Tag Archives: movies

Captain Therapy

CaptainAmerica.jpgHeading to the car after seeing Captain America:

Me: Did you read Captain America?
R: No.
Me: Why not?
R: He didn’t have any superpowers or gadgets or anything. A shield, I guess…
Me: He does too: he’s almost bionic. And Batman didn’t have any powers.
R: Yeah, but he was dark and twisty.
Me: So his superpower was Most Fucked Up?
R: Yeah.

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Action Jackson

ateam_poster.jpgSince my early crush on Han Solo, I’ve always liked action movies and I haven’t gotten over it. What right-minded girl doesn’t wish she were dating Jason Bourne? He has everything: abs, mental illness, multiple passports. What’s not to love?

Yeah, sure, I went through a grandiose phase in my teens (Greystoke: Legend of Tarzan, anyone?) and I saw a serious lot of drama and tragedy and just all-out weird shit when I studied film in my twenties, but I think I settled out into the middle when I hit my thirties. Comedy, action, rom com, some documentaries and drama.

(I’m still puzzled at why I stopped watching the edgier films when I got together with R. Maybe it coincided with my getting happier. Or because it’s harder to talk to your boyfriend when you’re trying to read subtitles or follow a plot that involves more than a dodgeball.)

Here’s the weird bit though: after we had A. last spring, my tastes narrowed even more. R. and I used to go to the movies a lot pre-A., but when we started going out again, about two months after A. was born, we had to be choosier because we got out less often. So what did we see? The Losers. Then The A-Team (punctuated by me saying, “This is the best movie EVER,” repeatedly to an uncomprehending R. Apparently, there’s no making up for missing out on Dirk Benedict when you were a twelve-year-old girl.) Then Iron Man 2. More recently, Red. Unstoppable. Limitless. The Mechanic. (Statham = reliable awesomeness on a stick.) God help us, we even saw The Expendables which you could tell from the trailers was going to just flat out suck and totally lived up to that expectation.

What is going on??

I have a couple of theories, naturally.

  1. I’m trying to keep my adrenaline up to keep up with the baby. Although taking down an assassin with a book and an armoire in Tangiers does seem to require more aerobic exercise ahead of time and more specialized skills than bending over 175 times in a day to pick up a 22-pound weight and trying to aim a rubber spoon accurately between two windmilling arms. Or maybe not.
  2. I haven’t fully recovered from ten and a half months of interrupted sleep and only super-bright explosions can keep my attention. Mumbling French people have no chance. Ditto, angsty teens, worried lesbians, bickering couples, and men living alone. Especially with beaver puppets. Bring the fire power, people.
  3. I have exhausted my interpretive abilities trying to guess if our tot is hungry, thirsty, tired or reaching for a wall socket, one of her books, or the large glass container of sugar that has recently come within her reach in the lower kitchen cupboard (deadly, much less interesting and bodily harmful, respectively). I have nothing left to apply to complicated emotional situations involving very attractive people I don’t know and who seem to have really very nice lives off-screen from what I can tell in the four and a half seconds I have to read up on them in Us Magazine in the grocery check-out line while R. pays and the baby is momentarily distracted by a passing balloon or piece of lint.
  4. I have become shallow.

Or maybe it’s just a phase that will pass when Astrid gets a little older. Then I can start watching Bugs Bunny with her, which demonstrates far greater depth I’m sure than my umpteenth viewing of The Bourne Reluctancy. In the meanwhile, if you need me, I’ll be at the 8:10 showing of The Fast Five.

If you can’t beat ’em – and I definitely can’t: look at them for Pete’s sake – you might as well join ’em.

Oscars 2009 Best Moment

Apropos of nothing, my favorite moment in last month’s Oscars broadcast:

More Movies

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‘Member when I said I’d put out more movie lists this year? No. 2 coming your way. This is the list of eleven movies (yes eleven: this is a quirky list) you may very well have never heard of but which I quote regularly. See? You’ve been thinking I’ve been being a little free with the vodka when I yell out unrecognizable non-sequitor quotations, haven’t you? Well, you stand corrected. These aren’t classics or on any best lists but they’re excellent entertainment.

