My Top 10 Movies of 2009
This was a tough list to compile. I didn't include a few I thought I would, such as “An Education,” “Red Cliff,” and “Up in the Air,” but I did include a few that will cause some head scratching. That's part of the fun.
These are the movies that had an impact for me that resonated. Some were a joy to watch (“Up”), others were hard to watch (“The Hurt Locker”). Some I still don't fully understand (“A Serious Man”), others I felt deep in my gut (“Anvil! The Story of Anvil”). My no. 1 movie was pleasant enough, then worked on me, both subtly and deeply, ever since. Four of the 10 I've seen twice: “Up,” “Seraphine,” “Avatar” and “The Soloist.”
There are a few contenders I haven't had the chance to check out yet: “Broken Embraces,” “The White Ribbon,” “Crazy Heart.” But the year's at an end and the list needs to get out. Kind of. In E.L. Doctorow's “The Book of Daniel,” Daniel's sister, a '60s radical, upon hearing of Daniel's future plans, tells him, “Just what the world needs, Daniel—another graduate student.” So it is here. Just what the internet needs, Erik—another top 10 list. Hopefully there's something on the list that makes it worthwhile for you.
10. “Inglourious Basterds”: We know the plan won't work. Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Bormann are all at the premiere, and it’s June 1944, and this isn’t the way they go. Hitler and Goebbels kill themselves in their bunker in April 1945. Bormann, it’s assumed, died trying to escape the Red Army in May 1945, while Goering killed himself with cyanide after being sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. We know they won’t die here. At the same time we wonder how Tarantino will handle it. How will he let the Nazis get away but still make it satisfying for us? Here’s how he handles it: He kills them all in June 1944. ... You could argue that Hitler’s merely a prop to him, a movie villain, the way that, say, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a movie villain. He can kill him any way he wants. And this is the way he wants. This is the way that suits his story rather than history. Or you could go deeper. The greatest villain of the 20th century escaped our clutches. Yes, he took the coward’s way out in that bunker but we didn’t begin to get our revenge for all of the death and destruction he caused. The movies have recreated that moment, that horribly uncinematic moment in the bunker, time and time again, but they’ve always played by Hitler’s rules. They always gave him the end he chose. Until Tarantino. Who machine guns his face into oblivion in June 1944. Full review here.
9. “The Informant!”: As the film opens, there’s a virus eating both the lysine in the ADM plants and the profits that the conglomerate demands, and Whitacre’s getting the blame from the son of the boss for not solving the problem. It’s amusing but unfair—in the way that sons-of-bosses are always amusing but unfair. Then Whitacre gets a call from a Japanese colleague who says an ADM mole is responsible for the virus and he’ll reveal the name for $10 million. Rather than pay off, the higher-ups at ADM bring in the FBI, who tap Whitacre’s personal line to find out more. This bothers Whitacre—first a little, then a lot—and with his wife’s prodding he reveals to FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) that ADM and the Japanese are involved in price-fixing the international lysine market. Which is how Whitacre turns informant. “Mark, why are you doing this?“ Shepard asks at one point. “Because things are going on that I don’t approve of,” he says. “They’re making me lie to people.” Hold that thought. Full review here.
8. ”The Soloist“: ”The Soloist“ comes close to being a remarkable film. Near the middle there's a scene that, without trying too hard, feels like it's integrating all of its parts. Weston (Catherine Keener) is in her Los Angeles Times office as a manager, off screen, talking up the company’s “very good exit package,” lets an employee go. Out her window she sees Lopez (Downey, Jr.) helping push Nathaniel’s shopping cart up a hill. They’re heading to the L.A. Symphony to listen to a rehearsal, but she doesn’t know that, she only knows what she sees. And she smiles this wistful smile. There’s great balance here: the comedy outside and the tragedy within; one man helping another while a company, part of a dying industry, lets another employee go. It doesn’t draw too fine a point—as I fear I might be doing—it just feels part of this big shifting pattern we all create. It’s worthy of Keener’s beautiful, wistful smile. Full review here.
7. ”The Hurt Locker“: In “The Deer Hunter” there’s that great transition where one moment our boys are partying in rural Pennsylvania and the next moment they’re in a deadly firefight in Vietnam. Screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow do the opposite here. There’s two days left, James has just met his match with a human IED (although he survives), and our boys are in their HUMVEE getting pelted with rocks from Iraqi children. The next second James is standing in an American grocery store, frozen food aisle, muzak in the background. He’s wearing civilian clothes and looks ordinary. The grocery store, particularly compared to the bright heat of Iraq, feels cold, devoid of life, awful. It feels like a dream but not a pleasant one. You feel the cultural dissonance James must feel, the dislocation, the difference between that and this. And as awful as that was, this feels worse. The fluorescent lights are not real lights, the music is not real music, the food is not real food. Everything is false. It’s dangerous to see Sgt. James as more than just Sgt. James but I can’t help it. Is he representative? Does he represent us? In other words, is our incessant foreign adventurism the result, in part, of having a home life, and a home culture, that feels like a lie? American culture isn’t what we’re fighting for; it’s what we’re running from. Full review here.
6. ”A Serious Man“: Larry Gopnik is the kind of man who timidly obsesses over small details—such as the property line with the Brandts, his stoic, hunting-happy Minnesota neighbors—and misses the big picture. Not only is his wife leaving him but his kids have left him. His son, Danny, is a mess of sixties contradictions: he has that classic Beatles haircut (redhaired version), smokes pot, listens to Jefferson Airplane, but only cares to talk with his father when the reception for “F Troop,” the lamest of ‘60s sitcoms, comes in fuzzy. His daughter, Sarah, only talks to her father to complain about Uncle Arthur, Larry’s brother, hogging the bathroom to drain the cyst in his neck. That’s at home. At work he’s being considered for tenure but letters arrive denigrating him. Then a Korean man accuses Larry of 1) defamation, because Larry accused his son of a bribe, and pleading 2) cultural differences, because Larry didn’t accept the bribe. Larry’s helpless before this kind of illogic. He can’t extricate himself from it. Life has the quality of a nightmare: Everything’s repetitive—Sy keeps hugging him, the Brandts keep playing catch, Arthur keeps draining his cyst—and everything’s unknowable. Dream sequences in other films are usually obvious but in the Coens’ films they blend almost seamlessly with life, so we in the audience are in the position of the dreamer: We don’t know what’s dream until it’s over. And even then. By the pool last night—did that happen? Full review here.
5. ”Anvil! The Story of Anvil“: They miss a train. They play dives for peanuts. Their fans are fervent but few. Late to one gig in the Czech Republic, they’re told the place is “jam fucking packed” but they get there and rock out before fewer than 10 fans; then the club owner refuses to pay them. It’s here we see the first of several eruptions from Lips, who, spittle flying, quickly loses his half-smile and nearly goes off on the dude. Their next gig should be a heavy-metal highlight — a rock show in Transyl-fucking-vania, with a 10,000-seat capacity — and as they make their way to the stage through narrow hallways, one bandmember, an obvious “Spinal Tap” fan, shouts “Hello, Cleveland!” Unlike Spinal Tap, Anvil finds its way to the stage. The crowd doesn’t. Only 174 show up. Cut to: Toronto in winter. Full review here.
4. ”Avatar“: James Cameron has done an amazing, ballsy thing with ”Avatar.“ Yes, he imagines an entire world and creates it in meticulous detail. Yes, he sends his main character on a hero’s journey through this world. But within this framework, this age-old story, he critiques the worst aspects of our own culture. “When people are sitting on something you want, you make them your enemy,” Jake says near the end, summing up the sad history of the human race. It’s not an abstract or ancient history, either. It’s current. The villains in “Avatar” use the language of this decade: “Shock and awe”; “fighting terror with terror”; “balance sheets.” They are us. “Dances with Wolves” was set in an historical timeframe, more than 100 years earlier, in which everyone knew the Native Americans would fight and lose. Not here. Here, in this future setting, the humans not only lose but they’re sent back to Earth—to their dying planet that has no green on it. They lose because God literally isn’t on their side. Full review here.
3. ”Seraphine“: By the time most of us sit down to watch “Seraphine,” we know a few basics about her story—she’s a painter who lived in France at the turn of the last century—but this may trump all: She’s important enough that 100 years later we’re watching a film about her. The mere fact of the film, in other words, acts as a kind of redemption for her and a kind of guide for us. We see her scraping by to paint at night but we know, by virtue of the film, that she succeeds. We know, when the boarding-house owner demands to see her work and then dismisses it because the apples don’t look like apples (“They could be plums,” she says), that the woman is a philistine. We know, when dinner-party guests chuckle knowingly about how Seraphine left the convent because she felt God “called her” to paint, that they’re bourgeoisie with lousy bourgeois taste. The thrill we get, then, is as old as the thrill we get from the Gospels: These people don’t know who’s in their midst. They don’t know how special she is. It’s not a stretch to say we wait for her recognition as surely as we wait for our own. Full review here.
2. ”Up“: Pixar movies focus on cultural moments rather than pop-cultural moments: that early 1960s period when astronauts replaced cowboys as heroes for boys everywhere; the difference, and similarities, between 20th-century “adventurers” and 21st-century “wilderness explorers.” Pixar doesn’t need to point to a pop-cultural phenomenon to get laughs. Put it this way: In “Up,” there’s a dog, a talking dog named Dug, and he’s more real than most live-action dogs on screen. What makes him funny isn’t that he’s not like a dog—that he stands on his hind legs and sings a rap song, for example, as he might in other animated features—but that he’s exactly like a dog. Pixar finds, intrinsically within the object, its humor. And drama. ... At Paradise Falls, Carl, burdened by his house, chooses the house, and what it represents, over Kevin, and Dug, and even Russell, and what they represent. Then he sits in it, alone, his longstanding dream finally realized, and he looks through Ellie’s old adventure book, and the unfulfilled promise of STUFF I’M GOING TO DO. But the pages beyond aren’t blank; he’s shocked to find they’re filled with the life he and Ellie lived together. This fact recalls something Russell said earlier about his father: “I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember most.” That’s what Ellie filled her pages with: the boring, everyday stuff we discount but that means the most. On the last page Ellie includes a note to Carl: “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one!” And as he does, as her words inspire him to throw out most of the stuff in his house to get it aloft again, to get back into the adventure, I sat there, a 46-year-old, tearing up. Full review here.
1. ”L'Heure d'ete“ (”Summer Hours“): The three grown-up siblings have familiarity with, and distance from, one other. They assume they know each other but there’s also this quiet curiosity. I love you, but who are you again? Or now? The rest of the movie is disillusion of the cottage and its precious artifacts. At one point, Eloise, the housekeeper, returns for a visit and sees strangers—art dealers, reps from the Musee d’Orsay—removing this painting, taking that exquisite desk. They’re basically messing up the place she cleaned up for decades. It’s a melancholy sight. ”L’heure d’ete" is suffused with sadness but not nostalgia. Life expands, life contracts, life goes on. Director Olivier Assayas could’ve ended the film at the Musee d’Orsay, with the family's desk on display, looking “caged,” according to Frederic, but chose, instead, a more ambiguous end. He takes us back to the cottage house, where Frederic’s kids throw a huge, loud summer party. At first one is appalled that Helene’s place has been taken over in this fashion. But is this better? It’s vibrant. It’s life. The final shot is of the eldest daughter and her boyfriend, young and unburdened, running away from the camera and toward whatever it is they’ll create, and collect, and leave behind. Full review here.
Review: “The Blind Side” (2009)
WARNING: BLITZING, 350-POUND SPOILERS
Nothing about “The Blind Side” pleased me more than its opening shot: grainy footage from a 1985 “Monday Night Football” game in which Lawrence Taylor sacked Joe Theismann, fractured his leg and ended his 11-year career. I was pleased because that’s how Michael Lewis’ book begins. “From the snap of the ball to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five,” Lewis writes in his opening sentence; and in those five-closer-to-four seconds Lewis sets the scene, pulls back, writes about fear as a factor in the NFL, writes about the fear that Lawrence Taylor created and the fearlessness with which Joe Theismann played, and then circles back to the incident:
Theismann has played in 163 straight games, a record for the Washington Redskins. He’s led his team to two Super Bowls, and won one. He’s thirty-six years old. He’s certain he still has a few good years left in him. He’s wrong. He has less than half a second.
It’s the most famous injury in football history because the reverse-angle instant replay shows the bottom half of Theismann’s leg, between his knee and ankle, bending and snapping beneath Taylor’s weight, exposing the bone. The player who blocks the Lawrence Taylors of the world, by the way, is the offensive left tackle. He’s the guy who protects the quarterback’s blind side. And since free agency came to the NFL in the early 1990s, the second-highest-paid position in the NFL, after quarterback, is not running back nor wide receiver nor even middle linebacker (Lawrence Taylor’s position), but offensive left tackle. You pay most for the most-important position. You pay second-most for insurance for the most-important position.
Great offensive left tackles are highly paid because they require a set of physical characteristics that almost contradict each other. These guys have to be bigger than big and quicker than quick, and, let’s face it, the bigger-than-big usually aren’t quicker-than-quick.
And all of this leads to the story of Michael Oher—the story we came to see.
