Sunday, August 14, 2016

Subject to Infinite Change

OK, one last post on this blog.  Likely nobody is watching this space anymore; it's been over three years since my last post and the world has, as the man said, moved on. But I just feel like doing it. Call it closure.

Some history is in order, I think. Once upon a time, this was a poker blog. In days gone by, I was a poker blogger. About eight years ago I wrote a post announcing that I was curtailing my blogging and pokering activities to write a novel. Like most grand sweeping pronouncements people make about their goals on social media, this was a steaming raft of cow cookies. I did nothing of the kind.

I did not write my novel. I kept playing online poker. I kept blogging. I became obsessed with the TV show "LOST" to an unhealthy degree. I learned to hate the TV show "Heroes" more than I have ever hated anything in my life. Then, in 2011, the U.S. government shut down all online poker activities in the U.S., or at least placed poker far past the legal threshold of my willingness to pursue it anymore. I cashed my winnings out of PokerStars, used the funds to buy into a smaller 2011 WSOP event, nearly survived the first day—and that was pretty much it for poker and me.

The community that was built around online poker drifted, drifted. Some of you moved over to Twitter, and I know you better than I ever did (that's a good thing). I don't know where the rest of you went, or what you did as blogging and poker went away.

Me? Son of a bitch. I wrote that novel.

It was a lot of work, which is I guess a boring thing to share. I got up early in the morning every day and worked on it for five years. I'm done now. I'm very happy with it. It's what I wanted it to be when I started. Go read the first few chapters, if you are so inclined—I'm going to post the first few. If you like it, tell others. Point them to it. Build awareness. It would really help me out.

Thanks for reading all the silliness I put on here. Your encouragement gave me the rocket fuel of stupid overconfidence I needed to take a poke at my dreams. Those of you who read along as I wrote it (you know who you are)...damn. I owe you. Likely I wouldn't have finished without you.

Now I'm going to try to get an agent and get my book published. We'll see how it goes. If it goes well, that's awesome. If it doesn't...

Son of a bitch. I think I'll write another one.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Time-Delayed Oscars 012: 2001, A Time-Delayed Odyssey

The year 2001 carries a little extra baggage in movie-world, given that the year shares a name with one of the most lionized movies of all time (appropriate, then, that we'll kick off our rundown with a sort-of Kubrick film). I was surprised as I worked on this entry to see that the year lived up to its associations, providing us with a hefty boat of classics and personal favorites (it looks particularly strong when juxtaposed with the 90-pound weakling that was 2000).

Same story as before: A look back at a year's worth of movies that had a U.S. release, comparing what was important and impressive then with what is seen as important and impressive now. Or, put another way, which are likely to be enshrined in the canon, and which are likely to be fired out of a cannon. Icons after the titles to indicate my impression of their momentum.

To quote the great Arsenio Hall: Let's get this show busy.

All The Movies of 2001

And The Ones That Still Matter Today

"And that's how I'll invent Facebook. What's that? It's 1964? Dammit."
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (+): Steven Spielberg directed this as a quasi-"final Kubrick film", and it's exactly the sort of hot mess you'd expect by combining those two sensibilities. It's a real Nuts & Gum moment for cinema. Honestly, for all Spielberg's obvious talents, who thought he would be the right stand-in for Stanley Kubrick? Austere, chillingly composed, devastating meditations on the nature of existence are broken up by so many lowest common denominator grotesqueries such as a jive-talking robot and a wacky hologram, (voiced by Chris Rock and Robin Williams, respecitvely) that you get whiplash. Nevertheless, Hally Joel Osment's performance as a robot replacement boy cruelly programmed to desire love is among the finest of the year, and individual scenes, when Spielberg isn't letting his Spielbergy-ness get in the way, are killer. If only he'd had the courage to end it on the ocean floor, it still would have been a messy success. For some reason, a lot of people seem to want to read the horrifying cop-out ending as a brilliant subversion. I perceive that it's gaining both critical regard and fans, inexplicably enough.

Amelie (=): Sugar wafer of a movie with strong visual inventiveness. Juenet subverts his usual dark sensibilities to channel some of that Wes Anderson twee. A cute trifle, but one that is going to keep bringing people back.

A Beautiful Mind (-): A perfectly respectable, professionally-made movie that really doesn't do anything notably enough to compel you to put it on your Netflix queue 12 years later. Russell Crowe gives a strong performance in a movie that treats mental illness in the most reductive way possible, though I do still think the reveal halfway through, imaginary friends aside, is a trick well done. Anyway, I don't think anybody hates this movie. I don't think anybody thinks it's awful. People probably remember that it's pretty good, but I don't think anybody thinks much of anything about it anymore. It won Best Picture, which is what it was created to do.

Bridget Jones' Diary (=): Surprisingly (to me) sturdy romantic comedy, mainly on the strengths of the lead actors. Notable for being one of the earliest movies to figure out that Hugh Grant works much better as a cad than a nice bloke.

Donnie Darko (+): The movie that launched a thousand Gyllehaals (give or take 998 Gyllenhaals). A box office squib upon release, this dark time-travel fable has ridden INCEPTION-grade obsession about its twisty plot (which ultimately makes INCEPTION-levels of sense, not that it matters), a fantastically quotable plot, and a director (Kelly) with a knack for creating indelible visual moments, to become the cult classic of this year. The fact that Kelly can't make good movies anymore appears (rightly) not to have hurt the regard in which this movie is  held. Feces are baby mice.

The Fast and the Furious (=): Kicked off a franchise that will not die, though it will drift. This movie will be remembered by humanity for as long as they keep making the sequels. It will be forgotten approximately twelve seconds later, and then remembered again very briefly at the 127th Oscar ceremony as a mourning nation says goodbye to Vin Diesel (choked on a shrimp).

Fat Girl (-):When they talk about uncomfortable sexuality and shocking endings that make you queasy to think about, oh yeah, they talk about FAT GIRL.

Ghost World (+): The movie that launched a thousand Scarletts Johannson (Kidding. It was only five, but they do star in a lot of movies nowadays). Highly regarded these days and gaining momentum, it deals honestly and painfully with the awkwardness of adolescence turning slowly into adulthood. Great performances, too, especially from Thora Birch (and where did she go?) and Steve Buscemi.

Gosford Park (-): Might be the Robert Altman movie that came closest to winning a bunch of Oscars, given that (1) the nominee pool was pretty weak, (2) the movie was pretty good, (3) Robert Altman was pretty old, and (4) British! It's still awfully good stuff, deftly threading upstairs/downstairs intrigue while keeping straight around 30 speaking characters, but I don't think it's going down as ruling-class Altman. It's upper-middle class Altman, which is pretty good Altman (and even lower class Altman is superior to royalty from most directors), but it won't get you invited to table at Downton Abby, squire.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (-): Considered to be pretty dire thanks mainly to an uninspired director (what about MRS DOUBTFIRE and HOME ALONE made anybody think Chris Columbus was the man for this?), but it did kick off a well-loved series of adaptations from a beloved book series, so this movie will have legs for a good while yet.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (+): A cult favorite that I can't speak to with much authority, as I haven't yet seen it (I do need to correct that, if only to confirm absolutely that this isn't a movie about the glam rock double life of Harry Potter's owl). It's possible that what was once seen as edgy will seem quaint as the transgendered become happily less marginalized, but I'm guessing that as long as the stage show keeps being performed, people will seek this movie out.

