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Top Ten Films I’d Put in a Time Capsule to Tell My Android Granddaughter WTF was Up With 2008

Thursday, December 25th, 2008
Jeez. I thought America—and by extension, Hollywood, America’s analyst—was in a dark mood in 2007. In 2008, the zeitgeist got even grimmer. Elections have a way of making people obsess over the future, and the prognostications from Wall Street weren’t good. As a result, my Top Ten Films I’d Put in a Time Capsule to Tell My Android Granddaughter WTF Was Up With 2008 rounds up a batch of bummer films—even WALL*E, the most cheerful of the lot, kicks off with the premise that the planet is screwed.

American Carol

Two weeks after the 2008 election, years of outrage felt as distant as last week’s hangover. This slop house liberal-bashing comedy didn’t last even that long in theaters, but it’s the perfect relic of eight years of red-state/blue-state bile. Also rans: Postal and Religulous.

Frost/Nixon and W.

“Are evil presidents evil people?” asks this double feature of period pieces of past and soon-to-be-past presidents. In short: Not really. They’re human. Both argue that if we can’t have a leader who manages not to make colossal screw-ups, Americans are best making do with a confession and forgiveness. Note to Bush: Fess up sooner than Nixon did.

Fly Me To The Moon

No one saw this unmemorable cartoon about three insects who sneak on Apollo 11, but this first-ever all-animated 3D flick is the harbinger of the future: months after its release, Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks committed to shooting all of their new kiddie spectacles in 3D.

Milk

Fate —or luck—saw that this slender, hopeful tribute to gay activism came out just weeks after Proposition 8 narrowly passed. Buying a ticket felt like a better way to show your support than getting into fistfights with Mormons on the evening news. (Though both have their appeal.)

The Dark Knight

Hope was on everyone’s lips, except for our superheroes’. They’ve gotten moodier every year with Christopher Nolan’s Batman helming their therapy sessions in the rubber black turtleneck and beret. Happy endings belong in a different zeitgeist, except for the guileless love being showered upon Danny Boyle’s idiotic Slumdog Millionaire, which considers itself brave for spoonfeeding us a cheery ending. Also ran: Hancock.

WALL*E

Maybe in 2009, optimism will resurface from the cave it’s hid in all decade (next to Bin Laden’s, perhaps?). But until then, we’re finding beauty in garbage and despair. WALL*E even made a cockroach gorgeous. Sure, it had to leap ahead centuries to figure out how to fix the world, but dust-storms aside, maybe all we really need to be happy is one friend and Barbra Streisand.

The Promotion

Don’t wait for the future to watch this bleak, squirmy comedy starring John C. Reilly and Sean William Scott as two assistant grocery store managers who battle each other for a raise. Released months before the economic collapse, it captures the cutthroat tension and small-soul killing choices desperate people make to pay their mortgage. Hilarious, hopeless, and riveting.

Be Kind Rewind

Flat screens? Blu-ray? HD? In home 3D? Michel Gondry’s bizarre curio romps around like an ’80s hack comedy while mourning what it feared was the death of social film-going. Even when you rent a VHS tape, you have to leave home and talk to someone. The silver lining is that in recent months, ticket sales are up and Blu-ray has stuck its head in the sand.

Cloverfield

Telegenic hotties getting slaughtered by the thousands churned less stomachs than the shaky, verite camera work that demarked this silly thriller as, like, totally real dude. The apotheosis of YouTube artistry, Cloverfield best represents 2008’s obsession with looking authentic over being watchable, or even good.

Synecdoche, New York

The best film of the year, I’d like Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece to be shorthand for 2008 just as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind earmarked 1939. Kaufman’s obsession with failure will make us look like a nation of neurotic geniuses. There’s worse things to be, I suppose. Like Munchkins.


Click here for the Top Ten Films I’d Put in a Time Capsule to Tell My Android Granddaughter WTF was Up With 2008 in the IE Weekly

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Thursday, December 25th, 2008

In any other year, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would have been the most broken-down beautiful film about mortality. This year, however, we’ve already had Synecdoche, New York, and while it’s a shame this ambitious curio is doomed to second place, it’s still clearly the second place film. Charlie Kaufman actually wrote a draft of the F. Scott Fitzgerald-inspired (loosely inspired) yarn about a man whose mental and physical ages are reversed: he ages backwards from an arthritic and deaf 80-year-old newborn to an infant raging with the impotent frustration of Alzheimer’s. None of Kaufman’s off-kilter plotting made it into this incarnation, drafted by Eric Roth and directed with ingenuity by David Fincher. But you can’t help thinking that plenty of Button’s mortal futility seeped into Synecdoche where it made a slightly richer brew.

