My Michael Bay Apostasy

From Thompson on Hollywood:

Admittedly, peer pressure and summer rain are usually the only things that get me into the cinema for a Bay movie. In any other situation, my ten bucks seem better off devoted to getting ice cream, or paying someone on the street to yell in my face. On a fuzzy Sunday when all you want to do is lay on your couch, though, the films’ smooth, almost unconscious forward propulsion is satisfying, even soothing. No commitment is required to watch a Michael Bay film: they are the one-night stands of the cinema.

Take The Rock (1996), Bay’s inversion of the “escape from Alcatraz” model, in which Nic Cage and Sean Connery infiltrate the island prison to combat domestic terrorists threatening San Francisco with nerve gas. It’s a film I’m always delighted to find on cable. Because it’s so reliant on the geography of secret passageways and escape hatches, Bay limits his cutting to what’s necessary. Volume turned down a notch, it becomes a great cat-and-mouse game, heavy on suspense yet wryly written. Sneaking around to avoid detection, contained in small, dim spaces, Cage and Connery achieve a tense quiet, without trickery or forced technique...

I can’t say the same about Pearl Harbor, the exception that proves the rule. The purpose of the film, I suspect, is Bay’s self-conscious Spielberg moment, an interminable take on the 1941 attack that has none of the raw emotion and pure fear of the virtuosic opening to Saving Private Ryan. Pearl Harbor devotes about as much time, however, to the saccharine Ben Affleck - Josh Hartnett - Kate Beckinsale love triangle, which as both narrative convention and character arc is a sorry excuse for romance. Watching Pearl Harbor, I was reminded that television and a hangover can hide a general lack of taste that seems glaring on the big screen. As for Bay telling a good love story? I may have to start drinking again to make that one fly.


Funny Girl(s)

I take on the question of women in comedy — and why they're undergoing a resurgence the last few years — in today's column for TOH:

Sure, Fey’s impression takes advantage of certain facts not of her doing — her resemblance to Sarah Palin, the fact that the candidate was already prominent in the zeitgeist. The reason why it works not only as adept mimicry but also as political satire, however, speaks to the ways in which women are mining a new vein of humor that appeals to anyone, male or female, burnt out on bland romantic comedies and wayward slackers. Fey, unafraid of cutting to the quick, displays a glimmer of empathy, too; there’s a subtle-yet-raw vulnerability to her Palin impersonation that takes it beyond the realm of caricature.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking here about “women are weak” vulnerability, which is a sham idea anyway. I mean that this is full-blooded comedy, reliant not only on audacity but also on the recognition that part of what’s funny about people is their propensity to fail miserably and find a way to get up smiling...

The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, among other sharp comedies of the last decade, did the same thing for those of us stuck between comfortable stoner-dom and the “real” world, but the premise is no longer current, the subgenre nowhere near fresh (witness the full-frontal dreadfulness of The Hangover: Part II). But the vein of vulnerability I’m talking about isn’t a woman thing, though they’re the performers who’ve capitalized on it most. It has broader appeal: it’s a human thing, a darkly funny reminder that we’ve created this monster of a troubled world...

But the delicate balance of pathos and penis humor in New Girl, easily the best in this new crop, suggests how America’s funniest women are facing vulnerability with a candor that puts most of the guys to shame.

Actually, I think the gents are coming around to what the women have already discovered. Last I heard, the best-reviewed comedy of the season was a little picture spawned from the Apatow stable—but independent of him—called 50/50. A cancer comedy, huh. Isn’t Laura Linney already making one of those?


The Making of a "Classic"

This one is sure to get the Tarantino crowd up in arms, but I stand by my assessments in today's "Now and Then" at Thompson on Hollywood: Citizen Kane is unthinkingly crowned the "best film of all time" every year, as if by rote, which forces us to forget its flaws; Pulp Fiction is a cold, clinical exercise when you get down to the bones of it. A real classic needs a soul. More excerpts:

In so many ways, though, Kane represents our ideal of film as art: the obsessive vision of a singular auteur, the technical inventiveness, the enduring themes, the epic scope. What is not often discussed is the flip side of this. As Pauline Kael argued aggressively, Kane owes just as much to screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) used deep focus with more vigor, animating the upstairs-downstairs chaos of a hunting party. The themes lack enough nuance (“Rosebud…”) to be easy targets of parody, and the film’s sheer size is unwieldy.

I won’t deny that there are moments in Pulp Fiction that continue to thrill me, on what must be my sixth or seventh viewing. (The drug-addled nostalgia-trip freak-out of Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and the strange illicitness of Thurman and Travolta dancing there, is evidence of just how striking Tarantino’s visuals can be.) But to elevate it to the level of “masterpiece,” as any number of critics have done, neglects that ways in which the world of Pulp Fiction, however cleverly constructed, is essentially a hollow one. The film’s circular structure has always seemed emblematic of this emptiness: around we go, trapped in a closed loop of pretty pictures that inevitably brings us back to where we’ve been.

 A “great” or “classic” movie needn’t be self-serious or tepidly highbrow (pretty much anything by Hitchcock in the Fifties or Sixties will do to illustrate the point), but it does need soul. The pastiche of Pulp Fiction, a mashup of pre-existing material with a dash of S&M and a heavy helping of irony, is more snarky than soulful. At times it feels mannered, an exercise in hip B-movie obscurity street cred that misses out on all the ways in which movies connect to us on an emotional level. You can adore Samuel L. Jackson talking about French cheeseburgers, and I do, but I’m not sure you can get any more out of it than a wry laugh — this isn’t exactly empathetic filmmaking. Sound and fury can be fun, but sometimes they signify nothing.


The Day After

From my piece on trends in American cinema since 9/11, at TOH:

The westerns of the past decade can’t ignore the killing either: they are, if nothing else, about innocence lost, and their resurgence speaks to how we have attempted to deal with the world to which we woke on September 12, 2001. Whether set in the recent or distant past, each grapples with how democracy and capitalism function on frontiers. More vitally, they imply that democracy’s finest feature is that it protects the ability to criticize, argue, question, be heard. They show us that we may falter in trying to make good on this promise, but that there still remains some valor in the trying.