I Am Sam (-): This movie, I can't talk about. I only saw the trailer. But it was such a dumb trailer, I had a difficult time believing it was really for a real movie that was really starring the real Sean Penn and the real Michelle real Pfeiffer. It seemed exactly like a parody of an actor playing somebody with a mental handicap as a magic saint in order to get an Oscar. And then he actually got an actual Oscar nomination. Then Ben Stiller made specific fun of it in Tropic Thunder, in a parody trailer within that movie, which wasn't really any more ridiculous than the actual I Am Sam trailer. And now this movie's legacy is the line "Never go full retard," delivered by an ex-druggie white movie superstar in the most extravagant blackface ever, and for which he received...yep, an Oscar nomination. This is a weird universe.

Ichi The Killer (+): A classic of over-the-top Japanese ultraviolence, and beloved among connoisseurs of such things. I'm not one of those, but if you want to see human skin doing things you hope your human skin won't ever do, I'm told you should run, not walk, to this flick.

In The Bedroom (-): The other movie (along with Gosford) that probably came close to winning gold. Still well-remembered today, though not often-remembered. Stands out for its performances (Spacek and Wilkenson in particular), probably forgotten for being a little too reserved. This movie happily resuscitated the career of Marisa Tomei (very talented, very hot).

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (=): Not remembered for being particularly good, but amusing enough (applesauce, bitch). Notable for being the moment that Kevin Smith finally pulled the ripcord on his career as a director and began his career as a guy who tweets 800 times a day and curates all things Jay and Silent Bob.

K-PAX (=): Not a success when it came out. All but forgotten today. I need to put this one in the list because it killed Kevin Spacey's career as a Big Deal Actor, making such a sharp rift between his decade of greatness and his decade-plus of dreck that "The K-PAX Moment" has become my shorthand for the movie version of "Jump the Shark" in an actor's career arc (example: Father Of The Bride was Steve Martin's K-PAX moment). Jeff Bridges survived this thing, but he did have to change himself into a wookie to do it. You thought he got too lazy to shave. No. He's in hiding.

Late Marriage (+): Still very obscure, generally speaking but then so are movies like Women In The Dunes. In other words, among cinephiles a highly-regarded foreign film that keeps getting love. I oughta see this.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (=): Hard to know exactly how to rate this one, since the trilogy is increasingly just seen as one massive movie (the Academy put their stamp on this view in three years, when the award-valanche for installment three was largely seen as a valedictory for the series). Taken alone, its probably the strongest film in the series (unsurprising, since the same is true of the books). Jackson's world-building still amazes. This will be a part of the fantasy gold standard forever, basically.

The Man Who Wasn't There (+): One of the most under-rated Coen Brothers movies, given that it's got an emotional vacuum at its center (Billy Bob Thornton in an amazing performance), and that it didn't get much in the way of a release, and it certainly didn't catch on with audiences, probably because black and white isn't popular even if it's the most beautifully-shot movie of the year. It's really good.

Monster's Ball (-): Oof, is this one not aging well. At all. It's a movie that thinks it's being clever by having Billy Bob Thorton (hey, look at this - back to back Billy Bob!) display a sudden proclivity for chocolate ice cream. Whether the gross racial dynamics are ham-fistedly dumb or knowingly dumb is debatable, but the histrionic tone is going to put me off either way.

Monsters, Inc. (+): Still one of the sweetest entries in Pixar's ongoing and nearly unbroken streak of awesomeness. One of my favorites in the Pixar library. Boo.

Moulin Rouge! (-): Huh. I keep writing this, but I think this movie also had a credible shot at winning best picture back in the day. Again, I think this is indicative of the relative weakness of the nominee list. However, I have to say that nowadays this is the movie among those that were actually nominated I'd be happiest to remember as a Best Picture winner. It's so completely the unique and shitbat-crazy product of Baz Luhrmann, it's so much exuberant fun, and all the principal actors are doing such good work, it seems a shame to notice that it frequently turns into a montage of music videos (albeit excellent ones). That set alone deserves a special Oscar.

Mulholland Drive (+): David Lynch's career-defining masterpiece. More on this movie shortly.

Ocean's Eleven (-): A huge hit in 2001. I'm sure it would still be fun to watch today, but it's legacy, such as it is, is losing steam, as is inevitable with a movie that is basically a bunch of rich actor buddies having fun together.

The Others (-): One of my favorite movies of the year, and one of the better ghost movies ever. I feel like it's been buried a bit, and hope it will be rediscovered. I wonder if it will be rediscovered. I don't think there's much of a sense out there that it is as good as it truly is. Perhaps I should revisit it just to confirm. Contains what I think is the best Nicole Kidman performance, though Birth is close.

The Piano Teacher (+):
Haenke before Haenke became an Oscar darling, this is probably seen by consensus as his first major film, and one of the finer performances Isabelle Huppert's career. Man, I still have a lot of movies to watch. This is getting embarrassing.

The Royal Tennenbaums (+): The summit (so far) of Mount Wes Anderson, though some may argue for Rushmore, and I'm actually hearing some noise for this year's Moonrise Kingdom. For my money, this is the one where all the pieces (the meticulous diorama-like design, the font, the B-sides, the quirk) come together best. Also, I think this was the last great Gene Hackman performance — and a rare comedic one, at that.

Shrek (-): A mega-hit of 2011. Spawned who knows how many crappy sequels and spinoffs. Probably best-known as the movie that cemented the use in kiddie movies of low-grade toilet humor and Smashmouth songs. It's still borderline amusing, but the fact that it won the first-ever Best Animated Feature Oscar is going to look dumber and dumber as time goes on, especially given that it was in competition with...

Spirited Away (+): For my money, this is Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece, one of the most breathtaking imaginative works of the decade, probably the best animated movie of all time, and one of my favorite movies of any genre. So you could say I think it's held up over time. My opinion aside, this is still a highly-regarded film by an increasingly revered filmmaker, its reputation appears to be growing, and will apparently continue to be enjoyed for years to come.

Training Day (-): Denzel Washington won Best Actor for his against-type performance as the most crooked cop ever. It speaks well for him that this is still seen as a pretty good choice, given how otherwise unremarkable the movie is.

Waking Life (=): Pretty much seen as an afterthought now, unless the subject is "which Richard Linklater movies are worth checking out, after Dazed and Confused, that is?" I'll talk about this one in a bit.

