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Jason Isaacs

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2013 in Film.

A very happy 2014 to you and yours. As always, there are a few 2013 movies I’d still like to catch up on (The Act of Killing, Fruitvale Station, The Great Beauty, The Grandmaster, Short Term 12) and a few others waiting to be watched on the Netflix machine (Warm Bodies, Kon-Tiki, Berberian Sound Studio.) Nonetheless, a new year means it’s time for the annual GitM movie round-up, and 2013 isn’t getting any closer in the rear-view.

Like last year, I’ve gone on longer than usual to make up for the lack of reviews throughout the year. Overall, I’d say that, in spite of a disconcertingly bland summer full of films that needed major rewrites, 2013 ended up yielding a surprisingly bumper crop at the movies, as good as last year’s fare and arguably the deepest year since 2007. So without further ado, let’s get to the…

Top 25 Films of 2013
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/The Oughts]

1. 12 Years a Slave: As someone who was underwhelmed by Hunger and outright hated Shame, I was as surprised as anyone that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave turned out to be the movie of the year. But as it happened, McQueen’s penchant for cold, painterly compositions of suffering and depravity was a perfect fit for this harrowing descent into America’s peculiar institution.

With all due respect to Michael Fassbender’s turn as the dissolute sadist Edwin Epps, the better performances in 12 Years a Slave are underplayed. As Solomon Northrop, Chiwetel Ejiofor — who first showed he had star wattage to spare ten years ago in Dirty Pretty Things — obviously carries the weight of the film, and he manages to subtly convey his character’s determination losing out to despair. Sarah Paulson’s work may not be as showy here as that of the Bender of Fass, but she is just as effective at illustrating the way antebellum slavery warped the mindset of the master class. (As the Cumber of Batch vignette points out, even a benevolent tyrant is still a tyrant.)

And, in a powerful cameo, moving about and berating his room of wares with a heartless dispatch, Paul Giamatti chillingly captures the cruelty and obscenity of the slave trade, in which children become commodities and family ties a nuisance to be overcome. (If the film’s producer, Brad Pitt, really wanted to make a bold statement, he’d have switched roles with Giamatti — As it is, his white savior turn here is the only real misstep in the movie.)

Obviously, this film is a hard watch at times, but, doggone it, it should be. After decades of dancing around the topic in anything from Gone with the Wind to Gods and Generals — even last year’s revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, mitigated the real horrors of slavery by giving its title character so much agency — 12 Years a Slave offers a steady, unblinking gaze at the underbelly of our republic, and underscores the grim reality so often obscured by our founding fictions: Only a century and a half ago, a great and terrible darkness festered in our erstwhile land of liberty, and its ramifications did not just disappear at Appomattox. If the audience ends up feeling like Pippen holding the palantir at more than a few moments throughout this tale, well that’s the point. Our past is complicated, and it’s time we did a better job of recognizing it.

2. Before Midnight: Speaking of truths that hurt, Richard Linklater’s third stanza in the ballad of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) captures another dark and fundamental one: However potent at first, love can be a tricky business after awhile. As I said in the Best of the Oughts list (where Before Sunset clocked in at #8), I can take or leave Before Sunrise — I saw it at an age when I was already far too cynical for it — but adored Before Sunset, and that’s still probably my favorite of the three. But Midnight is right up there, and I really admire Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy’s decision to take us into colder, murkier waters this time.

True, the first hour of this movie can seem a little unfocused: I didn’t mind spending all that time at a dinner party with characters we’ve never met, but it made the film feel a bit more like Linklater’s Slacker or Waking Life, both of which are given to a lot of random philosophical musing at the expense of forward momentum. But when Jesse and Celine go off for a walk by themselves, the movie starts to click again. And the last forty minutes or so are absolutely electric, as [spoiler] our two former lovebirds, ostensibly spending a romantic evening at a couple’s hotel, instead find themselves engaged in a knock-down, drag-out Airing of the Grievances that will ring all-too-true to anyone’s who ever been in a long-term relationship, on the rocks or otherwise.

Instead of giving us anything like a feel-good rom-com this time around (and seemingly much to the horror of some of the dumbstruck-looking couples at my showing…oof, Date Night Fail) — Before Midnight opts for a much more realistic and unflinching portrayal of a romance that, over the years, has accumulated its share of fractures, bruises, and silences. I’m not sure where the story goes from here, but definitely count me in for Before Noon in 2022.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis: “If I had wings like Noah’s dove, I’d fly the river to the one that I love.” Given the confluence of the Coens and the Sixties folk revival here, this always seemed like a good bet to be one of my top movies of the year. As it happened, I did really like Llewyn Davis — but it’s also both a pricklier and jauntier film than I originally expected.

Even by Coen standards, the film has very little plot to speak of. We just follow Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, like Ejiofor another actor who’s been turning in excellent character work over the years) a folk singer as talented as he is unlucky and self-defeating, as he shambles around New York — playing gigs at the Gaslight, herding cats, and generally trying to stay afloat in the pre-Dylan scene. This is partly like the story of Dave Van Ronk, whose autobiography the Coens began with, and partly another artist-adrift-in-the-world-of-commerce story akin to Barton Fink — except, this time, Llewyn probably actually deserves to make it.

