Thoughts that Make You Think: Cruise Edition

The reasons arrayed against me ever going on a cruise were legion. I don’t like being trapped in one setting; I add to my girth by trying new restaurants, not squatting at buffets; I read that one David Foster Wallace essay that everyone’s read; a great-aunt last her husband to food poisoning on a mid-1990s cruise. Yes, she got a settlement, but I don’t have any dependents right now, so the death-by-cruise possibility carried little appeal for me.

Still, I went on a cruise. With the dual purposes of writing an article and filling out the first chapter of my book, I joined the second annual “Cruise to the Edge,” giving me a week in close quarters with 2500 fans of progressive rock and some of their favorite bands. Yes! Marillion! PFM! Tangerine Dream! Several bands consisting of an old group’s members, but not legally able to use the group’s name! (Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited, Soft Machine Legacy, Three Friends [The Music of Gentle Giant].)

Briefly, before I write the words I get paid for, it kicked a little ass. Among the things I learned:

- People over age 50 have trouble believing that a magazine with no paper version is real. (Apropos of nothing, the Chinese government feels the same way, and will only grant media visas to non-TV/radio organizations which publish print versions or syndicate in print media.)

- Human beings are constantly at risk of killing each other with disease. Every communal space on the ship featured a warning about contamination; bathroom doors carried signs asking those exiting to cover their hands with paper towels before grabbing doorknobs.

- You’ve got to have some bland food available, because some people simply want to eat that way. The one scheduled excursion I took (to Mayan ruins, joined by Edgar from Tangerine Dream) featured a pretty solid Mexican lunch. A Cruise to the Edge crew member who’d brought his family on the excursion loudly complained, and asked why they didn’t “at least have some hot dogs.” Also, bland food –> less diarrhea. (Potentially.)

- The Mayan descendants who lead some tour groups are really bitter about the whole civilizational destruction thing.

- The happiest man in the world is the man who watched Tangerine Dream live on a boat while he sits in a hot tub. (Note: This was not me.)

- Buying the drink vouchers in advance saves you money and makes you a popular man/woman when you realize you need to give some of them away to the folks you like.

The Movies of 2013 (That I saw): The List (with Comments)

UPDATED on February 1, to reflect some more garbage that I shot at my eyeballs.

