Archive for December, 2009

Well that’s the end of that
December 31, 2009

The 2009 in Film series has unfortunately ended in massive failure due to the rigors of vacationing and general laziness. I’m not sure exactly whose fault this is, but I’m fairly certain there’s some way to blame it on Sarah Palin or Tiger Woods. And also on the lazy internet pirates who haven’t leaked nearly as many DVD screeners as they usually do.

Whatever.

Up is the best movie of the year. There are also many other films that range from good to great which I’ll probably highlight at some point in the future.

If I feel like it.

2009 in Film
December 24, 2009

What kid hasn’t, at some point or another, wished they had different parents? Don’t lie, you know you did. Probably because they didn’t buy you something you wanted, or didn’t let you stay up late, or didn’t make you the exclusive object of their rapt attention when you were clearly the most/only important thing in the entire world. (Or maybe you just actually had bad parents. How the hell should I know?)

Coraline gets her wish. She finds a little tunnel in the wall, crawls into it and finds on the other side the New Jersey Turnpike a virtual carbon copy of her own world but for one difference: her parents here are the ones she’s always wanted. They shower her with affection and attention and give her whatever she wants. Coraline could just stay there forever. Sure, the garden outside is kind of foreboding, and the talking cat issuing ominous warnings to her is pretty unsettling, but still, this place is awesome, right?

And then her Other Mother tries to sew buttons over her eyes.

Yeah, Coraline is creepy. Really creepy at times. And also an utter delight.

Even in such a banner year for animated films Coraline stands out. Exquisitely brought to life via stop-motion (I’m still stupefied we managed to get this and Fantastic Mr. Fox in one year) by Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline is a visual feast. That Selick and his team managed to achieve with stop-motion scenes of such technical complexity (a less dedicated filmmaker would have gone the CGI route) is a real wonder, and well worth it as this film about a parallel universe benefits nicely from the singularly unreal, “off” look that the technique allows for.

So there’s that. And a voice cast that disappear into their characters. And characters that run the gamut from the hilarious to the macabre but either way are never less than compelling. And they propel a story forward that’s unafraid to be mature and relevant even as people who don’t know any better will call it a “kid’s movie”.

You add all that up and you get something that’s really quite wonderful. You also get one of the best films of the year.

2009 in Film
December 19, 2009

Here’s what it comes down to: if you love movies you must see Avatar. You must see it in 3D on the biggest screen that you can find. Because this is the most technically impressive film ever made.

Everything else that can be said about Avatar, and there is a lot, is just postscript. There are people who will think this is one of the best movies they’ve ever seen, the type of people who aren’t very smart and will pretty much like anything that has on the one hand the requisite amount of explosions or on the other hand the facile slap-you-in-the-face kind of allegory for people who don’t get allegory.

Then there are the insufferable types who will take the opposite tract, and call Avatar “predictable” and “unoriginal” for the unthinkable crime of adhering to well-hewn narrative conventions. Yes, Avatar is part Dances With Wolves, part Pocahontas, part Star Wars, part Dune, part Princess Mononoke. Congrats geniuses, you’ve successfully stumbled onto the startling revelation that epic film does not reinvent the wheel when it comes to plot mechanics, that it paints with broad brush strokes, using archetypal characters and universal themes in an effort to offer a new take on old stories.

The truth is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes/ly wrong takes. Avatar is not the greatest thing ever, nor is it uninspired, soulless pablum. It doesn’t put its own spin on its tropes as well as it could, not does it totally fail to make them compelling. Its script isn’t as fresh a take on this familiar story as a better writer of dialogue could have come up with, but isn’t the cut and paste job of a hack either.

As a singular achievement it is remarkable, as a new experience unimpeachable. It’s unlike anything you have ever seen before projected onto a theater screen. James Cameron has created from the bottom up a living, breathing alien world to take you on an intimate tour through. And if Avatar is him reaching for the stars and not quite making it all the way he certainly doesn’t come up empty either. Far from it.

Avatar may or may not be a great movie, but it is undeniably an incredible one.

