Archive for December 2011

The Annual Box-Office Lament, 2011 edition

December 18, 2011

We live in a country where:

  • Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked made more money on its first day than A Dangerous Method has made in four weeks
  • Mars Needs Moms made more money than The Tree of Life (and I’m not a Malick fan, but c’mon)
  • I Don’t Know How She Does It made more money than Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  • Conan the Barbarian made more money than The Rum Diary
  • Sherlock Holmes 2: Sherlock Holmesier, or whatever the fuck it’s called, has made more money on its opening weekend than The Descendants has made so far in 33 days
  • Even Atlas Shrugged Part I made more money than Melancholia.

Of the top ten moneymakers, eight were sequels — straight-up, the top seven were sequels. The two exceptions were based on Marvel comic books. This is the list as it stands now, though latecomers like Mission Impossible 4: Mission Impossibler might supplant a few.

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  3. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
  4. The Hangover Part II
  5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  6. Fast Five
  7. Cars 2
  8. Thor
  9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  10. Captain America: The First Avenger

Now let’s take our annual look at the top ten from twenty years ago:

  1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
  3. Beauty and the Beast
  4. The Silence of the Lambs
  5. City Slickers
  6. Hook
  7. The Addams Family
  8. Sleeping with the Enemy
  9. Father of the Bride
  10. The Naked Gun 2 1/2

There’s a good deal of family/kiddie/fanboy pap on there, yes. But at #4 is the year’s eventual Best Picture winner, The Silence of the Lambs, recognized then and now as a modern classic. Not that it matters much, but how many times since then has a top-ten-of-the-year breadwinner also been a Best Picture winner? Exactly five times: Forrest Gump, Titanic, Gladiator, Chicago, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Which means we haven’t had a top ten Best Picture winner in eight years.

Let’s flip back ten years. 2001 looks like 2011 in a lot of ways. A Harry Potter film sits at #1, just as in 2011. There’s also a Michael Bay film (Pearl Harbor), a Joe Johnston film (Jurassic Park III), and a Planet of the Apes film. The rest of the list is clotted with kiddie flicks, sequels, and movies based on previously popular properties. Then there’s Ocean’s Eleven, which itself would become a franchise (and was also a remake, though higher in tone than most). Note the lack of comic-book films: even though the previous year’s X-Men had made the top ten, and Spider-Man would dominate a year later, Marvel and DC hadn’t quite gotten Hollywood in a stranglehold yet. Since 2000, there have been only two years when no comic-book flicks appeared on the year-end top-ten list at all: 2001 and 2009. (2009 was a relatively light year for the subgenre; the double-whammy success of The Dark Knight and Iron Man in ’08 led to a new boom in superhero films being greenlighted, but they wouldn’t actually hit theaters until 2010 and thereafter.)

So what films might make the list of 2012’s top-ten grossers? The Hunger Games might be the new Twilight. The old Twilight still has one more film to go. Comic books will rule again: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter Jackson is revisiting Middle-Earth, and 3D isn’t going away. And possibly a few surprises. They still happen. The Help just missed a spot on the top ten, and Bridesmaids wasn’t far behind. And even the execrable Bad Teacher cracked $100 million. That means more non-rom-coms made for females who aren’t fourteen. It won’t happen in 2012, though; you’ll start seeing the Bridesmaids wannabes in 2013. That’s if we’re still here, of course. Remember, the world’s supposed to end December 12, 2012, just like Roland Emmerich said. This means the last big-budget movie you’ll ever see is Les Miserables with Hugh Jackman on December 7. As for The Hobbit (scheduled for release December 14) and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (December 25), well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

December 10, 2011

I’ve never understood people who somehow blame the parents of psycho kids who go on school shooting sprees — especially if the parents hadn’t been demonstrably abusive. Some kids — some humans — are just broken, that’s all; they come out that way, stone cold and unreachable, and it doesn’t matter how much love they get at home. It could be, indeed, that the more love they get from their parents — the more coddling, the more enabling — the harder they calcify into madness. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the long-overdue third feature directed by Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar), Tilda Swinton plays Eva, the mother of a son who just plain comes out wrong. Nothing she can do helps; she tries and tries to get through to him, but he — Kevin — is intractable and difficult right from the start. He goes way beyond just being a brat. He’s brilliant, and emotionally incomplete, and he seems to decide very early on that his mother is his nemesis and that he will devote himself to putting her through hell.

The movie unfurls in fragments, bouncing around through time, the main signifier being the length of Eva’s hair (in the earlier bits, before her life has completely fallen apart, she has a stylishly short style; later on, it’s longer and lifeless). What we gather is that Kevin, now a teenager, has gone on a school rampage, and that this has destroyed Eva’s life. In flashbacks, we see her living with her son, her clueless husband (John C. Reilly), and her younger daughter in a huge house without many neighbors around. (The remoteness of the house becomes important later.) As a best-selling writer of travel books, Eva can afford the set-up. In the present-day scenes she’s renting a ratty suburban house and toiling as a secretary in a — insult-to-injury here — travel agency. Everywhere she goes, she stands a good chance of being insulted, being physically attacked, or having her property vandalized by the grieving parents of the fellow students Kevin killed. Her life is effectively over. We sense that the only reason she doesn’t OD on a bottle of pills and a bottle of the red wine she’s always chugging is that she needs to hear Kevin — whom she visits in the juvie institution — explain why he did it. As if there could be an explanation.

