Whenever something in America explodes and kills people — which is to say, frequently — a healthy number of my fellow citizens look for the shadow hand of conspiracy. A gunman in a Connecticut elementary school? False flag attack to set the stage for gun bans. Two bombs along the route of the Boston marathon? False flag to turn people into patsies for the security state.
I hope Shane Black was taking the piss out of all that with his screenplay for “Iron Man 3.” The best twist in this ropey, 20-minutes-too-long movie comes at the start of act three, when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) breaks into the compound believed to house the terrorist mastermind known as the Mandarin. For 80 minutes we’ve known the Mandarin as an inscrutable bin Laden manque who hacks into TV networks and issues explanations for his latest attacks on the homeland. Fans of the comics recognize the Mandarin as one of the series’ original villains, going back 49 years. But the lair Stark stumbles into is a TV studio, built around a bed that at the moment contains two strung-out women. “The Mandarin” is a British actor — like Ben Kingsley! — who finishes taking a shit, warns no one to use the bathroom, and immediately reveals everything he knows to Stark in between drug-induced naps. All along, The Mandarin was a phony threat concocted by a government contractor whose master plan is…
… well, that’s where “Iron Man 3″ lost me. Can anyone explain the master plan of Killian Aldrich (Guy Pearce)? He’s developing an unstable superhuman serum (it’s explained much better in Warren Ellis’s comics) called Extremis, and he created the Mandarin to cover up the serum’s occasional explosions by portraying them as terrorist attacks, but once he’s pulled off the ultimate attack (murdering the president) he’ll have a pliable new president and he’ll “own the war on terror.” So he wants to get rich? To sow chaos? I had no goddamn idea. This is why I’d never make it as a supervillain. Once I acquired the capital to build multiple stately homes and a high-tech army, I’d call it a win and retreat to some Carribean island with a reliable rum-making tradition.
“Iron Man 3″ is basically a mess with a very well-acted and funny character study embedded in the middle, like the melody line in a Penderecki suite. Superhero sequels typically fail because no subsequent stories can outdo the wish fulfillment and discovery of the origin stories. But Tony Stark makes his own armor, own powers, and each movie’s loaded with new gadgetry that we see developed in real time, with a clock running down. In “Iron Man 2″ it was the quest for an arclight that wouldn’t slowly poison Stark. In “Iron Man 3″ it’s a slapsticky suit that can find Stark wherever he is, and attach to him, in ways that violate all knowable laws of physics. (How do the pieces fly? How can a simple car battery recharge the suit?)
It’s fun. So is the ample time Stark spends sans armor. “Superhero loses power” is typically the set-up for scenes of said hero being useless — Clark Kent getting his ass kicked in the “Superman II” diner, Peter Parker’s webbing failing to launch. Stark feels sorry for himself for a few minutes, then transforms into McGuyver, building whatever he needs to defeat a series of Extremis junkies. He encounters one of the least annoying kid sidekicks in movie history (largely because he’s totally self-aware that he’s a cliche.) He runs along girders jumping into suits as he needs them. (More physics issues with this, though — how are these suits which could withstand Thor’s hammer easily exploded by a hot-blooded super soldier punching them once?)
Anyway — all of that works, Kingsley is terrific, several bones are thrown our way in the form of actual action scenes for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). There’s a fun ongoing gag about The Iron Patriot, the armor acquired by the government in the last movie, being sent around the globe on pointless searches for terrorists. But the momentum of Stark’s story isn’t matched by a plot that makes sense.
“No” has exactly antithetical problems. Its plot has to make sense, because it happened. In 1988, after 15 years in power, Augusto Pinochet was convinced by an increasingly faithless military junta that he should hold an election. If he won, he would be legitimized as Chile’s president for eight years. If he lost, he’d start the country’s transition back to democracy and step down within a year.
I’d be interested in a movie about Pinochet’s own campaign. We see flashes of it here, in enormous boardrooms where generals beg second-rate consultants to turn Pinochet into a likeable, electable politician. (“Use his eyes,” says one of them. “He has terrific eyes.”) But the movie’s really about René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a youngish consultant with left-wing sympathies whose work on soda ads gets him hired to run the “No” campaign. Bernal plays him as a quiet idealist who refuses to explain himself, or even to get excited at the possibility of overthrowing Pinochet. As the narrative builds, we understand why — he has a young family, and he’s clearly terrified of the consequences if he loses.
A large amount of screen time is handed over to the original ads. They play for camp now, but you can see why they worked like you can see why Barack Obama’s campaigns have worked. “No” chooses a rainbow for its logo, and Saavedra designs ads that sell “happiness.” A colleague wants a campaign theme song. “No,” says Saavedra. “We need a jingle.”
Saavedra’s conflicted calm is something you don’t often see in political movies. Other characters get to explain the gravity of a potential loss or the need to put footage of the Mothers of the Disappeared in the campaign ads. Saavedra stays bland. His girlfriend calls his work “a copy of a copy of a copy,” and he clearly knows that it is, but he cynically expects it to work. The filmmakers don’t pass judgment on this; when the government’s “Si” campaign tries to parody the “No” ads, its strategists also fret that they’re making “una copia de una copia de una copia,” and they fail.
It’s a powerful story. I’m just not sure the writers picked the best avatar with which to tell us.