114. Paradise
113. Sharknado
112. Phil Spector
111. Salinger
110. After Earth
109. The Hangover Part III – Not so much a movie as the dramatic cashing of many paychecks. First there’s Todd Phillips, who scratches out (and directs) a script that wrings 100 minutes of plot out of the element that worked as a strange ethnic joke in the first movie. Then we have that element, Ken Jeong, who in not one but two franchises has become a parody of a “fan-favorite” character. (He’s gotten similarly insufferable in “Community.”) On to the cast, from Justin Bartha’s willingness to be set aside — again! — for the entire drama, to Bradley Cooper’s theory that he can say “what the fuck?” and “are you fucking kidding me?” and call it a performance. Even Mike Tyson figured it was worth skipping this one, and he’s Mike Tyson. One hundred minutes of watching Galifinakis et al actually cash their pay stubs would have been more entertaining.
108. Oz The Great and Powerful – Not long after this steaming pile was plopped into theaters, the wise men at Red Letter Media crafted a compare-and-contrast between Sam Raimi’s latest and one of his best cult films, “Bruce Campbell vs. The Army of Darkness.” Long story short — they’re the same damn movie, only one brings some scrappy charm to the proceedings and one is a mawkish slog. The goofball plotting that worked in Raimi’s earlier movie, like the magical corruption of Campbell’s girlfriend, is played for metaphorically ruinous horror here.
107. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
106. Mama
105. The Brass Teapot
104. CBGB – On some dull afternoon, when I was younger and had poorer taste, I turned on VH1 to watch most of a Meat Loaf biopic. Yes: The music channel turned around a 2-hour film about the life of everyone’s favorite obese balladeer, starring the guy who later played Swearingen’s sidekick on “Deadwood.” It was terrible, like it sounds, but it prepared me mentally for deadening adventures like this one, which casts a bored Alan Rickman as club founder Hillel “Hilly” Kristal.
103. Admission
102. Jug Face
101. Girl Most Likely – Kristen Wiig is typecast in a film that apes “Bridesmaids” without ever cracking the code of why that movie worked. Both films start with songs by Blondie, both make Wiig a pathetic has-been whose talent was wasted by her 30s, both introduce a female nemesis — they’re the same movie, though only “Bridesmaids” gives you characters to care about.
100. jOBS
99. The Butler
98. Only God Forgives
97. The Family
96. Dealin’ With Idiots
95. The Canyons
94. Olympus Has Fallen
93. Oblivion
92. How I Live Now
91. The Sapphires – Your standard “it was the 60s, and racism was bad” story, with two twists. One: The put-upon black people are aborigines. Two: They’re in a girl group put together hastily to play for American soldiers in Vietnam.
90. Man of Steel
89. Our Nixon
88. Stoker
87. To the Wonder – Terrence Malick directs a perfume commercial.
86. Beautiful Creatures
85. Jack the Giant Slayer
84. Somebody Up There Likes Me – Magical realist indie schlock about a young, bored man who gets divorced, gets married, has a kid, and exchanges many sarcastic lines with Nick Offerman. Offerman (who’s brought along his wife, Megan Mullaly, as he did in the similarly okay “Smashed”) makes it worth watching; the rest is lost somewhere between Wes Anderson and an average episode of Arrested Development.
83. White House Down
82. Lovelace
81. Welcome to the Punch
80. Dead Man Down
79. The Iceman
78. 42 – Surprisingly dull drama about how racism, despite what you might think, is terrible. A solid first act gives way to a plod about Jackie Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers, during which he changed the hearts of many a redneck.
77. Machete Kills
76. Evil Dead
75. About Time
74. Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie
73. Elysium
72. Star Trek: Into Darkness
71. Kiss of the Damned – Xan Cassavetes, scion of the great indie director John, slaps together a vampire love story that’s all atmospherics and little momentum. I enjoyed the jokes about how intolerable and snooty the eternal living dead are — they’re Eurotrash, basically — but apart from the raw sex scenes it’s nothing you haven’t seen in another vampire film. (On reflection, maybe the raw sex scenes are enough.)
70. The Look of Love
69. Black Rock
68. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – “The second happening has not happened.”
67. The To-Do List
66. The Lords of Salem
65. Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus
64. The Wolverine
63. Koch
62. Warm Bodies – A nonsensical but cute romantic comedy about a boy-turned-zombie who falls in love with a girl after eating her boyfriend and consuming his memories. It’s best when it’s dark, worse when everything works out for humanity — though Rob Corddry, as the hero’s zombie drinking buddy, is on a three-laughs-per-scene roll.
61. Drinking Buddies
60. Much Ado About Nothing
59. Kon-Tiki
58. The Bling Ring – Sophia Coppola adopts a magazine profile of a wealthy, shallow gang of robbers into an amusingly meta and unadorned culture study.
57. World War Z
56. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
55. Don Jon
54. V/H/S/2
53. Prince Avalanche
52. What Maisie Knew
51. We Are What We Are
50. Sound City – Two-thirds of a great documentary about a lyrically dilapidated studio in Los Angeles where some of the great rock era records (Rumors, Nevermind, Working Class Dog) were recorded. One-third of a yawner VH1 special about Dave Grohl buying the boards from the closed-down Sound City and recording a by-numbers album with a bunch of rock star pals. Around 10 minutes are spent watching Paul McCartney and Grohl “jam” on a song eventually titled “Gimme Some Slack,” and you’d trade these 10 minutes for any 10 at the dentist’s office.
49. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
48. Call Me Kuchu – A simple, affecting, and surprising documentary about gay activists in Uganda. Pushed down the list as I’ve read unsettling things about its selective portrayal of facts, like how the killing of David Kato is portrayed as a hate crime when it might have been a murder over a scam gone bad.
47. The East – A contractor (Brit Marling) who works undercover for the feds infiltrates an eco-terror group run by a startlingly charismatic freegan (Alexander Skarsgard).
46. The Spectacular Now
45. War Witch
44. The Kings of Summer
43. The Great Gatsby
42. It’s a Disaster – A group of thirtysomething couples, greying adolescents, gather for brunch at the longest-lasting couple’s home. At this inopportune time, a dirty bomb explodes in downtown LA. The lovely, un-duct-taped Victorian house will be the couples’ sepulcher.
41. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
40. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – A brisk sequel to the era-defining (really! No Ricky Gervais without Steve Coogan) TV series. Alan is ensconced at Radio Norwich, co-hosting Mid-Morning Matters, and resisting — for purely selfish reasons — the arrival of a conglomerate which intends to downsize the station.
39. We Steal Secrets – Wikileaks declared total war on this Alex Gibney film, a fairly straightforward introduction to the Assange/Manning saga, paced by interviews with the people who sold them out. Gibney clearly comes away critical of Assange’s messianism — he’s harder on him than he was on Eliot Spitzer in his documentary about the fallen politician.
38. Side Effects
37. Wrong
36. Blue Caprice
35. The Way Way Back
34. The Square
33. The Conjuring
32. Behind the Candelabra
31. John Dies at the End
30. Dirty Wars
29. Thor: The Dark World
28. Byzantium
27. Iron Man 3
26. Trance
25. The Place Beyond the Pines
24. Blue Jasmine
23. The Wolf of Wall Street
22. Mud
21. Stories We Tell
20. Dallas Buyers Club
19. A Hijacking
18. Room 237
17. A Band Called Death.
16. This Is The End
15. Gimme the Loot
14. Pacific Rim
13. Fruitvale Station
12. The World’s End
11. American Hustle
10. Frances Ha
9. Spring Breakers
8. No
7. Captain Phillips
6. Upstream Color
5. Gravity
4. Her
3. 12 Years a Slave
2. The Act of Killing
1. Before Midnight

“American Hustle” and “The To-Do List”

“American Hustle” (David O. Russell, 2013)
Let’s count the ways in which this movie could have failed. One: It fictionalizes an insane real-life story, the “AbScam” sting in which FBI agents bribed members of Congress and the mayor of Camden, and removes the fascinating question of whether the intelligence community was striking back after a decade of investigations from Washington. Two: It casts waspish Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Christian Bale as, respectively, loudmouthed Italians and a loudmouthed Jewish con man. Three: Under its old title, “American Bullshit,” it was considered messily un-filmable for years. And as good as this movie ends up being, you can see the seams, and feel yourself drifting during some moments before the plot gets truly gonzo.