The best film about 9/11 treated the fateful day with stirring immediacy: United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006) captures the organic, natural bravery that we can muster at our best, even in a dark hour. It is a frightening, draining film — I remember seeing it on opening weekend and feeling as though the wind had been knocked out me — but it’s also a fitting memorial to all the people that day who showed the utmost courage in the face of a scary new world.

In the past decade, I suppose, the cinema has matched this broader world, trying to balance its critique of where we’ve gone awry with a depiction of what can happen when we follow our better angels. United 93, for its part, is entirely about the latter, and rightfully so. Reading about the 40 heroes of United 93 this week, the most poignant aspect for me was how their courage came about. It wasn’t formal or planned, but they voted to change the course of events. There’s still something to be learned from that, ten years into what came after. 


Why The Help Remains the Most Successful Movie in America

Of course, I write about The Help and I get more response from readers than ever. This in itself says something about how it has broken the barrier from niche to mainstream — in an era when "water cooler" talk has nothing to do with an actual water cooler, and most of it takes place in narrowly defined digital spaces, The Help is being talked about across subgroups. To quickly address the two main criticisms of the piece:

1) Yes, The Help is going strong because there's so much crap out there (my reference to "prefab horror franchises and stale comedies"), but it's more than that. One of the reasons why blockbusters have become more rare is the oft-cited notion that there's too much entertainment out there for people to experience. It's a cliche, but from an anecdotal perspective of my friends and colleagues, going to the cinema is reserved for especially intriguing films, when time allows; the rest of filmgoing is done on Netflix or iTunes. So what about The Help — which, I might add, is not stylistically reliant on the big screen to work —is drawing people to the theatre itself? I think it's the amount, and power, of feeling that it evinces.

2) Just to clarify, I'm not saying that women will go see anything with a woman in it. I'm saying that the claim (about Bridesmaids, Sex and the City and now The Help) that each "proves" women can carry a movie disrespectfully implies such a view. Women are a lot smarter than that. But it's an easy way to continue to ghettoize women-centered cinema as a blip on the radar, rather than an audience (not limited to women, I might add), desperate for adult fare and rarely given any to chew on. The Help is, for all its flaws, a vital exception.  
To give you a taste, here's my piece over at Thompson on Hollywood yesterday:

Based on my own unscientific sample — one screening at one cinema in one city — women are only part of The Help’s box office triumph. The theatre I attended in New Orleans was equally divided, by my rough head count, between men and women; the crowd skewed older than, say, Colombiana, with Zoe Saldana as a female lead, but it wasn’t ladies who lunch. What’s happening here, I think, is not unlike the rise in gold prices. When the economy’s in the tank, investors flee for the stability of gold; when the weekend’s offerings at the multiplex are prefab horror franchises and stale comedies, filmgoers flee to adult fare. Neither choice is a particularly risky one, and you may not win big, but you’re just as unlikely to lose.

A lot of ink has been spilled over The Help: arguments about its politics, femininity, historical accuracy. But the real issue, if we’re talking about its success, is not Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) deciding to write a book from the perspective of local maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) in 1960s Jackson, Miss. Because The Help may be grossly oversimplified, cheaply emotional, messy, melodramatic, and overlong. But it’s also rousing, uproarious, fiercely felt and acted within an inch of its life by some of the most talented actresses today. Nearly every one is believable, complicated, finely balanced. The cast provides an impressive display of emotional range in a part of the year when movies are usually drained of every drop. Bryce Dallas Howard, as the villainous Hilly Holbrook, pushes right up to monstrosity and then pulls back with a veil of tears — what starts off a bit too broad narrows until she’s just a woman, embittered and humiliated, unable to get what she wants. Jessica Chastain gives a brave tragicomic performance as the lonely, ditzy wife of a local heir, vacillating between bubbly and distraught. 

The one that lingers longest, though, is the magnificent Viola Davis, roiling and raw. As Aibileen Clark, the first maid to agree to speak with Skeeter, she steals the movie from the opening minute. “How does it feel to take care of white children all day when your own are being looked after by someone else?” Skeeter asks. Davis conveys her near-incapacitating pain at having to respond with just the pace of her breathing and the gaze of her eye. “It feels…” she trails off. The Help, just as it’s getting underway, answers my earlier question. Why has it become so popular, despite its imperfections and the conventional wisdom that people don’t go to see things like this anymore? Because it feels. When it comes to movies, sometimes that’s all you ask.


Love Hurts

My review of the indie drama Littlerock, which opens in L.A. today, reposted from TOH:

You could say that I had an on-again, off-again relationship with Littlerock (trailer below). Impressive yet exasperating, Mike Ott’s film about two Japanese tourists stranded in a California hamlet seduces, cheats, and comes halfway back to reconciliation, which is just another way of saying love hurts. And love it I did, at least at first. The camerawork is sensual and assured, whether capturing the low glimmer of fairy lights at a backyard kegger or a field of crispy, amber grass at dusk. While it’s just a slip of a film, more impression than narrative, the impression smacks of nostalgia — it’s a sweet reminder of afternoons drinking beer from brown bags and throwing rocks in abandoned lots.

The tourists, siblings named Atsuko and Rintaro (Atsuko Okatsuka and Rintaro Sawamoto), have wandered into town to wait for their broken-down rental car to be replaced. Speaking little English, they are taken under wing by a wannabe model and actor, Cory (Cory Zacharia), and in the pleasant minor adventures that follow, Littlerock exudes a low-key confidence that won me over. 

(I was spurned.)