  1. Mumford,1999, Lawrence Kasdan (weird, right?) with lots of people you know. A comedy about a guy named Mumford pretending to be a therapist in a town called Mumford.
  2. Home Fries, 1998, Dean Parisot with Drew Barrymore, Luke Wilson and Catherine O’Hara (Best In Show? Anyone?) Incorrectly marketed as a romantic comedy when it’s actually a weird, cheerful black comedy about a knocked-up drive-through-window waitress, the misguided boy who falls in love with her, a military helicopter and a homicidal stepmother.
  3. Happy, Texas, 1999, Mark Illsley. Ex-cons passing themselves off as gay, kiddie-beauty-pageant coaches in small-town Texas. Where else can you find Jeremy Northam, Steve Zahn and William H. Macy all playing light in the loafers?
  4. The Imposters, 1998, Stanley Tucci. It’s on all my lists. Wanna-be actors in the 1920’s end up as stowaways on a cruise ship full of insane people.
  5. Addicted to Love, 1997, Griffin Dunne. Meg Ryan pre-lip-inflation with Matthew Broderick and Tchéky Karyo in a romantic revenge comedy. Imperfect but original. And funny.
  6. A Midwinter’s Tale or In the Bleak Midwinter, 1996, Kenneth Branagh. The most marginal on the list. It’s a slapstick, black and white faux documentary about a production of Hamlet patched together one Christmas. I think Branagh was using it as a workshop before he filmed his full-length Hamlet the next year. Some really excellent actors in it. (Fair warming: Might only be lovable by theaterphiles.)
  7. Hamlet, 1996, Kenneth Branagh. The only un-cut version on film, certainly the only one with serious production values. I imagine Branagh cashed in a lot of favors to get this made. No weird interpretations and thankfully missing the Olivier Oedipal hammer, just the entire play with (mostly) good actors. Brace yourself: 4 and a half hours. Yes, that is Jack Lemmon as one of the guards.
  8. Emma, the BBC version, 1997, Diarmuid Lawrence, with Kate Beckinsale before she went all Hollywood hottie and Mark Strong before he went all evildoer (which he’s very good at, I agree). The most true-to-the-text Emma out there. I should know.
  9. Something to Talk About, 1995, Lasse Hallström. Remarriage comedy with horses and sarcastic southern women (Julia Roberts, Kyra Sedgwick and Gena Rowlands in the role that made me want her to be my bad-ass mom). Also, the only movie in which I have ever liked Robert Duvall.
  10. Stranger Than Fiction, 2006, Marc Forster. Brilliant cast, potentially disastrous concept brilliantly executed. Very, very funny. And touching. But not in that creepy Hollywood way.
  11. Frost/Nixon, 2008, Ron Howard, with Michael Sheen and Frank Langella (and Oliver Platt – hooray!). I know: it’s Ron Howard, so maybe more than eleven people saw it. On the other hand, it was written as an un-filmable play by the excellent Peter Morgan, so maybe not. David Frost interviews Richard Nixon post-Watergate. (What is up with Michael Sheen being so good and still moonlighting as a campy vampire?)

The “Best” Films List

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It’s January and that means it’s time for lists. Lists of last year’s bests, the last decade’s bests (which shouldn’t come out until the end of the new year, right?), resolutions for next year and the next decade, lists of all the things I didn’t do over the holidays, lists of things I could do instead of all those things, lists of how to make better, more effective lists.

I like lists but they’re tricky. For instance, over the holidays, two people – a teenager and a septuagenarian – asked me to provide a list of the top ten movies they should have seen. Those lists can’t possibly be the same, can they? I majored in film (roughly) in college and have seen far more peculiar and probably a broader range of movies than most people really should. Also, I have strong opinions about “good” and “better” and the canon in general, so I would seem to be a solid candidate for generating lists of things, especially directive lists.

Sadly, not so.

I sink early: do you want a list of the absolute best movies? Because you probably won’t like a lot of them and then you might take it out on me later when I’m trying to have a nice cup of coffee with you and you’re bent on revenge because I made you watch that bit where the weird man cuts the girl’s eyeball with a razor blade. What you probably mean, when you ask for “the movies I should have seen” is “the movies you think I should have seen that you think I will like.” Which is, as I’m sure you know if you think about it for a second, a very different list.

Or maybe you mean a list of my favorite movies, which are certainly not the best movies ever made or ones which you might enjoy and, unless you’re my therapist, will probably just confuse you. Then I’d have to provide explanations with each one about why it made the list so you don’t think I’m a standard-less idiot for loving French Kiss but not The Godfather.

