Archive | October, 2011

Best films by decade: The 1990s (part 4)

29 Oct

The best soul movie ever made, and it's set in Ireland.

21. The Cider House Rules/The Commitments/Carlito’s Way—Lasse Hallstrom is my go-to guy for well-made middle brow entertainments. (The Hoax, Chocolat, The Shipping News and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape are all very fine movies.) Here he tells the stories of Wilbur, an orphaned teenager, and his doctor ward.  The doctor, played by Michael Caine—in a very fine performance—performs illegal abortions, while operating an orphanage with love and care. His teenage ward, played by Tobey Maguire, often helps him, but feels the procedure is wrong. (The film, although eventually making its arguments for the merits of abortion, is a very fine character study.) Wilbur leaves the orphanage to work on an apple farm, where he meets black migrant workers and falls in love with a wealthy upper class woman. Despite his attempts at reinvention, to find any sort of happiness he must confront his orphanage past. Carlito’s Way: I’ve never really liked Brian De Palma. He’s a great visual director but a terrible storyteller. His movies often seem hastily thought out, half-baked. But here he delivers a very fine saga of a Puerto Rican gangster attempting to go clean. Al Pacino plays Carlos Brigante, a weary ex-con released on a legal technicality, attempting to keep his nose clean by running a legit nightclub. But the streets, in the form of his coked up lawyer (played by Sean Penn) and a hotshot street hustler (played by John Leguizamo) refuse to leave him alone. Soon he is embroiled in murder of a high-ranking mobster, and must somehow survive his vicious, avenging sons. The movie has a few silly moments, mostly around the dancing, but on the whole it’s a very fine mobster story. The Commitments: A great musical about the short rise and quick fall of a no-hit Irish soul band. Dublin gets the bleak downer treatment, a city of smiling drunks wandering about in front of broken down mills and half-empty factories. The film’s humanity comes from Jimmy, the manager and catalyst for the band, and the superb renditions of American soul music. Parts haven’t dated well, but when it hits, it’s close to perfection.

Tom Cruise as a sport agent attempting to find his soul.

22. Jerry Maguire/L.A. Confidential/Dark City—Tom Cruise is very, very good as a sports agent attempting to rediscover his soul in a soulless industry, which is emblematic of his acting career. Hiding within silly roles in pointless movies—I’m talking about Top Gun, Days of Thunder, etcetera—Cruise here gets to flesh out a real character. Cruise’s tendency towards hambone acting works to the film’s credit, for Jerry Maguire is a man who protects himself from the world through a fine veneer of histrionic self-protection. And then there’s Cuba Gooding, Jr., who delivers a great performance as an arrogant, self-promoting, and over the top football player. The two men form a friendship, over money, yes, but still a friendship, as Maguire moves from money-grubbing sports agent to a human being. Co-stars Renee Zellwegger as his love interest, but the real romance in the movie is all male. L.A. Confidential: Curtis Hansen delivers a rock solid adaptation of James Ellroy’s labyrinthine novel about the collision of Hollywood, police corruption, and the sprawling L.A. underworld. Guy Peirce and Russell Crowe are both excellent, as is David Straithairn and the other supporting players. Kevin Spacey hams it up a bit, and Kim Basinger is downright mediocre, but Hansen captures the whole thing in beautiful wide angle shots, with intricate period costumes, vehicles and weapons. A very fine film. Dark City: An intriguing little science fiction movie about a world controlled by albino telepaths looking for the secret of the human soul. They look by changing the architecture of the endless city the humans live in, and by altering the landscape of their daily lives with amnesiac shots. In the middle of this forever shifting cityscape, a man wakes up in a bathtub full of blood, with no memory of how he got there. He flees the scene, pursued by the super-powered telepaths and their human agents, through an urban scene that is perpetually dark. The movie is reckless, strange, but also believable and even moving.

Horror cinema verite with a killer backstory.

23. Good Will Hunting/Cry Baby/The Blair Witch Project—The story of an unparalleled genius growing up in South Boston amongst working class racists and barely literate drunks. He works as a janitor at M.I.T., where he solves complex math equations on public chalkboards, for kicks. One day, he’s caught by a professor, and the result is not one but two father figures in his life: Robin Williams, as depressed, empathetic counselor, and Stellan Skarsgard, an arrogant math professor. Let the healing begin. Yes, it’s improbable. Yes, it’s a bit treacly. But there’s a fine sense of time and place, and the characters feel like they have real internal lives, no small feat.  Cry-Baby: I’ve never understood John Waters’s appeal. His films are crass, silly, unsophisticated and amateurish. (Strangely, he’s a very fine writer of prose.) But here he delivers a great subversive musical about rascals and lowlifes eking out a living in the puritanical, white-washed landscape of starched collar America. Johnny Depp shows how good an actor he is, imbuing a rather slim character with brash humanity and an interior life. And, the songs are great. The Blair Witch Project: Attention must be paid. This no-budget horror exercise, shot on handheld digital film and released to enormous profits is also a clever, well-made frightfest about three filmmakers lost in unforgiving, possibly haunted woods. It was a searing, terrifying experience, seeing the movie on opening night. People believed the backstory, that this was found footage, assembled in an editing room. As an aside, shortly after Clerks, every film major was trying to make movies like this.

Daniel Day-Lewis holds it all together in this very fine period drama.

24. Short Cuts/In the Name of the Father/The Shawshank Redemption—Robert Altman strikes back. Looping together a dozen Raymond Carver stories, overlapping the characters and intertwining them through each other’s lives, Altman almost returns to his glorious ensemble work in the 1970s. It is only a silly ending and a forced catastrophe that mars what would otherwise be a work of art. Still, it has good performances and strong dramatic scenes, where Carver’s penchant for suspense, anxiety and despair are pulled to the surface. Utilizing an earthquake as a climactic device is a mistake, but the film is still a remarkable return to form for a very fine American director. In the Name of the Father: These sort of movies—historical re-intreprations about specific injustices—often date badly; here’s one that stands the test of time. The true story of five Irish hoodlums bullied into confessing to an IRA bombing they didn’t commit. Along with their families, they are sent to prison, where years pass amidst intimidation and violence. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the lead, and as usual his performance is raw, visceral and unforgettable. Directed by Jim Sheridan, who never quite made a movie of this quality again. Shawshank Redemption: Stately, patient, calming, mellow, and melancholic, Shawshank Redemption is also poignant, epic, thrilling . . . and overrated. Tim Robbins stars as Andy, an innocent man imprisoned for life for the murder of his wife. Inside, he meets Boyd, played by Morgan Freeman, and the two form a friendship, and even a community, amongst their fellow felons. But Andy—he’s modeled after Randall McMurphy and Cool Hand Luke—refuses to accept his imprisonment, and spends years planning his escape. The film has a touch of the self-importance about it—the cost of the rain machines alone must have run into the tens of thousands—but the performances, especially from James Whitmore—infuses the film with a hang dog humanity that comes through with an earthy glow.

Beware the fury of a woman scorned in Takasha Miike's Audition.

25. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery/Heat/Audition—It’s easy to mock now, but this Mike Meyers’s comedy upon its release was a brash reinvention of the spoof genre. And, it’s funny. Austin Powers is a 1960s spy frozen at the end of the free love era, and then re-animated in the 1990s. This disconnect, between the sexist past and the sensitive, multi-cultural future, is the source of most of the jokes. Meyers’s knack for catchphrases and accents, his feel for the pop culture of the 1960s, his insistence on silliness, it all amounts to a series of extended Saturday Night Live skits that work. Heat: I always found this movie to be shaggy, overly long, convoluted, mistimed and too damn long. But it has an obscenely devoted fanbase, and offers an interesting step in the career of Michael Mann. Mann spent the eighties in television and with the strange, underrated Manhunter. With Heat, he moved into the big leagues, and put out half a dozen blockbusters made with consummate skill. (I would argue that only Scorsese, Fincher, and Spielberg are so consistently skillful and entertaining with their big movies.) Heat is a sprawling, overwrought beast, convoluted and sloppy, but it has its moments. The bank heist at the end is superb. Still, what is the movie saying about the human condition? Blessedly little. Audition: Japan has a weird film culture. They’ve developed out of a different tradition, including Kabuki theatre, and the result is a dissonant viewing experience. Their values are more Buddhist than Christian (or humanist) and therefore the movies don’t always make sense. (They also, by firsthand accounts, sell used panties in vending machines.) Even a nice little movie like Shall We Dance comes off as peevy and weird, with the strange erotic relationship between the teenage dance instructor and the middle aged businessman. With Audition, this viewing dissonance informs a terrifying horror. A middle-aged man holds fake auditions for a acting job, looking for girls to screw. But the girl he picks might or might not be a murdering nutjob. Directed by the prolific, disturbed wunderkind of Japanese cinema Takashi Miike. Scary, gruesome, and terrifying.

Stupid, crazy love . . . with plenty of bullets.

26. The Ice Storm/True Romance/Titanic—Two families and their dysfunctional foibles against the backdrop of mid-seventies middle America. A great cast: Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood and Henry Czerny. Ang Lee shoots the film with his patient but scrutinizing calm. His movies often feel like a voyeur peeking through the curtains of a squabbling couple. The swinger party amongst the adults in the neighborhood, where the married men and women pair off in new combinations through the luck of the draw from a bowl of keys is creepy, funny, tense, erotic, unforgettable. A very fine little movie. True Romance: Tony Scott’s best film, which is faint praise. Christian Slater is very fine as a nerdy clerk who finds love with a call girl (Patricia Arquette). Their relationship sets him on a collision course with her pimp, who has stolen mafia drug money. Slater and Arquette flee across the country with the cash, pursued by killers, gangsters, and the Feds. It’s a tough little bullet of a movie, shot with Scott’s characteristic scenes of ultra-violent torture (which, by the by, predicts the next decade’s exponential increase with onscreen violence). But there’s something worth fighting for at the movie’s center, a loving relationship, and the result is a movie that is almost wholesome. Great cameos by Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken fill the movie with an interesting narrative alley. Unknown actors Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini both have killer little scenes, and Slater is convincing as a murderous nerd willing to do anything for a chance at love. Titanic: It’s an easy film to mock, with its overt sentimentality, hambone acting and expensive, fetishized period pieces. The villains are scoundrels; the heroes are heroic; love is pure and so on. But the production is compelling, lavish, and grand, a throwback to Hollywood’s beginnings. For what else is Titanic, really, other than a full color reworking of D.W. Griffith. His bloated Titanic picture, despite the innate cheesiness in the love story, works, and is a very fine movie. It’s over-wrought, but the emotions are enormous and exaggerated, like in an opera. As a cultural presence, James Cameron has a fascinating pattern: he disappears, and then reappears with an enormous hit. He seems to ponder the popular culture with a tastemaker’s diffidence, to appear like Arthur at the hour of entertainment’s need.

Honorable mention: Pi; The Fugitive; The Lion King; The Piano; Wild at Heart; American History X; True Lies; Boys Don’t Cry; Donnie Brasco; The Fisher King; Dumb and Dumber; Dead Man; Princess Mononoake; Newsies (not a joke); Reservoir Dogs; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Bad Lieutenant

Best films by decade: The 1990s (part 3)

26 Oct

They look unhappy because they are.

13. Welcome to the Dollhouse/Happiness/12 Monkeys—Todd Solondz’s vicious deadpan isn’t for everyone. Here, he follows a well-intentioned little girl as she is humiliated, threatened, shamed, bullied, tormented and misunderstood. It’s a comedy, a satire, and a terrifying vision of adult incompetence. Solondz is unrelenting, and for the uninitiated, a cruel, distemperate writer out to punish the viewers. The key is the jokes; it’s a funhouse of punishing sarcasms. Happiness: Solondz strikes again, this time following half a dozen interrelated stories from a very disturbed dysfunctional family. One of the main characters masturbates while calling strangers; another is a pedophile rapist; the protagonist is a woman named Joy, who is systematically degraded and debased. Yet, the film operates with a deadpan humor, and a peculiar tenderness, that makes the film seem like real life. The rapist loves his son; the pervert is looking for love; Joy weathers the various hardships with an unflappable decency. Solondz weird and wooly, almost unlovable, but brave and bold and searing. 12 Monkeys: It’s the end of the world, again. Terry Gilliam expands the short film La Jetee, adding his own kooky scenes of asylums, insanity, and delusions, and in so doing gets a fantastic performance from Bruce Willis, who plays the frayed, perhaps insane time traveler trying to save the world. It’s a twisty little film, by turns devious and charming, and at its center is a romance that defies the viewer to forget the future holocaust that hangs over the proceedings. Is Willis the savior of the world, or just insane? The movie’s oddball structure—both non-linear and yet strangely chronological—makes this one of the best science fiction films in a long time. Gilliam is hit or miss, and many of his films date badly (The Fisher King being a case in point), but when he gets it right, he’s a marvel.

Peter Weller as a very convincing William Burroughs.

14. eXistenz/Naked Lunch/Pretty Woman—A sequel, or remake, or parallel narrative of Videodrome, this time focusing on the invasive power of video games and their premonitions of alternate realities. After a brief fling with respectability—Crash and Naked Lunch both adaptations, and Dead Ringers a critical darling—Cronenberg returned to his low fidelity roots. Jude Law stars as an innocent lost in a blasted out world, where people plug virtual game systems into jacks in their spines. The virtual world is a strange, recursive place, where patterns and stories seem to replicate themselves. It’s a twisty, scary, funny, at times quiet take on the same Matrix-style idea, with Cronenberg’s signature fascination/revulsion with bodily functions. (At one point, Jude Law makes a pistol out of chicken bones.) Technology changes us in unforeseen ways. Naked Lunch: Burroughs and Cronenberg make a lot of sense together, and Cronenberg, by taking liberties with an unfilmable (and egregiously overrated) novel, makes a very fine, stylized movie that gets to the center of Burrough’s freaky deaky work. Peter Weller is rail-thin, measured and pitch-perfect. A revolting display; a science fiction period picture; a rollicking exercise is tongue in cheek satire. It’s all bugs, aliens, orifices and addiction. Pretty Woman: The Richard Gere, Julia Roberts cash machine begins. Roberts plays a prostitute new to the streets. Gere plays a ruthless banker whose sole ambition is to accumulate money. The movie offers a panoply of ridiculous messages—find the right man and all will be forgiven, love conquers all, the past doesn’t matter, etcetera—but its made with skill and a lugubrious eroticism that seems timeless. Gere and Roberts were movie stars for a reason, too; they look great, move well on camera, and when it comes to sappy romance, they deliver the goods. Mock it from a distance, but when experienced its hard not to get sucked in.

Portrait of the perpetual underachiever.