We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t the kind of film that provides such a reason. What it does do, with stomach-freezing efficacy, is to swim around inside the pain of a parent whose child is a monster. (Another recent film, last summer’s Beautiful Boy, probed the same sort of wound.) But we also see that Eva is not entirely innocent. I said before that she tries and tries, but some people are cut out to be parents and some are not; some have the patience for a particularly recalcitrant child and some don’t. As it happens, Eva’s relationship with the younger daughter, Celia, seems perfectly healthy, if only because Celia doesn’t smear sandwiches on glass tables or shit herself to spite Eva. It can also happen that parents make all their mistakes with the first kid and are mellower with the subsequent ones. Whatever the case, we’re shown that Kevin gave Eva trouble right from birth, literally from birth. The only time he cuts her some slack is when he’s sick and he develops an interest in the Robin Hood storybook she’s reading to him, which in turn forms an interest in archery.

This is easily the most mainstream film Lynne Ramsay has made, though it’s still far from ready for prime time. A lot of it, thematically and symbolically, is very neat; a little too neat. There are the obvious images of Eva straining throughout the movie to clean up red paint that’s been splattered across the front of her house, with many close-ups of her washing the paint off her hands. Yes, we get it; out, damn’d spot! We also get that every hapless interaction she endures with Kevin marches them both irreversibly towards his massacre. When we see that little Celia has two healthy eyes in some scenes and an eyepatch in others, we tense up and wait to find out how that happened (remembering all the while Kevin’s affinity for arrows). When Celia gets a plump little hamster for Christmas, we wait to see what Kevin will do to it. Some of the plotting mechanisms hark back to Lionel Shriver’s 2003 source novel, which if anything made Kevin even more of a bastard.

Still, what Ramsay does with the material — with invaluable help from the prickly-vulnerable Swinton and a peerless portrait in sociopathy by the 18-year-old Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin — sticks in the mind and the eye. This is a thriller, after a fashion (some have called it a horror movie; one critic memorably termed it “emotional rat poison”), and it made me wonder anew what Ramsay might have done with The Lovely Bones, which she was attached to for a while before Peter Jackson took it over and stank it up with his heavy-breathing CGI visions of heaven. I wonder, too, if the experience of losing out on The Lovely Bones made Ramsay hungry for another story about murder and familial noncommunication and devastated mothers. This is by leaps and bounds the better film, though not nearly as comforting — we even hear Eva, with suspicious cheerfulness, telling Jehovah’s Witnesses that she fully expects to go to hell — and to recommend it to young or prospective parents would be the height of cruelty. The movie, among other things, gives us to think about how much of parenting is the luck of the genetic draw: some babies come out destined to bring pain to themselves and everyone around them, and not the smallest or largest damn thing can be done about it.

A Dangerous Method

December 4, 2011

How would a psychoanalyst analyze David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, the story of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and the wild woman who came between them? The woman in question is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), referred to Jung as a “hysterical” patient before getting better and becoming a therapist herself. In the movie, Sabina comes to terms (amusingly quickly) with the knowledge that being spanked, as her father used to do, turns her on. For Freud, everything is about sex; Jung is starting to think beyond the physical into the metaphysical, but his interest in Sabina gradually becomes more Freudian than Jungian. Sabina is, if you will, the daughter of both men, drawing inspiration from both — and, some say, inspiring both as well.

Splits/doubles/twinning are all over the place in A Dangerous Method, which makes this a pure David Cronenberg film despite the level of violence being held down to bottom-thwacking and one neat cut delivered to Jung’s face. Cronenberg has always been preoccupied with what he calls the “Cartesian split” between mind and body; he’s a bit of a psychoanalyst himself. He brings his usual pensive rigor to the proceedings, with little flashes of perversity now and then. Most of the drama is the drama of ideas; we can almost hear angry swords clanging in a prideful comment from Freud and its politely dissenting rejoinder from Jung. The irony, not lost on Jung, is that Jung must kill his “father” — a key Freudian concept.

Once Keira Knightley’s Sabina calms down, all of this unfolds in quiet talk in immaculate period settings. Michael Fassbender’s Jung, never less than exquisitely courteous, represses his feelings for Sabina while Viggo Mortensen’s Freud pulls on his cigar and sees everything coming (or would like to think he does). A little-noticed feature of much of Cronenberg’s work is that of a woman who yanks a man out of his comfort zone into strange new territories; sometimes it doesn’t end well for the man, but such is drama, and there’s always some sense of bold discovery, even if it’s entirely interior (and frightening). A Dangerous Method is about as interior as a movie can get; some of it feels stagebound (it originated as a play, The Talking Cure, by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the script), but Cronenberg long ago graduated from drive-in gore-meister to actor’s director, and his camera attends to the smallest subtleties in the performances. We don’t need to know beforehand that Freud was a middle-class Jew who envied the gentile Jung’s marrying into wealth; a tiny, disapproving “hmph” from Mortensen says it all.

It may be that A Dangerous Method is less fun the more you know about the actual figures; to answer my opening question, at least one prominent therapist accused Cronenberg and company of “missing the story.” Well, that may be true if what you want is a textbook. For Cronenberg fans who didn’t desert him after he stopped blowing up heads and started exploring them, it’s yet another intensely calibrated portrait of repression and expression. Cronenberg remains the pre-eminent droll philosopher of English-speaking films, inviting us into his well-appointed office and probing us inside and out. Right at the start, in his first short film Transfer 45 years ago, Cronenberg told a seven-minute story about a psychiatrist and his fixated patient. A Dangerous Method takes him full circle.