So I was pleased seeing the “Monday Night Football” footage, and hearing Sandra Bullock’s faux southern accent reading Lewis’ lines. But then writer-director John Lee Hancock, or Alcon Entertainment, or Warner Bros. Pictures, decided not to show the reverse-angle instant replay. They shied away from that harsh reality. It was a sign of things to come.
Michael Oher, one of 13 children born to a crack-addicted mother, grew up on the west side of Memphis in the projects known as Hurt Village. He drifted from apartment to apartment, school to school, barely getting by, when, at 14 or 15, a friend’s father, Big Tony, made an appeal to a rich, white, Christian private school, Briarcrest, to take both his boy, and his boy’s friend, Big Mike. Big Mike didn’t exactly fit in at Briarcrest—and not just because of his size or the color of his skin. He had a 0.6 GPA, he spoke to no one, he wore the same clothes day after day. Soon, though, he was being helped along, in particular by the Tuohy family, and in particularly by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock). Eventually he came to live with them. Eventually they adopted him. And eventually he became a football star, one of those bigger-than-big, quicker-than-quick athletes who make great offensive left tackles. He starred at Briarcrest, then at Ole Miss, the Tuohys’ alma mater, and just this year he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens with the 23rd pick of the first round. He’s now a millionaire.
It’s a feel-good story. So why is Michael Lewis’ book so good and John Lee Hancock’s movie so feely?
Sometimes it’s small differences. Here’s Lewis on a crucial moment in the story:
That day Leigh Anne went out and bought a futon and a dresser. The day the futon arrived, she showed it to Michael and said, “That’s your bed.” And he said, “That’s my bed?” And she said, “That’s your bed.” And he just stared at it a bit and said, “This is the first time I ever had my own bed.”
That’s nice. Poignant without being pitiful. Here’s Hancock’s version:
Michael (running his hand over the futon): This is mine?
Leigh Anne: Yes, sir.
Michael: I never had one before.
Leigh Anne: What—a room to yourself?
Michael: A bed.
The way that Aaron portrays Oher doesn’t help. Reading Lewis’ book, I imagined Michael as a blank, possibly a stoic, not outwardly pathetic, but that’s the way Aaron portrays him. There’s a “woe is me” quality. His eyes are sad, constantly sad, staring-at-the-ground sad. It’s Sad 101.
Basically Hancock takes what is already a sentimental story and sentimentalizes it. In the book it takes the Tuohys months to give Michael a home; in the movie it takes a day. In the movie, Michael is scary to the kids on the playground because he doesn’t smile when he talks to them; in the book, in reality, the kids were actually fascinated with this gentle giant, but were scared because, when they spoke to him, he didn’t talk back; he just stared.
Hancock personifies the dangers of Hurt Village in one gangster and the prejudices of the white community in the ladies-who-lunch, when both the dangers and the prejudices are more diffuse. I understand why Hancock does it. I also understand why it rings hollow—particularly when Leigh Anne shuts this gangster up by mentioning her gun and membership in the NRA.
Bullock’s the star, so much of the story has to be invested in her character at the expense of other characters. As a result, one of my favorite scenes in the book is gone. It’s the scene where the high school football coach’s assistant, Tim Long, who was an offensive lineman in the NFL, finally tells Coach Freeze that, with Michael playing, they don’t need all the fancy plays Freeze likes running. They can win with just one play: “We can run Gap,” he says. Meaning the quarterback hands off to the running back, who runs behind Michael Oher, who clears the field. Two weeks later Freeze adopts it. Lewis writes:
Seven plays into the game the score was 14-0 and they had done nothing but give the ball to their stumpy five three running back...and told him to follow Michael Oher’s right butt cheek. ... By the end of the first half, Briarcrest had scored 40 points.
Wouldn’t that have made a great scene? Instead Leigh Anne tells Michael, who’s not doing so well in practice, to protect the quarterback like he’s family, like he’s her. Then she chastises the coach, the fictional Coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon), for not knowing his players better. “Michael scored in the 98th percentile in protective instincts,” she says. Protective instincts? They test on that?
When the movie was first released, right-wing cultural bloggers—surely the whiniest people on the planet—complained about a quick George W. Bush gag and recommended like-minded folks stay away. They haven’t, of course. “The Blind Side” had a production budget of $29 million, expected to make two or three times that, and will soon make over $200 million domestically. It shows no signs of stopping. It’s got legs like Sandra Bullock.
What’s not to like for these folks? It’s a story about a southern Christian family who demonstrate real Christian values, and whose gestures of good will come back to them two-fold. The Tuohy family changes Michael’s life; he changes theirs. If anything, Hancock mutes the Democratic angle. The “Charge of the Light Brigade” scene is a good scene in the movie, but, again, it reads truer in the book. Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw), taking over momentarily from Michael’s tutor, Miss Sue (Kathy Bates), who’s a Democrat, teaches Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem to Michael:
Their’s not to make reply
Their’s not to reason why
Their’s but to do and die
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
Sean and Michael talk about what this means. They talk about loyalty and courage. And in the book, from the next room, Miss Sue suddenly shouts out, “Michael Oher, if there’s a war broke out, you head straight to Canada! You hear me?” Now don’t tell me Kathy Bates wouldn’t have nailed that line. Instead: nothing. Maybe because it didn’t fit in with the scene as they imagined it. Maybe because they didn’t want to upset folks. Maybe because. But there’s tons of stuff like that. What gives texture to the book is removed from the movie.
I hope a few of the people who love this movie seek out and read the book. I know it’s not revolutionary to say but the book’s better—for the reasons listed above. Maybe for this reason most of all: John Lee Hancock, backed by millions of dollars, major actors and a major studio, isn’t as good a storyteller as Michael Lewis is, backed by a keyboard.
Lancelot Links (Votes for Edgar, Worries over the Future of Journalism)
- A good piece in The New York Times on the established media attempting (yet again) to put up fences and charge $$ for online use. Much of the back-and-forth is same old, same old (“It has to be done or we die” vs. “It's already too late, suckers”), but the money quote, near the end, comes from Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU: “People who really think we have to charge or the industry is sunk would be more persuasive if they said at the same time we have to add more value than we’ve been adding.“ Exactamundo, Rosen. But value's a tricky business. Rupert Murdoch says the following in the article: “In the future, good journalism will depend on the ability of a news organization to attract customers by providing news and information they are willing to pay for.” I got sad reading that because people don't want good journalism now. They want gossip, sports, biased politics. Asking people to pay for good investigative journalism is like asking people to pay for vegetables when hamburgers are free. It's like asking people to pay for ”The Hurt Locker“ when ”Transformers 2“ and ”2012“ are playing at the same cineplex for nothing. That's the true dilemma. Beyond starting over from scratch, with better civics lessons at every level of school, I don't know a way out.
- Another stats-head vote (from David Schoenfield) for Edgar Martinez for the Hall of Fame. I'm on board, of course. I've been on board forever. I wrote the player profiles for The Grand Salami, an alternative Mariners program, back in the late '90s and early '00s, and Edgar's numbers were just amazing. Schoenfield references some of them: ”Edgar hit .311/.423/.517 at home, .312/.412/.514 on the road,“ he writes. But it's not just home and away. He hit everywhere, against every team. He's not just a manager's dream, he's a mathematician's dream. This is from his player profile in April 2000:
In Ken Burns' Baseball documentary, columnist George Will put the cherry on top of Stan Musial's remarkable consistency with this fact: of his 3630 career hits, 1815 were at home and 1815 were on the road. ”He didn't care where he was,“ Will says, ”he just hit." For our own Seattle entry into baseball consistency, we present Edgar Martinez. Last season he hit over .300 at home and away. He hit over .300 before and after the All-Star break, versus lefties and righties. He hit over .300 every month of the season except for April and June, when he slumped to .298 and .297 respectively. For his career he's batting over .300 against every AL team except Toronto (a meager .297). The sunrise should be so consistent. And don't even get us started on his on-base percentage.
- The lead-in is beyond embarrassing but Vice Magazine's Q&A with The Wire's David Simon is a must-fucking-read. Excerpts:
On the gift of 12 hours
We weren’t cynical about having been given ten, 12, 13 hours—whatever we had for any season from HBO. All of that was an incredible gift. The Godfather narrative, even including the third film, the weak one, is like… what? Nine hours? And look how much story they were able to tell. We were getting more than that for each season. So goddamn it, you better have something to say. That sounds really simple, but it’s actually a conversation that I don’t think happens on a lot of serialized drama. Certainly not on American television. I think that a lot of people believe that our job as TV writers is to get the show up as a franchise and get as many viewers, as many eyeballs, as we can, and keep them. So if they like x, give them more of x. If they don’t like y, don’t do as much y.
On mistaking capitalism for a social framework
It’s one thing to recognize capitalism for the powerful economic tool it is and to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, we’re stuck with it and, hey, thank God we have it. There’s not a lot else that can produce mass wealth with the dexterity that capitalism can. But to mistake it for a social framework is an incredible intellectual corruption and it’s one that the West has accepted as a given since 1980—since Reagan. Human beings—in this country in particular—are worth less and less. When capitalism triumphs unequivocally, labor is diminished. It’s a zero-sum game. People paid a much higher tax rate when Eisenhower was president, a much higher tax rate for the benefit of society, and all of us had more of a sense that we were included.
On health care
We live in an oligarchy. The mother’s milk of American politics is money, and the reason they can’t reform financing, the reason that we can’t have public funding of elections rather than private donations, the reason that K Street is K Street in Washington, is to make sure that no popular sentiment survives. You’re witnessing it now with health care, with the marginalization of any effort to rationally incorporate all Americans under a national banner that says, “We’re in this together.” ... And of course it’s socialism. These ignorant motherfuckers. What do they think group insurance is, other than socialism? Just the idea of buying group insurance! If socialism is a taint that you cannot abide by, then, goddamn it, you shouldn’t be in any group insurance policy. You should just go out and pay the fucking doctors because when you get 100,000 people together as part of anything, from a union to the AARP, and you say, “Because we have this group actuarially, more of us are going to be healthier than not and therefore we’ll be able to carry forward the idea of group insurance and everybody will have an affordable plan...” That’s fuckin’ socialism. That’s nothing but socialism.
On choosing personal ambition over a moral imperative
But all the characters who are serving the institutions, who are so self-preserving and self-aggrandizing, they are rigorous about always making the wrong choice when it comes to a societal good, to a communal good. And you know what? I was a reporter for a lot of years. I actually believe that’s how the city works or doesn’t work. I wrote a book about what was wrong with the drug trade, the drug war. It was very carefully researched and it made clear that this was a fool’s errand. I watched a councilman who was running for mayor go to the corner where I wrote the book, hold a copy of the book up in front of the TV cameras, and say that if he were elected mayor he would fight the drug war for real and he would win it. Well, he became mayor and he fought as a drug warrior and he clipped the stats and he made it sound like crime was going down when crime wasn’t going down and now he’s the governor of Maryland. ... And he didn’t like The Wire. He didn’t think The Wire was a good thing.
On the stories we tell ourselves and why
Let’s celebrate me and the wonder that is me. It’s not about society. The Greeks, especially the Athenians, were consumed with questions about man and state. ... Now the thing that has been exalted and the thing that American entertainment is consumed with is the individual being bigger than the institution. How many frickin’ times are we gonna watch a story where somebody [rises agains the odds]: “You can’t do that.” “Yes, I can.” “No, you can’t.” “I’ll show you, see?” And in the end he’s recognized as just a goodhearted rebel with right on his side, and eventually the town realizes that dancing’s not so bad. I can make up a million of ’em. That’s the story we want to be told over and over again. And you know why? Because in our heart of hearts what we know about the 21st century is that every day we’re going to be worth less and less, not more and more.
On the death of journalism
What got asked at the Baltimore Sun was, “How can we bite off a little morsel of outrage and run with it?” Yeah. “Let’s do 50 stories on lead-paint poisoning between January and December. We’re not going to do any more the next year because that’s past the Pulitzer year. But we’re going to show you how bad lead-paint poisoning is. In fact, we’re going to show you that if it weren’t for lead-paint poisoning, these kids would all be at fucking Ivy League schools. Never mind that their family lives have been decimated, that they’re in a school system that’s utterly dysfunctional, that the drug trade’s the only industry where they live. Never mind all of that. If they’d just stop eating the fuckin’ lead paint, they could all be at Princeton.” You would look at that and you would say, “This is the highest ambition for journalism? This is what you got? What the fuck happened to us?”
Go to the movies this weekend? Lots of people did. Before the weekend was even half over the numbers crunchers were celebrating an all-time record (unadjusted) of $278 million, beating the weekend "The Dark Knight" opened in July 2008.
But that's not the big news to me. The big news is that "Avatar" won the weekend with a $75 million haul. If that number holds, 1) it's the second-biggest second weekend ever, after "Dark Knight"'s $75.16 million*, and, 2) that -2.6% drop from the first weekend is the 10th lowest drop between first and second weekends for a film opening in 3,000 or more theaters. And the top nine on that list? None came close to "Avatar"'s $77 million first weekend. None even came close to a $50 million opening weekend. They're mostly cartoons/family films ("Cheaper By the Dozen 2," "Bolt") that opened poorly or so-so before the holidays, then caught on during the holidays. You might say the same for "Avatar" except that it didn't open poorly or so-so. It opened phenomenally.
