Friday December 31, 2010
The Last Blog Post of 2010
I'm still in the process of seeing some of the big U.S. releases in December (“King's Speech”; “True Grit”), so I'm holding off on my Top 10 list until all that's done. If I can't promise punctuality I can promise thoroughness. Since I can't be the first out with a top 10 list, I hope to be the last.
In the meantime, here are the movies I've reviewed so far this year. “Un Prophete” and “Restrepo” are still tops for me.
What about you? Favorite movies from 2010?
Feel free to include favorite books and songs as well. I really need songs.
(And for anyone who thinks the conceptual video with great dancing is dead, please check out Janelle Monae's “Tightrope,” which I first came across via Time magazine's top 10 list. A sure sign you're old: when Time magazine is hipper than you.)
Good-bye, 2010. Skol, everyone.
Thursday December 30, 2010
Review: “Rabbit Hole” (2010)
How do you deal with an unbearable tragedy, the death of a son, a four-year-old son, who chased his dog into the street and got hit by a car? If you’re his parents, how do you go on?
In “Rabbit Hole,” Becca and Howie (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) come up with opposite answers. She excludes, he includes. She removes, he embraces. In Biblical terms, she commits sins of omission, he commits sins of commission. But “sin” is too strong a word for what they’re doing. They’re just trying to find comfort. They’re both just trying to keep living.
As the movie opens she’s putting fresh soil into her garden. It’s the soil to which we all return, and to which her four-year-old son, Davey, returned, too early, eight months previous, but here, for a moment, it feels like a positive. It’s soil to grow, not bury. Then her neighbor shows up and invites Becca and Howie to dinner that evening. Becca politely declines. Plans, she says. But they have no plans. She just can’t be with people. She’s still in the act of burying.
She’s slowly divesting herself of everything that reminds her of the pain of her son. She starts with the dog that the boy chased into the street (now cooped up at her mother’s apartment), then the drawings on the refrigerator (put into boxes in the basement), then the clothes in the bedroom (given to Goodwill). Eventually she’ll suggest selling the house itself.
Her husband’s the opposite. He watches the same video of his son, over and over again, on his iPhone. He takes comfort in what’s still here. Until one day the video isn’t. After she uses his phone. Oops.
At group therapy, she can’t abide the way other couples assume an order to the universe. How the death of their child was part of God’s plan. How God needed another angel in Heaven. “Then why didn’t He just make one!” Becca finally erupts. “He’s God!” Everyone stares, aghast. So much for group.
She keeps doing this. She holds in, then erupts. A child in a grocery cart pesters his mother for fruit rollups and Becca confronts the mother, tells her to give in, says it won’t hurt him. The mother reacts as mothers do. She says mind your own business. She says, “Do you have any children? I didn’t think so.” Now it’s Becca’s turn to be aghast and she slaps the woman in the face. Basically she commits a criminal act. When she runs off, horrified by what she’s done, by what she’s become, her sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), tries to explain to the mother about how Becca lost a child, etc., but the mother isn’t having it. “I don’t care!” she says.
Neither do we, by this point. That’s the problem. The film juxtaposes two ways of dealing with grief but one of them—Becca’s—is solipsistic and unsympathetic. Howie tries to take comfort in intimacy, in his wife, but she refuses to let herself feel good and makes accusations. “You want to rope me into having sex?” she says, horrified. Later when he brings up having another child, this becomes the accusation. “Were you trying to get me pregnant?” she says, horrified. Howie, on the other hand, never loses our sympathy. For a time, left out in the cold with Becca, he contemplates an affair with another, warmer woman (Sandra Oh), but he doesn’t go through with it. “I love my wife,” he finally says. He’s just waiting for her to return.
Instead of getting close to her husband, though, Becca begins an odd relationship with the high school boy, Jason (Miles Teller), who drove the car that killed her son. She follows his school bus. She follows him to the library. They begin to talk on park benches. Is this a sex thing, one wonders, Kidman’s “Birth” revisited, or a maternal thing? Teller’s got a great face, sad and dumpy, with a puffiness around his eyes as if he’d just woken up or never been to sleep. He’s obviously devastated by what’s happened. He’s also been working on a comic book, “Rabbit Hole,” about parallel universes, about all of the other lives we might be living instead of this one. She reads the book he read for research. She reads his comic book. And in the end it’s this notion—that somewhere, in the many somewheres out there, her son is still living—that finally gives her comfort. She’s saved, not by God and religion, but by scientific theory.
“Rabbit Hole” was directed by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) from a screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his own Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, and there are moments that feel a bit theatrical. The best speech in the movie, in fact, delivered by Becca’s mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest), feels theatrical to me. I get a glimmer of the artificiality of the stage from it. But I wouldn’t change a word.
Throughout the movie, the main source of tension between Nat and Becca is that Nat, in an attempt to console her daughter, keeps bringing up the fact that she, too, lost a son. Becca’s not having it. Her brother died at 30, not 4, and his death was self-inflicted (a drug overdose), he didn’t get hit by a car. But there’s still pain there. Late in the movie, heading into the basement with her mother, Becca comes across Davey’s things, his refrigerator drawings that she’d hidden earlier in the film, and it’s like a punch in the gut. “Does it go away?” she suddenly asks. “What?” Nat asks. “The feeling,” Becca says. “No,” Nat says. There’s a pause. “It changes, though.” When asked how she says this:
The weight of it, I guess. At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under. And carry around—like a brick in your pocket. And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is: “Oh right. That.” Which can be awful. But not all the time. Sometimes it’s kinda... Not that you like it exactly. But it’s what you have instead of your son.
For all the issues I have with the movie, I know I’ll carry these words around with me—and not like a brick—the rest of my life.
Wednesday December 29, 2010
Scene: Small family dining room. Five adults in postprandial conversation as a six-year-old squeezes by after using the bathroom.
Mother: Hey hey. Did you wash your hands?
Mother: Go back and wash your hands.
Son: Mom! I haven't finished eating yet.
Cue adult laughter.
Scene: A larger family dining room. Six adults in postprandial conversation as a nine-year-old plays with the potatoes on his plate. The adults are talking about opera. He looks bored. He looks at his uncle.
Nephew: What's opera?
Uncle: It's a form of music. Like rock n' roll. You know.
Nephew: Oh. You mean like the Opera Winfrey show?
Cue adult laughter.
Scene: Target Field in winter. Two families are being led on a tour by a 78-year-old man, my father, Bob Lundegaard, who began his career as a tour guide earlier this year. One of the familiies is ours: Patricia, my brother Chris, my sister Karen, her husband Eric, and their two kids Jordy and Ryan. The other family—an upbeat woman, a really knowledgable baseball guy, and three kids—is from...Iowa? I forget. They arrive last-minute, don't know the tour guide is our father, and keep us on our best behavior. They keep us from being us. Partially. Early in the tour Dad shows off a shot of Met Stadium, where the Twins played from 1961 to 1981, and the really knowledgable baseball dude asks about all of these empty seats along the third-base/left field line. The place is almost filled but these seats, bright orange, are all empty.
Dad: Good question. I'm not sure why those seats were empty. I believe there was some construction going on.
Me (feeling cheeky): I wouldn't be surprised. I know the seats just above those were among the cheapest in the park. I know because my father, a notorious skinflint, always made us sit there.
Dad (without missing a beat): Sounds like a very intelligent man.
Tuesday December 28, 2010
Quote of the Day (Disney Version)
“I encountered nothing in 15,000 miles of travel that disgusted and appalled me so much as this American addiction to make-believe. Apparently, not even empty bellies can cure it. Of all the facts I dug up, none seemed so significant or so dangerous as the overwhelming fact of our lazy, irresponsible, adolescent inability to face the truth or tell it.”
—James Rorty, “Where Life is Better” (1936)
Monday December 27, 2010
Scene at a Barnes & Noble
Scene at a Barnes & Noble in downtown Minneapolis three days before Christmas...
Clerk: May I help you find something?
Me: I'm alright. Wait. Actually, yeah. I'm looking for a book: “The Letters of Saul Bellow.” Where would that be exactly?
Clerk returns to information desk and stands before computer.
Clerk: What was the name again?
Me: “The Letters of Saul Bellow.”
Clerk clatters on keyboard. Pause.
Clerk: How do you spell that?
Me: Saul? S-a-u-l.
Clattering on keyboard. Pause.
Clerk: Is that one word?
Me: Um. Saul: S-a-u-l. Then there's a space and it's Bellow, B-e-l-l-o-w. Saul Bellow.
Clerk: Here it is. Yes, we should have several copies.
Clerk comes out from behind information desk. He's wearing a button that says: “I'm NOOK Smart.”
Thursday December 23, 2010
Beam Me Up, Scottie
It recently occurred to me that post-9/11 airport security has become like a version of the transporter on the old “Star Trek” TV show.
On the show, characters would stand, whole, on the transporter platform; someone would say “energize” and their beings would be disassembled into molecules, which would then be shot through space and reassembled elsewhere: on the planet surface, on another ship, etc.