(Side note: I would be fairly surprised if there isn’t a director’s cut sitting in Cameron’s office that’s half an hour or so longer than what’s being shown in theaters. There’s just too many instances where it feels that non-essential content was cut for timing reasons. And if there is a longer version then I’m even more surprised that James Cameron of all people doesn’t have the kind of clout necessary where he can tell the bosses at Fox, “The movie’s going to be as long as I feel like making it. Now go away and just trust me to make you guys a shitload of money.”)

So
December 17, 2009

Act 1 was the pumped-up Democrats full of verve and optimism as they set about to get something big done, a sweeping change of some sort that will make lives better for the millions that need it.

Act 2 was the come down as the reality of dealing with obstructionist Republicans as well as nervous, poll-watching, uncooperative Democrats hit.

Act 3 was the low point; the grand progressive project has bit by bit lost its edge, picked away at by the opposition to the point where it’s a faint, middling shadow of its former vigorous self. Any victory now would be almost Pyrrhic.

Okay, so now we’re up to Act 4. This is the part where a fed up president storms through to the front lines and delivers an Aaron Sorkin-scripted, passionate, eloquent and forceful speech that magically makes everything better. We’re left with the feeling that things will be okay and the bad guys will lose, and the good guys rejoice as we fade to black.

That’s gonna happen with this health care debacle, right? Any day now Obama’s gonna barge into the White House Press Room and launch into an impromptu speech, fervently articulating the necessity, the moral imperative of passing real, substantial health care reform and castigating those whose crass, shamelessly self serving interference has resulted in the watered down joke of a bill Democratic leadership is pathetically trying to sell as a major victory.

He’ll talk about how this is the United States of America and we don’t craft legislation with the goal of filling the coffers of Big Insurance in mind, and how this is the United States of America and we are not such blind worshipers at the altar of capitalism that we’ll leave people’s livelihoods in the trusting hands of the covetous and exploitative, that this is the United States of America and we are not so slavish in our devotion to the free market that we will abandon people to the whim and mercy of a voracious, insatiable corporate beast that given the chance will consume, devour and spit out their bones picked clean, that this is the United States of America and if government can’t do everything for its citizens the least it can do is keep them alive, and that this kind of crap just does not fly, is not acceptable, will not go on, not here, not in the United States of America.

Right?

Random Excellent Item of the Day
December 17, 2009

Steven Colbert and Roger Sterling tear gold-hawking, fear mongering conservative pundits a new one.

2009 in Film
December 15, 2009

Given an extremely limited theatrical release back in August, World’s Greatest Dad has gone virtually ignored by, well, everyone.

This is a travesty.

To relay the plot is to give away the film’s central conceit (if you see it you’ll understand why that is), so all I’ll say is that this is one of those incredible roles that Robin Williams comes out with every few years as if to remind us that in between collecting fat paychecks for phoning in work on awful, awful movies he can still bring it. Williams fully disappears into his character as he anchors this darkest of comedies, and by dark I mean dark.

And yet, somehow at the end it manages to leave you uplifted and not feel forced as it does so. “Forced” is a word World’s Greatest Dad doesn’t understand. It’s as honest in its look at the capacity for an almost innocent kind of darkness in us all as it is uncompromising with its targets (cult of celebrity, sheep mentality, psychology, youthful stupidity) for scorn. It’s brilliantly authentic and authentically brilliant, and if box office grosses reflected quality it would have been a blockbuster. They don’t, and it wasn’t, because people like what they like instead of liking what’s good.

World’s Greatest Dad is an instant minor classic and one of the best films of the year. See it.

Joe the Asshole
December 15, 2009

Joe Lieberman was probably the only non-president/VP politician that I knew by name as a child. Naturally, as a kid, you’re only concerned with the stuff that affects you directly, especially when it comes to the boring government stuff that only boring old people care about (many unfortunately never grow out of this stage; I guarantee a plurality of citizens in this country couldn’t tell you who the current Speaker of the House was, name one Supreme Court Justice or more than two amendments in the Bill of Rights).

Anyway, Lieberman’s crime that got him the attention of a seven year old me was that he went on a crusade against Mortal Kombat, pretty much marching up and down Capitol Hill telling anyone who would listen that this plainly awesome game was unsafe for me to play.

