Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Deep Thoughts #21

I know it’s pretty unlikely, but I have this morbid desire for the Jets to make the playoffs, get to the AFC title game, and beat the Colts.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Up in the Air

There’s quite a lot to recommend this picture, and only a handful of things that work against it - none of which, alone or in concert, is enough to bring the picture down. It ain’t perfect, but it’s awfully good. Some reviewers are calling it George Clooney’s best movie; and while I don’t know about that, I might just go so far as to call it his most accomplished piece of work as an actor. Maybe. It’s probably not too much of a stretch for George Clooney to play a single guy who flies all over the place and isn’t much interested in commitment; but there’s more to it than that, even though most of the “more to it than that” comes in the third - and weakest - act of the film.

The first two acts are exceptional, introducing us to Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a hatchet man who works for a company that fires people for profit. He spends most of the year on the road and is trying to achieve the dubious distinction of becoming only the seventh person in history to have traveled ten million miles on American Airlines. He fires people for a living, but he genuinely tries to do a humane job of breaking the news to the newly unemployed; and he bristles when his boss takes on a young woman named Natalie (Anna Kendrick), whose bright idea is to save money for the company by introducing a new system for firing people - using video chat and the magic Internets.

If the system works, it will put an end to what Bingham has come to enjoy as his solitary way of life. When he tells us that he spent 322 days on the road last year, he finishes the sentence by saying that, unfortunately, that meant he had to spend 43 “miserable days at home," although home, a one-bedroom stark white apartment, is almost indistinguishable from the many hotels in which he stays while he's one the road - except that the apartment is not as fancy as the hotel rooms. Natalie pitches the system as a way for people like Bingham to be able to be home more often. For most people, being at home is a good thing, something they look forward to at the end of a hard day’s work. Ryan Bingham, however, actually enjoys the things that most people do only because they have to - packing for his trip, going through the motions at the airport, checking into the hotel. He speaks easily about these things. To him, they are not motions to be gone through, but part of the fun of getting to that goal of ten million miles and all the perks that go along with that. He already uses the Gold Member Express lines and lanes everywhere he goes, so when he gets his ten million he’ll also get…to meet the airline’s chief pilot. Wow.

Ryan Bingham is no bullshit artist. He genuinely believes that he prefers to be alone, that his life is full by way of his constant forward motion to achieve something - in this case, his ten million miles. At one point, he explains to Natalie that more people have walked on the moon than have flown ten million miles with American; and it’s as though he is completely oblivious to the fact that he is conflating the remarkable achievement of highly educated and skilled astronauts with that of a yo-yo whose greatest skill appears to be profiling the crowd at the airport so that he wastes as little time as possible getting through security and onto the plane. It’s no coincidence that this is a dude who never wears a pair of shoes with laces.

He also believes that, by talking one-on-one to the people he fires, he can let them down gently and convince them that he is granting them an opportunity rather than a defeat. Clooney’s deft delivery and deliberate slowness in these scenes - contrasted with his striking economy of motion in practically every other scene - makes us believe this about him, too. The best scene in the film comes not quite halfway through, when Bingham fires a character named Bob, played by J.K. Simmons. Bingham notes that Bob’s resumé indicates that he is a trained chef - and then he asks Bob how much the company that is now firing him first offered him in order to make him give up his dream of cooking. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch Simmons’ face as Bob remembers the dreams he had at an earlier point in his life.

As we get older, most of us settle into a routine and watch the years go by almost without noticing what’s happening. We do what we do because…it’s what we do, not necessarily because it’s what we always wanted to do. We’re pressured by society into work, marriage, and family because it’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s what everyone else does. When a person like Ryan Bingham manages to find another way to live, one that gives him success and happiness without the burden of the responsibilities most of us have to bear as part of the bargain of walking upright with opposable thumbs and speech, society - shown here in microcosm when Natalie questions him repeatedly about why he doesn’t want to marry or have kids, and when the people he fires ask him how he sleeps at night - pushes back against that person’s choice; and that person, rather than finding some way to connect with society in a mutually agreeable way, allows him- or herself to remain at a distance, conjuring personal happiness out of thin air - or rather, out of a manufactured desire to be more unique than people who have walked on the moon.

