Well, admittedly, I’m probably much more of a City Mouse these days than I was back during my Carolina youth, so take that for what it’s worth. And I will fess up to having grim flashbacks to the stultifying experience of Sweetgrass in the “realistically”-portrayed opening moments of this film, so that didn’t help either. Still, I have to say, I just did not cotton to Debra Granik’s gritty Ozark noir Winter’s Bone like it seems a majority of critics did. (Some have even called it the “best American film of the year.” I reckon I’d seen a better American film not 24 hours beforehand.)
This “dark as a dungeon” Missouri folk tale is well-made, to be sure, and it includes both impressive, nuanced performances — most notably from the Zellweger-esque lead, Jennifer Lawrence — and some very likable actors (John Hawkes and Garrett Dillahunt of Deadwood; Sheryl Lee, nee Laura Palmer, of Twin Peaks) shading in the margins. But, for a couple of reasons, which I’ll get into a moment, I didn’t find the main through-line of the story particularly engaging. And, in its depiction of mountain folk living on the economic razor’s edge, I can’t help feeling that the movie veered dangerously close to stereotype, if not outright Precious or Slumdog Millionaire-style poverty pr0n at times.
First, the story. After a few minutes of soaking in the three R’s of life-as-it-really-happens in an economically marginal Missouri town — ROTC training, ramshackle cabins, and (jus’) regular folk — the young woman we’ve been following around, Ree Dolly (Lawrence), is approached by the local sheriff (Dillahunt) with some very problematic news. Apparently, her daddy — who, like all-too-many men in this poverty-stricken region, is a meth cook of some renown — has skipped bail. (Paging Heisenberg!) And if Pa Dolly doesn’t show up for his scheduled hearing a fortnight or so hence, the bond he posted will be taken by the county — in the form of Ree’s house. There isn’t enough money to go around on a good day, and since Ree is already neck-deep in raising her two little siblings and caring for her ailing mother, who’s not quite right in the head, getting turned out of the only home the Dollys have would basically be tantamount to a death sentence.
And so, with only a quick mind and sheer doggedness at her disposal, Ree starts trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the prodigal father, before this deadly eviction hammer falls. Trouble is, the extended community — who are more often than not related by blood ’round these parts — take none too kindly to Ree’s asking tough questions about a central participant in the local, lucrative criminal enterprise. Even Ree’s uncle Teardrop (Hawkes), her father’s brother, tends towards the unhelpful or abusive whenever she comes by for another round for questioning. But what can she do? Ree’s back is to the wall, and the only thing she can do to save her family from certain starvation is to push forward and find her dad, with all the ugly consequences that’ll entail…
Part of the reason Winter’s Bone didn’t work for me, I think, is I felt like I’d just seen a more engaging version of this movie — a regional neo-noir with a bleached-out aesthetic, involving working-class folks in a tight-knit community dabbling in crime to get by — in Nash Edgerton’s The Square. But even that film aside, and with all due respects to the wanderings of M. Lebowski, I get a bit irritated with noir-offerings that put a puzzle before you (in this case, where is Ree’s Pop?), but then don’t really give you the tools to play along.
Put another way: For all Ree’s gumption, only in the occasional scene here — like, when she’s shown a burned-out meth lab where her dad supposedly died — does she get to put two-and-two together in a way that moves the story forward. Instead, she’s more often relegated to being a passive figure in her own tale, at which point some other character will swing by her endangered home and dole out whatever info is needed to get the plot moving again. Perhaps this is by design — one of the best scenes in the movie is when Ree tries to sign up for the Army for an infusion of much-needed cash, and is very kindly told that her options right now are even more limited than they already seemed. Still, this passive tendency makes Winter’s Bone feel like a movie where this happens, and then that happens, and this happens, rather than an engaging mystery. There’s a sense of urgency, sure — the ticking clock of impending eviction — but there’s still no narrative drive to this story.
At which point a fan of this film might say: You’re missing the point. Winter’s Bone is less about typical noir plotting than it is about character, social realism, and establishing a strong sense of place. Well, convenient straw-man fan, I’m glad you got brought this up, because this actually gets to my bigger problem with the movie. From its Welcome-to-the-Real-America opening moments, Granik’s film goes out of its way to establish its versimilitude — but that’s exactly where the movie increasingly felt off to me. And while I think it’s uncharitable to say of Winter’s Bone that it’s the tale of Cletus (or Brandine) the Slack-Jawed Yokel told as tragedy — at times it really does feel like we’re hunting possum in that same hillbilly-stereotype trailer park.
Now, I won’t profess to be any kind of expert on what a life of grinding poverty in the Ozarks looks and feels like — I’ve never been to that part of the country, although I have spent time in some very broke regions of the Carolinas, West Virginia, and the Deep South. So, maybe I’m wrong, and Winter’s Bone is actually witheringly acute in its depiction of the ways of dirt-poor rural folk here. But when there are more scenes of hootenannies and squirrel-hunting in your movie than there are of people doing “normal” things like, say, watching TV or driving to Wal-Mart, I really start to wonder. And that goes double when your characters tend to speak in a near-Milchian poetic argot about their kin and the ways of menfolk and the like.
