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Archive for December, 2010

Silent Knight.

Cheer up, Bruce, it’s Christmas! Happy holidays to you and yours, from Berk, Bats, and GitM.

West, End, Girl.


When is the remake of a movie classic actually a good idea? When the brothers Coen are at the helm. (Let’s just say The Ladykillers is the exception that proves the rule.) Both laugh-out-loud funny and tinged with melancholy for the disappearing West, the brothers’ impressive adaptation of True Grit feels like the unearthing of a forgotten piece of Americana, and it makes the 1968 Charles Portis serial from which both movies are based feel as quintessential an American coming-of-age story as To Kill a Mockingbird. Whether you love, hate, are indifferent or just oblivious to the John Wayne-Kim Darby-Glen Campbell version of 1969, this is one remake that’s worth your time.

I should say that I haven’t seen the original movie, which I remember as more family-friendly and Old Yeller-ish than this version, since I was a kid — younger even than Mattie Ross, True Grit‘s 14-year-old protagonist. I do remember liking the film, and I’m pretty sure it was my first-ever exposure to John Wayne, Movie Star. (At the time, I had no idea that the Duke as Rooster Cogburn was basically stunt-casting.) Nor have I read the source material, so I really can’t tell you how faithful the Coens are being to Portis’ novel either (or for that matter, Night of the Hunter, which the brothers — and Carter Burwell’s score — apparently reference early and often in this film.)

Word is the brothers have gone the extra mile to keep Portis’ prose front and center in this version, and that may well be true. Still, there are more than enough wry conversations, colorful eccentrics, and sudden spurts of violence here to suggest that, at the very least, Portis is a spirtual ancestor and kindred spirit to the Coenverse. (Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Mattie seems to channel The Big Lebowski‘s Walter in one of her first scenes, when she complains about the high cost of burying her father, but the wandering frontier dentist in a bear suit had to have been a Coen creation, yes?)

In any case, in this telling of the tale, Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, a find) is considerably younger than Kim Darby was in 1969, and she, not Rooster, is the heart of the film. As True Grit begins, her father Frank lies dead in the Arkansas snow, shot down by a no-good lout named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who’s since gone on the lam in Cherokee territory. And since no one else seems to care, it falls to the young, headstrong, and remarkably worldly-wise Ms. Ross to make arrangements. That means paying for the funeral, putting her father’s things in order, and finding somebody to hunt down Chaney and bring him to justice. (“The wicked flee when none pursueth,” admonishes the title card by way of Proverbs 28:1. If Mattie gets her way, that won’t be a problem.)

And so, to track down her father’s killer, Mattie enlists the services of the meanest (and drunkest) US Marshall she can find — an ornery, one-eyed old cuss named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, leaving the Lebowski-ish affectations back at Encom.) Also along for the ride, on account of an earlier crime by Chaney down in Texas, is Mr. LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a well-meaning but slow-witted Ranger who’s at turns goofus and gallant. So, a little girl, an old drunk, and a nincompoop: It’s not exactly the most promising posse in the world, particularly once word comes that Chaney is hanging with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang (here played by Barry Pepper — a descendant?) Still, the codger may still have a few tricks up his sleeve yet, and, as she shows time and again, Mattie is nothing if not a force of will.

If you’ve seen the original film, you know the hunt for Chaney is mostly a chance for this posse to get to know each other over a series of conversations and episodic vignettes. And that’s how it plays out here, too, except both LaBoeuf and Cogburn are less heroic and more conflicted buffoons this time around, and Mattie has to figure out over the course of her travels if these two are — literally and figuratively — straight shooters. It’s a tough call: LaBoeuf can assuredly be a preening, condescending, and self-aggrandizing schmuck at times. And for every twinge of conscience Cogburn displays, he definitely has his darker side too, and especially once the bottle gets involved. (Just ask the Indian kids he sadistically pummels for taunting a mule.)

Mattie ultimately finds her quarry are multifaceted folk too — However mangled his teeth, Lucky Ned Pepper in particular has a weird streak of nobility about him. Heroes can be dastardly and villains can be chivalrous: It’s the type of real-life nuance that the Old West shows of Mattie’s later life, with their white hats and black hats, could never quite capture properly. And it’s one of the many truths she learns over the course of her occasionally harsh adventure — her coming-of-age in the last days of the West. (As the aforementioned ursine dentist attests, there are shades of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man here too.)