Even for a film that does youthful dallying well, Littlerock has an unfortunate lack of focus. Just as Atsuko discovers an ability to disarm the young men around her — angering Rintaro, who drives on to the next destination without her — the film drowns her with extraneous material. Characters emerge and drift away; throwaway lines, like Cory’s father’s suggestion that he go turn tricks with the “pretty boys” on the Sunset Strip, make dark allusions that float off unexamined. Potential subplots, such as a stale one involving money Cory owes to a pair of local drug pushers, never gel. In this dreary middle section, Atsuko becomes a foil for Cory’s painful earnestness, which Zacharia plays with contorted face and high voice. “Would you rather kiss Jordan than me?” he whines. “I’m telling you how I feel, and it’s like you don’t even care!” The film’s weakest link, he never convinces as either loyal friend or potential love interest — against Atsuko’s grace, Cory’s just a brat.

When Rintaro returns and tells his sister it’s time to get the show on the road, it’s a relief. As Atsuko walks her bike along a dirt path in the gloaming, teary eyes catching the last light, Littlerock rekindles somewhat, but the momentum’s already gone. She’s crying over the aforementioned Jordan, who earlier gave her a mixtape titled “Limerence.” I looked it up, thinking I’d find some hip band I’d never heard of, but it turns out limerence is a psychological term. It refers to the overwhelming need to have one’s feelings reciprocated by those with whom we fall in love. I guess Littlerock had me feeling a little limerent myself: I wanted so much for it to be as good as it promised, but in the end I was left holding the bag. 


The Rules of the Game

Excerpts from my review of two stellar sports movies, today in "Now and Then," at Thompson on Hollywood:

With a homey, lived-in style and a strong command of performance, [Tom McCarthy's] three films behind the camera (the other two are The Station Agent and The Visitor) capture the particular anxiety of suburban life. And though he’s never lost his sense of humor, McCarthy’s progression from oddball character study to fully conceived narrative has displayed an impressive engagement with real people and real worries. Win Win only amplifies the trend: without quite meaning to, McCarthy has emerged as a master of middle-American quiet...

Unassumingly, the film builds to a clever understanding of recession-era blues: it’s hard to do what’s right when the spoils seem to go to those who don’t. As Terry says when Kyle gets disqualified from the big match, “We were right there, Mike. Right fuckin’ there. Now we got nothin’.” Nothin’ is something, though, if it means treating people with decency, a value at the heart of McCarthy’s style. Kyle wins his matches with a move the team calls “Whatever the Fuck It Takes,” but what wins in wrestling — pinning the opponent, crushing him, whatever the fuck it takes — is not always what wins in life.

It’s because of [its] glimpses outside the lines that I respond to Hoop Dreams, and why it upsets me, too. Not every kid from a bad school in a rough neighborhood can play hoops or throw touchdowns; though the non-athletes may be equally talented, intelligent, witty, and hard working, it just so happens that their area of expertise is something less valued in this country than being able to make a lay-up or a jump shot. Says a guidance counselor at the public high school to which Agee transfers, the system “doesn’t make sense”: “Once [private school students] walk in those doors, they expect to get their diploma and go to college…Whereas our students, to get out high school, for a lot of them, it’s an accomplishment.”

Despite its greatness, Hoop Dreams only alludes to the fact that for too many, life isn’t about hoops at all. It’s wholly about dreams — dreams deferred, denied, fulfilled, forgotten. It would be unfair to expect a film to do anything other than what it’s trying to do, but this documentary gets so close to the issue that not addressing it more fully seems a cop-out. So we’re back to question of whatever the fuck it takes, which in sport might be the right pin or the right three-pointer at the right moment. But in the question of what’s right, of what’s just, I’d like to think it takes something else entirely.


Lost in Translation

From my review of Semper Fi: Always Faithful, at TOH:

Semper Fi: Always Faithful, Rachel Liebert and Tony Hardmon’s affecting if imperfect exposé of water contamination at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, takes its title from what the Corps website calls “more than a motto — a way of life.” Some life. From 1957 to 1987, the USMC exposed nearly one million people to toxic cleaning agents in Camp Lejeune’s drinking water. Then the Corps tried to cover it up...

Juxtaposed with the canned statements of USMC representatives, these tales gather to them an undeniable power; such stories give average citizens a voice. “We are not numbers in a study,” says a woman whose newborn son died to a public hearing of the National Academy of Sciences. “We are human beings in a great tragedy.”

The human quotient overcomes the film’s flaws, because the personal histories, such as McCall’s, belie the central meaning of semper fidelis — that we’re all in this together. Her unnecessary death from cancer, in the middle of filming, shows just how cavalierly the Marine Corps neglected its supposed way of life, all while she, Ensminger, and countless others upheld their end of the bargain. Watching Semper Fi , I was reminded of another soldier and another Latin phrase, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori . “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.” The poet Wilfred Owen, writing during World War I, called it “the old lie,” and he was right. It is a lie, especially when your country is what kills you. 


The Belly of the Beast

I’m a little late to the Winter’s Bone bandwagon, certainly too late for my ringing endorsement of Debra Granik’s sharply observed indie drama to count for much. But that said, if you are reading this and have not seen the film, stop at the end of this sentence and go watch it: you can come back to me later. 

Set in the grim far reaches of the Missouri Ozarks, the gray hills buttressed with crumbling lean-tos and burned-out trailers, Winter’s Bone is a terrifying portrait of the American underbelly. Ree Dolly (Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old with an invalid mother and two young siblings, knows her way around guns and squirrel guts. She’s the family caretaker, and, it turns out, the muscle — when the law comes around looking for her meth-cooking father, she’s the one who goes searching for him. He’s put up the house as bond collateral, and if he doesn’t show up in court, Ree and the rest of them will be forced to leave.

Without flagging, what follows is an ingenious mixture of mystery and case study, peopled by mean, crazy fucks ever poised at their thresholds, waiting for trouble to arrive. As Ree digs deeper, her already closed-off world tightens; most of those she visits are at least distant relations, but the thickness of blood can trap as easily as it can free. The movie is shot in dusky, dirty hues that are less color than it’s negation. Where there is a spot of brightness, it comes almost as a shock — a yellow garden hose lays coiled on the cold ground like a snake.