At the airport, we do this to ourselves. We show up, whole, but to pass through security we have to lose the jacket, the scarf, the shoes, the belt, the watch, the wallet, the extra layer of clothes, any jewelry we're wearing, and only then, disassembled, are we allowed to pass through the metal detector, where, on the other side, we get to reassemble ourselves: gathering up and putting back on our shoes, watch, wallet, sweater, scarf and jacket, until we're whole again.
So kinda like beaming down on “Star Trek.” Just way less cool.
Tuesday December 21, 2010
Review: “Black Swan” (2010)
WARNING: WHITE SPOILERS, BLACK SPOILERS
At the least, particularly for those of us unfamiliar with ballet, we have a new metaphor with which to talk about ourselves. After the movie, the group of us, six in all, grabbed a bite and talked about whether we thought we were more white swan or black swan. Vinny claimed black swan for himself but no one agreed. (The man can demonstrate how to fold a fitted sheet, for God’s sake.) Theresa is obviously black swan, while Laura, who danced ballet until she was in her late teens, is decidedly mixed. Patricia, my Patricia, loves hanging with the black swans—like Ward—to bring out the black swan in herself. Because she’s mostly white swan.
Me? I am so white swan it hurts. I began this blog, in fact, with the same hope that ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has for his new star, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), as she prepares for “Swan Lake”: to give up some part of the careful, controlled half (the white swan part) and let go into wildness and creativity (the black swan part). She had better luck than me but at a steeper price. The white swan is a bitch of a muse.
Has any recent movie gotten us into the head of its main character as well as this one? I kept having to take deep breaths after it was over. I’d been holding my breath for the last half hour along with Nina.
It helps to think of the white-swan part of Nina’s personality as less about innocence than control. Sure, Nina is sexually innocent, but one suspects it’s a direct result of her control and discipline. I mean, she doesn’t think about touching herself until Leroy suggests it? Until it might help get the part she covets? I’ll masturbate, but only to be good in the role. One way to make students do their homework.
No, Nina is hardly innocent. She’s covetous. Early in the film, after Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) trashes her own dressing room when she learns she’s been summarily dismissed as prima ballerina of their New York ballet company, Nina sneaks in and sits at the vanity mirror and looks at herself and tries out Beth’s lipstick; then she pockets Beth’s lipstick. It seems a minor thing. Until later in the film when Beth is in the hospital and Nina brings out all the things, including diamond earrings, that Nina has stolen from her over the years. She keeps dipping into her pockets and coming out with more stuff. She’s been coveting the role of prima ballerina for years, and now it’s hers, but she can only see little versions of herself ready to take what’s hers. She assumes the world is like her—we all do—and that’s why she’s paranoid. She knows how awful the desire to take.
The rival she’s most fearful of is Lily (Mila Kunis), late of a San Francisco company, whom she first sees riding the subway and getting off a stop too early and thus arriving late for rehearsal. Lily’s all black swan. Does she need to warm up? “I’m good,” she says. She has a beautiful tattoo of black wings on her back. Nina’s back is full of scars and a rash from where she scratches herself at night. Lily talks boldly, walks with a swagger, while Nina tiptoes and speaks in a squeak of a voice. She’s all apologies. “I’m sorry,” she tells Leroy. “No! Stop saying that!” he responds.
Leroy plays the girls off each other like a movie director. He exacerbates the tensions. He leaves everyone dangling. “Would you fuck that girl?” Leroy asks others about Nina, within earshot of Nina, implying no. He kisses her in private, forcing her mouth open until she responds, then breaks it off. “That was me seducing you when I need it to be the other way around,” he says.
But Leroy is messing with forces that have been built up over a lifetime. Nina still lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), in a cramped New York apartment, and her bedroom is all fluffy whites and pinks, with stuffed animals and ballerina music boxes playing tinkly music. She’s isolated, at home and at the company, and lives too much in her head. “The only person standing in your way is you,” Leroy tells her. Leroy wants Nina to unleash something, but what she unleashes is darker and more self-destructive than he imagines. She sees doppelgangers everywhere. IMDb.com lists both Portman and Kunis as 5’ 3”, Ryder a half-inch taller, and each is dark-haired and pretty. So who’s that coming towards her? Is that Beth, whom she replaced, or Lily, who wants to replace her as surely as she wanted to replace Beth? Or is it some darker version of herself—the black swan demanding freedom from the tight grip of the white swan? Or is it her mother? There’s creepy women stuff throughout the film. “You girls are nuts,” I told Patricia afterwards.
Three things propel the story along: 1) We want to know if Nina dances the part; 2) we want to know if she dances it well (if her black swan is released); 3) and we want to know, finally know, what’s real. We assume, for example, when Lily returns to Nina’s place after a night of carousing, and the mother doesn’t comment upon her presence, that, yes, Lily’s not really there, that she’s just in Nina’s head. So much of the movie is a guessing game. OK, this probably isn’t really happening. She really isn’t pulling the skin off her finger, her toes really aren’t stuck together, the old man in the subway really isn’t rubbing his crotch. Is Lily really in her dressing room? Did she really kill her? Is there someone else bleeding to death in the shower stall? Getting into the heads of characters is the novel’s business but no one does it better with film than director Darren Aronofsky.
The ballet numbers are beautifully filmed, the black swan dance a highlight. But did I need that ending? It parallels the ballet, certainly, as well as Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler,” but without the poignancy. Randy the Ram reaches a dead end, he feels useless, that’s why he does what he does. But Nina is at the top of her game so her on-stage suicide merely feels self-destructive. And does it muddy the metaphor or sharpen it? It’s the white swan who demands perfection ... and so she stabs herself to release her black swan ... in order to be perfect? Am I missing something? I need to think on it some more.
At the least, Nina is the latest character to personify St. Therese’s maxim. Her prayers are answered and the tears flow.
Monday December 20, 2010
The Non-Partisan President
I first heard Barack Obama speak in April 2006 at the annual Democratic Farm Labor Party convention in downtown Minneapolis. At the time I was working for Minnesota Law & Politics, which was part of Key Pro Media, which was owned by Vance Opperman, and since Opperman was a major donor to the DFL we had a pretty good table for the show. An embarrassingly good table. During appetizers, I looked around and saw famous faces. Hey, there's Mayor Ryback. Behind me. Hey, there's Walter Mondale. Behind me. Apologies, Mr. Vice-President. Hope I'm not obscuring your view.
The speech Sen. Obama gave that night was the speech he gave often in 2006, and which became the prologue to his second book, “The Audacity of Hope.” Here's a sample:
You don't need a poll to know that the vast majority of Americans—Republican, Democrat, and independent—are weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth. Whether we're from red states or blue states, we feel in our gut the lack of honesty, rigor and common sense in our policy debates, and dislike what appears to be a contentious menu of false or cramped choices.
The guy was talking my language. He was articulating the great unsaid in American politics. He was offering a third way.
Now to the present. I have some friends on the left who are outraged, outraged by the tax deal cut earlier this month, which basically boils down to: We'll extend the Bush tax cuts even for the richest 2% and you give us extended unemployment benefits. They see it as a gigantic betrayal. They fill their status updates on Facebook with invective.
Now I'm someone who thinks the wealthiest people in this country should be be taxed at a 50% rate (as they were for most of the Reagan years), or maybe at a 70% rate (as in the '70s). Tea Partiers seem to idolize the stability of the 1950s ... when the tax rate for the richest people in the country was more than 90%. I wouldn't go that far but wouldn't mind scaring some people with it.
Even so, I don't see the deal as a great betrayal. The opposite. I know this is who Pres. Obama is. I know this is the reason he appealed to me in the first place. But I am amused as the cries of the left recede and the cries of the right crescendo. I'm with Andrew Sullivan here:
I think of Frank Rich and Paul Krugman as brilliant men, but profoundly resistant to the core rationale of the Obama presidency (and the underlying dynamic of its accumulating success). That rationale is an attempt to move past the paradigms of the boomer years to a pragmatic, liberal reformism that takes America as it is, while trying to make it more of what it can be. Now, there's little doubt that in contrast to recent decades, Obama has nudged the direction leftward - re-regulating Wall Street after the catastrophe, setting up universal health insurance through the private sector, recalibrating America's role in the world from preachy bully to hegemonic facilitator. But throughout he has tried, as his partisan critics have complained, not to be a partisan president, to recall, as he put it in that recent press conference, that this is a diverse country, that is is time we had a president who does not repel or disparage or ignore those who voted against him or those who have grown to despise him. ... He really is trying to be what he promised: president of the red states as well as the blue states. And a president who gets shit done.
