Carrie? Sissy Spacek was so great--even though she was 26 when the movie came out, she's still believable as a shy outcast who doesn't understand what's happening to her body, why the other kids are so mean to her, or the secret powers she has.

Stephen King has suggested one name only: Lindsay Lohan. Maybe he was kidding. Considering that at age 26, Lindsay Lohan already looks older than Sissy Spacek does today, I don't think she can pull off a role as a high school student anymore. Or a college student role, unless it's in a kooky comedy about a broken-down old hag attending college as a non-traditional student, sort of like Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.

A few other ideas:

Carey Mulligan. She's 26, but was great at playing a naive kid in over her head in An Education, and I'd love to see her branch out into horror. Or, oh oh, yes: Dakota Fanning! She's already done more interesting, dark roles than most middle-aged actresses (child rape in Hounddog, drugs, addiction, nervous breakdown, and hooking up with Joan Jett in The Runaways) and can apparently do anything. She doesn't exactly look like most high school social rejects, but Hollywood loves to make beautiful women ugly for the tough roles. She's the baby-faced psycho I'd love to see.

Or maybe Emma Watson can break out of the Hermione cage by laying utter waste to prom.

And what about Carrie's mom? Piper Laurie in the original is probably the scariest crazy-eyed movie mom I've ever seen. For the remake, I can see Amy Ryan pulling some seriously twisted psycho-fundamentalist shit on her daughter. Or maybe Olivia Williams, who always seemed so gentle until we saw her all pissed off and bitter and possibly murderous in The Ghost Writer last year.

There's no director yet, but maybe Catherine Hardwicke can redeem herself and do something good again. I hear Red Riding Hood was a bust.

May 12, 2011

If You Leave Me Now

Peter Cetera sings Chicago's

Chicago's 1976 #1 hit, "If You Leave Me Now", holds a distinct honor as my own personal Worst Song Ever (a prestige it currently shares with "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton.) The treacly strings, the horn section stripped of all soulfulness, and worst of all, that melismatic falsetto moaning of Peter Cetera, the band's lead singer.

The thing is, this song starts out OK, with a little bit of '70's soft rock sincerity: "If you leave me now, you'll take away the biggest part of me". But then the second line comes in, "Ooo Hooo HOOO-OOO, NO-OOO, baby, ple-EEEASE don't GO-OOO!" It's a teeth-gnashingly visceral aural horror. Here's the band performing the song live on TV, with spectacularly silly '70's video embellishment (see photo above).

So this morning, I heard a good interview with Will Ferrell on NPR about his new movie, Everything Must Go, where he plays a drunk sad sack whose wife kicks him out of the house, leading him to set up his living area in the front yard.

Ferrell says that to tap into his own dark feelings of abandonment, he remembered when his parents got divorced when he was 8, and his mom would leave him alone in the car while she shopped for groceries while he listened to the radio. He specifically mentions Chicago as the band that made him feel the saddest, then he actually starts singing "If You Leave Me Now", right there on NPR, because of all the memories he has of his parents getting divorced and feeling sad and alone, that song is the single best expression of human misery. [Here's the audio clip, singing is at 4:40.]

I bet Will Ferrell doesn't actually like "If You Leave Me Now" any more than I do, but he seems to have accepted its special, odious role in his life with more maturity and grace than I'll ever have.

He also brought the song up in a People interview for Talladega Nights in 2006, when he says it's the song he would choose if he were an "American Idol" finalist, and then he and John C. Reilly start singing it together. This guy's been living with the pain of "If You Leave Me Now" for a long time.

My favorite use of the song is in Three Kings, when metal fan soldier Spike Jonze grudgingly plays it on his car stereo on his way to a raid in Iraq, after an earlier scene where Ice Cube suggests that the best pump-up music to listen to when going into a combat situation isn't Judas Priest, but "easy listening classics." The horrors of war.

Here's the video:

May 7, 2011

Watching The Beaver

Mel Gibson in The Beaver

Watching Jodie Foster's new movie would be an emotionally easier thing to do if Mel Gibson wasn't so amazingly good in it. When I first heard about this movie and watched the trailer, I thought it had to be a joke. The Beaver (?), starring Mel Gibson (?!) as a depressed family man who finds a way back into his life by expressing himself through a puppet (!?!), directed by Jodie Foster (huh???) How did any part of this absurd movie happen?

It's impossible to watch this movie without remembering all the terrible behavior, hateful tirades, and accusations of violence that have led to a tailspin of bad publicity for Mel Gibson. Whatever ongoing psychological crisis he's going through in real life seems an awful lot like what we see on the screen: a very troubled man who doesn't know how to deal with his problems through any socially acceptable methods, so he turns to an alter-ego in the form of a beaver puppet that talks like Ray Winstone. Or, in the real life version, the drinking, abusive spouting, raging bigotry, and "sugar tits". The world thinks both men are insane, but at the same time, we can see that the alternative to this bad behavior is utter self-destruction.

Why Jodie Foster decided to produce this wacky screenplay is anyone's guess, but it's obvious why she chose Mel Gibson to play the lead: because he's phenomenally good, he has real personal understanding of the pain this character lives in, and he's her friend. Foster's promotion of the movie puts her in a tough position of having to defend Mel, the actor, while distancing herself from Mel, the out-of-control asshole. She calls him a good friend while not excusing his behavior. Here's a clip from her interview on Letterman, where she deftly supports him as her star and her friend, while not offering any explanation for all the bad stuff.

The best article I've read about Hollywood's ongoing support for Mel Gibson, in spite of everything, is the Vanity Fair piece from a couple of months ago, "The Rude Warrior". There have been calls for Mel boycotts from powerful studio people, he lost a cameo in The Hangover Part II, and every new piece of news has been bad. Even so, he seems to be one of the most loved people in Hollywood. Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jodie Foster have all defended him in public, and many more producers, directors, and actors have only very positive things to say in the VF article.

Obviously, the guy's got problems. He's an alcoholic (he was going to AA meeting as early as 1989) and seems to turn into another person when he drinks. The scenes in The Beaver of drunken self-destruction are great in a scary, psychotic way. If anything, knowing that Gibson has his own real scary dark side only makes them better. The movie gets darker and stranger as it goes on, taking some gutsy, ugly turns that are definitely not what you'd expect if you've seen the goofy trailer that, strangely, makes the movie look like an oddball sentimental comedy.

There are some missteps, like an uninspired subplot about the older son and his shaky romance with Jennifer Lawrence, and Foster's character is curiously hollow, but what makes the movie compelling is Mel Gibson, who's stopped insulting women and Jews just long enough to turn in a brilliant and subtle performance of probably the weirdest movie role I'll see all year.

April 15, 2011

The end of soaps

Tootsie, Southwest General

ABC's recent decision to cancel two of its long-running daytime soaps, "All My Children" and "One Life to Live", is another nail in the soap opera coffin. Besides putting hundreds of people out of work in both LA and New York, it means fewer opportunities for young actors and writers to get their first decent-paying jobs. Say what you want about the quality and relevance of soap operas, but here are a few actors who got their start on the soaps:

(Those last four are Oscar winners.)

On the Soap Central website, there will only be four daytime soap operas left after the two ABC cancellations: "Days of Our Lives", "General Hospital", "The Young and the Restless", and "The Bold and the Beautiful", and since that last one didn't start until 1987 and only runs for 30 minutes, it barely counts.

But here's the real question: what does this mean for Tootsie? Tootsie is one of my very favorite movies, and while it will probably stand up just fine in a post-soap world, I wonder if younger generations will get all the jokes if they've never spent long afternoons watching "Guiding Light" while their grandmother smokes cigarettes and has her pre-dinner Schmidt's. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman lands a role in a fictitious soap, "Southwest General", after transforming himself into Dorothy Michaels.

Jessica Lange introducing herself as the "hospital slut". Patients going in and out of comas with every commercial break. Nurses having simultaneous affairs with doctors and patients. Leading men, pushing 70, who have weekly affairs with 22 year-olds. The live episode. The big "I'm Edward Kimberly!" reveal, which is a reference to a similar storyline from "General Hospital" in 1980, when Sally Armitage, played by a male cross-dressing actor, was revealed to be Max Hedges. Here's the entire fantastic Edward Kimberly speech.

That is one nutty hospital.

April 12, 2011

Melancholia trailer

Melancholia shot

Have you seen this trailer for Lars von Trier's new movie, Melancholia? That has Kiefer Sutherland in it?

It's a beautiful trailer, dark and foreboding as his stuff tends to be, but it has a lush, quiet beauty that's a departure from the howling desperation and genital crushing of Antichrist, his last movie.

As a testament to Von Trier's newfound ability to work harmoniously enough with an actress that she would agree to be in another one of his movies, Antichrist star Charlotte Gainsbourg also stars in this one, along with sad bride Kirsten Dunst, both Stellan Skarsgard and his foxy son Alexander, and the always phenomenal Charlotte Rampling. Von Trier has said it's his first movie to have an unhappy ending, because he's apparently forgotten what happens in all his other movies. This one seems to be about a troubled family at a wedding, moodily anxious about a planet (named Melancholia) that's about to hit earth and kill everyone.

But, of course, that won't happen. Because come on, we've all seen "24". We know Kiefer's going to go rogue, break into a local air force base, sacrifice his girlfriend as part of an emotionally agonizing but ultimately pragmatic negotiation to secure a military plane, fly into the stratosphere, and shoot nuclear warheads into the planet to blow it up before it hits the earth. Obviously.

April 11, 2011

Blank City

Blank City

There's a great new documentary playing at the IFC Center, Blank City, about the hyper-indie DIY filmmakers and musicians working in the East Village in the late '70's and early '80's. It's the "No Wave" movement: a bunch of people with no money, no training, barely any equipment, cheap rent, cheap drugs, and a lot of friends in bands with a lot of time on their hands. Here's the movie's website.

Out of this movement, we got Jim Jarmusch, Sonic Youth, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lydia Lunch, Charlie Ahearn (who did Wild Style about Fab 5 Freddy and the early hip-hop scene,) Susan Seidelman (who went on to do Desperately Seeking Susan,) and loads of other renegade filmmakers. My favorite title is They Eat Scum, by the depraved Nick Zedd.

It's really inspiring and fun to watch this breathless moment when so many artists were creating such wild and new stuff, and made me wish I could drop in on that time and place. Kind of like how I wanted to be in early-'70's LA after reading the debaucherous Wikipedia page for Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco. A.O. Scott wrote an especially great review about the movie and the scene: "Technique, polish, professionalism -- all of these were suspect. What emerged in their absence, under various names, were films that were at once rough and sophisticated, cynical and passionate, jaded and hysterical. Kind of like New York itself."

A good companion piece to this movie is a collection of photos by Brooke Smith, better known as Catherine Martin from The Silence of the Lambs, documenting the hardcore scene in New York in the early '80's. It's wistfully cute seeing all those baby-faced kids in their torn Agnostic Front t-shirts. (tx, ADM!)

A few related documentaries: last year there was one about Basquiat, The Radiant Child, and a few years ago, one about composer and musician Arthur Russell, Wild Combination.

Blank City opens in other cities in May and June.

March 25, 2011

My Dinner With "Community"

My Dinner With Andre

Have you been watching "Community"? The show about a bunch of oddball friends going to a community college, that has Joel McHale and Trudy from "Mad Men" and Chevy Chase in it?

This is now the funniest show that nobody seems to be watching. It's the only show I watch that regularly makes me think, "I can't believe someone's doing this on TV."

Last night's episode, "Critical Film Studies" [video], is a perfect example. It's set up like an extended reference to Tarantino movies, mostly Pulp Fiction and a little bit of Reservoir Dogs, and then suddenly about 2/3 of the way through, it turns out that the whole episode is a long-form My Dinner With André joke.

WHAT? Yes! The 1981 movie where Wallace Shawn and theater director André Gregory have dinner and talk about life and their various experiences in the world. It set the bar for later movies about people talking where nothing actually happens: there might not be Richard Linklater or some of the weirder Gus Van Sant movies without this movie.

But it's hardly the kind of thing you tend to see on a network sitcom at 8:00. Maybe this is why fewer than 5 million people watch it and NY Mag named it the best show last year. It's the weirdest thing on network TV.

March 23, 2011

Liz and Dick

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in 1970

Hollywood and celebrity obsession today don't have much in common with the era of Elizabeth Taylor, but her death still feels like the end of some lost, revered image of glamour and excess (see tan, makeup, cleavage, and jewelry, above.) She was such a gigantic star for so long, she was so beautiful, and she so far outlived her stardom and beauty. In a lot of ways, we've been losing her for the last 30 years. Here's the NY Times obituary.

Last summer, Vanity Fair published an excerpt of a book by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (my one-time professors) called Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century. It's a great read. I knew the world was obsessed with Liz and Dick, as the papers called them, and their tumultuous, scandalous, tabloid-ready relationship, but I didn't know that this obsession formed the blueprint for every other media-saturating celebrity affair, marriage, and breakup that has become a self-perpetuating industry.

Liz Smith, gossip columnist at the Post until 2009, was writing about celebrities through the entire Burton-Taylor era, and has some wonderful stuff to say about why the world's appetite for Elizabeth Taylor and the couple was so insatiable:

"On the face of it, Elizabeth Taylor was just totally arrogant. She'd walk out in Capri pants and her Cleopatra makeup and her kerchief and go off to whatever local restaurant and drink up a storm with Burton. That's part of what excited the public: her vulgarity and her arrogance and the money. Oh God, their love story had everything."

The details of their consumption are spectacularly lavish. Despite owning six homes, they mostly stayed in hotels, and sometimes ordered room service to be flown in from other countries. Liz Smith points out that only one celebrity couple has ever been condemned by the Vatican (for "erotic vagrancy".) At the height of their married fame, nearly half of the US film industry's income came from movies starring one or both of them.

One fact I learned about Elizabeth Taylor today: she converted to Judaism when she was 27, and used to fight with Richard Burton about who was more Jewish. And here's a really cute photo of her:

Elizabeth Taylor, white bikini top

March 21, 2011

Who's Older?™: Meteoric rises

Russell Brand has had a big couple of years. Hardly anyone in the US knew who he was before Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and now he's starring in movies and saturating late night talk shows (like this Conan clip from a few months ago, which is hilariously manic and infectious.) He's the only reason I want to see Arthur when it comes out in a couple of weeks, and that one also stars Helen Mirren.

Here's who's having a big year now: Michael Fassbender. The first time I saw him was in Inglourious Basterds, then last year's ickily disturbing but good Fish Tank, and this year he's starring in pretty much every exciting director's new movie: Haywire by Steven Soderbergh, A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg, the new X-Men movie (by the guy who did Kick-Ass), Shame by new-ish British director Steve McQueen, and the directorial debut by Brendan Gleeson. Coming up later he's got Guy Ritchie's Excalibur (!) and Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

It's like every director out there watched Inglourious Basterds and said "that craggy-faced 1940's guy's got something." Entertainment Weekly did a piece about him titled "Meet Your Next Obsession" because of how hugely famous he's going to get this year. Right now, he's playing Rochester in Jane Eyre, and he's really great: blustery, tortured, but still funny. And manly. As IFC News' Matt Singer points out, "Fassbender, with chiseled features and simple, unfussy handsomeness, represents our modern ideal of what masculinity used to be, before it was screwed up by dorks like me."

He definitely looks like a man. The question is: how old a man?

It's time to play Who's Older?™!

Michael Fassbender and Russell Brand

To play, pick which one you think is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Michael Fassbender or Russell Brand?

March 17, 2011

Arcadia back on Broadway

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, Raul Esparza and Lia Williams

I went to see Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia last night, on the final night of previews before the critics review it tonight. I'd seen it once before during its first run in London in 1994, back when I was a hardcore theater nerd, and at that time it was the best, most perfect play I'd ever seen. It was complicated and cool, funny and touching, an unabashed adoration of poetry that also made math and quantum physics into something accessible and neat.

The revival production is pretty good, and there are some wonderful moments and a few stand-out performances, but it didn't have the same magical spark that it had for me back in 1994. A theme that unites the two parts of the play, one set in 1809 and one in the present day, is the second law of thermodynamics, the idea that the flow of heat and energy only moves in one direction. When you throw a ball through a window, even if you gather up all the glass and put the pieces back together, you can never regain the energy that was released when the glass shattered into pieces. It's gone.

In the physical world, this is the same thing as entropy: once the milk is in the coffee, you can't stir it back out again. Once you've had your mind blown by one production of Arcadia, you can't unblow your mind and walk into a theater in 2011 expecting the same thing to happen again.

Still, there's some great stuff in this play. Both literature and physics are held up as the things that make life meaningful, and dismissed as esoteric nonsense. Billy Crudup, an arrogant and unbalanced Byron scholar, says: "I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars, big bang, black hole -- who gives a shit?" [you can listen to it on today's NPR story] There's a beautiful explanation of chaos theory by Raul Esparza (in the photo above), a stage actor I'd never seen before but who is totally phenomenal and great.

All this theatrical science reminds me a class my college offered that was popular among terrified English majors: Physics For Poets, a course that's been part of Patton Oswalt's routine. Hope Arcadia's on the syllabus.

Mostly, this play made me really want Tom Stoppard to write another one, already. He does a lot of rewrites and punch-ups of big Hollywood movie scripts, usually uncredited. I dug around a little, and Tom Stoppard contributed to the following movies, not necessarily what you'd expect from such an eggheady playwright:

Sleepy Hollow: he added Ichabod Crane's squeamishness, which is a lot of what made it funny.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Steven Spielberg brought him in at the last minute to rewrite the script (Stoppard also wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.) Spielberg says "Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue."

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: George Lucas brought him in to redo dialogue (maybe not the greatest testament to Stoppard's chops.)

The Bourne Ultimatum: He did a draft of the script, but acknowledges that there's not a lot of his dialogue in the final version. Not much of anybody's dialogue, really.

UPDATE: Emily pointed out to me that Fermat's Last Theorem, which is a topic of heated discussion in Arcadia, also appears in The Girl Who Played With Fire. Higher math is very hot right now! I've seen a few mathematically-oriented discussions of the GWPWF treatment of it, which suggest that Stieg Larsson maybe didn't have the greatest understanding of math and what proving theorems is all about (in reality it's not at all like solving a puzzle, apparently.)

While Stoppard was writing Arcadia, a lot was going on in the real world regarding Fermat's Last Theorem: it was actually solved in 1994, while the play was still running. The 13 year-old probable genius, Thomasina, posits that the Theorem was a joke created by Fermat to drive future mathematicians nuts. That reference probably went over better when we all thought it was still unsolvable.

Here's a full list of references to the Theorem in literature.

March 14, 2011

Bobcat Goldthwait's next insane movie

Bobcat Goldthwait

I don't know how much you've heard about Bobcat Goldthwait and his career as a movie director. A year or two ago, I saw his latest movie, World's Greatest Dad, after hearing that it was some kind of super-dark hyper-cynical comedy that was sort of like if Heathers didn't pull any punches.

It was unlike anything I'd ever seen, certainly unlike any other Robin Williams comedy, and was simultaneously really funny and really sick. Roger Ebert thought it actually wasn't dark enough (it does sort of sell out at the end.) It made all of $200,000 at the box office.

His previous movie is called Sleeping Dogs Lie, a sweet romantic comedy about what happens when Anna Draper from "Mad Men" reveals an embarrassing early sexual encounter to her fiance, and he freaks out. Because it involves, of course, a dog. That one made $600,000, almost entirely in foreign markets.

