Nature Will Regulate Us

Encounters at the End of the World gratifies on three levels: it is apocalyptic, it has cute penguins, and it stars a man with a German accent berating us because we are inadequate. It is an animal show, end-of-the-world adventure travel, and a trip to a German dentist. Herzog's impatience with people has become palpable.

Oscar Preview 2009

Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World gratifies on three levels: it is apocalyptic, it has cute penguins, and it stars a man with a German accent berating us because we are inadequate. It is an animal show, end-of-the-world adventure travel, and a trip to a German dentist. Herzog’s impatience with people has become palpable. He can’t wait to tell whoever he meets that “nature will regulate us,” that “the empire has started to fade into the abyss of history.” Saying these things in Antarctica gives them a weight they’d lack if you said them on Vanderbilt Avenue.

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road shows something people think they want to see but really don’t: what happens if Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet survive the Titanic.

WALL-E, Kung Fu Panda, Bolt, Waltz with Bashir, etc.

Carbon-free, cruelty-free, cage-free. I’ve decided to live my life cartoon-free. I spent too much time last year listening to otherwise normal adults describe the plots of animated movies. As someone with no children and no nieces or nephews, as a free man who does not have to take kids to matinees, I hereby declare my independence from cartoons.

Are you an adult? Adopt my program! If the urge to see an animated feature creeps up on you, have a drink instead. A drink costs less than a movie. Got a date? Skip the movie, cut to the booze. While you enjoy it, you can invent what the movie you didn’t see was about. Your inebriated version of Bolt will be better than the animated one you missed.

Listening to people talk about WALL-E, it struck me that it was a version of Mike Judge’s great satire Idiocracy, but without live actors. WALL-E made millions and was loved by everyone who saw it, while Idiocracy was deemed unreleasable by the studio who paid for it. We prefer our dystopias cute.

As for drawing over actor’s faces, why? Did actors become actors so somebody in front of a computer could color over their face? The hostility inherent in that is a form of violence I reject as much as any in Waltz with Bashir.

Slumdog Millionaire

I don’t like movies that cover their heroes in shit. But covering a little boy in shit and having him go up to Amitabh Bachchan to ask for an autograph is audacious even for a filmmaker as crass as Danny Boyle.

Slumdog Millionaire is torture movie, which I didn’t know going in. The Islamic protagonist is a stand-in for all the Muslims tortured since 9/11. They are offered Slumdog Millionaire as a redemption—a torture movie is about to win an Oscar for their trouble.

We learn being tortured is worth it. If you give the right answers it’s like winning the lottery: they’ll set you free and pay you off, you get the girl, a dance sequence where you’re the star.

Part of the torture is that you have to turn every experience you’ve ever had into a mnemonic device that could save your life in a deadly game of Trivial Pursuit. It’s no longer enough just to spin the cylinder in Russian Roulette like in The Deer Hunter. Now somebody has to ask you what’s the capital of South Dakota first.

Frost/Nixon

If Slumdog Millionaire offers a reward to the tortured, Frost/Nixon substitutes Nixon’s admission that he let the American people down for George W. Bush’s failure to admit anything he did was wrong. Nixon, our last verifiably criminal Republican president, sits in for the latest.

Australia

Sometimes the critics are wrong. Australia was dismissed as dumb and bad but it’s an important film. The reason it’s important is because now the cat’s out of the bag about Baz Luhrmann. No worse or better than Luhrmann’s other films, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, Australia finally beat critics into submission and they cried uncle. And it did it without the provocation of a plus sign or an exclamation point in the title.

Jerry Lewis

In 2005, when AOL and the Discovery Channel determined who was the Greatest American, Ronald Reagan came in first, beating Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. George W. Bush was sixth, but Jerry Lewis did not even make the top 100. He didn’t even make the list of nominees. When the director of The Nutty Professor and star of The King of Comedy strides across the stage at the Kodak Theatre to receive his Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award on February 22, in his familiar, distinctive walk, I will consider him vindicated.

Happy-Go-Lucky

Sally Hawkins’s Polly is a lot like Jerry Lewis. She’s kooky. She prefers bright colors. She needles shop clerks. She wants everyone to love her even while she’s sucking the air out of the room.

