[18 February 2014]
Greetings, movie-lovers. Last year I wrote a column for Canon Fodder cataloguing my notes on DVDs I’d checked out of the library (see 50 Nights at the Movies—at Home!). I write these capsule descriptions and random thoughts for emails to friends, and in order not to forget what I’ve seen, so that I’ll have a kind of epistolary diary for reference. In other words, these are personal mementos rather than formal reviews. Naturally, the success of that column requires a bigger and better sequel, but we may have to settle for one that’s merely longer.
1. The slice of cake that is Hitchcock begins engagingly as a fantasia on myths around the making of Psycho, especially the scenes of Ed Gein and Alfred Hitchcock sharing mental and physical space. Soon it settles into the pedestrian and would be at home on the Hallmark or Lifetime Channels. I’m glad it largely avoids the “dark” Hitch for a petulant and mischievous teddy bear (played by Anthony Hopkins) who tells Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins, “Call me Hitch. Hold the cock.” It explains its points bluntly, mainly to enthrone Hitch’s underrated wife Alma (Helen Mirren). Hopkins left me cold but British actor James D’Arcy, who impersonated Tony Perkins, was amazing. It was almost like they’d CGI’d Perkins into it.
I realize the movie’s not being accurate, but the thing that stuck out most was when Hitch makes a reference to “a Hitchcock blonde” as if that was a real talking point in the era between North by Northwest and Psycho, and I don’t think it was, certainly not until after everyone noticed how Tippi Hedren resembled Kim Novak, who’d resembled Grace Kelly. This movie is set just after Eva Marie Saint, and at this time, Hitch was at least as well known for working with Ingrid Bergman. For that matter, there are basically two options for women’s hair in black and white movies. That’s an example of how this movie is more hindsight than retro. Everyone speaks as though they’ve winkingly perused the criticism from 30 years in the future.
2. Another cozy Hallmark-ready biopic, even with the frank sexual peccadillos, is Hyde Park on Hudson, with the wheelchaired FDR (Bill Murray attempts no impression) overcompensating like gangbusters while Eleanor (Olivia Williams) lives with lesbians, wink wink. But wait, you also get the characters from The King’s Speech dropping by for tea before the war. It’s narrated by a 5th cousin/lover of FDR (Laura Linney) and based on her diaries, but she’s not always in the scenes. It somehow manages to remain hagiography while spilling all this dirt and making a point about the “discretion” of the press. I think it isn’t that the press needs to be “discreet” but that the public might be mature, although the latter possibility requires the lack of any sense that discretion is required on their behalf.
3. Thanks to Harmony Korine, now there are two weird movies named after Bobby Vinton hits. Mister Lonely is more “accessible” than Gummo or Julian Donkey-Boy and shot with more classic aesthetic balance (often beautiful), but even with straightforward plotlines in a clearly defined situation (actually two, since there’s also the amazing exhilarating narrative of Werner Herzog and the nuns), you’re pretty much on your own in seemingly improvised scenes of sadness and generosity.
A Depp-like South American (Diego Luna) busks in Paris as a Michael Jackson impersonator until he meets a Marilyn Monroe who invites him to a Scottish manor where many impersonators live without visible means of support. It’s observed that their local “Charlie Chaplin” looks more like Hitler—appropriate for the man who made The Great Dictator, but also full of possible meaning for the story at hand. There’s a cynical role for pie-eyed romantic French director Leos Carax, which along with casting Herzog as a priest, tells you many things about Korine’s mischievous reinvention of idols. Remarkable, and his “nicest” film. Now check his next film:
4. Spring Breakers, at times a music video and at other times a seemingly improvised staring at metal-toothed James Franco putting his Florida gangsta moves on a four nubile teen girls, keeps avoiding the obvious in order to provide what becomes a surreal black comedy about “coming of age”. It’s also partly an ogling-at-babes movie. In any case, it resolutely avoids becoming a standard hypocritical morality play in which the wayward girls learn a valuable lesson, although they do. I also appreciate the use of music as counterpoint instead of underline. One of the better movies of 2013, by my reckoning.
5. The Impossible is the movie where Oscar-nominated Naomi Watts plays a woman separated from most of her family during the tsunami in Thailand, and that first act is a truly impressive piece of physical filmmaking . The plot follows details of survival and ad hoc relationships in a disaster area, focusing always on the actions and emotions of family members, including ingratiating child actors.
Simple, grueling, satisfying, with plenty of movie suspense, and all you need to tell a story as far as “conflict” is concerned, in this case against external impersonal forces, overwhelming yet far from contrived. This “true story” illustrates my notion that there’s an anti-entropic quality in the universe that tends toward order out of chaos. Most people assume the opposite, which is why it’s important to turn it around, since the truth is usually the opposite of what people think.
6. Speaking of the truth being the opposite of what people think, Room 237 consists of interview snippets with five fans of Stanely Kubrick’s The Shining illustrated with scenes from the movie plus all Kubrick’s other movies plus many other movies. The effect is to construct a self-referential universe of cinematic signs, which is delightful in its way, and it underlines the point that the speakers are using cinema as evidence of reality more than vice versa. The Shining is great for this because it’s one of those movies everyone has gotten around to seeing, and because whether they liked it or not, it’s one of those movies (like other Kubrick films) that burn into the memory, so that even the non-fanatic can grasp what’s happening in this documentary.
The problem isn’t that some of the interpreters are wacky, which is an understanding that gradually washes over us in a nice frisson, but that wacky or not, they’re not nearly as articulate as they should be. It sounds like a bull session over a few beers at the frathouse instead of any coherent analysis based on notes or research, so they’re, like, suddenly repeating and emphasizing something with a tone of great, like, you know, emphasis and repetition, man. You know? It’s wild, right? And you know that’s not just a coincidence, right, because it’s all repeated and emphasized, obviously. Kubrick would have had them go over their spiels many times before using any of it.
7. Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is pretty darn magnificent. I’ve only seen the three-hour “director’s cut”, which is on the DVD of the Blu/DVD combo; the Blu-ray has the shorter theatrical version. It’s about a teen girl who’s indirectly responsible for a fatal accident and how this colors her behavior, and how our knolwedge of it colors our perceptions of the scenes (not unlike Hitchcock’s paradigm of the bomb under the table). Every scene is volatile and explores the difficulty of communication and the emotional minefields of expressing yourself, having feelings, relationships, etc. John Cassavetes is smiling, I hope.
The only distraction is the casting of big stars in minor roles, which was undoubtedly necessary to secure funding from “real” producers (like Scott Rudin) and “real” studios (like Fox Searchlight), and our continual knowledge that a famous 30-year-old actress (Anna Paquin) is doing an excellent technical impression of a teenager. We overlook this better in the artificial gloss of classic Hollywood (e.g., Mary Pickford) than in naturalistic “realism”, though Lonergan does a fair job of distancing the “realism” with the self-consciously arty moments scored by classical music (beautifully done) and a sound mix that continually de-centers the main characters by allowing us to eavesdrop on random strangers.