The results after two years: universal health insurance, the rescue of Detroit, the avoidance of a Second Great Depression, big gains in private sector growth and productivity, three stimulus packages (if you count QE2), big public investments in transport and green infrastructure, the near-complete isolation of Iran, the very public exposure of Israeli intransigence and extremism, a reset with Russia (plus a new START), big drops in illegal immigration and major gains in enforcement, a South Korea free trade pact, the end of torture, and a debt commission that has put fiscal reform squarely back on the national agenda. Oh, and of yesterday, the signature civil rights achievement of ending the military's ban on openly gay servicemembers.
In some ways, and despite his famous press conference, I think the least surprised person by all the anguish and disappointment on the left is Pres. Obama himself, since, in “The Audacity of Hope,” he anticipated it:
Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble. I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.
How's that hopey-changey thing working out for us? Slow and steady.
Sunday December 19, 2010
Review: “The Fighter” (2010)
WARNING: ROCKY SPOILERS
According to IMDb.com, there have been 12 movies from various countries called “The Fighter.” David O. Russell’s, starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, is the lucky thirteenth.
The story may seem familiar. It’s about an underdog boxer, a gentle man from a working class neighborhood, who wastes his talent for most of his youth, and then, on the other side of 30, takes one last shot at proving he weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood, and finally, finally triumphs, with his trainer in his corner and his best girl by his side.
We can be forgiven for asking: OK, so how does it differ?
For one, “The Fighter” has the advantage of being mostly true.
It has the added advantage of Christian Bale’s over-the-top, look-at-me-I’m-not-Batman performance as Dicky Eklund, a one-time middleweight contender, trainer to his half-brother, Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), and crack addict.
In ’78 Eklund went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard but lost by unanimous decision. He also knocked down the champ in the 8th round. Eklund’s been living off that moment ever since. He’s “the Pride of Lowell,” never at a loss for words, and, as the movie opens, an HBO camera crew is following around the brothers. We assume it’s pre-fight hype, since Mickey’s about to step in the ring again despite three straight losses, but the crew is actually following around Dicky. He crows about how they’re filming his comeback, but one look at his emaciated body and you wonder, “What comeback?” Yet there’s the camera crew again. A third of the way through the movie, we get our answer. A local at a bar asks a member of the crew what the movie’s about, and the guy replies, “I told you. It’s about crack addiction.” That line lands like a body blow. Dicky’s self-delusions, and his family’s delusions about him, are laid open in the matter-of-factness of the response. What else could it be about?
The HBO doc is, in fact, a turning point of the movie. It’s the moment Mickey comes to his senses about Dicky, Dicky half comes to his senses about himself, and the family’s eyes, at least momentarily, are opened. For a second I condemned this family, the awful mother, Alice (an incredible Melissa Leo), and those harpyish sisters, for needing HBO to show them how their son/brother lives. A second later I realized we all need such docs about our loved ones. My older brother is an alcoholic, about which he and I have no delusions, but I don’t know how he spends his days. The people closest to us are still unknowable.
When the HBO doc airs, Dicky’s in prison, on too many counts to mention, but he hasn’t lost his swagger. As they’re about to air the doc, he revels in the attention and applause the other inmates give him. “Going to Hollywood!” he says. He thinks it’s going to be fun. He’s forgotten what he’s said. He doesn’t know who he is.
Out in the world, Dicky is full of lies and bonhomie but in the doc he speaks the truth. “You feel young, like everything’s in front of you,” he says of smoking crack. “Then it fades and you have to get high again.” There is no comeback. The comeback is in the crackpipe.
Up to this point, Dicky has not only been a lousy brother and son, he’s been a lousy trainer, too. Mickey is forced to wait for him at the gym; he’s forced to wait for him with the limo that’ll take them to the airport, and then to Vegas, to fight another welterweight. But in Vegas Mickey is told his opponent has come down with the flu and the replacement is a middleweight, a guy with 20 pounds on him. He fights him anyway and gets his face smashed in. Back in Lowell, he and his soon-to-be-girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), are talking:
Mickey: Everybody said I could beat him.
Charlene: Who’s everybody?
Mickey: My mother and my brother.
(Earlier they’d had a bit of dialogue as spare as anything by David Mamet. Mickey has two bandages on his face and Charlene tells him, “Your thing’s coming off.” He reaches for the bandage above his right eye and she says, “Your other thing.”)
Mickey should be the pampered center of attention—as any contender is—but his needs are overshadowed by his brother’s, who sucks the air out of any room he swaggers or stumbles into. Everyone warns Mickey he needs to cut his brother loose or miss his shot, and, after the HBO doc, he takes their advice. A local cop and trainer, Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself), begins to train him, with money from a local businessman. The mother has a fit, and flies at her son and Charlene, with claws bared and tongue wagging, her awful daughters tagging along. A fight breaks out among the women. A catfight? Not close. There’s nothing sexy about it. Family is no support here. The mother, like Dicky, thinks she’s the center of the story when Mickey’s the one in the ring. Much of the movie is spent waiting for Mickey to realize this, to articulate this, himself.
Once he breaks free from his family, once he has the money to train year round, he begins to win, but the movie knows this isn’t the whole answer. Mickey’s been called a “stepping stone,” the guy other guys use to get their shot, and before a big match with Alfonso Sanchez, an undefeated contender with a title shot, Mickey visits Dicky in prison and is asked about his fight strategy. In the audience we’re thinking, “Don’t tell him,” but Mickey tells him and Dicky finds fault and offers an alternative. In the audience we’re thinking, “Don’t listen, get out, don’t let him drag you down again,” but it turns out Mickey’s original fight strategy got him nowhere. It’s Dicky’s, adopted late in the match, that wins the match. Now it’s Mickey with a title shot.
First, more family drama. It’s not enough to break free of family—as nice as that sounds—because you’re never truly free of family. So conflicts have to be resolved. People have to be reconciled. Out of prison, back in the gym, and back in the ring with his brother, Dicky has scattered Mickey’s supporters—Mickey O’Keefe, Charlene—and left him with his mother and sisters, who talk up Dicky yet again, who confuse the movie yet again, and it’s Mickey’s Popeye moment. All he can stands, he can’t stands no more. Thus: body blow, body blow, Dicky goes down. Mickey finally finds his voice. He confronts his mother, his sisters, his brother. He basically says, as we all need to say, “This is my movie!”
For something so messy for so long, it gets neat quickly. Kudos to the filmmakers for making it seem plausible that within five minutes of screentime: 1) Mickey finds his voice; 2) Dicky gives up crack and rallies his brother’s original supporters; and 3) Mother and sisters accept their subordinate status. And we’re set up for our finale and the title shot.
The Fighter” is a good movie, a worthy movie, but not a great movie. Wahlberg is fine, but he’s playing his gentle-voiced, blending-into-the-background leading man again. (See: “Planet of the Apes,” “The Truth About Charlie,” “The Italian Job.”) He’s a bit dull. In this way, the movie parallels its own story. Just as Dicky overshadows Mickey, so Bale’s performance overshadows Wahlberg’s. I’m not sure if this is ultimately a strength or a weakness, but I wish Wahlberg’s characters had as much in them as Wahlberg seems to.
But what is a weakness of the movie? That original “Rocky”-like synopsis. The basic story of “The Fighter” is the most oft-told story in Hollywood history: the underdog triumphs. It’s what we want while sitting in the audience but it’s also why the movie doesn’t resonate much afterwards. Mickey wins! That’s nice. This is what it takes to win! That’s nice. This is a story of two fighters, two brothers, Mickey and Dicky, who both triumph over their personal demons! That’s nice. And it ends. And it’s complete. And we’re happy.
That’s what makes great entertainment. But that’s not what makes great art.
I compare “The Fighter” inevitably, and unfairly, to Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” which is a movie about an entertainment (professional wrestling) rather than an art (boxing), yet is, itself, closer to art than entertainment. Because it finds a different way out. Its title character, Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke), is on the wrong end of his 40s, reaches a dead end and sees no alternatives, so his return to the ring, and impassioned speech in that ring—a triumph in the trailer—is actually a suicide. That’s the unique and horrifying way out. In the final shot we see Randy soaring off the turnbuckle and out of the picture and out of, one assumes, life, but we have to fill in the end ourselves. Maybe that’s why that movie keeps resonating. We have to assume its ending as much as we have to assume our own.
Saturday December 18, 2010
It's nice having talented friends.
Marcellus Hall, with whom I ran cross-country at Washburn High School in the fall of 1980, and whom I don't think I've seen since I graduated in June 1981, was always an amazing artist, and now he's an amazing singer as well. In the following video, a version of White Hassle's “Star Position,” he includes sketches of life, often lonely, with a song about the ying and yang, the loneliness and freedom, of being single. Sample:
No one at all will take issue
If you kissed them or whether they kissed you
Buy a ticket you can go now
No one has to know
Put the key in the ignition
If you're single you can sleep in the star position
Check it out:
Release date is February 22, 2011.