Everything about the film works, enveloping you in this dim world even as it worries. But what anchors it, what gives it the necessary spark, is Lawrence. It’s a career-making performance, hard-nosed yet nuanced, glowering but kind. She has a soft, round face and steely eyes, which pretty much sums up Ree’s dual existence. I’ve rarely rooted for a heroine harder, and when she finally breaks down, in a creaky rowboat gutted by the sound of her wails, it almost comes as a relief. “Never ask for what oughta be offered,” Ree tells her little brother early on — but don’t be afraid to demand it, she seems to suggest. And then she does just that.


This Kind of Movie

“Can I tell you something that’s going to make you livid?” my roommate said as the score swelled. “I hate this kind of movie.”

He’s right on both counts: Rebecca is not for everyone — it’s old-fashioned, melodramatic, inconsistent, formalist. Yet the suggestion that the 1940 Best Picture winner is anything less than a classic tends to piss me off...

The real relationship is the fearsome triangle of our heroine, Rebecca, and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Played by Judith Anderson as though channeling Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Danvers is an indelible villain — just try not to get the creeps as she shows the shaking Fontaine Rebecca’s mausoleum of a bedroom, brushing the girl’s face with an old fur and lovingly patting the dead woman’s underwear. 

From here the two face off in a thrilling psychological battle. The new bride directs the housekeeper to dump Rebecca’s old crap (“I am Mrs. de Winter now,” she says); Danvers exacts retribution by tricking her prey into a dress matching one Rebecca wore. The sight sends Max into a rage and Fontaine into gag-sobs, which Danvers capitalizes on by opening the window and hissing out what amounts to a witch’s spell, capturing Fontaine in a trance: “You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?” If Rebecca , eccentric and exciting, is “this kind of movie,” that’s fine by me: like Mrs. Danvers’ chilly whisper, it’s almost a form of magic.

Though less fantastical, Jane Eyre is still a tough nut to crack. Twenty or so screen adaptations precede Cary Fukunaga’s stab at Charlotte Brontë’s heroine. But with talented Mia Wasikowska in the lead, he captures Eyre’s balance of propriety and vigor...

This is, as you might expect, a difficult book to film, what with the terrible childhood and the potential mistress and the harsh secrets. What Fukunaga does well — sexual tension, misty moor-scapes, shadow houses where flames hide from darkness — he does impeccably. Certain of the other elements, like the wan interlude with St. John Rivers (boring!), seem shoved into what’s left, there to get us from Point A to Point B. What tips the balance is Wasikowska as Jane, fierce but never vicious, staring down a mean life and making something of it. She is not a “machine without feelings,” as she says in her most powerful monologue — she’s a force to be reckoned with, and Jane Eyre is all the better for it.

Excerpted from today's "Now and Then" column, now posted at Thompson on Hollywood.


Fighting Words

I review two new independent documentaries today at Thompson on Hollywood, excerpted here:

Following community members who stand up against the flashy new development, Battle for Brooklyn emerges as a truly great work of advocacy journalism. It amasses maps, interviews, archival footage, voiceovers, renderings, and still photographs to expose an issue and bring it forcefully to life.

“I’m not much of a patriot, but it’s un-American,” says face of the opposition Daniel Goldstein (pictured above), who lives in the area to be razed, about the way in which corporate greed has superseded individual rights. But then he corrects himself: “No, maybe it is American. What [Ratner’s] doing, it seems to be the American way.” And for all the catcalling and flaring tempers, the claims and counterclaims of flyers, conferences, church meetings, and press releases, the film captures a valiant effort to take back “the American way” and make it what it should be. Whatever side you’re on, whatever the outcome when the project is finally complete, it’s inspiring to see Americans put a lie to the suggestion that they are apathetic, self-obsessed, greedy, fat, and stupid. Watching Battle for Brooklyn, my only wish was that I could say the same thing about the politicians who run the place.

At the far end of cracked roads and heat haze, parched earth and low-slung vegetation, Darwin is a paradox — a town whose inhabitants hide from the past (deaths, disagreements, divorces, drugs) as though it were a monster, and in which the past is omnipresent. Brandestini’s film is not unsympathetic, but for that its candor is all the more chilling. The wind chimes tinkle incessantly, as though haunted, and the unending horizon begins to feel like a trap. “That’s one thing we don’t talk about too much,” Monty tells us, referring to the reasons people stay in Darwin: we like our secrets around here, and don’t you forget it.

It would be easy to say that Darwin doesn’t amount to much — it’s not a narrative so much as a group portrait. Some formal touches, like an awkward coupling of slow motion and voiceover, are awful enough to wake you from reverie. But generally the style of the film serves the place well. In Darwin, the same stories are told, the same grudges held, by the same people who’ve been telling and holding them all along. This is a town, still, of gunslingers and water board bickerers, of hippies, and artists, drifters and drinkers, grandstanders, prophets, addicts. Monty’s shirt is on to something: Darwin really is a Wild West, always about to become a ghost town. From what I could tell watching Darwin, it already is. 


Brave Bitch

Build a swimming pool. That’s what Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) does when she learns her melanoma is terminal in the pilot of The Big C, Showtime’s offbeat cancer comedy now in its second season. Oh, she also kicks her husband (Oliver Platt) out of the house, befriends a brassy, foul-mouthed teen (Gabourey Sidibe), and fucks a hot painter (Idris Elba) from the school where she teaches. Repeatedly.

We’ve been here before: protagonist, knowing death is imminent, grabs life by the reins. At first glance, what makes The Big C different are its two main conceits — one, that Cathy decides to keep her illness secret, and two, that each season of the series corresponds to a season of the year, starting with summer. The former adds a certain element of intrigue as the series finds its footing, then grows tiresome. It’s a blank check for Cathy to act bizarrely, and there’s good fun to be had in some of her hijinks, but eventually the overdone quirkiness adds up to little more than a few funny set pieces. (It doesn’t help that the weirdos of Cathy’s lacuna spend so much time seeming like they’re forcing it.)