Brad Pitt stars, more or less, as Benjamin Button. The film’s bracketed by stretches that star the CGI horror of a baby, then various old, diminutive actors as the withered man-child of Button’s youth, before Pitt  ages himself out of the picture with three teen and tween doubles. Still, though collectively other people play Button as long as he does, he’s quite good in the role and it’s a visual relief when he first hobbles on to the screen as a 60-something man. As his love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) has the tougher role—she’s the witness forced to make tough choices while he’s simply along for the ride in a body that’s betrayed him. Strong too is Taraji P. Henson playing Benjamin’s adopted mother after dad Thomas (Jason Flemyng) abandoned his son on the steps of her nursing home, where he grew up surrounded by fading lives rather than thriving children.

Every frame of Button is aware of death; it’s to funerals what Rambo is to body counts. “We’re meant to lose the people we love—how else are we to know how important they were to us,” is empty philosophy offered up as wisdom. It helps no one in the film or outside it. Set mostly in New Orleans, Button’s story is framed by the first brunt of Hurricane Katrina where Daisy, near death, has daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) read her Benjamin’s diary. These hospitals scenes do little to advance the story; they’re just interrupters that remind us that what we’re watching is the end of living history, both for a city and the man who lived in—and defined himself—by it. More than a love story, Button is a eulogy for the 20th Century. Benjamin was born on the last day of World War I—an auspicious time to take stock of the last century’s wild changes. He comes of age during moral decadence, finds strength during the Depression, learns to value life during WWII, loses his woman to the wild post-war night life, and finds bucolic contentment during the early ’60s before spending the hippie-fied ’70s as an aimless, scruffy backpacker.

Fincher has the visual bravado to use these set pieces as expressionist backdrops. When Benjamin falls for the wife of a spy (Tilda Swinton), she’s draped in Russian furs; later, when faced with a submarine attack, Fincher shoots the boat against a sky so moody, it looks like it was steeped in teabags. While he can’t resist a few overt metaphors, such as the pier stretching out into nothingness the characters return to time and again when considering mortality, he’s shot a beautiful, intricate spectacle that compliments his streamlined themes.

Click here for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in the IE Weekly

Sukiyaki Western Django

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

Inspired by a bowl of sukiyaki, a dish swirling with tofu, mushrooms, cabbage, and noodles, Japanese auteur Takashi Miike has concocted an eclectic western: A Nevada brawl interpreted through Italian spaghetti westerns starring a Japanese cast brandishing samurai swords and an armory of pistols. The enemy clans—the Reds and the Whites—wear a color-coded Mad Max combo of letterman jackets, chaps, and hair extensions; they bark threats at each other in a phonetically-learned dialect of English where villains still hiss “I’m gonna clean your plow.” The head of the Reds played by Asian megastar Koichi Sato even insists on being called Henry IV in tribute to Shakespeare’s retelling of the War of the Roses (a floral metaphor Miike borrows). With the entrance of a gunfighter (Hideaki Ito) whose solution for the violence is Kill ‘Em All, the flick’s a lot of sound and fury and dynamite that signifies nothing while paying tribute to everything Miike and artistic cohort Quentin Tarantino (who has an extended cameo) hold dear. Cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita gilds Miike and co-writer Masa Nakamura’s straight-forward revenge plot into a spectacle where feathers burst from wounds, snow falls during duels, and nobody drops their weapon until their eighth bullet wound.