Especially in the random escapade to Chicago in the middle of the film, you get the sense that the Coens had no real interest in telling a traditional story here. Carey Mulligan (who, as it happens, played Oscar Isaac’s wife in Drive) starts out seeming like an important character and then just fades into that beautifully nostalgic freewheelin’ mist that permeates the look of the film. Other actors — Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham — appear for a few bars and move on.

I suppose the aimlessness of Llewyn could rankle. (One of my gradual school friends has a great theory about this – Llewyn Davis is folk-song as movie, with a deliberately elliptical structure and repeated refrains.) But I myself loved the look and feel of this film (the quality folk renditions don’t hurt either), and I appreciated its basic folk-song conceit: Sometimes, Hard Times are just a fact of life. If Llewyn was operating only a year or two later, he’d be a beneficiary of the Dylan boom (or, at the very least, a Phil Ochs type figure.) As it is, he’s just a unlucky soul, doing what he does best even while likely going under for the final time. I can’t wait to see this movie again, and to see what the Coens have up their sleeves next.

4. The World’s End: In a summer of way too many dumb and bloated duds, Edgar Wright’s third chapter in the Cornetto Trilogy was very welcome counter-programming, and a smart, winsome night out with the lads. Of course, any time you have pros like Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Bill Nighy working in your ensemble, the final product should come out rather droll indeed. Still, this was one of the most purely pleasurable films of the year, and props to Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for crafting a film that felt fresh even while mining similar territory as their previous installments, Shaun of the Dead (folks being frightfully British in the face of robot/zombie hordes) and Hot Fuzz (strange things afoot, and the elders up to no good, in a wee English village.)

5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: At last, the Incident with the Dragon. This is actually the lowest any of PJ’s Middle Earth films have ever been on a year-end list, which is partly due to the strength of the movies already mentioned, and partly because this was the first time in five films that I felt like Jackson et al have lost the thread a bit.

Bilbo facing Smaug in a Game of Wits is the climactic confrontation of this entire story, but here its impact is diminished considerably by (a) the movie suddenly cutting to Legolas squaring off against a made-up end-boss Orc and (b) a long and contrived scheme, right out of Alien 3, whereby Thorin and the dwarves try to confuse the Old Wyrm with a large golden statue of Durin. This plan not only robs Smaug of menace by making him seem like a blind idiot. (Smaug the Terrible, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, can’t manage to squash a single measly dwarf?) It’s another setpiece, not unlike the barrel ride earlier in the film and the escape from the goblin tunnels in An Unexpected Journey, where video game physics have completely taken hold of the picture. (It’s “The Desolation of Mario,” as one wag put it.)

So why is this still way up at #5? Well, I still relish being in Middle Earth, the occasional cartoony antics notwithstanding, and there’s a lot to like here, from Martin Freeman’s Bilbo to the hallucinations and spiders of Mirkwood to Gandalf at Dol Guldur to the character design of Benny CumberSmaug. I could have done without the Team Legolas/Team Kili stuff, but Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel is otherwise a solid addition to the saga. And I just have a soft spot for these films — here’s hoping the third film doesn’t drift too far afield into fan fiction.

6. Gravity: [Spoilers in this review] Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is up this high because it (along with Smaug) was the purest eye candy of the year — just a breathtakingly beautiful film at times, and well worth the extra price for IMAX 3D. (It’s also easily the best of the three space-mission-gone-wrong movies in 2013, though Europa Report isn’t half-bad.)

Unfortunately Gravity was also, let’s face it, schmaltzy as all hell — I wish Cuaron had had enough trust in his story and audience to forego, for example, cornball conversations about Bullock’s lost kid. And, even notwithstanding how close all the space stations are to each other here (a plot point I can forgive even though it too is absurd), the ultimate fate of Clooney’s endlessly jabbering astronaut is just a gross violation of basic physics. (And moving from the impossible to the improbable, I’d have been less annoyed by the end if Bullock had splashed down in the middle of nowhere, instead of twenty feet from paradise.)

All that being said, did I mention this film is beautiful? The space walk stuff alone would put it in the top ten.

7. All is Lost: Still, I really wish Gravity had taken a few pages from another memorable survivor story of 2013, J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost. (Although to be fair, sailors apparently have gripes about this one also.) We never really find out anything about Robert Redford’s backstory in this movie, except that he’s 1%’er enough to own a spiffy yacht and curmudgeonly enough to be sailing it alone in the Indian Ocean. And, after a scene-setting monologue at the beginning, Redford (“Our Man”) barely says a word in this movie. Instead, his character is defined entirely by his actions, and the film’s considerable suspense comes. not from lathering on excess sentimentality like a paste, but merely from seeing a fellow human in a very bad situation, and witnessing an almost primal retelling of the Old Man and the Sea.

8. American Hustle: I feel like, the significantly overpraised Silver Linings Playbooks notwithstanding, David O. Russell’s movies usually come in around the 7 or 8 spot every year, and American Hustle is no exception. Well-made, well-acted, well-written, Hustle is an engaging and entertaining Who’s-Conning-Who story of New Jersey grifters, set against the real-life story of Abscam and a healthy smattering of Seventies glitz. With strong work across the board (and from Christian Bale and Amy Adams in particular), Hustle also happens to contain the first honest-to-goodness performance I’ve seen from Robert DeNiro since…I dunno, Casino? In any case, well worth seeing.