And continues phenomenally. After 10 days, Cameron's movie has made $212 million in the U.S. (7th-best for the year) and $402 million abroad, for a worldwide total of $615 million, or 47th best all-time (unadjusted). No. 2 on the worldwide list is "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" at 1.1 billion. Can "Avatar" surpass that mark? If it can, Cameron will be the writer-director of the two highest-grossing films of all time. Talk about your kings of the world. Here's hoping it keeps going and wipes the stink of "Transformers 2" off the year.
More on "Avatar":
- The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's critic Colin Covert has a fun, Freudian take on "Avatar." Jake's movement from re-birth to manhood is definitely a big part of the movie—it's a hero myth, after all—but Covert's vision of Col, Quaritch as an Oedipal father in need of a major adjustment adds a fun new element for me. "Quaritch is an iconic Bad Dad," Covert writes. "He threatens to shoot Grace in the mining camp’s control room, and later physically attacks her, Trudy and Neytiri in separate incidents. Mom and dad fight a lot."
- BTW: "Avatar"'s success, following on the heels of "The Blind Side," means that two of the three biggest movies this fall feature strong women who nurture young men away from the influence of bad men and turn them into good men. A theme?
- Michael B. Laskoff has a pro-capitalistic take on both "Up" and "Avatar," but to me it's a misreading. A rather gross misreading. Carl's house in "Up" is more about the burden of dreams, or the past, than a Wordworthian getting-and-spending. And arguing that "Avatar" is pro-capitalist because Cameron invented something wonderful and new, and thus, in Laskoff's words, "has done exactly what the high priests of capitalism—from Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton to Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan—have always preached: allow daring, vision and capital to find one other and the extraordinary can emerge," is not only ignoring what "Avatar" is (a not-so-subtle critique of the military-industrial complex), but what capitalism is. Yes, you want daring and vision. But capital rarely finds the two. Capital is too busy chasing after what has worked before. It wants to endlessly copy the successful. There's little daring in it.
Balance sheets over blood: one of the many pro-capitalist
messages Michael Laskoff sees in "Avatar"
- Finally, a cool look, from Devin Faraci of chud.com, on how Cameron's final film differs from Cameron's original script treatment. Among the changes (SPOILERS): Jake is named Josh; Josh cries when he first walks as an avatar; the planet is always fighting the humans as if they're a virus—it doesn't just happen at the end; and there is no unobtanium. We're just messing with the Na'vi to keep them in line. It's interesting stuff, but, unlike Faraci, I agree with most of the changes Cameron eventually made. He brought a big ship in lean and tight.
* UPDATE: "Avatar" wound up grossing $75.6 million over the weekend—meaning it had the best second-weekend ever (unadjusted). It also did better abroad than the numbers originally indicated: its worldwide total now stands at $623.6 million.
Vic Chesnutt: 1964-2009
I don’t write much about music because I don’t have the vocabulary or knowledge to write about music, but I do have a music section on this blog. It’s got the same kind or revolving photos in the upper left corner as the rest of the site, and one of them is of Vic Chesnutt, whom I first came across when others performed his music on the album “Sweet Relief II,” released in the mid-90s, and who died last Friday, Christmas day, from an overdose of muscle relaxants. He was 45.
The “Sweet Relief” albums and charity benefited artists in medical need, such as Victoria Williams, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993, and Chesnutt, who became a paraplegic in 1983 after a car accident. Among the artists performing his work: Madonna and Joe Henry (“Guilty By Association”), LIVE (“Supernatural”) and Soul Asylum (“When I Ran Off and Left Her”).
I came to him slowly but kept coming back. “About to Choke,” his first post-“Sweet Relief II” album, included the song “Little Vacation,” which I listened to all the time on a trip down the Oregon coast in ’97. I also loved this sad, true snapshot from “New Town”:
And a little bitty baby draws a nice clean breath
From over his beaming momma’s shoulder
He’s staring at the worldly wonders that stretch as far as he can see
But he’ll stop staring when he’s older
When a friend’s daughter turned two, I quoted that stanza and added: “My wish for Eva is that she’ll never stop staring when she’s older.”
In the late ‘90s I saw him at a concert in downtown Seattle, a small figure in a wheelchair, opening for someone, and the power and purity of his voice surprised me. Four or five songs in, though, it cracked, and kept cracking, and he grew dispirited, angry, self-flagellating. The Seattle crowd, already a passive-aggressive group, with most waiting on the main act anyway, responded with something like embarrassment. The show petered out.
According to my iTunes application, “I’m Through” from “Silver Lake” was the seventh song I downloaded (uploaded?) into the application back in December 2003. That’s the song with which I almost always closed compilation CDs back then. It fit my mood in 2003/2004, particularly in terms of politics and employment. He sings the song with a mixture of resignation and defiance, but you can imagine the song sung through clenched teeth. Maybe that's how I sung it:
And after everything else you draw out of me
You still expect cute curtsies
And I’m through through through
Carrying you on my shoulders
And I’m through through through
Sometimes his songs feel so personal you almost want to turn away:
Dogs are barking
Birds are chirping
The only thing better if
I was squirting
But there’s no one here
To love on me today
Cause the maiden’s
Other times it’s as if he’s the third-person narrator of a Flannery O’Conner short story:
Betty Lonely lives in a duplex of stucco
On the north bank of a brackish river
Her ears omit the noise from a nearby airstrip
Her mind floats beyond the snapper boats
But his wicked sense of humor was always close by:
The mirror’s a mirage
No wonder I always look so crummy
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Chris Riemenschneider writes, in his tribute, “The L.A. Times has a quote from Chesnutt complaining about his mounting [$70,000] medical bills. It's goes without stating a guy like this—who contributed to society way more than he took from it—deserves decent healthcare, but let's not cheapen his memory with political talk.”
Riemenschneider works for a corporation and I don’t, not here anyway, so I can afford to be cheap. We live in an unChristian nation. There but for the grace of God goes some other guy. Here’s the L.A. Times quote:
“I was making payments, but I can't anymore and I really have no idea what I'm going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can't afford. I could die any day now, but I don't want to pay them another nickel.”
I never left Vic but this spring I came back with a vengeance, listening to his songs, just his songs, on shuffle mode, and re-discovering this one. “In My Way, Yes” gives us three stanzas: the first on creativity (“Taking my time/Working on lines/Fingers in clay/Everyday”), then on love, then on life, and the chorus for each is an affirmation, a choosing of celebration over cynicism. Here’s the chorus for creativity. The creativity is his, the affirmation is mine:
(Do you think it makes a difference?)
I say yes
(Do you think it makes a difference?)
I say yes
(Do you think it makes a difference?)
I say yes
In my life, yes
In my life, yes
In my life, yes
Review: “Me and Orson Welles” (2009)
WARNING: FRIENDS, ROMANS, COUNTRYMEN, LEND ME YOUR SPOILERS!
Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” has one of the best supporting performances of the year wrapped in a fun if slightly tinny story with a weak lead.
I don’t say this out of spite. I root for Zac Efron. He’s near the center of our culture (at the moment) and I root for our culture. I want it be worth it. Nearly 50 years ago a bunch of girls put the Beatles at the center of our culture and that turned out pretty well.
So I was rooting for Efron to be better than I thought he was. He plays Richard Samuels, a high school student in 1937 who is enamored of acting, the theater, singing and art. He wants to create. We see him for a moment at school, studying the 16th century, before the movie lets him loose in Manhattan, and he quickly meets an aspiring writer, Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia). She’s even more enamored of art than he is—she has that solipsistic quality peculiar to artists: forever lost in her own mind—and she’s trying to get a short story into the already hallowed pages of The New Yorker. Outside, she talks of a writing teacher who would critique her work by waggling his hand back and forth and saying, “Possibilities,” and, just before the two part, she, forever thinking like a writer, says, “Wouldn’t this be a great scene for a story? Two people meeting like this and no more?” Richard waggles his hand back and forth. “Possibilities,” he says.
It’s a nice scene, but it lays open the Efron problem. Richard doesn’t have that artistic/solipsistic quality. Gretta is deeply into what she wants. What is he after?
Later that afternoon Richard comes across a group of actors spilling out into the streets, joking, preening, and one of them, Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), attempting a drumroll. Richard offers his drum expertise and pulls it off, even as the director of these actors, 21-year-old Orson Welles (Christian McKay), emerges from the building. Spotting the new blood, he asks him to sing, then asks him if he can play the ukulele, then hires him on the spot to play Lucius in their production, the Mercury Theater’s production, of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” In the quiet after Orson leaves by ambulance (as is his wont, because it gets him where he wants to go faster), Richard asks what became of the previous Lucius:
“He had a personality problem with Orson.”
“Meaning he had a personality.”
The film wants Richard to be an observer to the unfolding events—the chaotic manner in which a theatrical masterpiece is created—but he doesn’t have the nothing quality of a mere observer. Inside the theater, with his position small and tentative, he moves like someone who’s used to being center-stage. He follows Orson but not sycophantically. He spends time with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who works in the office while calculating to meet David O. Selznik, and he flirts with her, sure, but he doesn’t seem to set his sites on her until the other actors in the troupe, adults all, act jealous that he has entré with the woman they’ve dubbed “The Ice Queen.” He takes things for granted but not in the way the young take things for granted. It feels off.
There are some nice moments. We worry how he’ll do with this role he’s lucked into, and during first rehearsals he says his line (“Here is the man who would speak with you”), exits incorrectly, then correctly, then breathlessly asks a guy backstage how he did. “I cried,” the guy dryly responds without looking up from his magazine.
But the nice moments don’t add up to a whole. His family worries about the hours he’s keeping but nothing comes of it. He falls asleep at school but nothing comes of it. He takes Sonja out to dinner, runs into Gretta again, follows Orson to a radio broadcast. Eventually he sleeps with Sonja at Orson’s place. At first he seems nonchalant, then nervous, then petrified. He’s obviously never slept with a girl before, and Efron pulls it off, but this knowledge clatters among everything else we know, and don’t know, about Richard. His parts don’t add up to a whole, either. “Tell me who you are,” Sonja asks at one point. Yes, please.
We also don’t get a sense of what a breakthrough this “Caesar” is for the Mercury Theater and Orson Welles. Does anyone even mention that it’s set in Mussolini’s Italy? That the death of Cinna the Poet comes at the hands of the Secret Police rather than a mob?
The night before “Caesar” opens, with the show still in chaos, Orson beds Sonja, Richard reacts badly (like a cuckold), and Orson fires him: “I hope you enjoyed your Broadway career, Junior, cause it’s over.” Richard is stunned to find out he doesn’t matter, then stunned to find out he does. Welles has to woo him back for this small part. It works. Opening night’s a big hit. But in the excitement afterwards, Richard feels himself cut off from the rest of the cast. It’s up to Joseph Cotten (a perfectly cast James Tupper) to relay the bad news that he’s been fired after all. “It’s Orson,” Cotten says. “He can’t be wrong.”
McKay, by the way, should get a best supporting actor nomination. He not only offhandedly sounds like Welles, he displays the energy and fierce intelligence that Welles displayed onscreen. When his eyes light up with an amused, thick-as-thieves look, I thought: Harry Lime lives. Then there's opening night. Welles is backstage listening to the waves of applause, and says, to no one in particular, “How the hell do I top this?” A second later you see his mind begin to work on that question. We already know the answer but you get the feeling he doesn’t—yet. That’s how good McKay is.
“Me and Orson Welles” is, as I’ve said, a fun movie, but at times it has an artificial, tinny quality that I associate with latter-day Woody Allen. It’s if the characters are less characters than puppets to be moved around the stage to make the point the author wants to make. Events feel externally rather than internally driven.
Yet it’s not without its poignancy. At the end, Richard runs into Gretta again, and she thanks him—not enough—for helping get her story published in The New Yorker. The two, flush with their momentary successes, talk creativity and art. “It feels like it’s all ahead of us,” she says, and it was, then, 70 years ago. But we know their successes, if they have successes, will be small and short-lived, even as we know Welles’ successes, while gigantic, will lead to Paul Masson commercials in the '70s and “Transformers” voiceovers in the '80s. In Gretta's earlier story, the word “possibilities” is, both to her and her writing teacher, pejorative. By the end, seeing these people in a moment before everything plays out, one feels the sadness of choices made; and one appreciates the beauty of possibilities.
Quote of the Day
“What delight and joy in reading the Auburn Plainsman's Ben Bartley, some red-white-and-blue type guy from Texas who's fuming that such an anti-corporate, anti-arrogant, anti-Bush legacy, pro-eco, pro-nativist pantheist tract is raking it in big-time and spreading the myth everywhere, and there's nothing this guy can do about it. Hah! Eat shit, Christian asshole!”
Review: “Avatar” (2009)
WARNING: EYE-OPENING SPOILERS
James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the purest adventure story I’ve seen at the movies in a long time.
It’s also the most subversive blockbuster released during this long, ugly decade. Hell, it’s not even subversive. It states its apostasy out loud. “We will show the sky people they cannot take whatever they want!,” Jake, the avatar, shouts before the final battle. “This is our land!”
Psst: We’re the sky people.
The movie begins as a tale of twins. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a U.S. Marine who loses his legs in an unnamed war, and he has a twin brother, Tommy, a Ph.D. scientist scheduled to work on a moon light years away named Pandora. The human scientists on Pandora use avatars, which match the scientist’s DNA with alien DNA, to study the native Na’vi people, who are nine feet tall and blue-skinned. Then Tommy dies, rendering his avatar useless. Unless of course someone can match his DNA. Hey!