Y Tu Mama Tambien (+): Alfonso CuarĂ³n's road trip/sexual awakening opus is still seen as a minor classic.

Zoolander (+): I seem to remember that this didn't do so well upon release. Like many things which contain more than trace amounts of Will Ferrell, it was discovered on video, where it made people laugh, which made people happy, which made people quote it. It's a comedy with legs, though I wonder if it will eventually fade once vapid celebrity surpasses this to the point it seems less like satire and more like restrained documentary.

And The Time-Delayed Oscars Go To . . .

"Your skin . . . it's so . . . leathery."

Best Picture

Real List

A Beautiful Mind
Gosford Park
In The Bedroom
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring
Moulin Rouge!

Winner: A Beautiful Mind

Today's List

Donnie Darko
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring
Mulholland Drive
The Royal Tennenbaums
Spirited Away

My Pick: Waking Life

Probable Winner: Mulholland Drive

This is tough. It turns out that 2001 nominated all the wrong movies, or almost all the wrong movies. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a potential exception, but it's hard to know if, in my hypothetical alternate universe, it would now be seen as the single film and thus un-nominated until the completion (also, given lukewarm critical reception of The Hobbit, we may be seeing degradation of the original trilogy's critical regard). I could easily see it replaced by The Man Who Wasn't There, or The Piano Teacher, or Ghost World. I could also see Donnie Darko falling out to accommodate one of these. Furthermore, none of the films that were nominated are embarrassing Chocolat-style head-scratchers; the weakest of them is probably eventual winner A Beautiful Mind, and even it is a fairly solid if unremarkable film, not entirely out of place on a Best Picture nominee list. The worst you can say about In The Bedroom or Moulin Rouge! or Gosford Park is that they no longer seem like essential viewing, but they're still valid. I could see any one of them still edging into the short list. 2001 was just a very strong year for movies.

So it's difficult to know just what the nominee list would be. I think that once enough time has gone by, The Man Who Wasn't There is going to be understood as one of the very best of the Coen's entire filmography, so maybe here we're seeing that even 10 years is not enough for critical consensus to shake out, or maybe we're seeing that I love The Man Who Wasn't There more than most. (I think it's the former, though.)

That typical dream where you forget that you're a floating silhouette.
None of this matters very much, because the movie that would win Best Picture running away would be Mulholland Drive. This aborted TV pilot got remixed into a nightmare-addled fever dream by David Lynch, and while the plot can be pieced together to make a sort of subjective sense, its true power lies in its ability to create and sustain specific atmospheres from scene to scene, building impression of the horrible truth by showing you only the subjective fantasies of more (or perhaps more) of its subjects. It's an impressionist painting, a Picasso that splatters into a dark Pollock at the the center. It's also the movie that started topping Best of the Decade critics lists. I think it's still pretty out there for a Best Picture, but then again, so was Citizen Kane at the time. At a certain point, the critical consensus becomes inescapable.

But I said this is tough. The difficulty here is knowing who my pick would be, given that that 2001 is a year that delivered not one but three of my all-time favorite films (I'm going to exclude LOTR for now, since I personally see it as a single movie, even if I don't think it would be treated as such).

Those three are inevitable-winner Mullholland Drive, Spirited Away (which I've already gushed in the 2001 recap above), and Waking Life, Richard Linklater's animated dreamscape, and no, it hasn't escaped my attention that all three of these essentially rest on dream imagery and a highly unusual internal logic. When you consider that one of the only other movies of the decade to impress me on the level of these three is Synecdoche, New York, I think it's safe to say we've found my movie sweet spot.  Personally, I hope that Waking Life is due for a major re-discovery, though it's been largely forgotten due to (1) its awesome rotoscoping technique being co-opted by insurance commercials, and (2) by occasionally digressive and unpolished performance (which I think is a completely purposeful and successful choice for what it's doing); for (3) its episodic nature (ditto previous parenthetical); and for (4) the fact that some of the episodes are rather trite or sophomoric (triple-ditto previous parenthetical). Essentially, it does all the things that I wrote about Mulholland Drive a few paragraphs up, but it does them with a much looser, hopeful, contemplative energy.  Waking Life is the dream, Mullholland Drive is the nightmare.

Since Mulholland Drive has (very deservedly) all the critical attention and love it will ever need, I'll throw my own personal love to Waking Life, a movie in a minor key that certainly wouldn't make the nominee list today, nor probably ever, but which will always be Best Picture for a small tribe of like-minded dreamers.

Best Actor

Maybe someday I'll lead off with these awards; I'm always tired by the time I get here and rush it. Personally, I'd love to have seen Gene Hackman win for The Royal Tennenbaums or Billy Bob Thornton for The Man Who Wasn't There or Haley Joel Osment for A.I., but it's hard to see this one getting away from Denzel Washington, even if the movie that contains his performance doesn't have much to distinguish itself. He transcends the material. I don't think people still get excited about Training Day, but when Washington eventually wins his career retrospective Oscar, the clip show will either lead off or close with him standing in the street, screaming "King Kong! Ain't Got SHIT! On Me!" And he'll be right. (I did guess that he'd have won already for Malcolm X if we were in alternate time-delayed Oscar universe, so that might offset matters somewhat, but if we keep speculating about alternate universes, we'll wind up spending hours making diagrams with straws.)

Best Actress

Halle Berry became the first black actress to win the big prize, ever, which . . . guys. It was 2001. This was the 74th Oscar ceremony. I believe the next time a lady of African descent got close was last year, ten years later, when Viola Davis nearly snuck one away from Meryl Streep... and that was for, um, The Help. Putting aside the fact that there aren't that many great roles being written for women, doesn't it seem like there REALLY has been a dearth of good roles for black actresses, ain't it?  So I feel churlish for alternate-dimension taking this moment away from Halle Berry, who was quite good in a movie that was quite bad, and who, based on her acceptance speech, I think it's safe to say wanted it the most. But I don't think she'd win a do-over, today, and it's got nothing (well, almost nothing) to do with her roles afterward *cough* Catwoman *cough*  After all, we've already noted that there are only about 1.073 decent, challenging roles written for black actresses each year, and right now Viola Davis is getting 0.987 of them.

In ordinary years, I'd probably say this would be Nicole Kidman's prize. She ruled so hard this year, in Moulin Rouge! and (my personal favorite) The Others that the next year she won Best Actess for what was essentially a supporting role in The Hours as what sure looked like a countervailing measure. But that's only because it hadn't yet sunk in how much the Oscars missed the boat. Kidman wouldn't win this year, either.