Clearly this guy is doing something much more interesting than you'd expect if you only know him from standup and the Police Academy movies. First, he directed some "Chappelle's Show" episodes. Then he directed a bunch of Jimmy Kimmel's show. Then he made disturbing comedies about bestiality, masturbation, and suicide. It seems like he's waging total assault on all arbitrary standards of morality and mannered phoniness, and most pop culture, too.

The other day, Goldthwait was on Adam Carolla's podcast show talking about his next movie, encouragingly titled God Bless America. This one is about a middle-aged guy who happens to see a show like "My Super Sweet 16" featuring a standard-issue spoiled ditz, goes into a rage, and "drives 400 miles and kills that girl." Then the guy and a classmate of the dead girl steal a car and "drive around and kill people."

Obviously this one's going to be worth seeing.

It'll be produced by Richard Kelly, another admirably mental filmmaker, whose last movie, The Box, may not have made much/any money, but it sure was a radically weird intergalactic freak-out! Kelly's next movie is going to be called Corpus Christi, about a mentally unstable Iraq vet. I think it's safe to say he'll take that premise to its most bizarre conclusion.

These two guys are like an imaginary collaboration of Werner Herzog and John Waters, if they both continued making really great movies despite not making any money.

March 3, 2011

Who's Older?™: Scarlett's Older Men

Today we've been hearing more reports about Scarlett Johansson and Sean Penn spending time together beyond mere awards show afterparty canoodling: they were seen in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico this week while Scarlett was on a day off from shooting Cameron Crowe's new movie We Bought a Zoo (which hopefully will be better than her last three movies.) Guess Sean's taking time off from running tent cities in Haiti.

Her choice of an older fella, especially so soon after splitting from her husband Ryan Reynolds, brought to mind another example of her taste in gentlemen of a certain age: Benecio Del Toro, who allegedly made out (and more?) with a then-teenaged Scarlett in an elevator, semi-confirmed via sort of gross insinuation from both of them. That happened right after the Oscars, too!

Time for another round of Who's Older?™!

Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro

Both are great actors. Both are equal parts sexy and sleazy. Both dig Scarlett. But which one's older?

To play, pick which one you think is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Sean Penn or Benicio Del Toro?

As a funny little aside, there's a scene in Sofia Coppola's movie Somewhere when Stephen Dorff runs into Benicio in the elevator at the Chateau Marmont, which is where the "making out or having sex or something" with Scarlett occurred. Good one, Sofia.

March 2, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau

I caught a screening of The Adjustment Bureau, which is not one of the greatest movies of 2011, but still a fun time. This is the one with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as love-struck New Yorkers on the run from a group of stern-looking men in really nice suits who want to keep the two of them apart in order to maintain some mysterious plan.

The most interesting thing about the movie to me is all the other movies it reminds me of. It's got the shadowy figures freezing time and manipulating people without their knowledge, like in Dark City, the pseudo-spiritual sci-fi paranoia of The Matrix, and the sentimental neurologically-fated romance of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's warmer than Inception, but not as smart.

Being original isn't everything, and even with all its similarities to other movies, this one still has its own style. I especially like the old-timey technology that the members of the Bureau use in their work: notebooks (the kind with paper in them), fedoras, doors. A lot depends on which way you turn a doorknob in the world of the Bureau. I also like the name change from the original Philip K. Dick story that the movie is based on: changing "Adjustment Team" to "Adjustment Bureau" adds a sensibility of 1950's institutions and oak-paneled rooms in ancient office buildings, which is where a lot of the action takes place.

It's the first movie from screenwriter George Nolfi, who wrote Ocean's 12 and The Bourne Ultimatum. This guy is comfortable working with stories by other people. The writing here is not wonderful, with some real clunkers that ruin a few scenes, but his direction is nice and brisk. And he got a great cast: Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are so easy with each other and funny, a huge step up from your typical romantic leads. John Slattery is good as a long-suffering, sort of inept middle manager, and from the moment Terence Stamp steps on the screen with his Darren Aronofsky scarf, he owns the movie. I love Anthony Mackie, but his character has a little bit of the stereotypical sage black man who exists only to dispense homespun wisdom to the white hero.

One other weird thing: the members of the Bureau are all walking around using old-fashioned notebooks and doorknobs to bend time and space, but then there are these other guys who work for them who use some kind of brainwave-disrupting laser wands and Tyvek suits.

The Adjustment Bureau's mind control

I wish they'd stuck with the mid-20th century aesthetic and used Theremins and leather aprons to do the dirty work of mind control.

February 28, 2011

Oscars: bad jokes, zero surprises

Oscar winners on stage

It was a slow night at the Oscars. One joke after another fell flat, and the funniest and most exciting moments were when former Oscars host Billy Crystal showed up and introduced a montage of Bob Hope from his many successful years of hosting. He got a standing ovation from a crowd desperately grateful for a minute or two of well-delivered jokes. Please, Billy, just step in and take over!, everybody wished.

There also wasn't a single upset in the major awards. That was good for me--I got 17 out of 24 predictions--but it made for one snooze of a night. Maybe if I'd had some skin in the game it would have been exhilarating instead of utterly predictable. Note to self: gamble more.

Here's the interesting stuff I learned last night, all of which was reported during E!'s red carpet broadcast, which is the first year that the red carpet might actually have been more exciting than the show:

First, Mila Kunis reported that she was on a 1,200 calorie/day diet in preparation for Black Swan. That means two meals per day (based on a typical 1,800 calorie/day diet for women) plus she was doing tons of rigorous training for the ballet scenes.

Then in one of the news ticker headlines that ran along the bottom of the screen, I read that Hugh Jackman is on a 6,000 calorie/day diet in preparation for The Wolverine, which is going to be Darren Aronofsky's next movie. That's like taking everything Mila Kunis ate in a single day, and eating all of it FIVE TIMES, EVERY DAY. Jackman's wife told Ryan Seacrest that every day he basically eats an entire cow. (Or an entire Mila Kunis.)

So if you get cast in a Darren Aronofsky movie, you should know that you're going to find out what it's like to have an eating disorder.

Another bit of news: There's going to be a movie version of the 80's hair metal Broadway musical "Rock of Ages", starring Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, lead singer of fictitious band Arsenal. Adam Shankman, who was last year's Oscars director, is directing the adaptation, and confirms that, in spite what you might think based on the "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" scene from Top Gun, Cruise can sing.

Sure, OK, he can sing, but Tom Cruise is 49 years old. It makes sense to cast Tom Cruise in this role--if it was being made in 1985. As it is, we're going to watch him sing "I Want To Know What Love Is" and "Renegade" in a C.C. DeVille wig, and it's going to be compelling in a delusional, psycho-nostalgic way, and very creepy.

February 22, 2011

I have no idea who's getting an Oscar

The royal family in The King's Speech

Ballots are due today! I'm more perplexed than usual this year about who's going to win. Lots of categories are complete mysteries, even when I apply my standard Oscars prediction algorithm: Hollywood Loves to Feel Good About Hollywood. I've seen just about every movie that got major nominations this year (with the exception of Toy Story 3) but that hasn't helped at all.

The fact is, a mysterious consensus sometimes just magically coalesces around nominees for no apparent reason; as Roger Ebert describes it, "such matters are decided by currents wafting in the air." Sometimes everybody notices those forces at work, like with Colin Firth this year, but sometimes I completely miss them, like when Slumdog Millionaire won like every single damn Oscar that one year.

So here we go. These are our predictions for what will win, not necessarily what we want to win. Here are all the nominees, and the NY Times' online ballot. You can put your own picks in the comments.

Best Picture
"Black Swan"
"The Fighter"
"The Kids Are All Right"
"The King's Speech" (Amy) Hollywood people feel better about rewarding inspiring and sentimental movies like this rather than one about back-stabbing greedy nerds.
"127 Hours"
"The Social Network"
"Toy Story 3"
"True Grit"
"Winter's Bone"

Best Actor
Javier Bardem in "Biutiful"
Jeff Bridges in "True Grit"
Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network"
Colin Firth in "The King's Speech" (Amy) He's really great, as he is in everything. I'd love Jesse Eisenberg to get it, but he's got plenty of time.
James Franco in "127 Hours"

Best Actress
Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right"
Nicole Kidman in "Rabbit Hole"
Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone"
Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" (Amy) Natalie gets the curse. So much for your new happy life! Annette Bening deserves to win after all these years, but histrionics trump subtlety in actress awards.
Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine"

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale in "The Fighter" (Amy) The least interesting nominee in my favorite category of the year. Still, not half bad.
John Hawkes in "Winter's Bone"
Jeremy Renner in "The Town"
Mark Ruffalo in "The Kids Are All Right"
Geoffrey Rush in "The King's Speech"

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams in "The Fighter"
Helena Bonham Carter in "The King's Speech"
Melissa Leo in "The Fighter" (Amy) Not happy about this one, and I usually love Melissa Leo. Hailee Steinfeld's my girl.
Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit"
Jacki Weaver in "Animal Kingdom"

Best Director
"Black Swan" Darren Aronofsky
"The Fighter" David O. Russell
"The King's Speech" Tom Hooper (Amy) Really hard category. No way would I predict this guy, but he won DGA, and Best Picture and Best Director are almost always the same. I'd rather see anyone else win, and not just because I'm a patriot.
"The Social Network" David Fincher
"True Grit" Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Adapted Screenplay
"127 Hours"
"The Social Network" (Amy) Here's another one for you, Aaron Sorkin.
"Toy Story 3"
"True Grit"
"Winter's Bone"

Original Screenplay
"Another Year"
"The Fighter"
"The Kids Are All Right"
"The King's Speech" (Amy) But I hope Mike Leigh wins for Another Year. Or at least that Christopher Nolan doesn't for that awful Inception script.

Animated Feature Film
"How to Train Your Dragon"
"The Illusionist"
"Toy Story 3" (Amy) Anyone else think this award is getting tedious?

Art Direction
"Alice in Wonderland" (Amy) Good art direction is what Tim Burton does these days instead of good movies.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1"
"The King's Speech"
"True Grit"

"Black Swan"
"The King's Speech"
"The Social Network"
"True Grit" (Amy) Go Roger Deakins! It's your year!

Costume Design
"Alice in Wonderland"
"I Am Love"
"The King's Speech" (Amy)
"The Tempest"
"True Grit"

"Exit Through the Gift Shop"
"Inside Job" (Amy) Really wish it was Banksy, but it's very important that we punish Wall Street via an entertainment industry awards ceremony.
"Waste Land"

Documentary (Short Subject)
"Killing in the Name"
"Poster Girl"
"Strangers No More" (Amy) Cute refugee children in Tel Aviv. Awww.
"Sun Come Up"
"The Warriors of Qiugang"

Film Editing
"Black Swan"
"The Fighter"
"The King's Speech"
"127 Hours"
"The Social Network" (Amy) Sure are a lot of cuts in this movie! I hope Black Swan wins, but since "Best" is usually synonymous with "Most", this probably will.

Foreign Language Film
"Biutiful" Mexico
"Dogtooth" Greece
"In a Better World" Denmark
"Incendies" Canada (Amy) I hear it's pretty.
"Outside the Law" Algeria

"Barney's Version"
"The Way Back"
"The Wolfman" (Amy) Definitely the hardest makeup, anyway.

Original Score
"How to Train Your Dragon"
"The King's Speech"
"127 Hours"
"The Social Network" (Amy) Not so confident the Academy will bestow its greatest honor on Trent Reznor, but it's possible.

Original Song
"Coming Home" from "Country Strong"
"I See the Light" from "Tangled"
"If I Rise" from "127 Hours"
"We Belong Together" from "Toy Story 3" (Amy) I assumed Randy Newman had dozens of Oscars, but he's actually only got one.

Animated Short Film
"Day & Night" (Amy) Pixar always wins. I liked The Gruffalo.
"The Gruffalo"
"Let's Pollute"
"The Lost Thing"
"Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary)"

Short Film
"The Confession"
"The Crush" (Amy) I love Alicia Silverstone!
"God of Love"
"Na Wewe"
"Wish 143"

Sound Editing
"Toy Story 3"
"Tron: Legacy"
"True Grit"
"Unstoppable" (Amy) That train and Rosario Dawson both sounded pretty scary in the trailer.

Sound Mixing
"The King's Speech"
"The Social Network" (Amy) Sound Editing and Sound Mixing can have different nominees?
"True Grit"

Visual Effects
"Alice in Wonderland"
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1"
"Inception" (Amy) One thing this movie got 100% right.
"Iron Man 2"

February 16, 2011

Actresses and food

Mila Kunis eats a hotdog

There's an article in today's Times about actresses who gush in interviews about how much they love eating high-calorie, fatty, cellulite-generating foods. It isn't all that original an observation, but I love it anyway. Skinny celebrities--women--whose bodies bear little resemblance to those of basically everyone else on the planet, often make a point that they love to eat bacon. Or spaghetti bolognese with cheese. Fries with ranch sauce. Macaroni and cheese. Or if they're being interviewed by Lynn Hirschberg, truffle fries.

Like the author, I think this is part of a calculated effort to make actresses seem more approachable and easy to relate to, and less like manufactured entertainment products with starved bodies and gigantic heads. As ex-publicist Bumble Ward says, "Don't you feel awfully sorry for actresses? They're so sure that people assume they have an eating disorder that they're forced to wolf down caveman-like portions of 'comfort food' in order to appear normal."

Then the article speculates on male fascination with beautiful women eating greasy food as being a combination of two primal drives. Remember George Costanza shoving a pastrami sandwich into his face and also watching a portable TV while in bed with his girlfriend? Pretty reasonable, I guess.

I think actresses say they love food that makes you fat, which they so obviously do not eat when not doing magazine interviews, in order to allow us non-famous folk (especially women?) to cling to our fantasy that we can eat whatever we want and still look good. If Cameron Diaz can eat ribs and mac and cheese and look the way she does, why can't we? A quick glance at the butts of America tells you why not, but we still want to believe. It's comforting to see that the lithe, willowy Taylor Swift loves hotdogs.

The vegan feminist cultural theorist perspective, provided by Carol Adams in the Times article, is that seeing beautiful women eating crappy food (especially meat) encourages men to consume both women and meat. "These images of women, whether they're ads or they're in magazines, they're all saying the same thing: traditional consumption of women's bodies and animals' bodies is O.K." I see her point, but maybe another idea is that men want to believe that hot girls can eat burgers all the time and still look great. Who wants to think about a sexy girl starving herself and sadly eating a dish of steamed broccoli for dinner?

Remember when Sarah Palin revolted against Michelle Obama's suggestion that we cut back on desserts, defiantly gathering her s'mores ingredients? We want to keep eating our fries and brownies, and we want Keira Knightley to keep eating them, too. But unless bulimia is waaay more prevalent than I realize, I think if actresses really ate the way the rest of us do, they'd look like the rest of us, too.

February 14, 2011

Good Hair

Like everyone else, I grew up watching the Vidal Sassoon ads of the 80's, like the one above, dreaming of swishing around my long, lustrous, shiny hair. Unfortunately, I had curly hair that never did anything like swishing or swinging, and would just explode into a frizzed-out disaster if I brushed it too much. Products like mousse and volumizing shampoo, which were really desirable in the ads, were clearly made for those who weren't embroiled in a never-ending battle against volume.

So when I went to a Vidal Sassoon salon while living in London as a student in 1994, I was ready to see if the famous "If you don't look good, we don't look good" slogan held up. I volunteered to have one of the stylists cut my hair as part of a demonstration for Japanese hairdressing students. They could do whatever they wanted to my hair, and I got a free Vidal Sassoon cut.

That 1994 haircut was transformative. My stylist was a man named Henrich. He had a shaved head and wore a skirt. He cut my hair dry, which was immediately obviously the best way to cut curly hair, yet no one had ever done it before. He gave me a really cool haircut that made my curls look fantastic -- like they were meant to be there, instead of a genetic accident that I had failed to correct. The Japanese hairdressing students all took pictures of my head.

So when a new documentary about Vidal Sassoon, the man, came out this weekend, with the title Vidal Sassoon: How One Man Changed the World With a Pair of Scissors, that subtitle struck me as a perfectly reasonable assessment of his impact on hair, and the world. In the NY Times review, Stephen Holden writes that statements like "It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of Vidal Sassoon" are "all too much". I totally disagree.

Though I didn't realize it in 1994, Vidal Sassoon essentially liberated women from the weekly beauty parlor visits that were the norm in the mid-20th century. By focusing on the cut as the primary means of styling hair, he made the weekly ritual of curling/straightening, setting, processing, and ironing your hair or sleeping in curlers unnecessary. As described in a Time Out interview with Sassoon, his goal was to "create looks that were tailor-made to a person's features, beautiful shapes that were as eye-catching as they were unique--and, most of all, easy to maintain."

Sassoon's own transformation from a poor Jewish boy raised in a London orphanage to the world's most famous hairdresser is pretty compelling, too. He's still alive, and in his 80's. Here's the trailer.

There's one giant asterisk, here: the Vidal Sassoon architectural method mostly applied to white women, or women with non-kinky hair. Almost all the women swinging their glossy hair around in those 80's ads (or hair products ads today) have swishy white-lady hair.

Which brings us to Chris Rock's 2009 documentary, Good Hair, which is without a doubt the most eye-opening documentary I have ever seen. Post-Sassoon, many black women follow the same kind of weekly hair regimen that white women abandoned in the 60's. Chris Rock made this movie out of concern for the future of processing, straightening, and weaving that probably awaits his own daughters. He interviews dozens of black women who have straightened hair, weaves, and a few with natural hair, and the men who love them (and Al Sharpton!) There's lots of interesting stuff about cultural expectations, economics, racism, and the realities of what women go through when natural hair doesn't fit within the social mainstream.

Once Vidal Sassoon is out on video, that movie and Good Hair would make a great double feature.

February 8, 2011

Status update on The Social Network

Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss Twins

I went to see The Social Network for a second time last night. I saw it on opening weekend at the beginning of October, and loved it, but I tend to forget an awful lot of stuff about movies if I only see them once.

A few observations from the second time around:

  • As an origin story about Facebook, it's not especially compelling or, apparently, even very accurate. But that doesn't matter. It's not really a movie about Facebook any more than Citizen Kane is about newspapers. I've seen some comments on Facebook from people saying they're not interested in seeing it because they don't care about Facebook--those people have nothing to worry about. Aaron Sorkin doesn't care about Facebook, either.
  • Jesse Eisenberg is 100% on the money. He manages to convey feeling totally superior to everyone in the room while needing their acceptance and also hating his own guts, all at the same time. He's incredibly good.
  • Also great is Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins. He's hilarious. Every time he comes on the screen I'm glad to see him. Or them. I don't think it's necessary to be rich, handsome, and privileged in real life in order to play rich, handsome and privileged, but in this case, it doesn't hurt.
  • Justin Timberlake is pretty good at balancing the magnetic rockstar charisma with a streak of calculating slimeball. You see the selfish jerk side come out here and there before the end when he really emerges as the bad guy. Watch this movie and Black Snake Moan and you can see he's got some chops.
  • One part that's less good: Eduardo. The script was largely drawn from the book The Accidental Billionaires that used Eduardo as its main source. The basic story is sympathetic to Eduardo and presents him as the loyal friend that Zuckerberg betrayed. But it's hard to feel that way, even though I guess we're supposed to, because of the long stretch we spend with Mark, et al in Palo Alto when things start heating up for the company, while Eduardo is off in New York riding the subway for 14 hours a day or whatever. When he shows up and eventually gets the shaft, we're meant to sympathize with him, but by then the story has moved in another direction and isn't really about him anymore. It's a structural/emotional flaw. Also, Andrew Garfield seems like he's faking--his acting is opaque and awkward compared with everyone else.
  • About women in the movie: a lot of people have complained that women are presented as peripheral objects for the male characters to play with or insult as they wish. I understand this is probably an accurate representation of how these characters, 20 year-old guys with something to prove, might behave. Sorkin says this is what these guys are really like. Sometimes the movie itself seems to support this viewpoint, though, and women are made to look trivial through camera work and editing, not because of anything a character says. A movie can make female characters human even as male characters dehumanize them (like in "Mad Men") but that doesn't happen very often here. Rooney Mara standing up for herself and telling Zuckerberg off, twice, helps.
  • The Trent Reznor soundtrack is awesome. Especially the music during the Facemash creation, it really makes what could have been a tedious scene about anti-social drunk programmers into an exciting action sequence.
  • My least favorite moment is the song in the final scene: "Baby You're a Rich Man" by the Beatles. It's gaggingly on the nose, and after such great soundtrack choices that are so time-and-place specific, we get The Beatles? David Fincher usually screws something up at the end of his otherwise great movies, so I guess in the scheme of things this isn't that bad.