Any of the above will expose me to censure. If it’s a list for just you and I choose titles you don’t like, you may very well end up thinking I don’t know you at all. If it’s a list of my favorites, you may end up thinking you don’t know me at all. If it’s a list of best overall, you will either lose respect for me because I omit a film you worship or you will think I am a snob/deranged/unfeeling because I include things you have not seen and, after you have seen them, wildly dislike.

See? It’s kind of a lose-lose for me. (Also clear: I’m a little neurotic. Just a little.)

It’s a new year, however, and we’ll soon have a small child to imprint with good taste, so I’m going to have to buckle down, channel my inner Harold Bloom and commit to some kind of canon.

Let’s start with a set you’ll find hard to judge: I’ll list the top ten movies I can think of right now that I saw at exactly the right time and to which I have irrationally attached myself. I guess that makes this my Top Ten Favorite Movies list. Of course, I reserve all available rights to change my mind immediately when I think of other movies I like, my mood alters, the weather alters or whatever else alters, so don’t get all worked up if I left something off: it might make the revisions round.

  1. , Federico Fellini, 1963, with Marcello Mastroianni . Even after doing a frame by frame analysis of one of the scenes, on a VCR no less, I still loved it. See it some rainy Saturday afternoon: you’ll need daytime levels of focus and the time afterwards to have a nice dinner and calm down your crush on Mastroianni.
  2. The Grass Is Greener, Stanley Donan, 1960, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Flawed but hilarious and brilliantly written romantic comedy. An oddity really: starts with them already long-married + no melodrama around the infidelity (hers, no less).If it feels a little jagged and talky, it’s because it’s from a play – just go with it.
  3. French Kiss, Lawrence Kasdan, 1995, with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. Again with the excellent script. Again with the romantic comedy. Also again: not your usual path to the altar, thank God.
  4. The Imposters, 1998, Stanley Tucci with Oliver Platt, Stanley Tucci and 1000 other fantastic actors. You have to see this movie. Old-school clever, ridiculous, bizarre and possibly my all-time favorite movie. On the strength of this film, I will go see Stanley Tucci act in a dumpster for the rest of my life if I have to.
  5. Nobody’s Fool, 1994, Robert Benton, with Paul Newman. A near-perfect film, narratively speaking. No pyrotechnics, no groundbreaking cinematic techniques. It’s all story and acting. Cemented my hope that Newman would finally leave Joanne and marry me.
  6. Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997, George Armitage, with John Cusack and Minnie Driver, Dan Aykroyd and Joan Cusack. Whoever doesn’t want to attend your high school reunion, raise your hand. If I were an assassin, I’d go though. Really.
  7. Monsters, Inc., 2001, Peter Docter. I didn’t see an animated film until I was 23 but R has converted me to the cause. I keep this on my iPhone to watch when I’m so jetlagged I can’t sleep. Beautiful writing, fantastic story, amazing tech (watch the blue fur move in the air).
  8. The Philadelphia Story, 1940, George Cukor with Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart. You could watch it or come by and I’ll quote you the entire script. Your call. The classic romantic comedy to trump all others.
  9. My Blue Heaven, 1990, Herbert Ross, written by Nora Ephron, with Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, Joan Cusack. Not a masterpiece but definitely what the rest of Steve Martin’s films should have looked like. Quirk and laughs. Thank you, Nora Ephron.
  10. When Harry Met Sally, 1989, Rob Reiner, written by Nora Ephron, with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. It’s a little harder for me to love Meg and Nora and Billy these days as they’ve headed for schlockier waters, but this movie is a monument of romantic comedy. Can’t be helped: must be on the list.

See? I told you: you think there’s something wrong with me now, don’t you? No Star Wars on there. No Godfather or Ghandi or Lawrence of Arabia. Remember though that a.) I’m a writer, so James Cameron and George Lucas types irritate me, despite their strides for the industry, and b.) these are the movies that have been important to me, not the ones I think have been important for a large population or the general advancement of cinema. Those are different lists.

On that subject, A.O. Scott wrote up an excellent piece in November here. Click through to his Movies of Influence list and Movies of Quality list. He’s pretty on-track, with the exception of Shrek on the former (what the what?!) and Gosford Park (possibly the most boring movie ever) on the latter.

At the very least, none of the above will bore you. Movies are supposed to entertain, after all, right? Right. So enjoy. Maybe I’ll produce a ton of lists in 2010 and you can wake up each morning and sputter into your coffee as you read through my Top Ten Bedspreads and Top Twenty Picks for UN Ambassador to Paraguay. It’ll be fun.

9

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Just to be clear, I’m talking about 9, the movie about little burlap people making their way in a post-apocalyptic world of scary machines, not Nine, the movie about big-busted women making their way through Fellini’s anti-apocalyptic world of surreal parties. I can feel a burlap bachanal mash-up coming on when the latter gets released later this fall, but for now, we’re just going to chat about the former. A plot device of the latter to be specific. A plot device that drives me completely insane to be even more specific.

What plot device is that? The one where the “hero” does something unbelievably stupid that serves to set in motion a terrible string of consequences from which he (usually he) then “saves” the rest of the characters/the world for which he is then, in a mindbending perversion of cause and effect, rewarded. We, the gullible audience, are supposed to not only forgive him but embrace him because he has recognized his error and because he “makes up” for his stupid, stupid mistake.

There’s a category for that kind of incompetence in the business world: it’s called “grounds for dismissal” and, to my mind, it should be more liberally applied in the world of fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for personal growth, even in tiny people made of hessian, but it strains my sense of justice that the guy who, however accidentally, caused the death of more than half of the remaining population of the planet not only keeps his job but gets promoted and lives out his days as the sole male in a tiny harem of little cloth ladies. What the hell is up with that?

Mistakes happen, sure. People are flawed, absolutely. Regrettable but true. But I’d rather watch a plot driven by a more complicated confluence of events and, yes, mistakes, than a plot driven by someone tripping on their shoelaces and setting off an atomic bomb. Although, actually, that might be entertaining. Let me try again: someone playing with the fuse on an atomic bomb and then acting like it wasn’t his fault when it goes off ’cause he “didn’t know”, and then “saving” the remaining world and getting the girl.

What happened to the step where you pay your debt to society for killing a bunch of people and screwing everything up for everyone else because you couldn’t be bothered to stop and think in the first place? It’s like a little tiny Bush Administration and it makes me nuts.

It’s the age of Obama, little burlap dude: time to man up and accept responsibility for your actions. In the meantime, the smart ladies can be in charge. They’re the ones who were running the joint before you came along anyway. Plus they’re made out of cotton and have better hats, so case closed.

What He Said

“I’ve always believed that because you have access to people’s minds and communicate to people that there is a corresponding responsibility: the responsibility of being a good citizen and also recognizing that if you have the ablity to transfer ideas from one point to another that those ideas should cause no harm.”
Milton Glasser

This is exactly what I was getting at when I wrote about the upsetting irresponsibility of District 9. So there.

In the Loop

Simon: It’ll be easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Toby: No, it won’t. It’ll be difficult, difficult lemon DIFFICULT.

Take a note District 9: ditch the aliens, find a kick-ass script and a swearing Scotsman and you’ll get further with that whole ‘lessons learned from apartheid/war mongering/being jerks’ thing.

(You’re going to hear me saying “lemon difficult” a lot from now on. Just fair warning.)

District 9

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It’s a rare thing for me to walk out of a movie. I can only remember skipping out three times, which is saying something since I was a film student and had to sit through hundreds of screenings of marginal, odd and foreign films on top of the usual number of recreational trips to the cinema.

I dropped out of Unforgiven due to overwhelming boredom with massive male self-involvement. I’ve left A Streetcar Named Desire no less than five times. (It’s Marlon’s muttering. And the self-created southern drama. Maybe if I were southern it’d mean more. Or if I weren’t already busy with my own self-created northeastern drama.) I can’t remember the third one – I think it was something R and I went to by mistake so maybe it doesn’t count. Let’s drop Fame into that slot. My dad took us to that when we were little and ushered us out after the first blast of nudity. I don’t know what he thought we were going to see. Maybe an Andrew Carnegie documentary?

District 9 joined that motley crew on Thursday. I had a bad feeling going into it: I don’t particularly like sci-fi unless it’s ironic or big Hollywood, in which case it’s BYOI*. From what I read, District 9 also seemed like a tricky set-up: it’s filmed like a documentary, it’s meant to be an allegory, but really it’s an alien action flick. That sounded to me like trying to pass off aspic as Jell-O. The bright green food coloring you used made me think it was a low-cal American dessert but in fact it’s made from gelatinized meat and tastes like what you find at the bottom of a swamp. You gotta know I’m going to have an issue with that, and, lo and behold, I did.

In brief, the aliens arrive over Johannesburg but instead of being aggressive, they’re starving refugees. The South Africans set them up on the ground in – what else? – a refugee camp called District 9 which rapidly becomes a slum complete with little kid aliens digging through piles of garbage, alien-human violence and a lot of weapons-for-catfood bartering. (That last one doesn’t seem to be a hallmark of most slums I know about, but presumably it’s a marker for something less ridiculous like rice or heroin.)

A Blackwater stand-in is assigned to relocate the aliens to another camp and, in the process, one of the manager’s arms is injured and – Sigourney Weaver‘s tank top! – turns into an alien claw which is capable of firing the heretofore-aliens-only weapons the refugees brought with them. Hilarity ensues.

We didn’t leave because the plot was so heavy-handed but because of my issues with violence. It’s not just that I can’t stomach graphic violence, it’s that I have a moral objection to it. To my mind, the more realistic the violence you depict, the greater burden you assume for its effects. Fictionalizing human rights abuses is a messy business: you run the risk of making them less horrifying and more digestible because, “It’s just a story.” The shock value of real abuses – the photos from Abu Ghraib, for instance – is blunted when the public has been fed a no-consequence Hollywood diet of similar scenes. The non-fictional atrocities that happened in the slums outside Johannesburg during apartheid are, needless to say, diminished by projecting them onto subhuman, unsympathetic, catfood-eating aliens.

(Yes, Michael Bay and Co. have collectively killed far more henchmen and villagers and jungle-based mercenaries than Neill Blomkamp (District 9‘s director) has killed refugee aliens. I don’t love that ridiculous and clearly fictional violence either and it presents its own set of problems, namely, “Is exposure to ludicrous and improbable killings the first step toward dulling audiences’ senstivity to more realistic and disturbing material?” but as long as the general reaction to those movies’ liberties with the laws of reason and physics is, “No f’ing WAY!” I don’t think they pose as serious a threat of corruption as the face-to-face violence of films like District 9.)

District 9 has been promoted and reviewed as an allegory, a fiction of a non-fiction. Setting aside that I very much doubt that 90% of the largely young and male audience picked up on the connection to real events because of the vast gap between reality and fiction in this case, that form has a long and respectable history in the arts: if you can’t get the public’s attention with reporting and documentaries, try the multiplex. Fine. But in the same way that a biopic has a greater responsibility and a steeper climb because it’s depicting a real person, so too must a film about real events try its damndest not to glorify the worst elements of the story to reap greater box office rewards. Neill Blomkamp didn’t rise to that responsibility. As a result, District 9 is rife with stomach-turning violence that feels pointless instead of pointed. I didn’t need to stay for the second half of the film to endorse that failure.

So, in case you missed it, that’s a thumbs down from me.

*Bring Your Own Irony

Transformers: Revenge of the… never mind

I went to see the Transformers sequel the other night. I know. You don’t have to say it. I knew before I went that it was going to be terrible and yes, it was terrible, but, in my own defense, I was really tired and I wanted to get my hearing loss back on track.

I can’t seem to learn my lesson about going to action movie sequels. I think I must have seen The Empire Strikes Back when I was too young: the idea that the second movie in a series can be better than the first was imprinted on my impressionable little brain and now I’m doomed to a lifetime of “Son of…”, “…: The Return” and “…: Overkill.”

I am right there with the reviewer at the Guardian who said, “I found it at once loud and boring, like watching paint dry while getting hit over the head with a frying pan.” It was exactly like that. Two and a half incredibly loud hours of a way too complicated plot that, I hope, relied on some kind of source material from Hasbro or it’s even more inexcusable.

You would think, given that two and a half hours, Señor Bay and Co. could keep a grip on all those plot points and tie them up nicely with a motor-oil-soaked bow, but no. I explained to R several of the things that didn’t add up (not counting the induced deafness and Megan Fox’s lip inflation) and he looked at me with that face that said, “They’re trucks that turn into aliens with feelings. Really, you’re going to go there with the believability?”

Yes. I am. Because I am fine with suspension of disbelief. As long as the requested suspension is consistent and obeys the bounds of human logic, I can hover right there with ’em. If a monster shark, a flying house and innumerable conspiracy theories can be made into sympathetic movies, you can damn well make a sports car that talks through its radio feel like my new best friend.