Archive for December 2010

Best Films of 2010, or, Who cares?

December 31, 2010

Aah, who gives a shit what I think were the best movies of 2010? You have your favorites, I have mine, and neither of us has the authority to pronounce any set of films the “best.” (Best what? Best you’ve seen? Best in America? Best that got a theatrical release?) Having said that, for me this year there was Enter the Void and then there was everything else. Gaspar Noé may strike a lot of people as obnoxious but he delivers the goods. Enter the Void doesn’t really have any answers for us about what happens after we die but it sure moves heaven and earth to explore the possibility cinematically. Most likely, I’d guess, you just go out like a candle and that’s it. A true void. The film is really Enter the Trippy Light Show, but its vigorous attempts to go beyond the infinite earn it, I think, comparison to 2001. And that’s no small feat.

Even this, the greatest film achievement of the year in my eyes, has a comforting message: you die, you get to float around and visit your survivors, you might even get reincarnated. 2010 was the year of comfort films for people who need comforting. 127 Hours tells us that Aron Ralston’s loss of his arm made him a better person. Black Swan tells us that craziness leads to a triumphant final performance and poetic death, not being swaddled in Thorazine in some overcrowded, underfunded laughing academy. True Grit, a terrific old-school entertainment, tells us the bad guy can be hunted down and killed with a little frontier gumption. Even The Social Network tells Mark Zuckerberg he isn’t really an asshole, an assessment that came as a surprise to anyone who’d been watching the movie. And these are only the critically-acclaimed Oscar-chasers.

Most top-ten lists have been giving lavish, sack-tickling fellatio to The Social Network and Black Swan, which are essentially the same movie. Socially maladjusted twentysomethings pursue perfection, meet wilder versions of themselves, get lost in a maze of their own obsessions. Natalie Portman turns into a swan and perishes, Jesse Eisenberg sits and refreshes Erica Albright’s Facebook page. A self-pitying special-snowflake first-world-problem whine can be heard just under the fancy soundtrack music of both films. I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, what the hell am I doin’ here. I’m a loser, baby, so why don’tcha kill me.

As for Inception, the mainstream version of Enter the Void: the further away I get from it, the more it seems that the whole is exactly the sum of its parts — the knockout dreamscapes you all saw in the trailer — and nothing more. It’s something, and one of the smarter films to earn almost $300 million in America, but for me one visit was enough. Your mileage not only may vary but very possibly will.

I dig movies that fuck with me a little, or show me something I haven’t seen. (Inception did that, but then didn’t have much to say about it. Christopher Nolan is a thinker but not a philosopher, an artist but not a poet.) This year moreso than ever, apparently. If it’s fake Cronenberg you’re after, pass up Black Swan and rent Splice, a wounding and complex and almost completely overlooked meditation on biological dread. If it’s fake Polanski you want, shrug off Black Swan and hit up the real thing, The Ghost Writer. I couldn’t have been less interested in Iron Man 2, but enjoyed the hell out of two other comic-book movies this year: Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, with which enjoyment very few geeks will beg to differ, and poor Jonah Hex, which only Armond White and I seemed to like. In the realm of low budget, Richard Griffin’s Nun of That and the Soska Sisters’ Dead Hooker in a Trunk deserve more eyes on them. A Serbian Film is in a category by itself; having “gone there,” it ultimately has nowhere to go. Much more subversive, and funny, was Tom Six’s The Human Centipede, the first film in a while that Roger Ebert awarded no stars not because he found it terrible but because — great poetic phrase and the reason nobody should count Ebert out yet — the movie “occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.” Indeed it does, and Dieter Laser is the dark star of that constellation.

Special mention goes to the following: Noomi Rapace’s cumulative performance as geek goddess Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara has huge shoes to fill); Martin Scorsese finding his movie-drunk groove again in Shutter Island; Woody Harrelson in the best superhero movie nobody saw, Defendor; Todd Solondz’ Happiness update Life During Wartime; the art-installation fun of Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated; Emma Stone and the rest of the witty cast of Easy A; the first two-thirds of The Last Exorcism before it decided to turn into The Devil’s Rain; Chloe Moretz in Kick-Ass and Let Me In; the fundamentally shitty but fairly amusing Legion; the guilty pleasures Machete and Resident Evil: Afterlife; the cult-of-personality docs I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; and the best line of the year, Tina Fey’s probably-improvised “That’s amazing, Jeremy, but I’m gonna go home now and fart into a shoebox” in Date Night.