To be clear: I wasn’t offended by this Othering of them there Mountain folk, but I didn’t really buy into it either. And so the more the film strived toward versimilitude — look at how poor (and yet noble!) poor can be! — the more Winter’s Bone just felt like a hyper-stylized, and even downright artificial, Ozark requiem by way of Cormac McCarthy to me, and the more I disengaged from it. Call me uncouth (I blame mah upbringin’), but, without feeling much of either the story or the milieu, I basically spent the majority of Winter’s Bone — even its ostensibly shocking culmination — just dutifully waiting for it to end.
“Now if I were a gambling woman, I’d wager that most Americans today are not seething with unspoken rage at Thurgood Marshall. And I might wonder at the wisdom of blaming him for what ails this country in the summer of 2010.” Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick reports in from Day 1 of the Kagan confirmation hearings, where the Senate GOP are now earnestly trying to rewrite the history books on Justice Marshall. (Apparently, Orrin Hatch is even hemming and hawing about whether he’d even confirm Marshall now. You stay classy, GOP.)
General Veers, prepare your troops for a surface…trip to the dog park. In case you missed this in the Twitter feed, the All-Terrain Armored Transport finally gets a day in the sun in a well-constructed short, AT-AT Day Afternoon. I get the sense Berk would prefer this companion to the old, now-defunct apartment droid.
Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of Team Hogwarts (now with Bill Nighy in tow) are back for
one last two last hurrahs in the trailer for both parts of David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Hmm…I mean, I’ll go see ‘em, but this trailer just makes both movies seem like a lot of running around with pained expressions. (And, not to get curmudgeonly up in here, but even speaking as someone who fired up The Leaky Cauldron back in the day, “The Motion Picture Event of a Generation” is overselling this production something fierce.)
“There’s not even room enough to be anywhere. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” To get right to the point, Lee Unkrich’s heartfelt and exquisitely melancholy Toy Story 3 is fully up to the standard of excellence we’ve come to expect from both the franchise and Pixar, and it’s easily one of the best films of the year so far, right up there with Red Riding and The Secret in their Eyes. But, honestly, what is it with John Lasseter’s team at Pixar that they seem to be so obsessed with questions of transience and mortality?
With WALL-E, we got, in its better hour, a robot love story set among the dusty, trash-ridden ruins of a forgotten Earth. With Up, we got, in its best ten minutes, the story of a romance from childhood to the final parting of the ways. And, now we have Toy Story 3, where even those unaging plastic heroes from Andy’s toy chest — Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest — are contemplating that last round-up in the sky. And from utopian visions — that don’t quite pan out — of a toy heaven (a community center where the toys get played with every day) to the fiery furnaces of toy Hell (you’ll know it when you see it), Toy Story 3 has more tearful farewells and ruminations on death than any pop movie this side of Return of the King.
In fact, the film — which, don’t get me wrong, is pretty close to a masterpiece — starts grim (that is, after two cartoon reveries, one an amazing short entitled Day & Night; the other a romp through the toylands of the Old West) and gets grimmer. For, ten years have passed since the first film, l’il Andy is all grown up now, and this soon-to-be college-man has put away childish things…which leaves our heroes forgotten in the toy chest, feeling abandoned and forlorn. So, after memories of bygone days and an enumeration of those who have already succumbed to the Great Plastic Dark (Wheezy, Mr. Shark, Little Bo Peep), Woody (Tom Hanks) tries to rally the flagging spirits of his fellows by singing the praises of attic-life. And, if a golden senescence in the musty confines of the attic doesn’t sound all that great, well, it’s vastly more preferable to being tossed out in the trash-heap, isn’t it?
But, eventually, other options emerge. Andy seems to mark Woody — and Woody alone — to make the trip to college with him, where he’ll no doubt spend four years resting ironically between the beer cans and lava lamp, aghast at the new ways in which Andy spends his time. Meanwhile, Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and everyone else, after some mishaps about Andy’s intentions, eventually get consigned to the Sunnyside Community Center, an Edenic establishment overflowing with young children and old toys — including most notably a Ken (Michael Keaton) to Andy’s sister’s Barbie (Jodi Benson) — and administrated over by a kindly pink teddy named Lotso (Ned Beatty), short for Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear.
Did I say kindly? Um, well, he seemed kindly. But, beneath that fuzzy pink exterior lies a broken heart, filled with cold, calculating malice. (Chuckles the Clown, a despondent fellow that Woody encounters on his travels, fills us in on the whole story.) It appears Lotso and his eventual muscle, Big Baby, were once inadvertently left — and very quickly replaced — by the parents of his young owner Daisy. And this unfortunate event, alas, cleaved this bear’s soul in two and made him, from now until time immemorial, a satellite of hate. Better to reign in Sunnyside than to serve another cruel mistress like Daisy! If Lotso cannot be loved by humans, then he will be feared by toys — and woe be unto those who dare threaten this Huggin’ Bear’s domain, for they shall know the wrath of…the toddlers.
So, yeah, like I said: Even amid all the pastel colors, this film is surprisingly dark. Already, Toy Story 3 is as wistful about childhood’s end and the inexorable passage of time as Where the Wild Things Are (although it’s not nearly the abortive emo-fest that Spike Jonze’s film sadly turned out to be.) Even in basically throwaway elements, like the family dog having obviously reached his eleventh hour, the film keeps reminding you over and over again that everything is finite, and nobody — not even toys — gets out alive. And then you throw in the Shawshank Redemption and Lotso-the-Cheneyite aspects of Sunnyside and we’re delving into even creepier territory.
As I said of Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick’s Coraline, in general I think kids can handle — and probably really dig — dark, scary fare. But here we have a Toy Story featuring not one, but TWO, interrogation-and-torture scenes. Isn’t this all a bit much for little kids? (Of course, now that I think about it, Empire has two also, and I loved the hell out of that movie at a young age.) Who knows? Maybe all the moral and temporal grimness shoots right over kids’ heads. As I said in my WTWTA review, “I just don’t get the sense that nine-year-old children really spend a lot of time pondering things like the Finite, their feelings, or their soon-to-be-lost innocence. They live in the moment. They just are.“
And, it’s true, this production is much more fun than WTWTA as it zips along, so maybe kids will ignore most of the sad stuff and really dig it. But, speaking as a thirty-five-year-old adult, and even one who’s fully ok with keeping the toys of youth around, the despondency throughout the story becomes cumulative. I really liked Toy Story 3 — In a way, I kind of loved it. But I was not expecting such a wistful and lachrymose tone going in, or to be so choked up by the end. I thought I was in for another eye-popping lark with Woody, Buzz, and the ole gang. Instead, I got an eloquent, expertly-made, and very, very melancholy testament to the rather depressing notion that old toys and old memories never die. They just…fade…away…
In the Jonah Hex review below, I mentioned the intriguing casting of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor X and Magneto respectively. Now, Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class circles ’round its White Queen in Alice Eve of She’s Out of My League and Sex and the City 2. Haven’t seen either of those, but she looks the part…although I still might’ve gone with Rosamund Pike myself.
As everyone already knows, the US bowed out of the World Cup over the weekend — in front of a record American television audience — by losing to Ghana 2-1, the same team that knocked them out in 2006. While I haven’t been posting much on the Cup (or on anything over the past fortnight), I have been watching what I can, and the US looked shaky from the start. Argentina notwithstanding, that Phoenix Suns style of futbol — great on O, very little D to speak of — doesn’t usually work too well at the World Cup level.
Speaking of that record television audience (which has been a pattern of late), the Cup has also been occasion for the usual litany of “Why Soccer Will Soon/Won’t Ever Work in the US” stories in the press. See, for example, Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi bashing on soccer and its fans in his usual fast-and-loose “it goes to 11″ -style. (On this and all other issues: less heat and more light, please.)
I dunno. At this point, I feel like I’ve heard variations on this soccer-on-the-cusp argument my entire life. Frankly, it’s gotten to the point where I don’t much care anymore. Does it really matter if the US as a nation fully embraces futbol or not? I enjoy soccer, and so do most people whose company I enjoy. That’s good enough. If you don’t like the game, well, that’s ok too.
“Mr. Byrd…said he had no illusions that his oratory was going to change the outcome of the final vote. So why was he on the floor day after day? What was he accomplishing? ‘To me, that question misses the point, with all due respect to you for asking it,’ he said. ‘To me, the matter is there for a thousand years in the record. I stood for the Constitution. I stood for the institution. If it isn’t heard today, there’ll be some future member who will come through and will comb these tomes.‘”
Senator Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, 1917-2010. Known as a fierce defender of Senate prerogative and a legislator with a penchant for pork, Senator Byrd, we all know, held some indefensible positions in his day. But at least he got on the right side of history before his time came. Rest well, Senator.
For, however defiantly stupid Hex is for most of its run, and yes, Hex is extremely, flagrantly stupid — we know that from the horse-mounted howitzers in the first reel — at least the movie is aware enough of its drive-in badness just to let its Weird Western Tales freak flag fly. (Speaking of Hex’s comic book origins, the obligatory source material disclosures: I’ve been aware of the character since he popped up in the Crisis way back when, but never really followed him, even when he got sent into the far-flung future for some reason, and I couldn’t tell you much about Hex beforehand except the scar.)
So basically, I found Jonah Hex to be on the bizarrely-enjoyable, “TNT New Classic at two in the morning” side of terrible, as opposed to the just-plain-irritating-terrible of, say, 1999′s The Wild, Wild West. (Or, to take two recent examples, Alice in Wonderland or Clash of the Titans.) True, gun-for-hire John Malkovich seems really bored as this twisted tale’s Big Bad, Confederate general Quentin Turnbull. (Like Hugo Weaving in The Wolfman, another genre turn I thought would have to be fun no matter what, Malkovich is a letdown. Even in other easy paychecks like Con Air, I’ve never seen him so listless.) But the Malkatraz choosing to phone-it-in notwithstanding, there’s still a lot of goofy fun at the fringes of Jonah Hex.
I mean, we’ve got rising star Michael Fassbender (of Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank and, soon X-Men: First Class — He’s the Magneto to James McAvoy’s Professor X) as a jolly, lilting Irish-immigrant henchman in a bowler hat. There’s Will “Gob Bluth” Arnett playing it straight as a McClellan-esque Union general, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (of Watchmen and The Losers) as a wordy and depressed zombie, Lance Reddick (nee Major Cedric Daniels) slumming it as Hex’s Q, American Beauty‘s since-AWOL Wes Bentley randomly popping up very briefly as Southern Gentleman #2…and that’s not even getting into the random Civil war-era gladiatorial bat-beasts and whatnot.
And then there’s Hex himself: Josh Brolin, who, not unlike Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley in Splice, carries the stoic deadpan — with a glint of laughter in the eyes — of a man who seems to be in on the joke. If nothing else, Brolin — after spending two decades not-really-making-it between 1985′s The Goonies and 2007′s No Country for Old Men — seems to be getting a real kick out of being an A-Lister carrying his own B-level comic book film. For her part, Megan Fox is not much to write home about here, but she’s easy on the eyes and acquits herself well enough. I know she’s often a target of many people’s weirdly vociferous wrath. But I’ll give Fox this: If Hex and Jennifer’s Body are any indication, she seems to have a pretty solid sense of her own limited range.
Now, you’ll notice I’ve gone several paragraphs in now without mentioning anything involving the actual story, and that should give you a sense of its quality. But, basically, Hex wants revenge on the aforementioned Gen. Turnbull, since he’s the man who disfigured him (good work, make-up people), murdered his family before his eyes, and inadvertently gave Hex the power to commune with the dead (although, apparently not with his family, which is where you’d think he’d then spend most of his time.) Turnbull, meanwhile, wants to level the Union on its 100th anniversary, as payback for that whole Civil War thing — you may have read about it. (The engine of his centennial-obliterating master plan are highly dangerous WMD, apparently once engineered by Eli Whitney — In practice, they’re glowing golden orbs not unlike the pinkish bombs Jar Jar et al were flinging around Naboo in The Phantom Menace. And, yes, the fact I just mentioned Episode 1 should again give you a sense of what you’re in for here.
So, yeah, the film is bad, no doubt. But I still definitely enjoyed myself through its schlocky-grisly awfulness. If you’ll allow me to explain by digression: Speaking of John Lee Hancock’s amiable but slightly dull adaptation of The Alamo in 2004, I finished up by saying of Billy Bob Thornton’s Davy Crockett that “Billy Bob is so good here that I spent most of the film contemplating who else I’d cast alongside Thornton for the definitive American History miniseries. Christopher Walken as 1850 Henry Clay? Fred Thompson as James Buchanan? Adrien Brody as Mexican War-era Lincoln? The possibilities are endless.“
And, with that in mind, I think the point where Hex sorta sold me as Z-grade entertainment, despite its pretty unmitigated badness otherwise, is when Aidan Quinn (most recently playing a drunk-of-a-different-color in The Eclipse) shows up as President Ulysses S. Grant, a man who needs that outlaw and ex-Confederate rapscallion Jonah Hex on the side of God and country, his dirty deeds be damned, or else. If you’ve been coming ’round these parts and reading the movie reviews for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed I have a weakness for both historical recreations and genre outings. Well, however much of a bomb in the end, Jonah Hex at least has the good sense to frolic happily at that crossroads for awhile.
Another slew of new arrivals in the summer trailer bin:
Well, I definitely wouldn’t have picked these two teams. But, even amid a sea of (admittedly low-scoring) World Cup riches, tonight is a big night in sports: One game for the NBA championship. ABC, 9pm EST. (And, fwiw, I’m definitely rooting for the Celts. They’re the Eastern Conference representatives, and more importantly, they’re not the Lakers.)
Republican Rep. Joe Barton, the Ranking Member of the Energy & Commerce committee, decides to use the out-loud voice and genuflects before BP’s Tony Hayward, causing all kinds of messaging trouble for Republicans today. (Then again, if they had a problem with Barton openly professing his fealty to his biggest donor, maybe they shouldn’t have put it in today’s talking points.) In any case, this one was right over the middle of the plate for the WH today. [Pic via Greg Greene.]
“No wonder President George W. Bush can now openly brag about the water-boarding policy he once denied even existed. The courts have become complicit in the great American cop-out on torture.” And let’s not forget the Obama administration in all this. Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick surveys the wreckage from the Supreme Court’s recent capitulation on the Maher Arar case, wherein we, the United States of America, abducted, deported, and were ultimately responsible for the torturing of an innocent man, and are now trying to sweep it under the rug like it never happened. Look forward, not backward! (unless you’re a whistleblower)
In very related news, borrowing the riff from this great cartoon, The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart finally drops the hammer on the Bushification of Obama on the civil liberties front. Like many progressives, I’m discontented for a lot of reasons with this administration at this moment, but Obama’s egregious record on this front still stands above them all. An end to imperial powers and civil liberties violations of the Dubya era should have been an absolutely non-negotiable aspect of “change we can believe in” — particularly coming from Obama “the constitutional scholar.” And a White House that will capitulate on these basic human rights will capitulate on anything. Which, when you get right down to it, they pretty much have.
Also in the trailer bin with Never Let Me Go this week:
In the trailer bin: Schoolmates Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley learn to cope with the outside world and rage against the dying of the light in the trailer for Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishigoro’s Never Let Me Go, also with Sally Hawkins. (I know the basic premise, but haven’t read the book.) With this, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, and The Adjustment Bureau, it seems like we’re seeing a mini-boom of romances with a sci-fi twist.
That’s B as in B-movie, although, to be fair, Splice doesn’t have the low-grade, “what the hell am I watching?” straight-to-video feel of Natali’s memorable cult breakout Cube. That’s mainly due to the presence of Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley here, both likable and talented stars who exude intelligence and off-kilter charm, and both of whom seem game for anything this genre material throws at them, without ever condescending to it. (And, after all, why would Brody condescend to this? The man made The Jacket and will soon be in Predators, for Pete’s sake.)
In any case, here the aforementioned duo are lovebirds and genius biochemists Clive Nicoli (Brody) and Elsa Kast (Polley) — the names, other reviewers inform me, are a Bride of Frankenstein reference. While bantering back-and-forth in high-speed genetic Trekspeak (they come across as more hipstery versions of the buttoned-down Primer guys), Clive and Elsa spend their days in an expensive lab paid for by Big Pharma, splicing together new forms of hybrid life in hopes of finding some –any — lucrative new product for the drug market. (Well, that’s the company’s goal anyway — Clive and Elsa just like pushing the frontier and playing with their toys.)
But when the powers-that-be decide that all this basic research is a waste of money and pull the plug, Clive and Elsa feel compelled to take Splice Club up a notch. Unbeknownst to her Pharma masters, Elsa in particular, who we find out later may not have the best sense of judgment around, decides to go out on a limb and add human DNA to their primordial soup. Clive, for his part, has a nagging sense that this is probably a bad idea, but he is hesitant to stop Elsa once the die is cast. Well, that was their first mistake. For, when this new, state-of-the-art bun at last emerges from its oven, our two scientists have a lot more to contend with than just another run-of-the-mill, wormy abomination like the dozen previous iterations. (Said worms, by the way, are both repellent and hilarious, and are the centerpiece of the most absurdly funny scene in the film.)
Instead, they have bioengineered “Dren,” a chittering creature who at first looks like a factory reject from the cute Disney sidekick assembly line, but soon grows into something more recognizably human. And when, after a few months as a inordinately bright little girl (Abigail Chu), she evolves into a reasonable approximation of Sinead O’Connor in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” video (Delphine Chaneac), except with gills, wings, hand-like feet, and a scorpion tail…well, let’s just say that just opens up a whole can of unnatural hybrid-y worms for Clive, especially after he figures out the identity of Dren’s DNA donor. Heady moral quandaries can do a funny thing to a man, and, after a few stiff drinks one evening, he’s not really going to…is he? He is? Ewwwwww. (I think one can guess how Clive would play through Mass Effect.)
It’s not often, this side of Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) or Todd Solondz’s blissfully disturbed Happiness, that you find a film that involves deeply un-funny issues like incest, abortion, and bestiality, and yet somehow, some way, stays amusing. But, to the movie’s credit, there’s a knowing, tongue-in-cheek sensibility to Splice throughout, and even while it’s playing the story straight, it seems to have a very good sense of how ridiculous it is at times. (In a testament to their acting chops, Brody and Polley seem in on the joke even as they’re writhing on the horns of their dilemma.) The movie isn’t played for laughs by any means, but it also has an undeniable nudge-nudge-wink-wink quality that keeps the sailing smooth even through potentially treacherous waters. (For a good example of how a movie with more self-importance and less self-awareness can falter with similar material, consider Michael Winterbottom’s abysmal Code 46.)
Aside from its Freudian head-games, Splice — like Daybreakers and genre B-films from 28 Weeks Later to Village of the Damned and countless more in-between — has all kinds of timely political grist to mill over its run. from 21st concerns about bioethics to more bad behavior by pharmaceutical companies to, in its final shot [Spoiler, if you know your magazine racks], a potential comment on this month’s Atlantic cover article. It doesn’t say anything particularly new or interesting about any of these themes, of course, but they are there to give the film color regardless.
Let me put it this way: If a movie like the much-superior Let the Right One In feels, as I said in 2008, like a wintry Stephen King short story, this saucier, clinical, and more acerbic nightmare is closer to what you might find in a Clive Barker paperback ’round the same era. Is Splice a must-see for horror and sci-fi fans? No, I wouldn’t say that. But it’s not bad at all for a B-movie, and it delivers two hours of mildly thought-provoking, occasionally funny genre fare at about the level of its ambitions.
As World Cup 2010 fever heats up, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle offers the institutional argument for USA’s forty-year Cup appearance drought. “Pioneering isn’t always fun, but it needs to be done, and there’s still pioneering work to do,” said Gansler.” As far as 2010 goes: Even with an easy group, I suspect it’ll be hard to pioneer any farther past our quarterfinal showing in 2002 this year, given the current porousness of our defense…
Congratulations to Space X on their successful Falcon-9 launch last Friday. “After Friday’s successful test launch — unusual for a maiden voyage — SpaceX plans to send a fully operational rocket and capsule into orbit this summer, and one to the ISS next year.”
“‘The CIA appears to have broken all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation,’ said Frank Donaghue, the CEO of PHR, a nonprofit organization of health professionals.“
A new report by Physicians for Human Rights suggests the CIA conducted human experiments on detainees, including “monitoring the effects of sleep deprivation up to 180 hours” and testing out new forms of waterboarding on them. Once we’re all happy with the president’s visible anger levels toward BP, perhaps we can get some wrath-of-God fury — and criminal prosecutions — directed towards these atrocities committed in our name also? Thanks much. [Update: Here's the Mother Jones story.]
Dropping yesterday evening during the MTV Movie Awards — Sign #159 that I’m getting old: I just could not care less about this show, and could only handle five minutes or so of teh full-on insipid last night before switching back to Game 2 — the first trailer for David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I). Lots of tearful, shouting matches in the English countryside…yep, that’s the book I remember.
“[E]very investment expert knows two truths about investing: 1) Past performance is no indication of future performance. 2) You need to consider a company’s track record. Right, yes, those are opposites. And it’s pretty much all that anyone knows about investing.“
In the WSJ, Dilbert’s Scott Adams makes the case for investing in thoroughly evil companies. “People ask me how it feels to take the side of moral bankruptcy. Answer: Pretty good! Thanks for asking. How’s it feel to be a disgruntled victim?“
In potentially very big doings, two astrobiology papers suggest that some form of life is currently consuming gas and fuel on Saturn’s moon of Titan (The gas being hydrogen and fuel being acetylane, which would make sense for a methane-based life form.) “We suggested hydrogen consumption because it’s the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth. If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth.’” Yes, that would be exciting.
Update: NASA’s Chris McKay advises scientific caution. “This is a still a long way from ‘evidence of life’. However, it is extremely interesting.”
“‘No’, says Nolan emphatically and unhesitatingly. He resists elaborating simply because, quite understandably, he says, ‘I just don’t feel comfortable talking about it.’” Christopher Nolan nips talk of recasting the Joker for Batman 3. (There was much fanboy speculation that the Ledger-esque Joseph Gordon-Levitt, now on Team Nolan as of Inception, might take up the war paint for some kind of Silence of the Lambs-y type nod to the character from the depths of Arkham Asylum. No can do, apparently.)
Elsewhere in the comic movie department, Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker, 28 Weeks Later, and The Asssassination of Jesse James looks set to join Joss Whedon’s The Avengers as Hawkeye. Which makes you wonder — how deep into Avengers canon are we going here? Ant-Man and Wasp seem likely…what of Vision and Scarlet Witch?
When seeking out an immediate frame of reference for Nick Stoller’s enjoyably absurd, hard-R romp Get Him to the Greek, about the road trip misadventures of a hedonistic rock god and a well-meaning, long-suffering agent from his record label, you could easily place it within one of two recent traditions: The current surge in Men Behaving Badly burlesques (The Hangover, Hot Tub Time Machine) or among its fellow raunchy-sweet forays from the Team Apatow factory (Knocked Up, Superbad, Walk Hard.)
Of those two, I’d say Greek falls more agreeably into the latter than the former camp. (Probably no surprise — Apatow is a producer here, and he and Stoller go back to the days of Undeclared.) For all the rock-star depravity on display during this sordid bender of a road trip, the film feels smarter and less fratty than the Todd Phillips oeuvre. (As our Odd Couple race down a Vegas hallway to escape an amphetamine-fueled P Diddy: “This is the longest hallway of all time!” “It’s Kubrickian!“) And it keeps its aw-shucks Apatow humanism at heart even amid all the thoroughly reprehensible behavior — the binge-drinking, drug muling, public vomiting, green musing, threesomes, jeff-smoking, and whatnot. (In fact, Greek gets positively Lost Weekend-wistful at times, which is not a setting you saw much of in Old School.)
And amid the raunch, Greek also hearkens back to earlier influences. In its basic plot outline, this is sort of a remake of the Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker comedy My Favorite Year (a movie I saw multiple times growing up, since my grandfather loved it and it was kicking around the house on VHS back when videotapes were still a novelty.) And with its two industry men on a mission, its easy drug use and hero worship, its deft early wise-cracking about music video and celebrity culture, its absurdist pulse, and its ultimate fanboy fondness for all things rock-n-roll, Greek also reminded me of the under-appreciated Cusack-Robbins vehicle, Tapeheads — Aldous Snow, meet the Swanky Modes. (Spinal Tap is pretty obviously in the mix too.)
I should say on a note of full disclosure that Stoller’s brother is a friend and colleague of mine here in town, so I went into Greek predisposed to warm to it and enjoy myself. But, even if there wasn’t any personal connection, I’m pretty sure I would’ve been sold by the first ten minutes or so. After some mild concern that one has wandered into the wrong movie — we at first seem to be in Blood Diamond territory — it turns out we are in fact on the music video set for an atrocious (yet globally-conscious!) new single “African Child,” by ex-rock-god and frontman of Infant Sorrow Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, reprising his role from Forgetting Sarah Marshall.) Talking about his newest magnum opus to the interviewers about, Snow decidedly does not compare himself to an “African White Jesus from Outer Space.” (“Well, that’s for other people to say, really. That I remind them of Christ.“)
All the while, the crush-worthy, genre-friendly Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later), Sunshine) is vamping and skee-bopping around behind him as Snow’s girlfriend, international pop star Jackie Q — a vaguely cruel, often devastating send-up of, at various times, Lady Gaga, M.I.A., Lily Allen, and Alicia Keys. As with Hot Fuzz, this first ten minutes is so gleefully over-the-top and frontloaded with celebrity cameos that it gives you the sense that [a] folks had a great time making this movie and [b] pretty much anybody might show up over the course of this flick — a feeling compounded by the likes of Pharrell, Tom Felton (nee Draco Malfoy), and Paul Krugman popping up at various times throughout the ride.
Unfortunately for Aldous, “African Child” is very quickly deemed “the worst thing to happen to Africa since apartheid, and that — coupled with Jackie’s absconding away into the arms of Lars Ulrich (“Why don’t you go sue Napster, you little Danish twit!“) — sends him careening off the wagon and back into rock star excess. Enter Aaron Green (Jonah Hill, looking ever more like the late Chris Penn), an inveterate Infant Sorrow fan, now record label guy, who comes up with the grand idea of a tenth anniversary comeback concert for Aldous Snow at the Greek Theater. His tyrannical boss (P Diddy, funnier than you’d think) signs off on the gambit, and so Aaron is sent forth to London to acquire Snow for the gig. Kick up a rumpus, don’t lose the compass — but get him to the Greek on time…
And there you have it — The rest of the movie consists of Aaron going through all manner of hedonism and indignity to get Aldous Snow across the world, on stage, and in-the-zone. Over the duration, this dissolute duo bond, cavort, discuss their girl trouble, hide and remove things in sundry body cavities, and ingest enough drugs and alcohol to kill a small donkey. To be honest, the film does go shapeless at times, and it works best before [obvious spoiler] they reach their final destination city. (Without the road trip and ticking clock giving form to the tale, it feels like it rambles all over the place in the last twenty-five minutes or so.) And some of the characters — most notably Aaron’s sweet but overworked girlfriend Daphne — seem on the underwritten side (partly because she’s played by Elisabeth Moss of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce, and so we expect her to be given more to do.)
Still, in the end, the film works thanks to the chemistry and comic timing of its two leads, and Brand and Hill have both in spades. (So, for that matter, does the supporting cast — Byrne, Moss, Diddy, and the venerable Colm Meaney as Snow’s gone-Vegas pop.) Your mileage may vary, of course — this would be an easy movie to deem tasteless, and at times, it’s a hard argument to refute — but I still found Greek, like The Men Who Stare at Goats last year, a light, frothy, druggy and funny jaunt sustained by its amiable characters and smart, self-aware writing. Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk, it’s still rock and roll to me.
This may just seem like King-of-the-World hubris, but Cameron is a smart and demanding technical innovator who has spent a great deal of time over 25 years studying deep-sea technology.) I’d at least hear what he had to say. “‘The government really needs to have its own independent ability to go down there and image the site, survey the site and do its own investigation,’ he said. ‘Because if you’re not monitoring it independently, you’re asking the perpetrator to give you the video of the crime scene,’ Cameron added.“
“The SpeechNow decision effectively widens the field of organizations that can raise and spend money on politics more freely in light of the Citizens United decision, which swept aside decades of legislative restrictions on the role of corporations in political campaigns.“
The disaster on the Gulf isn’t the only gusher to worry about. Relying almost exclusively on Citizens United for their reasoning, the three-judge DC Court of Appeals struck down limits on individual contributions to advocacy groups last March, paving the way for even more cold hard cash overflowing the system. [FEC overview.] “The D.C. Circuit’s ruling was the first to apply and significantly expand [Citizens United], which invalidated limits on corporate expenditures in federal campaigns.“
I had heard very ominous rumblings about this hearing in the days after CU, but somehow missed that the actual decision had been handed down (Working as intended: It was dumped on a Friday) and only caught it on account of yesterday’s injunction. (Weirdly, there was no press release from CREW, Common Cause, or Public Citizen either, although PIRG was on the case.) The FEC does seem to be looking toward a Supreme Court appeal…but it’s hard to see that turning out very well, is it?
“On the global measure, people start out at age 18 feeling pretty good about themselves, and then, apparently, life begins to throw curve balls. They feel worse and worse until they hit 50. At that point, there is a sharp reversal, and people keep getting happier as they age. By the time they are 85, they are even more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.” Via the NYT, a new study finds older people tend to be the happiest among us.
“‘It could be that there are environmental changes,’ said Arthur A. Stone, the lead author of a new study based on the survey, ‘or it could be psychological changes about the way we view the world, or it could even be biological — for example brain chemistry or endocrine changes.’” My guess, from where I sit at 35 — perspective, a.k.a. wisdom. You don’t live to 85 by sweating the small stuff, and by then you probably have a pretty good sense of how things tend to shake out anyway.
Gee, I wonder why (and as if we need another crisis right now.) All the facts aren’t in yet on what happened — in international waters — yesterday on the humanitarian-aid flotilla headed to Gaza. But, right now Slate‘s Fred Kaplan seems to be on the right track: “Israel’s storming of the Mavi Marmara, killing at least nine Free Gaza activists and wounding several more, was an act of jaw-gaping stupidity–strategically and tactically, even leaving aside morally.“
And morally, there are obvious problems too. As Peter Beinart — continuing his recent heterodoxy — explained today: “[T]he embargo must be tight enough to keep the people of Gaza miserable, but not so tight that they starve…There’s a name for all this: collective punishment.” Also of note: today’s J-Street response: “This shocking outcome of an effort to bring humanitarian relief to the people of Gaza is in part a consequence of the ongoing, counterproductive Israeli blockade of Gaza…We urge President Obama and other international and regional leaders to take today’s terrible news as an opportunity to engage even more forcefully in immediate efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.“
I agree, and I hope our immediate actions in the wake of this flotilla fiasco (I feel like I’m using that word a lot lately, and yet it continually applies) — watering down the UN resolution and working the phones for Israel — are being done with an eye to the long game of bringing peace to the region, not just the usual, reflexive circling of the wagons.
In Foreign Policy, photojournalist Dulce Pinzon shares her photo collection of Mexican migrant workers dressed as superheroes. (Officially here.) “The principal objective of this series is to pay homage to these brave and determined men and women that somehow manage, without the help of any supernatural power, to withstand extreme conditions of labor in order to help their families and communities survive and prosper.”
“‘We believe this vaccine will someday be used to prevent breast cancer in adult women in the same way that vaccines prevent polio and measles in children,’ Vincent Tuohy, Ph.D., the study’s principal investigator and an immunologist at the Lerner Institute, told WOIO. ‘If it works in humans the way it works in mice, this will be monumental. We could eliminate breast cancer,’ he added.“
Some good news for the day: Scientists at the Cleveland Clinic believe they may have zeroed in on a vaccine for breast cancer. “The key, Tuohy said, is to find a target within the tumor that isn’t typically found in a healthy person. In the case of breast cancer, he and his team targeted a-lactalbumin, a protein found in the majority of breast cancers, but not in healthy women, except during lactation. Therefore, the vaccine can rev up a woman’s immune system to target a-lactalbumin, stopping tumor formation without damaging healthy breast tissue.”
“‘A suspect who has received and understood the Miranda warnings, and has not invoked his Miranda rights, waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to the police,’ Justice Kennedy wrote.‘” Breaking 5-4 along the usual lines — Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Scalia, and Kennedy in the majority — the Supreme Court determines Miranda rights must now be specifically invoked. “Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her first major dissent, said the decision ‘turns Miranda upside down’ and ‘bodes poorly for the fundamental principles that Miranda protects.’“
One important note: “The majority ruling is in line with the position taken by the Obama administration and Supreme Court nominee U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan. In December, she filed a brief on the side of Michigan prosecutors and argued that ‘the government need not prove that a suspect expressly waived his rights.’” And, given that this administration is currently working to rewrite Miranda to stop the terr’ists, I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised.
“When the moose attacked them, Hans knew the first thing he had to do was ‘taunt‘ and provoke the animal so that it would leave his sister alone and she could run to safety…Once Hans was a target, he remembered another skill he had picked up at level 30 in ‘World of Warcraft’ – he feigned death.“
Anyone who’s pugged more than twice in WoW knows the phenomenon of the “huntard” — the little kid who’s not-so-adept at handling his character (almost invariably hunters, and beast-master hunters at that.) Well, it’s not this kid: A 12-year-old Norwegian boy saves his sister from a moose by employing WoW tactics. (And if he managed to Tame Beast I’d be really impressed.)
In his commencement speech at Harvard over the weekend, former Justice David Souter lays out his judicial philosophy, and thumbs his nose at the originalists he recently sat alongside. “The meaning of facts arises elsewhere and its judicial perception turns on the experience of the judges, and on their ability to think from a point of view different from their own. Meaning comes from the capacity to see what is not in some simple, objective sense there on the printed page.” (Found by way of Politics Daily’s Andrew Cohen, who gushes about the speech here.)