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:
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.
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.
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.
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.