This is a High Culture movie (or we can just call it a Manhattan movie) about the function of art to touch, catalyze and express our emotions. This is why it’s okay for the ending to steal its catharsis from Tales of Hoffmann, because this phenomenon of how humans relate to art is a valid subject for art, and even for “realism.” I also like the movie for giving me a thrill of intellectual validation twice.
Just as I was wondering why the movie, about a girl named Lisa, is called Margaret, we get to the scene where English teacher Matthew Broderick (in real life is responsible for a fatal car crash—interesting casting) reads the Hopkins poem “Spring and Fall,” which happens to be one of the few poems I know by heart. And when they were going to Hoffmann, I suddenly understood exactly how the movie was going to end, down to the insert of clutching hands; yes, they would exploit the famous duet (even more than it was exploited in Life Is Beautiful). It’s good to end on tears or a song, and best if you can do both.
Shall we make a list of how opera has been exploited in movies? The shot of Nicole Kidman listening to Wagner in Birth, the use of La Wally in Diva, the climax of Godfather 3, the original ending (big in Japan) of Fatal Attraction channeling Madame Butterfly... Or the exploitation of classical music in general, started by Kubrick (though he usually contrasted and ironized rather than simply appropriated), then cemented in items like Elvira Madigan until it becomes part of the modernist fabric of, say, Shutter Island. And this leads to the recycling of actual film music from the past in new films, a trend way beyond Tarantino. You could see it, for example, in Tony Scott’s Man on Fire. I’ll stop now.
8. The Heat relies on our faith in wasting time to unspool a wretchedly conventional investigation into drug smugglers, which serves as the excuse to indulge a women’s odd-couple/buddy-cop movie between uptight FBI agent Sandra Bullock (loosen up, you unhappy professional woman who makes the guys look bad!) and offensively unprofessional traffic-wreck of a local cop Melissa McCarthy, who should have been kicked out long ago.
The opening credits evoke the Starsky ‘70s, and we could fairly say the by-the-numbers plotting does so as well. The only funny scene involves a choking man, when the edgy humor combines the physical with the macabre. Aside from this, the humor is that everyone insults each other and people get killed casually.
9. Getting by on sheer pleasantness, Admission is not really a romantic comedy with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, although that’s a minor plotline. She’s an uptight Yale admissions counselor who must learn to loosen up when facing a midlife/career crisis confronted with a reminder of her past and a road not taken.
Successful women must be punished and forced to question their choices in the white-collar world, especially since she has a famous feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) who’s also fronting, but in this case it’s the same message that certain males must learn in similar movies, especially lawyers (e.g., Liar Liar) and agents (A Thousand Words) who must become better fathers/husbands even if it means losing their jobs. Hollywood fantasies are hell on white-collar success, which is always, always equated with the soulless grind.
10. The Uninvited Guest is an excellent Spanish thriller, which these days is redundant. So when we say “Spanish thriller”, you’ll know it’s slick, stylish, and intelligent, with perhaps a dash of the uncanny. An uptight guy, estranged from his wife in his huge house, lets a stranger in to make a call and that stranger promptly disappears, leading our hero to think the man is hiding in the house. In a third act twist both ingenious and inevitable, the tables are turned as our hero does the hiding.
The ending is elliptical, grim, and ambiguous. One of its tricks is that the lead actress has a dual role, which must be obvious to Spanish audiences who know her but which I didn’t quite get because they’re so different. It’s not a “twist”, just a surprise decision, like having Julie Christie play two roles in Fahrenheit 451.
11. Wanderlust is about a New York yuppie couple (Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd) forced by happenstance to spend time in a Tennessee commune owned by Alan Alda (excellent) and hang out with hippie bohemians and earth mothers. Aniston is typically good in edgy comedies (e.g., The Good Girl, Office Space) although always playing the same role, and Rudd has a hilariously vulgar monologue in front of a mirror. Memorable line: “Can you go for 24 hours in this place without getting a dick in your face?” The movie makes fun of both the hippies and the uptight outsiders in easy ways but it’s basically on the hippie side, and the ending’s literal message is that the ideals you thought were dead (embodied by Alda’s co-founders) aren’t after all.
12. The Farrelly Brothers’ The Three Stooges is interesting. I never liked the Stooges as a child because the few examples I saw showed unbelievable violence and childishly stupid people, and I never cared for comics who acted like dumb kids (see also Jerry Lewis, Lou Costello, and Our Gang). I’ve seen more in recent years and admit they have something going for them, so I can admire how the Farrellys get it exactly right without condescension, from gestures to music to saving the orphanage.
The three actors are really perfect (and so are the three boys who play them as kids), with Curly especially graceful, and you can see the grace because so much of it is shot in the old style of planting the camera squarely as the fellows go through rapid, complex, heavily rehearsed physical routines. No knitting together from a hundred set-ups, because the unbroken nature of it is part of the joke. And just like the originals, I never laughed much.
One sequence uses humor the original team could never have gotten away with. It’s so gross and offensive, it can possibly only appeal to children. Also, there’s an undercurrent of comparing the throwback idiocy to modern culture, via cameos by the Jersey Shore crew, a gag about the Kardashians (“Those three idiots are here!”), and the general concept of reality TV. Snookie wears a Guinness cap and Moe says “Just because its says genius on her hat doesn’t mean she is one.” Okay, that’s amusing.
13. Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited is a pleasure to behold: gorgeous, meticulous in set design and widescreen composition and movement. In fact, it’s so widescreen, the image is really wider than the screen, thanks to extensive use of wide lenses. One lovely “tracking shot” (on a train, get it?) links different locales and characters. The film feels improvised (in the sense of being loosely plotted and played off the cuff) but every detail and line must be nailed in advance, I should think. That creates an interesting tension.
Anderson doesn’t want you to miss the slyly obvious symbols and metaphors, like the fact that the three brothers are literally carrying their late father’s baggage, so it means something when they finally let it go in slow-mo to the Kinks. The baggage they leave behind includes their mother. One film-buff joke is for fans of Satyajit Ray: the moment when Jason Schwartzman says “Wouldn’t it be neat if we heard a train whistle passing by in the distance right now?” and the other two say no, it would be kind of annoying. An upbeat, colorful film based on sadness and loss.
14. It’s a Disaster is a feature-length snarkfest in which a group of friends have Seinfeldish “nothing” arguments and otherwise focus on trivial personal issues while they get the news that chemical fallout from a “dirty bomb” is on the way. True, they’re told to stay in their houses, but it doesn’t occur to anyone on the street to drive hell for leather—which I attribute to lack of budget. In fact, I kept wondering why we only saw one couple’s car parked in front of the house, which tells you I myself was distracted by trivial issues in the midst of the larger canvas.
There’s a couple that finally arrives late for a bit of cruel comedy—where’s their car? They didn’t walk. Whatever. This was created by a group who found fame with free Youtube skits. The point, which would be appropriate for a repetitive five-minute SNL skit, is that they’re too dumb and egocentric to cope effectively with anything. Compare with the bigger-budget discomforts of This Is the End.
