Posted: October 29th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! In celebration of our spookiest holiday, I’m going to share what really gives me the creeps. I’ve always thought that the best horror movies are the ones that stay with you long after the movie is over. And no experience stays with you quite like the ones that lurk in your subconscious. With that in mind, here is a list of movies that have given me nightmares. Keep in mind that these movies aren’t necessarily the scariest movies I’ve seen, or even the best. What unites them is that the dreams they inspire come from a single, disturbing movie moment, and they all attack my primal fears.
Aliens. James Cameron directed this sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Cameron took the “bigger is better” approach to sequel-making. The last 45 minutes of this movie are an intense white-knuckle hell ride.
Back story: Being responsible adults, my parents let me watch Aliens when I was six. It gave me horrible dreams for about a decade. Now it’s one of my favorites.
Nightmare-inducing moment: This is a tie. The first moment is when Ripley discovers a still-breathing colonist who promptly has an alien burst from her chest. The scene is tame now, but for a kid who had no understanding of fatalistic suicide, the phrase “Kill me” leaves psychic trauma. The second moment happens when the queen rips Bishop in half. His robot insides are gross.
Nightmare: Aliens pop out of my chest. The queen rips me in half. Repeatedly.
Back story: Being a responsible adult, my 9th grade science teacher showed us Dante’s Peak in class. She claimed the movie’s science was accurate. That may have very well been true, but it still doesn’t excuse my teacher’s wanton laziness.
Nightmare-inducing moment: The plucky family and the badass scientist are stuck on a boat. Through the miracle of science, the volcano turns the lake into a vat of boiling acid. Sweet Old Granny does everyone a solid by jumping into the acid, and pulling the boat to shore. Granny dies.
Nightmare: I turn on the shower, and boiling acid comes out. It burns off my skin.
Primal fear: Distrust of the familiar.
Jacob’s Ladder. Tim Robbins plays Jacob, a Vietnam veteran who may have been part of an army experiment gone awry. Now he has horrible hallucinations that erode his sanity.
Nightmare-inducing moment: Faceless doctors try to operate on Jacob. They keep telling him that he’s dead.
Touching the Void. This documentary is about a mountain climber who shatters his kneecap and falls into a crevasse. Amazingly, he survives.
Nightmare-inducing moment(s): The mountain climber is hanging off the edge of a crevasse. He cannot see the bottom, and is tethered to his climbing partner. They cannot communicate. Left with no other option, the partner cuts the rope. The climber falls.
Nightmare: I’m Dustin Hoffman in that scene. Just thinking about it makes my teeth ache.
Primal Fear: Helplessness, again.
Thus concludes my chronicle of what movies keep me up at night.After re-reading all the nightmares, I’ve come to two conclusions: (1) the scariest movie anybody sees is the first one they shouldn’t see as a kid and (2) I don’t like going to the doctor or dentist.
Writing this post has certainly piqued my curiosity: what movies give you nightmares?
“Had I made Paradise Lost today,” Joe Berlinger tells me, “it would have been shorter.” We are in Silver Spring, where his latest documentary Crudejust had its DC-area premiere. It tells a dense issue-based story, one that spans nearly two decades, so a discussion of feature length seems appropriate. We talk about his most recent film, as well as his previous efforts.
Posted: October 16th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
After decades of development hell, Where the Wild Things Are makes its wildly anticipated premiere. Perhaps you’ve watched the trailer and thought Spike Jonze’s latest effort will be a tearful, cathartic experience. With impeccable character design and production values, the movie succeeds visually, and does Maurice Sendak’s classic justice. But even with earnest performances and voice work, the threadbare plot never sets sail. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers doggedly keep the action in the perspective of their pint-sized hero. They do an admirable job of capturing a young boy’s mindset, even though their decision (somewhat ironically) impedes an emotional connection.
Max (Max Records) is a typical kid with an overactive imagination. He seems like the kind of boy my 10-year-old self would like to call a friend (I mean, who doesn’t remember the glory of building a truly epic bedroom fort ?). Max clearly loves his mom (Catherine Keener) and old sister (Pepita Emmerichs), and cannot understand why they desire more mature company. Dad is out of the picture, so when Mom attempts a quiet night with her boyfriend, Max lashes out, scaring both Mom and himself. Max runs away to the titular land, where he encounters six wild things. The de-facto leader is Carol (James Gandolfini), who quickly acknowledges Max as their new king. Other wild things, such as Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and KW (Lauren Ambrose), are more skeptical. Max nonetheless LETSTHE WILD RUMPUS START, and relishes his time with the perfect playmates. Things eventually take a turn for worse when the wild things feel betrayed, and their tenuous bond becomes increasingly frail. Max struggles to save the situation, even as he suspects there’s no place like home.
