It makes sense that Black Swan came out around Christmas because Black Swan is like a fruitcake. It is a cake, but not any kind of cake you’d like to eat; it’s heavy; and you find out too late it’s filled with gooey red clumps made out of God knows what. With dialogue like silent movie intertitles, its sunless expressionism is not so much reminiscent of The Red Shoes and Carrie as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It recasts ballet as a masculinized competition between broken dolls and maniacs that takes place inside a Freudian fairy tale, making it a film for today—incoherent and unsatisfying, it leaves you battered and confused.
I keep reading how much the new True Grit is like the John Wayne original, but what’s more interesting to me is how much it’s like Tron: Legacy.
In both, Jeff Bridges plays a cool old dude (grizzled and fat in True Grit, sleek and smooth in Tron: Legacy) who reluctantly shepherds an adolescent through a maze of conflicting allegiances in a frontier space that has more to do with baby-boomer self-image than it does with the historical reality of the Choctaw Nation or what it’s like inside a computer.
In True Grit, Bridges is a father who has abandoned his son and who reconnects with his parental side by protecting a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, while she avenges the murder of her own absent father; in the Tron sequel he becomes Zen-hippie grandfather to his abandoned son, whom he reconnects with after disappearing into cyberspace (i.e., up his own ass) during the son’s formative years.
These Bridges roles aren’t very different from those in Crazy Heart and Iron Man. The Crazy Heart Bridges, a fat Southern alky like True Grit’s, abandoned his son and sought to be a father to the child of a woman young enough to be his daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal). In Iron Man he was the appointed father substitute for Robert Downey Jr.’s rambunctious eternal adolescent Tony Stark, who like the son in Tron: Legacy sees the world through a computerized mask.
This quartet of Bridges efforts shows how this laidback and exemplary actor—good in every role he plays, the consummate Southern California hippie professional, he is, after all, the Dude—has become aging Hollywood’s classic-rock version of its best self, the medium through which it explains and shows its paternity to the world. It is Bridges who should be hosting the Oscars, with James Franco and Anne Hathaway as cute grandchildren he can smile on and guide as they give out trophies to their peers.
The Social Network
David Fincher solved a problem no director has ever been able to solve before: how to make Cambridge, Massachusetts, look glamorous. You do it by setting almost every scene at night and bathing everything in chartreuse light. Watching The Social Network was so epic it was like watching the Superbowl, except it was a Superbowl in reverse, where the game appears like a commercial in the middle and the main part is all ads, clever people yapping at each other while they try to sell you something. The Thames rowing setpiece interrupted the movie like the most exciting Superbowl commercial ever made, in which we learned that physical mastery and bodily perfection will no longer be enough to win the game in this new world of internet brainiacs. And like many a Superbowl, the last ten minutes needed a rewrite.
This matter-of-fact documentary was made by the writer Sebastian Junger and news photographer Tim Hetherington while they where embedded with a US infantry regiment in Afghanistan’s Korengal valley. The regiment hunkers down at the bottom of the valley while the Taliban, who completely surround them, shoot at them with AK-47s, machine guns, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers four or five times a day, month after month. After a slow, painstaking effort, the soldiers manage to take a mountaintop and establish a fort there called Restrepo, named for a fallen comrade, a doctor they admired.
The film is so dry it doesn’t bother to explain why or how the fierce, staring village elders who sometimes meet with the commanding officers dye their beards and eyebrows red and black while leaving the close-cropped hair on their heads gray. This gives them an unsettling look that, while normal to them, seems more foreign than anything else in this film. If these are the old men, you wonder what the young ones who spend their days shooting at Americans look like.
The King’s Speech
This cold and stylized yet oh-so-warm movie seems like it is going to show us something really interesting about the difference between sound and image, then becomes a parable about how, whoever we are, colonial or king, we have to turn our loose upper palates into stiff upper lips and learn not to stutter so we can face the coming global threat (Nazis). Geoffrey Rush is his usual endearing self, a whirlwind of acting in a world of under-players and technicians. But as an American who recoils from monarchy I am compelled to ask, What if we solved the king’s problem by cutting off his head? It’s exactly that kind of thinking that is not called for, says The King’s Speech, a movie set in a gray-blue-brown past that seems like the both the future and today.