15. Mama is an effective scare-piece about two little feral girls who grew up in the woods with something they call Mama, and whose appearances are nicely freaky. It moves swiftly and predictably—for example, the aunt who wants to take custody from the unprepared bohemian couple must be a bitch whom we want to see die. What if she were nice, and what if it really were a better idea for her to take the kids?
Jessica Chastain is the reluctant punk-rock grrrl who becomes their quasi-adoptive mother and doesn’t end up doing that much, but at least it doesn’t take everyone forever to figure out what’s going on. Indeed, all the characters seem refreshingly open to reading the signs instead of wasting footage in “perfectly rational explanation” denial. The biggest debit to this handsome movie, written and produced by a brother/sister team under the tutelage of Guillermo Del Toro (who saw their three-minute virtuoso short that inspired it, included as a bonus), is the shameless gotcha-goosing with loud stings. Tell me (STING!) why is this (STING! STING!) necessary? If I were doing one of those horror-parody movies, I’d have Sting (aka Gordon Sumner) abruptly stick his head in the frame whenever something like that happened, and have someone say “Get out of here!” Too subtle?
16. John Dies At the End trades subtlety for creative cleverness. Based on a cult novel in the snarky self-conscious mode of Hitchhiker’s Guide and TV series Red Dwarf, with plenty of well worked-out ideas (trading in our familiarity with genre concepts) supporting the seeming seat-of-the-pants randomness of the plotline, this is a gorey vulgar gonzo lark directed by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep fame, and it fits right in.
It’s mostly told in flashback to reporter Paul Giamatti, as our hero explains how he and his feckless friend got into the paranormal world-saving racket. As with the recent Disney item The Sorceror’s Apprentice, it uses a supporting character to illustrate the idea that someone with real powers would be making a living as a Vegas-type magician. The trailer appropriately warns you not to give away the ending, so I won’t.
17. Dead Man Down uses a straightforward style to tell a story that throws some unusual curves. It starts by establishing Colin Farrell as a gangster working for local boss Terrence Howard while tentatively starting a romance with scarred neighbor Noomi Rapace, who throws the first wrench into the set-up, and then we gradually learn more about the set-up, and before we know it, we want to know how it comes out. It comes out with a typical bout of credibility-snapping all-out action.
Movies about vengeance-driven heroes commonly have them sowing what they reap (the “moral” ending) rather than getting away with the girl, so it seems a bit subversive when the latter happens (which is the audience-pleasing ending—see also Django Unchained). Yet both are clichés by now, and it seems unavoidable that you must end one way or the other. So whadaya gonna do?
18. No such pie-eyed romance in Love Is the Devil, with Derek Jacobi as British hideous portraitist Francis Bacon and Daniel Craig as his working-class kept boy who feels emasculated by the fact that his “bottom” is more successful and supports him financially. It’s mostly a study of an aggressive ‘60s brash yet self-hating milieu (with Tilda Swinton as queen bitch lording over bitchy queens), and how Bacon tolerates his lover’s self-destructive alcoholic suicidal behavior as best he can but basically has no time to waste on it, much less being “nurturing” or “supportive” in any 12-step way.
This supposedly reveals Bacon’s hardness and narcissism, which is also commitment to his work as opposed to his lover, but I can understand why, as depicted, the successful artist who uses this man as his model and shares his life with him has no wish to be dragged down by him. This uses visual tricks to convey Bacon’s visual perspective (distorted reflections etc.) and is overall a serious movie and a bit of a drag. This debut got John Maybury the job of directing an American horror film, also with Daniel Craig in it, and that is:
19. The Jacket is a Millennial Unreality thriller that starts with Adrien Brody getting shot in the head in the first Gulf War, presumed dead until he opens his eyes. Then at home, he finds himself confined to a mental asylum after being accused of murder where he can’t prove his story about meeting a drunken mom and her little daughter. Kris Kristofferson shoots him up with drugs and locks him in a morgue drawer for treatment, allowing him to drift forward into the future (like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five) and have an affair with the now-grown daughter (grungy Keira Knightley), which seems creepy, right?
With the help of sympathetic doc Jennifer Jason Leigh, he may or may not be able to avert his predicted death in a few days. The ambiguous ending might be happy, but for how long? The opening has set up the possibility that this could be another Jacob’s Ladder—that is, another “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.
Most striking here is the use of avant-garde techniques for telescoping events into shorthand by rapidly layering bits of dialogue over various images, and the closing credits evoke films of Stan Brakhage. I’m proud of myself for noticing, because the extras mention this explicitly. Surprisingly, the Leonard Maltin review makes a point of saying how “ugly” the film looks. After American Horror Story: Asylum, a masterpiece of ugly beauty (and everything else), we can say this look has been assimilated.
20. Tommy Lee Jones plays Douglas MacArthur in Emperor, but the focus is on Matthew Fox as a real-life general assigned the task of looking for evidence on whether to arrest or exonerate Japan’s Emperor Hirohito for war crimes. It mixes the straightforward interviews of the general’s contemporary story with equally straightforward flashbacks to his pre-war Japanese girlfriend in a standard cross-cultural romance.
It’s the kind of movie we call handsome, and careful as a history lesson. It functions as an apologia for Hirohito, supposedly a ceremonial victim of circumstance (like the English monarchs of the same century?) who risked his life to surrender. An interesting counterpart to this film is the messy, astounding documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, which is simply one of the greatest docs I’ve ever seen. I kept thinking of it while watching this stately movie.
21. Lasse Hallstrom directed Safe Haven from a bestseller by Nicholas Sparks, and apparently he’s done a previous Sparks movie that I’ve managed to miss. This depends on the straightforward, Lifetime-ready presentation of a story that travels in a seemingly inevitable direction and yet also pulls off an effective surprise—given that half of any surprise is not knowing there’s a surprise.
We’re presented with a woman running away from a murder or something, and she gets off the bus in a lovely little Carolina coastal town where she’s romanced by a studly widower with kids—a scene straight off the cover of a million romance paperbacks. The suspense is the cross-cutting with the cop who’s tracking her down. On one hand, the movie seems like nothing special, but you can’t overlook a well-told story.
22. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby doesn’t pile on the visuals as much as you’d think, although it’s consistently beautiful. It reserves the overkill, appropriately, for Gatsby’s West Egg orgies with anachronistic orchestrations and assorted soundtrackery. Its big invention is to couch Nick Carraway’s flashing back and writing the novel into the context of seeking therapy at an asylum, and the movie seems to play with the undercurrent of Nick being in unstated love with Gatsby, although this isn’t pushed.
What’s most curious about the movie’s additions (Tom talking to Wilson about the accident, the suspense about the phone call at the pool) and omissions (the funeral and Gatsby’s father) is that they’re largely the same as the 1949 Alad Ladd version. Leonardo DiCaprio even seems to channel Ladd a bit. I seem to recall that this movie, like the lost silent version, was also partly based on Owen Davis’ Broadway adaption, which makes me wonder how much of these touches hail from that.