9. Captain Phillips: Paul Greengrass had also a mulligan with Green Zone, but he’s another director who can be reliably trusted to deliver quality, and Captain Phillips — give or take ten clunky and moralizing minutes at the beginning — is no exception. Like the more resonant United 93, this is another gripping You Are There dramatization of a recent Bad Day on Earth, and like that earlier film, Greengrass makes sure to humanize and contextualize the bad guys — this time, the Somali pirates who are basically plying the only trade available to them.

As per De Niro above, it’s also good to see Tom Hanks giving a real performance here, and not just phoning it in or coasting on his star power. Apparently, he attributes it to his recent experience in last year’s Cloud Atlas, which marks another way that film, an interesting failure, is underappreciated.

10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: He’s not a Russell or a Greengrass, but Francis Lawrence is another director who tends to make genre films — for example, I am Legend and Constantine — that are better than you’d expect them to be. And despite the fact that he’s operating from a more unwieldy book — I have no idea how they’re going to wrest two more blockbuster films out of Collins’ strange, admirably downbeat Mockingjay — Lawrence’s Catching Fire is a more immersive experience than the first Hunger Games movie, which, all apologies to Gary Ross, felt rote and by-the-numbers.

Did I love Catching Fire? No, not really – It hit at about the level of the later Harry Potter films. But much like the movie I have in the “most unfairly maligned” box below, I think you’d be hard-pressed to craft a better film from the source material, particularly given the constraint of continuing with the same actors from the first one. (I know Jennifer Lawrence is America’s sweetheart or whatever, but imho she’s still miscast here. Just because she was in Winter’s Bone doesn’t make her a perfect Katniss.) And, in any event, it’s great fun to see pros like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer work their way into the Panem proceedings.

11. Nebraska: Like the next film on this list, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is an auteur movie I admired but didn’t necessarily engage with. This all feels a bit like deja vu, partly because of similarly-themed road trips like The Straight Story, but more because Payne seems to be covering a lot of the same ground here that he did in About Schmidt, from June Squibb not taking any guff to the goofy, to the point of being uncharitable, extended family of the main character. (Jack Nicholson had to contend with Dermot Mulroney and his mullet; Now it’s Bruce Dern and Will Forte versus two greedy ex-jailbird twins. There’s also elements of The Descendants here, with Forte and George Clooney both discovering secrets about their loved ones after they become their caretakers.)

Still, with its storefront facades crumbling in luscious black-and-white, Nebraska works best as a gentle and elegaic reflection on the passing of a certain kind of small-town, 20th century America — this is probably the most sympathetic argument you’ll find for the Tea Party vision of the USA — and a reminder, a la “That Was Your Mother”, that your parents and grandparents had their own lives that you, as their kids, will never fully “get.” And if nothing else, it’s nice to see Bruce Dern, who’s put in fifty years of solid character work now, get this kind of extended curtain call.

12. Her: I admittedly had stratospheric hopes for Spike Jonze’ Her, which has been billed as a direct descendant of my favorite movie of last decade, Eternal Sunshine. And, well, I really liked the near-future sheen of the production — its light satire of current media, its slightly-out-of-step fashions, and especially its gorgeous hybrid Los Angeles-Shanghai cityscape. This is an artful and mostly well-thought-out piece of science fiction, made with delicacy and driven by ideas rather than special effects, and that’s always welcome.

But as a love story? Er….not so much. Put aside the criticism that this is a movie about Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore in love with a box, although I can definitely see why that’d be a dealkiller for some. Even if you accept the science fiction here, and allow that Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha is her own free-thinking entity, the vision of love being offered here is basically one never-ending phone call, where both people are constantly talking about their feelings. That’s true love? That…sounds exhausting. (Ask anyone I’ve ever dated – I’m not one for the phone. I text or e-mail.)

Not to say that true romance has to have a physical component, although in my experience it definitely helps. (And speaking of Samantha constantly lamenting her lack of physical form, I call shenanigans on the idea that civilization will somehow develop true AI before creepy love robots, but I digress.) To me, romance is also about simply experiencing things together — movies, music, dinner, travel, in-jokes. I suppose there’s some of that in Her – Theodore and his OS go to the beach and whatnot, but much more often it just seems to be a constant state-of-the-relationship phone call. No thanks.

Put another way, Her ends up being a lot like the fake letters that Theodore (rather improbably) writes for a living: An impeccably crafted simulacrum of romantic connection, Her relies on constant professions of feeling to cover up the fact that it’s really just a well-made artifice.

13. Spring Breakers: Along with survival stories and harrowing space missions, another trend of 2013 were films that used either Youths Gone Wild and/or beach-ready hardbodies as a metaphor for the contemporary (and sickly) American Dream: See, for example, The Bling Ring, Pain and Gain, The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Don Jon. Of these, the best was, strangely enough, Harmony Korine’s hallucinatory bacchanal, Spring Breakers — a movie that sticks in your head like gum on your shoe.

Spring Breakers is undoubtedly inchoate and repetitive, and it can’t seem to decide if it wants to revel in trashiness, send it up, or go dumpster-diving for the lost innocence underneath. (Watch James Franco and his muses croon Britney Spears’ “Everytime” and tell me what you think.) But there still seems to be a method to the madness. Basically, this is Fear and Loathing in St. Petersburg, a savage and surreal journey into one of America’s playgrounds of frenetic excess, and James Franco is our Raoul Duke. “Spreng brayyke, Spreng brAYYke, forever.”