I saw this technicolor-vomit stunt flick the way it was meant to be seen: Surrounded by haters. My film critic pal Asawin dragged me and my roommate Ben over to a late night screening, at Georgetown’s K Street cinema, which has made the transition from “the theater you need to go to if you’re trying to see something new” to “the theater that flypapers smarmy college students.” We sat in front of Millennials matched up boy-girl-boy-girl, and they were heckling, sotto voce, within the first five minutes.
Again: This did not ruin the cinematic experience. “Spring Breakers” is delightful trash, with bare breasts and simulated sex and sleazy talk in every scene. It opens with a montage set to Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” which I’d known previously as the “SKRREEEEEE-DNH-DNH-DNHHHHHH-DNH-DNH-DNHHHH” song. We hear the whole, unpleasant song, and suffer through young, tanned bodies dancing and drinking in slow motion. Fratty boys hold beercans over their cocks and poor the nectar into the mouths of horny girls. Bikinis are ripped off in slow motion. Girls who’ll grow up to marry real estate developers and lawyers deep-throat rainbow ice cream bars. This was the discriminating viewer’s cue to walk out, but it would be another forty-odd minutes until anyone in our theater did so.
They were reacting to a story both gross and formulaic. Harmony Korine says he’s “throwing a stick of dynamite into the Zeitgeist,” which is one way to say he’s given Selena Gomez eternal indie cred. A cynical cineaste sees that he’s just followed in the tracks of “Deliverance” and “Band of Outsiders,” films in which (respectively) four friends go south to lose themselves in a throwback culture, and fall into a happy romance with violent crime.
Brit, Candy, Cotty, and Faith are students at an anonymous college in Kentucky. The first time we see most of them, they’re writing filthy messages (“I NEED PENIS”) to each other in class. I said “most” because one of the girls — no points guessing which — is a churchy, sullen sort who goes to a hip youth service but seems bored. Brit, Candy, and Cotty realize that their spring break fund is low, so they put on ski masks and knock over the local Chicken Shack. (Almost everyone they rob is black.) Newly enriched, they head down to St. Petersburg on a party bus and get blotto in a series of trash-able motels. One of the parties is broken up by cops, as sometimes happens when glassy-eyed drug dealers are spreading cocaine everywhere, and the girls go to a jail where nobody thinks to replace their bikinis with prison garb or, you know, shirts. Alien (James Franco), a rapper/drug dealer, pays their bail and brings them, willingly, into a few days of gun-toting mayhem.
My friend Tim Brayton basically nails this movie. It’s 90% of a morality play. We in the audience are made to despise the girls. Faith leaves Florida after Alien subjects her to some terrifying flirtation. The other three play with Alien’s guns and obtain costumes that will be copied by thousands of real girls with bad taste — pink baclavas with unicorn patches, black sweatpants with DTF written on the ass. (Google it. DTF, not ass.) We see them ruin a wedding and separate some bros for their teeth, before they massacre a mansion full of drug dealers.
Here’s the rub: Nothing bad happens to them. One girl is shot in the arm after a dealer (played sullenly by Gucci Mane) sprays the group with an Uzi. One shot. That’s it. She weeps and splits. The other girls commit a slow-motion slaughter (to the soundtrack of that Skrillex song, played by an orchestra), and don’t even get grazed by returned fire. They speed off in Gucci’s orange Lamborghini, returning to Kentucky, presumably, on the same road upon which we saw the spring break party bus.
It’s an exploitation movie, but the girls aren’t the exploited party. Korine gives his young wife Rachel a disturbing scene, trapping her in a motel room where pre-obesity frat guys pour liquor everywhere and try to get in her pants. But they fail. “You’re never gonna get this puuuuu-sssssy,” she sings, blacked out and on the floor. And she’s right. The girls are never again in real danger. It’s them, not Alien, who brandish guns as phallic symbols. The people being exploited here are the poor blacks and whites, all cartoon characters portrayed as murderous thugs. The girls are on a lark, and the sex and crime is there to amuse them — amuse us.
Like Tim says, it’s gorgeously shot. Korine’s previous concept film Mr. Lonely was beautiful, too, but it meandered toward a Big Lesson. There’s no lesson here, just John Waters trash. I liked it, but you don’t want to make the same mistakes as me…
When you see as many movies as I do, you reserve the right to get catty about Oscar nominations. This post will collect the various actors and movies and scores and whatnot that, to me, got ignored.
Tim Heidecker, “The Comedy”
Rick Alverson’s update of “Five Easy Pieces” is divisive, by design. If you don’t want to watch flabby, rich thirtysomethings behave like utter assholes as they fritter away their lives, go watch fucking “Snow White and the Huntsman” or something. If you do want to watch that, then Tim Heidecker’s antihero, Swanson, is a hilarious ball of loathsomeness who makes the average Lena Dunham character look tolerable. Heidecker own work is pure dada nonsense (which is a plus, for me). When he’s shown up in other peoples’ movies, he’s had little chance to prove himself. (He’s the fiance in “Bridesmaids,” the guy with literally zero dialogue.) But he’s brilliant here.
Rick Ross, “100 Black Coffins”
This should be obvious. Didn’t the Oscars reward Eminem and Three 6 Mafia not so long ago? Tell me this song isn’t better than the piffle written so that “Les Miserables” could get another nomination.