It is only when he meets a kindred spirit, in the form of fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), that he feels the faintest inkling of a connection to another human being. They start out by comparing the cards they use when they fly and rent cars, and then they move onto drinks in the airport lounge, and then - surprise! - they end up in bed together. In an almost-too-cutesy scene they sit down across from each other at the table in the hotel room and get on their laptops to compare schedules so they can arrange their next booty call. What follows is an intricate dance of technicalities that reveals a depth to Bingham’s character that he has never imagined could be true, and which he is reluctant to accept.

In a classic romantic dramedy, Bingham’s character would find a way to accept the fact that he is more like the rest of us than he originally thought, or than he ever wanted to be; but this is a revisionist story, adapted from a novel, that ties up a few loose ends in classical fashion - but which is brave enough to remain largely in the realm of revisionism. I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t tell you if this is to the credit of novelist Walter Kirn or director Jason Reitman. What I can tell you is that there was the chance for a perfect ending, a point where they could have faded to black having barely crossed over into classicism; unfortunately, the film goes on about fifteen minutes too long after that. Those fifteen minutes are not entirely unsatisfying - there’s a cameo by Sam Elliott, and who doesn’t love Sam Elliott? - and the very end loops back around to the revisionism that underpins most of the film; but I think that they may have missed truly profound greatness by just those fifteen minutes. Having said that, though, it must also be said that the film is very, very good. Clooney is excellent - probably as good as he’s ever been - and Vera Farmiga is absolutely wickedly understated. It’s easily one of the best films of the year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top Ten Films of the 2000s

So I wandered over to Shane’s blog last night, and I saw his Top Ten Films of the 2000s; and I thought to myself, here’s a good idea. I’ve been wanting to go back a few years to see how many movies I’ve seen anyway - because Ryan told me about a link to a list of every film released commercially in New York, broken down by year - and this seemed like the perfect seque into making that list and, of course, analyzing it.

I’ll be spending some time on this over the next couple of weeks - and I’m curious as to what other people’s lists might look like. The link that Ryan told me about is here - scroll down to the section called The Pleasure Garden, and you’ll see a link for 2009 NYC Commercial Releases (and years past linked in brackets to the right, all the way back to 1998). Clicking on each link gives you the major New York releases in order of release date. I’m afraid that my list is going to be heavy on mainstream junk, at least for the first half or so; and there was a long stretch in there where working for Another Major Competitor had pretty much destroyed any interest I had ever had in movies. However, shifting gears and going to work for a retirement home theatre - that occasionally plays an art movie or two - has mostly reversed that.

So anyway, that’s it. Anybody already got a list? Seems like people don’t blog much anymore, but it’d be cool to get this going like we got that list of questions from Troy going a few months ago.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


(Note: Yes, this took way too long for me to write and post - I started it a week ago and just now got around to finishing it. The movie has come and gone, although we were lucky to have played it for the one week. Unfortunately, one can’t live by art film alone - which is why we have to play smarmy chicken-fried nonsense like The Blind Side and geriatric porn like It’s Complicated. Sigh. What are you going to do? Antichrist will be out on DVD on January 11, 2010, for those who are still interested.)

I don’t know that this is really the kind of movie that you can “like.” That’s mostly how I answered the question, of whether or not I liked this movie, while I was at work on Friday. Thursday night, after the lights came up, one of the other people who watched it turned around in her seat and asked me if I understood it; and I said, “A little, I think.” Twenty-four hours on, I don’t know that any of it is clearer to me, objectively; but I have a better idea of what I thought about it, and I think that’s where this movie really succeeds - as a thought-provoking, challenging piece of art, though one that most people probably won’t be able to stomach.

The basic framework of the story has to do with a man and woman, whose only identities are given as He and She - which a lot of people are taking to be a pretentious affectation on the part of writer-director Lars von Trier, a Danish filmmaker who seems to be best known for trying to shock his audience. I disagree that the appellations are either pretentious or an affectation, but I can’t speak to the rest of the von Trier oeuvre - this is the first of his pictures that I have seen. (Some of the others include Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville.) He and She retreat to their cabin in the woods - strategically named Eden - after the tragic death of their young son, so that She can cope with her grief, pain, and despair.

And that’s pretty much it - for the basic part, anyway. The rest of it is complicated…shocking…perverse…disgusting…sometimes random…and, some would say, entirely without a point. It’s also thought-provoking - maybe more so than any other movie I’ve seen this year - if you can get all the way through it without wanting to block it out of your memory for the rest of your life. I will say, however, that it wasn’t quite as thoroughly icky as I thought it was going to be, based on much of what I read about the film after it premiered in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in May.