14. Upstream Color: And speaking of hallucinatory and surreal journeys, Shane Carruth returned from his extended post-Primer hiatus to bring us this bizarre, intermittently captivating disquisition on love in the time of possession by parasites and animal-human hybrids. (Hey, if Joaquin Phoenix can adore an iPhone, why can’t Amy Seimetz and Carruth find fulfillment in their respective ManBearPigs?)

Like Primer, Upstream Color is mostly inscrutable the first time around — if it helps, I can tell you mindworms, acoustics, and pig daemons are involved — and I can see people just finding it pretentious and annoying. But, for what it’s worth, I found segments of Upstream Color evocative and entrancing, even if I had no clue what was going on. Sometimes you just go along for the ride.

15. Prisoners: [Spoilers in this review] It’s been awhile — Sunshine, maybe? — since I’ve seen an otherwise excellent movie crash and burn so miserably in the last reel like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. For the first two hours or so, this film — a story of missing children and their bereft parents, who have their eye on an all-too-likely suspect — is a powerful police procedural and grim disquisition on vigilantism that burns slowly and intensely. If it had ended earlier (and differently), Prisoners would be a top 10 film this year, and could plausibly be mentioned in the same conversation as, say, Mystic River, Zodiac, and even In the Bedroom.

That being said, I got a bad feeling when, late in the movie, suitcases full of snakes suddenly enter the investigation. And, sure enough, soon thereafter, an individual who had only been conspicuously cast up to that point (a la Stellan Skarsgard in the Dragon Tattoo remake) suddenly starts chewing scenery like one of the redneck family from The X-Files, and what had seemed a thoughtful exercise about the agony of un-knowing suddenly becomes a half-baked retread of The Vanishing. Alas, until that last-minute lurch, Prisoners was quite a good film, with Hugh Jackman particularly memorable as a father whose berserker rage would make Wolverine blanch.

16. Iron Man 3: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, which came out the first week of May, looks like an even better film in retrospect, given how many tentpoles stumbled later in the summer. While not as engaging as 2012’s The Avengers, it’s clearly an improvement on Tony Stark’s botched second adventure, and closer to the quality of the first one. And while I don’t want to spoil the (now contentious in fanboy circles) big twist, I actually loved being blindsided by it: Black basically used comic book folks’ foreknowledge against us, and, under everyone’s noses, pulled off a clever switcheroo that also works as very dark political satire. Well-played.

17. The Great Gatsby: Well, to be fair, F. Scott Fitzgerald did call it “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” In 3D, Baz Luhrmann’s overstuffed, overlong adaptation of The Great Gatsby is like too-rich chocolate cake — It’s fun for awhile, until you start to feel a little sickly. But that’s also sort of the point of the book, so this adaptation also works in a meta-fashion. In any event, I quite enjoyed this ludicrously busy film for about 45 minutes or so, but began to check out when Gatsby began to court Daisy Buchanan in earnest, and there was still another hour or so to go. But hey, if you’re going to overshoot the mark, why not overshoot it gloriously? Gatsby would be proud.

18. Kill Your Darlings: A.K.A. The Beats: Origins: Rise of Ginsburg, in the modern-day movie parlance. In any event, this New York City coming-of-age story about Allen Ginsburg’s Columbia days made for a solid afternoon arthouse matinee, with quality performances by Daniel Radcliffe (clearly trying, and mostly succeeding, to shake Harry Potter), Ben Foster (doing an uncanny William Burroughs impression), Jack Huston (playing Kerouac with — strangely for Boardwalk Empire viewers — his entire face), and Michael C. Hall. (David Cross, who played a later version of the poet in I’m Not There, also shows up to pass the Ginsburg baton.) I have to say, tho: After only a handful of movies (Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), I find Dane DeHaan’s schtick wearing thin. Your mileage may vary.

19. Enough Said: If you’re looking for a light entertainment, Nicole Holofcenter’s amiable romantic comedy — about a masseuse (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who discovers that her new best friend (Catherine Keener) and new boyfriend (James Gandolfini) used to be married to each other — is a small, well-observed, and worthwhile film in the key of The Kids Are All Right. Fair warning, tho’: Some of the gentle ribbing about Gandolfini’s weight here takes on a morbid cast with his recent passing. (Pro-tip: If Enough Said whets your appetite for more Gandolfini comedy, there’s always the estimable In the Loop.)

20. A Single Shot: Much like Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, an aura of inexorable doom hangs over this backcountry noir by David Rosenthal, which involves hunter Sam Rockwell accidentally firing at the wrong target and unearthing that inevitable albatross, a giant bag of money. Rockwell — invariably an appealing presence in good films and bad (alas, he had a terrible movie in 2013, which I’ll get to in a bit) — holds the screen even as a very reticent woodsman. But the real pleasure of A Single Shot is that it eventually amounts to an actor’s workshop for some very quality character actors, including Jeffrey Wright, William H. Macy, Ted Levine, and Jason Isaacs.

21. Dallas Buyers Club: Deep in the heart of Texas, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto lose weight and buck admirably for Oscars in the true story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic good-ole-boy turned AIDS activist, also with Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O’Hare, and Griffin Dunne. (Griffin Dunne!) There’s not much to say about this one: It’s an admirable production, and McConaughey and Leto both give 110% and deserve their likely Oscar nods. But this film still has trouble shaking that Oscar-baity, overly earnest biopic feel. And as someone who generally thinks the FDA should be assuring the safety of medical drugs, I had issues with some of the anti-Big Guvmint grandstanding here.