When Jake arrives on Pandora, there’s a balance of power among the human population there, and each has its own agenda. The scientific community, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), wants to learn about the Na’vi; the business community, led by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), wants to exploit the unobtainium under Na’vi land; and the military community, led by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), wants to kick some ass. But they all need each other. Science needs the funding business provides. Business needs the knowledge, and the diplomacy, science provides. And if it weren’t for business and scientific interests, the military would have no opponent—at least on Pandora.
Jake’s a man without a community. The scientists don’t want him because he’s a jarhead, and the jarheads dismiss him as “Meals on Wheels.” But Col. Quaritch sees a use. “A Marine in an avatar body,” he says. “That’s a potent mix.” He asks for reports. If Jake does his duty (again), he’ll get him his legs back. Meaning the technology was always there, they just didn’t think him worth the expense. Nice.
“One life ends, another begins,” Jake says of his brother and himself, but he could be talking about himself and his avatar. He has a new twin now, and, during the course of the movie, his avatar is taken through the hero cycle. He’s wobbly the moment he wakes up, but soon he’s luxuriating in the thrill of what Jake’s real body can no longer do. Standing. Walking. Running. Digging into the dirt with his toes.
In the jungle, after a thrilling stand-off with a hammerhead titanothere (think: elephant/rhino), and an even more thrilling chase through the woods by a thanator (think: huge, armor-plated tiger), Jake, separated from the scientist/avatars, is saved from a pack of prowling viperwolves (think: super-panthers) by a Na’vi, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who, afterwards, contemptuously dismisses his gratitude. “You don’t thank for this,” she tells him before the body of a dead viperwolf. “This is sad. Very sad only.” She blames him for the death of the viperwolves. “You’re like a baby, making noise, don’t know what to do.” When he asks why, then, he bothered to save her, she responds, “You have strong heart. No fear. But stupid.” It’s a good back-and-forth. Those who remember only Cameron’s “Titanic” dialogue may be surprised.
She’s lying, by the way. The reason she saved him, the reason she didn’t kill him herself when she had the chance, was because the seeds of a holy tree, looking like aerial, benign jellyfish, floated in front of her arrow. A sign from Eywa, her God. And as they argue in the jungle, more of these seeds float by, alight on Jake, and amaze her. Which is when she decides to take him to back to her tribe, where she is a princess, the daughter of tribal leader Eytukan (Wes Studi) and spiritual leader Moat (C.C.H. Pounder), and betrothed to Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso). They know Jake’s a dreamwalker, an avatar of the “sky people,” but they let him live because he’s a warrior (and thus one of them), and because they hope to learn about the sky people through him. They also appoint Neytiri to teach him about their ways.
Reluctant at first, calling him a moron throughout, Neytiri teaches him how to ride a pa’li, or direhorse; how to climb; how to fall from great heights using giant leaves to break the fall. All the while Jake is reporting back to the Colonel. Eventually Grace gets wind of this and moves the entire operation to the floating mountains of Pandora, where, in the flux vortex, they’re harder to contact, and where their research can continue uninterrupted. They have only three months until the bulldozers arrive to tear down Hometree.
“Avatar” is 160 minutes long yet there’s little fat in it. Cameron expertly guides us through long set pieces (Jake’s first day and night in the jungle), to shorter montage scenes (Jake’s Na’vi training), and back again. Bit by bit, Jake’s avatar fills out and grows stronger. He learns the rudiments of the language and the religion, which involves the flow of energy and the spirit of animals, and which he calls “tree hugger crap” even as he’s swept up in it. The Na’vi literally bond with animal and plant life through live tendrils in their braids. One of the last tests before he can become a man, and thus take another step in the hero cycle, is to bond for life with an ikran, or banshee, all of which nest in the floating mountains. And how will his ikran choose him? “It will try to kill you,” Neytiri answers matter-of-factly. “Outstanding,” Jake, the jarhead, answers.
Jake and Neytiri both have this spirit of adventure—as does the film. And when Jake finally gets his ikran, he and Neytiri soar through the air together—menaced only by two things: the huge red toruk, the baddest thing in the Pandora skies; and time. Their three months are almost up.
“Everything is backwards now,” says the human Jake, his jarhead cut grown out, scratching his beard. “Out there is the real world and in here is the dream.” So it is with us in the audience. Jake’s avatar initially seems bizarre, but, over time, it’s the avatar, the Na’vi Jake, that appears normal, while his human self seems small and undefined. So it is with the 3-D technology. Initially it seems obtrusive. After a while you don’t even notice it. Earlier this year, Cameron told a French journalist. “It's not just about literally seeing [the Na'vi] but about perceiving differently —perceiving through the eyes of the other person. That's what cinema's all about to me.” And that’s what it is here.
When the “Avatar” trailer hit the Web in August, an almost universal cry of pain went up among the geekish: That’s it? they asked. They felt its plot was too reminiscent of “Dances with Wolves”—military man sent to watch indigenous people and sides with the indigenous against his own—but of course “Dances” was a good movie, and this is an old plot anyway. Think “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Pocahontas” or “The New World.” Think especially Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars,” since that’s the story that influenced Cameron the most. Published near the turn of the last century, Carter, a Virginian and a Captain in the U.S. Civil War, dies, or “dies,” in a cave in Arizona and wakes up re-embodied on Mars, where he becomes a warrior-savior among its humanoid inhabitants. During the course of the stories, he keeps traveling back and forth between Earth and Mars, between his two selves. Like Jake.
What Carter doesn’t share with Jake is a sense of guilt; a sense of almost constant betrayal. When the bulldozers arrive, Jake’s the first to stop them, betraying the humans. But the intel he provided allows the military to destroy the Na’vi’s home, the gigantic Hometree, which comes crashing down like one of the twin towers. Neither side can forgive his treachery. The Na’vi tie up the avatar Jake while Selfridge pulls the plug on the avatar project and the Colonel’s men toss the scientists, and the human Jake, into the brig. What balance of power existed is gone. It’s a military-industrial complex now.
But an iconoclastic chopper pilot (Michelle Rodriguez) springs the scientists, and flies them, and a makeshift lab, to the Tree of Souls, the Na’vi’s most sacred place. Jake is returned to his avatar body, which has been left behind after the destruction of Hometree, and he walks among its ashes. It’s a poignant scene—particularly if one recalls his earlier joy at kneading the dirt with his toes. To win back the trust of the Na’vi he knows he must do something spectacular and foolish, and it involves the toruk, the baddest thing in the skies, which Neytiri told him has only been tamed (ridden) five times in Na’vi history. But Jake figures if you’re the baddest thing in the skies you have no natural predators, and thus no need to look up. Which is why, on his ikran, he divebombs the toruk. I love the logic of this. I love how Cameron films it, too. Just as Jake leaps, we cut to the Na’vi chanting to Eywa at the Tree of Souls. Then a shadow appears. They cry and scatter in terror (it’s a toruk!)... and then in wonder (it’s a toruk... ridden by Jake!). Cue incendiary battle speech. Cue final battle scenes.
Of course the Na’vi, with bows and arrows, have little chance. They gain an advantage with a surprise attack but lose it because of the humans’ superior firepower. How do they gain it back again? Through a deus ex machina. A literal deus ex machina. They have God on their side.
Most adventure movies inevitably end with a final confrontation between hero and villain, and Cameron’s are no different, but his tend to involve like battling like. In “Aliens,” it was two matriarchs. In “Terminator 2,” it was two terminators. Here it’s two avatars. Jake, as a Na’vi, takes on Col. Quaritch, outfitted in the same kind of mechanized, supersized warrior suit Ripley wore at the end of “Aliens.” Neither avatar does the killing, though. Neytiri does. And this time it’s not sad only.
James Cameron has done an amazing, ballsy thing with ”Avatar." Yes, he imagines an entire world and creates it in meticulous detail. Yes, he sends his main character on a hero’s journey through this world. But within this framework, this age-old story, he critiques the worst aspects of our own culture. “When people are sitting on something you want, you make them your enemy,” Jake says near the end, summing up the sad history of the human race. It’s not an abstract or ancient history, either. It’s current. The villains in “Avatar” use the language of this decade: “Shock and awe”; “fighting terror with terror”; “balance sheets.” They are us. “Dances with Wolves” was set in an historical timeframe, more than 100 years earlier, in which everyone knew the Native Americans would fight and lose. Not here. Here, in this future setting, the humans not only lose but they’re sent back to Earth—to their dying planet that has no green on it. They lose because God literally isn’t on their side.
That James Cameron could get such a message into a fantasy epic, a Hollywood blockbuster, is truly more astonishing than any of the astonishing computer graphics within it.
Words I Never Use and Why - I
arguably (adv.): as can be shown by argument.
I cringe every time I see this word. It feels like the writer is trying to make a bold statement but wants it to be a bold and objective so adds this and ruins everything. Now it's meaningless. Because what can't be shown by argument? "Oxygen is arguably our most important element." "George Bush is arguably the greatest president in the history of the United States." "I am arguably the sexiest man alive."
The other day, Michael Rand, a Star-Tribune blogger, disagreed with some of Rob Neyer's top 100 baseball players of the decade, including Joe Mauer at no. 40 (Rand felt he should've been higher), and wrote that Mauer's accomplishments included winning "two consecutive Gold Gloves while playing arguably baseball's most demanding position." Dude, just say it's baseball's most demanding position. Or say it's, with pitcher, one of baseball's two most demanding positions. Adding "arguably" is like letting left fielders or second basemen into the equation. Just look at injuries, games played, career length. Now: Which position's demanding? Write your sentence.
"Statistically" would've worked there as well. Here, too. It's from a 2006 AP story:
"Texas has arguably the most extreme separation between the well off and everyday people in the United States," said Don Baylor, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin think tank that advocates for lower-income families.
I should cut the guy some slack since it's just a quote, but policy analysts for think tanks should know better. They should know that what's being talked about here can be measured, so it's less an argument than a matter for statistics.
On subjective matters, I prefer "probably" or "one of the" or "I feel," since none of these have the pretensions that "arguably" does. Unfortunately, more and more, people are using both, as in this short Zimbio bio of Tiger Woods:
Tiger Woods (born December 30, 1975) is a professional golfer. He is arguably one of the most successful golfers in the history of the sport..."
I don't know golf but Woods has won 14 majors, second only to Jack Nicklaus' 18. Tiger Woods is one of the most successful golfers in the history of the sport. There's no argument there, Zimbio.
This may be the saddest usage I came across. From an amazon.com customer review of "Bella":
It is arguably the best independent film I've ever seen.
You don't know? Why don't you have that argument with yourself, son. Then get back to us.
Lancelot Links (Is Pissed at QT)
- "Iron Man 2" trailer, dudes! Questions: 1) Are they overdoing Tony Stark with the "Yes, dear" line? He was so good in the first movie, but sequel writers tend to exaggerate the actor's first-movie exaggerations (see: Capt. Jack) and ruin 'em. Hope that's not happening here. 2) Iron Man makes a nice metaphor for America in the 21st century, doesn't he? Initially cocky and triumphant while enemies gather; then dazed and hurt; then ready for action. The difference is that Iron Man was smart enough to get a partner. An equal partner, Mr. Blair.
- Related: Sam Worthington as Captain America? It's an unfound rumor, and some object because he's Australian, but he sure looks like he'd fit the part.
- Phil Contrino of boxoffice.com wonders if "The Hurt Locker," which is garnering all the critics' awards, can possibly win best picture when it made only $12 million at the box office. "Crash is this decade's lowest grossing Best Picture winner with $54.6 million," he writes. "Technically, Annie Hall has the lowest domestic gross of any Best Picture winner since 1970 with $38.3 million in 1977, but that equals around $124 million when adjusted for inflation." Contrino seems to suggest moviegoers are at fault for the dismal box office, and maybe they are, but Summit Entertainment never really put the movie out there, either. Its widest release was only 535 theaters.
- Speaking of "Crash": Manohla Dargis goes off on the sexism rampant in Hollywood: the lack of female directors, the lack of smart female movies, the fact that time and again Hollywood executives seem to think women don't go to the movies—despite all evidence to the contrary. Spleen is definitely, and legitimately, vented. Then there's this beauty: "Let's acknowledge that the Oscars are bullshit and we hate them. But they are important commercially... I've learned to never underestimate the academy's bad taste. Crash as best picture? What the fuck."
- There's a great piece by Jeffrey Toobin in the Dec. 14th issue of The New Yorker on the legal issues surrounding Roman Polanski's arrest on statutory rape charges in 1977—not to mention his flight from, and attempted extradiction back to, the U.S. earlier this year. You need the print edition to read it in full, though. The abtract is here. Toobin is smart on the ways Polanski's celebrity both helped and hurt his case. There's little doubt, from Toobin's description, that Polanksi committed a crime in 1977. There's also little doubt, from Toobin's description, that those charged with that crime—that is, statutory rape—rarely did prison time back then. His recent incarceration in Switzerland, meanwhile, resulted from renewed interest in the case because of a documentary, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," which more or less declares him not guilty, and more or less on the strength of an interview with then-deputy district attorney David Wells, who implied misconduct on the part of the presiding judge. But Wells has since recanted that portion of the interview. Leaving us where? In a big fat no-man's land.