Best Original Score
Howard Shore and Metric, “Cosmopolis”
The movie is pretentious, poorly adapted twaddle, but the soundtrack smushes together Shore’s drawing-room avant-gardism with the bright, shiny pop of the Canadian alt-rock group. This song, “I Don’t Want to Wake Up,” appears ambiently in the film, as the late-night glowstick jam at a nightclub. That’s what makes it so good — what nightclub would play this song with its herky-jerk dynamics and vocals distorted into something that sounds like a phone call from the bottom of a deepwater oil rig?
- I actually like the new characters on Glee. To a man, they’re improvements on the non-actors foisted upon us by “The Glee Project.” The actress who plays Marley is cute, and I can say that, because she’s like seven years older than she looks.
- I also like that song, even though it’s an overproduced P!nk single.
- I have no use for the band Fun, or their sub-John Hughes hit “We Are Young.” Seriously? That’s how Janelle Monae breaks into the bigs? By yowling some harmonies about setting the night on fire?
- I support The Gossip’s evolution into a strange jingle-writing outfit.
- Once you re-add the sidebar — people, it takes one fucking mouse click — the new iTunes is quite attractive and functional. Seems to do less random color wheel-spinning, too.
No complaints, but I’ve a bit busy with my fun-as-hell Slate work, and haven’t blogged my not-needed-at-all movie thoughts for a while. I have being watching movies, though! My early ranking on the year’s offerings so far:
Mind-destroying Effluvia 68. The Divide – Formless, plotless, ad-libbed horseshit about a group of idiots stuck in a (actually well-stocked) apartment building basement when a nuclear attack destroys New York. The dialogue creaks, and the last serviceable scares come 20-odd minutes in, when what appear to be cybernetic Korean shock troops invade the shelter and commit a bunch of murders. Then it turns into a violent sex fantasy, starring Rosanna Arquette, who deserves better.
67. Dreams From My Real Father – The worst of the two “secret Obama bio” movies this year. That’s something.
66. 4:44: Last Day on Earth – Without doing actual research, I’m going to assume the director got scared by Al Gore’s TED talks and talked some friends into acting out his formless script about two New Yorkers puttering around before the apocalypse. (The apocalypse in question: The ozone layer breaks.) How do you take “Willem Defoe” and “mass extinction event” and make a boring movie? Here’s how.
65. 2016: Obama’s America – The well-shot, commercially successful terminator of Dinesh D’Souza’s reputation. Notable for its role in making 2012 a carbon copy of election 2004, with this choir sermon playing the role originated by “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
64. Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike – Ray Wise plays the president in this middle leg of a trilogy that will be finished whether you like it or not. That was a highlight. There aren’t many other highlights.
Perfectly Mediocre 63. Chernobyl Diaries – A solid B-movie concept works shockingly well for the first 50 minutes. Too-handsome American tourists (one of them played by Jesse McCartney, of all people) sign up on an “extreme” visit to a town evacuated after the 1986 nuclear meltdown. As long as the scares are opaque — darkness, barking dogs, paranoia — it works. Then rubbery-looking “mutants” shamble into the frame and it goes pear-shaped. 62. The Woman in Black – Stylish but totally forgettable. Good for Harry Potter, though, breaking through his typecasting cage! 61. Project X – A hit-miss mish-mash of the “found footage” genre and the “nerdy teens hold crazy party” genre. The nerds in question aren’t particularly funny or interesting. More importantly, a second act gag about a garden gnome full of ecstasy — it’s cracked open and gobbled up by revelers — moves the plot nowhere. The kids on E just seem drunk! 60. Act of Valor – How do you get audiences excited about a cliched war movie with all the exciting twists of a show trial? You cast real-life Navy SEALs, who act about as well as real-life people could be expected to. 60. Red Tails – A disappointing cliche-pile by talented people (Aaron MacGruder, Reginald Hudlin) with a solid idea: Make a black World War II movie that makes audiences fall back in love with the Tuskegee Airmen. 59. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World – A misfire on many levels. Let’s start with the casting: Steve Carrell alongside Keira Knightley. Carrell is 1) a wooden leading man and 2) old enough to be Knightley’s father. Every key romantic moment plays out the same way, with Carrell staring at his co-star in a mixture of blankness and lukewarm affection. But it’s the best lovers-at-the-end-of-the-world movie of the year! That’s something. 58. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – Despite my ranking, this is pretty passable b-movie stuff with some hilarious Nick Cage dialogue. He absolutely never seems to give a shit about the apocalypse he manages to stave off, by transforming into a god-like hero whom no one can do any damage to. 57. The Watch – A good, old-fashioned, big-stars-bad-script fuck-up. Three famous actors and one cult star (Stiller! Vaughn! Hill! Ayoade!) play suburban losers of various kinds who, eventually, start tracking aliens who are killing stuff all over the place. It devolves into a series of dick jokes, as one would expect. 56. Promised Land – The would-be “China Syndrome” of the anti-fracking movement is one of the least interesting melodramas imaginable, complete with a twist that undermines the premise of the movie. 55. Snow White and the Huntsman – I’m told this was the better of the TWO “Snow White” fable “reimaginings” that cursed multiplexes last year. The special effects that shatter evil knights are fun, but you saw those in the trailer. You didn’t see a bunch of charisma-less ambling around the woods by Bella and Thor. You dodged a bullet. 54. Rock of Ages – Fans of the Los Angeles musical — later adapted for Broadway — swear that this was a hilarious piss-take on the genre. Chris Hardwick, the hyper-energetic ambassador of nerd culture, originated the role of generic rock star Stacee Jaxx, and he met a crazed comic ending involving unsolved crime and asylum in Uruguay. In the film, Stacee Jaxx is played by Tom Cruise, and he finds true love. 53. John Carter – Andrew Staunton’s legendary disaster is the worst kind of debacle: A boring one. As a movie that might come on basic cable at 3 p.m. on a Sunday, it’s tolerable. 