Friday December 17, 2010
Ten Top 10 Movies of 2010
It's mid-December and the top 10 lists are coming fast and furious ... and annoying. Critics struggle to post their annual top 10 lists earlier and earlier (to be first) even as studios release their most critically acclaimed movies later and later (to stay in the minds of Academy members as balloting progresses). Thus top 10s are full of movies that haven't been released in a theater near me (“The King's Speech”), have just been released (“The Fighter,” today), or which showed up for one showing in one weekend in October and are otherwise available, thus far, only in truncated versions (Olivier Assayas' “Carlos”). No wonder people pay less and less attention to these lists. The now is future.
That said, here are ten Top 10s. Extra points, kids, for including “Un Prophete” or “Restrepo.”
- Anthony Lane at the New Yorker leaves off “top” for “10 Movies I Liked.” Including: “Un Prophete” (no. 1), “The Father of My Children,” “Life During Wartime,” “Dogtooth,” “Toy Story 3,” “I Am Love,” “The Social Network,” “Mother,” “Winter's Bone” and “Sweetgrass.” (Not “Wild Grass”; “Sweetgrass.”)
- His colleague David Denby (do they talk? Pal around? Drink beers? Fake punch each other in the shoulder?) went with a “Best and Worst List.” He says the best movie of the year is “The Social Network,” then adds, “The Fighter,” “Company Men,” “The Ghost Writer,” “Toy Story 3,” “Winter's Bone” and “Please Give.” For docs he chooses three of my five: “Restrepo,” “Inside Job” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” For “big deal aesthetic disasters” he points to “Alice in Wonderland” (flat, repetitive), “Inception” (absurdly overelaborate and empty), and “Black Swan.”
- In another, bloodier vein there's Stephen King over at EW. His goes: 10) “Green Zone” 9) “Jackass 3D” 8) “Monsters” 7) “Splice” 6) “Kick-Ass” 5) “Takers” 4) “The Social Network” 3) “Inception” 2) “The Town” and 1) “Let Me In.” Cute.
- Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere? 10) “The King's Speech” 9) “Toy Story 3” 8) “Inception” 7) “Rabbit Hole” 6) “Let Me In” 5) “The Ghost Writer” 4) “Greenberg” 3) “The Fighter” 2) “Black Swan” and 1) “The Social Network.” (Wells gets extra points taken away for flailing against the L.A. Critics' decision to award Niel Arestrup's mob boss in “Un Prophete” their best supoorting actor award. Sure, the critics went for outside the box, but Wells, in his slam, comes across as decidedly provincial.)
- Richard Corliss at Time magazine gets a little mainstream: 10) “Four Lions” 9) “Waiting for 'Superman'” 8) “Green Zone” 7) “Wild Grass” (not “Sweet Grass”) 6) “Rabbit Hole” 5) “The Social Network” 4) “Life During Wartime” 3) “Never Let Me Go” 2) “Inside Job” and 1) “Toy Story 3.”
- AFI gets into the act and goes alphabetical with: “127 Hours,” “Black Swan,” “Inception,” “The Fighter,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “The Social Network,” “The Town,” “Toy Story 3,” “True Grit” and “Winter's Bone.”
- For the grand man, Roger Ebert, it goes: 10) “The Ghost Writer” 9) “The Kids Are All Right” 8) “The American” 7) “The Secret in their Eyes” 6) “Inception” 5) “Winter's Bone” 4) “I Am Love” 3) “Black Swan” 2) “The King's Speech” and 1) “The Social Network.”
- For the trend searcher, A.O. Scott: 10) “Exit Through the Gift Shop” 9) “Secret Sunshine” 8) “Last Train Home” 7) “127 Hours” 6) “Greenberg” 5) “The Kids Are All Right” 4) “Somewhere” 3) “Carlos” 2) “Toy Story 3” and 1) “Inside Job.”
- Tim Robey over at The Telegraph gives us: 10) “Inception” 9) “The Ghost Writer” 8) “How to Train Your Dragon” 7) “Dogtooth” 6) “The Kids Are All Right” 5) “I Am Love” 4) “I Am Love” 3) “Toy Story 3” 2) “Un Prophete” and 1) “The Social Network.”
- Finally, there's David Edelstein: 10) “Despicable Me” 9) “Marwencol” 8) “Exit Through the Gift Shop” 7) “Vincere” 6) “Mother and Child” 5) “Another Year” 4) “Toy Story 3” 3) “Please Give” 2) “Client 9” and 1) “Winter's Bone.”
So that's two “Un Prophete”s (Lane and Robey) and only one “Restrepo” (Denby). But four “The Kids Are All Right”s (AFI, Ebert, Scott and Robey) and two “Please Give”s (Denby and Edelstein)? The world is mad.
“The Social Network,” no surprise, wound up on eight of the 10, with only Scott and Edelstein abstaining. You don't get to Oscar without making a few top 10 lists.
“Toy Story 3”? Also eight of 10, with only King and Ebert kicking it to the curb.
“Winter's Bone” on five lists? Yep. Including Lane, Denby, AFI, and Ebert. Edelstein thought it the best movie of the year.
“Inception” also wound up on five lists (King, Wells, AFI, Ebert and Robey).
“The Ghost Writer,” being resurrected by European breezes, wound up on four lists (Denby, Wells, Ebert, Robey).
“Inside Job”? Three lists (Denby, Corliss, Scott).
Of the three late-season, buzz films, “King's Speech” made just two lists (Wells and Ebert), while both “Black Swan” (Wells, Ebert and AFI) and “The Fighter” wound up on three (Denby, Wells, AFI).
And no “A Film Unfinished” at all? Guess the Holocaust is so over.
My top 10 will come later. When I get a chance to see, you know, “The Fighter” and “The King's Speech” and “Black Swan.” For the five-hour “Carlos,” at this moment I can only dream.
Qui est Jeff Wells? Il est mort. MORT!
Thursday December 16, 2010
Review: “Please Give” (2010)
I met Nicole Holofcener briefly on the set of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” in 2004. I was visiting a friend there, a writer/story editor for the show, and she was directing an episode he had written, and after introductions I told her how much I liked her movie “Lovely & Amazing.” She quickly dismissed the compliment. Because most compliments are bullshit? Because inuring yourself to compliments is part of inuring yourself to criticism? I got the feeling she thought that no one had actually seen the movie. This was in the days before I seriously looked at box-office numbers and so I had that warped perspective that my milieu was the milieu. To me, “Lovely & Amazing” wasn’t a film with a limited release of 175 theaters around the U.S. It was a film that showed up in Seattle and never went away. Everyone talked about it.
It’s a shame we had this disconnect before I could compliment her on the film’s opening scene. Remember? Michelle Marks (Catherine Keener) is trying to sell her homemade trinkets to a trinket store and she runs into a former classmate, who seems cool and collected, and she asks what she’s been doing. “I’m a doctor,” the woman says. Michelle thinks the woman is joking and laughs. How could someone be a doctor already? “We’re 36,” the woman says. It’s a brutal scene with which I wholly identified. Peers become professionals, they become parents and adults, and you’re left behind trying to sell crappy gimcracks at some crappy gimcrack store. Life, somehow, has passed you by.
I never saw “Friends with Money,” Holofcener’s 2006 film about this same subject—the divide between friends with success/money and those without—possibly because the reviews were so-so. I wanted to see “Please Give” in the theaters this spring (widest release: 272 theaters) but time slipped away. Plus it looked, you know, a little precious: a slice-of-life about the vague wants and distractions of solipsistic New Yorkers. But lately it’s been landing on some top 10 lists so I decided to check it out.
It’s a little precious: a slice-of-life about the vague wants and distractions of solipsistic New Yorkers.
Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) run a mid-century vintage furniture store for people with more money than sense: a table for $5,000, bookcases for $1,400 apiece. Kate acquires these pieces by visiting the homes and condos of the recently deceased and paying off relatives who don’t know the true value (or the true inflated value) of the furniture; who just want it all gone. It’s a ghoulish gig. There’s a sense of waiting for people to die in order to live. Kate and Alex are also waiting for their 91-year-old-neighbor, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), to die, so they can combine her condo with their own and make something bigger and better.
Alex is fine with all of this. He’s an unremarkable middle-aged man who listens to Howard Stern and never reads any more—even magazines—but Kate feels increasingly guilty. She feels she’s taking advantage of people. Her guilt manifests itself in giving money—$5 here, $20 there—to panhandlers. At one point she even gives a doggy bag to a black man on the street but he’s simply waiting for a table at a crowded restaurant. Apologies ensue. She exudes the need to be forgiven. Her attempts at volunteering for the less fortunate are equally inept. She pities them. An elderly woman is stooped from rheumatoid arthritis. “Is it painful?” she says. “It looks very painful.” She tries to help kids with learning disabilities but feels so sorry for them she begins to cry. “You have to leave now,” the director of the facility tells her. It’s the best part of the movie.
Their counterparts in the solicitude/stoicism dichotomy are Andra’s granddaughters: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a passive mammogram technician, who cares too much about Grandma, and Mary (Amanda Peet), an overly tanned spa technician, who cares too little, and who begins an affair—surely one of the more unlikely affairs in movies—with dumpy ol’ Alex. He’s attracted to her, she’s bored. They bond over Howard Stern.