More than any other movie in recent memory, Where the Wild Things Are captures the impulses and imagination of a kid. It’s easy to share Max’s heedless joy when, in an early scene, bigger kids join his snowball fight. With the wild things, Max conveys familiar innocence by suggesting they play violent-sounding games. Tension arises because Max and his playmates act without thinking, and the pain/rejection inflicted dwarfs any apology. The highs and lows roughly resemble those of a sleepover party, and unfortunately generate about as much drama. In a way, Eggers and Jonze are trapped by Max – the wild things only exist in his imagination, and cannot develop beyond his capacity for invention. The movie lacks tension, yes, but compensates with compelling imagery.
The wild things themselves are delightful creatures. Just the right mix of cute and creepy, their exaggerated movement make us feel Max is never in danger (particularly as they fall, which is often). And like the best anthropomorphic creations, the wild things have wonderfully expressive faces. I was pleasantly surprised by the care that went into voice casting. In an abstract way, the actors resemble the wild things they portray. Gandolfini is a lovable lug, Ambrose has wide eyes and red hair, and Paul Dano‘s Alexander is lean and meek. Such attention to detail is also apparent in the direction. Jonze fills his shots with color that never over-saturates. The exteriors are all uniformly striking, and Jonze’s playful interaction with sunlight adds the right amount of ethereal beauty.
I’m unsure whether Where the Wild Things Are will appeal to kids. At the screening I attended, there were dozens of children in the audience, and I didn’t hear a peep from them. I like to think they were rapt with attention, though it’s just as likely they fell asleep. I do know Jonze and his team went through great pains to identify with kids, and make a film that doesn’t condescend to them. Earnestness is apparent through every frame and choice the production team made. Special recognition should go to Max Records, who never appears to be acting and excels as an audience conduit. When precocious child characters are the norm, Records convincingly portrays exactly what the role requires, and nothing more. Yet for all the effort and good will, I won’t remember Where the Wild ThingsAre as fondly as I do its decades-old inspiration. While certainly talented, Spike Jonze cannot best my mom as a master storyteller, and no movie is as comforting as warm supper waiting for me.
Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
The CoenBrothers‘ A Serious Man examines weighty subjects with a markedly Jewish perspective. Using a largely unknown cast, the Coens set a mood that’s both hilarious and foreboding. There’s the familiarly world-weary protagonist, as well as a number of peculiar supporting characters. Some situations are deliberately impenetrable, and may provoke disquiet in audiences. While those raised Jewish may grasp more offbeat humor than the average goy, the movie’s appeal is nevertheless universal.
It’s Minnesota in the late 1960s, and physics Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is under a lot of stress. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a Jewish divorce procedure, and she’s already begun a relationship with the velvet-tongued Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) recently moved into the house, and spends his time either draining the cyst on his neck, or doodling a complex probability model. There are two children in the Gopnik household, both teenagers, and they’re predictably unpleasant adolescents. Things aren’t much better at Larry’s work. A disgruntled Asian student (David Kang) offers a bribe for a passing grade. The professor is terrified of the cash-filled envelope, particularly since the tenure committee watches his every move. All this takes a spiritual toll on Larry, so he seeks council from local rabbis. Much to Larry’s chagrin, the rabbis are just as clueless as he is, so the spiritual crisis becomes increasingly grave.
The clash of fate versus chance is central to A Serious Man. A brief prologue, set hundreds of years before the central story, bizarrely suggests the possibility of a family curse. It’s never clear whether the characters in the prologue are Larry’s ancestors, yet the first scene establishes the unsettling tone. As Larry’s world crumbles, he believes his seriousness, or stature in the community, should prevent tragedies from befalling him. But I don’t want you to think A Serious Man is a solemn, disturbing allegory. Despite the heavy subject matter, the movie is very funny, due to confident direction and observant performances. Michael Shtulbarg, a successful Broadway actor, could have made Larry over the top. Always looks on the verge of panic, Shtulbarg’s understated reactions engender audience sympathy. Of the many weird supporting performances, George Wyner shines as Rabbi Nachtner, a man who’s long given up on answering the Big Questions. As always, the presence of the Coens dominate the screen more than any cast member. Here they blur the line between reality and dreams, so even their plausible scenes are somewhat surreal. And their movie culminates with a shot so striking that it alone may justify the admission price.