It turns out that the latter conceit, which ingrains The Big C with a certain unexpected patience, is the key to the series’ growing appeal. Once Cathy gives up the ruse, Linney’s expert ability to capture strength and pain in the same line starts to soar. When she irks the parents of the girls’ swim team she coaches in season 2 by kicking their helicoptering asses out of practice, they hold a meeting to have her fired. One of the moms calls her a bitch, and Cathy, referring to a the words on a shirt she wore to get through chemo, says, “That’s right. I’m a brave bitch!” In this moment Linney is at once frightened and forceful, vulnerable and vigorous — her slight shake could be nerves or anger, and is probably both. There is nary a more likable, flawed, human character in any situational comedy on TV right now, and she alone would be reason enough to start watching.

But it just so happens that when the writing allows Linney to up the ante, her rising tide lifts all boats. Paul, once mincing and whiny, becomes valiant but frustrated; Andrea opens up without losing sass. And Cathy’s son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), heretofore a snippy brat, gets to show why The Big C is really different, a brave bitch of a comedy that unleashes a hell of a lot of smart quips but sneaks in a hell of a lot of real feeling, too. In the season 1 finale, Adam discovers the storage unit Cathy has filled with the gifts she won’t be able to give him, the souvenirs she wants him to remember her by. His tears flow so fast and hard they could fill that swimming pool, and in a single moment The Big C has become something much more than it initially promised. This isn’t a cancer comedy. It’s a survivor’s handbook.  


Grifter with a Heart of Gold

They say sex sells, but it never flew off the shelves quite like it did in the heyday of the studio system. Back then a guy didn’t need a six-pack to get us melting, though it didn’t hurt — just try to resist the swaggering muscularity of Brando, busting out of that white T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). What the stars had then was energy, suavity, glamour. Clark Gable drove us mad with the glint in his eye. Errol Flynn swashbuckled his way into our hearts, while Cary Grant smooth-talked his way into our dreams.

Humphrey Bogart was not this type of star.

Even in his early days playing second-tier gangsters in movies like The Roaring Twenties (1939), his face was slightly drawn, his voice as gritty as a gravel trap. Though he was the son of a New York surgeon, an attendee of Andover and Yale, he exuded blue-collar gruffness. Maybe it was just a mark of his talent, but I watch his unsavory trucker in They Drive By Night (1940) and see a city tough who made it to the big-time through guile. Dropping the “r” or the “g” off every other word, he steals Raoul Walsh’s classic noir from right under George Raft’s nose. When he grabs a shady compatriot by the collar, demanding the $300 he feels he’s owed, Bogart’s slim frame effortlessly mixes trickery and strength — he’s an actor whose unscrupulous means and moral ends are not contradictory but fitting.

Read the rest of my column on TCM's Bogart retrospective at TOH! And catch a more in-depth look at The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in my 2009 piece at The Filmgoer. 


The Kids Are Both Right

The “all right” part of The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010) obviously means that Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), the kids in question, are safe and sound. But there may be an alternate meaning. I first saw this funny, heartfelt story of a lesbian couple, their children, and their sperm donor with my parents and little sister. This made the already ungainly and uncomfortable sex scenes even more awkward, but it also reminded me that for all the wisdom parents impart to their offspring, the old dogs can learn new tricks from us, too. My parents, for instance, would never have bought the movie OnDemand if I hadn’t been pining to see it (and known how to work the OnDemand).

I think that’s why I’ve long wondered whether the title has an alternate meaning, that the kids are all (as in both) right because they’re correct. Better than their mothers, Joni and Laser understand that, in a family, space and proximity are always performing a tenuous two-step, recalibrating the balance. Nic (Annete Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) oscillate between extremes of closeness and distance, with the kids as with each other. One moment they’re smothering, the next they’re leaning away — jumping forward and back but ultimately going nowhere, like a car spinning its wheels.

Moore was underrated here. After so many repressed housewives, the languid, drifting Jules is a strong example of playing against type — when she embarks on an affair with the sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo, looking just like his name sounds), it honestly feels like someone stumbling into something she didn’t expect, and for which she doesn’t understand the consequences. But it’s Bening, hair shorn almost as short as Nic’s fuse, who elicits our memories of unrequited longing. Trying to warm up to Paul by discussing his love of Joni Mitchell, she strains out a dinner-table rendition of “All I Want” that captures just how beautifully The Kids Are All Right matches Joni and Laser’s sense of balance. Poised perfectly on the line between comedy and drama, Bening sings off-key: “Do you see — do you see — do you see how you hurt me baby / So I hurt you too / Then we both get so blue.”

Retreating to the bathroom moments later, she discovers the affair on the end of a hairbrush, and when she returns to the table it’s a moment of quiet revelation. How easily we adults forget what kids know instinctively, and the work we have to do to remember once more.

Mean Streets

The nastiest, meanest, toughest brawl in The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) doesn’t take place in a boxing ring. It’s the knockdown, drag-out, hair-pulling, nose-breaking front porch melee between Mickey Ward’s girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), and the women of his family — seven sisters and their mother, the leathery, foul-mouthed Alice Ward (Melissa Leo). This is no erotic mud wrestling or pillow fighting. This is Mean Streets with a bouffant hairdo, Lowell, Mass. circa 1993. Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) has to carry Charlene off squirming so she doesn’t get picked to the bone.

Lived-in moments like this, especially in the treacly genre of Cinderella sports movies, are a rare thing indeed. The Fighter does fall victim to some of the old tropes — its “true life” depiction of Ward, perennial underdog, misses his epic trilogy of fights against Arturo Gatti in service of a simpler story. Yet, Russell provides a focused, honest depiction of a city and a family stuck somewhere before their respective revivals. He’s willing to risk showing what’s most unsavory. Micky’s coach and brother, Dicky (an electric Christian Bale), is wiry and strung-out, a crackhead on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Alice, though she may mean well, is vindictive and venomous, snaking about looking to throw a jab.