We get some good bits with Grandma—“You gained weight!” she tells Alex, bluntly, in the manner of the aged—but Holofcener also reminds us of the unbearable sadness of aging: losing your mobility, your sight, the world shrinking until your one solace are the idiot rhythms of “Entertainment Tonight.” George Clooney is an actor who has it all... This stuff is in the background of her place all the time, and there’s a kind of horror to it. That awful, chummy language about people we don’t know. When she dies, it’s one of the six sentences spoken at her funeral: “She liked watching ‘Entertainment Tonight.’”
In this manner, “Please Give” touches on important themes but then leaves them alone. It’s a slice of life that still manages to feel artificial. Plus there’s nothing driving the story. All of these New Yorkers are as passive as Seattleites. They all feel peripheral.
Let’s ask the dramatist’s question: What do the characters want? Kate and Alex want people to die, and for this Kate wants to be forgiven. Rebecca wants a boyfriend, and winds up with one, but overall she’s not quite there. Who is she? I have no clue. Mary thinks of herself as a straight talker, but her obsession with a clothing clerk turns out, in the final act, to be a pathetic version of stalking. Meanwhile, Kate and Alex’s 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele, in a fine performance), wants a $200 pair of jeans. She’s the most clearly defined character in the film.
Wednesday December 15, 2010
Kepner Quotes of the Day
“There is no reason to believe [Cliff] Lee will forgo free agency, and when he hits the market, other teams might as well back off. Every factor points to Lee’s joining the Yankees.”
—Tyler Kepner, “Waiting for Lee, Maybe Until Winter,” New York Times, June 29, 2010
“Lee was their guy, and the Yankees believed he had the stuff, the makeup and the experience to succeed in pinstripes. But, really, Lee was never their guy. He wanted to go back to the Phillies all along, and has taken far less money to do so.”
—Tyler Kepner and Michael S. Schmidt, “Cliff Lee Accepts Late Bid by Phillies,” New York Times, December 14, 2010.
Mea culpa? Nowhere. Not even on Twitter, where, on Dec. 10, he wrote, “Still think Lee will go for highest offer, which is Yanks' 7 yrs/$161M. But sense I get from people involved is he feels pull toward Texas.”
Wednesday December 15, 2010
How to Get Ahead in America: Carl Laemmle, the Founder of Universal Pictures
“Laemmle's first two decades in America didn't conform to the inspirational immigrant sagas where industriousness was rewarded with escalating success. Instead, Laemmle failed at virtually everything he did, and, if anything, his life testified not to the justice of hard work, but to the powerful engine of failure...
”'I went over to Chicago to close the deal [on a five-and-dime [he was buying]],“ he told one journalist, ”and one rainy night I dropped into one of those hole-in-the-wall-five-cent motion picture theaters. ... The pictures made me laugh, though they were very short and the projection jumpy. I liked them and so did everyone else. I knew right away that I wanted to go into the motion picture business. ...
“Not everyone was as optimistic about the movies prospects. Even [Laemmle's mentor] Cochrane tried to dissuade him. His friends, he recalled, were 'shocked, disappointed, and almost humiiated,' and Laemmle admitted that 'most everyone in the United States regarded moving pictures about the same way that I did' before he had resolved to become a theater owner himself—which is to say, as a 'toy' or 'peephole sensation.' This was, in fact, one of the reasons Jews like Laemmle were able to gain a foothold. Big money, gentile money, viewed the movies suspiciously—economically—as a fad; morally, as potential embarrassments.
”Laemmle was certainly the beneficiary of some extraordinary timing. Harry Davis' nickelodeon, an empty storefront outfitted with one hundred to two hundred seats and dedicated exclusively to showing movies, had opened in Pittsburgh just three months before Laemmle opened The White Front. Until then, movies were shown primarily in the back of penny arcades or at vaudeville shows while audiences exited.“
—Neal Gabler: ”An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," pp. 49-55
- Perseverance (he kept trying, despite failures)
- Perceptiveness (he recognized, even anticipated, the zeitgeist)
- Fortitude (he ignored those who didn't recognize the zeitgeist)
- An opening (respectable money stayed away from the zeitgeist—similar to hostile M&A takeovers in the '50s and '60s, according to Malcolm Gladwell)
- Timing (all of this occurred as movies were becoming accessible)
- Courage (this is particularly later when he took on Thomas Edison's trust, which is how he wound up not only exhibiting and distributing movies, but producing them as well)
Tuesday December 14, 2010
Jordy's Review: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)
Another must-read movie review by my nine-year-old nephew Jordy. “Love his lede,” his mother (my sister), wrote to me...
Even though my uncle wrote a bad review of “Scott Pilgrim,” I kind of wanted to see it because in a magazine called Nintendo Power, they said that it parodied video games. Now that I have seen it, I call it one of my favorite movies of the year. This movie is based on a comic series (bet you did not see that one coming), which I have never read, but that’s beside the point. When you’re making something like a movie based off comics, you would usually think it would be animated, but this is not animated, and when you do something like that, you would probably think it would suck, but as I already said (well, not exactly, but you can gather up evidence that I like it), it does not suck. Not at all. In fact, I think it will get nominated for some Oscars.
For starters, it is directed by Edgar Wright, who made “Shaun Of The Dead,” which got really good reviews, and “Hot Fuzz,” which also got really good reviews. If you have not seen the movie yet, here’s what it’s about: Scott Pilgrim must defeat his new girlfriend’s seven evil-ex boyfriends in order to win her heart.
I’m done explaining the plot, by the way. And if you were wondering which Oscars, the most obvious answer is Visual Effects. Seriously, they rock. They make giant monsters using only their instruments, make lightning bolts when they’re playing the guitar, and even make the classic 1-Ups float in thin air. However, the best Visual Effects are the comic references. Since this movie is based off a comic book, they made a comic book, because in the fight scenes, they make the “Smack,” “Bam,” “Whack,” and more float in thin air. These are really impressive and only add to the movie’s greatness.
This movie is also very funny, although some of the funny parts have to do with something inappropriate. This movie is also kind of fast. The whole cast is excellent, and do well with their funny lines. If you let your kid see this, they’ll probably like it because they’ll think that the movie is awesome with its amazing visuals, but adults can appreciate it because of its humor and its visuals. I thought that the movie was very inventive and I could appreciate it just because of that. Also, the soundtrack is great, and sometimes funny. The ending is great, and the last 10 seconds are hilarious. In fact, the only problem that I found was that about 5 times, the camera didn’t blend in too well with the action. But with a movie as good as this, I don’t really care, and you won’t either. If you cannot tell by now, I like “Scott Pilgrim Vs The World.” In fact, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year. But don’t let me tell you about it, see it! And if you like it as much as I do, ask for it for Christmas! Just go to your local Redbox and rent it, and once you get home, put it in your DVD player, because this movie rocks with the best of 2010.
Please comment on what you think of my review and say what you think I should review in the future, and try not to pick something that is rated “R”, because I only saw “The Terminator”, and my dad has been regretting it ever since. Also pick video games, and I want my fair share of badness! Also, “M” rated games apply the same rules as “R” rated movies!)
99% Okay For 13+
Monday December 13, 2010
Review: “Psycho” (1960)
WARNING: ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S SPOILERS
When I was a budding and hugely unpublished short story writer in the early 1990s I thought it would be cool to write a story that begins in one direction—plot, themes, foreshadowing—and then something happens, boom, and it goes off in a completely different direction. I anticipated the same main character (someone like me, of course), but the story around this character changes, since that’s how life often feels. We think we’re going in one direction and then we’re not. We think we’re controlling the story but we’re not.
I didn’t know this had already been done, and better, 30 years earlier.
That’s the startling thing about “Psycho” when you first watch it. We all know Norman Bates and the famous shower scene, so we’re anticipating Norman Bates and the famous shower scene. But Norman (Anthony Perkins) doesn’t show up until a half-hour in, the shower scene until 45 minutes in. Up to that point the movie is Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh). She’s the main character, with her own plot, her own issues, her own themes. She’s involved with a man who can’t marry her because of the debt he carries; then another man flaps a seemingly phallic $40,000 in her face and she takes off with it. That’s the tension for the first half of the film. Will she get away with the money? Will she go back? Can she go back? Hey, this motel manager is self-deprecating and funny. Not bad-looking, either. Will she wind up with him? Oh, maybe she’ll learn from him. About the traps we spring on ourselves. Maybe she’ll redeem herself. Maybe this shower will cleanse her of her sins.
Hey, what’s that shadow in the background?
Wurt! Wurt! Wurt!
That’s the true horror of the movie, isn’t it? When Norman dumps her body in the trunk of her car and dumps the car in the bog out back, he’s not only burying her, he’s burying her story. Everything she worried about for the first half of the movie, and that we worried about with her, is now inconsequential. Now the story is his. Just as he subsumed Mother’s personality after he killed her, he subsumed Marion’s story after he killed her. There’s something primal in this. Kill someone and everything theirs becomes yours.