Best movie of the year? It's up there.

February 6, 2011

The Clock: really cool video art

Christian Marclay's

I went to see Christian Marclay's video art exhibit, "The Clock" at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea. I find a lot of video art to be a ponderous, humorless, overly conceptual snore. Reading the blurb outside the screening room can be more interesting than actually watching it. But this piece is my favorite video art ever. I spent an hour and a half there on Friday night, and if I could have had a pizza delivered to the gallery, probably would have stayed all night.

The piece uses clips of movies that include a shot of a clock or watch or reference to the time, and it's constructed so that the time in the movie clip is the actual time in the real world. I watched it from 11:30 PM until about 1:15 AM, so as you might guess, saw a lot of clips of cops staking out buildings, people getting woken up by a ringing phone, people realizing they'd missed the last bus, and endless clunky 80's clock radios. And a phenomenally cool montage of clocks striking midnight, accompanied by the kinds of scary or explosive things that tend to happen in movies at the stroke of midnight.

The clips are also linked thematically. If someone picks up a ringing phone and says "Hello?", we'll cut to someone in a different movie asking to speak to Walter (there are a lot of ringing phones in "The Clock") or a series of clips of people slowing descending the stairs into a dark, scary basement. We come back to some movies over and over again as the characters watch the hours tick by. We see the same actors again and again--I caught three Steve McQueen movies in just an hour and a half, and Vincent Price appeared in a whole lot of movies with creepy old grandfather clocks in the background.

A lot of the talk about this piece is about the inescapability of time, and the audience's constant awareness of time passing, both in the movie clips and in real life. Movies use the passage of time to create tension or draw out a scene in ways that have become clichés. In the NY Times article about the exhibit, Roberta Smith says, "Moviemakers have developed endless devices to make us aware of time's passage in their films, and to hold us in thrall, or suspense, within that artificial time -- while we forget about the real kind outside the theater." But I see the piece as primarily an exploration and adoration of movies. Time provides the structure and the framework, but the medium is movies.

Trying to identify the movie clips is both fun and aggravating. It's a lot like listening to a Girl Talk album--you'll see a lot of stuff you sort of recognize, but 8 seconds later it's gone, and you'll have that tip-of-your-tongue feeling again and again that will drive you kind of nuts, but keep you wanting more.

Recognizing the movies in "The Clock" isn't necessary, but it sure is fun to watch the incredible variety of movies Marclay found and see some stuff you know. Even if you can't identify the movies, the range of time periods and styles is huge. In just a couple of minutes, he'll use Gone With the Wind, The Crow, The Awful Truth, Sid and Nancy, The Hudsucker Proxy, Gosford Park, Mildred Pierce, What Lies Beneath, Now, Voyager, and Lolita. Plus some TV: "ER", "The X-Files", and (of course!) "24". You get silent movies, foreign movies, action, horror, Woody Allen, and Beverly Hills Cop.

What about sex? Yep! Nudity? Oh, yes! No editing. Also, movies that aren't in English don't have subtitles--what you see is what you get.

My dream for when I'm enormously rich is that I'll buy a copy of "The Clock" and install it in my living room as an actual time-telling device. "What time is it?," I'll ask, look at my video art installation, see DJ Stevie Wayne announcing the next song on her late-night radio show in John Carpenter's The Fog, and go, "Oh, it's 12:35."

You can see part of "The Clock" during regular gallery hours, 10-6 Monday-Thursday, or see the entire thing from 10:00 AM on Friday until 6:00 PM on Saturday for the next two weekends. Note: there will probably be a line if you get there between 11:00 and 12:00 at night. Word seems to have gotten out that midnight is cool.

Here's a BBC TV news story about the exhibit which incorporates some of the piece and some of Marclay's other stuff.

February 3, 2011

Message to the Academy: Save Natalie!

Natalie Portman at the SAG awards

Over the last few Oscars seasons, we've seen anecdotal documentation of the Best Actress Curse: the phenomenon in which a talented actress wins accolades for her work, which triggers the collapse of her personal life. Examples include, incredibly, almost every single Best Actress winner of the past 10 years: Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Kate Winslet, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock most recently, and the special case of Hilary Swank, whose marriage survived her first win in 2000, but not her second in 2005. Only Helen Mirren and Marion Cotillard still have their manfolk around.

Some analysis goes back to the 90's and finds even more examples: Helen Hunt, Emma Thompson, and Susan Sarandon (though in that last case, her relationship with Tim Robbins didn't break up until 13 years later.)

There's speculation that male insecurity is the root cause of the Curse. Some assume that, when an actress gets the highest award for her work, her husband, often also in the entertainment industry, can't handle his feelings of inadequacy when comparing his success to hers. In the Halle Berry example, one site asks, "When was the last time you listened to Eric Benet?" It could also be related to Best Actress winners becoming dissatisfied with the losers they married and deciding to make a play for George Clooney.

But now that everyone knows about the Best Actress Curse, and it's been validated by academic research (with a graph!), I think we have to lay the blame elsewhere. If members of the Academy are aware of the fate that will almost surely befall the woman they name Best Actress, shouldn't we be holding them accountable?

Which is why I'm asking members of the Academy, who just received their ballots and are now considering five innocent actresses, to remember that they hold the future happiness of poor little Natalie Portman, and the fate of her unborn child, in their hands.

Natalie is now engaged to her on-screen dancing partner Benjamin Millepied, who seems like a nice enough French ballet dancer, and is neither a scruffy beardy singer-songwriter, nor Moby. We should encourage their young love, even if Millepied ditched his longtime girlfriend a couple of months after meeting Natalie on the set of Black Swan, and even if Natalie's Golden Globes acceptance speech chronicling Benjamin's desire to impregnate her was the creepiest awards speech I've ever heard.

If Natalie loses, I give them two years. But if she wins, I hope the members of the Academy can live with themselves.

The other big contender this year is Annette Bening. How weird is it that her marriage probably stands a good chance of surviving a Best Actress win, when her husband is Warren Beatty?

Just think of the agonizing future Natalie Portman interviews on "Ellen". Aggghh. It would be enough to make me vote for Jennifer Lawrence, who's dating the guy from the British "Skins", so if that breaks up in two months, big whoop.

January 31, 2011

Women and Wikipedia

Women pay gap

Wikipedia has determined that only 13% of its contributors are women. The site's usefulness depends on all kinds of people sharing knowledge about subjects they're interested in. Everybody benefits when the knowledge of a vast number of individual people is centralized in one place, and Wikipedia has done a fantastic job at collecting individual knowledge -- of guys in their mid-20's.

The Times article about the low contribution rates of women includes surprised speculation from people in media and computer studies about why this might be. I don't want to be cynical, but do these people live in the same world I live in?

Let's look at some major areas of public life:

Sensing a trend?

Of course there's a big difference between becoming a Senator or a CEO of a big company and contributing to a Wikipedia article. ANYONE can write something on Wikipedia. You still don't have to register with the site to add some verifiable facts to an existing article, and there's a help page for new contributors.

Since women's knowledge is so radically underrepresented in Wikipedia, we're all losing out. I don't know about you, but I probably look something up on Wikipedia every day. I don't want to only find what dudes are interested in up there.

Two examples in the Times article: "Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in The Simpsons?" "The entry on Sex and the City includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on The Sopranos includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode."

Sure, it's just pop culture, but this is part of what happens when women are in so few visible leadership positions. As Catherine Orenstein, founder of The OpEd Project says in the Times piece, "When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies." Fewer women in media, business, and government seems to also mean fewer women and girls sharing a bit of knowledge in an online article about TV shows, authors, historical figures, cities, bands, or artists they like and know something about.

Contributing to Wikipedia doesn't require leadership or ambition, but it does require women and girls to think, "I have something to say", and with few exceptions, that's not happening. Boys and men obviously think they have plenty to say, and they're already saying it awfully loudly and in painstaking detail. Ladies: please speak up, I can't hear you.

In thinking about the small numbers of women in leadership positions in business, I realized that at every single job I've had since college, the person at the top has been a woman. This now seems incredibly statistically improbable, and I feel really lucky.

[Note: a reader points out that Wikipedia is intended to be a repository of known facts, not personal analysis or research, as described in the No Original Research entry. My point remains that contributors reflect their own personal interests by adding facts to an entry, making the whole of Wikipedia a sum total of the interests of its contributors, so if those contributors are 87% dudes, well, you get a lot of stuff about Matchbox cars and Civil War Reenactments.]

January 25, 2011

Oscar Nominations

Mark Ruffalo and John Hawkes, Best Supporting Actor nominees

A lot of the Oscar nominations that were announced today were expected, but we've got a few nice surprises as well.

My favorite category this year is Best Supporting Actor. There's Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right (a role he made look effortless but was probably really hard to pull off) and John Hawkes for Winter's Bone (above); Jeremy Renner, who was the best/only good thing about The Town; Geoffrey Rush who kept the scene-stealing in check in The King's Speech; and Christian Bale, who turned the volume up pretty freaking high in The Fighter, but was irresistibly fun to watch. I'd be happy for any of these guys to win.

Some interesting selections:

Coen Brothers > Chris Nolan
Christopher Nolan didn't get a Best Director nomination for Inception, a big surprise. I would argue that directing Inception was much harder and more complicated than directing either The Social Network or The King's Speech, but I wasn't so thrilled with the end result. The Coens were a long shot for True Grit, but that movie's huge box office success seems to be paying off in other ways for them.

Winter's Bone > The Town, and 127 Hours > The Town
Both got nominated for Best Picture, and The Town didn't. Nice.

Michelle Williams > Ryan Gosling
The only nomination for Blue Valentine is for Michelle Williams as Best Actress. She's phenomenal in this movie, while Ryan Gosling, who I usually like, is a little clumsy and awkward.

Hailee Steinfeld < Best Actress
She's in every single scene, but it probably made sense for the True Grit people to offer Hailee Steinfeld as a contender for Best Supporting Actress instead of Best Actress, because she has half a chance of winning. Best Actress is going to be a death match between Natalie Portman and Annette Bening, and the Academy would give it to Bening partially to make up for past losses to Hilary Swank. Melissa Leo will probably win Supporting for The Fighter, which she doesn't quite deserve in my opinion, but at least Hailee's in good company.

Banksy > Eliot Spitzer
Exit Through the Gift Shop, one of my favorite movies last year, got a Best Documentary nomination, and Client 9, the Eliot Spitzer doc that the man himself participated in, didn't. Neither did Davis Guggenheim's education reform doc Waiting For Superman, which looked sort of one-sided and emotionally manipulative. Man, I hope Banksy stencils the Kodak Theatre.

January 24, 2011

The Son of No One

Channing Tatum in Son of No One

Dito Montiel has made two mediocre movies about tough kids in New York--A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, about growing up in Astoria, and Fighting, about underground bare-knuckle boxing. He gets big stars for his small-budget movies (Robert Downey, Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Terrence Howard) and writes interesting stories about people living on the margins, but somehow his movies don't quite come together. I can't tell if they're supposed to be character-driven indie movies or formulaic studio star vehicles, because they're both of those things simultaneously.

Now he's got a new one at Sundance that stars Al Pacino, Channing Tatum (above, who Montiel thinks is "a great actor" and has cast in all 3 of his movies. Mm-hm.), Juliette Binoche, Katie Holmes, and Tracy Morgan. Look at that cast. Indie or mainstream? I don't know. Adding to the confusion, the title, The Son of No One, is a reference to The Replacements' "Bastards of Young".

Here's the trailer:

It's got crooked cops, family secrets, a non-flamboyant Al Pacino, a non-funny Tracy Morgan, and it's shot in Astoria. It has the aura of gritty indieness. But the feel of the trailer makes the movie look like any of the dozens of studio movies with big stars about corruption, spies, high-level cover-ups, and cops out for justice that typically feature Ray Liotta and/or Al Pacino (both of whom are in The Son of No One). Like Righteous Kill, Body of Lies, We Own the Night, Spy Game, Narc, the list goes on and on.

So I can't tell what to make of Dito Montiel and his style. Maybe his career goal is to be the Tony Scott of Sundance. Or a mainstream Martin Scorsese, with Channing Tatum as his De Niro. I predict Juliette Binoche's performance will be good in a way that makes it seems like she's in a different, better movie than everyone else, and 5.6 stars on IMDb.

January 20, 2011

Why Vanity Fair is the best magazine, even with covers like this

Justin Bieber cover of Vanity Fair, Feb 2011

Of all the magazines I subscribe to, Vanity Fair is consistently the best, the one I'm most likely to read cover to cover. Sometimes carrying my copy around with me and reading it in public or on the subway can be a little embarrassing, due to covers like the one on the current issue (February).

I don't know if the general public understands that, yes, I'm reading a magazine with Justin Bieber on the cover, but the article that I'm reading at this moment is about how J.D. Salinger's experiences on the beaches of Normandy influenced the development of the Holden Caulfield character, or about the history and culture of The Guardian newspaper and how that determined its rocky partnership with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Or maybe I am, at this moment, reading the Justin Bieber article. But this is what really makes Vanity Fair great: I would guess that it's the best Justin Bieber article yet written, anywhere. I'm not completely kidding, here. In this article, we learn that Justin understands that more guys might start coming to his concerts after he turns 18; that he can solve a Rubik's Cube in 2 minutes; that Kanye's remix of one of his songs features Raekwon; and that his mom is younger than I am. (I know!)

Most of the reason this Justin Bieber article is so good and relevant to a non-tween audience is the author, Lisa Robinson. She's interviewed Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson (many times) and Kanye, and written articles about pop stars that reach beyond the existing fans. Which brings us to her Justin Bieber article, which I have to say is a really good read.

Just about all the celebrity stuff in Vanity Fair is good, even after losing the beloved Dominick Dunne (especially the features on dead movie stars and the making of classic movies by Sam Kashner.) The political stuff is good, the analysis of the financial crisis was probably the best anywhere, and the random pieces on the world's greatest surfers or a Florida private investigator that caught a serial killer are unexpected and consistently great.

My only complaints: too much stuff about the Kennedys, and the occasional piece that is so exclusively targeted to the extremely rich or people who wish they were extremely rich that I can't get myself to read it. I'll read an article about what kind of psychology/pathology inspires a person to spend $80 million on a yacht, but I don't much care about the yachts themselves.

January 12, 2011

First look at Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Now that everyone's seen Rooney Mara in The Social Network, we thought we had an idea of how good she'd be in David Fincher's remake/adaptation of Swedish novel and movie The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Today we're seeing some photos of her in character as spiky, blood-thirsty vigilante avenger Lisbeth Salander, and they look pretty good.

Specifically, Rooney Mara looks great. Very snarly and severe in the cover shot, and I love her "fuck the world" sneer in the cigarette/ink shot. The dragon tattoo is supposed to be on her character's back, I'm pretty sure, so I maybe she's getting a Snoopy on her butt.

Mara didn't even have pierced ears before the shoot started, so I hope she's embracing the new look. She looks like she'll be at least as much of a patriarchy-slashing badass as the Swedish film version of Lisbeth. Here's the W article about Mara and Fincher and the shoot.

I wonder if Fincher's version is going to be as filled with rage as the book would suggest: remember, the original Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women, and the author Stieg Larsson was sort of consumed with horror about sexual violence, after witnessing an episode as a teenager.

The movie's being shot in Sweden, which sounds like a good idea, and the character names haven't been anglicized. Trent Reznor says the soundtrack will have lots of strings.

January 11, 2011

Judy Clarke: defending our crackpot assassins

Judy Clarke

The latest star to emerge from the Tucson shootings is Judy Clarke, who will be Jared Loughner's public defender. Clarke is our nation's biggest superstar in defending world-famous psychopaths who commit mass murder. She's already defended the Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, the woman who drowned her two young sons Susan Smith, Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh, and she also helped with the defense of the US citizen charged in the 9/11 attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui.

Here's what I want to know: with such an incredibly dramatic legal career involving some of the most infamous murderers of our time, why haven't we gotten a movie based on the life and career of Judy Clarke? Or at least a TV miniseries? I'm thinking either Judy Davis or Cherry Jones to play Clarke. How about a title. "Counselor of Evil"? "The Mercy of the Court"? "Defender of the Damned"?

This is a woman who has made a life out of representing some the most hated people on the planet. Obviously, she's not going for acquittal in these cases. Clarke opposes the death penalty, and has been pretty successful at getting life sentences for her clients.

Let's look at her track record:

Not too bad--I'd say Loughner has a decent shot at avoiding the death penalty. Which probably means that a whole lot of people out there will continue to despise Judy Clarke.

Clarke is characterized by everyone who knows her as unassuming and low-key, avoiding all publicity and media, but she's also "tough as nails", "invisible to the press", and motivated by a strong personal objection to capital punishment. A death-penalty lawyer and friend of Clarke's says, "Judy would probably say if the public saw everything she sees, it would look at the client or the case differently."

Apparently she's really good at getting the public to see cases from her point of view: she's humanized the most monstrous killers just enough to persuade a jury to give a life sentence. I would guess this also depends on gaining the trust and cooperation of her clients. In Loughner's case, that will probably be especially hard: he sounds like a non-communicative, possibly schizophrenic nutcase. But she's done it before with other obviously mentally ill clients. Only two people other than McVeigh have been executed in the federal court system since the federal death penalty came back in 1988.

Also: her husband's name is Speedy Rice.

A tough, driven lawyer in a floppy-bow tie breaking down the defenses of child killers and terrorists, convincing the most psychopathic ideologues to plead guilty: I want to watch that movie.

January 6, 2011

Crying and sex

Crying woman, Lichtenstein

A new study suggests that men become sexually un-aroused when they smell women's tears. Crap. Guess I wasted all that time I've been spending crying in bars trying to get laid.

It seems that all the data for the study was gathered by subjects watching movies. Scientists at Weizmann Institute in Israel recruited six women who were top-notch criers, plus a few back up auxiliary criers, in order to get a continuous supply of fresh tears. The researchers had them watch your typical tear-jerk movies, like Life Is Beautiful and Terms of Endearment, as well as some movies that look absolutely terrible, but are apparently still scientifically effective: My Sister's Keeper and When a Man Loves a Woman.