But everything else works — even the casting works. Russell has juggled the casts of his last two films (“Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter”) and set them against each other. It opens on the first phase of AbScam, as Bale’s con man Irving, his accomplice Sydney (Amy Adams, who I hope doesn’t give a boring Oscar speech), and the FBI agent (Cooper) are attempting to bribe the mayor of Camden (Renner) on video. The agent, Richie DiMaso, screws it up by being over-eager; Irving runs out of the room to fix things.

Roll: A voiceover and flashback that completely evokes the start of “Goodfellas.” (It was a good idea to begin the movie with a flash-forward, to avoid just cloning Scorcese’s masterpiece.) Irving and Sydney meet at a pool party, bond over their love of Duke Ellington, and quickly expand his nascent loan-scam business. When DiMaso shows up in the office, we know he’s about to collar them, and he does after handing a check to Sydney. In a perfect scene, a mannered, puffed-up DiMaso confronts Sydney in her prison cell (“Why’s there no bed in here? I asked for one. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I wanted you to be uncomfortable. I’m a wild card like that.”) and tries to convince her that Irving let her take the fall. Separately, he talks Irving into working with the FBI — get them four arrests, and his own case vanishes.

The two con artists go with the plan, seemingly revealing everything they feel about each other in a late-night argument, then agreeing to do the FBI’s con while trying to con the FBI. Irving guides Richie through the AbScam plan. Richie wants to play it on New Jersey politicians who are desperate to bring capital to Atlantic City. (The New Jersey angle is accurate, though all the names are changed.) Everything escalates from there — Richie becoming more arrogant and violent without learning any competence, Sydney manipulating one (or both) of the paramours, Irving becoming a nervous wreck who keeps dramatically collapsing and sucking down heart medicine. The mayor of Camden, whom we’re meant to like from the second he’s introduced, gets exploited by the Venn Diagram desperation of the criminals and the ambitious agent.

It’s thrilling, most of the time. The “hustle” is the sting itself, but also the strangely all-American way that Irving and Sydney have thrived on scamming people. That’s the definition of “hustle” that the historian John McDougall uses, non-pejoratively, to praise the industry of America’s earlier settlers, killers, and businessmen. Russell has taken a story remembered as the downfall of a few greedy congressmen and made it about how the surveillance state and the shadow economy exploit otherwise decent people. I can’t recall a movie in which the mafia comes off better or wiser. I think that’s on purpose. When Richie tells Irving that an America run by people like him, con men, would be a banana republic, Irving barks that it’s really the FBI goons ruining the country. “We get over Watergate and you want to bring down a bunch of politicians!” Bullshit, but like every character in the movie seems to say: You believe what you want to believe.

“The To-Do List” (Maggie Carey, 2013)
Sometimes a book or movie or lover’s poem falls way, way short of the mark, but you can’t bring yourself to criticize it. The intentions were good. We’d rather live in a system where someone tried then one where they couldn’t. This is my pretentious way of saying I’m glad Maggie Carey got funding and a great cast to put together a sex-positive feminist teen comedy, but disappointed at how lame it is.

Aubrey Plaza, a 29-year old actress who has merged sullenness and cuteness in ways no behavioral scientist could have imagined, plays Brandy, who we know is a virgin because someone yells “virgin” at her valedictorian speech. Brandy’s en route to Georgetown (I’m disappointed that they didn’t go with the “Risky Business” reference and send her to Princeton), but she’s hopelessly awkward. The first time she gets drunk (on Apple Pucker), she accidentally starts hooking up with mansculpted hunk Rusty Watters (Scott Porter), but he realizes he’s found the wrong girl in the wrong dark room and leaves her. The lesson Brandy takes from this is that she needs more sexual experience. Why? Because the movie is called “The To-Do List.”

Brandy’s experimentation is a complete success, and the movie ends after she and a group of nerdy boys (Donald Glover, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) have learned plenty about hooking up. No one is exploited, least of all Brandy. Teens screw around. That’s okay. Some of them are lousy at sex. That’s okay, too. There’s almost none of the shaming that defined “Easy A,” which was actually a much funnier movie — oh, and that’s where the problems start. Carey’s written a lesson into a pastiche of teen comedy tropes and 90s references.

Other critics (by which I mean actual critics, who don’t just write on their blogs while procrastinating on longer assignments) have puzzled at the amount of 90s references that stud this movie. I get why the movie is set in 1993, because cell phones have completely changed the relationships teens have with each other, the ease of hook-ups, the ease of making or breaking plans. In 2013 (or 2003) a girl confused about sex could spend a night clicking through porn sites: Education complete.

But too often, “hey, it’s the 90s!” is the only joke on screen. One character gets paged, on a pager! Brandy has lots of pictures of Hillary Clinton! Her dad reads Rush Limbaugh’s book! Someone apologizes for not answering an “electronic mail!” And so on, like a Buzzfeed listicle come to celluloid life. The beats of the plot that aren’t about sex are often borrowed from successful 80s comedies, down to a “poop in the pool” joke. Giving Brandy and most of the supporting cast summer jobs at a pool made the trope-ing too easy. It’s a cute story, but simply not funny enough to support its length.

Another Couple of Movies

Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua, 2013)
There are movies that I watch when settled into a dark theater, ignoring all distractions, feeling my temper rise when someone checks the fucking football scores on his fucking phone. And there are movies I put on distractedly, because they came out in the year 2013 and I’m trying to take advantage of my single life by consuming as much pop culture as possible, even if doing so means just looking up occasionally at the action onscreen.