22. Frances Ha: At first, this story of a young woman in Brooklyn (Greta Gerwig) and her attempts to both make it in modern dance and stay besties with her friend Sophia (Mickey Sumner) feels like another variation on HBO’s Girls, a show whose self-indulgence and first-world-problems whining I quickly grew bored with. (Adam Driver showing up here doesn’t help with the differentiation.) But Frances soon establishes its own quirky rhythm, and it’s refreshing, after Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg, to see Noah Baumbach telling the story of a likable New Yorker for a change.

23. Computer Chess: Another quirky, dialogue-driven black-and-white comedy here for the later going, this small-scale indie by “Mumblecore Master” Andrew Bujalski follows a bevy of programmers — the only recognizable one being Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, all grown up — as they lug their Tandys and Commodores to a weekend computer chess tournament in the early 1980’s, hoping to show off the best AI, impress each other, and maybe craft a little bit of the future. Like Upstream Color, this occasionally absurdist tale is more about tone than anything else, but I liked its home-coded, DIY aesthetic and standing-on-the-threshold-of-tomorrow unease.

24. This is the End: If I have to pick a pack of dudebros to await the end the world with, I’d rather hang with Simon Pegg and the lads up above at spot #4 than find myself at the Franco residence, hiding out from the Rapture with the likes of Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride. But to give credit where due, Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s apocalyptic raunchfest will leave no boundary of good taste uncrossed to make you laugh, and they’ve brought along any number of friends and neighbors willing to be involved in a ridiculous cameo or three.

25. World War Z: As always, the last spot here could go to a number of different films, from the admirably strange Chan-Wook Park Southern gothic Stoker to the better-than-expected James Mangold episode of The Wolverine. I went with World War Z, since — despite all the terrible hype surrounding this project beforehand — this Marc Forster/Brad Pitt blockbuster actually turned out to be not-half-bad. It wasn’t much like the book, of course, and I could’ve done without the seemingly grafted-on Harrison Ford-style “My wife! My family!” phone calls here and there. Still, I liked that the movie sprinkled a few moments of quiet creepiness in with the action setpieces — say, in North Korea with David Morse and James Badge Dale, or in Scotland with, er, WHO Doctor…Who. So all in all, no harm, no foul. I just wish they’d sprung for the original bizarro ending.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

Star Trek: Into Darkness: The hackadocious ST:ID has already been good and thoroughly eviscerated by the folks at Io9, so I’ll just repost what I said when I posted that worthy link: “The first one had a number of egregious plot holes too, of course, but it at least had a charming cast and the benefit of novelty. The charming cast remains, but since Into Darkness is otherwise just a lousy and ultimately insulting remix of Wrath of Khan with a frisson of 9/11, the extreme dumbness here is even more aggravating.” As one wag put it soon after this disaster, maybe in the rebooted universe it’s the even movies that are terrible.

Man of Steel: Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was nowhere near as aggressively insulting as Into Darkness, but it suffers from similar issues — namely a really sloppy script and far too much 9/11ness throughout. I thought Henry Cavill made for a superlative Superman (and I’m not just saying that because he’s a fellow Warcraft enthusiast), but really, what was going on in the writing department? Why does Russell Crowe keep popping up like Basil Exposition? Why was Amy Adams taken up to the Krypton ship? And, even notwithstanding the extremely out-of-character decision Kal-El makes here near the end, why is Superman trying to destroy Metropolis? (Zack Snyder gave his answer for the ridiculous collateral damage here – I don’t think it washes.)

As with Green Lantern, I’m willing to give this movie a mulligan and hope DC rights the ship with Batman v. Superman v. Wonder Woman or whatever it’s called. But right now, DC is lagging far behind Marvel in the world-building-on-film department. And, for now, Cavill is the second Supes in a row, after Brandon Routh, to deserve a better adventure.

To the Wonder: Oof, To the Wonder. It’s great to see Terence Malick becoming a more productive filmmaker in his later years — after making four movies between 1973 and 2005, he’s now made two films the past two years (the other being The Tree of Life) and has two more in the can. Unfortunately, to my eyes To the Wonder — ostensibly the story of Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams’ romantic issues with Ben Affleck (who, other than his back and shoulders, was seemingly left on the cutting room floor) — was an incoherent, disjointed mess that came across like somebody doing a parody of a Malick film. Here’s hoping for better from Knight of Cups.

Elysium: [Spoilers in this review] So it seems here like Neil Blomkamp had a few ideas for a decent science fiction story — The few Haves live in a deluxe orbital paradise in the sky and all enjoy free health care, the many Have-Nots are stuck on a dusty, windswept Earth, have no health care at all, and are always trying to break in to said orbital Nirvana — but no actual plot to speak of.

As a result, Elysium, Blomkamp’s calamitous sophomore effort after the promising District 9, was another movie in a summer full of them that made absolutely no sense at all. Since these magical cure-all health care machines seem to operate without cost, why weren’t a few already sent down to Earth long ago? And if that MacGuffin-y station reboot code is so all-powerful, why didn’t ruthless businessman William Fichtner, who was carrying it around the first third of the movie, just depose Jodie Foster (who’s embarrassing here) and make himself Emperor of Elysium? Makes. No. Sense.