Joel and Ethan Coen are notoriously cagey about their personal life, though I suspect A Serious Man is their most personal movie. The sons of two professors, the brothers also came of age in Minnesota suburbs. Perhaps they bear a similarity to Larry’s son, who wants nothing more than to get high, even when he’s supposed to study Torah. We’ll never know just how autobiographical their movie is, yet the directors clearly grasp the Jewish mindset. Characters are tenacious and neurotic, and try their best to be unflappable. They value family and knowledge, and turn to history in times of strife. With the plight of Larry Gopnik, the Coens argue such rich traditions are irrelevant to an uncaring universe, no matter what the governing force. The filmmakers are thankfully at the top of their form, as it takes genuine talent to make a disturbing conclusion so fucking funny.
Posted: October 5th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! This week I saw Whip Itand Betty Blue, both about young women who struggle to find their places in life. Their respective paths involve violence – Bliss (aka Babe Ruthless) crosschecks babes on the derby circuit, and Betty assaults anyone who gets in the way of her whirlwind romance.
Whip It takes a familiar sports movie formula and imbues it with a fun attitude and heartfelt performances. Ellen Page stars as Bliss, a high school student who is deeply dissatisfied with her small Texas town. She and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) dream of a world beyond the trashy BBQ joint where they work. Bliss’ mother (Marcia Gay Harden) has beauty pageant ambitions, so when Bliss joins an Austin roller derby team, she keeps her newfound hobby a secret. Things are going great – the team starts winning, and Bliss even catches the eye of Oliver (Landon Pigg), the dreamy singer of a local band. Then drama inevitably ensues, and it’s unclear whether Bliss will sort out her life before the Big Game.
This story has been told before, and will undoubtedly be told again. Making her directorial debut, Drew Barrymore never overstates a point, whether she films an emotional epiphany or a nasty cross-check. The frequent derby competitions lack the suspense of other sport movies, perhaps due to the games’s cyclical nature. The fun costumes and badass soundtrack nonetheless ensure breezy entertainment, and some brutal exchanges have a visceral wallop. Barrymore’s confident work makes the material seem fresh, even the midst of familiar plot developments. The cast uniformly does a good job, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Ellen Page plays a character not unlike Juno. Whereas Diablo Cody makes her dialogue twee and laden with bizarre references, Shauna Cross’ screenplay is plausible and warm. Bliss a plucky protagonist, and Page easily wins the audience’s sympathy. Other standout performances are from Kristen Wiig who plays Bliss’ de-facto mentor, and Juliette Lewis as a villain whose motivations are more complex than they initially seem.
Whip It bears an uncanny resemblance to Breaking Away, another small town sports movie. Both feature young characters that are sick of small-town banality, as well as performances by Daniel Stern. Even if Breaking Away was written thirty years ago, the big parental showdowns are alarmingly similar, an uneasy combination of cliché and surprising depth. I somehow doubt Whip It will also win a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, but don’t let that dissuade you. Cross and Barrymore made a genuine crowd-pleaser that appeals to a wide audience, not just die-hard derby fans. Then again, perhaps I’m biased – I’ve been waiting for The Go! Team to find their way onto a movie soundtrack for years.
Betty Blue made its debut more than twenty years ago, when it was nominated for Best Foreign Film and won several César awards (France’s equivalent of the Oscars). Now director Jean-Jacques Beineix releases his director’s cut which features an additional hour of footage. I never saw the original version, so I cannot say whether Beineix improved upon his initial work. I can say, however, that Betty Blue is a bizarre romantic fantasy with fleeting moments of genuine beauty. Jean-Hugues Anglade stars as Zorg, a humble handyman who leads a quiet existence. We never learn how Betty (Béatrice Dalle) wanders into Zorg’s life, but she clearly has a strong effect on him. They have a passionate affair that is based mostly on sex. Zorg is content to stay in his bungalow, and Betty clearly has more ambition. Whenever she isn’t pushing Zorg to lead a fuller life, she expresses herself with unhinged, violent outbursts. The outbursts first alarm Zorg, and then he begins to understand Betty’s uneasy grasp on sanity. Their affair continues even as Betty’s becomes more unstable, perhaps against Zorg’s better judgment.
There is never a sense that Betty and Zorg exist in a plausible universe, so Beineix keeps the action at a distance from his audience. The couple can be charming (when they tickle the ivories at a friend’s funeral) and infuriating (when Betty stabs an unhappy customer with a fork). They’re always over the top, and therefore never engage my sympathies. Despite such distance, Beineix keeps the plot moving along, and makes most scenes compulsively watchable. Whenever things begin to drag, a healthy dose of nudity adds considerable vigor (the movie starts with an erotic sex scene that frankly doesn’t look fake). The actors ooze charm. Anglade is a dead ringer for Adrien Brody, and subtly conveys increasing complicity in Betty’s psychosis. Dalle pulls off a tricky thing – even at her most crazed, Dalle is a commanding presence, even if she’s not really likable. Their tumultuous relationship culminates in a development that seems inevitable. Beineix may want his story to end in tragedy, though the final scenes are emotionally inert. Unless you’re a fan of classic French cinema, Betty Blue is not necessary viewing. Still, it may be worthwhile to see a movie that influenced the likes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Laetitia Colombani.