15. Clerks/Chasing Amy/Four Weddings and a Funeral—Kevin Smith hits the zeitgeist homerun with this super low-budget movie about a particularly strange day in the life of two clerks. The jokes and anecdotes mostly deal with popular culture, such as extended riffs on Star Wars, as well as on the mundane frustrations of the lower working class. They’re underemployed, bored and misdirected, overeducated and cynical, and the resulting character study, for all of its childish perversity and obsessive nastiness, is a scathing portrait of American malaise. These are clever cowards, afraid to step out of the tiny little microcosm they live in. Mallrats is at times funny but one-dimensional and pointless, and also a bit peevish. Chasing Amy is a return to form, an at times very funny story of a man’s relationship to a bisexual woman he thinks is a lesbian. Ben Affleck delivers the goods, Jason Lee is still very funny, and Kevin Smith’s filmmaking deficits are hidden by an at times very powerful emotional story. Four Weddings and a Funeral: Aptly named. A very British comedy about a group of friends attending four weddings and a funeral. Hugh Grant plays the proto-typical Hugh Grant role, a nice, twee Brit who is witty and a touch shy. A strong cast and a very funny script make this the strongest of the middle class British comedies, utilizing droll humor, slapstick set pieces, American music, and precise comedic timing. Very, very good.

Tough, beautiful, problematic: that's Terence Malik in a nutshell.

16. Dead Alive/The Thin Red Line/Naked—Aussie weirdo Peter Jackson—before he became a household name—was a reckless director of slapstick splatter spray horror comedies. A sub-basement of an often-trashy (and neglected) corner of the cinematic house, this type of film reached its apotheosis with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II. Raimi and star Bruce Campbell realized they could capitalize on their low budget films by marbling the horror with Warner Bros. style slapstick. And it works. Jackson took the concept and upped the gore. The result is a zombie movie with enough fake blood to drown a village. Jackson understands that the excess is essential to the joy; the more blood, the more creative ways to spray the actors with viscera, the funnier the film. There’s a disembodied set of organs that chase the hero through the rafters. There’s beheading and dismemberment. There’s a priest beating an animated corpse with a human arm. The excess doesn’t seem excessive, only funny. The Thin Red Line: A superb film hobbled by too many celebrity cameos and a few misfire scenes. But the bulk of the movie, following a large group of soldiers at the Battle of Guadalcanal, is an excellent example of an artist at work in the war movie. Terence Malik applies his signature technique of wandering narrative voice-overs to provide moral, philosophical, and ethical ballast to what is, in essence, a classy dogface shoot ’em up. The cast is large and at times unwieldy, although Sean Penn, John Cusack, and Jim Caveizel all give excellent performances, as does Elias Koteas, who really shows his acting chops in a handful of scenes. Ultimately the movie is a stunning visual document; the tracking shots over the wind-blown grasses will break your heart. What it has to say about war, courage, bravery, the human condition, I’m not so sure. Naked: Mike Leigh’s ferocious exploration of a self-loathing, self-destructive misanthrope with too much intelligence and not enough moral sense, wandering through a disturbed London evening. He engages various characters with his slicing education and wit, dismantling a security guard’s belief system, for instance, despite the guard’s kindness towards him. A hateful screed, a blast of wordy anguish, a probing indictment of intelligence without empathy, Naked is an intense, dislocating experience in a Thatcher era England as a blasted out place.

If only all of Redford's films were this good.

17. Quiz Show/East Is East/Casino—Robert Redford’s best movie, a wry, quiet study of the beginnings of the television age. Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Van Doren, an entitled whiz kid who makes it big on a televised quiz show. John Turturro plays Herbie Stempel, a discarded former champion who is furious about his dismissal. And Rob Morrow plays Dick Goodwin, a federal attorney investigating the charges of fixing the quiz shows. The movie is fantastic, weaving in and out of media manipulation, political intrigue, and the personal lives of these three men, but with a light, deft touch, so unlike Redford’s other movies. East Is East: This very funny British movie is also an early foray into a very English multiculturalism. (They call it the Tossed Salad paradigm, and if that doesn’t make you smirk , then you aren’t up on your late 90s slang.) A Pakistani family deals with the viney invasion of British culture into their insulated world. The story deals with a large family, and the planned marriages that the family members flee from. A very funny movie, with a very fine cast. Casino: Both grand and grandiose, wonderful and wicked, but too close to, and a pale imitation of, its older cousin, Goodfellas. Scorsese reunites with DeNiro and Pesci to tell the story of the last days of the Italian mafia in Las Vegas. Scorsese ramps up the narrative pacing, and the sense of rush, of a crowded tale, of unnecessary violence, it amounts to a movie not quite sure of what it wants to say. Gangsters are bad people?

 

One of the great American movies about work.

18. Clockwatchers/The Game/Glengarry Glen Ross—A very funny, very dark little movie about full-time temporary workers in a big company who are unsure of the value of their work, or their place in the world. Parker Posey and Toni Collette, two superstar actresses comfortable in big budget films and little tiny indies, costar as temps working for a corporation they don’t care about or understand. They’re lives are drab, difficult and threadbare, but they movie focuses on small funny moments in their antiseptic environment. Reminiscent of Whit Stillman and the British Office, which is high praise. The Game: Michael Douglas plays a greedy, miserly businessman haunted by his father’s suicide and a general lack of purpose in life. His menschy brother, played by Sean Penn, gives him a birthday present in the form of the game, a puzzling game played out in real life. The game has rules, but they aren’t discernable. Finding out the point of the game is why you play. Douglas soon finds himself in a dangerous world of disintegrating reality. Hotshot David Fincher directs. Glengarry Glen Ross—David Mamet’s work holds up better in other people’s hands. It doesn’t hurt that this film has the best cast of male actors one could hope for: Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, Alex Baldwin and Jack Lemmon, who takes them all to acting school. The story takes place over 24 or so hours, following unscrupulous, down on their luck real estate salesman and the harsh new rules of their job; sell real estate, or find another job. Jonathan Pryce is the movie’s weak point, playing a simpering prey for the testosterone-charged salesmen, but otherwise it’s a brash and loud drama, a wordy film of nuanced and meaty performances.

A performance that is somehow obnoxious, frustrating and courageous at the same time.

19. Forrest Gump/Saving Private Ryan/Dazed and Confused—A movie with highs and lows, as well as some miserable set pieces (such as the entire jogging section), but also an ambitious re-imagining of American history through the viewpoint of a mental defective from backwater, Alabama. Hanks is very good, if also grating, flattened and a touch hamboney. But he builds a human being out of the cornpone and muck. The movie overreaches, yes, attempting to synthesize every great drama into some grand cinematic thing. But there’s a feeling that the movie, for all its flaws, tells a story of America that appeals to both sides of the political divide, no small feat. (It presents a liberal point of view on social causes beneath a conservative point of view.) Still, what is it saying about humanity? Are we really best represented by a noble fool? Saving Private Ryan: An episodic film, a pastiche of war movie clichés, all of it shot with visual aplomb. Spielberg is a very fine director, but he’s too bound by genre conventions. None of his movies, except his first handful, depart from expectations. Still, he delivers, and has had a fantastic career. Private Ryan is the story of a company of soldiers sent behind enemy lines to save one man. Along the way they are confronted with moral, physical, and emotional challenges, with death stalking them every step of the way. A very fine cast includes Barry Pepper, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi and Vin Diesel. A good liberal’s view of the war. Dazed and Confused: A 1970s re-imagining of American Graffiti, replacing cruising and drag racing with marijuana and sex. It’s also a guidebook of 90s independent actors: Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Cole Hauser, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Nicky Catt, Rory Cochrane. It’s all cars, music, and irresponsible behavior through one night of teenage sex and drug use on the first big party of a Texas summer. Director Richard Linklater’s enthusiastic love letter to his disappeared childhood is a superb example of the slacker comedy, finding humor in the aimless peregrinations of others. Linklater would go on to make a number of good movies.