23. Oz the Great and Powerful does pile on the visuals, as we hope from Sam Raimi, though the most interesting part is the opening non-widescreen sepia reel. James Franco is less interesting as the hocus-pocus man than he was in Spring Breakers, and I don’t know why. He’s handsome in a contemporary way, but it wouldn’t seem that his flourishes should convince anyone. Maybe that’s the point.
I guess I’m saying he doesn’t have the barnstorming flim-flam character we associate with Ralph Morgan or any number of character actors. True to L. Frank Baum, this Oz is a thorough matriarchy full of strong women and deformed or artificial men, even though it ends up restoring a monarchy with a handsome fellow who gets the (good) witch.
24. Another expensive fairy tale full of effects is Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer. The many action and effects sequences are well conceived and full of the kind of surprising narrative interest that the scenes of characterization lack, for the script relies on casting in that department—Ian McShane as King, Stanley Tucci as scoundrel, Ewan McGregor as bold knight, Bill Nighy as giant. Our young hero and heroine are bland. Although the princess is supposed be spunky and contemporary, there’s no avoiding that her entire function is to be constantly in need of rescue.
25. Quartet is Dustin Hoffman’s movie about a retirement home for classical music artistes, and what feathers are ruffled when Maggie Smith swans in doing Maggie Smith amid the other golden oldies. The trailer sells it mightily as “cute old people”, though Hoffman’s interest is more in an almost Altman-esque naturalism of people talking at the same time and indulging in various behaviors (though he doesn’t push it that far). It’s a movie about rapprochement, including with age and mortality, and the continuing inspiration and elevation of the arts in a person’s life. A minor pleasure, and we’ll take pleasure where we find it.
26. Lovely Molly, from Eduardo Sanchez of Blair Witch fame, opens with its tearful heroine addressing a vidcam in homage to that movie, and much of what follows is more video footage, and what’s not video footage is still presented in the same handheld style. It’s a contemporary take on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, with the heroine’s psychotic breakdown as a residue from living in her old house where her father did nasty things to her, and now she’s apparently possessed or haunted by his spirit.
You can read it clinically, but the movie does tilt towards the uncanny with a very spooky ending that drags in some kind of demon horse. It’s kind of a downwardly spiraling chore to sit through.
27. We know that most movies are a third or fourth longer than necessary, and in the case of Jack Reacher, we can trace the bloat. All the action scenes, the movie’s true purpose, are well done: grim in tone, brutal in kinetic clarity. The dialogue is almost entirely expository and misplaced, laboriously explaining the story repeatedly and v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y as though to a child or a blonde attorney whose function is to be sexy and flustered. In order to keep goosing the viewer with mayhem, we follow the parallel plots of the bad guys, so that we always know more than our hero and well in advance.
For a big example, we know from the start that the patsy accused of being a sniper is innocent, but it takes Jack and the Lawyer Lady more than an hour to work that out. This makes them look dumb, and indeed the attorney is written stupid. Choosing to reveal the guilty behavior of all guilty parties, except for withholding one as a “surprise”, is manipulation so transparent as to qualify as creative bankruptcy, but this is after all a very basic plot.
In order to tell a tight and fairly sensible and edgy story, it should follow Jack’s POV exclusively, thus making a trim 90 minutes (instead of 2 hours) but losing many of the sadistic thrills. Robert Duvall nails his cameo, of course, and Werner Herzog collects a paycheck for lending gravitas to his bad guy, while Richard Jenkins is wasted.
28. Now Trance is a script that doesn’t let you down. This Danny Boyle joint adopts that common trope of Millennial Unreality—the hero with amnesia—and plonks him into an ingenious, re-watchably unwinding twistathon while foregrounding a sense of humor about its characters and their situation. This original heist movie spends half its time undergoing experiments in hypnotherapy in order to find out where our lad stashed the McGuffin (a Goya painting), and the audience never knows more than our baffled leads. You see, Jack Reacher folks, you see? Ah well, their picture probably made more money.
29. Stoker flips back and forth from the perspective of a teen girl, recently bereft of her father and gradually revealing a pathology of damage that makes her increasingly edgy and unpredictable, and her sinister uncle, who’s revealed right away as bad news, eliminating supporting characters without a by-your-leave.
So where else can the plot go, if it wishes to avoid tedium, but inward towards disturbing revelations that are at least different from the usual disturbing revelations about teen girls. South Korea’s Park Chan-Wook was imported to Hollywood for this sleek, dislocatingly edited slice of American Upper Class Gothic.
30. Kim Ki-Duk, almost certainly the cruelest Korean director, gives us Piéta, which begins as an extremely unpleasant look at the daily routines of an impassive debt collector who maims people for insurance money, then finds himself confronted by a leechlike woman who claims to be the mother who abandoned him at birth. His skeptical treatment of her leads to the most extreme scenes, and by then, if we’re still watching, we’re hooked by the morbid fascination of what could possibly happen next. And everything does.
31. Everything also happens (or rather not enough) in Would You Rather, which we can use to illustrated the pointlessness and tediousness of sadistic movies about killing their characters. A bunch of people are invited to a “game” whose winner will have all their problems solved financially, and this leads to the inevitable social experiment in torture. The problem is the crushing lack of imagination.
I kept coming up with twists and reversals that surely, surely the narrative was about to perform—but no, it couldn’t allow itself to stray beyond a narrow range of choices that require characters to have no sense of ingenuity or self-preservation. The reason is simple: you can’t let the story end too early, and that’s all.
Piéta and Stoker are at least equally cruel, but their games with audience expectations are insidious and nerve-wracking in a way this by-the-numbers exercise cannot be. While watching, I fancied that I could write the greatest, most surprising torture-porn script, a deconstruction akin to Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods, and also that if I had the resources to make a movie, I wouldn’t waste them on such a thing. And if I wouldn’t think the greatest example of this genre worth making, what does that say of the others?
32 & 33. Oh those wacky Danes. Two projects from Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa Productions are The Ambassador and Klown the Movie. The former is a hidden-camera documentary by a skinny bald white Danish journalist masquerading as a wheeler-dealer businessman and putative diamond smuggler who exposes the traffic in phony ambassadorships to cash-strapped countries in Africa, such as Liberia and the apparent free-for-all known as the Central African Republic, where most of the film takes place while he’s trying to build a match factory and score some diamonds.
The latter film is based on a popular Danish sitcom about two buddies, their girlfriends, and their Seinfeldian descents into raunchy, obscene humiliations. The sample episode included as a bonus (about a women’s masturbation circle) seems to be shot in the Dogme 95 style. The film throws in perky music from Bent Fabric, best known for the hit “The Alley Cat”. In fact, Fabric plays “himself” in the film, lording it over a private brothel. Half of the jokes involve Danish celebrities as “themselves”, a point lost on the non-Dane viewer.