Naturally the result of all this was that due to the influence of this game I grew up to be a badass blood-lusting martial artist, and due to the influence of Scorpion Joe Lieberman was found speared to death in his Senate office while a faint echo of “GET OVER HERE!” could be heard fading into the night.

Sadly, neither of these things actually happened, and Joe Lieberman is still around bothering people and making things generally unpleasant. This time he’s threatening to scream at the top of his lungs in the middle of the Senate so no one can get anything done (also known as filibustering) unless the health care bill Democrats are trying to pass conforms to his reality-challenged demands.

This is nothing new; politicians routinely resort to I’ll-take-my-ball-and-go-home tactics when they don’t like the way a game is going. What makes this case different though is the hysterically hypocritical irony on display from Joe in this clip here. Not only is Joey on the record as being vehemently against the filibuster process, he once tried to outlaw it. The very tactic he’s now triumphantly using to hold up health care reforms for millions of people is the same tactic he once blasted as “hurting credibility” and “impeding progress”. Nothing like consistency, huh Joe?

This is the kind of shit that goes down when you put the Emperor from Star Wars in charge of things. Fucking Connecticut voters.

2009 in Film
December 14, 2009

The West Wing was a show that dared to imagine a world where the behind the scenes people who help run our government were good-natured, eminently qualified and genuinely concerned about making the lives of their constituents better. In the Loop is The West Wing‘s evil twin. The officials and staffers inhabiting the world of this movie are supremely cynical, grotesquely self-serving and woefully incompetent.

And completely hysterical. In the Loop is bar none one of the funniest films released in years, and certainly one of the most quotable. The character of Malcolm Tucker, a very angry Brit who’s always trying to head off one crisis or another, might just be the single most foul mouthed dude ever to appear on the big screen. And whether it’s his cutting, graphic one liners or the bureaucratic buffoonery of small people in big positions, In the Loop never stalls; from beginning to end it’s flat out brilliant.

One caveat: you can not be an idiot and enjoy this film. Which isn’t to say you’re an idiot if you don’t enjoy it, but it’s just so dense and moves so quickly and the lines fly around so fast that you’ve got to have some intellectual heft about you in order to appreciate it. And if you do, and you’re at all politically inclined, you will very likely love it. The sobering reality is that government and politics is much more In the Loop than The West Wing, but when played as such skillfull satire ʽsoberʼ is the last word you’d use to describe it.

2009 in Film
December 13, 2009

This will be a new short term feature wherein I disseminate the wisdom of my tastes from high on down with the fleeting hope that those who read it will see the light and endeavor to bring their own opinions more into line with my own.

Now, you might be inclined to say something along the lines of “But that’s always what you do here, you pugnacious jerk”. And I would reply, “Oooh, big word. Yes, but this time it’s about movies. And it’s a feature. Don’t you fucking listen?”.

Anyway, I’ll try to keep these blurbs as spoiler-free as possible. They’re not in any order, except for the best, which I’ll save for last. They are simply brief recommendations that highlight the best cinema had to offer this year. I’ll start with the most recent one I saw:

With Thank You For Smoking and Juno Jason Reitman has carved out a niche for himself using adroit and seemingly apathetic protagonists as conduits with which to explore stories that mine morbid subject matters (the tobacco industry and teen pregnancy, respectively) for the humor and humanity buried within. He continues this theme in Up in the Air, which tells the story of an outsourced employment termination officer, which basically means his job is to fly around the country and fire people for money.

This is George Clooney at his best; slick, quick-witted and somehow charming despite the fact that he’s playing a disaffected pretty-much-a-dick. And as with his two previous thematically similar films, especially Smoking, Reitman works with a sharp, fast paced, intelligent script that balances crassness and compassion as it works its way through believable character progression toward a not at all trite endgame.

I’d like to see the guy branch out a little more, but he’s very good at what he does, and consequently Up in the Air is a very good film.

Random Excellent Item of the Day
December 13, 2009

My scandalicious high school French teacher gets mentions from Conan and Letterman and ever her own Gawker tag.

Stuff like this just puts a big smile on my face.