Bale and Leo, both Oscar winners for their roles, pull off their tasks with panache; by the end of the film Dicky and Alice seem all-too-human victims of a world that’s dealt them, like the city they live in, a pretty crummy hand. The Fighter luxuriates in this loose, easy texture, lingering in smoky bars and crowded living rooms like a neighborhood sipping a High Life. That’s it’s real genius, getting just right the confluence of time and place, fashion and foibles, that created, even loved, “Irish” Mickey Ward. The climactic fight scene is great. Don’t get me wrong. But in the annals of great boxing movies — Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby come to mind — it’s what goes on outside the confines of the ring that matters. That’s where the most blood is drawn, and where the bandages eventually come off. 


Scar Tissue

Lovely & Amazing, writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s sophomore film, is exactly what its title promises. Set in the same liberal, artsy, affluent world of her two most recent films, Friends with Money and Please Give, it floats along delicately; the first act in particular is measured, slow even. Brenda Blethyn is Jane, prepping for liposuction and flirting with her doctor as her three daughters — Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), a struggling actress, Michelle (Catherine Keener), an unhappy artist, and Annie (Raven Goodwin), a mischievous tween adopted from a crack addict — fail to find direction. One might complain, and not without merit, that the plot lacks about as much drive as the women in question. But to some extent this misses the point: Lovely & Amazing is a story about people without a narrative, sleeping around and lashing out, looking for work and lacking companionship.

The stellar cast is what helps the movie find its voice. Mortimer’s Elizabeth begins slight and submissive, nearly transparent. Then, thrust into the role of caregiver when there are complications to her mother’s surgery, she becomes wryly assertive, keeping her family in orbit as everything goes awry. Keener, for her part, takes the deeply unlikable Michelle, mean-spirited and caustic, and lends her an undercurrent of daring fragility. The film’s threads come together in a roadside McDonald’s, of all places: Annie, tossed about by her immature family, tries to escape there, while Michelle stops in to watch her life fall apart. Their conversation, like the rest of the movie, is all implication and innuendo, but it’s possible to read between the lines and witness a family facing its literal and figurative scars. By the time Annie finishes her milkshake, the movie, like an apparition, is already beginning to dissolve. But it’s easy to want to spend more time with these lovely, amazing women, if only to watch how they heal.    

No Magnetic North

My other piece in this issue of Bright Lights is on Aaron Sorkin's "moral compass," specifically focusing on The American President, Sports Night, The West Wing, and The Social Network:

Note the sheer volume of strung-together words, especially in contrast with the deluge of one-liners that preceded them. Note the admission that "being President of this country is entirely about character." Note the quiver of facts and figures so readily deployed, the logical argument mitigated by the tenacity of the moral suasion. Note the long sentences, the pounding cadences, the focused repetitions. (Note, too, that this is my style of writing as well, and either forgive me or not. But you understand by now the thing we dislike most in others is always that which we dislike most in ourselves.) Note how late each monologue falls in the narrative, climax and denouement at once. Note the way each monologue ends with a throwaway line, a closing off of the potential response: hope you enjoyed the chicken, back to the briefing, I am the President, away we go. For in the final estimation we never get mere answers from these idealists, these ideologues. We get what Sorkin considers the Truth. That he thinks we can't really handle it is clear, because we have to take it in one gasping gulp, with no time left to digest. The Great Monologue always moves on before any other voice can be heard, and then we fade to black.

It is all too easy, if you are a good Sorkinian liberal like myself, to agree unthinkingly to all of this. Easy to let conloquor slip past in favor of the part where we are meant to listen and to learn. In fact, I agree on the merits. I believe it is wrong to support subsidies that make it harder for the poor and more profitable for agribusiness. I believe no crime was ever prevented by making it easier to get a gun. I believe that the ACLU should defend the Bill of Rights even when it is used by homophobic lunatics protesting at military funerals. I believe in limiting global warming, in the right to burn a flag, in the need for honest debate instead of ad hominem attacks. In other words I believe, or would like to believe, in Aaron Sorkin's America. I just don't believe The Great Monologue is any different from the moralizing of Bill O'Reilly or Michelle Bachmann. I just don't believe that he "raise[s] the level of public debate in this country."
You understand by now that the thing Sorkin dislikes most in others — his bête noire, hypocrisy — is the thing he most dislikes in himself.

The Horror, the Horror

An excerpt from my essay on body politics in documentary film essays in the latest Bright Lights:

The essay, on film as on paper, creates its argument from the fabric of the person writing it, such that the subjectivity of the essayistic investigation becomes an integral part of our belief in its essential truth (as opposed to Truth). Like Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's investigation of French life at the dawn of the 1960s, these films attempt to order or narrate our world's complexity, and seem all the more genuine for honestly admitting that they are just one possible organization of the same information. It is no longer possible, in our post-Cold War era of diffuse globalization and identity politics, to present the world as one of simplistic binaries and logical conclusions — thus the supposedly scientific "objectivity" of a movement like direct cinema feels forced, and the political documentary can no longer concern itself with "proving" injustice so much as asking the cozy viewer to experience it as well. Rather, fragmentary glimpses on an individual basis are the path to understanding and thus addressing complex problems...