You guys. It's Naomi Watts in  Mulholland Drive. Her wannabe-actress-gone-nutso (spoilers, sort of?) makes believable one of the most wild character shifts in movie history (and David Lynch's big narrative gambit). It's a role that shouldn't work, but does, and it's all due to what seems to be getting reassessed as one of the great performances of the last decade, or any decade. The audition scene alone, in which the big shift is first revealed (foreshadowed?) has become an all-time classic. One of the most acclaimed films of the decade hinges on her, and she simply nails every scene. Watts wins the do-over.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Time-Delayed Oscars 011: In The Year 2000

Wow, it's been a while, hasn't it?  There's a good reason. Holy crap, these take a long time to write up. Let's see if I can pull off one every couple weeks.

Remember the deal? Once upon a time I read that my best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with the girl who heard that Matt Damon had said they ought to wait 10 years before giving out the Oscars, because that's the minimum amount of time necessary for hype to fade and consensus to coalesce around quality.  Sure, sometimes the awards get it right, but on the other hand, Rocky has a Best Picture statue and Network doesn't, so I think you see the point I'm making here. Suffice it to say, I think Mr. Damon is on to something.

Back in the olden days, when we hadn't even heard of The King's Peach and online poker was plentiful, organic and free range, I ran down the Time-Delayed Oscars of the 1990s. Decisions were made. Proclamations proclaimed.

Time to do it again. Sticking to the 10 year rules, I reckon it's time to do the years 2000-2003. Then, maybe, the eighties. I've added a (+) to movies whose profile is on the rise, a (-) to movies with profiles on the wane, and an (=) for the ones who are in a sort of holding pattern.

As a reminder, this is how I think a jury of Oscar-voting peers would vote. I make my own preferences clear but separate.

Let's start with the year 2000, which I think we can all agree was a pretty grim year for movies.

[Updated because I don't know the difference between the 2002 zombie movie 28 DAYS LATER and the Sandra Bullock flick 28 DAYS. Thanks, Dugglebogey. And, crap.]

Gladiator's gonna gladiate.
The Notables & Quotables

28 Days (+): The king-daddy of the "fast zombie" movie, Danny Boyle's gritty flick still packs a wallop. Some of the freakiest moments of the entire genre come courtesy of these flickering lights and daytime horrors. Sort of ignored when it was released (I remember it as a modest hit, but nothing like a great, genre-influencing movie), it's now sprouted legs and now throws a mighty long shadow. I really like this movie.Um, Sandra Bullock movie that wasn't good and nobody watches anymore. 28 DAYS LATER is a 2002 movie. Never mind.

Almost Famous (=): Introduced the world to Kate Hudson, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Don't judge us, America. We were young. Still a re-watchable cable staple, if not a beloved classic. The last successful Cameron Crowe movie (perhaps coincidentally, also the last good Cameron Crowe movie). Podcast fans can keep their eyes peeled for "Lock the gates!"  Everybody else can watch for strong performances, "I am a Golden God!", and the Tiny Dancer sing-along. (Note: I only thought this was OK at the time, so that's probably coloring my analysis.)
American Psycho (+): May have gained more cred than any other movie on this list. Written off at the time for its excesses, its classic status is pretty well assured. Contains the performance that paroled Christian Bale from child actor movie jail in the most ferocious way possible.  In a weird way, it's sort of the reverse stepchild of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I hated as a comedy until I realized it was a horror movie, American Psycho took chunks of my psyche as a horror film until I realized it's the blackest of comedies. It's a carnivorous hate letter to materialism, and people are still talking about it today.

Bamboozled (+): One of Spike Lee's most flawed movies, which is probably saying something, but also one of the ones that has had one of the greatest effects of all his filmography, actually bringing some visibilty to Hollywood's long history of propagating harmful sterotypes.

Best In Show (+): The best-loved of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries (if it's not Waiting for Guffman). It's certainly my favorite, particularly for Fred Willard's absolutely bananas turn as a blinkered, idiotic, yammering dog show commentator.  I think this movie has become legitimately beloved over the years. It certainly has done so for me.

Battle Royale(+): Have you heard that The Hunger Games totally ripped this movie off? You do if you ever read comments on Hunger Games reviews. Semi-famously, this is Quentin Tarantino's favorite movie of the aughts. So it's got that going for it.
Cast Away(-): Hanks. Volleyball. FedEx. Remembered now mainly for (1) containing one of Tom Hanks' better performances, and certainly one of his showiest; (2) Wilson, a product placement that achieved icon status; (3) spawning Survivor, which spawned LOST, which spawned about 607,800 words from me.

Chocolat (-): This was nominated for Best Picture for some reason. I have nothing else to say about it.
Code Unknown (=):  Likely the most obscure movie on this list (I admit I've not seen it yet, though I'm looking forward to rectifying that), but I'm including it because Michael Haenke is (rather unpredictably, given the confrontational nature of his work) becoming more and more prominent and admired, and this was one of his first movies to get serious critical attention.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon(-): My favorite movie of 2000, at the time at least (I haven't revisited in quite a while, but I remember it being gorgeous and compelling, and I loved the fights). I wouldn't have predicted this, but it seems to have faded considerably. I thought it would be considered a gold-plated classic by now, but perhaps critical opinion is docking it points for standing on the shoulders of an already-established genre. Or maybe it's not as good as I remember. It's been a while.
Dancer In The Dark (=): Lars von Trier is an odd one, but not as odd as Bjork. Together they made one of the most histrionic examples of miserablism into something that transcends into heart-rending tragedy; I succumb despite myself. Bjork's odd stream-of-consiousness songs work perfectly for her blind character's warped worldview. Until Melancholia this was certainly the director's most beautiful movie.
Erin Brokovich (-): Nominated for Best Picture. Won Julia Roberts a golden boy. Does anybody watch it anymore? Does anybody want to?
Gladiator (-): The official Best Picture of the year 2000. Probably one of the more Academy-embarrassing winners of the last few decades (alongside Braveheart, with which it shares a lot of similar qualities). Could be the proof-of-concept for Time Delayed Oscars, really. The thing is, it's OK. It's not terrible. But it's basically a big handsome dumb action movie with a pseudo-historical setting, top-shelf actors to lend a patina of respectability, a little bit of good CGI, and a little bit of bad CGI. It's an enjoyable enough spectacle, but about as worthy of a Best Picture as Pirates of the Caribbean.
In The Mood For Love (+): I'm guessing this is pretty obscure, but Wong Kar Wei's quiet love story quietly started showing up near the top of multiple critic's "Best of Decade" lists as 2010 drew to a close. I'm guessing ITMFL's profile is going to keep growing.
Memento (+): Christopher Nolan's debut, and probably still his best to date, an existential pretzel. The premise is one of the cleverest in years, but it's the execution that rockets this one to all-time status, turning a modern noir into a far deeper philosophical mind-bender.  Now that Nolan is a Hollywood God, Memento's a small movie whose strengths are unlikely to be forgotten.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (+): The Coens are in the Kubrick zone at this point, by which I mean that all of their movies are going to at least merit consideration. O Brother isn't my favorite, but the music is top-notch, and Clooney in goof mode is fantastic. It's one of the better comic performances of the year.