Do we want him to take over the movie? That’s a tough one. I went in knowing about Norman and the shower scene, so I knew Marion’s afternoon liaison and sudden theft and getaway and worry and buying a new-used car from good ol’ California Charlie were all irrelevant to the true story, so this shadow-play bored me a little. Even with Hitchcock, that glorious perv, giving us all those shots of Janet Leigh and her progressively dark underwear, I was bored. Stealing forty thousand? That’s it? It’s so small. Her plan seems perfectly addled, too. She right near the Mexican border but flees to mid-California. Does she think they’ll never be able to find her there? That the world will swallow her up? Even when the world literally swallows her up, they still find her.
But I don’t know if I’m bored with this storyline because of its smallness or because I know it’s a red herring. I’m curious what people who saw the film in 1960 thought.
(Bowsley Crowther, for one, reviewing for The New York Times in June 1960, seemed unimpressed with Marion’s storyline: “With a minimum of complication, it gets off to a black-and-white start with the arrival of a fugitive girl with a stolen bankroll right at an eerie motel,” he writes. “Well, perhaps it doesn't get her there too swiftly. That's another little thing about this film. It does seem slowly paced for Mr. Hitchcock and given over to a lot of small detail.”)
Throughout, Hitchcock plays with his familiar themes: the struggle between innocence and guilt; the power of watching and the powerlessness of being watched. The first shot is a voyeur’s delight: a pan of Phoenix, Arizona, on December 11, 2:43 PM. The camera closes in on a building, then a window, then it takes us past the drawn shades and lets us watch a good-looking, post-coital couple in conversation. He’s stripped to the waist, she’s in her underwear. We’re peeping toms, basically. Moviegoers are always peeping toms, of course, it’s just that Hitchcock doesn’t let us forget it—usually as a prelude to presenting a less palatable peeping tom on screen.
Here, for example, is our view of Marion as she’s deciding whether or not to steal the $40,000:
Now here’s Norman Bates’ view, through the Bates Motel peephole, as Marion decides whether or not to return the $40,000:
The only difference is we have a better view. Hitchcock even makes Norman look like our cameraman:
We all want to be innocent (rather than guilty) and powerful (rather than powerless) but are the two incompatible? Accruing power tends to cost innocence. Look at Marion. She grabs $40,000 but can’t stand the loss of innocence. She wears guilt poorly.
To be powerful is to be guilty ... and to yearn for innocence. That can be considered the theme of some of the greatest American movies ever made—“Citizen Kane,” The Godfather trilogy, “Lord of the Rings”—and it’s a theme here, with Norman, on a smaller scale, and with a psychotic twist.
Let’s start with the sequence where Marion checks in at the Bates Motel. At this point, Norman seems like a self-deprecating, semi-charming kind of guy, and, as she signs in with a fake name (“Marie Samuels”), he asks for her home address. “Oh, just your town will do,” he says. She hesitates; then, with inspiration from the newspaper sticking out of her purse, stammers, “Los Angeles.” For a moment his hand hesitates before the keys to the various cabins. Has he detected the lie, the guilt, in her voice? Is he deciding that L.A. is far enough away? Either way, he hands her the keys to cabin one, the cabin where he can watch her, the cabin where everything bad happens.
Later they have dinner, milk and sandwiches, during which she mistakenly suggests an institution for Mother, whom she’d heard berating Norman, and he kind of flips:
Have you ever seen one of the inside of those places? The laughing and the tears? And the cruel eyes studying you? My mother? There? But she’s harmless. She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.
At the end of the conversation, deciding she has to get out of the trap she put herself in, and forgetting her subterfuge, Marion tells Norman she’ll be driving back to Phoenix in the morning. She tells him her name is Crane. Then she leaves. We stay. Is this the first change in point-of-view in the film? I believe so. The movie is already becoming Norman’s. He goes over to the desk, looks at the register and sees “Marie Samuels, Los Angeles.” His look is almost triumphant. Then he walks back into the dark and shadows, among his stuffed birds, and lingers. After a beat, he sets the painting aside to peep into her cabin and see her undressing.
There’s a perverse morality and twisted logic as all of this plays out:
- She is guilty so she must be watched.
- He has watched so he must be guilty.
- Mother must take away (kill) the source of her son’s guilt.
- The son must take away (remove) the evidence of Mother’s guilt.
Norman wants the power of watching but can’t take the accompanying guilt. He wants both power and innocence. You could say that’s the source of his psychosis.
Even at the end of the movie, captured at last, sitting alone in a police holding cell—and thus guilty and powerless—he figures out a way to remain innocent and powerful.
By this point the mother (“Norma”) portion of his personality has completely trumped the real (“Norman”) part of his personality, and, as he sits alone in the holding cell, it’s her thoughts, her creepy voice, buzzing in his head. She defends giving up Norman to the police because she feels innocent of the crimes. Which she is. That’s the brilliance of it. He did everything. He used “her” to commit the crimes to remain innocent of the crimes (“She’s ill,” he tells Marion), and, once caught, he uses “her” to take refuge from the crimes (“He was always bad,” she thinks), since it was always his hand sticking in the blade and disposing of the bodies. He adopts whatever personality is necessary to remain innocent. One suspects that if they eventually charged Mother with the crimes, he would revert back to Norman.
That’s how he remains innocent. But how does he remain powerful? Isn’t he trapped in a place where their cruel eyes can watch him again? He even suspects this. “They’re probably watching me,” Mother’s voice says, as Norman’s eyes glance almost casually around. He’s a peeper and we always suspect others of our crimes.
But are the police watching him? We don’t know. We assume not. But we do know that someone’s watching him. We are. We’ve been watching him the whole time. We have the power of the watcher and the innocence of someone who’s not in control (beyond the ticket purchase) of what they’re watching. Hitchcock has already played with our innocence by associating it with a psychopath. In the final shot he takes away our power.
How can the watched regain control from the watcher? By watching back. Which is what Norman does. With the last line of the movie he turns his gaze on us:
They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know. They’ll say, “Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly.”
Oh man, does it work. By watching us, by letting us know that he knows we’re watching him, Norman regains power and we lose it. It’s frightening. It’s even more frightening because Hitchcock, for a fraction of a second, superimposes Mother’s death-skull over Norman’s smiling face, and he seems a kind of grim reaper, our grim reaper, which is further augmented by the final shot of Marion’s car being dragged from the bog—suggesting not only all of Norman’s crimes but all of our final resting places. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and mud to mud.
“Psycho” has its weak points. John Gavin is leaden, the front story so-so, the shot of Norman in drag almost Jim Carreyishly amusing. Plus the psychiatric explanation is overlong and overdone.
But the rest? This is a movie that changed cinema and our culture. Monsters aren’t the Universal variety—giant or disfigured or hairy—they’re the universal variety. They look like the boy next door. They look like anybody and their victims could be anyone: her, him, me, you. And it can come at any moment. When you’re walking up the stairs. When you’re taking a shower. You’re never safe. That’s the horror. They can get you any time. If this story has gained in power in the 50 years since Hitchcock and screenwriter Joe Stefano worked on it, if we’re still trapped in some sense by Norman Bates’ primal gaze, it may be because we haven’t yet worked up the courage to look back.
Sunday December 12, 2010
Hollywood B.O.: Aslan is Dead
Last week Brandon Gray over at boxofficemojo.com pointed out that November's box office was down by 10% compared with last year, while actual attendance hit a 15-year low.
The second weekend in December isn't helping matters.
Just last month, a rival site, boxoffice.com, predicted the third in the “Chronicles of Narnia” series would open at $36 million, while the Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie thriller, “The Tourist,” would come in second at $32 million. It got one thing right: Both films finished 1 and 2. The numbers were slightly off, though: $24.5m and $17m.
Not good. When the first “Chronicles” opened in '05, it grossed $65 million on its way to $290 million domestic. The second in '08? Opened with $55 million on its way to $141 million domestic. Now $24 million. On its way to $70 million? That tentpole ain't holding up much tent. Fickle Christians.
“The Tourist”'s numbers are also surprising. The last time a Johnny Depp film opened in more than 2,000 theaters and made less money opening weekend was in October 2001, pre-Capt. Jack Black, when “From Hell” grossed $11 million a month after 9/11. Even “Secret Window” in '04 grossed more opening weekend.
Neither “Narnia” nor “Tourist” was well-reviewed, by the way. Top critics gave “Narnia” 48% and “The Tourist” just 7%. Word gets around, times are tough, presents need to be bought. Better movies are coming.
They've killed their God. Or at least their God's franchise.