The story, about the guys’ weekend camping and “pussy trip” while one of them tries to show his nephew a good time, contains one early scene I found so funny, I had to temporarily shut the movie off. Later events are outrageous in a more predictable way that diverts the viewer with the mere thought that they’re actually going through with these scenarios about clueless hapless man-boys committing offensive atrocities.
34. As for showing growing boys a good time, there’s Jeff Nichols’ Mud, with Matthew McConaughey as the title character, a shady fellow conjured from the swampy wishes of two boys who desire adventure. Like Long John Silver or Prospero or perhaps Venus on the half-shell, he appears full-blown on an island in the Mississippi, a lovingly photographed locale of natural beauty amid the mundane shallow clapboard lives of everyone they know.
Perhaps he’s a will o’ the wisp, but he charms them into believing his stories about how he’s running away to meet his sweetie (Reese Witherspoon). Sam Shepard plays the taciturn ex-military houseboat neighbor who, in another movie, would be played by Robert Duvall. The local-boy actors have natural presence and fascinating accents.
35. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a comedy that indulges in the standard bouts of bad taste and predictable romance for its hero (jaded Vegas illusionist Steve Carell) in need of redemption with a fabulous babe, but I found the accoutrements of its low-key, character-based story sufficiently offbeat and absorbing to keep me going.
I like the tattiness of the Vegas milieu, the credible slide from headliner to humiliated performer at rest homes and kids’ parties, and the nuttiness of the final illusion. Steve Buscemi is the estranged partner in their “magical friendship” and Alan Arkin is the standard sour mentor. Jim Carrey is almost irrelevant as the upstart stunt-magician we need to hate, since the real conflict is within Burt.
36. An American academic goes to Rumania to track down info about the Jewish pre-war family of his late father (deceased gangster) and his great writer uncle in The Phantom Father. It’s a pleasant, shaggy, feel-good anecdote about hooking up with a frustrated local woman. Scenes are playfully shuffled, and there’s a meta-cinematic element provided by a family friend and film theatre owner who shows this movie among his other movies.
The climax doesn’t take seriously the story’s allusions to gangster movies, just as the early dream sequence is a spoof of vampire movies with enormous naked women, and I’d kind of rather have seen that movie. The hero is a tall, grey-haired, handsome guy who tilts his head and smiles ingratiatingly. Based on a story by Barry Gifford, who has a cameo showing some discomfort as an actor.
37. The Sapphires is an ordinary and highly predictable nostalgic musical biopic with an original setting, or rather Aboriginal: four Australian girls from a reservation (including one who has passed for white) take their Motown/Atlantic cover act on a tour of Vietnam during the war. Racial angst is downplayed in favor of getting on with the job, but it’s an understood context that gives an edge even to the glib interpersonal conflicts and camaraderies.
The top-billed star is the white guy who’s their down-at-heels manager, and for whom they offer redemption. Good performances, slick production. An interesting, too-brief extra interviews the living women who inspired this movie, based on a play by the son of one of them.
38. The problem with The Company You Keep is that any potential suspense is fractured by a narrative that’s split between the Albany lawyer (director Robert Redford), who’s revealed to be a wanted fugitive from the Weather Underground, and the good brash journalist (Shia La Twink) tracking him down, as well as minor roles designed to offer meat for the many big-name stars. Now, I agree that any excuse to expand Julie Christie’s screen time should be grabbed, but only Susan Sarandon’s scene is truly electric.
After the big build-up, the final confrontation between Redford and Christie (who out-acts him) is a damp, cramped and predictable trading of homilies edited with a bunch of other stuff, as is the whole convenient resolution. I recall Roger Ebert’s frequent complaint about movies with journalists quashing the story of their career because it’s somehow “the right thing to do.”
In this case, that’s especially absurd. While we’re at it, even with the timeline pushed forward ten years later than it really should be, Brit Marling looks too young to be a certain character’s daughter, although the actress is 30. So maybe the story wouldn’t have held up.
39. The final true Merchant Ivory film, The City of Your Final Destination, is absorbing and pretty. While scripted by the eternal Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from a novel by Peter Cameron, it feels like a very personal final project for James Ivory. Anthony Hopkins plays an aging aesthete, aware he can’t last much longer, living with an Asian lover (Japanese actually).
The story is cozy, with a hapless Persian academic dropping in on the Uruguyan estate of a famous dead novelist where his widow (prickly Laura Linney, listening to Poulenc) and mistress (squinting Charlotte Gainsbourg) remain trapped by poverty. The story goes pretty much where you’d think, but as they say, the destination isn’t as important as how you get there, and this will please those who go truffling for High Culture movies. I like a few with my tea.
40. Portuguese centenarian Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica is a spellbinding ghost story cum allegory in which the High Culture aspects are more than set decoration. This is a true example of the thing itself. The long, beautiful scenes, usually shot from a stationary camera, use crystalline deep focus over multiple planes to give an almost 3D effect, with ravishing attention to light.
In this highly personal and elegiac work of meditative whimsy, the director’s grandson plays a Jewish photographer who feels isolated from his highly Catholic town and from the modern world in general. He’s in love with things that disappear, which he attempts to preserve with a camera. (By the way, Oliveira is Catholic, but at one time he wondered if he might be Jewish, according to the very good critical commentary track.)
A secret miracle happens when our hero’s called to a wealthy home to shoot a memorial photo of a beautiful dead girl, and this smiling corpse represents the promise of Art and its attempt to freeze time for the lovestruck young man—doomed to love a woman who’d almost certainly be unobtainable even if she weren’t dead. As the commentary points out, the young man wants to be Lumière but his dreams are pure Méliès (well, maybe I’m the one who puts it exactly like that).
A bonus is Oliveira’s first film, a silent city-documentary short from 1931 set in the same town and employing Soviet montage to focus on a little drama among dock workers. He later pretty much eschewed montage for long takes. This DVD is from Cinema Guild, which I’m just about ready to name the best indie DVD label in the USA.
41. What Maisie Knew is a very creditable and faithful updating of Henry James’ novel. The child actress is completely natural, not precocious, and the most heartbreaking moment is when she artlessly states “I love him” of her stepfather. We admire and are shocked by such simple, dangerous honesty.
The movie maintains the conceit of presenting Maisie’s consciousness as our only guide, for the only things we hear and see in this fragmentary, swiftly moving mosaic are what this poor little rich girl sees and hears. Since we also see her objectively, we now can’t be quite certain of how much she does or doesn’t understand of the tiresome behavior of the grown-ups who shuffle her back and forth. She has a nice reflex of walking away from all bothersome grown-up behavior. She’s a strangely perfect put-upon child in an effective movie.
42 & 43. Let’s discuss two B&W indies evoking bygone genres and eras. James Kerwin’s Yesterday Was a Lie is a private-eye noir with a female protagonist, drinking away her troubles and memories while stumbling through a dislocated time-loop story as the characters feverishly discuss quantum physics. Our hardbitten dame (not convincing, but purty) meets another fabulous femme (producer Chase Masterson) who sings in a dive and functions as a mentor or Beatrice guide or even alter ego to lead the heroine through the labyrinth.