- Quentin Tarantino is starting to piss me off. Not as a filmmaker but as a critic. Here he lays out his top 8 movies of the year. I like that he includes "Funny People" and "Observe and Report," two underrated serio-comedies starring Seth Rogen. But "Star Trek" at no. 1? The thing is lukewarm "Star Wars." Does he like it s much because J.J. Abrams kills off the sacred in the "Star Trek" universe (the planet Vulcan) as QT kills off the profane in ours (Hitler in "Inglourious Basterds")? That's not enough of a reason. The accompanying video of QT adds little, but I suppose I should cut him some slack because he is taking this seriously. He talks of going to see certain movies again to see if they've risen in his estimation. That's more (twice more) than a lot of Academy members do.
- Finally, via my friend Mr. B., a Season's Greetings from the Seattle Mariners, who are getting smarter all the time. It's a clip from a game last...September? Ichiro hitting a walk-off homerun off some hack named Mariano Rivera. Makes. Me. Smile. Touch 'em all, Ichiro!
Lancelot Links (Wants to Deck Someone)
- John Perr's blog, "Crooks and Liars," takes Sarah Palin apart for her massive ignorance of the history of our country, but equally important, not to mention related, is the accompanying graph (below) on the recent tax rate of our lowest and highest income brackets. During World War II, which Palin insists, in a Washington Post Op-Ed of all places, was paid for by war bonds (volunteerism), the top income bracket was taxed at 94%. Ninety-four percent! So much for voluteerism. Now they're taxed at 35 percent. Me, I'd raise it back to at least 50 percent —at least—as it was from 1982 to 1986. Reagan years, people. Everyone in this bracket is making tons of money off of a system they were born into and it's time they showed their appreciation to that system, and the long-term stability of that system, by, yes, "volunteering" to give back. Read the whole piece, it's worth it:
- My man! Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) takes down Sen. John Thune (R-SD) on the health care bill. Franken, by way of Pat Moynihan, has given us a mantra for this age of disinformation: "You're entitled to your own opinion, you're not entitled to your own facts." I particularly like how frustrated and angry Franken gets by the end. You can tell he's fed up. These people keep lying.
- It's actually worse. These people make careers out of accusing the opposition of doing what they do. It's the absolutist right, not the relativist left, that's as close to a fascistic organization as this country has ever had. The Nazis, remember, started out as a vocal minority, an absolutist, bullying, hateful group that wheedled its way into power and then shut out all opposition. That's the absolutist right in this country. And their latest alley-oop accusation? Via the Daily Show: Global-warming debunkers are now accusing global-warming proponents (i.e., the scientific community) of believing what they believe...for money! The idea being that global warming is big business so it doesn't matter if it's true or not. Nice. Because we all know it's the opposite of that. Global warming continues because of big business, because of the money that's made pumping what we pump into the air. The whole thing is so awful it makes you want to retch. It makes you want to deck somebody.
- A voice of reason in this wretched political world? Hendrik Hertzberg. Again.
- And another. It's worth watching Pres. Obama interviewed by Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes." He's a serious man in serious times surrounded by the unserious and the moronic. By people who are dicking around. And not just the absolutist right and not just the mainstream media but you and me. We create all of this. Every second, with every decision, we create our world.
- And even this serious interview gets an idiotic response from Dana Perino, whose 15 minutes, in a normal world, that is a non-cable, non-fragmented world, would be up. Yet she keeps talking. She says that President Obama's suggestion that President Bush "was too triumphant in his rhetoric when talking about war...is demonstrably false." The obvious follow-up? "Can you demonstrate it?" But she was on FOX News so they didn't ask the obvious follow-up. Here. Here are the three words that demonstrate the truth of what Pres. Obama implied about Pres. Bush: "Bring 'em on." Do we need more? Do we need to recall the swagger and the smirk? The aircraft carrier and flight suit? The "Mission Accomplished" banners? The talk of good and evil? The covering up of America's war dead? Damn, people, it wasn't even 10 years ago.
- But apparently some people can't even remember January 19, 2009.
- First, The Daily Show helped expose Glenn Beck's inciting panic/encouraging gold-buying and repping for Goldline. Now it's The Colbert Report's turn. "'Pray on it.' Like we're preying on you." Brilliant. Here's an in-depth look from the L.A. Times. The question that needs to be asked—and I mean this—is: Why is Glenn Beck trying to destroy this country?
- To end on an up note, here's Pres. Obama's speech after winning the Nobel Prize. It's a serious speech by a serious man in serious times. Read the whole thing. An excerpt:
- We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
- We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
Review: “Where the Wild Things Are” (2009)
WARNING: WILD-RUMPUS SPOILERS
Both Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and I were born in 1963, and by the time I was Max’s age it was hugely popular but I wasn’t a fan. I guess I didn’t have much of a wild thing in me. I was a sickly kid, and fairly obedient, so not the type to tackle the family dog or start a snowball fight with bigger kids—both of which Max (Max Records) does in the first 10 minutes of Spike Jonze’s adaptation and expansion of Sendak’s work. It’s a brilliant first 10 minutes. Before we see anything we hear Max, humming, and before we see Max we see his handiwork: all of the movie-studio logos, from Warner Bros. to Legendary Pictures, have been defaced, the last one reading M-A-X. Then we get Max himself, in wolf costume, chasing and tackling the family dog, at which point Jonze freeze-frames and gives us the title in childish script. At which point I went: “This is going to be good.”
The photography is so muted, the colors so washed out, that the movie not only feels like it takes place in the 1970s but was filmed in the 1970s. Max is a rambunctious kid, possibly friendless, living with a teenaged sister and a divorced mom (Catherine Keener). When friends come to pick up his sister, he attacks them with snowballs and then gleefully runs back to his newly made snow fort. But they’re wild things, too, and bigger, and they follow and collapse the fort, leaving Max tearful—probably less physically hurt than emotionally hurt. His sister watched the destruction and did nothing. In revenge, he runs into her room, stomps the snow off his body, rips up gifts he’s made for her. Anger spent, regret sets in. This cycle of creation-destruction-regret continues throughout the movie.
We see him briefly at school. His science teacher is offhandedly explaining that the sun is a fuel source, and, like all fuel sources, will eventually expend itself and everything in our solar system will die. Attempting to cover up this awful fact, he digs deeper: He talks up the ways mankind will destroy itself before then. More creation-destruction-regret cycles. More callbacks to the 1970s. Back then, in the midst of my own parents’ divorce, it seemed I was surrounded by destruction scenarios, and one in particular stuck with me: an “In the News” report (sponsored by Kellogg’s) shown between Saturday-morning cartoons, in which it was reported that a graduate student wrote his doctoral dissertation on how to build an atom bomb. The meta-message: If one individual can do it, what country, with many individuals at its disposal, can’t? The knowledge was out there and couldn’t be bottled up. It made you feel small and powerless. It made you cling to fantasies of being all-powerful.
Max clings to such fantasies. His sister’s on the phone and his mother’s entertaining a man who’s not his father. Everything’s moving away from him, he has no say, and he’s bored. So he rebels. He acts bratty with his mom, then fights with her, then bites her—the act, not only of a wild thing, but of the powerless. Then he runs away. He finds a boat in a creek, gets in, and sails away to the island where the Wild Things are.
In his journey, Jonze emphasizes the smallness of Max against the vastness of the ocean, the deserted beach, the steep cliff face, and, finally, the Wild Things themselves, who crowd around and talk of eating him until his cry of “BE STILL!” stuns them into silence. Then he declares himself their king. In essence, this restores things to the way Max perceived them early in life. He’s small and powerless, surrounded by big, powerful beings, with big heads and big mouths, but he rules.
On the island, events unfold that, one imagines, mirror events in Max’s real world. Carol (James Gandolfini). a defacto leader of the Wild Things, and both father and buddy to Max, is estranged from KW (Lauren Ambrose), who’s off with Bob and Terry. “What about loneliness?” Carol asks Max during his coronation. “Will you keep out the sadness?” So even in Max’s fantasy there’s an immediate sense that things are not whole. But in the midst of their “wild rumpus,” as they run, jump, howl at the moon, KW returns, and they all hogpile together and sleep together, rather than in the separate cocoons (literal and metaphoric) that Carol was smashing earlier. “We forgot how to have fun,” Carol says as they drift off to sleep. Max showed them.
The next day, in a journey across the desert, Carol shows Max his secret cave with his model city, and Max declares that they will build their own city, a real city, where only things that they want to happen will happen. This city, this home, winds up looking like the cocoons they were smashing earlier, but big enough for everyone. Shortly after, though, Max follows KW across the desert to meet Bob and Terry, two owls whose wisdom is incomprehensible, and she brings them back to the new perfect home, setting in motion its destruction. “Why did you bring them here?” Carol asks Max angrily. “This was supposed to be for us.” For a time, Max distracts everyone with a dirtball fight but it mirrors the earlier snowball fight, ending badly with hurt feelings. Everything is breaking up again. The Wild Things demand that Max use his powers to make everything right but his powers turn out to be a robot dance with which, earlier in the movie, he’d tried to cheer up his mother. “That’s what we waited for?” they ask in disbelief. Carol’s anger can barely be contained. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he says. “You were supposed to keep us safe.” Others counsel acceptance: “He’s just a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king.”
In this way Max’s fantasy of absolute power and absolute safety turns into a fable of acceptance. Every Wild Thing has faults. Carol is fun but with a hair-trigger temper, KW is maternal but keeps bringing in agents of destruction, Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is carping and critical but often correct. Ira (Forest Whitaker) can make great holes but he’s passive. Alexander (Paul Dano) is a goat no one listens to. And Max is a boy, made king, made parent, and made to recognize the limits of parental power and authority. Things break up. Things change.
Is “Where the Wild Things Are” a movie for kids? I don’t know. My nephew, Ryan, 6, liked it, while my nephew, Jordan, 8, didn’t. But it’s definitely a movie for adults. It has the feel of a classic. Then there’s this high praise from a friend, a mother with two sons: “It helped me understand boys.”
Here Come the Critics
"Critics" hardly seems the right word, does it, when they're listing off the best of the year. "Here Come the Praisers." "Here Come the Complimenters." More basically: "Here Come the Analyzers." They've sifted through the year in movies, analyzed what's good and bad, and left us what's good. How nice! They're like Santa Claus. An underappreciated Santa Claus.
This is what the tally looks like thus far:
|Critics Group||Best Picture||Best Actor||Best Actress||Best Director||Best Foreign Language Film|
|NY Film Critics Circle (1935)||"The Hurt Locker"||George Clooney, "Up in the Air"||Meryl Streep, "Julie & Julia"||Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"||"L'Heure d'ete"|
|Los Angeles Film Critics Association (1975)
||"The Hurt Locker"
||Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart"
||Yolanda Moreau, "Seraphine"
||Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
|| "L'Heure d'ete"
|The Boston Society of Film Critics (1981)
||"The Hurt Locker"
||Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"
||Meryl Streep, "Julie & Julia"
||Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
|Washington DC Area Film Critics (2002)
||"Up in the Air"
||George Clooney, "Up in the Air"
||Carey Mulligan, "An Education"
||Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
A sweep thus far for Bigelow, and consensus for "The Hurt Locker" and "L'Heure d'ete" ("Summer Hours"), the latter of which I'm particularly happy about since I thought that movie was flying under the radar. I was lucky enough to see it at the Seattle International Film Festival in May or June and recommend it to anyone and everyone—when it finally comes out on DVD. It's a movie that works on you in subtle ways and stays with you in profound ways.
Most observers list off these types of awards as precursors to the Oscars (what does it mean, who's agreed with the Academy in the past, blah blah blah), but for once I thought it would be nice to just enjoy the movies mentioned, and the critics groups mentioned, on their own. I haven't seen "Sin Nombre" and "Crazy Heart" but everything else is worth seeing. These are all movies, stories, that, while trying to entertain, make us feel what it means to be alive: as an IED specialist in Iraq in 2004; as a working-class girl in England in the 1960s; as a working-class artist in turn-of-the-last-century France; and as a French family in an increasingly international and fragmented world. Also what it means when we go.
Review: “Invictus” (2009)
WARNING: SEPARATE-AND-UNEQUAL SPOILERS
Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” begins with a rugby team—the national rugby team of South Africa, it turns out, the Springboks—practicing on lush green fields bordered by a sturdy, iron fence. Just across the street, black kids are playing on scabby, dusty fields bordered by a cheap chain-link fence. So it goes. Then a caravan approaches on the road between them, and, as it continues past, the black kids cheer while the white players stand in stony silence. It’s February 11, 1990, and Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), unseen in the caravan, has just been released after 30 years in prison on Robben Island. The scene is basically a metaphor for the divided country: At that moment, Mandela is the only one traveling in the divide between the two separate and unequal societies.
Four years later Mandela is elected president of South Africa. On his first full day on the job, he takes a 4 a.m. walk with his security team then shaves. We see him staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, white foam covering half his face, doubt in his eyes. His face is basically a metaphor for the country: half-white, half-black, unsure of what lies ahead.
By the end, as two pairs of hands, one white and one black, hold aloft the World Cup trophy, I couldn’t help but think I was back in 1959 watching a Stanley Kramer movie.
It’s a shame that Eastwood underscores this particular point so much because there’s a lot I liked about, and learned from, “Invictus.” I didn’t follow Mandela’s career after he was released from prison, and, as an American, I knew nothing about rugby. I got to learn something of both.