Surreal French weirdness with a touch of humor.

20. City of Lost Children/The Paper/Jackie Brown/T2—A deranged old man looks for eternal life by stealing the power of children’s dreams. A childlike whale hunter, searching for his missing younger brother, pursues a trail of clues leading to the mad scientist. Directors Juenet and Caro made their name on their first film, a bizarre future cannibal comedy called Delicatessen. Those who like it, adore it; it left me lukewarm. Here they amp up the phantasmagoria, reveling in a reality gone askew. Their isn’t-life-kooky themes verge on the cloying, but here they create a mesmerizing alternate world. The Paper: Two movies, really: one is a funny as hell, fast-moving story of newspapers and reporters, the other is undeveloped  and hackneyed, a social justice movie about wrongfully accused youth. Michael Keaton stars as a high ranking editor for a New York tabloid. His wife, played by Marisa Tomei, is pregnant and pushing him to take a job at a respectable paper. Glenn Close plays Keaton’s nemesis, and they both duke it out daily under the aging, watchful eyes of Robert Duvall, the publisher. Two poor African American teenagers stumble upon two dead bankers, and they are blamed for the murders. Close wants to say their guilty, Keaton wants to say they aren’t. It’s a brilliant peek inside a mostly disappeared world—of the daily city paper and the hard-nosed newspeople who work so hard for stories that are small, forgettable, and immediately forgotten. A few edits, a little pruning, and this would have been one of the best films of the decade. As it is, it’s still funny, rich, and rewarding, just a touch flabby. Jackie Brown: Tarantino’s adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel is a very fine film, and an interesting counterpoint to the rest of his work. Here he toys with the realistic mode, using the music and characters to tell a linear story, and it’s quite good; he could have a great career, maybe even better, adapting existing works. Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel Jackson, Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, and Bridget Fonda star in this well crafted thriller from the 1970s mold. There have been many fine adaptations of Leonard’s work, but this is my favorite. The drawbacks are minor—the dialogue feels parodic of Tarantino’s other work; it’s too long; the scale of the film isn’t quite right—but they gnaw at the edges of the film, diluting its power. Terminator 2: Cameron’s return to the Terminator franchise, and it’s a whammy. The spectacle was something new; the villain has an amorphous, mercurial body that can take any form. The fluidity of the villain contrasts with the stony silence of the hero, in this case Arnold Schwarzaneggar, sent back in time by Connor’s future self to save his teenage incarnation. With every step, the heroes try to avert the future, and somehow continue to insure its eventuality. The movie can be seen as two dueling narratives for control of the future. Can the future be saved?

Best films by decade: The 1990s (part 2)

24 Oct

The enigmatic, paralyzing, terrifying, mystical weirdness of David Lynch.

6. Boogie Nights/Magnolia/Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature is a rollicking romp through the feature film pornography industry in the 1970s and ’80s, based on the life of John Holmes. This is a fantastic film, with well-drawn characters and a superb combination of humor, paranoia, satire and sex. Anderson uses the sex industry as a metaphor for the evolution from the free love/easy sex early 1970s to the STDs and AIDS ravaged 1980s. The movie begins with a tone of sleazy and breezy warmth and fun; it’s a long rock n roll video with jokes. But as the story moves on, and the characters fall into drug abuse and petty crime, the film becomes darker, culminating in a robbery scene that is unparalleled in its intensity. It’s a period piece, a comedy, a tragedy, a metaphor for the perils of fame, and an insightful demystification of the sex industry, breaking down our most intimate acts into blocked moves under glaring klieg lights. Magnolia: Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film is an enormous re-imagining of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, with dozens of characters at various epiphanic moments in their lives, colliding with each other against the immense backdrop of L.A. It’s a big, long emotional blast of a film, with very fine acting that skirts with the histrionic but holds it together. Each story contains suspense and anxiety, each character faces a moral and emotional crisis through a 24-hour period. It’s an astonishing achievement, both technically and otherwise. The only drawback is the singing number; I think Anderson, if he could, would go back and edit this out. Still, a dynamite movie. Twin Peaks: A disturbing, sullying, destabilizing movie. Twin Peaks was a flash of subversive genius, that flickered for a few brief moments and was then snuffed out. Lynch and co-writer Frost used the familiar small town setting to explore all manner of endless weirdness, circling the basic question: who killed Laura Palmer? Here, he answers the question, sort of, in a prequel that follows the days and weeks leading up to Palmer’s murder. The movie is terrifying, and Lynch exacts an awe-inspiring performance from Sheryl Lee as the coked up, miserably confused teenage girl. This tormented piece of celluloid was panned upon release—it’s a deranged journey through a sordid unraveling of tawdry world—but as the years pass it has grown in its magnetic power. Fair warning: the film will leave you frightened and changed.

 

The innocents abroad: two cousins wander Spain's most beautiful city.

7. Barcelona/Last Days of Disco—In the 1990s, Whit Stillman was the king of the droll comedy, a master of deadpan delivery, interesting characters, and funny as hell lines. A salesman located in Barcelona has his life upended when his cousin from the states comes to live with him. Taylor Nichols plays the lead, Chris Eigeman his cousin. Barcelona has some intangible quality of  pleasantness; it’s a fun movie to watch over and over again. The only drawback is the American actresses playing Spaniards; the accents are terrible and it’s a shame, because the rest of the film is a hands down masterpiece. Go local with the women and this would be my number one. Last Days of Disco: Stillman’s third film is his most ambitious and best. A group of underemployed twenty-somethings navigate the Disco scene in its final hours. People fall into relationships, there’s a subplot of embezzlement, but the film’s strength lies in its indelible characters and the razor sharp script. He’s been called the Jane Austin of generation X, an apt comparison. Stillman gets wonders out of Kate Beckinsdale and Chris Eigeman in this movie stuffed with toss away one-liners and a strange, hulking melancholia about the creeping end of an era.

Fear and Loathing in New York, a David Mamet mantra.

 

8. Homicide/The Matrix/Unforgiven—David Mamet’s one great film, where his dialogue, cast and story all combine to create an intriguing, enigmatic film. His often amateurish direction here looks lean, professional and tough. The story follows a Jewish detective (played by Joe Mantegna) working on a heinous case, where a Jewish storeowner appears to have been bludgeoned to death because of her ethnicity. His investigation leads him into a labyrinth of wealthy Jewish zealots and an anti-Semitic conspiracy. It’s a spellbinder, and following this rugged homicide detective as he loses his sense of direction; his sense of self; the honor of his profession; and the goodness of his own country is an excoriating judgment on humankind’s inability to eradicate something as absurd as racism. The Matrix: If Star Wars is a mashup of space opera and the western, The Matrix is a mashup of cyberpunk and kung fu. Keanu Reeves resurrects his career as Neo, a dissatisfied hacker making his way through a drab existence. He’s wandering through life as if in a dream, which in a sense he is. Morpheus, a leather-clad badass, offers Neo a glimpse at ultimate reality. The reality, Neo discovers, is ghastly; the bulk of mankind is asleep in tiny containers, their consciousness living in a virtual world, while their bodies are harvested by thinking machines as fuel. It’s a marvelous movie, despite the spinning visuals, and a bold mashup of movie genres. A big budget science fiction bonanza, combining chop sockey, nerd hacker goth and gee whiz Philip K. Dick ideas. The bad guys are white dudes in fancy suits, the good guys are freaks, nerds and people of color.  Unforgiven: The end of the western, and it’s not with a whimper, but a bang. Clint Eastwood’s last ride is a brutal reimagining of the frontier western. Aging gunmen clank around a tormented landscape, where bullets don’t kill instantly but rather drag a man screaming to his death. There is no honor, beauty or ideals, justa sordid might makes right paradigm where the wretched of the earth commit murder for no real reason at all. Gene Hackman stands out as a sadistic sheriff. Unforgiven is not pleasant, but it feels like a distillation of Eastwood’s entire career, and the sand blasted end of the most American of genres.