The point is that love knocks you sideways, and that time is a subjective illusion. The story gets out of its ending dilemma by closing with the great song “Where Do You Start” over a montage, the movie’s most effective example of style as substance. Not driven by narrative but style and ideas, and as such not bad.
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X advertises itself as shot with Kodak’s last B&W film (the title is in red) and is in “Ghastly Scope”. Juvenile delinquents from space come to Earth (sentenced by Grand Inquisitor Kevin McCarthy) in order to find a classic rock ‘n’ roll rebel turned recluse in the manner of Howard Hughes, and who gets zombified with Johnny’s electric suit.
That’s the only thing that really sparks in this melange of juvenile sex references, quotes and allusions to ‘50s culture (although I’m not sure it’s set then, since the classic rock icon is now old and his manager has a ponytail), and a few original numbers. The heroine is torn between badboy Johnny and a cleancut soda jerk, and both are dullsville, daddy-o. On the plus side, the story is unpredictable. Gratuitous Paul Williams cameo.
44. Post Tenebras Lux is the most willfully obscure meditation from “the Mexican Terence Malick”, Carlos Reygadas. We come to realize it follows a privileged young couple living in a great house surrounded by poor peasants in semi-documentary scenes. I had to replay it through a couple of times to understand which characters were which, because at one point the husband has totally different hair (apparently a flashback to a visit to a French sex club).
Also, the small brother and sister (the director’s kids) are seen in later, older incarnations—although now that I think of it, the kids can’t be older in the family reunion scene if the dad has died in an earlier event. Are there multiple timelines, or is it false that the dad died? After all, we only hear about the death, before the one guy yanks his own head off. Are you getting that this isn’t readily describable or coherent?
I almost forgot to mention it’s in old-style 1.33:1 ratio, and many of the scenes have distorted focus around the edges like beveled glass. The narrative’s digressive, intuitive manner, yet always very present, brings to mind Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who is also (pleasantly) inscrutable and surrealist. This is a movie that pushes at what critics mean when they claim to want original, unpredictable, serious, personal films, for many viewers will think it’s too much so and wish for some standard fare. I’m glad I saw it, but I preferred his previous movies, which are also about light and sex.
45. Michel Gondry fashioned The We and the I with a Brooklyn high school class, and it’s a “real time” bus ride on the last day of school as the mostly African-American kids gossip, text, bully, confront, make asses of themselves, etc. It’s docu-realism with Gondry’s whimsical flourishes in content and style, such as one scene that juxtaposes what’s happening in one location as a “rear projection” behind another scene—a great cinematic trick that for some reason is rarely ever done even though it’s so natural as an alternative to split-screens or jump-cutting.
I’ve often thought that’s how to do inserts like telegrams: show it looming behind the person reading. I got excited by this technique when it was in a flurry of films: Zentropa, The Nasty Girl, most splendidly Prospero’s Books. Hans-Jurgen Syberberg did it too. So getting back to this movie, it’s entirely valid as a snapshot of its place and moment and shows confidence in making something out of seemingly little except enthusiasm and conviction.
46. Francois Ozon’s In the House is a sinister little tale about storytelling, postmodern as all get out, as a high school teacher encourages a precocious and handsome 16 year old lad (actor was 21) in his “essays” about inveigling his way into a classmate’s family. Scenes offer revisions and commentaries on what’s going on, and we can’t be sure any of this is happening but, as the professor and his wife read the continuing story and debate it, we’re pretty sure it can’t end well. Or does it?
47. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is directed with typical whirling flourish (though relatively restrained) by Timur Bekmambetov of Russian Night Watch/Day Watch gonzo-vampire fame, and scripted by Seth Grahame-Smith from his own novel. It’s curious how much of Lincoln’s life it includes, and if star Benjamin Walker isn’t going all Daniel Day-Lewis on its ass, he’s tall and respectably weary.
Yes, this is an absurd and crazy movie, partly because it’s so impressively handsome, but you know, the audacity of linking vampirism to slavery is a rather invigorating metaphor that works to clarify good and evil in a blunt manner, and the action (with mixed-martial-artist Lincoln) is exciting. It’s also not overlong.
48. The Conjuring hits all traditional beats for ghostly shenanigans, possession, and exorcism within an early 1970s, slightly desaturated setting of a spooky old house and a family with five girls, as investigated by a hardy husband and wife team of demonologists. Robert Patrick and Vera Farmiga are the couple who give lectures and write books on their experiences, Lili Taylor is the haunted mom/housewife.
Lots of flowing or jogging handheld stuff intermingled with freaky stationary bits and even some within-the-story videocam moments. It’s got the “true story” thing all over it. There’s nothing subtle about it, but it’s not bad, and I can imagine young viewers especially being freaked.
49. ,i>Now You See Me is fast and often engaging as it sets up a group of magicians who get recruited into a mysterious society to pull heists on stage. The whole movie is sleight of hand that asks you not to examine its holes and skipped events (like the “one year later”) too closely. At its most disappointing (the third act of four) it settles for ordinary car chase action.
The main problem is not so much the far-fetched flim-flam, which at least is pleasant and well-peopled (Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson), but this director’s incapacity to stage action or hold a shot without a flurry of edits—a common problem, although one that’s been improving in this nouveau 3D era. There are many moments that cry out for visual flair only to settle for a glimpse of something shiny amid the cuts.
50. The German director of The Silence (German title: The Last Silence. Original novel: Silence) knows how to compose an image and hold a shot, so that this is a highly visual, almost museum-installation video of a suspenseful story that begins with two guys who look like shaggy twins being responsible for a girl’s rape and murder 23 years ago.
A similar crime occurs in the same place on the anniversary, causing reverberations among various players. Less a police procedural (although it’s that, a calculatedly unsatisfying one) than a psychological study that perhaps uses its sense of visual and aural style to lend more gravity than it merits as superficial entertainment about the favorite unappetizing topic of the era.
Watching it, I thought once again how The Shining invented the cliché of the distant overhead car-driving-along-wooded-road shot. (And in most cases it’s a second-unit effect, if not actually rented footage.) What’s really innovative and striking is the director’s short film included as a bonus, Quietsch. It uses a wide screen split into three rooms that somehow are connected with each other existentially across the splits, so that characters in one can affect the others in the brightly colored surreal events. I hope extras like this are available to people who stream films, but I doubt it.
51. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seems manifestly about the subdued homo-erotic charge between traumatized alcoholic WWII veteran Joaquin Phoenix (note the opening shots of shirtless wrestling soldier boys in tight shorts) and weird-vibe father figure Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose fair complexion, mustache, full cheeks, thinning hair, and tendency to sing old songs reminded me at moments of my own dad. Phoenix’s first reel before meeting the other is enthrallingly vivid in style, and the whole film has a great use of music.
Phoenix (note the coincidence of a scene set in that city, with explicit reference to the mythological bird) is established as not merely restlessly horny but a person who interprets or projects sex onto everything (the Rorschach scene), so it’s appropriate to see the whole movie in sexual terms. Notice the interview where Hoffman asks him “Do you linger for pleasure in bus stations?” and Phoenix giggles as he “gets it” and says no.