Mandela in his first days in office is reminiscent of Barack Obama in his first days in office. The outgoing power structure, who excluded, expect similar treatment from the incoming power structure, but Mandela keeps offering inclusion. His openness, his forgiveness, is, yes, immediately pragmatic—the Afrikaners, Mandela tells his aide, Brenda, still control the police, the army, the banks—but it’s hardly soft. “Forgiveness liberates the soul,” Mandela says at one point. “It removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.” Forgiveness as a weapon? I’m sure Dirty Harry would have a quip about that—“It hardly beats a Magnum .44”—but Clint hasn’t been Dirty Harry for a while. His revenge/forgiveness motifs have evolved.
Others in South Africa are not so willing to forgive. The Springboks have long been viewed as a symbol of Apartheid. Black fans root against them and black kids refuse to wear their jersey. As a result, the National Sports Council, now run by blacks, vote unanimously to change the teams’ name, colors and emblem. They are going to eradicate the bastards and stick it to the Afrikaners. Until Mandela shows up and reminds them that by acting in such a manner, “We prove we are what they feared we would be.” His argument wins the day—just barely—and afterwards, in the back of the limo, his aide argues with him over expending his political capital in this manner. “So this rugby is a political calculation?” she asks. “It is a human calculation,” he answers. That’s a nice line. One of many nice lines early in the film.
There is already a backlash against the initial raves for Morgan Freeman. Many movie fans are understandably wary that, in the wake of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk—i.e., in four of the last five years—yet another “real life” performance will win the Oscar for best actor. At the same time, Freeman is impeccable here. He is rail-thin and fragile, burdened by the affairs of state, and yet lit from within. He is, as ever, beautiful to watch, in a role that’s worthy of him.
But we begin to lose him halfway through as the focus shifts to the Springboks. He has team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) over for tea and talks to him about inspiration. The World Cup arrives in South Africa, and the Springboks, expected to fare poorly, particularly by a snide sports reporter (the nearest thing to a villain in the movie), begin to win, and, in that winning, begin to unite the country. These rugby scenes are fascinating to me because, except for a small training session the team gives to shantytown kids—in which it’s explained that the ball can’t be passed forward, only sideways or backward—the games happen without explanation. Yes, much of it is familiar. It’s another sport played on a rectangular field, with two goals, a ball, and a time limit. But the subtleties are lost, and Eastwood doesn’t help. For a time I didn’t even know if there was a clock, since Eastwood never cuts to it. The team simply, suddenly, raises its arms in victory. “We win!” Really? Oh, good. Then they play France in the rain and appear to be losing. No, they suddenly raise their arms in victory. “We win!” Really? Oh, good.
In this manner the Springboks reach the finals against a fierce New Zealand team.
Allow me to play the nattering aide in the back of the limo for a moment. “Invictus” might have worked better if Eastwood hadn’t spent his artistic capital on the irrelevant. After a great introduction of Mandela’s security detail, in which the white guards may have once incarcerated the black guards, these guys are mostly played for laughs. They deserve better. We get two red-herring attacks on Mandela (the van at the beginning, the airplane before the finals) and both could’ve been dealt with more subtly. We didn’t need to cut between the van and Mandela, for example; just show us the van squealing to a sudden stop in front of Mandela. That would’ve worked. Similarly, why get us into the cockpit of that airplane? That just confused.
Eastwood also goes for the estranged-daughter subplot again (see: “Absolute Power” and “Million Dollar Baby”) and spends too much superficial time with the Pienaars and their black maid. He spends too much superficial time on all manner of racial politics. During the finals, in shots worthy of Ron Howard’s “EdTV,” Eastwood gives us white people in white bars, and black people in black bars, all watching the same thing, all becoming united by the screen. He gives us a black scrounger edging closer to white cops listening to the game, being shooed away, edging closer again, and finally, in victory, being tossed in the air in celebration. Fans spill out into the streets, whites and blacks, celebrating together. White and black hands hold the trophy aloft. It’s all too much the same. It’s all too much.
Quote of the Day: "City of God"
"If Albert is right, there is consolation to be derived from the planets. For example, that they're all spheroid, that none of them are shaped like dice or the cardboards laundered shirts come folded on. And thinking about their formation—how, from amorphous furious swirls of cosmic dust and gas, everything spins out and cools and organizes itself into a gravitationally operating solar system... And that this has apparently happened elsewhere, that there are bilions of galaxies with stars beyond number, so that even if a fraction of stars have orbitting planets with moons in orbit around them...a few planets, at least, may have the water necessary for the intelligent life that could be suffering the same metaphysical crisis that deranges us. So we have that to feel good about."
—E.L. Doctorow, "City of God," pp. 61-62
- The New York Times gives us their top 10 books of the year. I haven't read any of them but I'm still disappointed with the fiction offerings. Or maybe I'm merely disappointed with the Times' synopeses: "concise yet finely grained..."; "narrated by a Wisconsin college student who hungers for wordly experience..."; "the theme is feminism..." It all feels dry and small. Only the Lethem and Walls' books open things up.
- Meanwhile, the best bookstore in Seattle is moving.
- I'm not a big fan of the "forgot" school of commentary ("In your list of top 10 superhero movies, you forgot "Daredevil, dude..."), but NPR gives us an article on the top villains of the decade, complete with a poll of five possible picks... and doesn't mention Anton Chigurh? Nice work, friendo.
- Two years ago Variety's Peter DeBruge's watched an Oscar montage of best foreign films and was, in his phrase, "floored," and became determined to watch them all. He did so this year and reports his findings here. He talks about the excitement of the early years: "Bicycle Thief," "Rashomon," "The Nights of Cabiria," "The Virgin Spring"...
And then a curious thing began to happen. Questionable winners started to sneak in. Mushy French melodrama "Sundays and Cybele," a Stateside hit in 1962, won (submitted over Francois Truffaut's far superior "Jules et Jim"). De Sica's overripe "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" (1964) trumped the existential masterpiece "Woman in the Dunes," while massive French phenom "A Man and a Woman" (1966) bested "The Battle of Algiers" and so on.
The category was fast devolving into a popularity contest, with the B.O. sensations beating what many thought was their more deserving competition. Great films carried the category into the next decade, including De Sica's heartbreaking foiled-by-WWII romance"The Garden of the Finzi Continis" (1971), Truffaut's playful meta-movie "Day for Night" (1973) and Kurosawa's pensive non-samurai epic "Dersu Uzala" (1975). But corruption allegedly set in as well, which might explain how "Black and White in Color" (1976) beat "Seven Beauties" and "Cousin, Cousine" when those two films were nominated for five other Oscars between them.
My two most satisfying discoveries — 1978's "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," a nutty menage a trois from French provocateur Bertrand Blier, and 1985's "The Official Story," a wrenching look at the children of political dissidents put up for adoption during Argentina's Dirty War — fall during this questionable period.
- Via Hollywood Elsewhere, James Cameron talks to a French journalist about the making of "Avatar." The questions are tough and the answers are smart. I don't know if "Avatar" will work, or will sell, but I like the way Cameron's selling it. He includes a kind of callback to Wiliam Goldman's famous dictum that nobody in Hollywood knows anything: "I think people in Hollywood don't really know what's commercial," Cameron says. "What's commercial is what people want to see. It's that simple. Sometimes they want to slow down and experience something. It isn't always dack-dack-dack, boom-boom-boom, rocketing along. This is what Hollywood has convinced themselves people want to see." ... Even better are Cameron's comments about how the best movies alter our perceptions. "It's not just about literally seeing [the Na'Vi] but about perceiving differently —perceiving through the eyes of the other person. That's what cinema's all about to me. You come in one door and you come out through another door. And that's a door of perception." The comment reminded me of the days when moviegoers would do this literally: enter one way, exit another (through the exit doors). We don't do that so much anymore. We tend to leave the same way we entered. Both literally and, sadly, metaphorically. (BONUS FOR FRENCH STUDENTS: The interview is subtitled in French so you can practice as you listen.)
- In baseball, the rich get richer.
- Finally, I'm a long-standing Marx Bros. fan, so A.O. Scott doesn't say much that either surprises or thrills me in his video critique of, or homage to, "Duck Soup." But watch it anyway—particularly if you haven't seen them in action. Halfway through, we get a scene where Chico and Harpo, spies for Sylvania, report to Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), who simply asks for the records of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) of Freedonia. One simple question and the gags come rapid-fire:
- Harpo produces a record LP from his trenchcoat.
- Trentino throws it in the air in exasperation and Harpo takes a gun from his trenchcoat and shoots it like a skeet.
- Chico rings a bell, says "And the boy gets a cee-gar," and hands Harpo one of Trentino's cigars.
- Chico closes the cigar lid on Trentino's hand and Trentino rubs his hand in pain.
- Harpo pretends to take Trentino's hand-rubbing for excitement and rubs his hands in excitement, too.
- Five gags in 10 seconds. Brilliant.
The Best Movies of the Decade
I began this decade with my first professional movie review, of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "The Flowers of Shanghai," published in The Seattle Times on January 28, 2000, and am ending it with amateur—that is, non-paid— reviews on my Web site. Kind of sums up the decade. More and more of our activities are moving online, for which we're getting paid less and less. Or nothing.
But it means I've been writing about movies for 10 years now—first with The Seattle Times, then with MSNBC, and with sidetrips to MSN, The New York Times (Op-Ed), and The Believer—and yet I'm still wary of compling a list of the best films of the decade. I know if I'd done something similar 10 years ago I would've left off what I now consider my two favorite films of that decade—"The Thin Red Line" (1998) and "The Insider" (1999)—because, even by December 1999, I hadn't seen either one. That's the main reason the movies below aren't listed in any particular order. I want a discussion more than anything. Maybe I'm hoping that, in that discussion, something better will shake loose.
Each poster is linked to a good review or analysis of that movie. Many of the links are self-serving (they're mine) and many are not (Roger Ebert, Scott Foundas, David Edelstein). Warning: The New York Observer seems to have a problem with paragraph breaks. Or Andrew Sarris does.
Some of the movies below make it because they're just fun ("Kung Fu Hustle"; "X-Men 2"; "Riding Giants"). Some make it because I happened to fall in love with certain scenes (the "Me and Julio" montage in "Tenenbaums"; the silent film in "Talk to Her"). The best work slowly and leave us with a kind of existential amazement ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; "Spring Summer Autumn Winter...and Spring"; "L'Heure d'ete"). Interesting to note: there's only one best picture from the Academy in the bunch: "No Country for Old Men." Meanwhile, if I had to choose my best picture of the decade, I'd probably go with Roman Polanski's "The Pianist." Thus far.
A lot of war here. The decade began with "Black Hawk Down," a sober tale of attempted nation-building in Somalia in 1993, and it ends with "The Hurt Locker," a sober tale of attempted nation-building in Iraq in 2004, and in-between we got cartoons and superheroes. How have we changed? "Black Hawk Down" was releaed into 3,000 theaters, was no. 1 at the box office for three weeks, and it made over $100 million domestically. "The Hurt Locker" never rose above 535 theaters and never made more than $13 million domestically. Apparently we don't want to know about it anymore. Not when we can watch giant space robots battling each other for the primacy of our sun.
But that's the bad stuff. Here's the good. Discussion welcome.
The Problem with The Shadow
“[Lamont] Cranston himself I thought a little slow-moving; he was fairly sedentary, as compared, say, with the Green Hornet, who could probably lick him in a fight if they went at it visibly. I didn’t think of the Shadow as being able to jump rooftops or climb ropes or run very fast. On the other hand, why should he have to? Also, I wondered about his restraint when he could become invisible anytime he chose. I wondered if he ever took advantage of women, as I surely would. Did he ever watch Margo Lane go to the bathroom? I knew that if I had the power to be invisible I would go into the girls’ bathroom at P.S. 70 and watch them pulling their drawers down. I would watch women take their clothes off in their homes and they wouldn’t even know I was there. I wouldn’t make the mistake of speaking up or making a sound, they would never even know I had been there. But I would forever after know what they looked like. The thought of having this power made my ears hot. Yes, I would spy on naked girls but I would also do good. I would invisibly board a ship, or, better still, a China Clipper, and I would fly to Germany and find out where Adolf Hitler lived. I would in absolute safety, and with no chance of being caught, go to Hitler’s palace, or whatever it was, and kill him. Then I would kill all of his generals and ministers. The Germans would be going crazy trying to find the invisible avenger. I would whisper in their ears to be good and kind, and they would thereafter be thinking God had been speaking. The Shadow had no imagination. He never looked at naked women nor thought of ridding he world of dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. If his program hadn’t been on a Sunday afternoon, I would probably not have listened to it.”
—from E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair, which I recently re-read for the first time in 20 years. It’s a beautiful book, and reminds me of Willa Cather’s lyrical My Antonia. Both are coming-of-age stories. This one's about coming into consciousness and perception in the Bronx in the 1930s. Funny, but I never thought about the double meaning of the title before: Not only a destination—the 1939/40 version in Flushing Meadows, New York—but a declaration of the way things are, which, given the circumstances of the story, not to mention our own perceptions, can only be viewed as ironic. Was Doctorow ever going to call it the title of the World's Fair essay contest our protagonist enters? “The Typical American Boy”? And how much of the book grew out of writing The Book of Daniel?