52. Cosmopolis – David Cronenberg adapts DeLillo and makes no effort whatsoever to tune up the dialogue for cinema. Robert Pattinson, as the star, is perfectly okay, because he’s meant to come off as a sociopath, but the rest of the cast struggles with dialogue like “The yuan can’t go up, but it just did,” and “I am your director of research. You pay me for insights.” Very nice soundtrack, though, by Howard Shore and Metric. 51. Chronicle – “Akira” for American teens, with the science and big ideas about statism replaced by the deux ex machina of an alien craft that imbues superpowers. 50. Haywire – Stephen Soderbergh directs an action movie like an Altman drama, all static camera placement and a lead (Gina Carano) who can fight but not really act. You’ll see Michael Fassbender get his ass kicked! You’ll see Channing Tatum get his ass kicked! That’s pretty much it. 49. Searching for Sugar Man – The award-bestowing world fell in love with this story of a coulda-been artist who belatedly discovered that he changed hundreds of thousands of South Africans’ lives. I liked it better when it was called “Anvil: The Story of Anvil.” 48. The Campaign – Will Ferrell and Zach Galifiniakis parody politics in the age of Super PACs and it’s maybe 10-12 percent more outre than reality. 47. Prometheus – In all seriousness, the existence of this movie is justified by my friend Julian Sanchez’s 100-megaton demolition of its plotting. Go read that. You’re back? Okay — I didn’t hate it nearly so much, because I’ll forgive a movie plenty if it gives me some good scares and set design. The opening, sweeping shots of primordial Earth are wondrous, and watching the c-section machine induces actual pain.
Flawed but Worthwhile 46. The Do-Deca Pentathalon – It’s funny that Mark Duplass, formerly a shlubby indie comedy director, is now too famous to credibly play his own shlubby characters. He casts two incredibly ordinary-looking actors to play insanely competitive brothers who never finished a 25-event physical competition when they were growing up, and restart the clock over ONE CRAZY WEEKEND. Like the Duplass movie I liked better this year (“Jeff Who Lives at Home”), it sort of ambles into nowhere in the final act. 45. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – The director of “Nightwatch” does his best with a willfully dumb premise. Less action than you’d expect, and more jokes. I was particularly fond of how Stephen Douglas was elevated from Lincoln’s political rival to the guy he stole Mary Todd (who in this telling is played by the gorgeous Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from. 44. Two Days in New York – Julie Delpy does a screwball sequel to her likeable comedy about Paris. The cringe comedy works; the goofy characters grate by the second act. 43. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie – The stars of my favorite sketch show of the decade go the “Run Ronnie Run” route, telling one of those cut-and-paste stories about friendship and greed and loading it up with disturbing cock-piercing, head-exploding, child-thieving jokes. And then there’s “Shrim.” 42. Brave – A lighthearted Grimm-style fable about a rebellious girl who turns her mother into a bear by accident. At least it’s not “Cars 2.” 41. American Reunion – A million times better than it should be, thanks largely to the faded career prospects of the original cast. (Remember the time Jason Biggs was the lead in a Woody Allen movie? Remember the Rollerball remake?) Hijacks are engaged in by 28-year-olds who should know better. 40. The Dictator - Sacha Baron Cohen reimagines “The Great Dictator” as a lowbrow farce about anti-semites and genocide. Has its moments, though a setpiece fight involving a woman who can kill with her breasts is a little bit too much like a Borat re-make.
39. Killer Joe - The writer and director of “Bug” produce another gothic horror with actors doing unusually good work with generic roles — Matthew McConaughay here, as a murderous lawman, and Gina Gershon as a scheming, fratricidal wife.
38. Wanderlust – A surprise flop from David Wain, Paul Rudd, and Jennifer Aniston, who’ve all had hits with material of this general quality. Two likeable yuppies (Rudd and Aniston, obviously) run out of money in Manhattan, flee to live in the suburbs with a vicious, smug relative, and flee that to live on a hippie commune. That’s right — you’ve got your 90s movie problem, your 80s movie problem, and your totally anachronistic 70s movie problem, in one mega-movie! Wain et al still mine repetition and ad libs for the laffs, and it largely works. 37. The Amazing Spider-Man – Andrew Garfield is a terrific Peter Parker, better than Tobey Maguire was. Emma Stone is fun and winsome in ways that Kirsten Dunst never was. But boy howdy, nothing else about this movie improves on the Sam Raimi adaptations. 36. Your Sister’s Sister – Mark Duplass gets over a failed relationship and a family death by falling into a three-way sexual crisis with two sisters. Elevated from the norms of romantic comedy by being extraordinarily strange. 35. The Five Year Engagement – The most depressingly mature non-Apatow film from the Apatow shop — the rare romantic comedy in which everybody’s grandparents die before the wedding. 34. Jeff, Who Lives at Home – Another Duplass film, this time with three moral tales intersecting on one day in a Louisiana suburb. Rae Dawn Chong makes a triumphant return as a flirty lesbian trapped in an office job; Jason Segel plays the sort of thoughtful loser that we assumed his “Freaks and Geeks” character would grow up to be. 33. To Rome with Love – Middling Woody Allen. If you think you’d be amused at a running plot about a man who’s a world-class opera singer, but only in the shower, this is your movie. 32. Damsels in Distress – Whit Stilman’s comeback film, 14 years in the making, and it’s… merely okay, damn it. Stillman insists on filming music and dance sequences without knowing how to direct such things. (The final “Love Train” sequence in his last film worked better than the showstopper here.) Greta Gerwig, lovely as ever, is as ill-suited to WASPy banter as fellow mumblestar Ryan Gosling. 31. The Raid: Redemption – A loving tribute to the misunderstood genre of stupid martial arts films. Cops go to war with gangsters, and there’s something about brothers joining warring sides, but mostly there’s a bunch of acrobatic punch-murder.