To measure sexual arousal, the men who sniffed these women's tears (and saline solution for the control group) had to watch a different kind of movie: 9 1/2 Weeks, "the more explicit European version, which has been validated as being particularly arousing."

Turned out, the tear-sniffers didn't get into all that erotic strawberry eating and creepy sexual humiliation as much as the other guys did.

As part of the baseline study, they also had the guys watch a sad movie, to see if the women's tears were specifically a sexual turn-off, or if they just made them feel sad. The men watched classic sports-themed father-son tear-jerker, The Champ, which is about down on his luck boxer Jon Voight and his lovable young son and first-rate bawler, Ricky Schroder, and involves a protracted final scene that is legendary for provoking tears in even the stoniest of men.

Here it is if you want to watch it out of context and see if it still works. I bet it does--it's got seriously all the triggers.

We've all got movies that reduce us to tears, and I often wonder how similar those lists would be from person to person. I've got my share of the predictable, obvious movies that make me cry (Brokeback Mountain, It's A Wonderful Life), those that are sort of embarrassing (Moulin Rouge, Deep Impact, Dead Poets Society), and those that I don't really understand (Mulholland Drive).

I love hearing about what movies have made other people cry, so if you've got some to share, I'm listening.

January 5, 2011

America still loves Westerns

Coens at True Grit premiere

One last thing about True Grit then I'll shut up about it. It turns out that it's kind of a big hit: it's still #2 at the box office after being out for 2 weeks, and it looks like it's going to make more money than The Social Network, which had previously been this year's big indie-ish hit.

It's also the biggest hit yet for the Coen brothers, already doing better than their previous top-selling movie No Country For Old Men, and that one, arguably also a Western, won Best Picture. We might not necessarily think of the Coens as guys who make Westerns, but judging by the movies that the most people want to see, apparently they are. Another universally loved movie of theirs, at least on video, is Raising Arizona, which has a lot of classic Western elements too (desert setting, highway showdown, bank robbery, warthog from hell, etc.)

The difference with True Grit is how straight they tell the story: it's not ironic at all, and the characters all speak in that wonderful formal, heightened language with no winking. It's an uncomplicated, funny Western. Asked why this one has done so well with mainstream audiences after 15 movies, Ethan Coen suggested, "We just outwaited everybody."

The Academy has been pretty obvious in its recent attempts to make the Oscars more accessible and popular to mainstream audiences, so the surprise success of True Grit just about guarantees that it's going to pop up on nominations lists, sort of like a more deserving The Blind Side.

Ever stalwart!

January 3, 2011

Top movies of 2010

Another Year

The year started out slowly, but over the last month or so we've gotten a lot of great stuff. I watched 15 or 20 fewer movies this year than I do in a typical year, which I think is because of the relatively uninspiring Hollywood studio output--with few exceptions, every movie I loved was a little indie film.

So here's my list of top movies, with a few others that were notable in other ways:

Another Year
If you're going to make a movie about people's inner emotional lives and relationships with each other, you can't do much better than how Mike Leigh does it. He's always been really good at this, but over the last 10 years or so, he's gotten so incredibly perceptive about human nature and life in general that it feels like he's making movies about people you actually know.

I wrote a page of notes after watching Another Year which I'll spare you, but what makes this movie so great is its speculation on happiness: why are some people so effortlessly happy, while others try like crazy to find happiness and are still miserable? Because it's Mike Leigh, he has some things to say about class, but in this movie he seems to think that having a nice car, house, spouse, and lots of nice fresh produce certainly doesn't hurt. Mostly, we just need love and attention to be happy, but if we don't get it, nothing will ever be enough.

Lesley Manville is getting all the attention for her amazing and very big performance, but she sometimes turned up the needy desperation a little high. I liked Ruth Sheen's subtlety and quiet confidence even better--her character's happiness doesn't have much to do with luck.

A Prophet
The best movie I've ever seen about guys in prison. Tough, violent, and quietly relentless. We watch the young Malik El Djebena as he grasps the complicated power dynamics around him, and slowly transforms himself into a criminal mastermind.

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Banksy makes a documentary about street art, adding his own art form to the long list of revered institutions he has defaced. I love how self-deprecating he is in his talking-outline-of-a-head segments. Even if the whole story was an elaborate fabrication, it's still hilarious and inspiring.

The Kids Are All Right
In lots of ways this little sex comedy was the most mainstream family drama of the year. This might be Annette Bening's year to win the Oscar, except that there's also Natalie Portman.

Black Swan
There are some things wrong with this movie, but I really love a potboiler ballet horror melodrama. The freakiest, funnest movie I saw all year. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am with Natalie Portman's performance. She's best in the scenes when it's just her, sometimes a little too much of a wide-eyed ingenue in scenes with other people, but she absolutely owned this role and I can't imagine the movie without her. Darren Aronofsky could really get an Oscar for this.

Winter's Bone
Southern gothic detective story set in burned-out Ozark meth labs. Jennifer Lawrence is unstoppably great as a no-nonsense teenager out to save her family. The posse of badass Ozark ladies led by Dale Dickey scared the hell out of me.

True Grit
An uncomplicated, funny movie that understands exactly what's good and entertaining about Westerns. I love 13 year-old Hailee Steinfeld and her total refusal to be adorable.

The Social Network
The subject matter is incidental: what's good about this movie is its examination of loyalty, ambition, betrayal, jealousy, and isolation. It's my favorite one yet by David Fincher.

I Am Love
As the film editor for Time Out New York wrote: Can Tilda Swinton star in every movie from now on? It's a gorgeous gasp of a melodrama, but Tilda's mounting energy kept it from being an overly-romantic swoon.

Tiny Furniture
My biggest surprise of the year. I was totally prepared to hate the self-indulgent, privileged recent college grads at the center of this movie, and ended up loving the self-indulgent, privileged recent college grads at the center of this movie. It's a riot, and Lena Dunham has become my new hero.

A few other movies I liked: The King's Speech and Kick-Ass, which both transcended their tired old genres. Greenberg and Please Give, the best movies yet by directors Noah Baumbach and Nicole Holofcener. And the other best comedies of the year, Youth in Revolt, Four Lions, and Scott Pilgrim.

What did you like this year, and what did I miss?

Here's the list from 2009.

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.

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.

November 30, 2010

Mark Ruffalo, our fracking hero

Mark Ruffalo, anti-fracker

Big thanks to Mark Ruffalo, swarthily irresistible actor and political agitator, for New York State's last-minute decision to ban the gas drilling practice known as hydraulic fracture drilling, or fracking. He's a resident of Sullivan County, a rural area in the Catskills, and been fighting loudly against gas companies fracking up our state.

Last night at 1:00 AM, the state Assembly voted to ban fracking at least until May; the law had already passed in the Senate over the summer.

To celebrate our environmental victory and the handsomely rumpled political activism of Mark Ruffalo, let's have a brief, Ruffalicious photo retrospective. He's playing a cop in each of these, which might explain where his sense of justice comes from, or it could just mean that he looks great with guns and facial hair: Shutter Island, Zodiac, and In the Cut.

Mark Ruffalo in Shutter Island

Mark Ruffalo in Zodiac

Mark Ruffalo in In the Cut

Here's a video of Ruffalo with Pete Seeger at a protest in Albany this past summer. Seeger sings a new song about God and fracking.

Also, Ruffalo has been added to Pennsylvania's terror alert watch list for his anti-fracking activities. Probably because he causes a sex riot every time he shows up at rallies.

There's a great HBO documentary about why fracking is bad called "Gasland", and another one about fracking in the Rockies called "Split Estate".

November 29, 2010

Surely Leslie Nielsen was one of the great ones

Leslie Nielsen in Airplane!

Leslie Nielsen is the inventor of contemporary deadpan. Without Leslie Nielsen and his straight man shtick, we would have no Bill Murray or any of Jason Bateman's or Michael Cera's good lines in "Arrested Development". I might be over-stepping here, but without Leslie Nielsen, I'm not sure we would have William Shatner as we know him today.

Both Shatner and Nielsen are Canadians who transitioned from the sci-fi and disaster genre into the kind of parody/self-parody that is so perfectly transparent, it's hard to tell if they're actually doing anything at all. Nielsen is more of a minimalist, but so good at his particular style of straight-faced slapstick that he's basically done exactly the same thing in every movie post-Airplane! and it is always hilarious.

Like everyone, I saw Airplane! at age 10 or so, and it's still the funniest movie I've ever seen (apart from a brief period around 1990 when I decided The Naked Gun was funnier.) Only recently did I happen to catch the 1957 movie that Airplane! is based on, Zero Hour!, which is so close to Airplane! than a lot of the dialogue was lifted directly from the original, including the "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking" line.

There's also this one from Zero Hour!:

"The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner."

I have no idea how you make a line like that as funny as Leslie Nielsen did in Airplane!. It's not funny in the original. It's not even a joke. He's a genius.

Here's the Times obituary, and a collection of his movie clips.

November 23, 2010

Mark Wahlberg is still cool

Mark Wahlberg in The Happening

Yeah, Mark Wahlberg has been in some cruddy movies. His 90's heyday (Boogie Nights, Three Kings) is long gone, and it's been a hard decline from Rock Star to We Own the Night.

In fact, I'm not sure he's been in a good movie since The Departed in 2006 (though I still haven't seen The Other Guys, which was probably pretty funny.)

Then there was M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening from 2008, which was about killer trees. Manohla Dargis says Wahlberg has an "earnest, committed presence" in it, but it's been frequently cited as the worst movie of the year, or maybe ever, an opinion that has its own Facebook page.

As part of the publicity for his new movie, The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg did a press conference where he brought up The Happening seemingly without provocation. Here's what he said, in reference to his first meeting with co-star Amy Adams:

We had actually had the luxury of having lunch before to talk about another movie and it was a bad movie that I did. She dodged the bullet. And then I was still able to ... I don't want to tell you what movie ... alright, The Happening. Fuck it. It is what it is. Fucking trees, man. The plants. Fuck it.

Which is I think pretty much what everyone who watched that movie said as the credits rolled.

This new movie, The Fighter, looks a little overwrought and very, very Oscars-y, but most of the actors should be good (Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo.) It's by David O. Russell, who's built a reputation as being an unstable, abusive horror of a director. One of Mark Wahlberg's first comedic roles was in Russell's last movie, I Heart Huckabees, and he was by far the best thing about it. Based on that video of Russell and Lily Tomlin screaming at each other, and his fist fight with George Clooney on the Three Kings set, I'm surprised any actor would agree to work with him three times, but I guess Wahlberg wants to take whatever good parts he can get these days.

Fucking trees, man.

November 16, 2010

Silent movies, Woody Allen


Crimes and Misdemeanors

Turner Classic Movies is doing a fantastic 7-part series on the early days of Hollywood and the American movie business called "Moguls and Movie Stars". It's on every Monday at 8:00, and Part 3 was on last night; it was all about the 1920's, and included the rise of huge movie stars like Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Greta Garbo, and the incredibly huge wealth created by the studio heads.

In this week's installation, we see east coast investors and government agencies slowly becoming aware of that crazy bunch of hedonist reprobates out in LA, drinking illegal booze, having orgies, and making money hand over fist. Hollywood attracted the attention of investors like Joseph Kennedy, who poured money into the movie industry and created RKO, and also had an affair with Gloria Swanson (the Kennedy men loved their movie stars.) Before the federal government could regulate the increasingly salacious output, the industry stepped in and created the self-censoring Hays Office, so that was the end of on-screen nudity and unpunished adultery for the next few decades.

We also learned about the created of the Academy and the first Oscar awards. The first Best Picture awards were given to two movies, Wings and Sunrise, both silent films. TCM aired Sunrise right after the series--a really incredibly good movie. It's the first Hollywood movie by F.W. Murnau, maybe better known for doing Nosferatu with alleged pretend vampire Max Schreck.

The storyline of 1927's Sunrise has been used over and over again in more recent movies -- I can think of at least 6 Woody Allen movies that use its ideas. Crimes and Misdemeanors (above), Husbands and Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters and a bunch of others all involve a bored married man who goes crazy for a sexy single woman, then things go wrong and he eventually comes to his senses and goes back to his wife. He might even try to kill someone along the way. If Sunrise were remade today, the husband would maybe be Adam Sandler or Paul Schneider (big-budget/low-budget), the wife would be Emily Mortimer or Drew Barrymore (the actress in the original looks just like her), the hot young temptress would be Kirsten Dunst or Mila Kunis.

I never realized it before, but this story we've seen a hundred times is taken straight from our silent classics. Just like in Sunrise, Woody allows his guys to run around with their young girlfriends, then come back home to their comely wives with basically no consequences--with the notable exception of Anthony Hopkins in his latest movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, maybe the only time it doesn't work out for him.

The Hays Code put a temporary end to scenes in Sunrise like the young single girl lounging in her filmy underwear and rolling around in a swamp with the married dude -- it's always a little bit of a surprise to see the stuff audiences were watching in pre-Code 1920's movie theaters. There's a reason we went from zero theaters to 21,000 theaters by 1916. To put that in context, there are 5,800 theaters and 39,000 screens today, and 3 times more people in the country.

November 6, 2010

127 Hours

James Franco in 127 Hours

127 Hours -- it's a wilderness-action-thriller that's about as tense and exciting as a movie can be, considering you already know everything that's going to happen. As Danny Boyle described it, it's "an action movie with a guy who can't move."

Its success is mostly due to James Franco, who's incredibly compelling to watch even when all he's doing is brooding in a canyon. There are about 1,000 ways this movie could have gone wrong and been alternately tedious, ridiculous, and repellently maudlin, but it wasn't any of those. The emotional progression of the movie is so sincere and credible that by the time we get to the gruesome crescendo, it's a totally personal and believable moment. I wasn't even that grossed out. It felt sort of like watching Ralph Macchio deliver the winning Crane Kick. I felt like cheering. It's self-dismemberment as personal growth.

The themes of the movie--exaggerated self-confidence and alienation of everyone around you, leading to slowly dawning loneliness--reminded me of another really good movie that's out now. If you strip away all the circumstantial details, this movie has a lot in common with The Social Network. Both characters rush as fast as they can down their chosen path to success, leaving a lot of neglected relationships along the way, only to find themselves regretfully alone at the end. The difference is that at the end of The Social Network, Zuckerberg's still stuck down there in the canyon.

Danny Boyle is one of the very few directors out there that I've seen every one of his movies. His main characters are often filled with hubris, whether they're trying to take a lot money, explode a bomb inside the sun, find the perfect beach, or conquer a remote canyon without telling anyone where they're going. It almost always turns out OK for them in the end--he's big on happy endings. But he earned this happy ending a lot more than the endings of, say, Slumdog Millionaire or The Beach or even Trainspotting.

Boyle has said he wants his movies to be life-affirming, as dark as they usually are. It's an unabashedly feel-good movie, everyone already knows how it's going to end, and it's still great. I'm impressed.

October 27, 2010

Top 5 horror movies

The Descent

Eli Roth shared his Top 5 horror movies today--a good list, almost all 80's movies that upended or redefined the genre. On his list is Sleepaway Camp, Troll 2, Creepshow, Zombi 2, and Pieces. I've only seen a couple of those, but now Sleepaway Camp and Pieces are on the must-see list.

I suspect he partly included Troll 2 because now it's cool to be into that movie after last year's documentary Best Worst Movie. And sure, we all grew up watching Creepshow, but it wouldn't be on my list.

A couple of things I would add: Dario Argento is the perverse grinning granddaddy of Italian horror, and Suspiria is an obvious choice, but it's on my list. It's one to show the kids. David Gordon Green's remake has been on the radar for a few years now, but Argento apparently just released the rights over the summer. There's still no info about it on IMDb, but maybe now we'll get some action.

Peter Jackson's Dead Alive wins the prize for funniest horror movie. The gore is absolutely epic, but so surreal and goofy that it never gets stale, and those animatronic creature-monsters make it feel like some kind of grotesque Muppet horror. Two years later, he made Heavenly Creatures, which if you take them together might make you really glad you aren't Peter Jackson's mother.

And The Descent (photo above), one of my favorite movies ever. It starts out as an all-girl buddy movie, then becomes an adventure vacation gone awry, then becomes a gross-out creature-slasher movie. And works in some excellent scenes of breakdown of social order and whatever-it-takes survival. Plus features some of the toughest women in movie history, including Tarantino. I'm nuts about this one.

I hear that the French are doing the really truly sick stuff in horror these days, but I'm too scared to watch Inside or Martyrs. And I usually like the old stuff better anyway.

Here are all the movies AMC is playing for this year's Fearfest. Some pretty good stuff including 28 Days Later, the really great Dawn of the Dead remake, From Dusk Till Dawn, and They Live. Bad news is they'll all be edited.

Any recommendations of your favorite horror movies?

October 25, 2010

Original zombie programming

The Dead Set on IFC

Now that every cable channel feels like it has to do original programming, a couple of channels are introducing new shows this week. Two of them are zombie shows, which is a little odd: didn't the Great Zombie Revivification peak 3 or 4 or 8 years ago? I think of the publication of World War Z, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, and the Halloween Parade of 2008 when about 10,000 people all seemed to be dressed as zombies as the high point of the new zombie revolution.

But it's only now that TV is catching up. AMC is going to premiere its new series, "The Walking Dead", on Halloween night (next Sunday). It sounds like a close relative of Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later, in which the main character wakes up in a hospital to find the world has been overrun by zombies. It's based on a comic series that launched in 2003, a good year for zombies. It looks like it should be pretty good, but might take itself too seriously (producer-director Frank Darabont wrote and directed The Shawshank Redemption and, even better, Nightmare on Elm Street III.)

IFC has its own zombie show, too, "Dead Set". This one starts tonight at midnight and runs for just five episodes. It's a British series that first aired in 2008 (again, a better year for TV zombies) and features a bunch of young telegenic people shooting a season of "Big Brother" while the world outside the studio is transformed by the zombie apocalypse.

This one sounds pretty funny: the fans of the show screaming outside the Big Brother house slowly turn into zombies that try to eat their idols' brains. From the Times article about the series: "One of the 'Big Brother' hosts, Davina McCall, plays herself. She does so quite convincingly, as both a sharp-tongued television presenter and a blood-caked angry zombie trying to take a bite out of her producer."

First Shaun of the Dead and now this: Why is it that only the British have succeeded in the zombie spoof genre?

In the non-zombie original programming category is a new series on TCM, "Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood", a 7-part show starting next Monday night about the explosive growth of the American movie industry. It starts in 1903 with nickelodeons and The Great Train Robbery, and ends in 1969 with Easy Rider.

I think this is TCM's first original documentary, and it looks great, even if no one's guts get ripped out of their bellies and devoured by a horde of fast-moving undead.

October 19, 2010

Bumping rails and stealing TVs with Dottie from Gone Baby Gone

Dottie from Gone Baby Gone

I've been on the road for most of the past month, so it's been pretty quiet around here. Now I'm back, so let's peer into the murky world of marginal fame, moral turpitude, and racist Boston lowlifes!

I've said before how, despite his shortcomings as an actor, Ben Affleck really knows how to cast a movie. His latest, The Town, centers on an unconvincing love story and has a few too many pointless scenes, but the supporting cast is so outstanding that Affleck seemed to actually run out of meaningful roles for all those fantastic actors.

He did a good job with his first movie, Gone Baby Gone, too, giving the wonderful Amy Ryan one of her first big roles, and dredging up some really impenetrable accents from the South Boston neighborhoods where the movie was shot.