Alice in Wonderland
Tim Burton uses every digital tool there is, but to little effect because he has forgotten the most basic things about cinema: where to put the camera, how long a shot should go on, where a character should look. Do his characters look at anything at all?
No amount of production design can make up for directorial laziness. This Alice in Wonderland would be better if it were shot in black-and-white on VHS tape with actors in furry mascot costumes. Burton should push himself a little. He is not just stuck in the childish creepy-arty phase that made him who he is, he has actually regressed to the point of being where he can defang any material he tackles, no matter what it is, and dress it up in girly striped stockings. Roald Dahl, Washington Irving, Topps bubblegum cards, Stephen Sondheim, The Planet of the Apes, Lewis Carroll—Burton can make anything family-friendly. The hobbled dance that Johnny Depp, miscast as the Mad Hatter, performs at the end of this film is a pathetic reminder of Winona Ryder’s joyous “Jump in the Line” number at the end of Beetle Juice, twenty-two years ago. Seeing Depp hop in 3D does not help.
Danny Boyle’s best film (maybe because it’s so simple) is a male Eat Pray Love set in a tiny crevice. It includes all the usual vulgar Boyleisms—aggressive music, brain-beating editing, a concentration on bodily wastes (urine instead of shit for a change), lots of flashbacks, video, and dream sequences—but here they culminate in a nice gory scene of a guy cutting off his own arm, and are more excusable because the setting is so limited. James Franco gives a performance that at first seems like a parable for much larger global issues. He’s an average zesty American dude—a Phish fan!—without a care in the world who suddenly finds himself in over his head, trapped by his own foolishness.
Franco gives a workmanlike performance that seems normal, regular, not like manic dabbling in a profession not his own. He could be Any Actor instead of the Boy of Every Medium, the Spokesmodel for Everything. While the coming years will probably see him appointed US Ambassador to Fiji while he’s simultaneously appearing as the nutty new astrophysicist on “Big Bang Theory” and preparing his scrimshaw exhibit for the Whitney, here he gives us hope that maybe someday he will stop displacing water in other media. It’s good to know he has something to fall back on.
You know it’s a feel-bad movie when your first thought when it’s over is, “She should have had the abortion.” She doesn’t have the abortion for the same reason John Ford said the Cavalry doesn’t kill the Indians in the first reel: if they did, there wouldn’t be a movie. That may explain a lot about the way abortion is treated in American movies these days.
Blue Valentine, a glum film of intertwined back stories revolving around a claustrophobic scene in a sex motel, never coheres, despite the mighty struggle of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling to make it work. Derek Cianfrance spends too much time on nice things that don’t matter, worrying over the pleasant Grizzly Bear score and the end-credits sequence informed by American avant-garde filmmaking. Cassavetes never worried about touches, even when his characters were at their most hyper, muddled, or lost. By the end of Blue Valentine, Gosling seems like a dupe, smoking alone in a windowless room, Williams like a hard-ass who never wanted to marry a guy who could sing like Tiny Tim anyway. The film is non-illuminating. It depresses you but doesn’t change your life.
How many helicopter shots of Charlestown, Massachusetts, can one film hold? Was The Town directed by Google Maps? And if there has ever been a woman like Rebecca Hall working as an assistant bank manager anywhere in Boston, I will eat writer-director-star Ben Affleck’s three-season Red Sox cap for lunch and his winter knit Bruins hat for supper, unless lunch and supper are the same thing. John Hamm, playing a character who should not have existed in the script, gives a performance so bad he looks as puzzled to be there as Jeremy Renner looks pissed.
On the other hand, The Fighter captures its working-class Lowell, Massachusetts, milieu with depth and accuracy. A feel-good yet crack-ruined movie, this boxing film overflows with good performances that are scary and over-the-top and stand in relief against dense, cluttered backgrounds where people are drunk, smoking, scabby, and could use new hair. Mark Wahlberg is the film’s anchor, its one stable point. Christian Bale dances and chatters around him like a monkey, a squirrel, or an unraveling mummy. David O. Russell has managed two impressive things in his direction of this movie. He’s found a way to shoot boxing that feels like boxing on HBO in the 1990s but also adds something newly cinematic to the genre, and he keeps the film’s ending uncertain even though it’s based on a true story boxing fans know well. There’s something powerful and real about The Fighter. Like 127 Hours, it makes getting away with only permanent damage into a triumph.