Pitch Black (=): Jump-started the whole Vin Diesel thing, but it shouldn't be blamed for that. A memorable B-grade monster flick.
Pollock (-): A decent biopic with strong performances, but I remember this primarily for one of the most laugh-out-loud bad pieces of dialogue ever, which I still quote to friends when the moment calls for it: "You've done it, Pollock. You've broken right through." It actually won a supporting Oscar for co-lead Marcia Gay Harden, the utterer of that line, and I think she deserved it just for surviving the saying of it. Ed Harris is a beast in this, as well.
Requiem For A Dream (-):As anti-drug screed, this is about the most heavy-handed propaganda imaginable, but it's also a master class in stylized montage and empathetic evokation of nightmare imagery. Clint Mansell's industrial score plays no small part in the sickness, but its Ellen Burstyn's aging pill-popper who sells the quease in the strongest of the four druggie threads.
Sexy Beast (+):Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

No! No! No! NonononononononononononononoNO!
Shadow Of The Vampire (=): Willem Dafoe is some kind of arch-fiend. I don't know how he got where he got to play Max Schreck. I don't want to know.
Snatch (+): On the rise since it was released to mixed, mainly confused reviews. It's an exercise in pure style, true. It's pretty much the exact same movie as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, also true. It's still worth it. It's fun. As Brad Pitt's Pikey would say, "Marlmle flan bahley funt mable rang ding fuddle flan, brotha, nambletree?"
Traffic (-):This won Best Director and Best Supporting Actor, and probably came close to winning Best Picture. It was a well-directed, handsome sort of movie with plenty of good performances by veteran character actors. I think it's pretty decent, but it's pretty good like maybe putting 12 episodes of The Wire into a 2-hour sack would be. I could be wrong, but I think it's barely remembered these days. Let's ask the common Time-Delayed Oscars question: Is anybody still watching this? In twenty years, will it still be watched?
Unbreakable (+): M. Night Shyamalan has really taken a nose-dive, in no small part because of his insistance on writing his own scripts (as far as screenwriting goes, he' excellent visual stylist) and especially his bizarre fixation on putting an increasingly-ludicrous twist into every single movie. The twist is definitely the weakest part of this superhero origin story, but unless I'm mistaken, this has surpassed The Sixth Sense as the best-remembered effort from the director whose name I have to look up every time I need to spell it. Moody, dark, slow-paced, but very effective, as long as you shut it off with a minute to go.
X-Men (+): A credible start to a healthy franchise. Arguably the first strike in the modern golden age of super-heroing movies. Halle Berry providing us with the worst delivery of a Joss Whedon joke ever caught on film. And introducing Huge Ackmen.
Yi Yi: A One And A Two (+): This is also pretty obscure to the larger market, but looms large in best-of-decade critics polls. I'm guessing that, much like In The Mood For Love, it earns an ongoing reputation as years go by.
You Can Count On Me (+): A critical darling in 2000 that got shut out and is still highly-regarded, primarily on the basis of strong lead performances (both Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo came to prominance) and the contributions of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, who has been wandering in the wilderness ever since his follow-up, Margaret, was all but stripped from him. This one is a sleeper.

And The Time-Delayed Oscars Go To. . .

"Hmmmmmm . . .looks like a mountain."
Best Picture

Real List
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Erin Brockovitch


Today's List
American Psycho
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
In The Mood For Love
You Can Count On Me

My pick: MementoProbable Winner: Memento

OK, let's  break these down.  First the movies that were actually nominated in 2000. Chocolat is such a trifle it's as though it never happened. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably the only movie good enough to be re-nominated, and even that might just be my own pro-CTHD finger on the scales. Erin Brockovich? I never saw this, but you know what I never hear? "Oh man, you never saw Erin Brockovich?? You have GOT to see it!" That's what I never hear. Gladiator is actually good enough to still be remembered. It's big dumb fun. It's not one of the five best movies of the year, though, and I think we've all come to grips with that now. Traffic is something that I think you'd probably like if you watched it again. But you're not going to, are you? Didn't think so.

So let's take a look at the real movies of 2000. American Psycho is now seen as one of the blackest of black satires, a horror comedy (horomedy? comorror? Sometimes words don't portmanteu like they oughta) bloodbath that's transcended its controversial source material. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains gorgeous, iconic, and thrilling, and not-at-all-silly-I-hope-if-I-watch-it-again. Most years there's a rather obscure art-house entry championed by critics that makes it into the winner's circle. In The Mood For Love fits the bill, and though I can't speak with much authority (having not seen it), based on the glowing decade-end retrospectives I read, you've probably not heard the last of this one. Memento is slowly building consensus as a masterpiece, and more on it shortly. Finally, You Can Count On Me has become a beloved acting/screenwriting showcase, though if I'm wrong about one movie on this list, it's probably YCCOM (I'd guess Best In Show or 28 Days Later would fill in if so – I can't quite believe that Almost Famous has gained steam since it failed to score 12 years ago).

"This picture proves that my haircut was an inside job. Subscribe to my
YouTube channel for full video evidence."
Now, I loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.In 2000, it was my favorite movie of 2000. But Memento . . . Memento looms. Um, SPOILERS, YOU DUMMIES WHO WOULD COMPLAIN ABOUT SPOILERS ON A 12-YEAR OLD MOVIE. For most of its running time, it's "merely" an expertly crafted puzzle, in which you first attempt to simultaneously orient yourself within serially-amnesiac Leonard's frame of reference, as well as the forward/backward structure of the film itself; in which you next attempt to piece together the mystery that Leonard is trying to solve, namely the answer to the question "who killed his wife and left him in this condition?"; and in which finally you come, whether slowly or quickly, to the realization that there can't possibly be any answer to the questions Leonard seeks. It's something like a miracle that we come to the realization at essentially the exact same time as Leonard, that he himself is the originator and curator of the delusions which shape his worldview, and as we reach that realization, we see Leonard make the conscious decision to eschew truth in favor of fiction. It's a devastating and sympathetic portrait of the human situation. Aware, curious, entirely limited in perspective, and occasionally aware of just how limited. It's also a perfectly-toned noir, so if you don't care about the philosophical implications, you'll still have a good time at the movies.

Memento is the Best Picture of 2000. Moreover, I think this is now recognized. I bet it would win today.

Best Actor

Christian Bale is my pick. In retrospect, he's probably made to play the far-too-intense fellow with a charisma that makes you worry a little bit about your own safety when you're around him. But this is a movie that could not have worked without the button-down insanity he delivers, a quality even scarier when he's playing Dr. Jeckyl than when he lets Dr. Hyde get out the axe. Or the chainsaw. People say they had this reaction to Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector, but I still haven't entirely recovered from Christian Bale in this thing. 