The most memorable parts of that movie for me were the scenes with Amy Ryan as an irresponsible mother, Helene, and her hahhd-pahhtyin' best friend Dottie. Those ladies were phenomenal. Watching them sleaze around Boston in their jean skirts and sweatsuits, looking for a good time and free drugs, was my favorite part of the movie. I remember Emily saying she couldn't wait to see the sequel, Helene and Dottie Bump Rails.

Maybe Ben Affleck's casting skills are even better than we realized: today we hear (tx Em!) that Jill Quigg, the woman he hand-picked to play Dottie, got busted for breaking into a neighbor's apartment, stealing a TV and a printer, then telling cops she had seen "a black man" break into the apartment.

Cops said they became suspicious of what Jill Quigg, 35, and her alleged accomplice Georgios Keskinidis, 28, told them about an unidentified black man breaking into the South Street apartment ... Quigg and Keskinidis told cops they saw an unidentified black male run from the crime scene with a 32-inch television and a computer printer. Quigg also told cops the break-in was "drug-related," but could not explain how she knew that.

They also told police they took the stolen goods to Quigg’s apartment located across the street from the crime scene for safe keeping.

Oh, Dottie!

Maybe she took her inspiration from Charles Stuart, the Boston guy who shot his pregnant wife in the head, then told cops that "a black man" had done it. Everyone believed him and a random black guy was actually arrested for the crime, until Stuart's brother confessed to the cops what had really happened. Then Stuart jumped from the Tobin Bridge into Mystic River and killed himself.

It's a Boston Gothic story William Faulkner could have written if he was from Quincy.

Even if she made up the part about the black man, Jill Quigg probably had one part of her story right. In her IMDb bio, one of her quotes is: "I'd love to do more acting, absolutely, but right now I'm working on staying sober."

October 3, 2010

The Social Network and DFW

The Social Network bar scene

The Social Network is #1 this weekend, which is lucky for whoever decided to saturate the universe with ads for the last 2 months.

I don't whole-heartedly love David Fincher's movies, or rather, I completely love them for the first 1/3, think the second 1/3 is pretty good, and the last 1/3 either runs out of steam or falls off a cliff. But this one was a lot more even and consistent, and the movie's energy didn't start to flag until the last 20 minutes or so.

The acting is fantastic--Jesse Eisenberg is going to be Hollywood's biggest sweetheart, and Armand Hammer (really!), the man who was born to play the uber-WASP Winklevoss twins, is really hilarious. For some reason I hadn't been expecting much comedy, but these actors could handle Aaron Sorkin's po-faced earnestness and make it sound like how normal, funny people talk.

At the end of the opening scene when Mark Zuckerberg gets dumped, his ex-girlfriend's closing line went something like this: "You're going to think that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And that won't be true. It will be because you're an asshole."

Anyone else think about David Foster Wallace's 1997 essay about John Updike and the other Great Male Narcissists when she said that? The essay presents a thoughtful argument about the weird sexual obsessiveness, loneliness, and misogyny in Updike's books, and then ends like this: "It's not that [Updike's main character] is stupid ... His unhappiness is obvious right from the book's first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he's so unhappy is that he's an asshole."

Maybe a little bit of unintentional DFW inspiration/lifting from Aaron Sorkin by way of Erica Albright, there.

At least it's not based on a Dennis Lehane novel

The Town

I watched the latest in the decade's glut of Boston crime movies, The Town. It wasn't too bad, and given how easy it would have been for it to get lost in the Shutter River Gone Baby Departed chowdah pot, it does OK for itself.

The biggest benefit of directing when you're already a movie star seems to be that you can assemble a phenomenally good cast. Ben Affleck was so good at casting this movie that he got a few more top-notch actors than he even needed. Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper are two of my very favorite actors, and while it was nice to see them again, they're given basically nothing to do but get through their brief scenes without completely overshadowing everyone else in the room. Cooper was especially wasted as Ben's imprisoned dad--if his one scene had been cut, it wouldn't have made any difference to the story at all.

The movie goes for quantity over quality in some other ways too. After Ben and Rebecca Hall meet, their relationship has to progress to a certain intensity and seriousness pretty fast. But instead of showing any real passion or chemistry or reasons why they're so into each other, we just see them go on about 85 different dates. Then they kiss. Then they're in love. Because the screenplay says they are.

One downside of casting lots of exceptional actors, besides having to create needless scenes for them all to act in, is that they make the less talented actors stick out uncomfortably. Especially when those actors are also the director. There are a couple of fantastic scenes between Ben Affleck and his best friend and partner in crime, Jeremy Renner, but Renner is so far ahead of Affleck in focus and believability that he makes Ben look like he's just sitting there waiting his turn to say his lines. Almost everybody in the movie is more memorable than Ben Affleck, and he's in just about every scene. He's not terrible, he's just out of his league.

Here's another actor that did a better job than Ben Affleck: Blake Lively. I know! She plays a broken-down local girl whose hometown has chewed up and spit out. It's not at all a glamorous role, and she doesn't try to make it into one. I was impressed. Especially considering she was probably the weak link of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

Plus: excellent action sequences! Sometimes I tune these out in heist movies, but these were fantastic. The car chase through those narrow, winding streets of the North End was my favorite scene. Nice camera work throughout.

OK, let's say something else nice about Ben Affleck. My favorite Ben Affleck acting jobs: Extract and Dazed and Confused.

September 9, 2010

Terriers, the return of Donal Logue

Donal Logue on Terriers

Donal Logue has a new TV show called "Terriers" on FX. I'm a big Donal Logue fan. He continues to do loads of TV and movies, but somehow his career has never really taken off the way it should have. I know he was the star of "Grounded For Life" a few years ago, a show I watched zero times, but in a lot of the press I've seen for "Terriers", he's still referred to as "Donal Logue, from The Tao of Steve", a movie that came out 10 years ago.

Anyway, everything that's good about this new show is basically because of Donal Logue. The show follows Logue and his friend, a guy from "True Blood", who work as unlicensed private eyes in San Diego. They're both well-meaning schlubby guys trying, without much success, to get their lives together: Logue is an ex-drunk who got kicked off the police force and dumped by his wife, whom he still loves, and his friend is an ex-burglar. They investigate crimes and domestic disputes while the whole world calls them deadbeats. But, of course, they're actually really good in a back-door kind of way, and use their connections to the seamy underbelly to expose the bad guys.

Donal Logue is as haggardly charming as ever, even if he does have more grey in his bead and deep crinkles on his face. The writing is pretty flat: Logue has lines like "You killed my friend. And I'm going to destroy you" that not even he can save. But there's funny stuff, too, like when the two guys are watching at a pretty graphic sex tape recorded on someone's iPhone. "iPorn!," the friend says. "You what?," says Donal Logue.

The pilot episode was directed by Craig Brewer, who also did Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan and is good at capturing the grim reality of being poor, desperate, driving a cruddy car, hanging out with criminals and drug addicts, and getting chained to radiators. There's a big streak of class consciousness running through this show (NY Times says it "hangs rich people out to dry") with the wealthy pillars of society raping the underclass until our heroes take them down.

I'm guessing this show won't be around for more than a few months, but for now it's a good scruffy diversion until Logue's next movie Vengeance. Which stars Danny Trejo, Jason Mewes, and 50 Cent and looks pulpy and great.

One little reminder about the past career of Donal Logue: he starred in and produced another short-lived comedy series called "The Knights of Prosperity" about a bunch of losers and weirdos who decide to rob Mick Jagger. No one watched it, but it was hilarious, and featured the character with the greatest TV name of all time: Rockefeller Butts. You can watch all the episodes on Hulu.

August 25, 2010

Movie trailer by anti-Muslim cab stabbing guy

Last night a "very drunk" 21 year-old guy was arrested for stabbing the driver of his cab after asking him if he was Muslim.

From the Times article:

After falling silent for a few minutes, the passenger began cursing and screaming, and then yelled, "Assalamu alaikum -- consider this a checkpoint!" and slashed Mr. Sharif across the neck, and then on the face from his nose to his upper lip, the alliance said. ("Assalamu alaikum" -- "peace be with you" -- is a traditional Muslim greeting.)

The assailant, Michael Enright, was an SVA film student who had recently been in Afghanistan shooting his documentary, Home of the Brave, about US soldiers.

The trailer is on YouTube:

It features young soldiers talking about what inspired them to enlist (9/11) and what it's like to be part of a tight-knight group of soldiers (they've got your back) and, actually, makes being a soldier in Afghanistan look pretty fun. There's basic training and motivational speeches in an auditorium, and also Christmas and birthday parties and playing with a friendly dog. Doesn't look like the film includes combat, probably because as a film student he wasn't allowed to see any action.

But clearly Hollywood has defined what we think war is supposed to look like, because there's a trailer for another movie called Home of the Brave that looks far grittier and more violent. This one is about Iraq, not Afghanistan, and it stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, and 50 Cent, but when you watch the trailer, the on-the-ground scenes look a lot more war-like than the documentary. It was directed by the guy who produced all the Rocky movies.

More bombs, fewer birthday cakes.

Anyway, it seems like Michael Enright was deeply attached to the US soldiers he met and other friends who were deployed, and somewhere along the way he went nuts. Interestingly, he was also a volunteer for Intersections International, a nonprofit that works to overcome racial and religious boundaries, in their veteran's dialogue program.

The cab driver is going to be OK.

August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim and the new Michael Cera

Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim

I had exerted monumental effort to keep my expectations in check for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The cast, the music, the style, Michael Cera, Edgar Wright--I was getting really excited about this movie, and it would have been easy to walk in expecting (Shaun of the Dead x "Arrested Development"), only to be confronted with (Run Fatboy Run - Year One).

But there was nothing to worry about--this movie is completely wonderful and is the best time I've had in the theater this year (even if the fight scenes get a little samey.) Edgar Wright understands his genres so completely, and is unapologetically of, by, and for his own generation and its pop culture. Even though this movie is about people in their early 20's, the references, music (both the soundtrack and original songs by Beck), clothes, and video game style are a lot more early 90's than 2010. If you're approximately Edgar Wright's age (36) you will totally get this movie, even if you've never read a comic book and haven't played a video game since Zelda.

I have no idea if actual 22 year-olds will like or get it or not. I would guess they would be a little puzzled by love interest Ramona Flowers and her personal style, which is sort of late-80's goth with a touch of early-90's riot grrrl and really has no point of reference to how cool young women in movies dress now. But she made me want to dig out my old boots and A-line miniskirts from college.

All the stuff about relationships, evil exes, and trying against all odds to get that one person who is far cooler than you are to go out with you is universal. As is the realization that, no matter how wronged and heartbroken you may feel, there are also times that you're the heartbreaker asshole.

Which brings me to something else that's great about this movie: Michael Cera gets to play a dick. For the last 6 years or so, Michael Cera has pretty much played variations of George-Michael Bluth: an earnest, sweet kid, socially awkward, a romantic, sort of a loser with sincere intentions. He's so good at it that he's had to play this same role over and over again. Sometime around Juno, this started to get a little tedious.

But in Scott Pilgrim, he's not necessarily the nicest guy in the world. He knows how to play the sweet, sincere puppy-dog type, but sometimes it's an act. Some of the time, Pilgrim is manipulative, selfish, and petulant. He's got a long, unflattering history with the ladies, and he's a little bit of a jerk.

It turns out Michael Cera is great at playing a little bit of a jerk! It was such a relief. It reminds me of that period in the 90's when Hugh Grant played one stammering, awkward, floppy-haired, increasingly annoying romantic after another (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, etc.) Then he did Bridget Jones and About a Boy and played unrepentant pricks in each movie. He was phenomenal. Such a relief to see him break out of his type, and such a surprise to see how good he was at playing selfish assholes, even if they come around by the end.

So hopefully Michael Cera will get more opportunities to embrace his inner jerk.

Note: despite my own love for this movie and the monumental marketing behind it (I think I've seen an interview with Edgar Wright or Michal Cera in every single publication and website I read [good one in The AV Club]) it didn't do that well this weekend at the box office. Everybody's been watching Eat Pray Love and The Expendables. Too bad: I'm willing to bet Scott Pilgrim is a lot more fun and will make you feel much cooler than either of those.

August 2, 2010


Clive Owen in Trust

The Toronto Film Festival is starting to announce its movie lineup, and one of the premieres is going to be a revenge thriller called Trust. The trailer just came out, and it reveals a few interesting things:

  • It stars Clive Owen and Catherine Keener as a married couple, so it's automatically cool
  • It's about this cool married couple trying to deal with a terrible thing that happens to one of their kids (the trailer gives away lots of details about this, so don't watch it if you don't want to know. What is it with these trailers? Better question: why do I keep watching them when they bug the hell out of me?)
  • The movie seems to focus in particular on Clive Owen's descent into obsessive and possibly homicidal thirst for revenge, featuring lots of wild-eyed rage that doesn't even begin to diminish his rumpled, doughy-faced handsomeness
  • Supporting cast includes Viola Davis and Noah Emmerich, who I just now figured out is one of my favorite character actors
  • It's directed by David Schwimmer! Huh? Run, Fatboy, Run, the US version of "Little Britain", and now this. Who does he think he is, Edgar Wright? Now that he's anchored himself firmly behind the camera, that guy has done pretty well for himself.

Here's the trailer (it keeps getting taken down from YouTube: hopefully new versions will keep getting posted):

One other thing: there are a LOT of movies out there called Trust. IMDb has three of them coming out in 2010 alone. So far my favorite is Hal Hartley's, which also premiered at Toronto back in 1990. But really, it's time to retire this title.

July 26, 2010

Hamm/Hall mag spread

There's at least one other person out there besides me who wishes that Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall had formed the gorgeous on-screen couple of the year in The Town, instead of her and not-gorgeous Ben Affleck. Because W Magazine has a big sexy photo spread of the two of them lounging around draped over each other looking really stylish and hot!

Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall

Clearly this set of photos is far more satisfying than a few pained movie scenes of awkward, hesitant desire thwarted by the unsentimental realities of modern life, FBI regulations, and anti-erotic Boston accents.

But in a less gritty, New Englandy movie, they would make one handsome couple. Check out that profile:

Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall

Wow. More here.

July 20, 2010

Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, and The Town

The Town, Jon Hamm

Ben Affleck might not be the world's greatest actor, but I will give him this: he knows how to hire a great cast. He's now directed his second movie, The Town, which comes out in September. Here's the new trailer. [Warning: it seems to me like the trailer gives away a lot of plot twists, so if you're not into that kind of thing, maybe don't watch it.]

Even if you have no idea what this movie is about, I bet you can predict all its main features: 1) crime, 2) Boston, 3) uneducated white people who live on the fringes of society and swear like feckin' crazy.

But that's not the interesting part. The cast looks phenomenal for this movie. He's got Jon Hamm as a tenacious FBI agent determined to bring down some bank robbers (who, in a Boston heist movie cliché so obvious it almost transcends itself, dress in nun costumes) and Rebecca Hall as some kind of bank employee/love interest. Unfortunately for me, she's not Jon Hamm's love interest, because then they would have been the most beautiful screen couple of the year.

Instead, she's Ben Affleck's love interest, who decided to just give in and cast himself in this movie, a temptation he resisted for his first movie Gone Baby Gone. Judging from the trailer, it looks like he's one of the movie's weaker links, but he did make the creative choice of including a scene of himself doing pull-ups that's dramatically lit to highlight the chiseled topography of every ab and pec of his body. Nice one, Ben.

Anyway, there's also Jeremy Renner, who post-The Hurt Locker should finally be a real superstar. He's about a hundred times tougher and more scary than Ben Affleck in the trailer, and he's only on screen for about 4 seconds. There's Pete Postlethwaite, one of my favorite actors ever (even if half of the movies he does are of the Clash of the Titans variety,) and Blake Lively as a stripper who let's just assume is a real sweet girl deep down. And is that Chris Cooper as Ben Affleck's dad? Awesome.

Here's the trailer.

July 10, 2010

The Kids Are All Right vs. I Am Love

The Kids Are All Right

I Am Love

I happened to see two movies yesterday that had so many things in common they were like companion pieces for each other. I Am Love is a gorgeously stylized melodrama about a wealthy northern Italian family. It's by Luca Guadagnino and stars Tilda Swinton, who solidifies her status as one of greatest actresses of all time by showing once again that she can do absolutely anything, including speak Italian with a Russian accent. The Kids Are All Right is the third movie written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, and it's my favorite. The movie's about a family headed by two moms whose lives are turned upside-down by the introduction of their kids to their sperm donor, the gaspingly sexy Mark Ruffalo.

They were both great. I won't give anything big away here, but let me list some of the things both of these movies prominently feature:

  • Infidelity
  • Lots of naked not-exactly-young flesh
  • The irresistible seductiveness of hot organic farmer-chefs
  • Lesbians
  • Mia Wasikowska and Alba Rohrwacher, who each play the protagonists' daughters and look uncannily alike:
  • Mia WakisowskaAlba

  • And one scene in each movie that is seriously identical. I won't reveal it, but the lesson of the scene in both movies is that certain people should really be more careful about where they leave snippets of their hair.

One movie will probably provoke a strong desire to be rich and Italian, the other to be rich and Californian, and both could inspire you to have crazy illicit sex in a beautiful, lush botanical setting.

And both have awesome soundtracks. The Kids Are All Right is all old Bowie and contemporary cool stuff like Fever Ray and Deerhoof, and I Am Love has swooningly romantic and gorgeous music by composer John Adams (apparently this is the first time he's allowed his music to be used in a movie.)

The two movies finally diverge in their endings and overall attitudes about family life and domesticity vs. passion. But both are some of the best things I've seen yet this year.

July 8, 2010

Harold & Kumar, numero 3

Harold and Kumar

The weirdest part of today's news about the third Harold & Kumar movie should have been the easiest to guess. Because it's the third installment. Starting with 1982's Friday the 13th Part III, it's been the corporate duty, the moral obligation, of big movie franchises to release the third one in 3D. Jaws, Spy Kids, Ice Age, Step Up, and Toy Story all did it, and Men in Black and Transformers are both coming. (Shrek missed the boat.)

But Harold & Kumar in 3D -- that's going to be funnier and way more contrived and ridiculous than all of those. In this one, Harold and Kumar will enter the third dimension in their quest for the perfect last-minute Christmas tree. That story doesn't have quite the same urgency as getting to White Castle or escaping Guantanamo, but that's what we've got.

Joining NPH and other usual cast members will be some great-sounding surprises: Patton Oswalt, Danny Trejo, and Fred Melamed. First timer Todd Strauss-Schulson is directing--he's the creator of many goofball College Humor-type videos like "Drunks vs. Highs" and "The I Have To Go In A Minute Show", so obviously we're in capable stoner-movie hands.

June 30, 2010

"Freaks and Geeks" is on!

Freaks and Geeks

One of the most talked-about TV shows of all time that nobody watched while it was on the air is "Freaks and Geeks". It's one of my favorite shows ever, and today's big news is that IFC is going to air the entire series, starting this Friday!

The show gets so much attention now because it represents the earliest stage of what has become the Judd Apatow Juggernaut: that group of writers, directors, and actors who have dominated the R-rated comedy scene since 2005's The 40 Year Old Virgin. The show was the brainchild of Apatow, Paul Feig (who went on to do "Arrested Development" and "The Office") and Mike White (Orange County, School of Rock).

The stars have almost all gone on to bigger things: James Franco, Seth Rogen (at a tender 17!), Jason Segel, Linda Cardelleni, and Busy Philipps all got their start on the show. My very favorite actor on the show is Martin Starr, who's now an awesome character actor and has become handsome and sort of beefy--surprising, considering how good he was as super-nerd Bill Haverchuck on the show.