Thus the corporeal embodiment of the filmmakers and their sicknesses in these films mirrors their figurative embodiment (representation of) broader concerns: Gore's bereavement asks us to connect the dots before our own day of reckoning; Varda's hand, horrible but continuing to glean, asks us to understand the valor of salvaging the disregarded and dispossessed; Spurlock's direct address narration at the beginning and end of Super Size Me claims his experiment to be emblematic of an entire epidemic, and makes clear that our bodies and his could share the same fate. "If this ever-growing paradigm is going to shift," he says, "it's up to you. But if you decide to keep living this way, go ahead. Over time you may find yourself getting as sick as I did." Perhaps most forcefully, Tom Joslin links the ostracism he and Mark suffer as gay men with AIDS to their sense, and possibly our own, that such treatment of putative "outsiders" is suggestive of a larger cultural death. "This civilization's so strange," he says in a mournful voiceover. "I've never felt much a part of it. I think being gay separates you a little. Certainly having AIDS and being the walking dead, if you will, separates you." To bridge that gap requires not the proof of a scientific experiment but the proof, on an individual, "brother-to-brother" basis, that Tom and Mark are human, too; their intimate lives, we see in Silverlake Life — their loves and passions, their jokes and sorrows, their sicknesses and deaths — are in essence no different from our own, even if their choices of who to sleep with and what medicines to seek may well be. To this end, Tom shoots Mark reading from a book arguing that "blatant is beautiful," that being openly gay is not only nothing to be ashamed of, but also a display of the gay body (like that of Marlon Riggs) necessary to show the public that the LGBT community poses no threat. "The personal is the political, the economic and the cultural," Mark continues. "Gay is the revolution."


Cult Followings

This week's column at Thompson on Hollywood:

Developed by Veena Sud from the Danish original, the first season of [The Killing] tracks the investigation of the murder of Rosie Larsen — an investigation led by Det. Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos). Pulled from the brink of retirement by the case, she ducks and weaves through the morass of suspects with her ostensible replacement, rookie Det. Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). The list of potential killers may seem ripped from the headlines — the ex-boyfriend, the teacher, the druggie, the mayoral candidate — but the caustically funny rapport of Linden and Holder is the beating heart of each episode. Enos, her forehead lined and jaw set, plays Linden sharp and doubtful, a reluctant heir to Jane Tennyson of Prime Suspect. She doesn’t down whiskey, screw strangers, and destroy relationships with Jane’s consuming fire, but she’s equally willing to sacrifice her personal life to do her job. Kinnaman, playing her stringy, rangy boy Friday, is the line to her circle — his lackadaisical speech and wary eyes combine to give him a watchful, unembarrassed sex appeal that lends all their exchanges a little frisson of excitement.

You can see by now that The Killing invites comparison. And you will understand my skepticism when it was suggested I watch it alongside Seven, David Fincher’s dystopian thriller about an aging detective (Morgan Freeman) tracking a serial killer (Kevin Spacey), the detective’s newbie partner (Brad Pitt), and the youngster’s wife (Gwyneth Paltrow, in a subtle star turn of quiet pain that ranks among her best). The similarities are powerful: in both, the veteran retiring detective is pulled back into obsessive crime-solving mode when the callow, less reliable new partner is about to take over. My trepidations stemmed from my memory of Seven, which in my mind seemed way off the AMC series’ ken. It was popular among a certain subset of offbeat teens at the time I was in high school, the sort of thing a budding hipster would mention, after Fight Club became a cult hit, to stake his claim on having gotten there first. These memories were clear but not fond — the way you play back an embarrassing moment again and again in your head, waiting for a different ending.

I wait, still. The thickness of the allusive web, lines of Dante and Milton and Shakespeare; the unending terrors of a dying Baltimore; the willingness to build slowly to a point: we are talking here about a director who was always a technical savant, but didn’t quite know at this early stage how to play our strings with heart as well as shock. Watching Fincher’s pitch-black riff on the seven deadly sins now, I am more appreciative of the craftsmanship than ever, because I know he’s learned how to use it — what Seven lacks in precision, he found in Zodiac, what it lacks in cunning, he uncovered in The Social Network


The Vanishing Point

From my review of Second-Story Man, now up at TOH:

Dr. Spock surely did not recommend bringing your kid on a crime spree. But Monique’s desire to get Maria away from this unstable life for good precipitates the bank robbery from which the rest of the narrative descends, and which forms the best evidence of the filmmakers’ potential. Eric Zabriskie’s bumbling, operatic score mars the scene immeasurably — it clashes with the very sounds on which our tension, like Arthur’s, is predicated — but we’re still left with a startling exercise in increasing panic. Watch as Domring’s watery eyes tighten and the aural evidence piles up: the gunshots, the screaming, the voices that are everybody’s and everywhere except the one he is waiting for.

Reaching such a high-water mark this early in a film can be dangerous, and Second-Story Man eventually succumbs to the close, arid atmosphere it creates. The tone switches from gritty criminality to emotional Rorschach blot, an earth-toned canvas onto which we project romance, buddy movie, heist flick, or indie drama. Trying to be all of these, the film ends up being none; the final-act hysterics are but an overwrought imitation of a movie we’ve already forgotten about. Such twists of plot don’t do justice to what Second-Story Man seems really to be about: the aftermath of a terrible mistake, the lurching effort to pick up and try to start over from scratch.

Faced with the particulars of their past, these are people practically willing themselves to disappear. And so instead of a fitting ending it’s necessary to rely on the film’s uncannily sorrowful images of the world around the characters, like a high, snow-white field used for target practice, where all that is solid melts into air and the ground recedes into sky, or on Arthur’s explanation of a second-story man as “me, when I was younger” — a non-answer, an obfuscation, like that Impala on the point of vanishing.


Partners in Crime

From this week's "Now and Then" at TOH:

"Thelma & Louise is risky, hard-nosed, and freewheeling, passing through desert landscapes and low-slung towns on the way to freedom. Brilliantly, Sarandon plays Louise high-strung and nervous, dragging on every cigarette as though it’ll be her last; Davis elevates Thelma above a funny femme fatale with the merest inflection. 'Somethin’s crossed over in me,' she tells Louise, her voice flickering between exhilaration for her new life and regret for wasting her old one. 'I can’t go back. I couldn’t live.'

"The world we do live in falls short — unfortunately, it’s still one where an attractive woman who has one too many drinks and dances cheek to cheek 'had it coming to her.' Our heroines rightly give ’em hell anyway: a sleazy truck driver learns his lesson, Brad Pitt obliges us with some male objectification by baring his backside, and the police see that happiness is more than a little tract house on the prairie. I’ve always felt ambivalent about Thelma & Louise, uncertain whether it’s unquestionably happy or unbearably sad. I’ve never had the same ambivalence about Thelma and Louise themselves, because in the end their facility with a gun is less important than seeing their hands clasped together in a kind of communion, grabbing control of their destiny. Sink or swim, they’re in this thing together."