Honorable mention to real-world winner Russell Crowe (who really was key to making this silly movie a monster hit and a critical darling), Guy Pierce, Ed Harris, and especially George Clooney, who was bona fide (and the gol-durned pater-familias).

Best Actress

Laura Linney. This is a guess. I don't actually have a strong opinion on this one. Julia Roberts won pretty much everything in her path for Erin Brockovich this year, and for all I know it was well-deserved. Perhaps  she'd still win. However, my sense is that Linney's performance has displayed staying power, while Roberts, no longer Queen of Hollywood®, wouldn't be honored now.

Honorable mention to Bjork (that's right, Bjork) and Zhang Zyi.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 12/9/2012

Argo (2012, Affleck) ***1/2 (A-)

I guess we're going to have to come to grips with it. We're living in a world in which Ben Affleck is apparently an actual director, which has to stand as one of the more surprising career reappraisals of the last decade. I haven't seen previous efforts THE TOWN or GONE BABY GONE, but given the positive critical reception of those two and the unmistakably professional quality of this one, I'm probably going to have to catch up.

Affleck's effective in the lead, though I suspect there were dozens of better choices for a role that mainly calls for cerebral anti-glamor (and Latino ethnicity). Affleck-the-actor has Hollywood action star qualities that Affleck-the-director is clearly working against, given that this is the "good guys" are doomed if the fighting even starts. (Obviously, it probably didn't hurt from a financing point of view to be able to secure an above-the-title star for the project, a temptation/benefit most directors don't have.) The rest of the cast is a who's-who of character actors, all of whom are clearly having fun with their juicy small roles, though Alan Arkin may be having too much fun; his schtick is funny but hammy, and a touch off-key considering the serious tone of the rest of the material.

ARGO is a first-rate suspense movie that draws most of its power from its laser focus exclusively upon the issue at hand, to wit: how to extricate a small group of US Nationals in hiding in Teheran's Canadian embassy during the height of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis? The movie succeeds in large part because of how rigorously Affleck maintains his tunnel vision on that question and only that question. As a result, the inevitable and typical movie-trope distractions (the hero's job vs. home family estrangement being the most obvious) stick out more glaringly than usual, but these are luckily kept to a minimum. Affleck manages to create a palpable sense of dread and a specific sense of place and time; with the exception of a few showy camera moves in establishing shots, it even seems like he's borrowing the film vocabulary of the era (he's certainly borrowing the hair, the mustaches, and the ridiculously huge glasses). Though the plot is driven by clearly political elements, the film avoids the didacticism that a more agenda-motivated movie would have fallen into, while at the same time providing a very clear sense of the issues surrounding the situation. Counter-intuitively, the result is a movie that creates greater political complexity mainly by making the politics of secondary concern to the immediate need for survival.

The UP Series (1964-Present, Apted) **** (A)

The UP series defies these stars and grades, since any one entry isn't going to be much more than a reserved B+, but taken as a whole they are one of the most affecting movies in the history of cinema. At this point it has thoroughly transcended its origins as sociopolitical thought-experiment and has become a slow, real-time meditation on lifespan itself. Despite some of Apted's admitted missteps near the beginning, in which he attempted to guide the subjects toward his own agendas, these men and women steadfastly insist upon their dignity simply by existing as themselves, and the effect of watching an entitled young prat like John (who at 7 is sort of bratty and pompous in a way he's clearly learned from adults, but by 21 is truly gross in his blinkered privilege) evolve in leaps to maturity — still conservative, perhaps still casually entitled, but undoubtedly outward-looking and empathic — is, for me, to understand mercy. Every new installment colors not just what we now know about who the subjects are, but what we previously thought we knew about who they were. Some of these people are wonderful, some seem horrible, some seem rather dull, some vivacious, some petty and small-minded, others staggeringly hopeful and generous and the crazy thing is that each of them likely fits all those categories at one point or another. I sort of love all of them now.

The Avengers (2012, Whedon) *** (B+)

Short: This functions in large part as "Iron Man And Friends", which is probably for the best given the rather sharp drop-off in charisma after Downy Jr., and is likely done about as well as the current superhero formula possibly can be.

Long: Twelve-year-old me would be sorely disappointed in how little I appreciate this golden age of superhero movies in which we so obviously find ourselves, but while most of them are at least decent, there haven't been many really good ones. Worse, I don't get the sense that there has really been an attempt to make a really good one, because what you want from a business standpoint is what has worked before. Thus, you get essentially a string of exact same movie in different tights. Establish world and cast > origin sequence > bad guy origin > minor battles > final battle > hint at the sequel, and we're out. And why would it be otherwise? These movies cost over $100 million each, so why mess with the formula? Just keep cranking out Issue 1 of SUPERHERO, THE MOVIE time after time. Only Nolan's one-degree-from-the-real-world take on Batman and Robert Downy Jr.'s gleefully narcissistic performance in IRON MAN have really broken through to try something fresh. I'm not even sure what I'm asking for. I think it's ambition, or vision, or something surprising and weird. Maybe I'm just put off by product that is so blatantly meant to be product.

Bit of a tangent, sorry. Anyway, THE AVENGERS really doesn't diverge from the formula, but it benefits from working that formula at near maximum efficiency, and from having already established all of its characters in other movies. Thus, the origin sequence is just the plot bringing all of these supes together to form a super group, like Damn Yankees or the Traveling Wilburies, which is a slight but welcome variant on the 'how I got my powers' first act. THE AVENGERS also benefits from healthy doses of director Joss Whedon, who manages to nail the tone (fun, breezy, quips, explosions, etc.) and sneak in a handful of what are known in the industry as The Hilarious Jokes, most of which involve the Hulk hitting somebody. Strangely enough, given how incomprehensible simple fist-fights have occasionally become on Whedon's fine TV shows, the action scenes probably represent a new gold standard in lucidity. You pretty much always know who is punching or shooting which alien bug, where, and how. What I'm saying is, you almost never find yourself thinking, "Wait, Thor is hitting THIS bug? But I thought he was hitting THAT bug. So then, who is hitting THAT bug? Is it Captain America? Where is Captain America? WHERE IS CAPTAIN AMERICA RIGHT NOW??"

These are the things you rarely find yourself asking during THE AVENGERS.

The plot makes zero sense (which, I know, superhero movie, so who cares), none of it has any emotional weight (ibid), and everything blows up real good (ibid ibid). So, I don't know, maybe it's brain candy but it's that good brain candy. It's the house that's handing out full-sized candy bars, not the house that's handing out Bit O' Honey. It's fun. It's dumb. It's forgettable. I think Iron Man dies for a second. Captain America is an unfrozen caveman lawyer, who is confused and frightened by your strange technologies. Thor definitely flexes all the muscles (ladies). Hulk has magical stretchy pants, so does Black Widow. Hawkeye exists. The sequel will be this exact same movie again. When's the sequel?