Did I miss anything? By all means, harangue me about it in the comments.

True Grit (2010)

December 19, 2010

John Wayne wasn’t much of an actor, but he had that American-eagle presence that stood him in good stead until the ’60s, when the eagle’s feathers began to molt. In 1969, with America’s indignity approaching its peak, Wayne made True Grit and played a fat, one-eyed drunk who could still get it together to be noble. The denuded eagle had been restored, at least temporarily. Cut to 2010: the eagle has not soared for quite some time, and politicians on both sides are plucking its feathers one by one. The time may indeed be right for another True Grit, another fat one-eyed drunk showing us that redemption is hard but not impossible. And this time, there’s a real actor involved.

Jeff Bridges steps into the muddy boots of Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshal hired by fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (sharp newcomer Hailie Steinfeld) to chase down the no-account thief who killed her father. Cogburn normally can’t be bothered to make his speech intelligible — most of it is disgruntled mumbling — but Bridges, a precise actor even when playing layabouts like Cogburn or the Dude, lets us hear the sentences that matter. Cogburn drinks all day and drags himself painfully out of sleep in the morning, but he snaps into cold proficiency when he has to.

True Grit has been adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen to hew closer to the tone of Charles Portis’ well-loved novel, which is told from the viewpoint of Mattie Ross. The baroquely formal language has been preserved, as has the rather eligiac epilogue: this time it’s Mattie who rides off into the sunset, not Cogburn. The obvious comparison is to the Coens’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (that film’s desperate protagonist, Josh Brolin, here gets to play a slyly tongue-in-cheek Anton Chigurh figure), but I think it would make a better double feature with the Coens’ Fargo. In both, a plain-spoken female, innocent of sin but unafraid in the face of evil, pursues her quarry across grim expanses of snow. They’re both essentially comedies of persistence, weighed to the earth a little by the heaviness of violence.

The original True Grit got an M rating in 1969 (the equivalent of today’s PG-13), and the new version pushes the PG-13 envelope with chopped-off fingers, an assailant shot off his horse and pitching bloodily head-first into a big rock, and a nicely tense sequence involving a pit full of rattlesnakes. Still, the Coens have aimed for a holiday-season entertainment here, wrought with their usual fastidious style. (If cinematographer Roger Deakins, heretofore stupidly overlooked by the Academy for past gorgeous work, doesn’t win the Oscar next February for his work here, I’m sure I won’t be alone in throwing something at the TV.)

Why did the typically sardonic Coens want to make this film? A glance at the Portis novel yields a simple answer: Why wouldn’t they? It offers terrific set pieces, a great ear for dialogue, and an outsize hero, a sodden eagle burping on his horse and failing to shoot cornbread in air but firing true when it counts. It’s clear from such farces as Burn After Reading that the Coens don’t really believe in American exceptionalism. But perhaps they would like to. In the wide panoramic compositions of the filmmaking, the eagle soars again.

By popular demand: Ten Reasons Why I Hate Christmas

December 18, 2010

Of all the things I’ve written over the decades, this piece — written in 1998 for an email zine I was putting out weekly, then posted on my Angelfire site that’s mysteriously still live — has been by far the most popular. I continue to get appreciative email about it, which tells me it strikes a nerve.

Keep in mind, I wrote this thing twelve years ago. I’m different now — who isn’t? — so I’m not necessarily still 100% on every word of it. But I figured I’d reprint it here, if only so that people will be able to find it in a different place and perhaps be led to my reviews and perhaps even buy my books.

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Hell…uh, I mean Christmas. Every year around this time, I spiral into a bottomless pit of anger and depression. Here’s why.

(1) CHRISTMAS CARDS

Nothing says “I don’t really give a fuck about you” like a Christmas card that comes out of a box of twenty identical Christmas cards. Far worse is the Christmas newsletter: “Hi, I can’t be bothered to write each of you a personal letter, so here’s a computer-printed newsletter to brief you on my boring year.” Also on the Rob shit-list: cutesy family Christmas cards with the whole family posing on the front; Christmas Create-a-Cards; and Christmas e-mail postcards. And if anyone e-mails me a snowball this year, I will track them down and do interesting things to them with a fork.