Review: “Up in the Air” (2009)
WARNING: UNCOMMITTED SPOILERS
Halfway through Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) explains the delicacy of firing people, and thus putting them between jobs, this way: “We are here to make limbo tolerable.”
Bingham is good at this because he enjoys limbo. He lives in limbo. The previous year he was on the road 322 days and in a voiceover he tells us that everything we hate about travel he loves: the recycled air, the bad sushi, and, mostly, the lack of connection. The other handful of days he spends in the home office in Omaha, Nebraska, where he stays in an apartment that has the blankness of a motel room. There’s nothing unique about it: no pictures, mementos, nothing that says Ryan Bingham except for the fact that there’s nothing that says Ryan Bingham. Bingham gives self-help seminars, too, across the country, entitled “What’s in your backpack?,” where he tells the audience to imagine everything they own in a backpack (photos, dishes, couches, cars), and to feel the weight of all that on their shoulders; then he encourages them to burn it all, starting with the photos. He tells them to do the same with their relationships, tossing in a joke about not necessarily burning them, but adding a warning that those relationships are the heaviest things they own. Life is better, he suggests, by traveling light and alone, as he does. He’s Nathan Zuckerman without the angsty Jewishness. He’s happy.
He’s also a prick.
On the one hand I liked it: a Hollywood movie makes their main character a truly unlikable person. His job is to travel around the country and fire employees at companies where the bosses are too cowardly, or too uncaring, to do it themselves. And he’s good at his job. “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now,” he says to the distraught, the broken, the angry. “And it's because they sat there that they were able to do it,” He tells people that this is their chance to follow their dreams. It’s a smart ploy. Most of us wound up working at places we didn’t imagine, doing things we don’t enjoy. The subtext of his message is basically: You and I both know I’m doing you a favor.
But at this point in the story Bingham seems too smarmy and self-assured to be good at his job. Even in the act of firing people, he still has that small George Clooney smirk on his face. One wonders why he hasn’t been busted in the nose yet.
Soon he and all the other corporate downsizers are called back to the home office at Integrated Strategic Management (ISM), where they’re introduced to Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a business-school grad, who’s come up with two strategies to increase efficiency and profitability. The first strategy will take Bingham off the road; the second will downsize him.
ISM’s biggest expense is travel. So why not, in the Internet age, fire employees remotely? There’s a logic, and a kind of horror, to it. The act of firing someone is inhumane. Companies make it moreso by having a stranger do it. ISM makes it moreso by having a stranger do it remotely. One wonders where the inhumanity ends.
Not at her second strategy. For a century businesses have tried to figure out how to replace the skilled (and compensated) with the unskilled (and uncompensated). This strategy, in fact, may well define American business in the 20th century, and it’s a morally bankrupt, bottom-line, and, I would argue, dead-end strategy. And now it’s Natalie’s. Bingham has a skill. He knows what to say to keep the newly fired calm and get them out the door. So Natalie works on a flow chart, which can be given to the unskilled, who can then they say what Bingham would have said. At a fraction of the cost.
In this way employees would not only be fired remotely, and not just by a stranger, but by a stranger working robotically off of a flow chart. Its inhumanity makes Bingham seem humane. Which is why we begin to warm to him.
Fortunately Bingham demonstrates to Natalie, in front of their boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), that she knows nothing about firing people. Unfortunately Gregory sends the two on the road together so she can learn. Basically Bingham will teach Natalie what he knows, she’ll translate that knowledge to the flowchart, and Bingham will become expendable. Another reason we begin to warm to him.
The two meet bickering and continue bickering, with Bingham, the older and more articulate, always winning the day. Their greatest arguments are personal, not business. He successfully argues against marriage as another unnecessary connection, the heaviest thing in that backpack (“all the arguments and secrets and compromises”), and she seems distraught, comically distraught, that she can’t defend it. In a lesser film the two would get together but thankfully we hardly get a glimmer of that here. She’s got a boyfriend—we see them briefly kissing good-bye at the Omaha airport—while he’s got a fuckbuddy, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a female version of himself whom he met in Dallas earlier in the film. There’s a great scene where they compare and contrast gold cards as foreplay. “We’re two people who get turned on by elite status,” she says.
In a Miami hotel lobby, Natalie finally breaks down, sobbing that her boyfriend broke up with her via text message (“That’s like firing somebody over the Internet,” Bingham deadpans), and collapses into Bingham’s arms—just as Alex arrives for another session. Instead the three gets drinks and talk over relationship expectations: Natalie’s (high) and Alex’s (low). They talk about settling or not settling. In Natalie’s description of her ex, one senses, not the love she argued for earlier, but a grocery list of positives she wants in her cart. Jason Reitman nicely refuses to underscore the point.
Then they crash a company party, where they drink, dance, go out on a boat, get stranded, arrive on the beach at dawn with their pantlegs rolled up and carrying their shoes. Bingham and Alex begin to seem like a couple. They begin to act tender with one another.
In his travels Bingham’s got his eye on a prize: 10 million miles, and super-elite status, on American Airlines. He’s also recently carting around a cardboard cutout of his sister and her fiancé, so that, like the gnome in “Amelie,” or like Flat Stanley, they can be photographed against various famous backdrops. It’s a cute thing for their wedding. Bingham photographs them, grumbling all the while (what a thing for his backpack!), but, as he warms to Alex, he warms to the charms of the task; and when the wedding approaches, he asks Alex along.
These two, used to super-elite status, acquiesce to the humble digs of this northern Wisconsin town. He reconnects with his sisters, shows Alex his old high school hangouts, and talks the fiancé, who gets cold feet, into commitment—a first. It changes him. So much so that in Vegas, giving his usual self-help seminar about the backpack, he smiles to himself, abruptly leaves the podium, and hops a flight to Chicago, where Alex lives. He’s ready, as the film’s poster says, to make a connection.
All the while I’m thinking: Really? This is it? This film, which I’ve heard so much about since the Toronto festival, and which is a clear front-runner for best picture, is going to take a guy who’s nasty and make him nice, empty and make him full, single and make him en couple?
Cue record-scratch. Because when Alex opens her door she’s surprised but not in a good way. Then we see kids running up the stairs behind her. Then we hear a voice calling out: “Honey? Who is it?” And Bingham’s face falls.
And I’m thinking: Niiiiice.
A second later I’m thinking: Wait. So why did Alex act the way she acted in Miami and Wisconsin? Like she was falling for him? It could be that I misread her, as Bingham misread her. She wasn’t concerned he wasn’t interested; she was concerned he was. I’d have to see the movie again to suss this out. At the same time it’s undoubtedly true that, since Miami, Bingham and Alex became less raunchy fuckbuddies than charming couple. Which is movement away from what Alex supposedly wanted Bingham for.
On the return flight he gets his 10 millionth mile; it feels hollow. Then an employee that Natalie fired, backing up a threat, kills herself, and Natalie quits and her program is dismantled. Bingham is on the road again. But is it what he wants? Can he acclimate others to limbo if he no longer enjoys it himself? One of the last shots is Bingham, at the airport again, staring up at the arrivals and departures board. It makes us think of all of our arrivals and departures in life—with jobs, friends, family; life and death. Staring up at the board, though, is something we’ve never seen Bingham do. He always knew where he was going before.
“Up in the Air” is a good, smart movie that’s getting the traction it’s getting because it’s timely. Unemployment, in the wake of the Global Financial Meltdown, is at 10 percent, and this is a movie about firing people. In fact, except for a few semi-famous faces (J.K. Simmons, Zach Galifianakis), the faces of the fired, explaining their feelings abut being fired, are the recently fired. “The filmmakers put out ads in St. Louis and Detroit posing as a documentary crew looking to document the effect of the recession,” IMDb tells us. “When people showed up, they were instructed to treat the camera like the person who fired them.” A good touch. A moral touch.
The movie also has smart, sharp dialogue. It’s a movie for adults. It treats business as it should: as an amoral, possibly immoral, enterprise. There’s always talk of company loyalty (to American Airlines, for example), when companies are loyal to no one. I laughed out loud when Natalie began her initial presentation to ISM employees: “If there’s one word I want to take with you today it’s this: GLOCAL.” Only at a company where everyone is worried about keeping their jobs would everyone not laugh at that. But I’ve heard worse in real life.
Should the movie have focused more on Natalie’s second strategy—replacing the skilled with the unskilled—or would such a focus have inevitably gotten too preachy? I suppose it’s enough that it’s dramatized. In the end, Bingham’s skills at downsizing aren’t downsized. His boss tells him, “I need you up in the air,” which is where the movie, appropriately, leaves him and us.
- The awards from the National Board of Review are out, a harbinger of exactly nothing, but I'll let Nathaniel Rogers over at Film Experience parse the awards and the awarders. Few do it better. ADDENDUM: After doublechecking it appears that NBR—which was originally founded in 1909 as an anti-censorship organization, and has been doling out film awards since 1929—has picked the eventual Oscar winner in the last two years; but this is in stark contrast to the rest of the decade when they didn't come close. I know that's not their task, and sometimes I agree with them, but I've never really gotten over their "Finding Neverland" choice; or choosing "The Hours" in a year when "The Pianist" was released:
- 2000: Quills
- 2001: Moulin Rouge
- 2002: The Hours
- 2003: Mystic River
- 2004: Finding Neverland
- 2005: Good Night, and Good Luck
- 2006: Letters from Iwo Jima
- 2007: No Country for Old Men
- 2008: Slumdog Millionaire
- 2009: Up in the Air (coming soon to a theater near you!)
- In part two of his video essay on the revenge motif in Clint Eastwood movies, Matt Zoller Seitz expresses the same doubts I expressed two days ago after watching the first part of his video essay. Money line: "Is Eastwood an exploitation filmmaker with aspirations to importance, or an artist who uses violent action to entice viewers into experiencing his films' more complex aspects?" Both, I'd gather. See: the cake-and-eating-it-too line from earlier in the video essay.
- Jesse Ventura is making an ass of himself with his conspiracy show but who knew he had such good taste in movies? Here's his top 5 films via the Rotten Tomatoes site, and while they're not my top 5 they're a good top 5. "Riding Giants" is one of my favorite docs. Love what he says about "Full Metal Jacket." And I love his talk about the character development in "Jaws" and how this is unfortunately missing from today's action movies. What does this say about the state of our movies when Jesse "The Body" Ventura can be viewed as a highbrow connoisseur?
- Via Moira Macdonald's movie blog on The Seattle Times' site, there's this pretty funny Seattle-area festival, beginning Dec. 7 at Central Cinema and hosted by James Schmader: "Almost Human: Madonna on Film: A five week exploration of how the world's greatest pop star became the world's worst actress." Doubt I'll make it. Who wants to watch "Shanghai Surprise" again? But I bet it's funny. And fun. And deserving.
- Boy, St. Louis Park's own Tommy Friedman is really pissing me off. First he pimped for the Iraq War back in 2002-03, and now he blasts Pres. Obama's efforts to do whatever the hell we can in Afghanistan (which, I believe, is our official slogan). "This I Believe." Sheeeeyit. Here's what I believe: A more measured (if equally dispirited) response to Obama's speech came from Andrew Sullivan. Here's what I also believe: Obama's been given a shit sandwich, and he put the best possible sauce on this shit sandwich, and people are looking at it and crying, "Why are you making me eat a shit sandwich?" No, YOU made you eat a shit sandwich. 51% of you anyway.
- In this spirit, my friend Tim pointed out this column by Mark Morford of The San Francisco Chronicle on how we're actually living through some pretty amazing times. He mostly attacks the left for their disappointment that things haven't changed more quickly but he also gets in some nice digs at the right:
Conversely, there is all manner of incoherent noise spewing like radioactive urine from the far right, a nonstop wail of childlike panic claiming that, because Obama behaves with unnerving calm, shakes hands with foreign dignitaries and doesn't seem interested in bombing everyone in a turban, he must be a socialist Muslim Nazi hell-bent on banning machine guns and killing all old Republicans in their sleep ...
- From the Dept. of Wrong Directions: The Dallas News has ordered editorial to report to sales. Nice. Good-bye to any semblance of credibility. Someone contact Lowell Bergman so at least we can get a good rant out of this. "Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News what they can and cannot air?" As I wrote back in 2001: Wigand and Bergman won that battle but the war is everywhere else being lost.
- Finally, in his "Sweet Spot" column, Rob Neyer runs down how Dale Murphy's seemingly invincible run for the Hall of Fame got stopped short. All good points except for the comparison to Kirby Puckett:
The only real exception [to center fielders with only six good years not making the Hall] is Kirby Puckett, who was elected by the BBWAA in his first year of eligibility. Both were Gold Glove center fielders who finished their careers early and were forced from the majors by physical maladies. The difference is that where Murphy suffered from a knee injury, Puckett retired because of degenerative vision, and while still near the top of his game. When Puckett's name first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot, his greatness was still fresh in the minds of the voters.