"Whereas Thelma & Louise soars and scats its way west, Rizzoli & Isles sounds like it’s still missing the high notes, especially as it gets up to speed. One reason the rollicking adoption-scam yarn of the second episode came as a nice surprise may have been that the painful exposition of the premiere had already to put me to sleep. The long-term problem, though, is how forcefully 'quirky' the series wants its characters to be.

"As Det. Jane Rizzoli, the damaged tomboy who took a bullet to save three colleagues in the Season One finale, Angie Harmon handles this with aplomb. Jane is plucked clean from a bad facsimile of the Cagney & Lacey playbook, but Harmon is impressively funny, especially in the exchanges with her overbearing mother (the decisively witty Lorraine Bracco). They both know how to hit the laugh lines with just the right off-centeredness, like drummers keeping a blues beat. Even in the more weighty moments, when the show tends to go downhill fast, Harmon holds her own — something about her scratchy voice, a full octave below sunny, makes the woodenness of the writing seem like a tough-gal defense mechanism."


There's No Place Like Home Video

Excerpts from this week's "Now and Then," now up on TOH:

"[The Kids Grow Up] requires an examination of your own life in order to wend your way into it. Anyone who has been part of a family will understand Block’s feeling of being unmoored, acknowledge the impossibility of separating oneself from the narrative. This may be why, in the end, the film seems so much roomier than the mere portrait of a family in transition: it jogs the memory, becoming personal for both subject and spectator. It is strewn with the hard, sweet wisdom that family life is one long improvisation in intimacy, full of compromises and wrong turns. Interviewing his father about the experience of parenting, of living, Block captures it in microcosm: 'We don’t know too much,' the father says. 'We learn as we go along. We learn too late, and even then it’s difficult.'"

"Good fun... can be had during Sherman’s March, which carries the unnecessarily weighty subtitle “A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During the Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.” But much of the nearly three-hour running time is so slackly paced, so meditative, that the middle 90 minutes might best function as something to keep an eye on while you make soup. There are moments in which even McElwee seems bored. 'Speaking of apple juice,' he asks offhandedly at the one-hour mark, 'is there any bourbon?' I took his advice. I poured myself a drink and read an article about the debt crisis in the Times, and when I came back he was still there, like an old friend who presses on with the story while you grab another bottle of wine."


Spot Check

From a cool project I was involved in this winter, commemorating Requiem for a Dream by engaging writers and artists to discuss a still frame from each of the movie's 102 minutes. I got #38 (see image above):

"So I’m the guy with the glazed eyes in the olive shirt, wearing something between a grimace and a smile, dancing with the blurry, red-haired giantess we call memory. Beating it back, embracing it, dispensing with it entirely, trying to get warm next to it, follow its lead or lead it back to the right steps. It’s hard to figure out what’s going on here, what goes on in my head. As I said, my memory is spotty. Not that it much matters: we’re talking here about a film where haziness is not just a state of mind but a lifestyle choice. From time to time, though, the haze disperses, its horizon opening to moments of piercing clarity. This seems to me a good enough explanation for why someone would study, love, write, drink, teach.

Live: that’s another way of putting it."

Catch the rest of my piece here and the rest of the project here.


Sounds and Furies

From my latest column at Thompson on Hollywood:

"Following every war movie cliché like the Stations of the Cross, Battle: Los Angeles is a punishing fusillade of jostling hand-held camerawork and the tea-kettle screeches of electric ordnance. It plays like the video dispatch of an embedded journalist. Titles acknowledge every change of scenery, while 24-hour news channels provide punditry and a wide-angle of the action. Even the characters’ names are flashed on screen, as though writer Chris Bertolini was too busy plotting which buildings to set aflame to put them in the script. Not that it much matters: two-thirds in and it is impossible to distinguish them. The aliens have more personality...

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) is noisy, too. Here, though, the sound is unsettlingly ambient. Distant reports mix with the patter of acid rain, and high towers release bursts of flame and dirt in a sharp hiss. Foreign wails pierce the perpetual night, an ungodly city’s call to prayer. Floating billboards cry out: move to the Off-World colonies, “a golden land of opportunity and adventure.” Sound this lush sneaks up and envelops you, and all of a sudden the bleakly dystopian Los Angeles of 2019 becomes the only Los Angeles you’ve ever known."

Read the whole thing here: http://blogs.indiewire.com/thompsononhollywood/2011/07/18/destroying_los_angeles_from_blade_runner_to_battle_los_angeles_and_the_carm/


Burn, Baby, Burn

My new column at Thompson on Hollywood, "Now and Then," makes its debut today. It pairs reviews of new releases for the home viewer — flicks you can catch now on Netflix, Amazon Video, DVD or television — with fresh takes on the classic, the overrated, the underwatched, and pretty much anything else that piques my interest. This week, the vigilante camp of Hobo with a Shotgun goes up against the Ur-text of the genre, Dirty Harry. Here's a taste:

"Hobo with a Shotgun ends up making Harry Callahan look like Atticus Finch (and Don Siegel like Fritz Lang). Tellingly, it apes the one scene in the earlier film that really sticks in the mind. Hobo’s school bus scene is equally troubling, albeit for different reasons. It won’t ruin it for you, utterly lacking in suspense as it is, to tell you that Slick and Ivan torch the bus with a dozen kids inside. As Slick sets the kiddies alight, Ivan, in dim homage to John Cusack in Say Anything, holds up a boom box playing, predictably, 'Disco Inferno.'

'Burn, baby, burn' is right. I only wish they had done the same thing with the dailies."

Catch the whole thing here: http://blogs.indiewire.com/thompsononhollywood/2011/07/11/now_and_then/