 The Lion King (1994, Minkoff) ** (C-)

Hasn't aged too well, despite some handsome animation and a couple of moments iconic enough to have trickled into the cultural subconscious. The seeds of Disney's second great quality dive were sown here in its biggest hit to date (still? I think? If somebody has Internet, please research this), with sub-middle school fart humor mingled with over-the-top darkness (channeling Riefenstahl? Really, kiddie movie?), and pacing that caroms between lackadaisical and rushed. The gross racial profiling, which at the time this was new I remember thinking was a silly criticism, stands out pretty clearly. "Never go into that neighborhood, Simba. The elephants haven't gentrified it yet. And as you can see from the animation, it LITERALLY gets dark early over there. Was our studio's founder notoriously racist? Yes, he was! Oh, look at the time.; we're late for a quick song and a trampling. Fatal for me, coming-of-age for you. Spoiler! Let's move on."

I'll never not be disappointed when the choir in the admittedly powerful wordless opening sequence gives way to Elton John's "circle of life" schtick, because when I think of Africa, oh yeah, I think of Elton John. Props, though, for lifting Hamlet's plot engine and plunking it down here. I foresee a double feature with STRANGE BREW.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 12/2/2012

Sita Sings the Blues (2010, Paley) ***1/2 (A-)

I think I loved the first 30 or so minutes of this as much as anything else I saw this year. It's unfortunately difficult to explain in a way that makes sense, but fortunately impossible to spoil, since it's pretty much all effect — you've got to be there.

Essentially, it breaks down like this: (1) A woman named Nina (modeled after creator/animator/writer/director Nina Paley, apparently) suffers the slow disintegration of her marriage as her husband moves to India on ostensibly temporary business; (2) a group of present-day Indian people recount, in fits and stars, the story of Sita and her tumultuous relationship with the blue-skinned Hindi demigod Rama; (3) we observe that story played out as a quasi-adventure story; (4) we observe that same story played out as essayed by the character of Sita, who narrates the action by singing ragtime jazz standards, or perhaps lip synching to old Annette Hanshaw records. The songs comment in clever ways upon Sita's situation, and Sita's situation comments in clever ways upon the situation of modern-day Nina.

Oh, and each segment is animated in a different style, which keeps the movie constantly compelling visually, and completely easy to follow, despite the intricate methodology. Given that it was done almost totally by one person and animated on a computer using Flash, it's pretty much amazing. It's the damndest thing. You ought to see it now. I'm downgrading it from total classic status only because Paley repeats the formula a couple too many times, leading to a little bit of old-timey jazz fatigue.

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (2012, Heidecker, Wareheim) *1/2 (D+)

I thought I'd like this. I like Tim and Eric, and I like the so-wrong-it's-right, so-dumb-it's-smart, so-bad-it's-good aesthetic of their TV show (admittedly I've seen only a couple of their bits) and their occasional other appearances. It's the comedy of the off-putting, a dare to stay with them, and to an extent in this movie it works. Chef Goldblum has a funny cameo, for instance, and many of the Tim-and-Eric-ish segments are genuinely good. But dares can curdle from fun to a bad idea pretty quickly, and I have to say that eventually I had to take them up on their dare to dislike their. . . is this a movie? If so, is it a comedy? Parts of it are certainly funny. There's a point where "so-smart-it's-dumb" can become so 'so-smart-it's-dumb' that it's dumb. I think the moment probably comes when Eric Wareheim has paid Ray Wise, owner of a strip mall spa therapy, to allow him to sit in a large tub have a dozen young boys fill it with diarrhea. It's a pretty long scene, exactly as excruciating as it sounds, and it would be a challenge for any movie to come back from that. I'm guess I'm here to say that this is not that movie.

What I suspect is that, having hit upon the conceit of the premise, which is "Tim and Eric blow a billion dollars of studio money making a horribly unwatchable film," they must have thought, "Wouldn't it be even MORE hilarious if we ACTUALLY blew all the money making a film that ACTUALLY IS horribly unwatchable?"

As it turns out: No.

Wreck-It Ralph (2012, Moore) *** (B)

Modestly clever world-building, plenty of in-jokes for the video-game-addicted, and some particularly strong animation modeling character design to the voice acting lift this slightly above most of the non-Pixar animated fare out there. The plot rarely strays from exactly where you'd know it was going, but John C. Reilly makes a credible and likeable cartoon protagonist (this is a compliment, I think) and Alan Tudyk does his best Ed Wynn impression as the evil (spoiler!) King Candy. It turns out that Alan Tudyk's best Ed Wynn is a pretty good Ed Wynn. The opening Bad Guy Anonymous meeting is a hoot, though most of it played during the trailer. It's possible this movie is actually a candy commercial.

Five Easy Pieces (1970, Rafelson) ***1/2 (A-)

Once upon a time there bestrode in the land a glorious creature known as the "Restrained Jack Nicholson." Endangered even 40 years ago, it entranced all who saw its only occasionally unfurled eyebrow arches.

It's only natural, I guess, given that it's the moment that Nicholson is closest to what would become his default manic persona, that the diner scene is the most famous thing to come out of what is an understated internal drama. What I'd missed is that Nicholson's outburst toward the waitress is probably a product of his growing frustration with the never ending blather of one of the hitchhikers they've picked up. It's a great scene remembered for the wrong reasons; what's great about it is the subtle way it's about something else.

The slow reveal of who Bobby Dupea actually is and where he comes from remains powerful structural storytelling, though I can't help but feel that make the patriarch catatonic is one subtlety too many (even if it does give Nicholson his big acting moment). Since it's clearly his influence that's driven Bobby away from his cosseted prodigy existence, and since the rest of the family is nice enough (if odd), we're left with scraps and hints of the actual causes that have filled him with such vitriol. The effect is intriguing, since it's possible the problem is only that Bobby's an asshole. Ah, the 70s, when the hero could just be an unreconstructed son of a bitch and that could be the point. The final scene is a genius example of the long shot, a dialogue free short story.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 11/25/2012

The Gold Rush (1925, Chaplin) *** (B+)

OK, friends, questions: (1) The tinny pianoforte music that plays during silents — is it canon? I mean, is that a directorial choice, or could I think about substituting in something else that doesn't make me hate everybody and everything, without compromising what the director wanted the viewing experience to be? (2) Almost all title cards are pointless. I realize that isn't a question, but seriously. About halfway through this I started counting which title cards actually provided information useful to the story, and I counted two (one of which provided context for a show-shoveling bit that would have been funny enough anyway, and another that made it clear what song was being sung by a crowd, though it probably could have been guessed). All the rest told me something I already knew just from watching. So what I'm saying is, title cards are basically the lazy trope of the silent era like voice-over is the lazy trope of this one. Are there versions with title cards out? Are the cards part of the director's 'authorship', or were they added after the fact?