He’s emotionally blocked by his avoidance of his old too-young girlfriend, who offered a chance at hetero commitment, and when he finally is able to resolve that issue by going to visit her house, it foreshadows in a way his final re-visiting of Hoffman in England, except that one path is now closed while one remains open, and he chooses to close it.
An example of Anderson’s daring narrative nakedness, and his belief in characters who express themselves through song, is the out-on-a-limb moment of “Slow Boat to China.” By the way, the extras on this one are arty and kind of essential, as Anderson blends the outtakes into a fascinating little film that sheds bits of light on the movie. The various teasers/trailers also heavily emphasize footage not in the film.
52. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest is spectacular, as it should be. Less splendiferous than Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (one of the greatest movies of all time, and with maximum nudity), but still a magical, good-looking movie with perhaps gratuitous big-name actors and/or personalities, including Russell Brand injecting a few muttered F-words in a Cockney accent. Helen Mirren plays Prospero, now renamed Prospera (unnecessarily) and with gender words changed (“father” to “mother” etc.). Ben Whishaw and Djimon Hounsou are the nearly naked and becupped Ariel and Caliban.
I have before and will say again that Shakespeare movies always work as long as you can hear them. The thrill is inherent in such lines as “O brave new world that has such people in it” and especially the stunning melancholy wisdom of “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” The play’s great themes are forgiveness (after revenge!) and letting go, reconciliation and even renunciation—“This rough magic I here abjure” and “Every third thought shall be my grave.”
What’s supposed to be Prospero’s final speech is rendered as a song over the credits by Beth Gibbons of Portishead. That speech is another thing of wonder. I remember at my first screening of Prospero’s Books (one of the few movies I ever went to see twice), by the end of it there was me in the middle of the theatre, somebody else farther down, and several rows behind me a woman with one or two companions. When John Gielgud finished with “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, let your indulgence set me free,” which is one of the most graceful pleas for applause ever, I couldn’t help but clap, and that woman set up a lengthy storm of putting her hands together. Amen.
53. Imagine there’s a black US President. Imagine the white Speaker of the House belongs to the other party, which represents the interests of “the military-industrial complex”, which makes money off war. Imagine there’s a bunch of crazy and bigoted nuts who are ready to commit terrorist mayhem to prevent the Prez from orchestrating a magical treaty for peace in the Middle East. If this isn’t too much of a stretch, imagine making an action movie out of all this, and you have Roland Emmerich’s White House Down.
It’s told in personal terms. A down-at-heels decorated veteran can’t get a job as White House security to support his precocious daughter because he’s too much of an undisciplined hot dog who looks like Channing Tatum. On their White House tour on the day he blows the interview, the place is taken over by security chief James Woods, because the third-in-line-for-presidency Speaker (Richard Jenkins) wants a coup, and it won’t be over until Prez Jamie Foxx gets his hands dirty with some “That’s what I’m talkin ‘bout.” Maggie Gyllenhaal stands by fretting, trying to counter the testosterone in the room with out-of-place reasoned thought.
On one level, it’s asinine, with its “my daughter’s in there” and its “you have eight minutes” (which will take 20). On another level, it’s dramatizing (in extreme terms) real political ideas via butt-kicking action. And although Emmerich uses more edits than I’d prefer, he’s not hyper. His shots have clear information, shot classically, knit into straightforward setpieces of the type where, for example, all security personnel are neatly dispatched with single bullets, but Tatum easily avoids many automatic rounds in his direction. The film itself doesn’t give the impression of having been shot carelessly, shots sprayed like so many of those random rounds to be made sense of later in the editing room.
Everyone is related to totemic objects. The bad guys of course have their weapons. The Prez: his fountain pen and Lincoln’s watch. Daughter: her camera-phone. Tour guide: his priceless objets d’art. All of these, too, can be turned into weapons, but those people who use objects of communication, or know their historical value, are the good guys. Woods is introduced divesting himself of his totem (a flag pin) as a signal that he’s no longer worthy of significant personal objects.
Note the minor presence of a figure called Skinner who looks vaguely Limbaugh-esque. He’s held hostage with a face full of woe until he finally stands up and says “You’ll have to go through me”, whereupon he’s summarily shot. I don’t think the point here is to imply that at the end, he died heroically (or foolishly and pointlessly), but simply that he dies at the hands of those extremists he’s made a living encouraging.
The same person who identifies him as “the only one who tells the truth” is the one who shoots him, and the other inbred terrorist tries to engage him in conversation about the fact that he’s got lots of ideas for the man’s show. These are his people, and being confronted with this shameful fact prods him perhaps as much as his own sense of himself as a “leader” with an audience to impress.
54. Another political thriller is The Purge, set in an alternate reality where “the new founding fathers” by 2022 have designated one 12-hour period a year when crime runs rampant. The result is that the most defenseless (like poor and homeless) are gradually exterminated. There’s no way to explain this logically, like the steps of getting there from here, so the movie skips over that, as it skips over many questions like: if there’s also an anti-Purge faction, wouldn’t they be well-funded and organized and do things like take the homeless in for that period?
Or even more likely, since the Purge works in all directions, wouldn’t the poor neighborhoods organize and arm themselves and launch themselves against the rich neighborhoods, where they work as gardeners and maids? Or perhaps rather the slightly less-poor neighborhoods, who provide most economic competition? Wouldn’t the result be more like pitched battle between armed camps, with streets blockaded, rather than a turkey shoot?
There’s something to be said in theory for the “moral invisible hand” (as a friend put it) of a state of anarchy, but it would have to be ongoing, not a 12-hour “escape valve”. Despite the film’s assertion that it works by keeping crime way down and providing “catharsis” (for the maimed? for the survivors whose loved ones got killed?), it’s frankly unbelievable that it wouldn’t have the opposite effect. Since many crimes are committed by the mentally ill who aren’t checking their calendars, or by otherwise non-rational people, the set-up wouldn’t work.
Also skipped are specific points about the situation in the movie, where Ethan Hawke’s home (he having made his fortune by selling security systems to his rich neighbors, to underline the karmic irony) is surrounded and invaded by a youthful gang intent on getting the black homeless veteran hiding therein. Such as: if the wild youth only have one night a year for this, why would they waste most of it around a virtual fortress for the sake of one guy when there’s clearly easier pickings elsewhere? Sure, he killed one of them, but they’re apparently willing to kill each other and ready to die. At least this issue would be discussed among them as the hours tick by, wouldn’t it?
Or this: once the family decides to defend themselves, wouldn’t it make sense to take advantage of the guest’s military training (and the fact that he’s already killed one of his attackers) by arming him and asking for pointers on defending their home ground? Even I know it’s easier to defend a narrow entry and attack from cover than wander around haphazardly.