This Australian film places its crime-family characters in the same kind of environment several of this year’s Oscar-nominated films do—a sordid, violent, polluted-looking city or near-city sprawl, where people do not participate in anything resembling normal family life. These are all films that announce the world has changed. Animal Kingdom is quieter than the others, with sneakier, more menacing performances, especially Ben Mendelsohn’s oldest brother, an amoral middle-aged Johnny Rotten of crime who is low-key and disaffected to the point of being in a fugue state. The film has the best two or three opening and closing minutes of anything nominated for an Oscar this year, with the possible exception of Dogtooth.
If Animal Kingdom has the best opening and closing minutes, Biutiful has the worst. Is now really the time for a comforting reunion set in a wintry afterlife? These framing scenes are offensive not because of their pseudo-spirituality but because they are unnecessary. The two characters—Javier Bardem and his father, who is younger than Bardem because he died earlier—talk inscrutably about owls, but they might as well be making a snowman.
The rest of the film is the best work Alejandro González Iñárritu has done. Although, like his previous films, it has peculiar notions about animals and the afterlife and globalism, it’s much simpler and smarter, and a real turnaround after the deadening pointlessness of Babel. Bardem’s Uxbal, an ex-junkie dying of prostate cancer, provides luxury-goods forgers with Chinese factory workers to make their wares and African street vendors to sell them. He also has an ill-defined spiritual gift that allows him to speak with the recently deceased. Strange as it sounds, this aspect of the film does not dominate or become tedious. Instead, Iñárritu pays very close attention to people and to background, creating an detailed portrait of the people who live in Barcelona’s margins.
Bardem deserves his Oscar nomination, and if you have ever wanted to see him in an adult diaper, now’s your chance. But if he deserves to be recognized, so does Maricel Alvarez, who plays his sometime wife, a bipolar massage therapist who cheats on him with his scumbag brother, beats their son, and likes to party more than work or feed their kids. Alvarez makes this character tender and believable instead of easy to hate, and she has the best nose in movies this year.
Documentaries now do what both TV news and horror movies used to do—break real stories and scare the shit out of you. Gasland, a documentary and personal essay film about hydro-fracking, provided the year’s scariest image—water from people’s faucets bursting into flames. This one image of tap water on fire should be able to bring down Halliburton and reverse the legislation that allows corporations to destroy the environment in secret. There should at least be a law that gas company executives have to drink people’s water if they’ve declared it safe. Josh Fox, who made this film, has an eye for nature and industrial degradation—at times Gasland calls to mind Bruce Baillie or Red Desert. He also has an ear for music and a way of getting people to talk. He contrasts an environment of total industrialization with the pristine waterways he grew up knowing, showing us an America that’s now scarred and ruined, and in which too many people are sick and even brain-damaged from industrial pollution. This is the new American landscape, where George Romero meets Henry Thoreau.
Godard received an “Academy Honorary Award” this year, “for passion, for confrontation, for a new kind of cinema.” While the Academy may be interested in passion and confrontation when giving out honorary awards, it was in no way interested in Godard showing those qualities live on TV. Since last year, honorary awards have been presented at a private ceremony in November. It seems they are not even letting Francis Ford Coppola get his honorary award on TV this year—not even the man who made The Godfather, Hollywood’s favorite proof that it is capable of greatness.
Denying the world the potentially coruscating scandal of watching Godard get an Oscar, then saying whatever it is he would have said, is a missed opportunity of the highest order. How bad could it have been, Academy? Even if Godard had excoriated Hollywood, he probably would have thrown in a few good words for Hawks and Hitchcock, for Nick and Sam. Godard himself has been quiet about the whole thing, not even deigning to acknowledge that he received the award. His uncharacteristic silence speaks volumes; Anne-Marie Miéville acknowledged he was annoyed. Will he at least get booed by someone when they read his name, or will it pass by to polite applause and baffled looks? Can we cut to a shot of Megan Fox?