Thursday December 09, 2010
I have a piece in my alumni magazine about the Marx Brothers and a late '70s college organization called the Marx Brotherhood, and how me and my friend Nathan Kaatrud, who became Nash Kato of Urge Overkill, were the only high school members of that organization, and what the Marx Brothers meant to us, and what's become of them in the popular mind since. A sample:
The first Marx Brothers movie I saw was one of the last they made, A Night in Casablanca, from 1946, which my older brother and I watched one Friday night on WCCO-TV’s “Comedy and Classics,” hosted by John Gallos. I was 10, and their appeal was immediate. The world was full of dull phonies and lousy schemers, then the Marx Brothers burst on the scene and upended everything. They popped the pretensions in the room. While most of the other characters looked normal but felt fake, the Marxes were obviously fake—a bewigged mute with a trench coat full of tricks (Harpo), a piano player with a two-bit Italian accent (Chico), and a wiseass with a greasepaint moustache (Groucho)—but they had an air of authenticity about them. They were always themselves.
The whole thing here.
Tuesday December 07, 2010
Quote of the Day
“He mentioned another company that was making very low-budget movies, which were not terribly good, and which were doing very well at the box office. And his feeling was, ‘How would it be if somebody good did one of these low-budget movies?’”
—Screenwriter Joe Stefano on Alfred Hitchcock's pre-production thoughts for “Psycho”
Monday December 06, 2010
You Don't Get to Best Film Without Making a Few Enemies
The Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Association just announced its awards:
The Social Network
David Fincher (The Social Network)
Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone)
Best Supporting Actor:
Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Best Supporting Actress:
Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Best Acting Ensemble:
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
Best Original Screenplay:
Christopher Nolan (Inception)
Best Animated Feature:
Toy Story 3
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Best Foreign Language Film:
Best Art Direction:
Luke Freeborn, Brad Ricker and Dean Wolcott (Inception)
Wally Pfister (Inception)
Hans Zimmer (Inception)
In the comments field to his post about the awards, Jeff Wells says the D.C. association is more of a bellwether to Academy tastes than similar associations in L.A. and N.Y. Maybe, but it's still not much of a bellwether. Here are D.C.'s best picture winners over the last nine years:
- “Up in the Air”
- “Slumdog Millionaire” *
- “No Country for Old Men” *
- “United 93”
- “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
- “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” *
- “Road to Perdition”
In terms of best picture, only three matches (*). It's still a wide-open field, kids.
Monday December 06, 2010
Hollywood B.O.: Who Has the Best Legs?
Weekend reports are in, and with no movies opening superwide, this weekend's top 5 is a slightly rejiggered version of last weekend's top 5. Instead of 1) Harry Potter, 2) Tangled, 3) Megamind, 4) Burlesque, 5) Unstoppable, it's 1) Tangled, 2) Harry Potter, 3) Burlesque, 4) Unstoppable, 5) Love and Other Drugs. (“Megamind” dropped 238 theaters in the interim.)
So it's a good weekend to talk about legs. As in movies with legs. As in movies that last. We're in the 12th month of the year: Which movies lasted?
My methodology is simple. I take the total box-office take of a film and divide it by its opening weekend. The movies with the best legs tend to make four to five times their opening-weekend haul; the worst can't even duplicate their opening weekend.
I've discounted films that open on Wednesdays (“Twilight: Eclipse”), since their opening weekend is weaker, making their legs look better, as well as movies that opened in limited release and then went wide (“Hereafter”). A film's opening release should be within spitting range of its widest release.
I eliminated “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” for example. In terms of legs, it's got 'em, grossing more than eight times its opening-weekend box office of $904,000. But its widest release (185 theaters) is almost twice its opening release (108 theaters) and that's not spitting range. (Discussion for another time: only 185 theaters? Isn't Music Box Films being cautious with a movie based on one of the most talked-about books of the 21st century? Or is it not their choice?)
So, given those parameters, here are the movies with the best legs of 2010:
Kind of what we expected. You've got your kids movies (“Dragon,” “Despicable”), movies for older folks who don't rush to movies (“Secretariat,” “Red”), movies for girls (“The Runaways,” “Letters to Juliet”), and the critically acclaimed (“Inception,” “The Social Network”). What you don't have, what you can't have, are sequels. Sequels draw opening weekend. The audience is already there, it doesn't have to be encouraged to get there. (In case you're wondering, the 2010 sequel with the longest legs is, “Toy Story 3,” which opened with $110 million and still grossed 3.76 times that number. It's why it's the no. 1 movie of the year.)
As for the worst legs? I've eliminated November releases since they haven't had a chance to outdistance their opening-weekend take yet. (But I'm watching you, “Skyline.”) Here they are:
Again, kind of expected. Horror movies (“Elm Street,” “Wolfman,” “Daybreakers,” “Exorcism,” “Saw 3D”) tend to decompose quickly. They basically appeal to one demographic and no one else. “Jonah Hex” was a famous bust (and a semi-horror film, now that I think about it), so that's no surprise, either. I almost took “Valentine's Day” and “The Wolfman” off the list because they opened on a four-day weekend, a kind of holiday weekend, but the above numbers are only through its opening Sunday. So they stayed.
But look at that. Five of these movies couldn't even double their opening weekend take. The horror, the horror.
In the end, this is all about word-of-mouth, or attempting to calculate word-of-mouth. The films in the first table just tend to be better than the films in the second table. As measured by the top critics of Rotten Tomatoes, Table A films averaged a 63.5% rating (from “The Social Network” at 100% to “Grown Ups” at 10%), while Table B films averaged a 28.9% rating (from “The Last Exorcism” at 71% to “Jonah Hex” at 7%).
Most of the films I've recommended this year, when asked, tend to be those films that opened in NY and LA and then went limited (“Un Prophete”; “Restrepo”), but I have recommended two from Table A: “Inception” and “Social Network.”
What about you? Which movies have you recommended? Which movies have been recommended to you?
Sunday December 05, 2010
Review: “Fair Game” (2010)
WARNING: The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of SPOILERS from Africa.
We like being lied to. That’s the problem.
We like the lies of Hollywood in particular. We like believing we are good, and others are bad, and we stare them down and shoot them down and ride off into the sunset. We like this narrative so much we’ve transferred it into the real world, which is complex and problematic, then we’re surprised when the narrative falls apart. Or do we simply ignore it when it falls apart? We move on to other narratives, other lies, and keep digging ourselves in deeper. It’s like our national debt but with lies. We tell one lie to make up for another to make up for another. Soon we’re steeped in it. We’re a sick country, a sick race. Are we tired of it yet? Do we want to know what’s true anymore?
“Fair Game” is a movie about a series of lies perpetrated by the Bush administration, sometimes on itself, and certainly on us, from 2002 to 2005. They were lies with massive consequences, lies that got us into war, lies that led to the deaths of tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe someone you knew. Maybe someone close to you is now dead because of what the Bush administration wanted to believe. They reconfigured the globe because of what they wanted to believe. The one time they told the truth, it was a treasonous act. But they got away with that, too, because they lied their way out of it.
My god. Can we be incensed again? Is that still possible? Let’s run through it.
We got into a war because of lies.
When a man called us on one of those lies, we lied about him. We tried to ruin his life.
When that wasn’t enough, we told the truth about his wife. She was a CIA agent and we outed her. We cast her aside. She was a good soldier, and “Support the Troops” signs were everywhere back then, but her husband was pointing out the lies in the war narrative so she had to be sacrificed to make the Joe-Wilson-is-incompetent narrative work. She was, as Karl Rove later said, fair game. To Karl Rove, we're all fair game.
The movie should work. It should work the way that “All the President’s Men” works and “The Insider” works. Two people, attempting to uncover the truth, take on a vast, powerful entity intent on continuing the lie. It’s a classic underdog narrative, the kind Hollywood loves producing. And it’s true.
But it doesn’t quite work here, does it? “Fair Game” is a good movie, a necessary movie, a movie you want more people to watch. But Doug Liman doesn’t make it sing the way Alan J. Pakula made “All the President’s Men” sing and the way Michael Mann made “The Insider” sing. Why?
Is it because he shows us some of the inner workings of the Bush White House? Was that a mistake? Pakula never got us into the Nixon White House and Mann only showed us a snippet of a conversation between Brown & Williamson’s CEO and his lawyers—a snippet, it can be argued, that Jeff Wigand (Russell Crowe) could hear as he stormed out of the CEO’s office. Isn’t it better to keep the enemy at a distance? Shadowy? Unseen? Wasn’t that the lesson of “Jaws”?
Or is the problem that, of the two heroes in “Fair Game,” neither is a reporter? Both heroes in “President’s Men” were reporters: Watergate was a mystery and they were trying to uncover the truth. One of the heroes of “The Insider” was a reporter, and he was trying to get a former tobacco company vice-president, Wigand, and then his network, CBS, to reveal the truth. In “Fair Game,” we’re down to zero. The reporters in this movie don’t uncover the truth, they help cover it up. They have high-ranking government sources who feed them information, or disinformation, which they then spread. They provide obfuscation rather than clarity. They ambush the hero outside his house. “Isn’t it true...?” “What about the allegations that...?” They’re part of the problem.