Anderson's first film is in some ways his best.

9. Bottle Rocket/Rushmore/Army of Darkness—A laconic, funny, and wry look at small-town complacency. Luke Wilson plays a depressed average joe just out of a facility, and his real-life brother Owen Wilson plays Digden, his best friend who’s biggest ambition is to be a bank robber. The bright colors, meandering storyline, offbeat humor and killer soundtrack lay down the signature Wes Anderson components that would compose, in various combinations, his entire oeuvre to date. But he hides within this quirky little movie a hard sucker punch of reality, tucked away right at the end, a summation of the devastating consequences of foolish living.  Anderson is one of the wundkerkinds of 90s cinema, a dashing, debonair talent with an eye for fashion, music and design. His vast talents in these areas come to harm some of his later films. He has, over the years, shifted into a stylish director who can’t seem to tell a straight story. He suffers because of his talents; 60 years ago he would have been a set designer for Douglas Sirk or Vincent Minnelli and been happy with the work. Rushmore: Wes Anderson’s second film and it’s superb. Max Fischer is an industrious, hard-working, overachieving student at Rushmore, a private school; he’s also failing every class. Through a story that is touching, silly, honest, and offbeat, Fischer develops a crush on one of the teachers. Applying his same, low-rent ingenuity to win her, Fischer comes to loggerheads with a depressed middle-aged businessman (played by Bill Murray). Murray is a revelation, his first serious acting in years. The plot doesn’t convey the pleasures this rambling little movie holds. Bold colors, lavish design, and incredible attention to detail make for a wonderful film. Army of Darkness: The great cult non-hit of the 90s, this low budget, time traveling horror comedy is the last collaboration of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell before Raimi went big time. The plot is silly, the action non-stop, the special effects at times laughable, but the movie is infectious, rambunctious and anarchic, like a live action Bug Bunny cartoon. Hundreds of movies try to replicate this zany tone, but only a handful capture it. Here’s one that does. (Kung Fu Hustle is the other.)

 

John Singleton: one great movie and then a downhill slide.

10. Boyz in the Hood/ Deconstructing Harry/Fargo—John Singleton’s first film—he was in his early twenties when he wrote and directed this—is also his best. He has a great cast: Lawrence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Morris Chestnut, among others. He has a simple story, following half a dozen characters through the random hard knocks of South Central L.A.  Singleton’s other films all suffer from pedantry, silliness, and visual clunkiness, but here he delivers a lean story about the creeping bad luck that stalks the good, the evil, and the innocent in the hard-scrabble neighborhoods plagued by gangs, drug violence and rampant unemployment. Everything about the film feels right and important, and the watching of it is elegant in its simplicity. Singleton went wrong fast, but here he gets everything just right. Deconstructing Harry: The misconception about Woody Allen is that he stopped making good movies around 1988. This is false. I would argue that he never stopped making good movies, with a few weak exceptions. But, Celebrity—despite its viciousness and misanthropy—is very good, Shadows and Fog is very good, Bullets Over Broadway is very good, and Deconstructing Harry is excellent. Harry is a profane, dark and very funny story of a writer who has written all of his own life episodes into his fiction, and the hatred his family and friends have for him because of it. The film is a big departure. Allen curses like a sailor, visits prostitutes, and drinks constantly. The visuals utilize a quick cut technique, and much of the underlying kindness in Allen’s other films is scrubbed away to an abrasive stone. Fargo: The Coen Brothers had a great run in the 1990s, floundering only with The Hudsucker Proxy. (They love the screwball films of the 1930s, but they can’t seem to replicate the tone. In fact, they struggle with every genre except the violent black comedy.) Barton Fink is small, insulated and superb; Miller’s Crossing is a high water mark; and Fargo is a very fine crime caper. They pull out of William Macy some essential performance, of a skeevy coward so morally bankrupt that he’ll have his own wife kidnapped to avoid an unnamed financial scandal. Steve Buscemi is great, funny but menacing. Melding black humor, regional satire, and a harrowing kidnapping story against the bleakness of a Minnesota winter, Fargo is a disturbing dark comedy that works.

 

The culmination of Kubrick's career: casual misanthropy and weird sex.

11. White/Eyes Wide Shut/The Truman ShowBlue is too precious and moody, and Red is a pretentious bore, but White manages to tell a great story, while holding onto philosophical inquiry and biting commentary on the human condition. Impotent in the bedroom, a Polish immigrant in France must rebuild his life on the margins of things, searching for meaning after being sartorially destroyed by his ex-wife, whom he still loves. His reinvention involves shady business deals upon his return to Poland, and a stint as a homeless beggar on the streets of Warsaw. Sexy and spectacular. Eyes Wide Shut: A very beautiful film full of ideas, a creepy jaunt through the sexual lives of New York rich, and a peeping tom mess. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise play an upper class couple tearing each other apart with their cold materialism and their savage intellects. When Kidman tells Cruise (her real-life husband at the time) of a time she wanted to cheat on him but couldn’t, Cruise flees to a night in the street, where he wanders from bar to bar, scene to scene, ultimately sneaking his way into a cult-like orgy. The next day he must deal with the night’s mistakes, and a creeping sense of danger stalks his every step. Then, the movie deflates into a disappointing, but realistic, ending.  Kubrick’s eye for detail never wavers; it seems fitting that his final film is a misanthropic ode to the potential saving grace of raunchy sex. Truman Show: Jim Carrey remakes himself as a dramatic actor, playing an orphaned child living in an artificial universe for the delight of the masses. Here his jittery manic style seems the exact fit for a damaged man-child living in a world designed to keep him unhappy. Perhaps the most interesting part of the movie is the narrative switch, halfway through, from Truman, to the show’s creator, played with real brio by Ed Harris, as a twisted artist who finds no solace in the pleasures of creating fiction; he wants to shape reality itself. This tiny little movie recasts the voyeuristic obsessions of the Internet age as tragic, and our attempts to control our environment, and therefore the environment of others, as absurd. A great movie that revels in its self-contained smallness, held together in part by a terrific performance by Laura Linney.

 

Almodovar's big leap forward as an artist, and a great film.

12. Seven/The Sixth Sense/All About My Mother—Still a hard film to watch. Morgan Freeman departs from his usual wise old man role to play a hardened, cerebral detective, so sick of the job that he cannot sleep, nor sustain any relationship at all. Brad Pitt plays his new partner, and they are confronted with an immense series of crimes, that appear to be connected by a demented obsession with the seven deadly sins. In another director’s hands this would all be corny torture porn, but David Fincher, using dour lenses, rain machines and on-location shooting creates a haunting atmosphere of urban decay. When the killer appears, played to the nines by Kevin Spacey, the movie moves into an ultra-disturbing climax of Biblical proportions. What holds the cruel, pulpy mess together is Fincher’s immense storytelling talents, and the very fine performances. Take a look at the casting to see what everyone is up to: Richard Roundtree and R. Lee Ermey skulk around as hard-worn cops. This is a genre movie, through and through. The Sixth Sense: A horror story put together with talent and craft, focusing on a single mother and her tiny son, and an emotionally distant psychologist who can’t seem to make any physical connection with his wife. Shyamalan is a hit or miss director, and all of his films suffer from a characteristic glacial pacing. But here he caught the movie-going public by surprise with a twist ending that was logical, predictable, but a total surprise. A great cast doesn’t hurt: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osmont, Toni Collette, and Olivia Williams.  It’s easy to dismiss Shyamalan now, but with his first release he appeared to be a major American auteur. What happened? Fame, self-involvement, and solipsism. All About My Mother: Spanish superstar Pedro Almodovar has had a hell of a career, combining slapstick humor, bold interiors, clever dialogue and a breakneck pace. He would, in the 2000s, evolve his skill into miraculous films, including Talk To Her and Volver, two of my favorite films of the era. All About My Mother is the hinge, where he moved past the slapstick sex comedies of his youth into a mature artist. The story follows a young writer who wants to learn about his father, whose identity his mother has concealed from him. His journey brings him not to greater appreciation of his absent father, but rather into greater understanding of his mother’s sacrificial love.