(In other news, Martin Starr's latest show "Party Down" just got canceled by Starz.)

Anyway, "Freaks and Geeks" was an hour-long comedy-drama about being in high school in Michigan in the mid-80's. It's hilarious and nostalgic in a non-manipulative way and heartbreaking and great. If you missed it when it ran for all of 18 episodes in 1999-2000, now's your chance.

It airs on IFC on Friday, Monday, and Sunday nights. In a few months, IFC is also going to run the entire series of "Undeclared", which was the next show produced by most of the same people. That one's about freshman year of college. It was pretty uneven and never reached the greatness of "Freaks and Geeks", but it does feature a great performance by Jason Segel as the obsessive hometown boyfriend of the main girl who during one episode comes to visit her on campus--he's completely unnerving and manic, and it's the best thing he's ever done.

When IFC was airing "Arrested Development" a few months ago, if I ever happened to come across it while flipping around the channels I would always sit and watch the episode, even though I've got the DVDs sitting right there under the TV. I'm sure it will be exactly the same with "Freaks and Geeks"--it's just more exciting to be lucky enough to catch a favorite episode on TV, plus no commercials.

IFC has gotten really good at picking my favorite shows. What's next? "Spaced"?

June 23, 2010

McChrystal: the Stillwater of the U.S. Military

General McChrystal looking sad

Tough break, General McChrystal. Yammering to Rolling Stone about your ineffectual boss was a terrible idea, but it really seems like he lost sight of how his words would sound outside of the Paris bars where he hung out out with journalist Michael Hastings.

The issue of Rolling Stone won't hit the stands until Friday, and it's already the most significant/disastrous article of the year. It's worth reading. We already know about all the disses on Obama and no-nonsense military tough-talk, but there's some funny and surprising stuff in there, too. McChrystal sounds like a guy who's serious about his job, totally dedicated to his soldiers, misguidedly wedded to his counterinsurgency fantasy, and almost superhumanly disciplined. With the notable exception of his tendency to mouth off to reporters.

A couple of interesting bits:

  • McChrystal allegedly eats only once a day, and in the month (!) that Michael Hastings spent around him, he witnessed him eating exactly one time
  • His staff refers to themselves as "Team America", referencing the movie by the South Park guys in a way that causes me a lot of confusion about their degree of self-awareness
  • He's tighter with Karzai than the US ambassador or any other civilian government reps
  • He was personally involved in the cover-up of Pat Tillman's death by a fellow soldier in Afghanistan, one of the darker moments of this war
  • He wrote 7 short stories for the West Point literary journal while he was there

Michael Hastings did a short interview with Newsweek (his former employer) over the turmoil his piece has created, and discusses why McChrystal was so open with him. Specifically: he has no idea.

He's still in Afghanistan now, and says that he doesn't know why McChrystal agreed to talk to him in the first place. But it does seem like a lot of the more candid (aka ill-advised) stuff might have come out because a) they were in Paris and Berlin for some of the time, rather than in Afghanistan, and b) what was supposed to be two days of interviews turned into a month because of the the Icelandic ash cloud.

So I guess things got a little looser as time went on, and McChrystal and his staff probably stopped thinking of Hastings as a journalist. It happened in Almost Famous, when Stillwater got a little too cozy with their 15 year-old Rolling Stone reporter, and I guess it happened in real life, too.

One other interesting thing about Michael Hastings: he's also the guy whose girlfriend visited him while he was working for Newsweek in Baghdad as part of her job with a political nonprofit, and while she was there got killed in a Sunni ambush. He wrote a book about it.

June 16, 2010

Books about movies: the Brits beat us

BFI Film Classics, Star Wars

The other day I mentioned a new series of short books about individual movies that Soft Skull Press was going to launch later this year. Cool, right? Sort of like the 33 1/3 series of books about individual albums that I like a lot. Everyone's got a movie they've watched enough times they could probably write a book about it, it seems, so this sounded like a wonderful and novel idea.

Except that the British already did it. A film buff friend who knows a thousand times more than I ever will about German expressionism and film noir pointed out that if I'm so psyched about this new series, maybe I should check out BFI's existing series of short books about movies. Ahem.

Since the 90's, the BFI (British Film Institute) has been putting out these great little books as part of its Film Classics series, and they've got some really good ones. Like, well over 100 of them. They've got tons of standard selections like like Star Wars (above), Vertigo, and Lawrence of Arabia, and smart, less popular favorites like Night of the Living Dead, Cat People, and Sweet Smell of Success, which comes out later this summer.

But check these out. They did a book about Groundhog Day. Spirited Away. In August they're putting out Back to the Future. Manohla Dargis did the book about L.A. Confidential ! They got freaking Salman Rushdie to write the book about The Wizard of Oz !

They're all available in the US through Macmillan, and they're all up on Amazon, too. Just about all of them are 10 or 11 bucks, and mostly under 100 pages! Though, mysteriously, no books about Alien or Tootsie.

Wow. Hard to know where to start. Maybe I'll go for Mark Kermode's book on The Exorcist--he's pretty great, and apparently believes it's the greatest movie ever made.

June 3, 2010

Books about music, books about movies

They Live by John Carpenter

One of the coolest things to happen to music criticism in recent years is Continuum's 33 1/3 series of short books, each one about a different album and by a different author. Each book is around 100 pages long, and includes background, interviews, heady analysis, and often some wacky, highly personal musings, reflections, and rants on the importance of the album in question. They're a lot of fun--the experience of reading one is sort of like meeting an interesting person at a party and suddenly finding yourself in a long, meandering conversation about the album that's playing, which you both happen to really love.

The albums in the series range from the obvious but necessary ("Led Zeppelin IV", "Doolittle", "OK Computer") to the well-informed if less canonical ("Meat is Murder", "Born in the U.S.A.") to the truly inspired picks that you might not immediately think of for a series like this ("Rid of Me", "Trout Mask Replica", and one brave monograph about Celine Dion.) There are new ones coming out all the time--I can't wait to see the book for Wu Tang's "36 Chambers", especially the crazy recording studio anecdotes. Here's the whole Wikipedia list and Amazon list.

Many of the writers of these books don't have any other author credits on Amazon, so there's a tantalizing sense that you yourself could one day write a 33 1/3 book on "Dubnobasswithmyheadman" or "Faith" or "Elastica" or "Very Necessary", and that music fans everywhere would read about your own personal musical obsessions.

(As a side note, I've always thought it was an unfortunate indicator of my own musical ignorance that the one book in the series written by somebody I actually know is about an album I have zero personal connection with: The Minutemen's "Double Nickels on the Dime".)

This news has been out for a bit, but I just found out (via Rex) there's going to be a similar series of short books -- about movies! It's called Deep Focus, and it's being put out by Soft Skull Press. The first two books in the series will be about John Carpenter's alien takeover movie They Live, by Jonathan Lethem (!), and Charles Bronson's Death Wish by Christopher Sorrentino. Both are out in November.

So the next obvious question: if you could write a book for this series, what movie would you choose? It seems like they're going mainstream so far, but let's assume that the movie selection will be wide open. I might pick a favorite comedy like Tootsie. There's so much to say about that movie. Or, oh man, can you imagine getting to write a whole book that encompasses every tangent and diversion about Blue Velvet? Or The Apartment? Or Dead Alive? Or Hannah and Her Sisters? I can't wait to see where they go with the series.

If you were going to get paid to go off at length on your own totally subjective analysis and personal adoration of a movie, what would you pick?

May 30, 2010

Please Give

Please Give

As an antidote to the opening of Sex and the City 2 on Thursday night, I went to see Nicole Holofcener's latest movie Please Give. The two movies have a lot in common: both are about women in New York City trying to make a living, find love, and get a pair of jeans that makes their butt look good (at least, you know, in concept.) But while all the lightness and sass of the first few seasons of "Sex and the City" have been sucked out of the movies, leaving what A.O. Scott describes as "the ugly smell of unexamined privilege", Please Give is a totally different story.

Catherine Keener is the star of every Nicole Holofcener movie, and she's always phenomenally great. Here she plays a woman uneasily living with the ugly smell of examined privilege. She and her husband Oliver Platt are waiting for the elderly woman next door to die so they can expand into her apartment, and they run a vintage furniture shop that relies on the willingness of children of dead people to part with their parents' beautiful old stuff so they can resell it with a huge markup.

Neither of these things are necessarily morally wrong, but she's so consumed with guilt that she tries to compensate in increasingly awkward ways: she gives twenties to people on the street, tries to gives leftovers to an older black man she incorrectly assumes is homeless, and offers to volunteer at a center for disabled kids, but is asked to leave when she starts crying while watching them play basketball. She's a really deeply flawed character and the source of most of her own misery. But the way Keener plays her, I felt like I could relate to her--after all, what thinking person doesn't feel some guilt about the poverty you see everyday in this city and want to do the right thing in response? The characters in this movie do the wrong thing a lot of the time, but they're so well written and acted that I still feel for them.

Oh, also, it's funny. The rest of the cast includes my girlfriend Rebecca Hall as a sweet, lonely mammogram technician who puts up with her nasty grandmother with a lot more patience than her sister, Amanda Peet. She plays a selfish bitchy pretty girl like she has in many movies, but this character is a lot more credible and sympathetic than her characters in Igby Goes Down or Saving Silverman. Representing the older and younger generations, there's the delightfully abrasive Ann Guilbert who plays the insufferable grandmother with genius comic timing, and Sarah Steele as Catherine Keener's teenage daughter who spends the whole movie mortified by her looks, until the last scene when she walks out of a dressing room wearing the coveted pair of flattering jeans absolutely glowing, and you realize she's a really good actress.

This movie could have easily been a repellently vapid story about neurotic upper middle class people and how hard it is to live a privileged life, but instead it's subtle, funny, and sometimes uncomfortably relatable. And it's so good to see a movie about women who are fully imagined people rather than plot devices. Roger Ebert's review is great: "Nicole Holofcener pays close attention to women. She doesn't define them by their relationships with men. In a Holofcener movie, women actually have their own reasons for doing things — and these are even allowed to be bad reasons, and funny ones. The movie is about imperfect characters in a difficult world, who mostly do the best they can under the circumstances, but not always. Do you realize what a revolutionary approach that is for a movie these days?"

May 5, 2010

Machete trailer

The trailer that became a movie has become a trailer again: a new trailer for the full-length Machete is out!

It's been a rough time for Robert Rodriguez since he teamed up with Quentin Tarantino to do Grindhouse. He left his wife and 5 children to take up with his leading lady Rose McGowan, which, incredibly, did not work out. Also, Grindhouse was a flop, for reasons I still can't figure out.

At least something good is coming out of it. Machete was originally a fake trailer shown between the two short movies that made up Grindhouse (here's the video). Now it's a wonderfully pulpy looking full-length movie coming out in September, featuring the incredibly prolific extra turned character actor turned movie star Danny Trejo. Here's The A.V. Club's great recent interview with him.

There's also Robert DeNiro as an anti-immigrant Senator advocating a law that's pretty much exactly like the real one in Arizona ("every time an illegal dances across our border, it is an overt act of terrorism!") which is a total gift to this movie's marketing plan. And Jessica Alba and a one-eyed Michelle Rodriguez as tough freedom fighters, and Cheech Marin as a double-barreled priest.

Oh, and Lindsay Lohan in her first real movie in 3 years.

And Don Johnson.

This movie is like holy absolution for every actor who's noticed the phone doesn't ring as much as it used to.

May 3, 2010

Music videos are back

Lady Gage Poison TV

Back in the early days of shows like "Friday Night Videos", music videos were a fun, goofy diversion. They usually looked like they cost about $25 to make and served as a novel way to experience the songs you heard on the radio, and as a new resource for looking at girls and guys in sexy outfits. Examples: Olivia Newton-John's "Physical", Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra".

Then videos became both big business and sometimes actual art. You've got every video from "Thriller", a-ha's "Take On Me", and Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More". People often cared more about the video than the song, and videos became the perfect marketing device: ads that people wanted to watch. Pretty soon David Fincher is directing Paula Abdul's best videos and Madonna's "Express Yourself", Michael Jackson makes "Scream" for $7 million, and Aerosmith does an Alicia Silverstone video trilogy ("Cryin'", "Crazy", and the one I always forget, "Amazing".)

I'd love to see a graph comparing the declining number of videos aired per day on MTV and shrinking record sales. Maybe downloading had already taken hold, so MTV decided to stop running video-ads for singles and albums that no one was buying anymore. Or maybe MTV's lack of interest in videos and growing devotion to reality shows actually contributed in some small way to the crash of the music industry. Either way, record companies don't have the marketing budgets that they used to, and the last five years or so have been terrible for the music video.

In New York magazine, there's a great article called "Internet Killed the MTV Star", which says that even if they're not on TV anymore, videos are back. There's nothing in this piece that comes as much of a surprise, but it nicely articulates a few things that you've probably been noticing over the past few years:

  • Videos are popular again because of YouTube
  • YouTube has slowly shifted focus from accidentally popular amateur videos to intentionally popular music videos
  • Lady Gaga is the biggest thing to happen to music videos since MTV, Madonna, and Tawny Kitaen.

Gaga's videos have over 1 billion views, and she's one of few current artists to have truly massive album sales ("The Fame" hit 10 million in February), so it seems that people do still actually want to buy a record when they like the videos.

Gaga's videos are also money makers in themselves, through a little bit of revenue from internet ads, and from far more lucrative product placement, which glaringly saturates the "Telephone" video. The CEO of video service Vevo (which is owned by Sony and Universal) says, "There was a time when music videos were purely promotional, and that was fine when people were buying music. Now they're no longer promotional. We sell advertising in and around them at a premium. Instead of being a marketing expense, videos can be a profit center."

One of the best things about the resurgence of music videos as something record companies will actually invest in again is that the most exciting directors that really know how to make great videos can get back into it. The director of Gaga's current trilogy, Jonas Akerlund, did a lot of Roxette videos and that notorious Prodigy one for "Smack My Bitch Up". Spike Jonze has just done a new one for LCD Soundsystem's "Drunk Girls". Michel Gondry, who did tons of great videos for Bjork and the White Stripes, but hasn't been doing much lately, says, "now I feel like it's coming back to early MTV, before the big-budget cranes, when it was creative and fun."

Videos might be creative and fun again because we're going to see a whole lot of Virgin Mobile ads in them, but on the whole, it's probably a better experience than watching MTV circa 1999 when you pretty much just saw the same Smash Mouth and Limp Bizkit videos every day.

[Thanks, That Fuzzy Bastarrd!]

April 26, 2010

R-rated movies and child corruption

The Howling

A recent study found that kids who are allowed to watch R-rated movies are a lot more likely to start drinking at younger ages. The researchers surveyed middle school kids, asking them whether their parents let them watch R-rated movies or not, then surveyed the same kids again two years later and asked if they'd started drinking yet. Only 3% of kids who were never allowed to watch R-rated movies drank, compared to a Goldschlager-chugging 25% of kids who were allowed to watch R-rated movies "all the time".

One of the researchers said the data suggests that it's the R-rated movies themselves that lead kids to drink: "seeing the adult content actually changes their personality."

What it says to me is that, for better or worse, kids with more permissive parents end up drinking sooner than kids with more restrictive parents. But I wonder about those kids who aren't actually allowed to watch R-rated movies, but sneakily figure out how to watch them anyway. Which is probably most kids in the 10-14 age range, especially the ones with HBO. Do they get into even worse stuff than the kids whose parents let them watch some R-rated movies and maybe let them have a little wine at special events? What are those sneaky kids doing by the time they get to 9th grade? Snorting mescaline and watching snuff films?

Using myself as a test case, I thought back to the first R-rated movie I ever saw. Because we're talking about the '80's here, my first experiences were all horror. I watched about half of Children of the Corn at age 11 at a neighborhood party in the TV room where the kids were hanging out. Probably none of the parents there knew their kids were watching it. It could have been a pretty subversive viewing experience, considering I was in a roomful of preteens at a grown-up party watching a movie about kids killing all the adults in town, but unfortunately, it's a pretty terrible movie. Not actually good enough to be subversive. I left the room when things started to get heavy, human-sacrifice-wise.

The first one I watched all the way through was The Howling, a much better movie, at around age 13. This is a great first R-rated horror movie for a kid to see: it's equal parts cool, scary, and ridiculous, and plays out like an investigative conspiracy movie with Dee Wallace as a reporter accidentally mixed up with a colony of werewolves. I loved it. No kind of parental permission was involved in watching this one, either.

Then shortly after that, some friends and I sneaked into a movie theater showing Action Jackson, an awful movie that made a lot of money and didn't quite destroy Carl Weathers' career. I loved sneaking into the theater, but hated the movie. Things got a lot better with repeated, obsessive viewings of The Lost Boys on video.

Even though my parents didn't actually give me permission to watch any of these movies, they definitely let me drink a little bit at summer parties and the odd holiday dinner. I wonder what happens to kids who watch higher quality R-rated movies than I happened to see? If a 12 year-old watches Fargo and Chinatown, will they actually start drinking at a later age because they're more likely to turn into film geeks and spend their Saturday nights staying in and watching TCM?

What was your first R-rated movie? Did it corrupt you?

April 20, 2010

Mars and Venus make a movie

Women are from Pluto, Men are from Uranus

The latest insanely popular relationship self-help book to be made into a movie will be early 90's juggernaut "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus", a book I was almost as happy to see fade from public consciousness as the marginally more odious "The Rules". I'm sure you remember this book. There was a time that every single person on the planet was reading it, or one of its thousands of spin-offs ("M&V On a Date", "M&V In the Bedroom", "M&V Starting Over", "M&V Grit Their Teeth Through Endless Years of Tedium and Despair"). And by "every single person" I mean women who can't stand their insufferable husbands/boyfriends.

Time for Mars & Venus: The Movie! Which sounds exactly like last year's He's Just Not That Into You: The Movie, except with even more rigid and stereotypical gender roles.

The book was a giant step backwards in terms of breaking down useless and stifling assumptions about what men are like (i.e. rational) and what women are like (i.e. emotional), and reinforced the notion that you can make generalizations about men and women so outrageously broad that you can claim things like this:

"In Chapter 3 we'll discover the different ways men and women cope with stress. Martians tend to pull away and silently think about what's bothering them, while Venusians feel an instinctive need to talk about what's bothering them ... In Chapter 5 you'll learn how men and women commonly misunderstand each other because they speak different languages ... You will learn how men and women speak and even stop speaking for entirely different reasons."

As to what kind of pseudo-chick-flick nightmare this movie is going to be, you can pretty much imagine. On the upside, I can't wait to read Manohla Dargis's eviscerating review, which will probably spit as much venom as her HJNTIY review.

As far as casting goes, the movie could go a few different ways. The standard Hollywood movie star route would probably go with Jennifer Aniston and Bradley Cooper (who were both in HJNTIY). The really horrifically unfortunate cast would be Katherine Heigl and Ben Affleck. The luckier cast that might create an OK movie could be someone like Emily Mortimer or Rosemarie DeWitt, and Adam Goldberg or Paul Rudd. But would actors like them want anything to do with a movie like this?

In an ideal, admittedly psychotic, world, I would love to see the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus movie starring David Cross and Jane Adams as the hostile, bickering couple from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind who appear throughout the movie, staying together while loathing each other. Here's a short video clip of one of my favorite scenes ("I am making a birdhouse!")