Their cameras tell them exactly how many invaders are outside and how they’re approaching each door or window, so wouldn’t they have an advantage in, say, first shooting at the SUV drivers and others from a 2nd floor window, and then rushing to whatever window they’re attacking to barricade and hide from cover, picking them off as they try to enter or perhaps waiting until they’re a little way into the room? And then, if necessary, retreating to tops of stairwells or the ends of long corridors where they can see anyone approaching? They know their own house better than the invaders.
I kept mentally rewriting the events to take account of some of these ideas while trying to keep the suspense and action in place. It can be done, but this writer/director settled for concentrating on pace and suspense for fear that more rational behavior would end things too quickly, I suppose. So the movie falls apart when you think about it. Yet, as metaphor two steps sideways from the way we live now, it’s a solid idea that makes sense. As a kinetic “funhouse” construction, it works you over as you’re watching it as long as you don’t take enough time to second-guess its decisions until later.
55. Savages feels like Oliver Stone’s most satisfying movie in a while. Aside from its assurance in telling a character-based story laced with nasty violence, and one that juggles many factions at cross-purposes in a kidnap/war between two homegrown indie pot dealers and a Mexican cartel run by Salma Hayek (!), I especially appreciate its central focus on a three-way of heroes (two men, one woman) who aren’t punished for their unconventional sexual menage.
The woman narrates, declaring cleverly at the beginning that we shouldn’t assume she’ll be okay at the end just because she’s telling this—a good ploy, but I’m including a sideways spoiler in the next sentence, so beware. The double ending begins with a highly non-credible tragic version, then follows with a “happy ending” that’s entirely credible. This illustrates, again, that happy endings are often more reasonable than unhappy ones.
56. The Rum Diary is written and directed by Bruce Robinson, previously responsible for Withnail and I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising (utterly brilliant). It feels like his stuff, with which I’m more familiar than with Hunter Thompson, who wrote this novel about a journalist in 1960 Puerto Rico who has misadventures while being seduced into a shady real estate scheme because of a foxy lady.
In theory, Johnny Depp should be too old for the part of the callow young reporter, but in practice he’s fine. His character is essentially a passive observer who (therefore) gets the stick. Cast and atmosphere are excellent. Both this and Savages have an appealing, sleek, sunshiny surface.
57. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer each filmed three of the six stories in Cloud Atlas simultaneously, which must have been a nightmare since the same actors are in all of them! I’m fortunate in that I’ve read the book (or rather listened to it), so I understood everything about the film, because it’s very faithful, although the structure is different.
The book is a stylistic tour de force of six separate stories embedded within each other, so that you start with the story furthest back in time, then interrupt it halfway through to begin the next story, and so on until you get to the farthest future story, and when it finishes, you begin stepping backward to finish the others until you arrive at the oldest again.
The movie decides to flip sideways through them every few minutes, with an action or image or dialogue in one segment triggering the transition to another. After all, each story is about people struggling to escape from malevolent forces that would kill or imprison them, and each hero finds solace in accord with some kindred soul.
There’s some embarrassing makeup in the Korean section, where plastic-fakey jobs on some occidental actors take us out of the story—or arguably underline the strangeness of this story, or demonstrate the theme of repressive society forcing everybody into one mold and making you masquerade as what you’re not. This section is literally about artificial and molded people, such as the grown clone underclass who are basically used as fast-food workers! (And, we discover, are actually fast food—notice the other section where the hero mockingly repeats “Soylent Green is people!”)
However, the rest of the movie has makeup so remarkable that most viewers won’t recognize some of the actors until the final credits shows all the faces of the main 13 players. Hugh Grant is especially surprising. Most of the actors play not only across race/ethnicity but across sex, although these are mostly glimpses rather than full-blown characters.
This conforms to the philosophy of souls transmigrating across times and bodies. This seems a personal project for the new improved Lana Wachowski, who has evidently transmuted his body to match her soul. This is the Wachowskis’ most coherently conceived and narratively tight project since Bound, and you can quote me. I’m so glad I watched this three-hour epic at home with a pause button (and subtitle option).
58. A Japanese woman named Hisako Matsui has made one of the best biopics ever about an independent, outspoken American woman, and it stars a British actress. Emily Mortimer plays the titular Leonie who, early in 20th Century New York made a partnership with Japanese poet Yone Noguchi. She edited his novel, which was published pseudonymously and successfully as The American Diary of a Japanese Girl by Miss Morning Glory.
They didn’t quite get married, but they had a child, and as this movie follows Leonie’s life and odyssey through carefully picked, lovingly framed, and tellingly detailed scenes in America and Japan, where she is always an odd figure, we come to realize that her son will grow up to be the famous sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and that this movie’s agenda is to provide a revealing background to the history that shapes an artist—especially his mother. This movie tells her life while respecting her privacy, since it discreetly ignores committing itself on the matter of who fathered Leonie’s second out-of-wedlock child. A remarkable movie.
59. Here’s a quietly terrific sure-footed film: the surprisingly convincing, awkward-teen slice-of-life Terri, about an obese misfit who becomes friends with principal John C. Reilly. This perfectly mines the same uncomfortable, daring, compassionate comic territory as Mike White (Chuck and Buck, Enlightened ), and turns on an epic scene of hideously awkward interaction among three stoned kids. It’s directed by Azazel Jacobs and written by Patrick Dewitt. Seriously, seek this baby out.
I deduce that this script has either been sitting in a drawer, or it’s based on the writer’s own distant memories, or both. How do I know? Though set at a well-heeled California high school, there’s not a cellphone in sight. The earliest high school movie with cells was all the way back to Clueless, where it was a joke. The recent The Moth Diaries, based on a novel set in the early ‘70s but updated to present day, has a cell in the first scene and never again—because they couldn’t figure out how to inject them unnecessarily into the story.
Compare with The We and the I, a project for a high school class developed by themselves, and where texting is a major plot point. We can work out a taxonomy on today’s teen movies based on the cellphone element.
60. Terence Malick’s To the Wonder has an extra where Ben Affleck makes an observation to the effect that Malick makes movies about how his characters remember events rather than the event itself. Certainly Tree of Life charts an uncanny ability to zero in on fragments of how things stick in our memory because of a certain emotion or just a vivid visual moment.
When we remember events or eras in life (college, marriage, accident), certain moments stick out against the background blur, and it’s the same after we read a novel or watch a movie, we remember certain details vividly while others recede, no matter that the story was told in clear coherent order with everything having equal weight. That’s not how we remember; we recall fragments that hit us for some reason. Malick is skipping over the story and going directly to how we remember stories.
So here he’s perfected a meditative memory style (really a series of classical music videos), with the camera constantly drifting forward (as usual) through experimentally edited fragments to bathe us in a notion of how personal experience of love as a pleasure (fickle, contingent) relates to spiritual concepts of love as a duty that you perform rather than receive. For example, as when Javier Bardem’s priest declares that love is something Christ tells you to do whether you want to or not. Although I didn’t immediately “like” this film as much as Tree of Life (which absolutely bowled me over), I must admit the odd possibility that I’ll remember it even more clearly—whether I want to or not.
Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.