(2) CHRISTMAS TREES

At our house, we have the same artificial tree we’ve had since I was a baby. And these days, you can buy an artificial tree that looks exactly like a real one. So why buy a real one? For the pine scent? (Go out and sniff a pine cone, asshole.) For the joy of vacuuming pine needles off the rug every day? What?? I don’t get it. And then, after New Year’s Day, you see the most depressing thing ever: all the dead, rejected trees sitting out on the sidewalk, waiting to be taken to the dump. Mutilate a living thing, take it home, hang shit on it, then kick it to the curb: That’s everything evil about America in a nutshell.

(3) CHRISTMAS PARTIES

Especially work-related. My Christmas party this year comes after a 9-to-6 day for me. After such a day, I want to go home and be alone. I don’t want to hang with the same people I’ve been looking at all day. Then every year there’s some sort of idiotic theme to the gift-giving (more on that later). Last year everyone had to write a poem, which was kind of cool; I can handle that. This year, though, everyone had to buy something red. (I was going to give a vial of my own blood, but I didn’t think that would go over.) Question: If the point of these wingdings is to enjoy each other’s company, why not just forget the gifts?

(4) CHRISTMAS GREED

This time of year is when you start overhearing the little brats screaming to their parents that they want the toy du jour — this year, of course, it’s a Furby. Parents are caught in a cruel bind: They can’t very well say “Sorry, kids, Furbys are expensive and hard to find,” because then the little shits will just ask Santa for one. So the parents pretty much have to pay through the nose for a Furby. Christmas is one compelling reason not to have kids unless you’re Jewish or some other religion that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, like Wicca.

(5) CHRISTMAS CAROLS

Ken Souza, who shares my hatred of Xmas music, swears by the three Twisted Christmas discs — and from the tracks we’ve all heard on the radio, they’re pretty damn funny. I also like Kyle’s “A Lonely Jew on Christmas,” Cartman’s cattle-prod rendition of “O Holy Night,” Tom Lehrer’s “A Christmas Carol,” Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” Bob and Doug MacKenzie’s “12 Days of Christmas” (“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me — a beer”), and the Kinks’ “Father Christmas.” And I always welcome Adam Sandler’s two Chanukah songs. As for the other muzak, I’m all for dumping it into a large hole, setting it on fire, and pissing out the flames.

(6) CHRISTMAS MOVIES

I only recognize two Christmas movies: Scrooged (for Bill Murray) and One Magic Christmas (for sick laughs). Then there are the Xmas horror flicks, like Black Christmas (which John Carpenter clearly saw before making Halloween), Christmas Evil (a favorite of John Waters), Silent Night, Deadly Night, and Jack Frost (the one about the killer snowman, not the Michael Keaton one). Everything else, I can live without — even It’s a Wonderful Life, though it features my favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart. Then there’s A Christmas Story. (Okay, I can only speak for myself here, because I am definitely in the minority on A Christmas Story, which everyone else on the planet adores, and which I loathe with the intensity of a laser beam. There’s, like, one good scene — the visit to Santa — but everything else in the movie, I despise, beginning with Jean Shepherd’s annoying, ineptly written narration: “My fevered brain seethed with the effort of trying to come up with the infinitely subtle devices necessary to implant the Red Ryder Range Model Air Rifle indelibly into my parents’ subconscious!” Mr. Shepherd, meet Mr. Strunk and Mr. White.) As for Xmas specials, there’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which I haven’t seen in years. Everything else? Yawn.

(7) A CHRISTMAS CAROL

There are several good modern variations on it (see above), but you know what? Dickens’ perennial fable of redemption is the granddaddy of a thousand lame movies: Regarding Henry, The Doctor, Life Stinks (a lot of them seemed to come out around the same time), dozens of others — they’re all basically the Scrooge story: Mean person learns to be nice. Or the ’90s version: Busy dad learns to spend more time with the kids. Yes, the working dad has become the Scrooge of the ’90s — witness Hook, Liar Liar, and Jack Frost, to name but three.