April 14, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop

exit through the gift shop

Someone finally made a good documentary about street art, except it's only partially about Banksy and other actual street artists, and mostly about a crazy, obsessive French fan who followed them around with a camera, Thierry Guetta.

The best thing about the movie is Banksy himself and his totally self-effacing sense of humor. It's not so surprising that he's a funny guy: most of his art is funny in a sly, dark way. But the man is also a master of comic timing, telling the strange story of how he befriended Thierry Guetta, only much later realizing how mental he was, like he's been crafting a whole other career as a performer. We never see his face or hear his voice without distortion, but you can still tell he's not only a great artist but a hilarious storyteller, too.

The movie was directed by Banksy, but almost all the footage was filmed by Thierry Guetta though his obsessive recording of pretty much every moment of his waking life. Guetta started hanging out with LA street artists sort of by accident, and claimed he was making a documentary even though he had no intention of cutting all his miles of tape into anything like a movie. As Banksy eventually realized, he wasn't really a filmmaker, but "just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera." It's not a very flattering story for Banksy, but he's honest in showing that his relationship with Guetta was based on Guetta's total adoration of him and willingness to do whatever he asked. Even cool street artists are susceptible to ego-stroking.

After Guetta's monumentally successful debut as an artist himself (as Mr. Brainwash), the street artists he had followed around didn't want anything to do with him. Guetta copied their styles and techniques, and threw together hundreds of meaningless pieces that blatantly rip off every major pop artist of the last 50 years. It's easy to dismiss all the people who got suckered into buying his bad art as trend-seeking morons, but I admire that Banksy also included footage of his own media circus of an LA art exhibit, with celebrity buyers and a stunt involving a baby elephant overshadowing the actual art. As the title suggests, street art has become something you buy in a museum gift shop. Banksy's art is in a different category than Mr. Brainwash's, but the hype that surrounds both of them is equally silly.

One of the best parts of the movie is a beautiful and inspiring opening montage of street and graffiti artists at work on brick walls, trains, tunnels, and sidewalks all over the world, set to Richard Hawley's "Tonight the Streets Are Ours". You can see most of it in this extended trailer. In spite of all the money and attention that a pretend artist like Mr. Brainwash might get, it's so awesome to watch the real ones out there doing it and risking getting hurt or busted by the cops because they love it.

April 13, 2010

Genetically-engineered movies


Director Andrew Niccol seems like he has it all figured out. He wants to make sci-fi movies, like his first movie Gattaca, but he wants to be able to plausibly fill his movies with conspicuously gorgeous people. So he makes his story about genetically engineered characters who are literally scientifically perfect. Enter Uma Thurman and Jude Law, hot sci-fi stars.

Niccol's next movie, titled I'm.mortal, is about a world in which the aging gene can be turned off. The wealthy elite never age and can live forever, while the poor struggle to buy the most agelessness they can afford (it sounds a little like Logan's Run.) Voila! You can fill your cast with 23 year-olds! No need for any aging hags, and no regard for realistic age differentiation whatsoever. Dakota Fanning can play Chace Crawford's mom and Megan Fox's great-grandmother. Why not?

Unfortunately for Andrew Niccol, his scripts that require his cast to be abnormally attractive haven't been so successful in the past: all three movies he's directed (Gattaca, S1m0ne, Lord of War) have been bombs, and the only real success he's had is his script for The Truman Show. Which actually sort of follows the same model of engineering a story to get the cast you want: it pretty much required that Truman be played by a universally beloved huge star, and Jim Carrey is probably a big reason why the movie did so well.

How this guy gets to keep making movies after so many failures is beyond me.

Anyway, maybe after I'm.mortal (that is one overly complicated smug little bastard of a title), he'll write a script about a world in the not-too-distant future, where genetically perfect teens have evolved to a state where they no longer need to wear clothes for protection from the elements. Birthday Suits?

April 9, 2010

Ride pimper, possible wife killer

Monica Beresford-Redman

This is a photo of the cute and sassy Monica Beresford-Redman. I'm assuming it was taken in the mid-90's, judging from the cigar. She's the owner of an LA nightspot that every news story refers to as "the Zabumba bikini bar", and the wife of Bruce Beresford-Redman who created MTV's "Pimp My Ride" and produced some "Survivor" episodes. Bruce was detained by Mexican police yesterday when Monica was found dead in the sewer system of a hotel near Cancun where they had been staying.

He was released today, but has been asked not to leave the country. It's not looking so good for Bruce: guests and staff at the hotel heard them fighting (probably because she had just learned he was cheating) and saw him try to hit her on Monday night, when she was murdered. It looks like she was scratched and choked, and Bruce has scratches on his face and neck, which if you're even a casual viewer of "Law & Order", you know is highly suspicious.

(Note: I realize that you can't really use crime-solving strategies from TV and movies to investigate real crimes. But, OK. In addition to the usual, face-scratches = guilt calculus of many "Law & Order" episodes, there are instances in pop culture when scratches on a suspect's face do not ultimately point to guilt.

One example is Sam Raimi's fantastic and probably underrated movie The Gift, in which an abusive and monstrous Keanu Reeves is initially suspected of killing Katie Holmes, in part because they were having a secret and probably really hot affair, and also because he got scratches on his neck the night she was killed. It turns out that his explanation for the scratches--"Stray cat. She didn't like it when I killed her."--though absurdly over the top in trying to make his character seem menacing and evil, was actually legitimate.)

But in the case of Bruce and Monica Beresford-Redman, I'd say those scratches were likely not from a stray cat. The night of their fight and Monica's death, their hotel door was also opened and closed "at least 11 times". Remember how in Rear Window, Raymond Burr's series of comings and goings late at night from the apartment complex was part of what led Jimmy Stewart to conclude that he had killed his wife.

Bruce B-R probably didn't set out to kill his wife that night (assuming he actually did it) but started hurting her in a moment of anger and poor judgment and, oh, whoops, she's dead. But if he'd spent more time watching crime dramas, he might have know how to cover his tracks better.

March 29, 2010

When famous people are gay

Ricky Martin's Hall of Fame star

It's getting increasingly difficult to remember which gay celebrities have officially come out and which ones are just biding their time until they have a new album/movie/show to promote.

Today's news that Ricky Martin is a fortunate homosexual man wasn't surprising in itself, though for a minute I thought, didn't this just happen the other day? When we found out someone was gay who we already knew was gay?

Oh, no, that was Sean Hayes (just in time for his new Broadway show!)

It's no one's duty to be a positive role model for their alleged community, but every time we get another Ricky Martin to admit it already, hopefully it gets a little easier for the rest of the closeted people we see on TV and in movies to come out, too.

So, how about it, Anderson?


Hell, Peter O'Toole?

Wait a minute. Ladies first!



How much of the entertainment industry is gay? A lot more than we know about. Ultimately it's no one's business, and you can't get very far by guessing, but I know attitudes and assumptions would change mighty fast if every single gay celebrity (and elected Republican, apparently) came out tomorrow.

March 25, 2010

Roger Ebert's new TV show

Ebert and Siskel on Sneak Previews

This is my favorite picture of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, from back in the old days. It might even be from their first show together, "Sneak Previews", which aired on PBS stations in the 70's before "At the Movies" started.

Shortly after the announcement that the current A.O. Scott/Michael Phillips-hosted "At the Movies" show was getting canceled, Roger Ebert shed some light on the new TV show and "full-tilt new media" enterprise he's got in the works, which will be called "Roger Ebert presents At the Movies".

The most exciting thing about this new show is that it sounds like the show Ebert has always wanted to do. The experience of watching movies has completely changed in the last 10 years. Everyone now has access to the kinds of little, foreign, or independent movies that only people in big cities used to see, through Netflix, Amazon's streaming rentals, on-demand, Red Box kiosks and things like that. Every so often, Siskel and Ebert would devote a significant chunk of their weekly show to a small movie that most of us would never be able to see in the theater, and would be lucky if our local video store got a copy of it.

Back in the early 90's they championed movies like Hoop Dreams and Crumb and Kieslowski's Three Colors series on nationally syndicated TV, which is pretty incredible. They probably did more to raise the profile of independent and foreign film in the US than anybody else.

So now that we all have far greater access all kinds of weird, small movies, Ebert's new show can be as far-reaching as he wants, because his audience will be so much more knowledgeable about what's out there. Here's how he describes it: "Not just the One Weekend Wonders, although you gotta have 'em, but indie films, foreign films, documentaries, restored classics, the new Herzog, the new Bahrani, the new Almodovar. What's new on Instant Streaming. What great movies should everyone see? Hey, Paramount just announced $1 million for ten $100,000 movies. Those kinds of films ... Our show will try to reach people who think before they watch a movie, and value their time, and their minds."

So, obviously, it's gonna be on cable. Maybe IFC? Ebert and his wife, Chaz, are producing it, and he says they've chosen their host. I don't think it will be any of the previous "At the Movies" hosts (though there's a decent chance Ben Mankiewicz could be in the running--he did a pretty good job.)

My top choice: Alec Baldwin. Why not? He's already hosting the New York Philharmonic's weekly radio show, hosting "The Essentials" on Saturday nights on TCM, writing for the Huffington Post, guest hosting Studio 360, and hosted the Oscars, and that's on top of "30 Rock". He can handle it. I'm only half kidding.

Ebert himself will be on the show every so often for a Great Movies segment or to report from the film festivals. It should be a fun and thoughtful show, because that's how he seems to approach everything these days. Ebert's reviews have gotten pretty generous lately, but he's still an assiduous reviewer.

Check out his review for Hot Tub Time Machine: three stars, which surprises even him, but he explains why it's better than you would think. And here's what he says about Rob Corddry (probably the biggest reason to see it): "Corddry here achieves a level of comic confidence that seems almost uncanny; Cusack, as co-producer, and Steve Pink, the director (who wrote Cusack's High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank), must have intuited this gift and been willing to give him free rein."

I'm glad Ebert's got the money and the clout to do the kind of show he wants. It should be great.

March 19, 2010

The Runaways reviews

The Runaways cast

The first movie of the year that I'm really excited about, The Runaways, comes out today. Let's look at some reviews:

  • A.O. Scott seems to love it in spite of its typical music biopic flaws. Also check out his glowing comment about Dakota Fanning: "Ms. Fanning, who has shown herself a remarkably disciplined and self-aware actress almost since toddlerhood, displays heartbreaking vulnerability as well as frightening poise."
  • Three stars from Roger Ebert, who especially loves Michael Shannon as the Svengali-like producer/manager Kim Fowley. He also ends the review with this cute note: "Many years ago, while I was standing at a luggage carousel at Heathrow Airport, I was approached by a friendly young woman. "I'm Joan Jett," she told me. "I liked Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Just sayin'."
  • Owen Gleiberman thinks it's OK as long as the girls are rocking on stage, but the dramatic scenes are "glumly episodic." He also wishes Kristen Stewart played Joan Jett with bigger dykey swagger.
  • Michael Phillips says that even if we've seen the stories and these characters before in other rock movies, The Runaways "has an exceptional hangout factor."

March 10, 2010

Lost surprises

Mario Van Peebles directing Lost

I don't know which was the bigger surprise on last night's "Lost": finding out who Ben is talking to on his doorstep, or seeing the "Directed by Mario Van Peebles" credit that flashed up on the screen at the same time (full episode here).

The last I'd heard of Mario, he was directing and starring in a homage to his father Melvin's seminal 1971 blaxploitation movie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, called, naturally Baadasssss! It was, and I mean this with all sincerity, badass.

Since then, he's directed a few episodes of "Law & Order" and now has a small role on "Damages". I don't think he's really made a movie since Baadasssss! (that's 5 s's) in 2003, but he has somehow gotten to direct three feature-length movies that are in production right now, including:

Plus a BET documentary about black male role models called "Bring Your A Game" with Spike Lee and Ice Cube. And an episode of "Lost".

Mario Van Peebles, I don't know how you do it. Either he's got the world's best agent, he works really cheap, or the entertainment industry thinks back on New Jack City with overpowering fondness.

March 8, 2010

Oscars night, with special Who'dat?™: Oscars flashback edition

Kathryn Bigelow winning Best Director Oscar

What I can't figure out about the Oscars is how a show that moves along from award to award so briskly and cuts off speeches at 45 seconds still feels like an interminable bore, punctuated by some funny Baldwin/Martin banter. There were a mere 3 montages, no performances of Best Song nominees, and there wasn't even an Irving G. Thalberg award this year!

Still, when we got to the last two awards and the show was already a half-hour overtime, suddenly it went from slow-motion to high gear and it was all over in about 3 minutes. Hurt Locker's in, Avatar's out, and Kathryn Bigelow gave two sincere but sort of bland speeches, thanking the military twice (and also Hazmat teams! Weird.) I'd like to think that she won Best Director on the basis of her movie and not because of some feel-good self-congratulatory tokenism on the part of the Academy, but either way, she accepted it like a cool, collected pro (and thankfully avoided all "this award is so much bigger than me" claims, and crying.) Here's the clip.

Anyway, the other interesting moment was the teen star reunion in honor of John Hughes. Look at the round-spectacled guy who looks sort of like one third of John Goodman with a goatee. Even after the announcer read all their names as they came out on stage, I had no idea who this guy was.


You can make your guess and click on the photo to see if you're right. Or you can just read Wonkette's first headline this morning.

Though I certainly didn't know it, Judd Nelson has kept working steadily since the 80's, mostly small roles in movies I've never heard of. And New Jack City. Later this year, he'll star in a movie called Mayor Cupcake, in which he plays the husband of a small-town baker played by fellow Hughes teen star Lea Thompson.

The weirdest part of the night was the dance montage of the Best Score nominees, with guys in cardigans breakdancing to The Hurt Locker.

My favorite moments: The Hurt Locker actors picking each other up and screaming when they won Best Picture, T Bone Burnett's sunglasses and suit, the horror montage, and the AmEx Members Project ad with Geoffrey Canada talking about Harlem Children's Zone, which was more inspiring than just about any of the award-winning movie clips.

You can watch all the acceptance speeches at the Oscars site.

March 3, 2010

Oscars predictions

Christoph Waltz

It's another Oscars year where everybody already knows who's going to win a lot of the major awards. Some of these are great picks, and some we'll think about years from now and wonder how the Academy could have made such weird choices that now make no sense (Sandra Bullock really needs an Oscar?)

We've gone through the nominees and make our predictions about who's going to get the award, like always. These are our guesses about who will win, not necessarily who should win. My grand unified theory about how these things get decided is that Academy members vote for their friends, and they love to feel good about themselves.

Put your own picks in the comments and display your nuanced understanding of how Hollywood insiders operate! If you're going to keep score at home and not just swear futilely at Sean Penn and Miley Cyrus as they announce winners, here's a printable ballot with all the nominees.

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart" (Amy) Jeff Bridges is by far the best part of this movie--he's pretty much irresistible and everybody loves him. This is the Academy's feel-good award this year. Clooney already has an Oscar, and Colin Firth will hopefully be back another year. (Cushie) I think Jeremy Renner is the dark horse here, but Bridges will win.
George Clooney in "Up in the Air"
Colin Firth in "A Single Man"
Morgan Freeman in "Invictus"
Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker"

Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon in "Invictus"
Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger"
Christopher Plummer in "The Last Station"
Stanley Tucci in "The Lovely Bones"
Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds" (Amy) He's the obvious choice, and deserves to win, but there are other great nominees in this category. Too bad Christopher Plummer got his first nomination ever (!) this year, since he has no chance of winning. I guess that's what Lifetime Achievement awards are for. (Cushie) Matt Damon is probably the other one with a chance here, because he did a good job with a hard accent, but I think this might be the Basterds' only award.

Best Actress
Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side" (Amy) I want to believe Meryl Streep's going to get it. Do you realize Streep has not won an Oscar since 1983? It's time for another one, but she's not going to get it. Sandra Bullock is the weakest nominee of an otherwise great category. (Cushie) I think this is Sandra Bullock's year, unfortunately. I would prefer any of the other four.
Helen Mirren in "The Last Station"
Carey Mulligan in "An Education"
Gabourey Sidibe in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia"

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz in "Nine"
Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"
Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart"
Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"
Mo'Nique in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (Amy) There is no question. It's kind of a cardboard caricature of a role, but she did a great job with it. (Cushie) Vera Farmiga should get the "if I wasn't against Mo'Nique I would win" award.

Best Animated Feature Film
"Fantastic Mr. Fox"
"The Princess and the Frog"
"The Secret of Kells"
"Up" (Amy) I love this movie. (Cushie)

Art Direction
"Avatar" (Amy) This is the kind of category Avatar really deserves to win. Note it did not get a screenwriting nomination. (Cushie) I am actually OK with Avatar winning this.
"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"
"Sherlock Holmes"
"The Young Victoria"

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"
"The Hurt Locker" (Amy) The steady, unflinching camera was one of the best parts of the movie (Cushie)
"Inglourious Basterds"
"The White Ribbon"

Costume Design
"Bright Star"
"Coco before Chanel"
"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"
"Nine" (Amy) Can this award specifically be for Penelope Cruz's cardiac-arrest-inducing underwear costume from her big dance number? It's more likely a more obvious period piece will win, I just can't tell which one.
"The Young Victoria" (Cushie). The Academy loves period costumes, and it has a few choices here.

"The Hurt Locker" (Amy) This is it! The Academy won't be able to resist Making Movie History. I'm psyched. And will retreat into scowling hatred for the whole world if James Cameron wins. (Cushie) Time for a Lady Director!
"Inglourious Basterds"
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
"Up in the Air"

Best Documentary
"Burma VJ"
"The Cove" (Amy) I want Food, Inc. to win, but people seem to be into this one. Didn't concern for dolphins go out of vogue sometime in the early 90's, though?
"Food, Inc." (Cushie) Every single Academy member only shops at Whole Foods and feeds their beautiful child only the best in organic baby food.
"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers"
"Which Way Home"

Best Documentary Short
"China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province"
"The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner"
"The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant" (Amy) Hollywood wants to appear concerned about the struggles of regular Americans, right before going to Elton John's afterparty at the Sunset Tower. (Cushie) Although I would not be surprised if they chose the China movie.
"Music by Prudence"
"Rabbit à la Berlin"

"District 9"
"The Hurt Locker" (Amy)(Cushie)
"Inglourious Basterds"
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"

Best Foreign Language Film
"El Secreto de Sus Ojos"
"The Milk of Sorrow"
"Un Prophète"
"The White Ribbon"(Amy) Maybe too dark? Well, none of these are exactly feel-good, so I'm going with the one that's gotten the most attention.(Cushie)

"Il Divo"
"Star Trek" (Amy)
"The Young Victoria" (Cushie)

Original Score
"Avatar" (Cushie). Yuck.
"Fantastic Mr. Fox"
"The Hurt Locker"
"Sherlock Holmes"
"Up" (Amy)

Original Song
"Almost There" from "The Princess and the Frog"
"Down in New Orleans" from "The Princess and the Frog"
"Loin de Paname" from "Paris 36"
"Take It All" from "Nine"
"The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)" from "Crazy Heart" (Amy) The songs from this movie still pop into my head all the time. (Cushie) This is actually a great song.