Perfectly Good 30. Detropia – From the makers of “Jesus Camp” comes this meandering ruin porn, which founders a little when one subject (a retired auto worker who owns a bar) spends a day bemoaning Chinse innovations at the auto show. Worth watching for the excruciating sequence in which Swedish tourists ask a cafe owner where they can see the most dilapidated ruins. 29. Safety Not Guaranteed – Sci-fi magical realism about a cute girl (Aubrey Plaza) who meets a seemingly crazy person (Mark fucking Duplass again) after seeing his ad for a working time machine. A surprisingly realistic piss-take on the alt weekly industry. 28. Friends With Kids – Jennifer Westfeldt, last seen (with more facial expressions) in “Kissing Jessica Stein,” casts herself as a woman who lets a friend get her pregnant because she doesn’t want to miss out on motherhood. 27. Marley – A standard but necessary bio-doc about a musician who’s only remembered in the most cartoonish terms. It’s one of the happiest little stories imaginable about a man who fathered multiple children out of wedlock and died of cancer after refusing to get a toe amputated. 26. Jiro Dreams of Sushi – I’m nearly alone in my judgment that this was merely good: It’s beautifully shot, with lots of nice Philip Glass songs, and my favorite “twist” in any documentary this year. (We learn that the son of the world-famous chef, the man who no one expects to live up to the old man, was actually the one whose food won the Michelin.) 25. Compliance – You know that moment in the horror movie when the ingenue makes a horrible decision, and you’re both scared for what’s coming and angry that she did it? Get ready to feel that for 85 minutes. Based closely on a true, well-reported story, about a sadistic crank caller who baited the employees of a fast food restaurant into basically stripping and molesting a colleague. 24. The Comedy – Tim Heidecker, revealing surprising dramatic chops, plays an odious rich hipster, bloated and bored, falling ass backwards into other New Yorkers’ lives. Sublime cringe comedy with a rotten core — in a good way! 23. Bernie – Richard Linklater adapts a this-can’t-be-real magazine story about a closeted gay man who charmed his way into the life and will of nasty widow. Shirley MacLaine plays the widow, Jack Black plays the loveable con man, and both are fantastic. 22. Dark Horse – I’ve always liked Todd Solondz. Jesus, I was one of perhaps 12 people who saw Palindromes and liked it. So of course I liked this blacker-than-a-midnight-funeral comedy about an angry loser who seeks love, finds it, and (spoiler) dies pathetically. It’s crammed with smart touches, down to the said loser’s name, Abe (a dignified-sounding name, not a red flag to laugh at the character), and his impotent rage at a Toys R Us manager who won’t refund him for a flawed action figure. And it’s nice to see Selma Blair in a role that plays to her gift — 200-proof mopeyness.
21. The Queen of Versailles
20. God Bless America 19. The Hunger Games – A gorgeous-looking adaptation of a teen novel that starts grim and gets a little cutesy. (The novel and the movie, both.) 18. Sleepwalk With Me – Mike Birbiglia turns his monologues about a troubled relationship and the start of his comedy career into a memorable little movie. Rent it for the Ira Glass fan in your life. 17. Take This Waltz – Sarah Polley, who made a little classic when she adapted a New Yorker story into Away From Her, writes her own beautifully painful story of a happy couple ruined by a mid-twenties emotional crisis. People seem divided on the use of the Leonard Cohen song that titles the movie — it plays as Polley’s camera spins around an apartment where two lovers go through a year of doubt, then excitement, then routine, then boredom. I liked that scene. 16. The Deep Blue Sea – An adaptation of a post-war British play that looks and feels like a lost Powell/Preminger ache-fest. 15. 21 Jump Street – The best iteration of the “hit show from your childhood turned into a farce” genre since The Brady Bunch. Really, The Brady Bunch is better than you remember. Could have done without the detached penis gag. 14. Ruby Sparks – You probably enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine. I thought it was a twee endurance test, all smart-sounding gimmickry (Proust scholarship!) that wasn’t actually smart at all. But this film, by the same directors, was terrific, and about 1/10 as financially successful as LMS, which shows what I know about the movie industry/viewing public. Paul Dano plays a mopey wunderkind novelist who’s 10 years on from his only novel — an instant classic. Taking his therapist’s advice, he overcomes writer’s block by developing the story of a cute girl (Zoe Kazan) who appears in his dreams. He wakes up one day and the girl is calling from downstairs, asking what he wants for breakfast. And this is where the PR failed the film. Trailers made this look like Yet Another Manic Pixie Dream Girl comedy, Elizabethtown mashed up with Stranger Than Fiction. Nope. The script, by Kazan, parodies and punishes that cliche. Ruby eventually figures out that her self-important boyfriend is a bore, and starts to move away from him. He puts another roll of paper in the typewriter and changes her personality. In the film’s climax, Dano settles a fight by typing commands and watching his helpless muse obey them. Bark like a dog. Call him a “genius.” Strip. If these weren’t the actresses directions, it would be horrifying — and it’s pretty horrifying as is, until it’s wrapped up in a satisfying way. Nick Urata’s soundtrack is also a marvel. 13. Skyfall – Everybody’s basically right about the latest Bond film, which eschews the “five minute countdown to save the world!” ending for a drawn-out, bloody tribute to Straw Dogs.