The Last Days on Mars: It’s a bit unfair to include this among the “Most Disappointing,” because this is basically just a bad indie film you might find on Syfy — Nobody was waiting in line at midnight to see The Last Days On Mars. Still, it’s depressing to see the Murderer’s Row of talent assembled for this science-fiction tale — Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Liev Schreiber — and then have the hook turn out only to be The Walking Dead on Mars. Everyone here, and especially Williams and Koteas, deserves better.

MOST OVERRATED:

The Way, Way Back: In the opening moments of this glib, trite Cape Cod coming-of-age story, Mom’s mean new boyfriend (Steve Carell, playing against type) berates a sullen teenager (Liam James) on the drive out to summer vacation, telling him that, on a scale of 1 to 10, he’s only a 3. Well, that’s about right for this painfully clunky movie as well, which would just be an inoffensive bore if it wasn’t weirdly being hailed in some corners as an underappreciated 2013 gem.

Honestly, it is bewildering to me that this film received such positive attention. All the saccharine dollops of It Gets Better here can’t obscure the fact that, for two uninvolving hours, we’re stuck on the Cape with a whiny, passive protagonist — who never does anything to suggest that Carell, however dickishly, didn’t have him dead-to-rights in the first reel — and a bunch of hackneyed, one-dimensional characters out of an ABC afterschool special.

Why does the Girl Next Door (AnnaSophia Robb) seem to be interested in our hero? Why does Local Cool Guy Sam Rockwell (and you know it’s a stinker when even Rockwell can’t save your flick) take him under his wing? Well, mainly because these are the sorts of things that happen in movies like these. If you’re hankering for a sweet coming-of-age “That One Summer It All Changed” type movie, rent Adventureland (or, if it has to be on the Cape, rent One Crazy Summer). But The Way, Way, Back is Not, Not It.

Stories We Tell: I’ll tread lightly here because I like Sarah Polley as both an actress and director (Take This Waltz was #17 last year), and I’m still interested in whatever she’s up to next. Suffice to say, I could never get over the inherent narcissism of this much-heralded documentary, about Polley slowly discovering that her father (actor Michael Polley, whom I knew from Slings & Arrows) may or may not in fact be her father. For some unfathomable reason (other than, I suppose, a documentary could be made), Polley chooses to interrogate every single one of her family members — except her mother, a flighty soul who died of cancer when Sarah was 11 — about this potential revelation, on camera. Erm…ok.

I just don’t get it. It’d be one thing if the House of Polley’s deep dark secret was something more interesting or world-historical than illegitimate parentage. (Nazis in the attic or somesuch.) But, as it is, Stories We Tell is just the documentary equivalent of a Selfie. It doesn’t have anything particularly noteworthy to say, other than, ok, a lot of families have “lies mutually agreed upon,” and I grew bored and eventually a bit disturbed by the egoism and exhibitionism of the whole enterprise. No shame if Polley wants to go digging in the family dirt, but I’m not sure why I really need to be involved.

The Wolf of Wall Street: So this was my birthday movie this year, which basically means that, alas, my girlfriend and I recently spent the afternoon of December 29th with a bunch of insufferable douchebags. Let our terrible mistake be your good fortune — This one can be skipped. (At least know what you’re in for: As an early Spike Jonze cameo telegraphs, this is essentially an unfunny three-hour episode of Jackass.)

Scorsese’s Wolf would’ve been innocuous enough if it had been 90 minutes long or so: In fact, a first-act power lunch with DeCaprio and Matthew McConaughey gets all the “these guys are nihilistic, worthless wastes of space” points across fine enough, no need to belabor it. But at three ever-lovin’ hours, the film wears out its welcome well before the end, and somewhere in that third hour — around the time DeCaprio is screaming at and gut-punching his second wife (Margot Robbie), so that we all leave knowing the asshat behavior we’ve witnessed for 180 minutes is actually not ok — I’d joined the douchebag train myself and was idly scrolling through my phone in the theater, waiting for somebody to give this dire Wolf the Grey Wind treatment, or at least throw him in the clink already.

Anyway, like all too many fratboy and/or Wall Street types, the film is not nearly as hilarious or as transgressive as it thinks it is — for example, the too-long-by-far traveling-on-Quaaludes scene was more funny and more concise (with ether) in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing. And, as I said up above, there were plenty of other movies mining this “grotesque excess is the new American independence” vein in 2013 — just go see Gatsby or Spring Breakers instead.

Blue Jasmine: This one’s not terrible or anything — it’s no Cassandra’s Dream — and Cate Blanchett is a pro as always. But Blue Jasmine is no Midnight in Paris either: It’s basically just Woody riffing on (re: cribbing from) A Streetcar Named Desire by way of the financial crisis — There’s not a lot of there there. Also, even though he must know a lot of uber-rich Manhattanites, Allen seems as clumsy about class here as always: Blanchett and Baldwin’s spoiled Ivy League kid here seems like he’s a member of Harvard’s Class of 1942. (On the blue collar side, Sally Hawkins and, surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay, do better at crafting real people out of class stereotypes.) Again, Blue Jasmine isn’t a travesty or anything, but it’s not top-shelf Woody by any means, and has been significantly overpraised.

MOST [UNFAIRLY?] MALIGNED:

Ender’s Game: The long-awaited movie adaptation of this science fiction standard got quite a bit of bad press before release because, well, author Orson Scott Card is a terrible human being. (That’s why I have “unfairly” in brackets up above: Card has been a malignant enough presence over the years. Malign away!)