All this is by way of getting at why I'm not really captured by silent movies, even those (like this one) that are clearly masterpieces of their form. I suspect it's something like learning a new language; there's something about the visual vocabulary of the form that lets me get the gist, but not hear the poetry. I'm still checking the English-to-French dictionary.

Regardless of all this, if you speak fluent Silent-ese, this is obviously not to be missed. THE GOLD RUSH is home to some of Chaplin's most famous bits, to the point that it's practically a greatest hits collection (dinner rolls dancing, cabin on a cliff, eating the shoe, and whatdya know, Loony Tunes cribbed its "starving guy sees his friend turn into food" bit from the Tramp). Chaplin is a beast, with a muscularity to his shtick that I wasn't expecting (e.g. his 'stiff as a board' routine) and I don't know if there's a more expressive performer in film; the guy can give you happy, sad, proud, or suicidal, without voice, from the back, simply in how he walks. Also surprising: the Yukon's Darwinian living conditions are presented starkly for a comedy (the opening shots of endless lines trudging through winter waste could have come from some POTEMKIN-esque social commentary, hunger is ever-present, and life is cheap); and the tiny continuity details that become running visual gags. After eating his shoe, the Tramp's foot is for the rest of the movie wrapped in a jury-rigged towel. Hope Chaplin didn't use real snow.

Serpico (1973, Lumet) *** (B) 

Al Pacino's shaggy intensity in the title role provides a lot of the value to this rather straightforward movie, whose plot, interestingly enough, boils down to: "Serpico's co-workers want shoot Serpico, Serpico no like, Serpico want transfer, why nobody transfer Serpico?" Kudos to the film for not falling into the common biopic trap and deifying the man, whose strength came mainly from stubbornly wanting to do a good job. The central irony that Lumet wisely presents is that Serpico isn't a crusader until he's absolutely forced to be, and wouldn't have testified against his dirty colleagues if they hadn't been so concerned that he would testify. Serpico apparently didn't so much want to expose the pervasive culture of corruption and bribery that (apparently) existed at all levels of the NYPD, he just wanted to be free to not have to take part in it, and apparently to slowly transform into a wolfman in hobo clothes. (Having seen "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" hilarious homage, which really takes the piss of the badass cool the film clearly intends Pacino to convey, I confess I had more trouble taking the character seriously than I otherwise would have. Probably colored my appreciation.)

Prometheus (2012, Scott) **1/2 (C+)

More like "Promethe-MESS", amiright, amiright?

So yes, I won't belabor all the things that totally didn't work here (honorary mention to "run LEFT OR RIGHT" and "that's right...FATHER"), but it's undeniable four months later that this belongs to the special class of movies that manage to make less and less sense every time you think about it. The problem here isn't that it's a silly story, it's that it's a silly story that has delusions of grandeur; it *thinks* it's a very deep and meaningful story. It's a shame, really, since most other aspects of the movie besides that story actually are compelling. Ridley Scott clearly is one of the top visual craftsmen working today, it just appears that he's not sure exactly what to do with these impressive, immersive worlds he designs. I'd say it's incorrect for people (and I include myself) to have hoped for this as Scott's return to making movies that have thematic depth, since he's never really done that (BLADERUNNER aside, maybe). He's just always been about image and moment over story. Perhaps this should have been a silent movie without humans, or at least without dialogue? Anyway, the 'remove foreign object' sequence is a top-shelf suspense set piece, and Michael Fassbender is fantastic (I was going to write that he gave "the greatest android performance ever" until I realized that doesn't sound very impressive) in a role that ultimately —again — doesn't make any sense, but at least his chilly ambiguity, filtered through Peter O'Toole, fits the tone the movie is trying to reach, whenever it isn't forcing us to laugh at hilarious old age makeup, that is.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Selick) **** (A)

The jittery other-worldliness of stop motion meets a perfect subject. I suspect this is a movie that would make an effective viewing experience without sound; based solely on non-stop visual inventiveness and immediately iconic character models (the way the creatures pull off "genuinely nightmarish yet nonthreatening" is a constant surprise), this this would probably be destined for classic status even if the songbook wasn't a murderer's row. I'm not educated enough on his oeuvre to say this definitively, but I'm thinking this is Danny Elfman's finest hour, right? If you're not totally captured after the "This is Halloween" opener, I forgive you, but I can't help you. Not sure there is a dud song in the batch, musically or lyrically (maybe Oogie Boogie). I guess my one quibble is that there's not much attempt at defining a unique mythology, or even making it coherent — the holiday portals are *inside* the Halloween wood? — but I suspect Selick's instinct to favor pageantry over specificity are correct. Funny that the most Tim-Burtony, Tim Burtonesque movie Tim Burton ever Tim Burtoned wasn't even Tim Burtoned by Tim Burton. Probably for the best. Tim Burton.

Paper Moon (1973, Bogdanovich) ***1/2 (A-)

With a couple forgivable exceptions, this is an unconventionally unsentimental take on the "child disrupts selfish man's life" trope, mainly because the human suffering is observed rather than underlined, and especially because the kid's angry exterior hides only an even more angry interior, significantly more pragmatically avaricious than her adoptive-probably-biological father figure. She doesn't want to melt his heart, she wants to refine it into something more effective.

Despite strong performances from Ryan O'Neal and (Oscar winning) daughter Tatum as the Depression-era flim flam man and the orphan waif he takes on a road trip across struggling America (during which they mercifully learn absolutely no Life Lessons), PAPER MOON's primary pleasures are stylistic. This is, in essence, Bogdanovich's mostly successful attempt at making a John Ford movie. The old-school composition and cinematography made me wish that black-and-white deep focus movies of this sort were still commercially viable enough to be made today. There's a painterly artificiality to the format that I nevertheless find totally compelling. But this is a pretty good last gasp from an abandoned style.

So where did P-Bog go after dropping this and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW within a two-year span? Come on, man. Get off the mat.

Hanna (2011, Wright) ** (C)

I really don't know what the hell to make of this. It's the KICK-ASS Hit Girl filtered through THE BOURNE IDENTITY real-world spy grit filtered through a French coming-of-age sexual awakening story filtered through a music video. It's frenetic and visually compelling and total nonsense and I rarely gave much of a shit. Eric Bana has muscles in a very sensitive sort of way. Occasionally Cate Blanchett happens all over this movie in an explosion of insane, dentalflossing scenery-chewing; highly entertaining, but it works at total cross-purposes to the ethereal quiet center Saoirse Ronan is attempting (frequently with success) to provide.

Oh, and Joe Wright? Learn how the internet works. It's 2011. The scene where Hanna looks up the entire top-secret government project, complete with photos proving her true identity, by basically doing a keyword search on "WHAT IS MY SECRET BACK STORY" from an Internet Cafe (!) would have been embarrassing in 1998.