All of that is to say: I knew this movie would suck wind, and I put it on because Netflix started streaming it. No one ever really needs to see “Olympus Has Fallen,” unless it’s for the lulz that come when a director telling a hack story about a North Korean (why is it always the North Koreans?) assault on the White House shoots everything like an episode of “The West Wing,” all booming string sections and walk-and-talks and pans of the realistic sets. Also funny: The plot device that gives the president a high-level meeting with “the South Korean prime minister,” i.e. the man who does not actually South Korea’s head of state. (Like us, they elect a president. The PM is sort of like a chief of staff.) Funnier: The cargo plane assault on D.C., in which two Korean pilots with blank expressions manage to kill hundreds of civilians, blow up several F-22s, and crash into the Washington Monument.

It’s too bad for Fuqua that “White House Down” was released months later and had some actual fun with this conceit. Oh, I haven’t seen “White House Down” — it’s not streaming yet! — but it teams up Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, whereas “Olympus” gives us a team much less known for its comedic chops, Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart.

Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)
I don’t have young children and am not, personally, a 14-year old girl, so my introduction to and full knowledge of “The Hunger Games” series came from the 2012 movie. I dug it. Haters complained that the conceit was ripped off from the classic bonkers Japanese manga/movie “Battle Royale,” but it really wasn’t — it took ingredients from that story and blended them with “The Lottery” and “Murderball” and [insert dystopian fantasy] to fine effect. It ended with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, of course) manipulating the vile Capital and its celebrity/game show machine into letting her and her childhood friend Peeta both survive the game, then returning home as the oppressed districts start to churn with revolution.

The sequel starts strong, because the whole Hunger Games “industry,” an on-the-nose parody of reality TV country, remains well-realized. Katniss’s win got her and her family out of the District 12 holler and into the district’s underpopulated “Victors Village,” a row of McMansions that looks as dank as your average abandoned Florida development circa 2009. We see the squalor inhabited by Hamish, the only living District 12 victor. I liked this bit, and I liked the surreal Victory Tour embarked upon by Katinas and Peeta. How fucked up must that be, to be brought to the city square every year to celebrate the people who killed two of your district’s innocent (or, you know, semi-innocent, as they had maybe killed people) children?

But the plot unravels quickly. I don’t think this site’s limited pool of readers will care if I spoil anything, so: A mysteriously normal-looking man takes over the Hunger Games, and proposes that the 75th round be culled from the winners of previous rounds. They come and train in scenes that take advantage of the sequel’s higher budget, and they play a less-threatening version of the game, one where threats are spilled out against the gamers every hour. The “board” is shaped like a clock — oh, hey, you can see when the threats are going to come down. But it doesn’t matter, because the whole game was a ruse to liberate a few of Panem’s best fighters and thinkers, after some of them were, you know, murdered during a Hunger Game.

I was wrapped up in this plot as it unfolded, but by the end I was deeply perplexed. There was no other way to liberate Katniss Everdeen from her celebrity role, and lead the revolution? Did Panem need to see another bitchin’ Hunger Game in order to be whipped up for the rebellion?

If You Want Reporters to Check Stories Before They Publish, You’re a Hater

Instead of doing something productive, like finishing chapter two of my book (it’s going well anyway!), I spent about an hour today noticing how the Internet had fallen for yet another hoax. Elan Gale, a producer for “The Bachelor” and thereby one of the worst people on the planet, spent part of Thanksgiving live-tweeting what he said was a feud with an irritating woman “in mom jeans” who complained too loudly about her flight delay. Gale sent her drinks and notes telling her to shut her mouth and “eat a dick.” The Internet loved it, especially Buzzfeed, whose Rachel Zarrell aggregated Gale’s tweets and photos. Her post, on one of the year’s slowest news cycles, got nearly 1.4 million reads.

One problem: Gale’s story was bullshit. Maybe people should have sussed that out, as he took many photos but none of his “target.” But they didn’t. Zarrell got to write a follow-up aggregating more Gale tweets about how he punked everyone. I got irritated, not really at Buzzfeed but at Gale — again, “Bachelor” producer. This guy, for a living, comes up with ideas that stimulate the pleasure or anger centers of the lumpen proletariat’s brains. He did it on Twitter and captivated the Internet with complete bullshit. I ribbed Buzzfeed about this (after all, the phony story was worth 1 percent of their record November traffic) and, after a friendly back-and-forth, Politics editor McKay Coppins snarked me off.

McKay and I are friends IRL, and I wish our every Twitter interaction did not devolve into dick-swingery, but come on — fuck this. Elan Gale successfully hoaxed the Internet with a dumb, mean story. Buzzfeed fell for the hoax, with Zarrell tweeting at Gale to ask for an interview but never confirming anything about the flight. Any news organization should consider this a screw-up.

It’s not quite Lara Logan nodding like a parrot as her Benghazi source lies to her, but it’s the sort of shoddy reporting that would get a reporter at a small newspaper fired. Imagine you worked at the Pleasantville News-Leader and you ran an A-1 story about a fight that never happened. It goes viral; it gets debunked.You think you’re able to just walk away from that by mocking the haters?

Oh, I’m not saying Buzzfeed should fire anyone. They ran an update at the bottom of the post. I did ask the reporter, Zarrell, how this came about, but I’m not going to make some federal case out of this. Gale wasn’t grubbing for money or anything. As hoaxes go, this was mostly harmless.