All that being said, if you’re not inherently averse to all things Card at this point, I thought Gavin Hood’s film was a surprisingly decent adaptation of the once-acclaimed novel (which I enjoyed enough in high school — I haven’t read it since.) Despite being a bit long in the tooth for the part, Asa Butterfield made for a quality Ender, with the necessary streak of amoral darkness about him. (We could’ve used Butterfield for Anakin Skywalker back in the day — but even in that Phantom Menace era, the very similar Lucas Black was always available.) And, speaking of Star Wars, hey, Harrison Ford is alive here! Always good to see.

WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN:

The Counselor: So, The Counselor. In a nutshell, Michael Fassbender is a slick Texas lawyer — everybody keeps calling him “Counselor,” Counselor — who, while wooing good girl Penelope Cruz, gets involved in a shady Mexican cartel-connected drug deal with two acquaintances who definitely know better, Javier Bardem (along with his bad girl wife, Cameron Diaz) and Brad Pitt. Naturally, as a result of some unfortunate happenstance — and side-dealing by one of the parties involved — Bad Things Happen. But you knew they would, didn’t you, Counselor?

Was The Counselor actually a good movie? Well, that one’s easy: No, no it wasn’t. Was it terrible? Well, Counselor, I think so, but to be honest I’m not even entirely sure. Just as To the Wonder seemed like a Malick parody, this one reads and watches like a parody of Cormac McCarthy — We have the macho posturing, lots of misogyny of the madonna/whore and vagina dentata variety, no small amount of Old Testament speechifying, and plenty of cartoon nihilism, Texas-style. Of course, I think, No Country notwithstanding, most of McCarthy’s stuff reads like parody — Blood Meridian was terrible; there, I said it — so your mileage may vary.

What I do know is that The Counselor was completely cuckoo-bananas, that it did linger in my mind for several days after watching it, and that, if nothing else, I remain sort of impressed that an A-list movie this strange, verbose, and relentlessly dark made it to the screen in this form. But am I recommending it? God, no, Counselor, you’ll sue me…or worse.

Only God Forgives: Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, which has Ryan Gosling playing a Hamlet of sorts in the Thai boxing underworld, is an easier mark: This is definitely not a good movie. (Ok, the lighting’s not bad.) I liked Drive less than most people, but still thought Refn’s Bronson was an impressively savage little number. But this movie, which plays like a film school homage to David Lynch, is a nearly unwatchable mess, and I feel terrible for Kristin Scott Thomas that she wasted her playing-wildly-against-type movie moment (See also: Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges) in this drek.

Now You See Me: WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN.

THIS JUST IN | UPDATE | BREAKING NEWS | MUST CREDIT GITM:

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: I was just reminded that I totally forgot to include Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues anywhere on this list. Mistakes were made, I regret the oversight, and I just want to take this moment to apologize in full to Mr. Burgundy and the entire Channel-4 News Team. (If it’s any consolation, I went to your Newseum exhibit. Also, what do you want me to do? I’m bliiiind!)

In any event, there’s too much Brick and far too little Baxter, but if you enjoyed the first one, this chapter — which has Ron and his crew taking their talents to CNN and the Big Apple, partying like Wolves of Wall Street, and learning the world a thing or two about car chases — hits at about the same level of hilarity: Maybe slot this somewhere in the late teens/early twenties? I dunno, I immediately regret this decision.

THE REST:

Worth Netflixing: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012), Don Jon, Europa Report, John Dies at the End, Monsters University, Oblivion, Pain and Gain, The Place Beyond the Pines, Side Effects, Stoker, Thor 2: The Dark World, West of Memphis

Don’t Bother: Admission, The Bling Ring, Closed Circuit, Drinking Buddies, The Fifth Estate, Gangster Squad, Kick-Ass 2, Much Ado about Nothing, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim.

Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis; Robert Redford, All is Lost, Christian Bale, American Hustle; Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Best Actress: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine; Amy Adams, American Hustle; Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club; Jeffrey Wright, A Single Shot; Ben Nelson, Kill Your Darlings; James Franco, Spring Breakers; Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave; Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave; June Squibb, Nebraska; Maria Bello, Prisoners; Amy Adams, Her

Unseen: 2 Guns, 21 and Over, 42, 47 Ronin, The Act of Killing, After Earth, Aftershock, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, August: Osage County, Austenland, Bad Grandpa, Baggage Claim, Beautiful Creatures, Berberian Sound Studio, Black Nativity, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Book Thief, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium, The Call, The Canyons, Carrie, CBGB, The Colony, The Company You Keep, The Croods, Dead Man Down, Delivery Man, Despicable Me 2, Diana, Epic, Escape Plan, Fast and Furious 6, Frozen, Fruitvale Station, Getaway, GI Joe: Retaliation, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, The Great Beauty, Grown Ups 2, Grudge Match, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Hangover Part III, The Heat, Homefront, Identity Thief, In a World, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Insidious 2, The Internship, The Invisible Woman, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jobs, Kon-Tiki, The Last Stand, Last Vegas, Laurence Anyways, The Lone Ranger, Lone Survivor, Machete Kills, Mama, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Movie 43, Mud, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, Out of the Furnace, Paranoia, Parker, Parkland, Percy Jackson 2, Philomena, Planes, Post Tenebras Lux, The Purge, Red 2, Redemption, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Riddick, R.I.P.D, Romeo and Juliet, Runner Runner, Rush, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Smurfs 2, The Spectacular Now, Stand-Up Guys, Trance, Turbo, Twenty Feet From Stardom, Warm Bodies, We’re the Millers, White House Down, The Wind Rises, Winnie Mandela, You’re Next.