No, the heroes in “Fair Game” are a career diplomat, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), and his wife, an undercover CIA operative, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). For most of the movie, they’re working on different aspects of the post-9/11 world. She’s trying to find the bad guys in the Middle East and he’s sent to Niger to see if one Middle East ruler, Saddam Hussein, bought, or tried to buy, yellowcake uranium there. He concludes no, the administration concludes otherwise, and Pres. Bush, in his January 2003 State of the Union speech, says the 16 words that provide a justification for war:
The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
Initially Wilson concludes he’s referring to another country in Africa. He assumes they have other information. But after the war, in a New York Times Op-Ed, he comes out with what he knows.
It’s startling reading that Op-Ed, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” now, more than seven years later. Its language is so mild. It’s so straightforward. Wilson writes:
If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why). If, however, the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses. (It's worth remembering that in his March ''Meet the Press'' appearance, Mr. Cheney said that Saddam Hussein was ''trying once again to produce nuclear weapons.'') At a minimum, Congress, which authorized the use of military force at the president's behest, should want to know if the assertions about Iraq were warranted.
Wilson’s Op-Ed was published on Sunday, July 6, 2003. A day later the White House admitted its “WMD error.” A week after that, Robert Novak came out with his column, “Mission to Niger,” in which Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA agent.
Despite the outing, Novak’s column is fairly tame, too. He even owns up to Wilson’s exemplary background:
His first public notice had come in 1991 after 15 years as a Foreign Service officer when, as U.S. charge in Baghdad, he risked his life to shelter in the embassy some 800 Americans from Saddam Hussein's wrath. My partner Rowland Evans reported from the Iraqi capital in our column that Wilson showed “the stuff of heroism.” The next year, President George H.W. Bush named him ambassador to Gabon, and President Bill Clinton put him in charge of African affairs at the National Security Council until his retirement in 1998.
But Novak is also sloppy. His second paragraph begins this way:
Wilson's report that an Iraqi purchase of uranium yellowcake from Niger was highly unlikely was regarded by the CIA as less than definitive...
By the CIA? Or by certain officials within the CIA? The question was never whether Wilson’s account was definitive or viewed as definitive; the question was, and remains, why the Bush administration believed Report B over Report A.
In the movie, Wilson’s Op-Ed leads to a discussion between Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, in which the former says, “We need to change the story,” and the latter says, ominously, “Who is Joe Wilson?” For the rest of the movie, they create their own Joe Wilson in the press. Misinformation is spread. The truth struggles to get out.
After Novak’s column is published, Plame scrambles to protect her operatives. “I have 819 teams in the field,” she says. “It’s over,” she’s told. Then she clams up. She plays the good soldier. There’s a scene where she and CIA director George Tenet (Bruce McGill) meet on a park bench facing the White House, and Tenet tells her: “Joe is out there on his own, Valerie.” I assumed this meant: help him. But it means, to both him and her, abandon him. Which she does.
For most of the final third of the movie, Plame and Wilson are at odds. She even moves back in with her folks. She abandons him as surely as Jeff Wigand’s wife abandoned Wigand. The difference is that Michael Mann shows how this affects Wigand; Liman shows how this affects Plame. In terms of drama, it’s all wrong. For the final third of the movie, Plame is the good soldier for the wrong side and the movie doesn’t own up to it. It takes 20 minutes of screentime, plus a no-nonsense speech by Sam Shepard, Mr. Right Stuff, as her father, for her to come to the dramatically obvious conclusion that she needs to join her husband in fighting the Bush White House. Then she testifies before Congress, and Joe Wilson talks to students about the necessity of participation in a democracy, and we get a bit of flag-waving at the end. The End.
Feel dissatisfied? You should. For the following reason most of all:
The work of Woodward and Bernstein led to the resignation of Pres. Richard Nixon.
The work of Wigand and Bergmann led to one of the most successful lawsuits in the history of this country, in which the tobacco companies agree to pay $246 billion to all 50 states.
The work of Wilson and Plame led to ... the prosecution of Scooter Libby. Who was pardoned.
We don’t get the ending we want. The truth gets out there and nothing happens. Because we, as a country, don’t want to know the truth. We want our comfortable lies. For “Fair Game” to work, it needed to own up to this. It needed to show us, perhaps during the end credits, all of the lies and bullshit since that fateful spring and summer: Abu Ghraib and Pat Tillman and fake White House correspondents and firing U.S. attorneys and “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie” and “Keep Gov’t Out of My Medicare” and “You lie!” and birthers and Obama = Hitler. And on and on. They got away with it all and they’re still getting away with it. Their lies used to emanate from the White House and now they're directed at the White House, and, if anything, the liars have gotten bolder.
Saturday December 04, 2010
The PGA Got It Wrong
The Producers Guild of America released their short list for best documentary feature yesterday. Thus:
- CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER
- EARTH MADE OF GLASS
- INSIDE JOB
- SMASH HIS CAMERA
- THE TILLMAN STORY
- WAITING FOR ‘SUPERMAN’
Hopefully the Academy won't make the same mistake.
Thursday December 02, 2010
How to Get Ahead in America: Dick Cavett
In 1960, after eighteen months of poverty and rejection, this obsession [with stars] led to his big break. As Cavett tells the story, he was working as a copyboy at Time when he read that Paar was unhappy with the material his writers were giving him for the opening monologue. Cavett wrote some jokes, put them in an envelope on which the Time logo was prominently displayed, and sneaked backstage at the “Tonight Show,” which was then on the sixth floor of the RCA Building (a.k.a. 30 Rock). He figured that he would be taken for a reporter. He positioned himself between Paar’s dressing room and the bathroom, where he duly intercepted Paar and handed him the envelope. Paar used some of the jokes in his monologue and, a couple of weeks later, gave Cavett a job. It all feels about one standard deviation away from Rupert Pupkin, but it got him where he wanted to be, on the inside of a network.
- Slightly unethical behavior I (using the prestige of one employer to get a job with another)
- Slightly unethical behavior II (sneaking backstage at “The Tonight Show”)
- Balls (both of the above as well as confronting Paar)
- Talent (hey, the jokes had to work)
Wednesday December 01, 2010
Jordy's Reviews: “Megamind” (2010)
You asked for it (OK, Jerry Grillo asked for it) and here it is: a review of “Megamind” by my nine-year-old nephew Jordy...
“Megamind” is like a marathon of coolness: it is great! Still… aw, who cares about the problems, it’s still good. But remember, I said good. Megamind is a parody of Superman in story, it really is. It goes like this: planet about to be sucked into black hole. Parents put child into pod thing. Pod lands on earth. Seriously, the only thing that makes the story succeed is that that they add some twists: the twists are all not making any difference in how I think of the story: I still think it is a parody of Superman.
The big twist is that another planet has the same idea, and the other planet sends home the good guy, while Megamind (Will Ferell) is the bad guy. If you’re wondering how he becomes a bad guy, his pod lands in prison, and he grows up learning the opposite way of life: crime. In one of their fights, he kills Superma-Metro Man (Brad Pitt) while Metroman’s closest (Tina Fey) is as about as shocked as Megamind is. (If you’re wondering why I brought that up, she’s an important part of the film.) But after Metro Man’s death, another supervillian comes to town, but was this destiny? Was this meant to happen so Megamind could be mega good? Find out by watching the movie!
The cast is excellent, and Cross steals the show as minion. I also thought the dialogue was good, as it entertains you along the way. I thought that the visuals were good, but needed to be more crowded. Look at the crowd at the opening of Metro Man’s ******! Wait, did you censor that? Good.
However, it does have a few problems. For example, it lacks originality. If you compare it to other movies, you’ll notice that some of the scenes have already been done before, yet in other movies. There is nothing wrong with parody (except when it becomes a cliché-yeah, I’m talking to you, parodying The Matrix!) but they just ran out of ideas here! The movie just regurgitates plot points from other animated efforts, as well as being the son of Despicable Me and The Incredibles, and I would prefer those any day. It also is just as not as funny as it should be. Yeah, I know about the whole “Presentation” thing, but it had less laughs than it should have, and, considering it’s a comedy, it detracts from the film.
But even though the problems do detract from it, “Megamind” is still a good movie. Sure, it may be nominated for animated movie of the year (never going to win, though!) but unlike “How To Train Your Dragon,” it is not a must-see movie. Even though it’s hard to not find something that has been done in a movie before, it’s also hard to not like “Megamind,” and even though this movie is not one of the geniuses of 2010, it is pretty good, and if you ever get time, go see it. (Consider this if you haven’t seen the other greats of this year.)
(Please comment on what you think of my review and say what you think I should review in the future, and try not to pick something that is rated “R”, because I only saw “The Terminator”, and my dad has been regretting it ever since. Also pick video games, and I want my fair share of badness! Also, “M” rated games apply the same rules as “R” rated movies!)
81% Okay For: 7+
Jordan Muschler, 2010