But I remain fairly disturbed by the glib response. What is aggregation FOR, anyway? And are people willing to create a lower standard for “reporting” — Zarrell is a reporter, who has worked for other news organizations — if it’s only about a viral story? Earlier this year, the Washington Post fired an overworked aggregator-reporter after she botched some facts. The Washington Post’s aggregation style is fairly unpopular — the paper wants to have SOME version of stories on its own site, so readers stay there instead of Yahoo! or Politico. But none of its aggregated tales go as mega-viral as “This Epic Note-Passing War on a Delayed Flight Wins Thanksgiving.” And Zarrell’s story WOULDN’T have gone viral if she’d decided that Gale’s story was too flimsy. She wouldn’t have gotten 1.3 million hits. She would be, today, a less valuable employee to Buzzfeed.

This is fairly fucked. Yes, people on the Internet want to believe salacious stories. Reporters want to publish stories that people read. If there’s a great reward, and little downside, to be had in publishing bullshit, the Internet’s going to get more bullshit. As one of my colleagues put it, “‘Too good to check’ used to be a warning to newspaper editors not to jump on bullshit stories. Now it’s a business model.”

Another Movie or Two

Lovelace (Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman, 2013) – Leading off a review with extra-textual information is controversial, I know. Fine. In this case, it explains why this movie stretches so far to avoid surprise. Epstein and Friedman got their starts as documentary filmmakers revealing what life and culture were like from before the sexual revolution through the spread of AIDS. Epstein won an Oscar for “The Times of Harvey Milk,” and had to have noticed when a workmanlike adaptation of that film became an acclaimed biopic. So I can see why “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace’s life appealed to him and Friedman — which other before-their-time 70s icons can be rescued from Wikipedia and turned into top drama fodder?

Alas, the directors have smoothed out the kinks in Lovelace’s story. Played by Amanda Seyfried, the fictional Lovelace (nee Linda Boreman) is doomed to be classic, saucer-eyed naif. We first see her in a bathtub, smoking, sad about something or other, as audiences flock to watch “Deep Throat.” We cut back to 1970, when Lovelace was living in Florida under the roof of prudish parents, played by Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick, who are given almost nothing surprising to do, but excel at looking horrified at smut. A sluttier friend (Juno Temple) encourages Lovelace to go-go-dance with her at a roller rink, where they are spotted by Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), who comes on in the creepiest possible way. After eyeing the girls from across the rink, he offers them weed and immediately tells them “girls like you can make $300, $400 a night dancing in Vegas.” Lovelace falls for this, which we have to attribute to her oppressive home life and the knowledge that she’s only trapped there because she got knocked up and gave the baby away. “I signed circumcision papers,” she says, mournfully.

From here, it progresses like every tale of an innocent girl and a secretly violent father figure/lover. (Sarsgaard, perfectly cast/typecast, is 14 years older than Seyfried; Traynor was 12 years older than Lovelace.) Traynor forces Lovelace to act in a porno, and she gets the part (looking, as a producer says, “like Raggedy Ann with great tits”), because Traynor has home video of her giving an excellent blow job. Off we go to a movie shoot, complete with ridiculous 1970s fashion and the cliched shot of filmmakers gawking at the sort of star-making X-rated action they’ve never seen before. (Think of the scene in “Boogie Nights” where the crew finally sees Dirk Diggler whip out his footlong member.) Off to a world of fame and parties, where Lovelace is even hit on by Hugh Hefner (a piece of stunt casting that makes no sense but I won’t spoil here).

But wait! The film abruptly cuts forward to Lovelace, dowdy and un-rouged, submitting her story of life with Traynor to a polygraph test. This is the filmmakers’ clever move: They go all Rashomon on the story they just told, extending old scenes to reveal just how brutal Traynor was, pimping his wife out to rich businessmen and throwing her against a wall when she makes a joke at his expense at a party. This actually mirrors Lovelace’s own memoirs, which began with some ghostwritten pro-porn books and ended when she wrote a tell-all denounced by some of her old friends.

Parts of this are well done, but they’re duller than Lovelace’s own story. There’s not enough about the supremely weird period of her stardom — it’s limited to one scene in which Traynor’s dictating the “memoir” and explaining to a producer why he’s licensed a Lovelace blow-up doll. But in the film, Lovelace refuses to do any post-”Deep Throat” movies. “My adult film career lasted 17 days,” she says. In reality, it didn’t — she filmed an R-rated sequel to her hit and a mess called “Linda Lovelace for President.” She grew increasingly strung out, then born again, then both born again and strung out. Her second husband, presented here as mute, sane, and supportive, was abusive to her. The makers of “Lovelace” traded this rich, weird, morally murky tale for a simpler one. Too bad.

Byzantium (Neil Jordan, 2013) – One of those art house directors who’s exceptionally good with shlock, Jordan was the guy who molded a schlocky airport novel called “Interview With A Vampire” into a surprisingly strong and memorable horror story. The best part of that movie was Kirsten Dunst as an increasingly malicious creature, angry that she’d become forever young. You can see why Jordan wanted to adapt this story of a mother-daughter vampire family whose centuries-long run of luck seems to run out as they acclimate to life in a dying seaside town.

Vampires are never merely “vampires” anymore — they have to embody metaphors. Here the dominant metaphor is triumph-over-sexism, as the mother, Clara, played by Gemma Atherton, was a prostitute who became a vampire by seducing and betraying some seamen who intended to become immortal. Her life, told in a series of flashbacks (all introduced by turns in the narrative), is sadness all the way through, up to the moment she rescued her daughter Eleanor (Saorsie Ronan) from an orphanage and went on the lam from the chauvinist society of vampires that was never going to accept her.