Legitimately Great Movies 12. Pitch Perfect – Perhaps I’m rating it too high, but I thought this was the rare inspirational beat-by-beat comedy that never ever flagged. 11. Silver Linings Playbook – A worthy addition to the “crazy people find each other, and thus find love” genre. Jennifer Lawrence is that rare overhyped starlet I can’t get enough of, partly because she’s a knockout, partly because her PR is so ingenious. (Her first big role was on “The Bill Engvall Show,” and yet because she was in “Winter’s Bone” she gets to be an “indie starlet made good.”) Bradley Cooper is at his best when a role finds some direction for his mania, which was the case in “Limitless” and is doubly true here. It’s a love story that leaves you happy at the outcome, unclear that it can ever last, confident that you didn’t see something phony. 10. The Cabin in the Woods – Joss Whedon and Tim Minear parody every horror movie conceit ever, positing that all of those conceits were invented by a shadow government in order to kill enough wayward teens to satisfy angry Gods. It’s a comedy, everybody! And it has the year’s best unicorn gag, easily. 9. Argo – Have we begun to grapple with the concept of Ben Affleck, Great American Film-Maker? His third movie is almost perfect, from the re-creations of 1980 malaise and pop culture to the hair-whitening moments where American diplomats are about to get found out — again, again, and again. The opening scene, a re-creation of the 1979 Iranian takeover of the American embassy, is genuinely enraging, and the stress level kicks up from there. My only gripe: Affleck casts himself in the lead, and gives the film’s only one-note performance as the agent who, sigh, is kinda depressed but will get everybody out of this, I guess. 8. Zero Dark Thirty – Thrilling historical spy drama that I never want to watch again. 7. The Avengers – Hell, I usually can’t stand the “villain brainwashes heroes into sealing fate” plot, which defines two acts of this thing. And in this movie, the trope works. The best assortment of actors ever thrown into a popcorn movie, funny dialogue, many holy-shit action scenes. 6. Django Unchained – Give Samuel L. Jackson the Oscar. 5. The Dark Knight Rises – Looking back, my one gripe concerns the final battle between the police and the Bane thugs. The police seriously have no better tactical move than “hey let’s run at the guys with guns and overwhelm them after many of us are shot?” That’s it, though. I love the sequel to the Reign of Terror playing out in Gotham. 4. Looper – An out-of-nowhere sci-fi masterpiece by a director/writer who never struck me as a sci-fi brain. 3. Lincoln – Simply one of the best movies ever made about the art of politics. Fine, sure, perhaps there’s one too many bumbling congressmen who are ridiculously easy to convince or buy off. There’s a lot of compelling, accurate history that has been rescued from the appendices of distracted authors. 2. Beasts of the Southern Wild – A gorgeous collection of imagery that we’ve never seen before, filmed (by a first time director!) in a way that makes it alien. A slightly surprising morality play plot, which works because the characters (and actors) are completely unpretentious. 1. Moonrise Kingdom – An odd, smart little boy becomes smitten with an odd, smart little girl. The affection is returned. The two of them carry on a correspondence, then run away together, then get caught, and that’s almost it. But the whole thing is put together with such care and beauty, and the sort of whimsy-with-a-point that Wes Anderson had lost sight of since Rushmore.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012) An unemployed man in his early thirties (Jason Segal) talks into a recorder about how he just re-watched “Signs,” and it got him thinking again about coincidences. The camera pans out, and we see that he’s on the toilet. Perfect. The latest and most ambitious Duplass film (which is to say not a very ambitious film) immediately reveals that it will be a meditation on some pretty small and banal lives in Baton Rouge. It’s perfectly cast, with Segal playing another iteration of the Stoner With Flashes of Inspiration, Ed Helms as his moderately successful brother — who we know is going to be a schmuck, because he has a goatee — Judy Greer as Helms’s suffering wife, and Susan Sarandon as the mother who expected her boys to do more than this.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) I can sell it to you in five words: “Black, Southern Werner Herzog movie.” Benh Zeitlin — who is twenty-fucking-nine years old — adapts a small play that nobody saw into a hallucinogenic family fable about a fictionalized redneck island off the coast of New Orleans. Two first-time actors play a daughter and father living in disorganized bliss. As the movie opens, they live in separate, ramshackle homes lifted up on blocks to protect from a coming flood, and he stumbles home from time to time to throw a chicken on a grill and yell “feed-up time!” The first act ends with a hurricane that drowns most of the island and sends the hold-outs — the father and daughter among them — living like Bruno at the end of Stroszeck, amidst weirdos slaughtering catfish and goats and catching catfish by punching them. And it gets more beautiful and strange from there.