(8) CHRISTMAS SHOPPING

The insanity begins the day after Thanksgiving, when anyone with two brain cells to rub together will stay the hell away from anything resembling a retail store. Somehow, though, the idiots come out in force every year. And there’s no let-up until at least the second week of January, because even after Christmas, people return their shitty gifts (see below). And it’s not as if the Christmas shopping season begins in November: you start seeing Christmas commercials and store decorations as early as October. Which brings me to…

(9) CHRISTMAS SHOPPERS (EARLY-BIRDS)

The only thing worse than the moron who waits until December 24 to do all his or her Christmas shopping is the smug bitch who has all her shopping done by July. That’s not misogynist: It’s always women who shop this far in advance. (Name three guys who have their shopping done before December.) Now, so as not to irk those (women) who conscientiously buy their Christmas gifts a little at a time during the year: I am speaking here of the ones who can’t resist telling you, “Oh, I got all my shopping done before July.” In other words: It’s fine by me if they do it; I just don’t want to hear it. Because it makes me want to divide such people into 17 asymmetrical pieces. So for those people, some advice: If the topic comes up … lie. Claim that you’re even farther behind on your shopping than the rest of us. That’s the best gift you can give your friends.

(10) CHRISTMAS GIFTS

The whole giving-and-getting thing: ick. When you exchange gifts with someone, you feel bad if the gift you gave them is cheaper than the gift they gave you; you also feel bad if it’s the reverse. “Wow, a DVD player! Uh … thanks … I got you a bag of chips.” You calculate just how much to spend on each person, which means you’re basically putting a price on your love. How much is Mom worth? $150? $200? How about your cousin? One great reason to stay away from romance is the agonizing over what to get your boy/girlfriend that first Christmas. And what to get his/her parents, siblings, etc….And of course he/she (usually she) will say, “You don’t have to get me anything. Just as long as we can spend Christmas together.” This, let me tell you, is horseshit.

The Fighter

December 11, 2010

The Fighter isn’t really a “boxing movie” — it’s more about family dysfunction — but it boasts some of the best ring footage in quite a while. Essentially, there are two masters a director of modern boxing sequences can serve. The Rocky model lunges for excitement and catharsis, a mini-dramatic arc ascending from round to round; the Raging Bull template puts you inside the battered skull of a pugilist. David O. Russell, who directed The Fighter, nods to both but really follows neither. The star and co-producer, Mark Wahlberg, has said his aim in the fight scenes was realism, and indeed the trading of punches, the guarding of body and head, play so unemphatically that the punishment dealt and received comes across as more dramatic. The fights have a documentary, real-time rhythm.

The movie paints a basically warm picture of Lowell, Massachusetts welterweight Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and his older half-brother and trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Micky is trying to rise in the ranks, but he can’t depend on Dicky, who had his day in the sun years ago in a bout with Sugar Ray Leonard and is now throwing his life away in a crackhouse. I don’t know quite how rosy the film makes the real story, though you wouldn’t know from the script that Dicky, after getting clean in jail and helping Micky stage a comeback, was pinched for crack possession six years later and again last year for domestic assault and attempted murder.

You look at Wahlberg and you know he can throw a punch but would almost rather not. You look at Christian Bale and you’re not sure if he can manage a punch (he shed considerable weight to play the dissipated Dicky), but he always seems ready to deck somebody. Wahlberg underplays, as usual in his lead roles (he was livelier in The Departed), while Bale practically dances on the ceiling. The dynamic here is less De Niro/Pesci in Raging Bull than Keitel/De Niro in Mean Streets. Bale’s showboat performance, all but guaranteed to draw Oscar attention, gets wearying after a while: “Sit the fuck down and be quiet,” you might want to yell at him. Between Dicky, the overbearing matriarch of the family (Melissa Leo), and the seven sisters with attitudes like coyote traps, it’s perhaps no wonder that Micky is so recessive and unaggressive — weird traits for a boxer.

Two such disparate acting styles could, but don’t here, result in a cold front/warm front thunderstorm. What it comes across as is a Kabuki-theater version of the good-brother/bad-brother trope, as old as Cain and Abel. (Part of the greatness of Raging Bull was that it centered on the bad brother.) Amy Adams turns up, flashing a tramp stamp and dropping F-bombs, as Micky’s love interest and smuggles some clear-spoken sanity into this indecisive movie. Should Micky ditch his bad-news brother and strike out on his own, or stay true to his family? Fifteen minutes shy of the end credits and he and the movie are still waffling on the answer. The film becomes Amy Adams’ property by default, because we share her character’s baffled frustration with the whole situation.