Click here for Sukiyaki Western Django in the IE Weekly

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Friday, July 4th, 2008

Alex Gibney’s documentary skims over the last two decades of Hunter S. Thompson’s life, explaining that he had succumbed to his own mythos, lost his gonzo mojo, and written little of merit excepting a 9/11 piece — penned that same morning — which presaged, well, everything in the next 7 years. By that logic, he died decades before his suicide, which even by friends like artist Ralph Steadman was greeted with a resigned “It’s about time.” Gibney can’t decide if he’s making a eulogy for fans or a primer for acquaintances. Though talking heads like Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, and — special guest — Pat Buchanan aren’t effusive in their praise (for that matter, neither are Thompson’s ex-wives or son), that’s to be expected for the man who once remarked that “Most people are surprised I can walk on two legs.” Still, the tone is that of triumph, deserved certainly, but here whose reasons for which are underbaked. Long stretches are devoted to four periods in Thompson’s life: his time with the Hells Angels (so hard they tongue kissed each other for shock), his time with the Vegas tweakers, his campaign for mayor of Aspen, and his passionate political firebranding on behalf of McGovern’s 1968 campaign. The chunky doc would have been better served expounding on only one or two – my vote going for his role as governmental provocateur, knowledge of which I’m still thirsty for, unlike his hallucinogenitory barfly lizards which have been giving people hangovers since Johnny Depp last stumbled past.

Personality Crisis

Friday, April 25th, 2008

Thirty-year-old writer and musician Trixie (Megan Lee Ethridge) knows herself: She’s boring. Her boyfriend, Gary (Michael Hampton), persuades her (for the sake of her career and that of their sneering, droning punk band) to create the persona of B.J. McCool, a transsexual teenage hustler who’s been swapping blowjobs for cash since his daddy done made him in the eighth grade. B.J.’s memoir is embraced by everyone from Dr. Phil to Madonna; less enthralled by her tales of incest and masturbating into soup pots is Trixie’s egotistic thesis adviser, Professor Big Thunder (Nick Denning), now mining his poor childhood on the reservation for his fourth autobiography, though his dim-bulb girlfriend, Kelly (Kerri Reed), is a fan. Playwright-director Rick Mitchell’s ripped-from-the-headlines send-up of literary pretensions is about truth but rings false with contrived dialogue and plot twists. It’s fun watching Gary bait Big Thunder into spouting poetic twaddle about doing peyote on the prairie, but after Trixie persuades Kelly to play B.J. at an awards show, the story devolves into soap-opera betrayals that only skim past Mitchell’s questions about identity. Left entirely unexplored is the larger theme of why our lurid therapy culture mistakes shock honesty for art and loves little more than other people’s misery. There are several loud numbers by B.J., Gary and Trixie’s band, the Mimetic Pygmies, who, as their profile rises, pen choruses like “Gender is a notion that we both mock/I’m just a little girl with a big fat cock.”

Click here for Personality Crisis in the LA Weekly

Shine A Light

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

Let’s just call it out now. The Beatles were the better musicians; The Rolling Stones, superior performers. Which is why director Martin Scorsese’s documentary feels no more compelled to delve into the Stones’ music than aiming a dozen high tech cameras at New York’s Beacon Theatre and hoping they can keep up with Mick. Though Scorsese shot The Band in the 1978 classic The Last Waltz, he’s not a natural fit for the rock-out-cock-out genre. Scorsese’s too uptight even for soft jazz. Before the curtain rises on this Fall 2006 fundraiser (hosted by Bill Clinton), Marty’s banging his head on the control panel because Mick hasn’t figured out their opening song. (It’s the battle of the Alpha Artists.) But once the show kicks off, Marty and Bill evaporate like so much sweat off Mick’s happy trail, along with bits of fascination like Mick’s spreadsheet of possible jams, subdivided into well-known and medium-known hits. What remains is pure performance, and the appeal is directly proportionate to how much you enjoy their karaoke hits. After the 14th song, casual fans feel guilty that their energy is flagging while then-63 Mick’s still huffing on, pelvis sashaying, shoulders jerking, arms popping up Nixon-esque as he struts swivel-kneed across the stage like a man late for a meeting. “What would you do if you weren’t Mick Jagger,” asks an interviewer in one of the too-few archival clips. He’s either flummoxed, irritated, or high, but clearly he’d be an aerobics instructor: When he claps, everyone claps. Ronnie Wood grins, Charlie Watts pounds the drums yet from the neck up appears to be dreaming of fly fishing, and Keith Richards, no longer looking down at his guitar as he wears his smile of perpetual self-bemusement, seems as delighted and surprised by each second on earth as a goldfish or a newborn. The Last Waltz featured cameos by Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, and Ringo Starr. Here, we’ve got Christina Aguilera and Jack White. But we’re not there for Xtina’s admittedly soulful singing; we’re there to see Keith smoke indoors in Bloomberg’s Manhattan. Despite the attendance of our “first black president” (who never takes a turn on the sax), it’s curious to notice more diversity on stage than in the entire audience. If Marty had been interested in exploring—not just crystallizing—the Stones’ legacy, this would be a damned fine doc. As it stands, it’s a time capsule.