We should probably begin with the name of the cabin in the woods - Eden (where a lot of fiction has its…ahem…genesis). Only this time, after Something Really Bad (and unlikely) happens Man and Woman go back to Eden. A stretch? Not really. The movie is called Antichrist, after all - though if you’re thinking young girls vomiting pea soup or unholy babies living in the posh digs of the Dakota Hotel, you’re on the wrong track. Roger Ebert puts it nicely in his review by noting that the word antichrist is often thought to mean the opposite of Christ, whereas its translation from Greek is “opposed to Christ.” Mr. Ebert goes on to make the distinction that the “opposite of Christ” is supernatural and the “opposed to Christ” is the mere mortal - but I saw it a little bit differently than that, which is possibly due to the fact that I don’t think the concept of a “Christ” is any more valid than arguments against gay marriage or Sandra Bullock being nominated for any number of Golden Globes other than zero.

I read “opposite of Christ” as the physical manifestation of whatever stands against this Christ person; but this idea is fraught with problems - not the least of which is that Christ is a myth, which means that the antichrist, defined as the opposite of Christ, must also be a myth. Defined that way, “antichrist” isn’t anything at all, because the thing that it’s anti- isn’t anything at all, either. That leaves “opposed to Christ,” which is much more interesting - and actually possible in a world where science and reason count for something! Since “Christ” is only an idea, then “antichrist” here becomes opposition to that idea - or rather, those ideas, in plural, since “Christ” is really just the synthesis (depicted incorrectly as caucasian in literary works and art by arrogant, and stupid, Western whites) of a number of better-than-the-Old-Testament ideas like peace and love and forgiveness. This last idea, that of forgiveness, is most interesting within the framework of this film.

The film opens with He and She having exquisitely photographed black and white sex in the bathroom while their toddler manages to get out of his crib (quite gracefully, by the way), climb onto a window ledge, open the window, and topple to his death. They go back to Eden so that She can deal with her grief, despite the fact that He - a therapist who decides to treat his own wife, never mind the taboo - is oddly cold and reptilian for someone who is supposed to be caring for and treating her. Not much of what takes place at Eden is probably in the psychology textbooks, and none of it seems to do much to address forgiveness, either - though forgiving herself is what She seems to have the most trouble with. Eventually, we come to find out that She has been coming to Eden now and again to do research for her thesis - a rambling, scrapbook-like construct that would have looked right at home to the John Doe character in Seven, and which is steeped in the history of how women have been mistreated at the hands of men. The montage shown when He discovers her work not so subtly reveals that the research seems to be having a deleterious effect on her mental health.

Whether they actually deal with their grief is open to debate, but in the end, what we have is a fairly interesting meditation on evil and human nature - one that leaves you with quite a lot to think about it, but no clear answers. I don’t get a good sense of whether von Trier’s purpose here is to foster discussion or just disgust the viewer (this is where having seen some of his previous films would have been helpful), in part because he does a reasonably good job of doing both; but I tend to lean more toward the idea that he wanted to foster discussion. I don’t know that it’s an especially good film, but I would recommend it even if it were only challenging - which it is; that it is also quite thought-provoking merits at least a mildly enthusiastic recommendation. But it is most certainly not for the faint of heart.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

For most of the way through the latest Wes Anderson picture, I was having thoughts similar to the ones had while watching the latest Coen Brothers picture (A Serious Man) - which thoughts were that I was watching a really good movie, but that I didn’t really like it all that much. I liked the Anderson more than the Coens, though - but it did not knock me down, and I also don’t know that it’s a Top Ten movie as we get toward the end of the year. I don’t have any real complaints with the film, nothing I saw or heard that I thought was done poorly; but the movie, as a whole, lacked something that would have made me connect with it in a more emotional way. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what that was that it was lacking - but it’s possible that I might figure it out while I’m writing about it, so let’s see what I have to say at the end of this little thing, eh?