Best films by decade: The 1990s (part 1)

22 Oct

In retrospect, life was easy, simple. We had a booming sense of self-worth fueled by victory abroad and innovation at home. We hadn’t destroyed the world, and neither had the Soviet Union. The personal computer became a stable of almost every household. We had money. We were living at the end of history. Only goodness was to follow.

The dominant paradigm was something like this: Let’s take it easy. Let’s reap the benefits of our long and storied struggle. Let’s, all of us, get rich. Isn’t this the land of plenty? Can we now, all of us, get our share?

The culture wars percolated in the background. Who would decide was moral, what was good, what was proper, what was decent and what was right? With the passage of time, it’s hard to see what the big deal was, but in the moment the debate over the National Endowment for the Arts and the controversy over the crucifix in a jar of urine seemed important, necessary, and portentous of some imminent moral crash.

The two big film stories from the 1990s were the return of small-scale, independent American films and a renewed push-in of foreign movies. Both were the result of the Weinstein Brothers. They brought an enormous stable of talent into movies, including Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Jane Campion among others. They distributed foreign films, they developed homegrown directors, they were the driving force for movies in this country, good and bad. They developed a formula. Pick a writer from the past. Show their work as a direct result of their life. Create a period piece, with touches of drama and comedy, with a dash of whimsy. Or, singles in the city and their sex lives are complicated. Or, quirky girl with a touch of insanity meets melancholic man who needs to loosen up.

Elsewhere, a new genre was born: the slacker comedy. The protagonists acted like tragic figures; they wandered through life without purpose and direction, at the whims of external forces. They walked with bleary eyes. They were not artists or dreamers, but enacted the artifice of both. Who needs causes anymore?

Teenagers in the ’80s, protagonists were twenty-somethings in the ’90s. A new sense of homegrown diversity began to reverberate in the independent movie scene. Yet, there were few good roles for women. Try to think of one. This with Meryl Streep, Annette Benning, Julia Roberts, Diane Keaton, Nicole Kidman and a whole host of other talents panthering around. Ditto for ethnic actors. Where were the great vehicles for female stars?

The Internet changed everything. Digital film made shooting movies, in theory anyway, cheaper, as well as easier to edit and control.

Horror movies were bad. Scream was considered hip, and now seems so hopelessly square.

There were few musicals.

The decade ended with an eruption of pre-millennial tension. A resurgent end of days paradigm appeared.

And then we had the erosion of reality. Cyberpunk came to movies. Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, Eyes Wide Shut, existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, Summer of Sam, Terminator 2 and The Game, among others, deal with a breakdown not in society, but in reality itself. All of these movies deal with a fission in the movie as a alternate reality; think of Brad Pitt talking directly to the camera, and with his gaze tearing the celluloid wheels apart. Things were moving too fast. The machine was becoming self-aware. What place is there for art, really, when thinking computers can do everything humans can do, only better?

The crush of technology, the absurd culture wars, the (appearance anyway) of excessive wealth and prosperity, the creeping feeling that the whole thing, the living and breathing and procreating and dying, that the whole thing was some type of silly little game, with obscure rules and no way of winning. A deep and pervading sense of purposelessness seemed to permeate everything.

This section was the hardest for me to write. I started the ’90s watching mainstream blockbuster releases and loving Hollywood for them; I ended the ’90s a burgeoning cinephile with increasingly sophisticated tastes. My favorite movie in 1990 was Lethal Weapon. My favorite movie in 2000 was The Seventh Seal. The result is a peculiar tunnel vision. I have no distance to many of these movies.

I entered the nineties a child, and left them a man.

The woman and her double and the shimmering world.

1. Pulp Fiction/Chungking Express—A blast of retro grindhouse weirdness. Quentin Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, is a wordy, snarling little caper film—more of a play, really—where the heist happens off-screen. It has some great scenes, but it’s also hobbled by an overly talky script and a few scenes that run too long. (It’s still an astonishing debut.) Pulp Fiction is a giant leap forward, a funny, clever, violent movie that exploits the non-linear strengths of movies, and holds at its center a hard-won morality. Tarantino resuscitated Travolta’s career, and made Uma Thurman and Samuel Jackson stars. Unpredictable, funny, violent, remarkable, Tarantino’s second feature hit the theaters like a comet. (I was fifteen when this was released, and I saw it four times in the theaters.) Tarantino has remained a beguiling figure, resolute and committed, but to what it isn’t clear. Chungking Express: Wong Kar-Wai’s best film is really two short little films, connected by a little noodle stand and the theme of love, loss, and reinvention. This beautiful movie is funny, sad, strange, endearing, rambling and poetic. Unlike many other films of this type, Chungking is warm, welcoming and fun. Kar-Wai has an outsized reputation; this and In the Mood for Love, and to a lesser extent Days of Being Wild, are all great movies. But many of his other films are dated or just plain bad. Still, Chungking is a high water mark for international cinema, a timeless classic.

The lost girl and the gauze of memory and sunlight.

2. Fight Club/The Virgin Suicides—David Fincher’s karate chop to the adam’s apple of American cinema, capitalism and traditional concepts of masculinity. A divine casting sets Edward Norton as a nerdy loner who becomes friends with a muscled hottie named Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt). Durden lives by a macho, revolutionary creed, an anti-consumerist radical who sells soap made from stolen human fat. He and Norton, reeling from the pointless, flattened life of pre-millennial America, form a fight club, where disaffected men reconnect with their humanity by beating each other into a pulp. From this club is born a terrorist organization dedicated to inspired, murderous nonsense. It’s a divisive, two-fisted movie, and along with the Matrix, another blast of Hollywood zeitgeist weirdness. There were better movies, but none so virile and aggressive. The Virgin Suicides: Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, and is it a whammy. A middle-aged narrator looks back on the strange events of his childhood that led to the collective suicide of a group of teenaged sisters. Coppola wields sunlight as a physical force, and the sun-saturated film feels like a document from the 1970s. The movie makes no explanations or excuses, breaks many narrative rules, meanders at times, sprints at others, but the result is a major first film from a very fine artist. (Whether she’s fulfilled this early promise is up for debate.) The film has a gauzy, haunting quality that sticks in your guts for days, and works as a period piece, a horror movie, a character study and a family melodrama.

Portrait of the artist as a young rake.