The secret society comes off as mean and incompetent, as gatherings of men tend to be. “How do you think two women with no formal education have evaded you this long?” hisses Clara, when two of the enforcers finally track her down. The daughter is less concerned with the chase, having known basically no other life, using the centuries to become a good piano player and lovelorn ingenue. Ronan, whose eerie classical beauty keeps landing her in girl-challenged-by-supernatural-angst roles, is good and sad as she falls for a smart boy (Caleb Jones, who played Banshee in the last X-Men movie) who inspires her to spill her secret.

It’s all quite good, with more memorable cinematography than you’d expect out of a $14 million budget. The vampire myth here is vaguely eastern — souls are transformed on an island where rushing waterfalls suddenly turn to blood. Sunlight and mirrors and crosses have no effect on the undead, and instead of fangs, they grow long thumbnails that allows them to puncture necks to siphon the blood out. There’s almost no camp, though — the focus is on the evil done to Clara and Eleanor’s desire to break free without any knowledge of how to make it happen.

Still… More Movies

After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan, 2013) – I watched this on a flight recently, letting the dread wash over me as I thought “well, shit, I guess it moves me closer to the goal of watching every movie released this year.” I hit “play,” and knew the horrible scale of my error — two hours before the credits revealed that this fecal mound was “based on a story by Will Smith.”

Did the man learn nothing from the burnouts of the 80s comic stars, like Eddie Murphy? Will, goddamn it, if you had an innate talent for story you would be famous for that. You do not. Here, you have belched out the tritest of father-son sci-fi tales, one that takes no advantage of the fact that it is sci-fi, apart from some “broken environment” drama that’s ripped from “The Day After Tomorrow.” From a movie by the “2012″ guy! Come the fuck on!

Anyway: Will Smith plays Cypher Raige (I know, right?), a future warrior from a time (3013 or so?) when humanity is at war with an alien civilization that doesn’t appreciate the fact that these primates left their busted planet to colonize “Nova Prime,” which looks suspiciously like Utah. (Yes, humanity has named the next Earth “New Prime.” Joylessly, too. There’s not even any wit about the parts of civilization that got ported over. What’s the currency? Did they name the oceans after Led Zeppelin members? ) The aliens have deployed “Ursas,” genetically engineered blind monsters, to kill the humans. Because the Ursas are blind (why?), they hunt by smelling fear, and the best soldiers are the ones that purge themselves of fear.

There is, as you’d expect, plenty of fun psuedo-science about how fear works, and a Smith monologue about how “danger is real” but “fear is a choice” because it’s a just reaction to a possible outcome. Smith’s son, Kitai, is played lifelessly by Smith’s actual son, Jaden. The two of them bond by ignoring the fact that an Ursa once killed Kitai’s sister, and going on a training mission that ends with — hell, you guessed it, a crash landing on Earth. “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” says Smith — an odd thing for the air and water of a planet to do, a millennium after the species has departed for Space Utah. But Earth now looks like Costa Rica and is populated by giant albums whom Kitai must fight as he searches for the help beacon that was broken off in the crash.

What follows is incredibly boring, given the set-up. Anyone who’s read a story of survival will know every beat of the story, from the unexpected loss of supplies to the rescue of an animal that WILL LATER RESCUE THE HERO to the hero conquering his fear, as every hero has done in everything. ever written.

Machete Kills (Robert Rodriguez, 2013) – In the beginning was the trailer, a faux advert placed at the start of 2007′s Rodriguez/Tarantino dual-movie splatterfest “Grindhouse.” That underrated epic (bias declaration: the first one I bought when I got a blu-ray) was filled out by five fake trailers, all but one of them by directors who weren’t otherwise involved in the product. Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror,” the 80-minute film that you had paid for, looked less fun than the slapped-together nonsense of “Machete.” “They fucked with the WRONG Mexican” was the most memorable line in three+ hours of screen filth. Wow, you said, if you were one of 500 or so people who paid to see this. That fake movie in which Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin team up to kill evil cops looks like a lot of fun.

And it was! “Machete” (2010) took the basic revenge-thriller elements of the trailer and grafted them onto a wonderfully dumb political allegory about a federale-turned-day-laborer who gets in between an underground alliance of illegals and a corrupt politician. “Machete Kills” leaves out the politics and replaces it with crazy bullshit — Machete (Trejo) is now hired by the president (Charlie Sheen, billed as Carlos Estevez) to track down a terrorist (Damien Bechir, who was nominated for an Oscar after a sensitive portrayal of an illegal immigrant father in Los Angeles) and… bring him back before a missile can be flown into Washington, or something. Double-and-triple crosses follow, culminating with a clash with a hitman who changes identities (Walton Goggins/Cuba Gooding Jr/Lady Gaga) and a cult leader/tech guru (Mel Gibson).

It’s all very stupid, which is fine — the first movie was stupid, too! But satire like this doesn’t mesh with Rodriguez’s style of directing or editing. The best recent piss-take on sleaze cinema was “Black Dynamite,” a film that copied all the flawed editing, ruined takes, bad acting and Latin Mass pacing of the genre. Rodriguez has made a Mexploitation film that paces itself like the latest Jason Statham contract-fulfiller, all CGI blood and predictable explosions. It’s got its moment, but manages to feel both quick and boring — quite a feat.