God Bless America (2012) The latest in Bobcat Goldthwait’s series of spiteful black comedies that run 10 minutes longer than anybody needs. His previous offering, World’s Greatest Dad, gave us Robin Williams as a frustrated writer whose dipshit son dies while masturbating, giving the artist the chance to pass off his work as that of a croaked teen genius. There are many more corpses in God Bless America, as pathetic middle-aged Frank learns he’s dying of a brain tumor and decides to kill America’s cultural ruiners. He slaughters the star of a “My Super Sweet Sixteen” style show, which impresses the victim’s classmate Ava, and the two of them become (in her words) “platonic spree killers.” It’s a fun-but-didactic experience, with little effort made to disguise Goldthwait’s voice in the dialogue. (I’m thinking of the scene in which Ava professes her love for Alice Cooper, Frank says he “likes” the band, and Ava says “you don’t ‘like’ Alice Cooper. You accept him into your life.”) Goldthwait also has a weakness for the slo-mo scene soundtracked by pretty obvious pop, so we get to hear half of Cooper’s “Hello Hooray” and The Kinks’s “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” Mediocre, but if you always wanted Paper Moon to be more fucked up, here you go.
I hope H.R. Giger’s home is papered in royalty checks. In 1978, Ridley Scott took a chance on the weirdo Swiss artist who’d designed ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery cover and put him to work creating a disturbing, obsidian spaceship that housed an eyeless alien and a mysterious, mummified “space jockey.” Scott’s producers didn’t quite get it. Why put a dead, somewhat penis-shaped giant creature early in the movie if he’s not going to jump out and scare somebody? Why not just put the titular Alien eggs in a hole or something?
But Scott and Giger won out.
For three and a half decades, directors and artists copped Giger’s designs. Three different directors filmed Alien sequels — all of them featured new, weirder remixes of the Giger design. (The one you remember is the fecund Queen from Aliens; the high-octane nightmare fuel was the human-alien hybrid in Alien Resurrection.) But no one had really remixed the “space jockey” design.
Re-enter Ridley Scott. That mummified giant had a story to tell. Scott had the connections to tell it. The result, Prometheus is one of the most nostalgic sci-fi movies you’ve ever seen. It’s a well-acted series of tributes to better designs, movies, and fables — and sure, yes, it works very well on its own.
Here there be spoilers.
Since we’re discussing a long series of easter eggs, why not just rack them up?
- Highly advanced aliens arrive in earth’s pre-history and give us our brains and DNA. (Battlestar Galactica.)
- Explorers discover breathable air in an alien structure where there should be no air. (The Abyss.)
- A woman has sex with her newly infected partner — she immediately becomes pregnant with a monstrous baby. (The Fly.)
- A monster takes the form of a human, fucks shit up, and can only be killed by flamethrowers. (The Thing.)
- A ship, piloted by a character we quite like, blows up in an act of suicide to destroy the aliens’ ship. (Independence Day.)
- After the threat is neutralized, survivors go on a mission to find the aliens’ homeworld. (Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers.)
- An ice-cold white woman gives in to the advances of a sexy black dude. (Actually, this is just a cliche.)
You blend this many eggs together and somebody’s going to like it. Hell, I liked it, even though it’s about as subtle as a chest-burster. David, the android played beautifully by Michael Fassbender (as in Alien Resurrection, we get a physically beautiful robot instead of the creepy-looking ones played by Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen), styles himself after Peter O’Toole’s T.H. Lawrence. There’s a very funny scene in which he dyes his hair and recites dialogue to perfect his accent. Later, more resonantly, we see David taking the exact wrong lesson from the movie as he decides to infect a crewmate with alien gunk. “Big things have small beginnings,” he says — which is what Lawrence told a superior who doubted that it was worth investing in a chaos-stirring Arab revolt.
Continuing on our Journey Beyond Subtlety — Noomi Rapace’s Ellie is a cross-wearing Christian in a future when the religion is sort of seen as a goof. “Impressive survival instincts,” David tells her, after she’s performed a nick-of-time laser c-section on herself. (This is the single most disturbing scene in the movie, the one likely to last.) Of course she’s a survivor — she’s looking for gnosis, guided by faith! It helps that the oddly beautiful Rapace has pale skin and a flat nose that make her look like the closest descendent of the Space Jockey.
Oh, right — we solve the mystery of the original Alien. The spaceship that the Nostromo found was supposed to pilot some grumpy Jockeys to Earth with a cargo of gene-bending WMD gunk. John Hurt didn’t stumble across a poor, bedraggled alien explorer. He found a space Mengele who was trying to correct the mistake of another alien by exterminating life on our planet — until his own WMD turned against him. This isn’t a particularly original story, but I’ll take that kind of irony with my summer blockbuster.
“The Evil Dead” is a fine horror movie. “Evil Dead II” is a bona fide classic. Here’s the joke: They’re basically the same movie. The first one was directed by a 22-year-old Sam Raimi when he wanted to prove he could conjure real screams with no money. The second, six years later, was a comedy that had terrific (and much-copied) fun with the cliches of the slasher pic. And since then, it’s been hard to take the cabin-in-the-woods movie very seriously. It’s a set-up that works best as parody (“Dead Snow,” “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil”) or psychological fuck-you-up (“Antichrist”), but not as horror. (One problem: Once cell technology became cheap and omnipresent, audiences noticed when you ostentatiously put characters in places where their iPhones were bricked.)