The Fighter isn’t bad, but it’s disappointingly conventional coming from the mercurial talent David O. Russell, who hasn’t had a film in theaters since 2004′s I Heart Huckabees; his 2008 political comedy Nailed remains unfinished. I get the sense that Russell may consider Micky and Dicky’s comebacks his comeback. It’s his way of saying “See, I can be a good boy and deliver a low-budget critics’ darling with Oscar buzz.” But aside from some low-down, bottom-dog humor involving Dicky’s crackhouse misadventures (he’s always jumping out of windows into trash bags to avoid getting caught by his mother), The Fighter is missing Russell’s particular prickly comic sensibility. It’s being positioned as this year’s The Wrestler (no surprise that that film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, is a producer here), but it lacks a star who’s lived the conflict; what it has are some authentically grungy Lowell locations, a star who humbly brings a local hero to the big screen, and another star who seems to see his character as a license to overact.

127 Hours

December 4, 2010

127 Hours is an indelible physical experience with a bit of spiritual glop ladled onto it to help the bitter medicine go down. In 2003, mountain climber Aron Ralston (played here by James Franco) fell into a Utah canyon, his right arm pinned by a boulder. There he stayed for about five days, trying everything he could think of with the limited tools he had, until finally he broke the arm and sawed it off with a dull multi-use knife. This is not a spoiler, since Ralston’s story was told thousands of times that year, after he made it back to civilization. Ralston is today a husband and father, and he still climbs and hikes alone, though he now takes care to tell people where he’s going.

Aside from a prologue of sorts, with Ralston acting as guide to a couple of lost young hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), and a crazyquilt of hallucinatory flashbacks whose fabric gets denser as the movie approaches climax, it’s pretty much a one-man show. Franco brings a heedless, arrogant physicality to the role; Ralston is so familiar with this particular stretch of rocks and crevices he hops across them the way you would negotiate your back yard, instinctually, thoughtlessly. Once Ralston is trapped — about fifteen minutes into the 95-minute film — the burden is on Franco to keep the tension coiled while avoiding monotony. He doesn’t even have a volleyball to talk to, though he spills his guts to his camcorder, at one point fantasizing a talk-show host deriding him for getting into this fix. There’s wit and ingenuity in the performance.

For a good while, the same is true of the direction. Danny Boyle’s recent films have left me cold — I was one of the few unmoved by his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. But 127 Hours, which Boyle also wrote (with Simon Beaufoy), captures physical stress at its utmost. The style is jazzy but clean, never obtrusive. The landscape is full of rocks that look soft and round but will crush you. The elements can warm or punish. The cramped geography of Ralston’s death-trap is imposing. When Ralston empties his backpack, we see his few supplies, which help keep him going but in the long run are useless. In the end there is only a knife.

All of this is first-rate, but a life lesson sneaks around the margins. Ralston has said a vision of a future son kept him alive, and we see this. We also hear a lot about Ralston’s commitment-phobia. He was always, it seems, running away from people into nature’s embrace. Finally the dialogue comes right out with it: Ralston and his boulder have been on a collision course all his life. He needed the rock to show him how much he needed people. Really, drinking his own urine to stay hydrated and losing his arm was the best thing that could’ve happened to him. Ralston currently enjoys a lucrative side career on the corporate-lecture circuit, presumably parlaying his experience into bromides about perseverance and, heh, reaching out.

The movie buys into this. I suppose it’s human nature to ascribe deeper spiritual meaning to a horrific event, though Christopher Hitchens’ current dignified struggle refutes this. But artists should be more tough-minded. I wouldn’t kick so much at the soppy “everything happens for a reason” telegram if the preceding hour or so weren’t so harsh and true, expressed in sharp pure cinema. (At one point the filmmaking brings you close to what it might feel like to saw agonizingly through nerves.) 127 Hours is about three-quarters of a minimalist classic, an epic battle reduced to one body and one rock. But slapping a happy face on the whole ghastly ordeal, as if it happened solely to improve Ralston’s character and inspire others to go and do likewise, is more than a little bizarre.


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