3. Shakespeare in Love/Trainspotting—The best way to handle the canon is with a wry, light touch. Tom Stoppard co-wrote this funny, moving, and fascinating imaginative invasion into the life of the bard. Joseph Fiennes plays Shakespeare as a deep-feeling, wisecracking hack, stumbling his way through a dirty, shaggy Elizabethan London. He owes money all over town. He sleeps with married women.  He’s known as a second fiddle writer to his friend/nemesis Christopher Marlowe, the most celebrated playwright of the realm. Shakespeare puts on a new show, titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter,” while also falling into a relationship with dreamy rich girl, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s never been better. Paltrow wants to be an actor, but women are banned from the stage. She tries out in drag, and gets the lead role in Romeo. The whole thing moves towards a devastating climax, where Fiennes and Paltrow act out their relationship’s end through the initial performance. Stoppard has a knack for repositioning Shakespeare’s plays with an extra emotional dimension. Rosencrantz and Guildestern Are Dead foregrounds Hamlet in post-modern, cosmic humor; here he adds Shakespeare’s own suffering as a Romeo-style dude, locked in the sour tragedy of impoverished lovelessness. Incredible. Trainspotting—Director Danny Boyle connects the dots in this bleak, funny and disturbing immersion into the squalid lives of Scottish junkies. It’s a rare example of an adaptation that is superior to the original work; the film pares down the useless anecdotes, and infuses the proceedings with surreal touches. It’s a fine, visionary cast: Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremmer and Kelly McDonald. It’s a sleazy sojourn with fairly despicable lads, but Boyle gives each character, even the violent Bigby, humor and humanity. Trainspotting also introduced the druggy club culture that characterized so much of nineties fashion.  Style over substance, maybe, but what style. A great 90s soundtrack to boot.

Gabriel Byrne plays both sides against the middle in a mob war.

4. The Big Lebowski/Miller’s Crossing—The ultimate cult film follows the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, and Walter, played by John Goodman, as they resist the allure of a kidnapping crime caper plot to bowl, argue, smoke and hang out. Their refusal to engage with the plot gives the movie a marvelous comic sheen. Bridges and Goodman, always good, are here at their absolute best. Bridges has since claimed the Dude as closest to his own self, and Goodman hasn’t been given such a rich role since. Funny, hard to categorize, somehow a synthesis of every movie ever made and a rejection of the concept of cinema, Lebowski has, over time, become one of the most important films of the era. The Dude would be pleased. Miller’s Crossing: The Coen Brothers best movie, a half-farce, half-tragedy paean to the gangster pictures of their youth. Two rival gangsters fall into the familiar beef. At the center of the escalating war is Gabriel Byrne, a morally flexible fixer with a hard chunk of ice for a heart. You have Irish gangsters on one side, Italian mafia on the other, with a love triangle at its center. Complex and rewarding.

Favreau and Vaughan at their glorious best.

5. Swingers/Pusher—A fabulous comedy about struggling actors, the delusions they hold, and the distractions they create. Vince Vaughan and John Favureau co-wrote and star in this little movie directed by Doug Limon. All three would go on to stratospheric careers. But Vaughan has never been better than he is here, sharp-tongued and sarcastic, with a hard, arrogant edge. Limon moved on to Go, another nice little movie, before graduating to the big leagues with The Bourne Identity. And Favreau, a very fine comedic actor, became a filmmaker of blockbuster ideals. Swingers was the first and best of a type of film, following twenty-somethings through parties, bars, restaurants, life. Pusher: This Danish import follows Frank, a low-level drug dealer, through the worst week of his life. The movie unfolds in a series of long tracking shots, and the result is an intense meander through the wreckage of a thug’s life. Hotshot director Refn keeps the action moving with long tracking shots through the underbelly of Copenhagen. It’s a sterling, rousing first feature from a director who has since lost his way. The other Pusher films are equally excellent, more compressed, the final film taking place over the course of 24 hours. Refn has yet to replicate the passion, skill and humanity of his early films, but remains a filmmaker to watch.

October Roundup

10 Oct

I’ve been putting off writing for weeks. The new school year, graduate school, a new job for Beth, and coaching yet another losing season of middle school soccer: time is tight.

Simone now talks in three and four-word sentences. She can say peacock—I have no idea why—as well as dinosaur, give me a bite, me a sip, and the spectrum of monosyllabic words. Her tantrums are few and far between, she always wants to wash her hands, and she can sort of jog backwards. She is, in a word, a delight. She has an internal life that we don’t quite understand; for instance, she gets very upset when Beth pulls her hair into a ponytail.

I’ve been in a writing funk, and haven’t been able to muster the energy to finish any of the longer pieces. (Or the latest novel, for that matter.) So, instead, here’s a roundup of the things I’ve been watching and reading.

 Movies:

Andy Robinson and Walter Matthau on the run from the law and at odds with each other.

Charley Varrick—Walter Matthau’s face tells the story of ten thousand, hangdog losers. His cheeks droop like melted wax. His eyes hang in his fleshy face like two unwashed stones. It’s a face only a mother could love, and he used it to create a fantastic career. I love watching great character actors age; they begin to deliver these lazy performances, where the lines are just right. Varrick is a small little crime caper, following low rent bank robbers through the southwest, hiding out from the mobsters they have inadvertently stolen from. It’s a Don Siegel movie, so it’s violent, a bit off-kilter, but also laid back. Check it out.

 

One of the best movies from the last few years, thrilling and beautiful and sad.

Blue Valentine—A fantastic, biting little movie about the disintegration of a couple, the devastating effects of miscommunication, and the end of things. Ryan Gosling and Michele Williams play a husband and wife who are at the end of their romance. They can’t communicate; they are each living a life they didn’t want and don’t quite understand; their attempts to resuscitate their marriage are, by movie’s end, almost laughable. The film is shot out of order. The importance of certain scenes sneaks up on you. The whole thing is saturated with a piercing and savage anger. It’s precise, edgy and challenging, a superb, muscular and rigorous piece of work, a drama that is sexy and thrilling, while maintaining all the concision of a Raymond Carver short story.

You don’t always need forty hours to tell a story. Sometimes less than two will do.

 

A very creepy movie about housesitting and maybe the end of the world.

House of the Devil—There’s a low budget trend in filmmaking, and it’s a good thing. Directors have to rely on moody atmospherics and good writing. The special effects machine is burning itself out. House of the Devil is a great example of this, a throwback to the 1970s horror movies. Small-scale, a few sets, a creeping feeling of escalating horror. It delivers the goods.

Television:

The West Wing: fast-paced and often funny.

West Wing—It’s becoming a matter of movies versus TV, and I’m not happy about it. Television has made immense strides in terms of quality, narrative and moral complexity. (I’m working on a longer entry on this.) The West Wing was one of the first quality television shows and its a hell of a political education. The show walks you through the backroom political process, usually through the main characters delivering speeches to the many ciphers that dance along the edges of the show. Aaron Sorokin wrote almost eighty episodes by himself, which puts him in the upper echelons of screenwriting. The actors are very good (Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and Martin Sheen are standouts); the show is tense, often funny; the only drawback is its tendency toward didacticism. Sorokin wants to convince the viewers that a tough but intellectually inclined liberal would make the best president. The show misses out on real dramatic potential because of this underlying conceit.

Sorokin’s style is akin to the Lubitsch rat-a-tat style of the 1930s screwball comedies. When he’s good, he’s great.

The musical score is, and this is being charitable, horrendous: cheesy and bouncy and both impossible to ignore yet impossible to remember. And when the show is bad, it’s terrible.

The show learns from its mistakes, dropping characters that aren’t working and moving past storylines that lack gravitas. But, this is a drawback, too, as the show whips past some storylines that could use a little time to marinate.

But overall it’s an enlightening glimpse into the world where policies are actually made (and broken).

A great singer on an intriguing show.