And even though I’m not sure about how much I liked it, I do know for sure that it’s really, really good. Wes Anderson - who, along with Noah Baumbach, adapted the book by Roald Dahl - is pretty much a genius when it comes to dialogue, or at least when it comes to getting his actors (or in this case, his voice talent) to mutter dialogue in an offhand sort of way. This usually translates into an intelligent, stifled malaise that makes his characters sympathetic in a cold, clammy way; but it works differently with stop-motion foxes and badgers (and a few people, too), who glitter with an odd vitality and lust for life. They wear jackets and ties, and buy real estate and communicate with cell phones - but they also wolf down food that they eat with their paws; they are both anthropomorphic and feral at the same time, and this emerges as the central conflict in the story.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a chicken thief by trade, but Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) wants him to find a new line of work after they get caught in a trap and she tells him that she’s pregnant. He agrees to do this, and then becomes a columnist for the local newspaper; but he is a wild animal by nature, and eventually his nature gets the best of him, so he goes back to stealing chickens - though he hides it from his wife, which is the human side of him trying to do an end run around his feral nature. Along the way, he decides that he no longer wants to live in a hole like foxes do, so he buys a nice tree and has a house built in it - despite being told that he is moving to a bad part of town, near the farms of three humans who are excoriated in song as meanie-heads.

Of course, Fox eventually runs afoul of the farmers, who naturally band together to snuff him out - and his family and all of his friends, while they’re at it; and, equally naturally, his family and friends join forces to try to defeat the farmers so that they can maintain a relatively peaceful existence under the radar (and under the ground). Eventually I’m going to have to start taking notes when I watch certain movies, because sometimes there is just too much going on to try to remember all of the little details that are worth mentioning - and this is especially true of Wes Anderson pictures; but for those of you who are familiar with Wes Anderson pictures, you certainly won’t be disappointed when it comes to all of the little things going on in the background.

All of the technical aspects of the film are first rate, as one would expect - with the cinematography, particularly with respect to framing, being especially good. The stop-motion animation is as good as it gets, with lines so crisp and textures so rich that I got the feeling the movie was filmed in HD, and that it’s going to look spectacular when the Blu-Ray version comes out. As is usual with Wes Anderson pictures, the music is not just good, but integral to the story - it’s not quite as out front as it might have been if Quentin Tarantino or Zack Braff had been involved, but it’s no more than a notch or two below that. Jason Reitman (Juno) is another director who uses music in this way - which should be evidenced in his new picture Up in the Air, which opened in select cities this past weekend and goes wide on Christmas, and is beginning to emerge as the odds-on favorite to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Having said all of that, though, I still have no good idea about why I failed to connect with this movie in a more emotional way. It works on pretty much every level, including the metaphorical - when Mr. Fox presses for a fancy new house in a nice tree, despite the fact that he and his wife are not especially well off, you get a whiff of the subprime mortgage mess that contributed to what the MSM is now calling the Great Recession; and the consistently blurred line between wild animal and upright citizen is a not-so-subtle swipe at the lack of civility in a society where people crash state dinners, poison pop stars, and fake the peril of their children using wayward balloons. And yet, despite all of this excellence, I still find myself thinking that I did not like it as much as I feel like I ought to like a movie that is this good. I liked it…but I’m just not crazy about it.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Another Way to Reduce CO2 Emissions Would Be to Convince People on the Right to Stop Breathing

So it appears that the global warming skeptics are circulating rumors about some environmental data that was dumped at one of the world’s leading climate change research universities. If you Google “environmental data thrown out,” you get 1.15 million hits - the first of which is an article from The Times (that’s the Times in London); and if you Google “university of east anglia environment data,” you get 404,000 hits - the second of which is the same article from The Times (same one). Click here for said article.

Okay, fine. Healthy debate is a-okay. However, the right does not debate in a healthy fashion. They use fear-mongering in place of facts, and of, you know, having a valid point. The article in The Times, talking about this environmental data that was allegedly dumped, says, “The admission follows the leaking of a thousand private emails sent and received by Professor Phil Jones, the CRU’s director.” What they do not mention - and you can use a simple browser Find command to check this, since you’re not going to believe me - is that the word “hack” does not appear in the article at all. This is convenient for the skeptics, as it instills the fear and doubt without - surprise! - making any use at all of context. The e-mails in question were hacked, not leaked; and they were posted on the magic Interwebs as though they existed in some kind of vacuum.

If you dig into the thing even just a little bit, you can find an article here from the BBC and a statement from the university that was the victim of the criminal mischief that The Times so disingenuously refers to as “leaking.” And if you keep digging, you’ll find that The Times is actually owned by News Corporation, which is run by Rupert Murdoch, who is not known for his objectivity.