Click here for Shine A Light in the IE Weekly

28 Weeks Later

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

We’re in Year Six of Hollywood’s zombification of our horror movies—a reign of moderate terror—that peaked with Dawn and Shawn of the Dead, and it’s gotten steadily sillier. Hopefully this head-slappingly silly sequel to Danny Boyle’s vicious 28 Days Later will be the silver bullet that leaves the genre as dead as the mid-‘90s sexy vampire craze. So lets start the carnage, shall we?

28 Weeks Later kicks off on Day 15 of the infection crisis, where good, god-fearing Englishmen are catching the rage virus—a nasty thing that has them spitting up blood and bashing their heads against everything like angry moths. In 20 seconds, the bitten transform into the biters; in a crowded room, all it takes is one Infected (as the government calls them) to take a lusty bite of his neighbor, and you’ve got a seething mass of screams and hysteria in less time than it takes to microwave popcorn. (Does this happen here? Of course it does.)

Back when the zombification plague was gunning full-throttle, Don (Robert Carlyle, one of the knocker-doffers in The Full Monty ) and his wife Linda (Catherine McCormack) were holed up in a farmhouse under siege by the undead. With their two children safely abroad, they considered themselves one of the lucky—until a whole Brady Bunch of Infecteds tore down their walls and Don chose survival over rescuing his wife. He’s haunted by memories of Linda’s pale, pretty face begging him to save her as he sprinted to safety. At least whatever zombie mom she became has starved to death by now, since everyone else is either dead or across the Channel, leaving the US-led occupying forces to declare, cautiously, that England is now Infection-free. Anyone who reads the newspapers knows that American military optimism is worth its weight in hot air, but lured by cheap real estate and sentiment, remaining ex-pats start to trickle back six months later.

Naturally, when his children Tammy and Andy (the fabulously named Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton) are admitted back into quarantined London, Don doesn’t say a word about his dastardly Sophie’s choice. It’s time for normalcy—which lasts precisely 28 weeks and one day. While it’s tempting to see Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and Rowan Joffe’s half-cocked flick as a full-throttle screed against the Iraqi occupation (excepting Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. Doyle, the clueless US soldiers aren’t troubled by wasting civilians), that’s being far too generous to a script with more holes than one of their victims. As a tenuous military analogy, it squeaks by, but as an action flick, it’s a frenetic mess. Every fight scene feels like it was filmed dangling from a galloping horse. You can’t make anything out but fingers and blood and zombies banging around the walls like attention-starved brats. And when you’ve seen (or not seen) all you can bear of that, Fresnadillo shoots the same scramble by flashlight, then by strobe. The only way to avoid a seizure is to roll your eyes and look at your watch.

When not battling zombies and the military, the remaining family members spend the second half of the movie sprinting to emo music pursued by the most tenacious and ludicrously victim-specific enemy since Jaws IV followed the Brodys to the Bahamas. At least that film had Michael Caine. Let’s hope that when all these market-saturating zombies are finally returned to B-movie earth, we can get a resurrection of some good old-fashioned killer animal movies. That’s the best way to keep us out of the water—and giddily screaming in the multiplex.

Click here for 28 Weeks Later in the IE Weekly

The All-Female 1929 Skidoo Revue

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

In writer-director Eugene H. Butler’s sentimental variety show, Meme (Audrey Marlyn), a former vaudeville star and her great granddaughter Jordanna (Jenna Zillman) visit the elder’s theater the day before it’s to be torn down for a Starbucks. After a grating stretch of exposition where Jordanna ‘fesses ignorance of Jack Benny, Playbills, and the Great Depression, Meme closes her eyes and the curtain rises. Butler doesn’t initially make a strong argument for vaudeville’s right to life; the opening ditty’s high point is a girl pretending to be a rooster. Yet the cast has able voices and energy to spare. Some bits are too shrill for the small space,and the dancing is tentative, but the comedy skits perk up the act, particularly a cornball serial melodrama about a wife (Marian Tomas Griffin) who ditches her broke husband (Heather Wood) for the landlord (Kristi Leigh Snyder). That back then white women sang the Blues was news to me, as two years earlier, Al Jolson slipped on blackface to do the same. Nevertheless, nimble piano player Billy Revel plinks along without missing a beat.