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013) — Damn, I wanted to love this. Matthew McConaughey, who’s been distractingly good in a series of southern gothic films (“Killer Joe,” “Bernie,” “Mud”), gets the role that’s clearly drawn to give him an Oscar. He plays Ron Woodruff, a straight man with AIDS who became a meds-smuggler and started the eponymous club, who was described as “wiry as octotillo.” McConaughey, who has never been wiry, pulls off the transformation by losing tons of weight, tying pale jeans with a belt that’s down to its last hole, and hanging a porn-star mustache off a skeletal face. It’s impressive, almost as much as Jared Leto in make-up and a series of wigs as McConaughey’s transgender business partner.

But, eh, it’s so formulaic, so easy.

Additional Movies

The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2013) - Your standard “it was the 60s, and racism was bad” story, with two twists. One: The put-upon black people are aborigines. Two: They’re in a girl group put together hastily to play for American soldiers in Vietnam. Chris O’Dowd plays the band manager with as much effort as he’s been asked for; when we first see him, he is sleeping hungover in a station wagon, and shook awake by the cliched sounds of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man.” The girls are cute and funny, becoming more predictable as the plot rolls on, and listening intently when a black soldier tells them what it’s like fighting for The Man.

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013) – The director/writer’s follow-up to “Blue Valentine” is a strangely optimistic noir that takes place over 18 years. Ryan Gosling plays a motorcycle stuntman who learns he fathered a son and turns to bank robbery to provide for him. Bradley Cooper plays a young cop who happens to be closest to Gosling when he slips; and he, too, has a young son. Both actors work well within their archetypes (Gosling wordless and sad, Cooper rash but pulling back before it’s too late), and Ray Liota brightens up the melodrama as an adeptly crooked cop, but the plot’s pretty predictable — actually, worse than that, because it ends up with fewer consequences and more obvious emotional resonance than you expected going in.

And Still More Movies

“The Wolverine” (James Mangold, 2013)
The giant robot was a dead giveaway. The second trailer for this second (and much improved) offshoot of the X-Men franchise ended with a dramatic shot that signaled a reinvention of a modestly popular villain. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) stood ready for battle in a lab of some kind; a gigantic, robotic samurai swung its sword. The passing fan of the X-universe recognized that villain as The Silver Samurai, who (sorry about this, non-nerds) is an illegitimate son of a Yakuza boss, a mutant with the power to create a tachyon field that allows him to swing his sword through almost anything. He was sort of easy to defeat, but interesting because his half-sister, Mariko, was Wolverine’s true love.

He was not a robot.

Lucky for us, sort of, the trailer provided a false lead. In Mangold’s film, based largely on a straightforward Darren Aranovsky treatment of a classic Wolverine story, there are several Silver Samurai. They all belong to a family, Yashida, sprung from the loins of a Nagasaki survivor whom Wolverine saved by covering him with his fast-healing body. When we re-encounter our hero, he’s bumming around the great outdoors, bonding with bears and getting into fights with hunters, interrupted when the man he saved sends an adopted granddaughter-cum-action hero to bring his hero to Japan. (Yes, this is another movie in which basically every Japanese character is an expert martial artist. What did you expect?)

The patriarch, Ichiro, has spent the post-war years amassing a Bezos-ian fortune, and from his high-tech deathbed he assumes that Wolverine is so depressed that he’ll willfully hand over his mutant healing factor in order for a chance to age and die. When Wolverine refuses, he is (major spoiler) implanted with a parasite that suppresses his healing factor, in order to make him easy to subdue, so that Ichiro can execute a master plan of 1) faking his death, 2) leaving his smart but unready granddaughter Mariko in charge of his company, and 3) draining Wolverine’s healing factor anyfuckingway, by sawing off his claws and draining the… mutantness from his bone marrow.

Pretty stupid, right? It’s a shame, because the source material and the first two acts adapted from it are absolutely stellar. Many a Wolverine fan came to the character via an eponymous 1982 miniseries written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller. The cover of the paperback collecting this series portrayed Wolverine going shithouse on a bunch of ninjas. That summed up the plot — in the comics universe, the Yashida clan were Yakuza, and Wolverine killed the patriarch while falling in love with Mariko. Remember the post-credits shot in the horrendous first Wolverine film, where the hero’s pounding shots at a bar in Japan? That was a signal to the fans that the sequel would bring him to the country where he has the best, most character-enhancing adventures. Also, he goes shithouse on ninjas.

The first two acts of this film do borrow that structure, and the parasite macguffin adds plenty of drama — Wolverine is “reduced” to a mere, Vin Diesel-like action hero who can still run after being shot a bunch of times, but tires and needs to be patched up. But who told the producers that a mere series of fight scenes — oh, you know, the kind that make every Bruce Lee movie work so well — wouldn’t have been enough for a tentpole summer movie? The dopey super-science plot isn’t very satisfying, and it plays around, once again, with the basic metaphor of the X-universe.

Look: The mutant gene is supposed to be metaphor for endemic ethnic identify or sexual preference. In the 1960s, it was a metaphor for civil rights; by the 1980s, it became a metaphor for gay rights. There was a period in the 1990s where a sort of mutant AIDS (the Legion virus, created by a supervillain, much like AIDS was created by the CIA and the Bilderberg Group) felled a bunch of innocent heroes. But these fucking movies! In the first X-Men, there’s a machine that “speeds up evolution,” and in the first Wolverine spin-off, there’s a science project adding mutant traits to a human guinea pig. No, no, no — we do not need this. Make mine mutant. Give me allegorical outcasts who go shithouse on ninjas.

“Only God Forgives” (Nicholas Wending Refn, 2013)
Whatever crimes The Wolverine may commit, it is far, far away from being the worst “anglo expat fights his demons in Asia” film of the year. That honor goes to this piece of complete trash, from a director who alternates between brilliant films (Bronson, Drive), and pretentious film lens experiments (Valhalla Rising).

Jesus, where to start? Julian (Ryan Gosling, acting like a dull-eyed parody of himself) owns a boxing gym with his brother Bobby. The gym is actually a cover for a heroin business, though that doesn’t matter to the plot at all. Bobby, a pedophile, beats up a pimp at a high-class bordello, and rapes and murders his underaged daughter. Quite understandably, he’s murdered by a katana-wielding supercop (Vithaya Pansringarm, acting like a parody of Lee Van Cleef). Also understandably, Bobby and Julian’s mother (played by Kristin Scott Thomas, acting like Ellen Barkin as directed by Ed Wood) arrives in Bangkok to kill a bunch of people and avenge Bobby’s death.

What I described sounds vaguely interesting. Trust me — it ain’t. Refn declares war on pacing, plotting, and even timing, setting up shot after shot where his character sit for a few seconds before saying a line. It’s meant to be disorienting, but it comes off as ridiculous, never more so then when Julian finally gets tired of his mother sending failed assassins after the supercop and challenges him to a fight. Here is how that scene goes.

- The supercop and his friends are standing silently.
- Julian leaves the bar they were both at that night.
- One of the cop’s friends, after noticing Julian, asks Julian (after a beat) “Do you know who that is?”
- Julian says nothing as the camera lingers on him.
- Julian walks slowly over to the supercop.
- The supercop silently, slowly turns his head to Julian.
- After a long pause, Julian asks: “Wanna fight?”

The ensuing fight provides a good example of the movie’s zombiefied style.

I wanted to appreciate this; really, I did. I don’t demand or even want a movie to give me characters I can root for. But here, Refn combines dull archetypes and a forgettable plot with striking but unoriginal images. (He’s hardly the first director to realize that red light and shadows give the sense of impending violence.) If you find yourself impressed, go watch Drive again and see how much better this style works when tethered to a point.

Some Movies Seen on Planes, and Some Seen While on the Ground

This Is the End (Seth Rogen, 2013) – Years ago I was a regular reader of a British movie magazine called Neon. It was okay, and it didn’t last very long, but it had a stellar monthly parody page, one of which “revealed” the first drafts of some scripts before they were doctored. The pre-William Goldman draft of Good Will Hunting, it turned out, was an ego-farce called Ben and Matt Get Laid.

I don’t mention this in order to talk down Seth Rogen’s first feature. It is ropey and self-indulgent, and it is about him and his friends being awesome as the world around them dies. SPOILER: It’s a debut film in which the director, playing  himself, goes to heaven.)

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013)Greenberg, released in 2010, was co-written by Baumbach and his partner Jennifer Jason Leigh. It co-starred a sort of mumblecore discovery, the tall and attractively messy Greta Gerwig. Three years later, Baumbach has released a movie co-written by his partner, Greta Gerwig. I scanned Frances Ha for Baumbach’s next muse, but imagine he’ll be sticking with Gerwig, who after a couple years of “breakout” busts (Arthur, Lola Versus), has crafted a memorable character in Frances, a winsomely aimless New Yorker who bounces between friends’ houses as she avoids the realization that she won’t become a breakout dancer at 27. (It’s nice to see Gerwig playing her own age, more or less, after being shoehorned into the role of a college student in 2012′s disappointing Damsels in Distress.)

Frances has a big personality that never fits into place, leeching off a succession of people with more money — from a publishing job, from parents, from marriage — until she can no longer afford it. Baumbach/Gerwig are wise to make Frances a dancer, because the unsophisticated eye (two of ‘em right here) can’t figure out the difference between brilliant experimental dance and fiddly nonsense.

World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013) – Everything I had to say was said in a podcast with my colleague Dana Stevens. This is smarter than most horror movies, but dumber than most end-of-days flicks and dumber still than Max Brooks’s wonderful, overthought “oral history.” Brad Pitt slumbers through a role that he worked incredibly hard to win for himself; the third act is basically a video game level, and screams “oh shit we ran out of money for reshoots.” As with The Walking Dead, it pleases me as a pop culture artifact that popularizes a thing I like, disappoints me as an actual slice of entertainment.

Sound City (Dave Grohl, 2013) – The first 60 minutes comprise a fun, sloppy documentary about the salad days of an analog recording studio in Los Angeles. Musicians both iconic (Stevie Nicks!) and cultish (that one dude from Fear!) dish about what it was like to lift one’s head from a mound of cocaine and overdub that one guitar solo that made REO Speedwagon really click with the masses. The next 30 minutes, unfortunately, are spent with Grohl and his famous friends after he buys one of the studio’s boards and installs them in his house, and makes a tribute album of really forgettable songs. Eight of these minutes are spent with Paul McCartney, as he “writes” that horrible song that he, Grohl, and Krist Novocelic played at the Hurricane Sandy benefit concert.