And so we have “The Cabin in the Woods,” a sort of ur-parody of all horror movies that uses the cursed, electronically stranded outpost as a starting point. It was co-written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. I was a little surprised at the choice of partners, because Goddard worked on the final, more-serious season of Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He’s kept his end up and created a seriously funny satire of slasher flicks, but he’s kept the serious stuff in there.
My first spoiler: “The Cabin in the Woods” posits that the Ancients (a little Lovecraft reference for you) sleep beneath the earth. They require frequent human sacrifies. If they don’t get them, they’ll rise and destroy mankind. Resourceful humans have figured out a solution: In secluded underground locations, all over the planet, they trap unsuspecting people into cliched horror scenarios, get their kills, and send the blood down to the Ancients to shut ‘em up.
It’s a fun concept with only a few logic holes. The American trope-bunker — run by two bored bureaucrats played perfectly by Brad Whitford and Richard Jenkins — makes sure that four or five archetypes get killed. The archetypes: a Fool, a Whore, an Athlete, a Scholar, and a Virgin. (The virgin doesn’t NEED to be killed, necessarily. See: Every horror movie ever, and the Last Girl trope.) But an extremely funny side-story shows us that the usually-successful Japanese trope-bunker is trying to appease the Ancients with a sort of Ringu-rip-off, a ghost girl terrorizing a room of schoolchildren. It’s hilarious (particularly when it fails and Jenkins yells “Fuck you!” at all of the tiny children on his screen), but… are the five archetypes present in a Japanese girl’s school? I’m skeptical.
NONETHELESS: The movie gives a set of five undergrads, all credible spouters of Whedonesque dialogue, who fit the archetypes almost perfectly. (We have a lot of fun with the “almosts.” The jock, played by Chris Hemsworth, is actually a Sociology major with a working expertise of Soviet history. The “virgin” isn’t actually a virgin, so the “director” of the conspiracy shrugs that “we work with what we’ve got.”) They play their parts. It’s the “Fool,” a pothead played by Fran Kranz, who assumes that the weirdness afflicting them is being orchestrated somehow. He and the Virgin (Kristen Connolly, a soap opera actress like Sarah Michelle Gellar once was) manage to unravel the conspiracy. In so doing, they… make possible the gruesome murder of hundreds of bureaucrats, then destroy the world.
Perhaps I haven’t sold you on this movie. Very well. Two words: Killer unicorn.
Suzanne Collins’s dystopian trilogy is written in the first person, from the perspective of a resourceful, sarcastic, unforgettable girl. For unfair reasons — similar pop cultural timing — I compare Katniss Everdeen to Harry Potter and Bella Swan, and Katniss comes out on top. She’s a wonderful bullshit-caller. She’s realistic and guarded about boys. She’s a fount of witty observations about the insane society she was born into, where twelve tattered Districts provide for a decadent Capitol. (My friend and colleague Matthew Yglesias explains how this works.)
The film adaptation of the first novel gives the Katniss role to Jennifer Lawrence, an approachably gorgeous actress who slummed in TV, then broke big in the fine 2010 sleeper Winter’s Bone, then appeared in The Beaver for some reason. She’s a star now, even though her Katniss is less than I hoped for. The film is, well, a film. There’s no first-person musing. We know that Katniss is smart and wry because she stars cold through the parade of idiots making her life harder — and eventually trying to kill her.
I’m leading with my only complaint. This is just a terrific blockbuster, disorienting and absorbing. The art direction is by Tom Stern, who honed his craft on a lot of crap (the horribly failed J. Edgar), beautifully frames the gingham poverty of District 12 and the Caprica-esque sleaze of the Capitol. Director Gary Ross — who previously directed two lame period pieces — puts his camera sickeningly close to the action. Look at thee start of the Games, when tributes are permitted to run toward a stash of weapons. It’s a perfect chance for them to kill each other. We see them do it with quick shots of bloody weapons raised after striking, knives flying too fast to track.
“I remember you,” says Steve (Michael B. Jordan) to Andrew (Dante DeHaan), as the two of them walk to check out a hole in the ground. “You wore that hoody every day to homeroom.”
Subtle, isn’t it? In the first 15 minutes, Josh Trank and Max Landis’s “Chronicle” has shown us that Andrew has a screaming, abusive father, a dying mother, a gallery of exciting bullies, a cool cousin (a different kind of problem there) — and now, a habit of dressing like the kid who shoots up the school. Another title for this movie might be “X-Columbine.” But I don’t want to get too snarky, because the creators are both several years younger than me, and they’re there while I’m here.
“Chronicle” is a good-looking, diverting movie, but derivative as all hell. Non-nerds might not notice this. Nerds, the sort of people who’ve dreamed about the situation Andrew, Steve, and cousin Matt get into, will notice. The most evocative images call back “Superman” (you’ll believe a sociopath can fly!) or, more often, “Akira” (when Andrew levitates and some pebbles come with him; when he goes on a rampage wearing tattered hospital garb).
And is it good? It’s fine.
Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012)
Let us give thanks that producers keep giving money to Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. They don’t even try to hide that they’re in the business of avante garde, audience-limiting weirdness. So they made a movie about it: Tommy Schlaang (Frank Langella!) gives two idiots a billion dollars to adapt a poem about a guy who wears a suit made of diamonds. They spend the money on real diamonds and a Johnny Depp impersonator. (He does look like Johnny Depp.)