- Here's another difference. Murphy, known for his power, was a career .265/.346/.469 player, while Puckett, known for his hitting, was a career .318/.360/.477 player. Yes, allowed to continue to play into his 40s, these percentage numbers would've declined, but I don't think they would've declined much. More: How many post-WWII players have posted such a high lifetime batting average, with as many at-bats as Kirby, and not made the Hall? I don't know if there's anybody. (Todd Helton will test it again in 5-10 years.) Also, while it's hardly fair, Kirby played in two World Series and had that great performance in Game 6. That stuff's indelible. You could also say—and, again, it's hardly fair—that Puckett himself was indelible. His personality was big and positive, while Murphy's was...? I don't remember. Which is the point. As Jules says: Personality goes a long way.
Respect My Authoritai!
Still thinking on Clay Shirky's piece on algorithmic authority. I know I'm in a fading demographic, for whom the Internet arrived, it wasn't just here, but in my own serious work—that is, my day job—I still lean on the traditional forms of authority for back-up or confirmation. Sure, for a particular spelling of a word, occasionally I go quick-and-dirty with Google: 12 million hits this way, 7,000 hits that way, guess I'll go this way. But if I need solid information on a subject I lean on The New York Times not Wikipedia. The latter isn't the disaster I thought it'd be but it's hardly foolproof. Neither is the Times, i know, but on the Times site you wouldn't come across what I came across on Wikipedia on Tuesday:
Harriet Ellan Miers (born August 10, 1945) is an Astronaut and former White House Counsel. In 2005, she was nominated by President George W. Bush to be an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, but opposition from both sides of the political spectrum led President Bush to withdraw the nomination at Miers' request.
An astronaut? I wasn't sure if it had to do with this comment or not, which Miers made in 1996 about then-Governor Bush:
In a note to him a few days later, Miers described a little girl at the event who got his autograph. Miers wrote, "I truly believe, if the Governor told her she should be an Astronaut, she would do her best to become one. I was struck by the tremendous impact you have on the children whose lives you touch."
On the plus side, without any prompting from me, it took Wikipedia less than 24 hours to change "Astronaut" back to "American lawyer." Even so.
Thus Spaketh Clint
Interesting video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz on the revenge motif in Clint Eastwood's films. But how true is it? Is Eastwood's ambivalent attitude about revenge artistic or simply ambivalent and contradictory? A key line for me is near the end:
Many Eastwood movies have a self-critical aspect, a sense that Eastwood (as actor, director, or both) is examining dark impulses within himself (and humankind) and finding them troubling, pathetic, repulsive. It's the sentiment of a moral, humane, internally consistent filmmaker. Eastwood is all three—when Eastwood the icon isn't undercutting Eastwood the artist.
For me, too often in his career, Eastwood the icon undercuts any artistry. Even in “Unforgiven,” one of his best films, the last scene is iconic and thrilling rather than—as it should be—horrifying. We're rooting on William Munny. We want him to kill. He's justified, because the people he kills are scum—bullies and toadies—and because they've lynched his partner Ned. If there had been collateral damage in the carnage, maybe I'd feel different about the scene. If he'd killed a prostitute by mistake or the parasitic scribe on purpose. Instead he's just a guy out for revenge—his and ours. He's Popeye, but with whiskey rather than spinach, with shotguns rather than fists.
Munny's actually part of a cycle of revenge in the film in which a group of people are labeled pejoratively (“whores,” “assassins”), which then gives the labeler the right to do whatever he wants to them (cut them up, kill them). Munny does the same to the people in the town. He labels them, they who have labeled him and Ned “assassins,” and kills them, and shouts drunkenly at them. But we don't see him as part of the cycle; we see him as the final word in this cycle. He ends it, and ends the movie. Instead of another ring in the cycle, he's its final authority, its Old Testament God. Thus Spaketh Clint.
And that's the problem. In the real world there is no final authority, but our stories, Clint's stories, which have been absorbed by our culture, lead us to believe there is. We think with one big shotgun blast we can end the cycle of revenge. But it's a cycle and cycles return. Always.
Review: “Red Cliff” (2009)
WARNING: HEN DUO SPOILERS
John Woo’s “Red Cliff” is work. The movie is based upon the Battle of Red Cliffs, which took place in 208 A.D. and helped bring an end to the Han Dynasty. The period that followed, the Three Kingdoms, while short (approximately 70 years), has been romanticized in Asian culture via operas, novels, even TV shows and video games. As a result, most people in Asia know about this battle and its main characters. They don’t need them explained any more than we would need someone to tell us who Robin Hood and his Merry Men were.
But for us poor westerners? Friar who? Little what? It’s tough keeping everybody straight.
OK, so Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) is an imperial minister/general who intimidates even the Emperor of the Han dynasty into getting what he wants, which is full-fledged battle against rebel warlords Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen), and a battle quickly ensues against Liu Bei’s army, which includes master strategist Kong Ming (Takeshi Kaneshiro), grizzled, bad-ass fighter Zhang Fei (Zang Jinsheng) and...what’s the name of the other warrior? The one who can’t save Liu Bei’s wife but saves his baby by tying the kid to his back so both hands are free to fight off a half-dozen of Cao Cao’s soldiers? That’s a cool scene. Love the way he says to the baby, “Wo men zou” (literally: “We go”) before the fight begins. But in protecting the peasants, Liu Bei loses the battle and his army heads south where... Wait a minute. Only now, when Kong Ming shows up hat-in-hand, does Sun Quan consider rebelling against Cao Cao? I thought he was already doing it. And yet in this scene he’s still dithering. In fact he leaves the final decision to his viceroy, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) at Red Cliff, but at least that’s the title of the film, and at least that’s the star of the film, so hopefully we’ll stay put and won’t have so many new characters to memorize. Ah, no such luck. Even here we’re introduced to the he spunky younger sister of Sun Quan, Sun Shangxiang (Wei Zhao), an ex-pirate named Gan Xing (Shido Nakamura), and Xiao Qiao (Lin Shiling), the wife of Zhou Yu, who seems delicate and self-satisfied in that annoying way of Chinese cinematic heroines (pouring tea, practicing calligraphy), and who may be the real reason Cao Cao pushed for battle in the first place. Cao Cao saw her once when she was a child, and even then she was beautiful, but did he really engage his million-man army against these rebel provinces for her? And why is his name pronounced “Chao Cao” when it’s spelled “Cao Cao” in the subtitles? And why is Kong Ming listed on IMDb as “Zhuge Liang”? That’s not even close.
The movie didn’t need to be this much work. It clocks in at 2 1/2 hours but the original was twice as long, and released in two parts, over a six-month period, in Asia. Thus a lot of exposition has been removed, particularly, I assume, from the first battle, the Battle of Changban, with all of its peasants fleeing, etc. These cuts add to, rather than detract from, the confusion for western audiences. We’re introduced to too many characters too quickly, and not enough of it sticks.
I didn’t know I was watching a truncated version until after I’d watched it, and, of course, I immediately felt cheated—in the same way I felt cheated when I found out that the pre-“Sgt. Pepper” Beatles LPs I listened to in the states weren’t the same ones the Beatles produced and released for British audiences. At least there I knew enough to blame the greedy bastards at Capitol Records, but who to blame here? Summit Entertainment, the international distributor? Magnet Releasing, the genre arm of Magnolia Pictures, which was the U.S. distributor? Was it a western decision or an eastern decision? Or did the twain meet? Businessmen, after all, speak an international language. Worse, while cutting so much, they still added footage. That scene in the beginning where Cao Cao intimidates the Han Emperor? That’s for westerners. Its use of sudden, extreme close-ups, indicating extreme emotions, is right out of schlock 1970s-era Hong Kong cinema, and, initially, I assumed John Woo meant it as homage. But did he even direct this additional scene? Now everything is in question.
Despite all of that, “Red Cliff” is worth watching. It might even be worth seeing this bowdlerized version even if you plan on someday, somehow, seeing the uncut Asian version. The movie is truly epic.
Its story is as simple as any in Hollywood. A group of benevolent underdogs take on a corrupt, brutal establishment, and, against impossible odds (a 50,000-man army vs. a million-man army), win. And it’s true? No wonder they keep retelling it.
In fact, this is how popular the underdog story is: Even when they don’t need it, they use it. In the second battle of the film, in which Sun Shangxiang lures Cao Cao’s army into Kong Ming’s elaborately devised tortoise defense—where soldiers, hiding behind almost-man-sized shields, are placed in the pattern of an intricate tortoise shell, trapping and dispatching those lured inside—even here, rather than having the many (the good soldiers) slaughter the few (Cao Cao’s soldiers), the many stay in formation and let the superlative few—Zhang Fei, Gan Xing, Zhao Yun, Zhou Yu himself—take on dozens at a time. It’s tough letting go of the underdog motif.
As cool as these battle scenes are—and I particularly like Zhou Yu yanking an arrow from his shoulder, running at the horse-bound archer, and then spinning and plunging the same arrow into the back of the archer’s neck—my favorite moments in the film are how the two sides strategize. Woo cuts between the solitary general, Cao Cao, matching wits from afar with the group dynamic of, mostly, Kong Ming and Zhou Yu. Will Cao attack by land? What’s the best way to get 100,000 free arrows? Early on, Kong Ming dispatches Sun Shangxiang to spy for him and she sends back word, via pigeon, that Cao’s men are dying of typhoid...just as these dying or dead men are sent down the Yangtze, on rafts, by Cao, so that the peasants and soldiers on Kong Ming’s side will strip the bodies of valuables and catch typhoid themselves. Pretty smart. Cao is a worthy adversary. That’s part of the fun of the film. The typhoid epidemic even leads to the withdrawal of Liu Bei and his army. Meaning Sun Quan’s men were basically lured into a war and then abandoned. Meaning now the odds are worse. Meaning they’re even bigger underdogs than before. Let the final battle begin.
How many genres are included in this one movie? It’s obviously a war movie. It’s also a martial arts movie, since Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei, Gan Xing, and Zhou Yu are all masters. And don’t forget romance. Xiao Qiao is a kind of Helen of Troy here. She’s the face that launched a thousand CGI ships down the Yangtze River.
Weather plays a key role in each battle, and Kong Ming either reads weather well or controls it. To get 100,000 arrows, they need fog and they get fog. For the final battle, they need the winds to shift and the winds shift. They also need an elaborate tea ceremony, which is where Xiao Qiao, who turns up at Cao Cao’s camp at this key moment, comes in. She’s carrying Zhou Yu’s child, and one wonders if they will come to the same fate as Liu Bei’s wife and child at the beginning of the movie. Can both survive this time? Neither? Xiao Qiao has hinted that the child will be named Ping An, meaning “peace,” and so the question of their survival is also metaphoric. Will peace be born after the final battle?
Epics are tough to do (see “Pearl Harbor,” “Troy,” “Australia") but John Woo, whom Hollywood wasted, pulls it off spectacularly with his first Asian film in 15 years. He gives us a worthy melodrama, featuring interesting, boldly-drawn characters, on a wide and expansive canvas. The main characters aren’t dwarfed by the canvas and the canvas doesn't seem irrelevant because of our focus on the main characters. There’s balance between the two.
Here's an example of that balance. This is how Zhou Yu is introduced, and, to me, it rivals the great character introductions in movies. Before the two rebel armies have been unified, Kong Ming and Zhou Yu sit before Zhou Yu’s army, and the former watches them display, in that expert, martial-arts manner, this formation and that formation. “The goose formation,” Kong Ming whispers to a compatriot. “Unfortunately outdated.” He seems worried. Zhou Yu, whom we haven’t seen yet in full view, overhears his comment and seems annoyed. Nearby a boy plays a flute. Everyone stops and listens. Everyone is mesmerized. Everyone but Zhou Yu. His seat is now empty save for his goose-feather fan, and suddenly, quietly, he’s standing before the boy, holding out his hand. “Gei wo,” he says. (“Give it to me.”) The boy does. Then Zhou Yu takes out a knife...and carves a slightly bigger hole at one end of the flute and hands it back. The higher pitches were slightly off.
I would’ve liked more of this. Thankfully there is more.
- “Star Wars” Facebook status updates from collegehumor.com. The first one had me laughing out loud.
- The best reason to sneak popcorn into the movies isn't the price of theater popcorn. It's this.
- I haven't seen “Nine” yet, which opens this month, so can't comment on Jeffrey Wells' assertion that Marion Cotillard's acting, while fine, and perhaps deserving of the Oscar nom the producers of the film are pushing, is actually better in Michael Mann's “Public Enemies.” But his posting of this scene made me want to watch “Public Enemies” all over again. There's a frantic and frivolous quality to modern life, and Mann, by slowing the tempo of his films, by focusing on the essential—on the details of the details of the details, as Johnny Depp once said—actually relieves us for a time of this burden, of the unbearable lightness of being. He makes things matter. That aspect is in this scene and every scene. And that's part of why I want to see the movie again. The bigger reason is that some people caused a ruckus at the theater where I saw the film at the end of June and I ended up missing some of Cotillard's better moments. Wells is right right about this one, though. Man.
- Karl Rove is rich and famous but I wouldn't want to be him in a million years—and not just because he's a bald schlub. I just can't imagine living such a mendacious life. He helped ruin our country and now he's blaming others for the policies he helped create. Even thinking about it makes me want to take a shower. How awful to have to be him.
- For those who think Obama hasn't done anything in his first 10 months in office, I suggest reading Jacob Weisberg.
- Via Andrew Sullivan's site, Picasso's Guernica in 3-D.
- Finally, though it's a bit onanistic, here's my updated piece on how “The Wire” explains the world. Also why it's the coolest version of team-buidling on film. Indeed.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard