Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 3, 2010

2009 Movie wrap-up, conclusion

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:17 pm

In years past, I had a tendency to eject a DVD screener after 10 minutes or so when it became obvious that it deserved a “rotten”. This often generated complaints from my detractors, including one fellow who demanded to know how I could make up my mind after seeing only the first 10 minutes. I never quite understood this point of view since I have no trouble coming to the conclusion after the first few paragraphs that an article by Thomas Friedman is a waste of time. Perhaps the only difference this year is that I stuck with movies to their dreary conclusion in order to get a handle why Hollywood is in the pits.

I should add by the way that this detractor was a huge fan of the movie “Crash” which should tell you something about his judgment in light of the following:

Worst Movie of the Decade: ‘Crash’

I haven’t created any best-of or worst-of lists yet, but I think that the 2000s featured one cultural phenomenon that deserves its own special shoutout for true heinousness: the 2004 best picture winner “Crash.”

The movie is manipulative and unrealistic – the characters tend to reveal their true feelings in the most over-the-top and obvious ways imaginable. If racism is indeed so pervasive that it seeps into every interaction, why does the movie need such a complicated, twisting plot?

Bad movies get made all the time. But what infuriated me about “Crash” was that so many people mistook it for something profound when it was truly the opposite. It shouts at the top of its lungs: “I’M SUBTLE! I’M NUANCED!” and so many people somehow agreed.

Although I generally reserve most of my venom for such liberal “message” movies, including this year’s “Invictus”, I want to call attention to another matter that generally falls outside my purview, namely the failure of screenwriters to understand the most basic element of drama, namely conflict. In film after film this year, I discovered that the movie drifted along aimlessly content to have its characters engage in petty conversations about their lives. In its most extreme form, this tendency is encapsulated in the Mumblecore genre that might have several of its major characters sitting around a breakfast table discussing the merits of raisin bran versus granola. Think of it as the Seinfeld show without laughs.

This is one of the reasons that there are so many movies made in the crime, war and horror genres. With such fare, there is always a recognizable hero and villain and the plot is driven forward by the need for the former to vanquish the latter. At its best, you have a classic like “Casablanca” and even at its worst with so many of the slasher movies you at least sit at the edge of your seat wondering who will be the next teenager to have his or her throat cut by a madman.

I am not exactly sure why today’s novelists or dramatists (either stage or screen) have so little interest in conflict but I suspect that the tendency of young writers to learn their craft in college writing classes has a lot to do with it. With most instructors the product of such training themselves, and with a classroom filled with students who have simply not experienced much in their lives outside of reading and writing, there will inevitably be a tilt toward writing about quotidian matters.

Rather than going on any further in such an abstract vein, let me turn my attention to “Sunshine Cleaning”, a film that epitomizes this kind of aesthetic conflict avoidance.

Sunshine Cleaning

Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival last year, this movie encapsulates the “indie” sensibility that flourishes there and which exemplifies the sort of screenwriting that some critics, including me, find lacking. Launched by Robert Redford in 1978, the festival premiered “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006, a movie that shares a similar title as well as sensibility. It also shares Alan Arkin, who reprises the role of eccentric grandfather.

The movie’s two lead characters are sisters who live in Albuquerque, eking out a living cleaning apartments. One of them is having an affair with a married cop who advises her that cleaning up at crime scenes pays well. That leads to them starting such a business that has fits and starts in keeping with the sister’s flakiness, character traits that will remind you of the family in “Little Miss Sunshine”.

The movie seeks to draw drama out of their series of encounters with blood-soaked apartments and grieving relatives, the victims of either murder or suicide. For reasons alluded to above, this simply does not work. A plot is driven forward by suspense and by conflict. What will happen next? We know what happens to these two figures. They just stumble along from one clean up to another until the professional requirements of the job prove too daunting, just as the juvenile beauty contest in “Little Miss Sunshine” does.

Before the movie began, I had the totally unwarranted assumption that it would take off after the sisters discovered that in the course of cleaning up a crime scene that a suicide had actually been a murder. That would lead them into becoming amateur sleuths like Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window” and a thrilling conclusion. Silly me.

Crazy Heart

This movie suffers from the same flaws as “Sunshine Cleaning”. It is a character study of a middle-aged, alcoholic country and western singer who travels from one low-paying gig to another in a beat up old car. Earlier in his career, he was a rising star but fame passed him by just like the two heavy metal musicians in the great documentary “Anvil”. Any comparison between the two leaves “Crazy Heart” in the dust. The fictional character has none of the fire and idealism of the real musicians in the documentary. Leaving aside the weakness of the character, the real problem once again is the lack of any sort of conflict. The musician Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) meets a single mom and aspiring journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) early on in the film who wants to interview him. This leads to a relationship most difficult to sustain since Bad Blake’s first love has always been the whisky bottle.

There is little drama between Bridges and Gyllenhaal, except for a brief moment when he loses track of her son at a shopping mall when he is an whiskey-induced haze. Since there is never any attempt to describe the pair’s initial coming together as anything remotely passionate, there is little sense of a letdown when the relationship threatens to come to an end. Since director and screenwriter Scott Cooper, who had adapted a novel by Thomas Cobb, set his sights so low, he can’t blame us for simply not caring. This, however, does not include the professional critics who have worked themselves into a lather in touting this as a big time winner at the next Academy Awards celebration.

I should add that Thomas Cobb’s novel predetermined the lackluster quality of the movie. Cobb studied writing under Donald Barthelme at University of Houston, where he absorbed his professor’s minimalism. In a typical Barthelme story, often published in the New Yorker magazine, nothing much happens. Once again, Seinfeld without the yucks.

Taking Woodstock

This is Ang Lee’s take on the famous music festival that occurred about fifteen miles from my village in the Catskill Mountains at Max Yasgur’s farm. Despite the bashing this took on Rotten Tomatoes (51 percent rotten), I was anxious to see this movie since it was focused on the Jewish small businessmen and women of the area I grew up in, who were a lot like my father.

The main character is Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), a gay man in his 20s who has come up to the mountains to work with his Eastern European immigrant parents who run a motel called El Monaco nearby Yasgur’s farm. After becoming president of the village board in White Lake, he is in a position to grease the wheels for the music festival’s producers who are seen as an invading army by the locals.

The movie is utterly lacking in dramatic tension and consists of one disjointed scene after another in which either the hippies or the locals—Jew and gentile alike—are depicted as charmingly eccentric. In one scene, when Tiber’s parents are visited by a couple of Mafia types offering protection, they chase them out with baseball bats in a clumsy attempt at slapstick humor. It falls on its face, as does Ang Lee’s other attempts. Granted, he did not have much to work with in long-time collaborator James Schamus’s script, an adaptation of Elliot Tiber’s memoir.

Tiber, like blogger Julie Powell and the fictional “me” in “Me and Orson Welles” is something of a publicity hound. His memoir is viewed by some experts on the region as exaggerating his importance in making the festival happen.

While I don’t really have the time or sufficient motivation right now to deal with the Woodstock festival or the hippie “movement”, I tend to agree with those who view it as an attempt to divert young people away from politics. Since so much of what happened in 1969 on the counter-culture front has become absorbed into the commercial mainstream, it is appropriate to question how “alternative” it was. In the final analysis, revolutionary politics is the only real alternative to the stultifying values of the bourgeoisie even if it is likely never to be the subject of an Ang Lee movie.

Up in the Air

They predict that this will share a lot of Oscars with “Crazy Heart”. And so it goes. It is co-written and directed by Jason Reitman, who is responsible for foisting the awful, pseudo-hip, anti-abortion “Juno” on the world, one of those movies that I could not watch for more than 10 minutes.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a consultant whose job it is to fire people. Since his job forces him to travel to one economically devastated area of the country to another, he is in airplanes much of the time. But the title “Up in the Air” also refers to his inability to make a commitment to women. Poor thing.

Bingham is assigned to work with a much younger new hire named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who believes that the firing can be done over a computer equipped with cameras on each end. Much of the film consists of the two vultures wrangling with each other over which method is more effective. You can’t make this shit up.

If you’ve heard, by the way, that this movie is about the plight of the unemployed, don’t believe a word of it. It has as much to do with this as an episode of Saturday Night Live. Reitman majored in English/Creative Writing at University of Southern California, a department that would be about as useful for writing about such social problems as it would be for understanding advanced calculus.

It turns out that Jason Reitman has a variegated career. At one point he formed a production company to make “small subversive comedy”. Small I agree with; subversive I do not. In 2007, Reitman produced and directed holiday season commercials for Wal-Mart with advertising agency Bernstein-Rein. He has also directed ads for Burger King, Nintendo, BMW, and Buick, we learn from his wiki. Some subversive.

The Lovely Bones

There’s not much to say about this, except that it is very much like the movie “Ghost” but with an inferior script. After a teenaged girl is raped and murdered by a neighborhood deviant, her ghost is in limbo and walks about looking at family members trying to adjust to her absence or at the murderer covering up his tracks. Unlike “Ghost”, the girl has no ability to communicate with the living and only serves as a mouthpiece for musings on life and death most likely lifted directly from the 2002 novel by Alice Sebold upon which it is based.

Since there is not much in the way of a detective story here, there is little in the way of suspense. Director Peter Jackson, famous for his Fellowship of the Ring trilogy, appears most interested in choreographing scenes of the taste of heaven that awaits the main character as soon as she is delivered from limbo. They are a mix of a Hallmark Card and Saturday morning children’s programming. Highly embarrassing, to say the least.

31 Comments »

  1. The book “The Lovely Bones” came out when my older daughter was in Middle School. Of course it was a “must read” for her and her female classmates. I read it & I didn’t think it was half bad. The only reason I’d be interested in seeing the movie is because of Peter Jackson. Otherwise it’s like something that’s better suited for the Lifetime cable network.

    Another book in a similar vein, but superior, is “Jesus Land,” by Julia Scheeres, a memoir of growing up with her nutty fundamentalist parents and two African-American adopted brothers. I wrote to Ms. Scheeres to express my admiration for the book and to tell her to hold out for a decent director for the movie version and not to sell the rights to Lifetime. She wrote back that my email made her day.

    Comment by John B. — January 3, 2010 @ 10:42 pm

  2. You can read more than one paragraph by Thomas Friedman????

    Anyway, I love reviews that don’t hold back. Thanks for telling it like it is.

    Comment by ish — January 4, 2010 @ 12:26 am

  3. I created enough realism for your pragmatic soullessness. For my sake, relax and allow one of these brilliant movies to take you on a tour through the beautifully complex subtleties of the human experience…

    Comment by God — January 5, 2010 @ 1:43 am

  4. As someone who agrees with you entirely about “Crash” and “Juno,” I have to believe that you were distracted while watching “Up in the Air.” You state, “Much of the film consists of the two vultures wrangling with each other over which method is more effective. You can’t make this shit up.” Do you really want your readers to infer that optimizing these strategies represents the point of view of the film’s makers, or of the main characters after the plot line unfolds? Is where the director went to college supposed to be a probative element of film criticism? Are you actually saying, by the allusion to “Saturday Night Live,” that the backdrop of economic meltdown and the consequences of being fired are played for laughs in this movie? This review is uncharacteristically misleading.

    Comment by Stuart Newman — January 5, 2010 @ 7:04 am

  5. I absolutely adored the movie! and i am super pissedoff about this criticizm … all u people, go watch the movie, .. it made me cry

    Comment by Jana — January 5, 2010 @ 9:45 am

  6. Good comment Stuart. Just saw Up in the Air tonight and thought it was great. None of Proyect’s critique resonates.

    I also thought Crash was garbage though.

    Comment by Chris — January 6, 2010 @ 4:06 am

  7. you seem like an angry man. you should try yoga.

    Comment by ryan — January 7, 2010 @ 6:31 am

  8. [...] Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist [...]

    Pingback by EconomyBeat.org - user-generated content about the economy » Blog Archive » Sizing up a film about downsizing — January 7, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

  9. I thought Crash was a comedy. If you watch it from that perspective, it is hilarious. Especially when Sandra Bullock falls down the stairs, but all of it really.

    Comment by ogwhizzz — January 8, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

  10. You say that aside from Bingham’s constant air travel, “the title “Up in the Air” also refers to his inability to make a commitment to women. Poor thing.” You have omitted his inability to make a commitment to friends, family or community – he virtually has none. One thing I love about this movie is that it leaves a lot up to the viewer – it’s creative and open-ended – not so definite as you have painted it.

    Comment by Julian van Mossel — January 9, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

  11. Up in the air did indeed suck. I didn’t feel an ounce of emotion through the entire boring mess. UITA should win an award for “most over-rated film of the year”.

    Comment by Jim — January 10, 2010 @ 11:47 am

  12. [...] to him, in light of recent cinematic achievements like Thank You for Smoking and Juno (and… Walmart commercials I guess?). Reitman gets bonus points though for the inclusion of a Dan Auerbach song in the film (!). But I [...]

    Pingback by Double Featurette: ‘Up in the Air’ and ‘Avatar’ « love me, already — January 10, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

  13. Has there ever been a movie you liked?

    Comment by Bobo — January 10, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

  14. I am stunned at how accurate this appraisal is. Having just seen “Crazy Heart” (which I found to be an abominable mess, suspiciously highly improvised, I believe) I am every more astonished to see the high level of respect the film has received from critics. Perhaps young critics are now suffering from the same cultural illiteracy as young screenwriters.

    Comment by Ralph — January 11, 2010 @ 9:54 am

  15. “In film after film this year, I discovered that the movie drifted along aimlessly content to have its characters engage in petty conversations about their lives.”

    Two words: Internal Conflict!

    (Up In The Air was brilliant. Crash is indeed the worst film of the 00’s)

    Comment by Ricky — January 13, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

  16. I do not normally read whole reviews on RT, but your blurb so adequately described my experience of Up In The Air, I clicked, and the kind words about your review by Frankiea M. invited me to click. Reitman and Clooney owe me two hours of my life. The most unconvincing movie, characters and poorest character development in years. Scooby Doo is less predictable…

    Comment by Nick — January 14, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

  17. I saw ‘Up in the air’ & liked it. You thought it was too pre-packaged.. or something. The movie I saw was about how do deliver terrible news, and the emotional space & reactions of the characters who were hired to do it, with an unrequited romance thrown in. I thought it worked as a characters study / tragedy and I felt Clooney’s loss when he was ultimately rejected.

    Your interpretation is that this whole careerpath/lifestyle is not a valid emotional place to hang a movie on .. As if very bad news never happens – it’s just a**holes who cause it & we can hide from it – or we should – or we should shame or ignore the messengers. They’re not proletariat enough for you.

    And I know you’re a proud marxist… So this movie was about an aspect of capitalism that you find distasteful – layoffs.
    Tell me – do you have garbage men in your town? Are you ashamed of garbage? Should we shame the garbage men? What about sewage workers – etc? Too real for you?
    What if it was a movie about hiring? Would that make the difference for you? Without layoffs, there is no hiring. Just like there’s no births without a certain death at the other end of the journey.

    Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but when 99.999% of the world disagrees with you, perhaps you might want to reconsider your worldview. And I’m not just talking about the movie.

    Comment by stuart Winer — January 17, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

  18. I found Up In The Air condescending and stylistically predictable. It’s failing is not due to subject-matter or lack of emotional material. It’s due to ad-speak dialogue and canned directorial vision. You can’t blame Reitman for being a commercial director – lots of directors cross-over (and many bring their ad or music video short attention span styles with them). But you can question his intentions as a director. I felt like someone was trying to sell me marriage and companionship. Spoon-feed me conclusions to what could be deeply personal experiences. I’d rather see the Coen Bros. make this movie. And I prefer Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia to Clooney’s Bingham if we’re looking for a self-help speaker realizing his own loss.

    Comment by MickyTC — January 18, 2010 @ 2:25 am

  19. And thank you Proyect for offering up opinions that are acerbic and creating a forum for intelligent dissent. This guy who thinks there’s something wrong with you because “99.99% of the world doesn’t agree with you” is not the guy who I want in my theatre!

    Comment by MickyTC — January 18, 2010 @ 2:31 am

  20. “Up in the Air” is hardly prescriptive regarding what an appropriate relationship might be. An unconventional life arrangement (of a female character) receives absolutely no condemnation or comeuppance. The corruptness of his own life choices progressively dawns on the principal character as he confronts contradictions in several different personal ans social realms. To take the film’s tacit advocacy of companionship, loyalty and solidarity as a negative, as MickyTC does, is a sorry symptom of contemporary culture. The movie accurately, though not heavy-handedly, shows the contribution of the corporate mentality to undermining what has usually been considered by socialists to be positive values. Some, like Louis, may prefer a more explicit narrative like that of “Avatar,” where the anti-imperialism is served up full-strength, the perpetrators are given not a single complex motive or uncanned line,, and the oppressed are almost uniformly pure of heart. This is good for reinforcing previously held positions, but provides no sense of how individuals change when confronted with changing realities. It’s just an inverted cowboys and indians story. The Golden Globes set, not a notoriously radical group, also went for “Avatar.”

    Comment by Stuart Newman — January 18, 2010 @ 5:58 am

  21. Answering stuart winer who states: “When 99.999% of the world disagrees with you, perhaps you might want to reconsider your worldview. And I’m not just talking about the movie.”

    In the U.S. election of 1972, Nixon won 49 states while McGovern won 1. You still think that overwhelming majorities are always right?

    Comment by Harvey Karten — January 22, 2010 @ 4:59 am

  22. Dude, you need to let go of your psuedo intellectualism and see films like Sunshine Cleaning in the context intended.

    A movie is made for entertainment. The mis en scene is what it is. Try not to read too much into it. All they’re trying to show is the relationships of a family challenged by their experiences.

    Remember that a movie is to be experienced in the dark between no one but the viewer and the film. To try and seem above the experience demonstrates your lack of understanding of the media.

    Maybe you should take up reading comic books or 19th century russian literature. Maybe the Brothers Karamatzov are equal to your self indulgent bullshit.

    Go wait some tables.

    Comment by Kevin — February 1, 2010 @ 6:42 am

  23. ps Drop me a line if you ever find a film that is up to your exacting standards. Pissant.

    Comment by Kevin — February 1, 2010 @ 6:51 am

  24. Why is it unusual to find a reviewer who recognizes a bad movie when he sees one? This movie was terrible. Are other reviewers being paid to say good things? Thank you for your review.

    Comment by jeffrey mattes — February 6, 2010 @ 3:53 am

  25. I agree with the comment that the majority is not always rught. In fact it has become necessary for film directors to pander to the majority – mediocrity. I shall therefore not spend my money to see Up in the air.

    Comment by Grace Verster — February 6, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

  26. I am somebody who does not believe that majority is always right.
    Because of this film directors are obliged to appeal to the mediocrity of the masses. It is a pity because now there will be fewer films in English worth seeing.

    Comment by Grace Verster — February 6, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

  27. What cranky fools you are; nothing easier that criticizing something you haven’t tried. And it’s easy to find what’s wrong, any beginning critic can do that; try starting with idea that you might find what’s done well, what might give pleasure, what elements trascend the whole. High snot and acid comments don’t make it as intelligent criticism.

    Comment by Clares — February 8, 2010 @ 5:55 am

  28. I have a hard time taking someone seriously who looks at the world as if they are idiots. Credibility zero.

    Comment by Lee — February 9, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

  29. I like the fact that your reviews make people angry. Keep up the good work.

    Comment by Paul — February 17, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

  30. Just saw “Up In The Air” and HATED it. Lots of involuntary eye rolling. How did that get any award nominations? The clueless graduate’s dreadful fake crying at the airport when her boyfriend broke up with her should have been the end of any possible awards for that actress, George Clooney’s part relied heavily on everyone’s inexplicable love for George Clooney, and we got smacked over the head with the montage of the recently fired at the end describing how their relationships were all that mattered at the end of the day. Vera Farmiga was the best thing in the movie but didn’t anyone pick up that something was off when she was telling the clueless ambitious young grad that while she’d settled for a whole lot of details about a guy that were different to those she had in her 20s that liking children was still a big one? That clearly wasn’t the Clooney character, so big unsubtle warning bells right there. (And why the hell did she give Clooney her address if she never thought if might show up there? Are we supposed to think he read it off her elite travelcards? Or Mr. Single-I-Travel-Light-With-No-Baggage memorized it off her luggage label? When did you ever meet a guy who did that?) This movie is CRAP.

    Comment by Lizzie — March 14, 2010 @ 3:56 am

  31. Like most of the people leaving comments I agree with you on Juno and Crash, just for the simple fact that the charecters were not, in the least bit, believable. However, I loved up in the air. I will say that I am biased though as i really related to Clooney’s charecter. I live a similar life, have similar views on life, and even do a similar job as his charecter in this movie so it really hit home with me. I did not see Vera’s comment on a guy liking children as a give away. I saw it as a hint from her charecter to George that she was ready to settle down if he were ever so inclined. Trust me women who want, love, or even have kids will date you knowing that you hate kids hoping that you will change. And as long as Clooney had Vera’s first and last name he could easily find out were she lived. I’ve done no more than give a girl my name and a few days later she told me where i had lived for the past 7 years and a criminal background check done on me. Talk about paranoia.

    Comment by Stan — March 29, 2010 @ 4:07 am


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