Glee—An education of a different kind, with so much to like and only a little to despair. The show has synthesized the history of musicals into a mashup of songs and styles ranging from the 1950s to the oughts. The song numbers range from the sublime—they deliver killer versions of “Baby, it’s cold outside,” “Teenage Dream,” “Cabaret,” and “Bills, Bills, Bills” among others—to the hokey (most of the showtune ballads).

Glee is flashy, sometimes saccharine, overly sentimental, and at times downright corny. It’s also clever, funny, exhilarating, and celebratory.

And for all its meteoric popularity, it’s misunderstood.

The show is less about acceptance than about resilience in the face of failure. But the failure is often unqualified and deserving; the characters are repeatedly defeated, admonished, embarrassed, humiliated and outright beaten. They aren’t talented enough.

It’s an intriguing character study of people who’ve failed. The first season understands this, focusing on the adults more than the children. Shuster, who never took a shot at anything beyond the small town where he grew up; Emma, paralyzed by childhood compulsions; Sue, a tyrant so emotionally clogged she bullies everyone out of existential self-defense.

The show returns to this notion of failure over and over. The overall effect is a pungent and even withering meditation on inadequacy, deficiency and lack of achievement.

The counterpoint to this theme is the show’s other main character, Rachel. She’s talented, ambitious, difficult, and driven, and unlike other shows and movies, it’s cleat that the writers of Glee don’t think this is a bad thing at all, but necessary and good. Without her devotion to her dreams, she will fail, and watching her frustrate and annoy the other members but then wow them with her talent is one of the show’s great pleasures. (The actress who plays her, Lea Michele, is an amazing singer.)

In season 2, Glee has fled from the yearnings and failings of the adults to the yearnings and failings of the teenagers. This is a mistake. The teenagers aren’t as interesting and they can’t be. They sit on the cusp of a world that will no longer protect them, and they don’t understand the thousand little failures and compromises that await.

Too many show tunes. Too many ballads. Too many repeating storylines. A touch of the afterschool special. All of Glee’s problems could be fixed by a shorter season and less episodes. My other problem is the filmmaking. The show has a style, with bold colors and lots of closeups of people’s faces, but it moves the camera too much. There are three fantastic dancers, but their numbers are cut into thirty or forty shots, when one or two would suffice. Tis a pity.

Still, like a good stage musical, when the storyline and the emotional lives of the characters intertwine with the emotional arc of the song, the show strikes a euphoric chord.

Books and comics:

I’ve been struggling with novels. I’ve started half a dozen: Achilles; The Remains of the Day; Leaf Storm (novella by Marquez); Ten Thousand Saints. But I keep stopping around page 50. So, I’ve turned to histories, comics, short stories and even poetry. (I’m making my way through Kanzantikos’s sequel to the Odyssey. So far, it’s great.)

God Against the Gods—Kirsch has written a concise overview of the conflict between monotheism and polytheism. It’s a great read. The two main characters in the book are Constantine and his great nephew Julian.

The story of Constantine is one of the best films never made. He was the illegitimate son of a noble and a prostitute. He schemed and fought his way to the rank of Augustus. (At the time, the Roman Empire had two major rulers and two minor rulers; Diocletian created this power-sharing scheme to protect the empire from weak rulers. He was a good leader, when he wasn’t torturing Christians.) Constantine battled his way to sole control, made Christianity the state religion, and then attempted to reconcile the various heretical threads into a single church. (He succeeded in a sense, failed in another.) As he aged, he realized his sons weren’t up to the task of running the whole empire, so he split it up between Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II, and then he died. His sons went to war.

Constantius II, go figure with a name like that, emerged victorious. He was weaker, more violent, more suspicious and more tyrannical than his father. He made paganism illegal, burned down places of worship, persecuted Christians who believed differently than he. (He was, by Catholic standards, a heretic.) Through grueling years of intrigue, he murdered or had killed his entire family, hundreds of people, leaving his two nephews, Galus and Julian. With Persia rebuilding itself for an attack, he attempted to raise both to the position of Caesar. He had Galus killed. But before he could dispatch Julian, he died.

Julian is an oddball in history. He was an ascetic, a scholar, a great field commander, and a formidable intellect. He was also fair, honest, decent and law abiding. He was all the things his family was not, and for his short reign, a very fine ruler.

But he was on the wrong side of history. He attempted to return to pluralism, reverting the state back to paganism, but not—and this is a key component to the story—making Christianity illegal. Killing by a tossed lance during a Persian campaign, Julian remains one of the history’s big question marks.

Thus endeth the brief history lesson. Gore Vidal’s Julian covers the story of the pagan emperor on the wrong side of history, and for those who are interested, it’s a great read.

 

A disappointing relaunch from my favorite comic book author.

DC new 52—Comics are, without question, on the whole the best they’ve ever been. The writing is inventive, cinematic. The types of comics are varied and diverse. The art has returned to the glory days of the clean 1970s style. But, monthly comics, on the whole, are losing readers. (I’ll write an entry about why later, but the gist of it is the two major superhero universes have become convoluted and have lost their sense of wonder and fun.) DC decided to do something drastic. And so far, the The DC comics restart has driven thousands of new buyers into the comic bookstores. It’s paid off. But it’s annoying. Comics that I would have bought have sold out, and demand has driven the price of the first printings up to 10 bucks a piece. I only got Action Comics, because Grant Morrison is the author, and it was a big letdown. The art was mediocre; the story was listless; the take on Superman a bit boring and banal. I’ll hang around for a few issues, but I didn’t like what I’ve read so far.

 

Great storytelling and clean lines.

FF—The current run on the Fantastic Four is a nerd’s dream, a science fiction phantasm with forty or so characters and a convoluted storyline. (Or rather, set of storylines. There are dozens of things happening at once: Sue Storm taking over the rule of a pre-Atlantis undersea kingdom; Galactus being killed in the future to save the past; Black Bolt taking over the Kree Empire; Doctor Doom losing and then regaining his dark intellect; and so on.) There’s alternate dimensions, the death of the human torch, Spiderman joins the team, and three evil Reed Richards from alternate timelines are attempting to destroy the earth. The stories are heavy on the scienceThe art, by Steve Epting, is superb.

 

Globe-trotting, superspy heroics

Captain America—Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America has been astonishing. The basic story has been to shift the plot away from Steve Rogers to his former sidekick Bucky. Brainwashed by the Soviets after the war, Bucky became an assassin called the Winter Soldier. Returned to full cognition, he takes over the Captain America uniform when Steve Rogers is “killed.” (Only three or four characters have ever stayed dead in superhero comics.) Steve Epting and Butch Guise, both great artists, have given the book a great consistent look. It’s the best run since Mark Gruenwald’s ten-year run starting in the 1980s.

 

The best monthly comic.

B.P.R.D.—The best monthly comic, bar none, and a kooky blast of Lovecraftian powerpop. The misfits from the edges of Hellboy here get their own title, a quirky team book following a handful of science and cult heroes attempting to prevent the destruction of the world by Cthonic spacegods. They’re losing, and the deformation of the earth at the hands of the cosmic villains has been amazing.

 Writing:

The biggest black hole in my life. For the last two weeks I’ve written one paper (it was glorious, but still only a paper) and a few pages of the newest novel. It feels like sinking into quicksand. It feels like ghost pains from an amputated limb. Some days I don’t think about writing at all. I can feel words receding. I can feel the story of the moment shifting like sand between my fingers. I have waking nightmares about lines of story leaking out of my skull.

Our dreams don’t implode, they die slowly, like wilting roses, or water dissipating in unfiltered sunlight.

Au revoir, faceless readers; there’s always more to come.

Me, chewing on writer's block and fighting back tears.