True Grit isn’t my favorite Coen movie. That remains Miller’s Crossing. And it’s not my second favorite Coen either — There, the Dude still abides. But like No Country, A Serious Man, and Fargo, True Grit — even after only one viewing — seems like another top-shelfer from the brothers and one of the best films of the year. May they continue to ride high.

After Hobbits, Easterlings.

Along with modern humans, scientists knew about the Neanderthals and a dwarf human species found on the Indonesian island of Flores nicknamed The Hobbit. To this list, experts must now add the Denisovans.” Researchers discover evidence of a fourth separate species of ancient man in the caves of Siberia. “The implications of the finding have been described by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London as ‘nothing short of sensational… [W]e didn’t know how ancient people in China related to these other humans.‘”

Festival of Lights.

Uh, did anybody see the movie Tron? No. No. No. No! No. No. No. No. Yes…I mean No. I mean Yes! In fact, I have also now seen Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, and I gotta say, despite a rather tepid reception from both critics and fans, I actually quite enjoyed myself at this film.

I know, I know: After just feeling lukewarm about a universally praised movie like The King’s Speech, and now saying nice things about this so-so-reviewed film, I may be heading deep into Armond White territory for the past weekend. And, inasmuch as you can evaluate them empirically, Speech is probably a better film. Still, despite its often dopey plotting and the exposition bomb that derails the movie in its middle third, I had a grand time at Tron: Legacy. The film has definite problems, sure, but it looks and sounds great. (Daft Punk are easily the MVPs of this enterprise.) And, basically, it’s as good a movie as we had any right to expect for a sequel to a 28-year-old Disney film involving neon frisbee fights.

The thing about the original Tron, and I’ll probably catch flak in some circles for saying this, is that while it’s an interesting, even ground-breaking movie in its time in both story (it’s The Matrix before the internet) and FX (early, rudimentary CGI), it’s still not a particularly good film. I bought the DVD several years ago and was dismayed to discover that, David Warner’s villainous Dillinger notwithstanding, Tron didn’t really hold up to the warm glow of nostalgia I had suffused it with — The ideas work a lot better than the execution. (When I uncorked it again earlier this week and watched the first half-hour or so, I had basically the same reaction.)

With that in mind, I basically went into Tron: Legacy expecting not much more than a fetching, futuristic two-hour Daft Punk video. And, y’know, that’s basically what I got. Particularly in the first hour or so, when our hero Sam Flynn (Garret Hedlund, bland but passable) finds himself immersed in the 2.0 versions of the original movie’s gladiator games — the discs, lightcycles, and whatnot — Tron: Legacy delivers exactly the neon-lit, 200 bpm, raver-kid spectacle I was looking for from this flick. True, the story is all over the place, even early on. But watching Jeff Bridges goofily channel his inner Obi-Wan, or seeing Rinzler — the Big Bad’s acrobatic, twin-disced #2 — steal every trick out of the Darth Maul-Boba Fett “cool henchman” playbook is a thrill all its own. Sure it’s blatant pandering to the fanboy crowd, but it gets the job done.

This is not to say Tron: Legacy doesn’t have problems. Right about the time Jeff Bridges and Olivia Wilde first show up, this once-propulsive movie pulls into an expository gas station and stops dead for a good twenty minutes, while Kosinski et al try desperately to prime the story with deeper meaning: Bridges’ Flynn is the Creator of this realm. His first and most important creation, Clu (CGI-Jeff Bridges), has now turned against him. His Son — Son of Flynn! — has just shown up…I think you see where this is going. (The edgiest thing Tron: Legacy does here is to make the new lifeforms in the Tron-world — “Iso’s” — spontaneously generated, a.k.a. an accident of “biochemical jazz.” When you extend the metaphor, that makes humankind also a happy accident rather than divinely inspired…not that anyone but fan-folk are going to dissect the theological implications of this movie anyway.)

So, these are all intriguing ideas, but — as in the original film — they are somewhat hamhandedly introduced, and they all basically boil down to establishing the Maguffins that will get us through the rest of the picture. (“We need to get to the Portal!” “Don’t let Clu get the Disk!”) By the time Michael Sheen shows up soon thereafter as an egregiously over-the-top (apparently by design) nightclub owner, the movie’s recently-coined mythology is already severely confused, and the plot is barely even trying to hang together anymore. Why did Sam need “Zuse” to hop on a solar sail? What powers does Flynn possess in this world again? (To be fair, they were ill-defined in the first film also.) What is Castor on, exactly, and where can I get me some of that? The movie is getting to be a mess at this point, but…hey, look, it’s Daft Punk! And some Matrix-y ass-kicking to a electroglitch bounce!

By the third act, you’ll either have to allow Tron: Legacy its increasing plot absurdities or check out of the ride completely: Why can’t Clu and his Leni Riefenstahl army just jump through the Portal without this all-important Disk? Is that army really big enough to take over the world anyway? (It reminded me of Douglas Adams’ G’Gugvunntt battle fleet, who due to “a terrible miscalculation of scale” ended up getting eaten by a small dog.) And what got into ole Rinzler there? That seemed terribly convenient.

I can’t really defend the movie here — It’s loud and flashy and more than a little derivative of various moments in Star Wars (cf. Lando, the TIE fighter attack, the aforementioned Obi-Wan and Fett.) But, for whatever reason, I was perfectly happy to bask in the production design and score — and Jeff Bridges clearly having fun as a Zen Sensei –and just let the more ridiculous elements of the movie slide.

Did the world really need a sequel to Tron? No, probably not. But this film does decent justice to its goofier-than-remembered progenitor. And even if it doesn’t reach the level of its ambitions, it’s a perfectly entertaining event film that at least gets its 3D-thrill-ride aspects right. So I’d be up for another outing in the Tron-verse, particularly if they find more to do with Bruce Boxleitner and bring back Daft Punk (and, for that matter, the MCP. There has to be some reason Cillian Murphy was waiting in the wings…)

Everything’s Bigger in Texas.



The westward movement of the U.S. population means six districts in states that went for Obama will shift to states that went for McCain — a small but significant shift that could help a GOP presidential candidate in 2012, provided they can hold those states for the party.

The US Census Bureau announces the newly-reapportioned electoral map for 2010, and it shows electoral gains for (blue areas in) red states and the Northeast and Midwest diminishing (in growth rate, at least. The only state to actually lose people was Michigan.) Since the GOP will by and large control the redistricting process in most states, this is further bad news for Dems in the short term. Nonetheless, the overall demographic trends are still working in our favor.

In related news, Robert Cruickshank makes the modest proposal of removing the 435-member cap on the House, first passed in 1929. “In the 1930 Census, which found a population of just over 122 million, this produced 435 House districts of about 282,000 each. By 2012, however, a US House district in a state with more than 1 seat will represent about 708,000 people. That’s an increase of 2260% from 1790.

Neutral No Longer.

The message: the FCC Chairman caved to the most powerful interests and is adopting a rule that may end the Internet’s historic openness to all software and content as a level playing field. This will undermine the Internet’s role in as an engine of economic innovation and democratic participation. The rule was written by and for the giants like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, who are cheering the rule. And the FCC Chairman is trying to fool the public into believing they should thank him.

After earlier explaining why the FCC’s compromise(d) stance was “garbage”, Marvin Ammori laments Julius Genachowski’s sad sell-out on net neutrality. While the president is claiming victory here — it does, after all, follow the “solomonic or moronic” splitting-the-baby approach he likes to bring to every issue — everything you need to know about it is summed up in one sentence in Wired: “There was one group, however, which seemed content with the new rules: the nation’s cable and telecommunications companies, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.

Talking Monarch Blues.

Part monarchical bromance, part speech impediment Rocky, Tom Hooper’s impressive if Oscar Bait-y The King’s Speech — about King George VI of England’s attempts to overcome his debilitating stammer — is, in its own way, as edutaining and well-made a recent royal micro-history as the film concerning his daughter, Stephen Frear’s The Queen. The acting is on point, the writing is keenly-observed, the direction is crisp and well-paced, and if Colin Firth gets a Best Actor Oscar for this to make up for his A Single Man loss (much like Jim Broadbent won for Iris after being overlooked for Moulin Rouge), well, no harm, no foul.

The point being, if in doubt, go see this film. You probably know if this sort of thing — a BBC-ish historical production with a feel-good, sports-movie narrative arc — is your cup of tea, and if it is, have at it, good fellow. Still, chalk it up to haters gonna hate, but I left the theater feeling a little underwhelmed by The King’s Speech. Yes, it is well-made. But it also didn’t do anything that surprised me — wait, so Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist is both wacky AND wise? Irreverent AND endearing? What a delightful combination! — and I ultimately found the stakes to be rather small.

The film opens in October of 1925, as the shy, discomfited Duke of York, Prince Albert (Firth), waits within the bowels of Wembley Stadium with his doting wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Third in line to the throne behind his father the King (Michael Gambon) and his rapscallion brother David (Guy Pearce), the Duke is about to deliver an address — to be broadcast worldwide — at the closing ceremony of the British Empire Exhibition. This, alas, he bombs painfully: Albert’s pitiful, strangulated attempts to overcome his stammer make the speech a chore for speaker and millions of listeners alike.

Cut to a decade later, and the poor prince is still prisoner to his unruly glottis. And so, with the Duke at the end of his rope, Elizabeth (who we know better as the beloved “Queen Mum.”) seeks out some aid from a commoner who’s ostensibly trained in the arts of speech therapy, one Lionel Logue (Rush). An Australian transplant to the isles, Lionel is a congenial family man far removed from the etiquette and ostentation of the Crown: The closest he’s ever gotten to royalty is his well-reviewed portrayal of Richard III — another “rudely-stamped” Duke of York, as it happens — back in Perth. But is it possible this scampish, egalitarian therapist has the wisdom and the potential to break through to the future king where others have failed? Gee, you think?

I don’t want to make light of Prince Albert’s stammer, because it seems like a cruel fate indeed for a man born into a family business of speechifying to be afflicted with such a curse. (And Firth does a great job of conveying the sheer horror of it all. At any moment, you can see his fear that he might once again be betrayed by his tongue.) Still, perhaps it speaks to a failure of empathy on my part — I usually do well on the Voight-Kampff, I swear — but the question of whether or not an extraordinarily wealthy and catered-for man can manage to overcome his embarrassing speech impediment was not one I found all that engaging in the end. (This is sorta the same problem I have with Sofia Coppola films, and I fear Somewhere will be no exception.)

It seems the writers recognize the problem here, so to square that circle they invoke the encroaching thunder of World War II. Albert (later George, of course) is more and more explicitly contrasted with that eloquent demon on the Continent, Adolf Hitler, who is mustering a frightful army by virtue of his silver tongue. How will England’s monarch be able to stand against the wrath of Nazi Germany, if he too is not possessed of royal gravitas and a kingly p-p-p-p-poker face? Well, ok, that does raise the stakes some, and, yes, from his decision to stay in London during the Blitz to his 1939 Christmas speech (not featured in the film), the dignity and fortitude of King George VI was indeed a rallying point for his people during the Second Great War.

Still, from watching this movie you’d never get the sense that John Bull already has a great orator in his pocket, in Winston Churchill. (Here, Timothy Spall, who sadly comes off like a guy in a Halloween costume.) At the end of the day, it’s Churchill’s speeches — “their finest hour, “blood, toil, tears, ands sweat,” “we shall fight on the beaches” — that stand the test of time, which, for all its good intentions and attention to craft, makes the central tale in The King’s Speech feel like even more of an historical footnote. (And, as Dangerous Meta points out, Churchil himself was a stammerer. That’s mentioned briefly in the movie, but perhaps not given as much due as it could’ve been.)

In the end, though, the question of stakes is less important than the nagging suspicion throughout The King’s Speech that it was basically just a sports movie for the Merchant-Ivory crowd. There may be a Big Speech at the end instead of a Big Game, but we’re still playing in the same old ballpark. We even have a training montage at one point.

Speech is very well put together to be sure, and if this genre speaks to you then do go see it. Still, I left the theater feeling like I’d seen this exact same sort of tale — adversity overcome with determination and the aid of a kooky-but-wise mentor — way too many times before. Adding British accents, and a stammering one at that, doesn’t really change the tried-and-true Rocky/Remember the Titans/Great Debaters equation at work here in the end.

Song of the South.

Here was the Delta Republicans’ historic task: negotiating terms of surrender to the Constitution, then reframing that Lost Cause as honorable, the better to preserve their insular plutocracy — perhaps their gravest sin in the first place — in order to integrate themselves more snugly into national and international circuits of corrupt wealth. Haley Barbour, who received his first Republican patronage job in 1970, is a true son of this confederacy.

In the wake of Haley Barbour’s highly dubious misremembering of civil-rights era Mississippi, historian Rick Perlstein skewers the GOP poobah and presidential hopeful to the wall. “At every important turn in the story, Barbour emphasizes how little he remembers of this most intense period imaginable in his beloved home town — it really was no big deal, he insists…He’s a middle-aged Southern conservative. That is what his job is: to opportunistically ‘forget.‘”

Venetian Grind.

Let’s get right down to brass tacks: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist, his major studio follow-up to The Lives of Others (#11 on the decade list) is brazenly, woefully, blog-stoppingly awful. I’m serious — this movie is terribad. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt the urge to get up and leave in the middle of a film so strongly (and that’s something I never do, because if I break that seal, it’ll be katy bar the door from then on.) But it’s probably just as well I stayed, since pretty soon thereafter I got the 21 Grams giggles to carry me through this canal of Venetian drek.

So, oof, where to begin? It sounds like von Donnersmarck was mostly a hired gun for an already-troubled production here, so let’s give him a pass to start. (Sam Worthington, Charlize Theron, and Tom Cruise — who mined similar material this year in the considerably better Knight & Day — were all attached as stars at various points, and director Alfonso Cuaron was rumored to be replacing von Donnersmarck when he tried to walk away early on.) So how about the two leads? Angelina Jolie is one of the world’s great beauties, and Johnny Depp is no slouch in the heartthrob department either. But, here, she looks cadaverous, he looks paunchy, and together they have zero chemistry whatsoever.

I’ve long thought that Depp is one of our best working actors, but it has to be said — After two dismal Pirates sequels, he’s now been front and center in two of 2010’s worst bombs, this and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. And after seeing Depp play so many weird parts over the years, one has to wonder if he’s now like butter scraped over too much bread: Maybe he just can’t do normal anymore. (But now that I think about it, has Depp ever played a convincing “normal” romantic lead? Benny & Joon, maybe? Gilbert Grape?)

Anyway, Depp’s character — Wisconsin widower and schoolteacher Frank Tupelo — is meant to be just an average guy in over his head, unwittingly caught up in a spy drama as The Wrong Man. (Jolie’s character picks him at random on a train to be a mark for the Interpol-types following her.) But Depp seemingly can’t help but play Frank as all twitchy and affected. He speaks with Hunter Thompson cadences half the time and eyes his surroundings — and his co-star, for that matter — like it or she are going to sprout wings any moment. He can’t even sip his nightcap without Jack-Sparrowing his way through it. “Hey, look, a beverage! In my hand! I shall drink it! Ooh, it kicks!

And then there’s Jolie, who also seems bored throughout (and who has her own 2010 sins to atone for in Salt.) For one, Jolie and Depp definitely don’t seem to like each other very much: There’s no romantic spark between them at all. (So much for “tourist attraction.”) But the main problem here is they’ve given her character — Elise Clifton-Ward, beautiful femme fatale with a hidden agenda — a British accent. Now, Jolie can either act or do the accent, but, for whatever reason, she pretty clearly can’t do both at the same time. (And, as you’ll see if you somehow end up watching this disaster, she definitely can’t act, do the accent, and drive a boat.)

And so most of the movie Jolie just seems very far away, a cold neutron star. Her sheer presence can overpower a film sometimes — say, her turn as Matt Damon’s crazy wife in The Good Shepherd. But, here, any spark of personality, wit, or warmth is quickly snuffed out by her stultifyingly bad impression of an English person. It’s like the prom queen somehow got roped into performing in the high-school production of Oliver Twist, and she’s just going through the motions so it won’t negatively affect her cred.

So Jolie and Depp are definitely a drag on the material. But, to be honest, it’s hard to imagine a different set of A-list stars with real romantic chemistry — say, I dunno, George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones — pulling off this film either. Some fetching images of Venetian splendor notwithstanding, there’s just no there there. The Tourist moves at a snail’s pace for most of its run, and not in a contemplative Eurofilm way like The American. And more often than not, the movie makes no sense.

To take a few examples: Frank finds himself running from Russian mobsters but doesn’t think to change his appearance in any way. (Here’s a tip — lose the Jack Sparrow ‘do.)The Big Bad dispatches his minions in such an over-the-top Bondian manner that nobody would ever actually work for the guy (although that might explain why said Russian goons can’t hit the broad side of a barn.) And there’s a ridiculous third-act twist which many will see coming within the first five minutes of the movie. But just because you see it coming doesn’t make it plausible.

Granted, these are the type of foibles and Scooby Doo logic you might forgive in a more enjoyable film. But with nothing to latch onto here for entertainment value, they stick out like a sore thumb. So, is there anything good about The Tourist? Well, the movie does feature a cast of obviously European actors, which gives it more of a sense of place than your average studio film. And it starts out with a surveillance scene, which made me think fondly of The Lives of Others for a few beats at the start. Um…Timothy Dalton’s in it, so that’s cool, I guess. (He fares slightly better than poor Paul Bettany, who’s stuck with the clueless inspector role.)

But that’s about it, really. Make no mistake: This is a bad, bad film. Mr. von Donnersmarck, Mr. Depp, Ms. Jolie: Let us never speak of this trip again.

Omsbudsdog Emeritus

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