Click here for The All-Female 1929 Skidoo Revue in the LA Weekly

The Grand

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

If Jim Morrison faked his own death and was reborn in Vegas as the Lounge Lizard King, he’d be an awful lot like Woody Harrelson’s Jack Faro. Wild-sideburned and draped in beads, Jack’s done every drug from crack to peyote. When not incapacitated, he’s crossed off even more women with 74 wives notched on his belt, including a quickie to the Runaway Bride. Jack moved into his rehab center after failing to get past Step One. With eleven steps left he’s about to lose his grandpa’s casino The Golden Nugget, a bequeathment to Jack that was Lucky Faro’s “last and worst bet he ever made,” says L.B.J. Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina), a Sin City fixture mourning the good old days when you could pick up a 13-year-old at the local brothel. (“The downfall of Vegas was the day they let culottes into the casino,” he gripes.)

It’s generous to call writer-director Zak Penn’s ensemble comedy well-written; rather, he’s assembled an all-star improv cast and set them loose on Nevada with only a rough character sketch and plot outline. To save his family’s legacy from a developer (Michael McKean) who’s the apotheosis of New Vegas—he wants to replace the casino with a one-bedroom, $1 million a night luxury hotel—Jack’s fighting to win the $10 million dollar jackpot at his own Golden Nugget poker tournament. His challengers include Deuce, mouth-breathing automaton geek Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell), corn-fed sap Andy Andrews (Richard Kind flashing his dim-bulb grin), and competitive Schwartzman siblings Lainie (Cheryl Hines) and Larry (David Cross). Also playing are Werner Herzog as a blood-drinking German, mysterious Dr. Yakov Achmed (Jason Alexander), and a host of other oddballs.

Penn and his hilarious team love setting up their characters, and we love watching them. Herzog parodies himself as a snob of the macabre. On his habit for draining the life out of bunnies, he sneers “coffee is the beverage of the cowards.” Kind gets as much mileage as possible from his amateur player who only took up online poker when he got confused ordering fireplace equipment, while the vile Parnell delights in loathing his doting mother (Estelle Harris). Hines and Cross form as much of an emotional core as Penn’s willing to tolerate as a brother and sister estranged by their cruel childhood. (Dad Gabe Kaplan thought competition bred winners; someone always went to bed hungry.)  Cross crumples under the weight of his dad’s low expectations while Hines’ passive-aggressive husband Ray Romano tries to be more supportive than her biological family, but is so rattled by her card-slanging success he escapes into fantasy football.

The Grand is a full house funnier than last year’s For Your Consideration—the jokes are delivered straight only to snake around and have you laughing several beats later. But once the game is underway, the humor plateaus before going into freefall and the final stretch isn’t tense enough to hold our interest. It’s as if Penn only wanted to create his world, not explore it, and failing that he axes the players as quickly as possible as though he’s bored and ready for the credits. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had a near-identical structure, however the eliminations of Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt had a circular irony. Oddly, here none of the lost hands even matches the character who plays it. Parnell’s disciplined brainiac, for example, breaks his formula and bets everything on a lukewarm hand. The game becomes random and meaningless and the improv comedy, having been given too much rein, follows suit.

Click here for The Grand in the IE Weekly

Concrete Folk Variations

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Loretta Salt — detective, lesbian, and puppet — stars in artist Susan Simpson’s serial noir about a the murder of a society grande dame on the down low.  Simpson spent months shrinking Los Angeles to fit a stage the size of a windshield and her creations are wondrous and whimsical rather than stiffly dioramic; her small palm trees whiz across the set with the ease of a tracking shot.  “Death of a Sugar Daddy,” the series’ first installment, aims to hook audiences with its historicity and suspense, and most of all, its leading lady, the brassy, taciturn Salt.  “She’s tough,” says Simpson, “and people really fall for her.”

Originally published in the LA Times