She moves like Jerry Lewis and even kind of looks like him, with her black hair and big open mouth. Like him, she places herself beyond criticism. She gets the same look of confusion on her face about how mean everybody is, or about how sad things are. Then: another outburst.

Last summer was a time for trampolining. When I saw Sally Hawkins jumping in the air in Happy-Go-Lucky, that confirmed it for me. I was surprised there was trampolining in Happy-Go-Lucky because until last summer I wasn’t conscious of it at all. I only found out it was a real sport watching Russian and Chinese girls compete in Women’s Trampoline on TV during the Summer Olympics. I loved the overhead shot the TV directors used, with the big red cross in the middle of the white field of the trampoline and the trampolinist tumbling toward me in the foreground above it, like a pinball about to crack the glass. I attributed Russian, Chinese, and Canadian dominance of this sport to cold acrobatic winters spent trying to hit the ceiling from the bed. It reminds me of the opening credits in a Jerry Lewis movie called The Patsy. Jerry falls out a hotel window, freezes in crazy poses on the way to the pavement, then hits a canopy and bounces back into the room. Lewis achieved the effect by jumping on a trampoline.

It was an optimistic sport for an optimistic time, like Happy-Go-Lucky was an optimistic movie, but now we’re all business again.

Tropic Thunder

Ben Stiller is the Mel Gibson of comedy. Everyone acclaimed the post-racism casting of Robert Downey as an Australian Method actor playing a black soldier, but Tom Cruise’s disturbing anti-Semitic portrayal of a Jewish producer was more heartfelt, sicker and funnier. Stiller wisely let him take over the film. The movie wasn’t just post-racism. The trailers for the imitation-Eddie-Murphy fat-people movies Jack Black was supposedly in were post-weightism or something, post-grotesque.

Tropic Thunder was post-everything, including entertainment. It’s a white boy version of a Wayans Brothers movie, made long after satirizing Vietnam war films could possibly matter. With the war in Iraq still going on, it’s cowardly and weird, like making a comedy version of Uncle Tom Cabin’s during the Battle of Corregidor.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

In a series of bad dreams, Brad Pitt combines with Forrest Gump, E.T., Oliver from The Brady Bunch, the baby from Eraserhead, Tom Waits album covers, Dr. Zhivago, Dick Cheney/Donald Rumsfeld, on and on, like robot locusts eating the inside of the movie theater in three hours.

Milk

A noble, unobjectionable film, detailed, entertaining and it goes by quickly. An interesting thing about Milk was the way it used grainy, washed-out color photography to make San Francisco look like Buffalo, New York. Everything was in shades of light brown and industrial green. I guess that’s what people think the 1970s looked liked, like a faded Eastmancolor print that’s been run five thousand times. To me it was like the opening credits to WKRP in Cincinnati, which would have been pretty arty if that was what Van Sant was going for.

The film’s flatness and desaturation imply without showing it that it was only after gay people got political representation that San Francisco became a place where residents could paint their three-story Victorians purple or lime green. Like many a nostalgia trip, it stops at the moment the style it’s rejecting is about to begin.

The Wrestler

People so loved seeing Mickey Rourke get whomped and Marisa Tomei take off her clothes they couldn’t sit still for the scenes with Evan Rachel Wood as Rourke’s daughter. To prefer two middle-aged people to Evan Rachel Wood is a sign of progress in the cinema. Despite all the mayhem and nudity, the best scene is one of accommodation: Rourke trying to enjoy his job as a deli clerk and make the best of it. For that alone he deserves an Oscar.

In Bruges

The trailer made it look like a hitman comedy directed in the style of Baz Luhrmann, starring an Anglo-Irish Laurel and Hardy. But it’s not like that at all. In Bruges is a serious film with great performances written and directed by someone who knows what he’s doing. One of the strengths of this film, which is one of the year’s best, is the way it gets more dire and nuanced with every character it introduces, especially Ralph Fiennes’s yuppie attack dog of a mob boss. Which is not to say it isn’t funny. “You can’t give horse tranquilizers to a midget,” spoken by Colin Farrell like it’s an obvious truth, is the one line I will remember from any film nominated for an Oscar this year. Not counting “en-ra-ha.”

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