Oh, and that data that was allegedly dumped? Yeah, that happened back in the 1980s. Boy, it's a really good thing we have those skeptics on the right to feed us good information, right? Heck, yes! As you probably heard, all the scientific research into global warming stopped back in the 80s, not long after this data was "dumped." Technology stopped advancing, access to information stopped improving, and the argument pretty much came to an end. Also, this university, Britain's University of East Anglia, was the only institution in the whole world that ever did any research into global warming. No one did it before they did, and no one has done any research on the subject since. So when they "dumped" their data, all the evidence for global warming - every bit of it that was ever collected in the entire history of human civilization - was lost forever and ever.

Now, can I get an amen?

Sigh. What else can you do but sigh? There are legitimate points to be made on both sides of this global warming thing; but just repeating - over and over again at the top of one’s lungs - that “they threw out the data” is not debate. It’s barely even fact, and it ain’t even close to being even kissing cousins to the most cursory idea of context - not that the right is ever really all that concerned about context. But go ahead, ya dim bulbs, and bloviate all you want; maybe one day I’ll rename this thing The Debunker - although, honestly, continually having to debunk all of this nonsense isn’t really all that much fun.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Walk-on Part in the War vs. Lead Role in the Cage

If we could tax Republicans and conservatives for stupidity and ignorance, we could probably pay for health care and solar panels. A simple illustration, for the (very) simple people who thought Sarah Palin was a good idea.

National Novel Writing Month - Progress Report #3

Final tally for the National Novel Writing Month project is 19,026 words, which works out to 634 words per day. That’s quite a bit better than just-over-400 average I had going on a previous project before I started this November thing - but not even close to the 1667 per day I would have needed to hit the 50,000 word goal. It was an interesting experience though, and I’m looking forward to finding out how much better I do with it next year.

The last third of the month found the disenchanted President giving his final State of the Union speech, one that he had not vetted - nor even shared - with any of his staff, or anyone else at all. It basically called for term limits for Representatives and Senators, as well as sweeping changes in the way election campaigns are financed and executed; and it offered a rare moment of candor from the President to the people, live on TV. That got the documentary filmmaker into his car for a road trip up the eastern seaboard, from Washington to New York - interviewing people along the way to find out what they thought of the President’s speech. And that’s pretty much where I was when November came to an end. Now it’s on to short stories to submit to Ichabod’s Sketchbook. But just for kicks, here’s an excerpt of my National Novel Writing Month effort:

"Morris bin Aziz was a non-religious Jew who had been born to a lapsed American Jewess and an Arab atheist who had sought and been granted asylum in the United States on religious grounds; and because of that bizarre cocktail of cultural ingredients, he had always operated under the assumption that he would have to work double hard for anything he hoped to earn in the United States because - even though he was, by virtue of being born there, a citizen of the United States - he looked different than the white people who pretty much dominated everything he could see around him when he was growing up in the 1970s. He would even have to work hard for the things due him as an American citizen, more so than white American citizens, because conservative people were not deep thinkers and did not believe in progress. His parents had taught him about liberal and conservative early on, because they had to deal with it every day being what they were; and Morris had taken to it like southerners to white sheets and hoods.

And so it was natural that he became drawn to filmmaking as a way to express his liberal leanings in an otherwise conservative society and he had taken to filmmaking with much the same gusto that he had taken up liberalism and he caught a reasonably lucky break when he was able to secure financing for his first feature from a group of Israeli Palestinians who had become fabulously wealthy due a freakish lemon tree inheritance after the passing of a member’s grandmother who had been something of a matriarchal figure not only to the member’s family but also to the family in the neighboring town and the funeral had taken several hours and the group was now trying to follow the grandmother’s wishes and get into show business in some way and they had proudly put up the money for bin Aziz to make his first movie.

But the movie had fared poorly at the box office and the group had become disenchanted with show business at the same time that they still wanted to honor the wishes of their dearly departed grandmother; and so they were at a loss as to how to proceed. Bin Aziz came to the rescue and generously offered to make one more movie on their dime - he had found that he quite liked the work, even if the initial result had been subpar - and that if the second movie failed they could take it out on him in whatever manner they saw fit. But if it succeeded, they would go into business together and keep making movies and continue to honor the dead grandmother for years and years to come.

And behold, the group of Israeli Palestinians - who, by the way, were non-religious - agreed to the bargain but did not tell bin Aziz what they planned to do with him if the movie failed. Bin Aziz assured them that it would not be necessary to plan for such a contingency, but if they wanted to waste their time doing so, they were more than welcome to it."