Best Picture
"Avatar" (Amy) I guess? It will win because of its total industry domination, but not much else.
"The Blind Side"
"District 9"
"An Education"
"The Hurt Locker" (Cushie) Please please please!
"Inglourious Basterds"
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
"A Serious Man"
"Up in the Air"

Best Animated Short
"French Roast"
"Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty"
"The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)"
"A Matter of Loaf and Death" by Nick Park (Amy) Only because it's Nick Park. (Cushie)

Best Short Film
"The Door"
"Instead of Abracadabra"
"Miracle Fish" (Cushie) No idea. I like the name of this.
"The New Tenants" (Amy)

Sound Editing
"Avatar" (Cushie)
"The Hurt Locker"
"Inglourious Basterds"
"Star Trek" (Amy)

Sound Mixing
"Avatar" (Cushie)
"The Hurt Locker" (Amy) Hedging my bets, here.
"Inglourious Basterds"
"Star Trek"
"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"

Visual Effects
"Avatar" (Amy) It really deserves this one. Watching this movie was a transporting experience. (Cushie)
"District 9"
"Star Trek"

Adapted Screenplay
"District 9"
"An Education"
"In the Loop"
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
"Up in the Air" (Amy) People like this screenplay, I guess. I thought it was sloppy and non-credible, and I hope Nick Hornby gets it for An Education, but I don't think he will. (Cushie) I agree although I would love to see Hornby or Armando Iannucci.

Original Screenplay
"The Hurt Locker" (Cushie) Although I also think A Serious Man is a good contender.
"Inglourious Basterds" (Amy) Maybe he'll win this one again! Another really strong category. I'd be happy if any of these win, except maybe The Messenger.
"The Messenger"
"A Serious Man"

March 1, 2010

Scorsese: Style, yes! Substance, who cares?

Scorsese and Leo on the set of Shuttler Island

Sometimes, Martin Scorsese makes cinematic masterpieces that will be watched and remembered forever. And sometimes he makes overly long meandering movies that have their good points and look great, but run out of steam by the end. In the first category you've got Goodfellas and Raging Bull and, probably, The Departed. In the second category you've got movies like Casino, where the best thing about the movie might be Robert DeNiro's suits.

I forget sometimes that not every Scorsese movie is a winner, but watching Shutter Island last night served as a great reminder. "Oh, right," I thought. "I'd almost forgotten about the 15 years I spent watching Gangs of New York."

If you think about Shutter Island as a pulpy, melodramatic B-movie, it actually comes out OK. The first third of the movie is tense and atmospheric, and the dark mysteries about the mental institution "foh the criminally in-SANE," as we've all heard Leo stress over and over in the trailer, are creepy and interesting. The movie loses steam in the last 45 minutes, and the payoff at the end is really unsatisfying, but there sure are some beautiful shots and gorgeous, color-drenched sets, and all kinds of lurid images of horror-movie carnage. When the blood flows it's a rich cherry red, and Ben Kingsley's sitting room is all velvet upholstery you could do the breaststroke in and sparkling crystal whisky decanters. And I'm gonna be honest: there are worse ways you could spend your time than watching Mark Ruffalo in a 50's suit and fedora, raising those eyebrows and looking gorgeously Ruffalicious.

Actually, considering his competition, you could argue that Shutter Island is the best of the movies adapted from Dennis Lehane novels. The other ones are Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, which was drab and flat except when it was shrill and hysterical, and Gone Baby Gone by Ben Affleck (I know!), which was pretty good but dragged in the third act. Actually, all of his adapted movies seem to start strong and then sputter to a ending that I stopped caring about half an hour ago.

At least Scorsese knows how to do style when the substance is lacking. For an excellent example of this that's a lot more fun than Shutter Island, there's the long-form commercial he did for Freixenet a couple of years ago. It's set up like a documentary about Scorsese filming some newly discovered pages from a Hitchcock script, and he's really hilarious in it.

Yeah, he sure does lots of ads, but at least they're funny. The AmEx ads (especially the one hour photo one) and the AT&T ad that runs in movie theaters about shutting off your cellphone ("You don't even call him daddy. To you, he's Frank. That's how detached you are") are my favorites. Scorsese sells out better than anyone.

February 16, 2010

She's everyone's Sharona

Sharona Alperin

Doug Fieger, singer and guitarist of The Knack, died over the weekend of lung cancer (here's his obituary.) But his teenage girlfriend from the 70s, Sharon Alperin, still looms large in pop music history as the subject of their biggest hit "My Sharona", that classic tale of unrestrained sexual coercion.

Fieger presumably built his entire career around that one song, which was #1 in the charts for 6 weeks in 1979 and has been the inspiration for many parodies and tributes and the scene from Reality Bites that ushered people my age into generational nostalgia, even though we were still in college when the movie came out.

Anyway, I'm glad to see that Sharona, that braless teenage siren in a tank top, has used her tangential celebrity to her own advantage: her real estate website URL is, one third of the site's page on her experience is about the song, and she was interviewed for Entertainment Weekly about Fieger's death (she "spent the entire weekend" with his body. Ew.)

If the entire universe is going to hear how a 26 year-old guy in a band pressured you into having sex with him when you were 17, you might as well spend the next 30 years cashing in. Go, Sharona.

Note: The Knack's second biggest single, "Good Girls Don't", is also catchy as hell and has even more salacious lyrics--see the Wikipedia notes on the "clean" version.

February 3, 2010

No lollygagging for Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is not one to rush. During his unhurried 37 year career, he's written and directed exactly 5 movies.

Sure, they've been doozies (Badlands, The New World, and The Thin Red Line, which I haven't seen but I'm sure is good) but the man knows how to take his time. He took 20 years to come out with his follow-up to 1978's Days of Heaven.

And technically, his fifth movie hasn't even come out yet. The Tree of Life stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Fiona Shaw, and Jessica Chastain, and it's about a 1950s Texas family (though there's allegedly a lot more to it than that: something "hugely ambitious" involving prehistoric Earth and possibly dinosaurs. Who knows.) It's coming out later this year, a short 5 years after The New World.

Now today there are reports that later this year, he'll start shooting another movie. That will presumably be released in the same decade as his last movie. Well! Look out, world! Hurricane Terrence is rolling down the pike, and he ain't paying no tolls!

This new movie will star Christian Bale (who was also in The New World), Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, and Olga Kurylenko (the most recent Bond girl) in some kind of dramatic love story. Judging from his other dramatic love stories, it will probably end badly.

February 2, 2010

Look at all those best picture nominations

The Blind Side

The Oscar nominations are out. I had big hopes that this year's change from 5 to 10 best picture nominations would allow some smaller movies that don't normally stand a chance to be acknowledged, and in some cases this has happened. None of the movies I named back in June when the change was announced actually ended up with nominations (Moon, Adventureland, Goodbye Solo) but A Serious Man, District 9, and Up probably wouldn't have made the list otherwise.

I usually try to see all the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars, but my primary movie-watching partner wrote to me this morning saying, "Jesus Christ, are we gonna have to watch The Blind Side now??" I think I'm OK with letting this one go.

I guess that's what you get with a longer nominations list. I'd like to think The Blind Side would never have made a list of 5, and I still sort of can't believe it beat out The Hangover. The weekend it came out, I happened to be at our nation's largest retirement community, The Villages, and, gee whiz, did old white people sure get excited about that movie. Maybe this nomination is the Academy trying to reach out to middle America and show them they love feel-good star vehicles, too (especially the ones whose moral seems to be, in the words of A.O. Scott, that "the best hope for a poor black child in America is to have rich white parents.") And the people who produce the Oscars are psyched that so many huge hits are in the mix this year.

It's looking like Avatar is going to get Best Picture, in spite of everything. I'm still chasing the dream that Kathryn Bigelow will get Best Director for The Hurt Locker, since every so often the movie that win Best Picture doesn't also win directing or acting awards. All the recent movies I can think of that fall into this category have been big, bombastic movies that are, arguably, sort of terrible and don't hold up to much scrutiny: Gladiator, Chicago, and Crash won Best Picture but not Best Director, and of those three I think only Gladiator won a major acting award. Avatar could join that list: it got nominations for best picture and director, but, notably, no acting or writing nominations, probably because the acting and writing are mostly awful. So there's some justice.

Right now I'm going to say Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock (I know, I don't understand it either) will get the acting awards, Avatar gets Best Picture, and Kathryn Bigelow gets Director.

January 27, 2010

Banksy film trailer

Shot from Banksy movie trailer

I'm a few days late, here, but wanted to mention the Banksy movie that sort of appeared out of nowhere and premiered at Sundance the other day. It's called Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Here's the trailer:

There's some really thorough press coverage of the movie (Guardian review: "very funny") and about Banksy and his style of guerrilla public art as sly, darkly funny social commentary. The LA Times has a lot to say about it, so I'll briefly summarize: the movie originated with a Banksy fan, a French guy living in LA named Thierry Guetta who started filming everything in his life after his mother died. He met up with Banksy in LA, and they became friends and sort of accomplices as Thierry decided to make a documentary about Banksy, until Banksy started to think maybe this guy Thierry was just a crazy person with a camera. A crazy person who later became an art-world version of a superstar.

Anyway, Banksy ended up making this movie using the miles of footage they accumulated, so it's sort of a documentary about both of them. Judging from the trailer and its many shots of pratfalls, face plants, spilled paint, torn stencils, and other street-art disasters, it seems to promote the idea that art can be both a serious contribution to the world and a joke.

Of course, you can't see Bansky's face or hear his unmodified voice in the movie at all.

Banksy had this to say about his movie: "Trying to make a movie which truly conveys the raw thrill and expressive power of art is very difficult. So I haven’t bothered. Instead this is a simple everyday tale of life, longing and mindless vandalism."

It's supposed to come out this Spring. Here's the Flickr group pool of his art.

January 25, 2010

SAG awards

Eli Roth and the cast of Inglourious Basterds

The Screen Actors Guild gave out its awards over the weekend, and the only real surprise was Inglourious Basterds, which won the night's big award for best cast. Some of the movie's cast members were really great and deserve an award like this, like Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, and Diane Kruger. But it's nuts to see Eli Roth, with his blunderingly terrible overacted performance, standing there on stage holding up his statuette for outstanding acting. Congratulations, Eli! How about you quit while you're ahead.

Here's a shot from the red carpet, with Tina Fey captivated/overwhelmed by Christina Hendricks' red cantilevered feat of engineering:

Tina Fey and Chrstina Hendricks at SAG red carpet

January 20, 2010

Even Michael Haneke's child actors are creepy

The nine movies that are being considered for an Oscar for best foreign film were announced today, and among them is Michael Haneke's dark and dread-filled The White Ribbon. The movie is set in a small German farming town that's filled with some particularly malicious people in the lead-up to World War I.

I don't have that strong an opinion about whether this movie should win the Oscar or not, but if there were an award for most totally unnerving child actor, this kid with the tears of unspeakable rage would be a slam-dunk:

Das Weisse Band, The White Ribbon

Holy crap. That is one preteen I would not want to encounter in a deserted cabbage field.

The movie features many more completely creepy and unsettling shots such as this one:

White Ribbon


January 12, 2010

Chloe trailer

Chloe, Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore

Just the other day I was wondering what Julianne Moore had been up to these days, since it seemed like she hadn't starred in a big movie in a while. And now, here she is!

She's in a new sexy psychological evil prostitute thriller called Chloe. The trailer just came out, and it takes full advantage of its red band (a little bit NSFW):

The trailer probably gives too much away, which is something that bugs me about a lot of trailers, but at least while this one is revealing major plot points, it manages to reveal some naked people, too.

The movie would look pretty pulpy and bad if it weren't for the cast: Julianne, her husband Liam Neeson, and the wonderful Amanda Seyfried as the hot young thing she hires to figure out if her husband is a cheater or not. As is so often the case in these jealous-wife-hires-a-hooker storylines, things go terribly wrong, though in different and more salacious ways than you might think.

Also, the director is Atom Egoyan, who generally does a good job when his movies involve commercial sex, family strife, and homicidal insanity: see Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, and Felicia's Journey, some of his best.

It comes out in March. Actually, Chloe is a remake of a French movie called Nathalie in which the hot young hooker is played by Emmanuelle Béart, who was 40 years old when it came out. To put it another way, Emmanuelle Béart is the same age as Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays Amanda Seyfried's mother on "Big Love".

Ah, the French! So loose in their requirements for playing a movie temptress. Here in America, we know that if you're over 25, you're a matronly hag.

January 7, 2010

Top movies of 2009

A Serious Man

Now that you've read not only one million Best Movies of 2009 lists, but also another million Best Movies of the Decade lists, and are completely over the whole year/decade and Sandra Bullock and $16 3D movies and loving Avatar and hating Avatar and you just want to leave the past behind and go see some cool Australian vampires in Daybreakers, here's what I have to offer you: my dumb top movies list.

I'm bad with making a firm commitment to something as important as a movie list, so this list is not really strictly speaking ranked, though it does flow more or less from my very favorites on down.

A Serious Man
Larry Gopnik fails to understand life's mysteries in the same way other Cohen characters fail to obtain a lot of money or hatch their ambitious schemes: spectacularly. This movie is the funniest meditation on the inescapable and inexplicable miseries of living I've ever seen. Why do bad things happen? Does having a spiritual belief system help us endure life's hardships or does it just set us up for being disappointed by a cryptic and uncaring deity? Is God punishing us for something or are we alone in the universe? Either way, there's nothing we can do about it, so you might as well enjoy the rare good, happy moments, then go around the next corner and get kicked in the face. The Sy Ableman scenes were some of the funniest scenes I saw all year. Bring on the Meshbesher drinking game!

Inglourious Basterds
As Roger Ebert said, it's one World War II movie where we don't know the ending. The Shoshanna storyline was my favorite part, and as many times as we've seen scenes like the one of her getting ready for her final cinematic victory, it just totally knocked me out anyway. I love all the big cinematic, old Hollywood stuff, the hyper-movieness of those last scenes in the theater. I also loved the slow, careful way the Christoph Waltz scenes rolled out, as he edged closer and closer to destroying his victims with perfect, deliciously evil elegance and confidence. The Basterds themselves were sort of a waste, though.

It's pretty amazing that Pixar can keep making these fantastically successful movies that appeal to so many people yet somehow completely avoid feeling obvious or trite. Up was original and surprising and way more touching than I expected. The visuals, characters, story and structure were all right on. I didn't see it in 3D and don't feel like I missed anything.

Summer Hours
A small movie by Olivier Assayas about a family dealing with a country house full of objects that could be regarded as beautiful artifacts to be appreciated and preserved or as junk to be unloaded for the highest price. It asks lots of questions about how values change over time, like, how much do history and family matter? Is stuff that connects you to the past valuable or is it ultimately just stuff? It's sad to watch three siblings realize they don't care about spending time together in their mother's country house enough to keep it. I really like the scenes of their young kids running around outside and having parties at the house -- a good reminder that old things still matter if you stop worrying about if they're valuable or not and just enjoy them.

The Hurt Locker
Probably the first good movie about Iraq because it's not about politics or culture or strategy, it's just about soldiers who are really good at what they do. Tense and tight; even if I felt like some of the sequences were too similar every now and then, it was still really nicely structured. Not a lot happens in the way of characters changing through the course of the movie, but we gain an understanding of why these people do their incredibly difficult jobs.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Nicolas Cage is a bad cop who goes crazy, and Werner Herzog eats it up with a spoon. You don't see a performance this wildly unhinged every day, but Herzog knows how keep it from derailing the movie and to make it part of a structure that holds together. No one can play a maniac like Nicolas Cage, and lately it seems like those are the only performances of his worth seeing.

A super-small movie that was largely improvised, so I've heard, that is just fantastically subtle and funny. It's worth seeing, especially if you don't know too much about it in advance, so I'll just say that it's about two old friends trying to prove to each other how open-minded and comfortable with themselves they are, while also being far more conventional and predictable than they would like to think. Both of the two main actors and the woman who plays the wife give some really natural and believable performances.

Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi lets his inner 80's horror fan out to play, and it's so freaking fun to watch. He could make this kind of movie in his sleep, but he doesn't skimp on bizarre details and fresh, disgusting ideas to gross the audience out. The confrontation in Alison Lohman's car with the old woman was one of my favorite scenes of the year, particularly all the face-gumming.

Goodbye Solo and Sugar
These last two are both little independent movies about immigrants in America, both very different stories than we might be used to seeing. Goodbye Solo is about the ebullient Senegalese cab driver Solo and the grizzled old bastard he calls "Big Dog" who becomes his client. This little movie just rolls along quietly until you get to the end and the emotional impact hits you and you realize your mind has been blown. Sugar is about Dominican ball players in the States, and follows a really different path than I thought it was going to. It's just about all amateur actors in this one, and was so natural it hardly feels like you're watching people act.

Here are a few other movies I liked a lot: Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, which is as filled with misanthropic dread as anything he's done but I didn't quite connect with as much as his other recent ones; Adventureland, with an outstanding supporting cast and soundtrack; Moon, Sam Rockwell in an unsettling one-man identity confusion show in space; Funny People which is so damn hilarious for the first half, then falls off a cliff; An Education, a good story of middle-class self-deception, that Carey Mulligan is great; Big Fan, Patton Oswalt turns out to have some real chops; In the Loop, stunningly funny swearing and an unusually dark view of how politics happens; Precious, Jennifer's Body, and Soderbergh's double bill of arm's-length protagonists, The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant!

Watching Avatar was a completely amazing and immersive experience because of the 3D effects and CGI that finally look as gorgeous as we all hoped it could look. But I sometimes got pulled out of the experience by a story and premise that made no sense and Cameron's brand of pretend feminism and respect for indigenous cultures that's so simplistic it's borderline offensive. And a few lines that sounded like they were taken from Can't Buy Me Love, the one that goes like, "I was only pretending to like you at first, but then once I got to know you, I really fell in love with you!" Anyway, it was a lot of fun to watch.

I wasn't so into Up in the Air, it was often either too cheesy or too relentlessly dark to be believable. Like, I can't see even the most cold-hearted business executive actually finding Clooney's backpack metaphor of jettisoning all people from your life useful. But the acting was fantastic and a few scenes were awesome.

A couple movies I missed, regrettably: The Beaches of Agnes and Lorna's Silence.

Here's the list from 2008.

What movies did you like this year?

January 5, 2010

You can't help but love that Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart is a small, simple movie about people you've seen before in lots of other movies--an alcoholic country singer past his prime, a woman who's been through hell but is willing to take a chance on him, and a straight-shooting Texan played by Robert Duvall. It's a formula you've seen a lot of times before, but you've heard lots of versions of "Your Cheatin' Heart", too.

It's easy to compare the story and its style to other movies, especially The Wrestler and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The main character's very listenable songs were written by T-Bone Burnett, who also did the music for O Brother Where Art Thou?, and one of the musicians in the movie who co-wrote the theme song is named Ryan Bingham, the same name as George Clooney's character in Up in the Air.

I bet Clooney and Jeff Bridges are going to be the top contenders for an Oscar this year, but Bridges is probably going to get it. Last year, the race was basically between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke, and because both performances were great, and because Mickey Rourke pissed off a lot of people in Hollywood for the past 20 years, it went to Sean Penn. This year, Jeff Bridges gives a similarly fantastic performance of a really similar character, but everyone loves Jeff Bridges, and he's been nominated four times already and never won. So I think he's got it.

Politics aside, he deserves an Oscar for this. This is a role and a movie that could spill over into sappy, self-pitying melodrama, like bad country music does, but it stays honest and wistful and a little bit reserved, like good country music. He does all his own singing (as does Colin Farrell) and guitar playing. He also spends the majority of the movie with his pants partially unbuttoned, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about his character.

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