That’s it for this edition of “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next time when I get all serious.
Posted: October 2nd, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Capitalism: A Love Story is Michael Moore’s frustratingly lazy indictment of American corporate greed. Some of his conclusions are important, even shocking, yet they are lost in sea of obfuscation and manipulative populism. As always, Moore posits himself as the people’s voice, a left-wing gadfly whose antics undermine the Wall Street agenda. He attempts to rekindle the humble outrage of Roger & Me, and ignores how his larger-than-life persona precedes him. Evoking blind outrage without context, Moore insults any audience member who dares question his methods. In a time where our President calls for reasoned debate, Moore undermines political discourse, and bears an uncanny resemblance to his conservative counterparts.
The movie’s methodology will be familiar to anyone who has seen Moore’s previous work. After a broadly comic caricature of the issue at hand, Moore lays out his thesis (Capitalism is evil). Human tragedy and institutional corruption illustrate the central argument. There are friendly interviews and stagy pranks. Cynical, sometimes funny barbs are made with outdated archival footage. Moore spends considerable time on current events (e.g. home foreclosures, the financial bail-out, the unfortunate popularity of derivatives). Likeminded Congressmen willingly discuss the bailout, whereas former Bush appointees ignore his phone calls. He praises employers who rebuke excessive greed, and advocates for America to broadly change its Constitution and economy. And with some final wrenching footage, Moore calls on his audience to act. Sounds good, no?
The biggest problem with Capitalism: A Love Story is its lack of thoughtful analysis. For a movie that criticizes a 19th century economic concept, it’s surprising that Moore never interviews a single economic historian. Instead of an educated expert, who does Moore use for context? Wallace Shawn, perhaps best known for shouting “Inconceivable!” in The Princess Bride. Coupled with footage of catholic priests who call capitalism evil, it becomes clear Moore prefers manipulation over facts. There is sequence in which Moore laments the low starting salaries of commercial airline pilots. Naturally Moore ignores that the average commercial airline pilot makes a decent salary. And through conjecture alone, Moore suggests two pilots were discussing their meager pay shortly before a deadly crash. Such disregard for facts hurts his message, and should madden those sympathetic to his cause, especially since reality has a well-known liberal bias.
With a dearth of facts comes an overreliance on emotion, which puts the story squarely in Moore’s wheelhouse. He revisits familiar antics, such as attempts to enter AIG and GM offices, and security guards shoo him away. He attempts a citizen’s arrest of Wall Street executives, and surrounds buildings with crime scene tape. Such schtick doesn’t work because Michael Moore is too notorious a figure. He cannot recapture the relatively innocent days of his earlier efforts. When Henry Paulson’s secretary promptly hangs up on Moore, I can’t really blame her. At one point, Moore shoots a family in the throes of a humiliating foreclosure. These scenes are ineffective because they’re so transparently exploitative, and because the family has no back story. Indeed, Moore’s populist rhetoric leaves no room for personal responsibility. He views Reagan’s 1980 election and the subsequent bank deregulation as the root of the problem, and ignores the millions of voters who elected him into office (twice). That is not to say, however, that his movie is a complete hatchet job. Moore uncovers a despicable corporate accounting practice, and his handling of the financial bailout is effective. But for every compelling moment, there are several moments of head-scratching simplicity.
With luck, Capitalism: A Love Story will be the final step in Moore’s inevitable obsolescence. His supporters have already drunk the blue-state Kool-Aid. His detractors will undoubtedly ignore his substance, and focus on his obnoxious rancor. Nowadays Moore’s aspirations are perhaps achievable. Granted, I doubt the President will sign the second Bill of Rights, ensuring every American has the right to a job (whatever the fuck that means). Two weeks ago Obama sensibly discussed the negative effects of financial deregulation, and how the wealthiest Americans should not control the majority of wealth. His voice and even those of some republicans are a welcome tonic in an increasingly shrill battle of words. Conservatives battle against reform with death panels and scare tactics. Moore battles for reform by suggesting capitalism caused the Katrina fiasco. Both tactics are pathetic. At least in Moore’s case, box office returns might show how cruel capitalism can be.