    A Good Year For:
  • Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her, Man of Steel)
  • Ben Kingsley Reveals (Ender’s Game, Iron Man 3)
  • Black and White (Computer Chess, Frances Ha, Nebraska)
  • Character Actors in Lead Roles (12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis. A Single Shot)
  • De Caprio Blinging (The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Fassbatch (12 Years a Slave, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
  • Harrowing Tales of Survival (12 Years a Slave, All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity)

    A Bad Year For:
  • The American Dream (The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain, The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Javier Bardem (The Counselor, To the Wonder — but he’s very watchable in both.)
  • Cumberbender (The Counselor, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek: Into Darkness)
  • Maersk (Captain Phillips, All is Lost)
  • Making it in NYC (Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis)
  • Missions in Space (Europa Report, Gravity, The Last Days on Mars)
  • Symbols of Presidential Power (Iron Man 3, Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down)

2014: 3 Days to Kill, 22 Jump Street, 300: Rise of an Empire, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Annie, That Awkward Moment, Bad Words, Big Eyes, Birdman, Blended, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef, Child 44, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Divergent, Draft Day, Dumb and Dumber To, Edge of Tomorrow, Endless Love, Exodus, The Expendables 3, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, The Fault in Our Stars, Foxcatcher, Fury, The Giver, Godzilla, Gone Girl, Grace of Monaco, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules: The Thracian Wars, How to Catch a Monster, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 1, I, Frankenstein, Inherent Vice, Interstellar, The Interview, Into the Woods, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Jane Got a Gun, Jersey Boys, The Judge, Jupiter Ascending, Labor Day, The Lego Movie, Lucy, Magic in the Moonlight, Maleficent, Million Dollar Arm, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Monuments Men, A Most Wanted Man, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Muppets Most Wanted, Neighbors, Noah, Non-Stop, The Nut Job, Nymphomaniac, Paddington, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Pompeii, The Purge 2, Ride Along, Rio 2, Robocop, Sabotage, Serena, Sex Tape, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, St. Vincent de Van Nuys, Tammy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, This is Where I Leave You, Transcendence, Transformers 4, Unbroken, Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters, Veronica Mars, Welcome to Yesterday, Walk of Shame, Winter’s Tale, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Zero Theorem, and

“So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of the Five Armies, and it was very terrible…”

Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Lots of catch-up to do in the Trailer Bin…

Finally out of The Master‘s clutches, a lonely Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with, for all intent and purposes, Siri (Scarlett Johansson) in the first trailer for Spike Jonze’s Her, also with Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, and Rooney Mara. I believe this is called going the full-Lars. (Also, I’m never not going to hear the name of this film as “Her?”)

Alan Rickman and Donal Logue — now there’s one of the best buddy pairings on film since Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson in Beowulf — meet a lot of 24 Hour Party People American-style in our first look at CBGB’s, with Ashley Greene, Freddy Rodriguez, Johnny Galecki, Bradley Whitford, Rupert Grint, Justin Bartha, Stana Katic, and Malin Ackerman (as Debbie Harry?) I see Severus is now teaching young Mr. Weasley a completely different set of Dark Arts. Hrm, maybe.

Michael Fassbender finds he’s taken a wrong turn into Cormac McCarthy land in the newest trailer for Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, with Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Goran Visnjic, and Dean Norris. Looks very McCarthyish, and no mistake. The good news is Ridley Scott still owes Fassbender a solid film after Prometheus.

It belongs in a museum! WWII soldiers George Clooney and Matt Damon put together a crack team to save priceless art and artifacts in the first trailer for Clooney’s The Monuments Men, also with John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Cate Blanchett. As one wag aptly noted on Twitter, this is basically an Elseworlds Ocean’s movie, but I trust Clooney’s choices. Still, here’s hoping it works out better than Clooney & Blanchett’s last trip to Germany.

Over an unfortunately poppy soundtrack, Idris Elba and Naomie Harris channel Nelson and Winnie Mandela in the first trailer for Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. This looks a bit standard-issue-biopic-y, I’ll admit. But I’ll watch just to see Elba as Mandela — just no Henley poems, k?

Team Silver Linings Playbook joins forces with Team Fighter (sans Wahlberg) to dabble in the luxurious world of art forgery in this brief trailer for David O. Russell’s next, American Hustle, with Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Louis CK, Jack Huston, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Pena and Elizabeth Rohm.

Lowry? Has anybody seen Sam Lowry? Er, sorry, that would be Mitty, as in Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, and Shirley MacLaine. I have to admit, this looks much fresher than I anticipated. Definitely maybe.

A terrible accident, an unexpected boon, and A Simple Plan all add up to another bad day for Sam Rockwell in the trailer for David Rosenthal’s A Single Shot, also with William H. Macy, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Ted Levine, Melissa Leo, and W. Earl Brown. A great cast through and through, but you had me at Rockwell.

And if you need another reason to worry about Found Money, Alice Eve gets into trouble with the Russian mob, in the form of Bryan Cranston, in the trailer for Cold Comes the Night, also with Logan Marshall-Green. If nothing else, it’ll be good for Cranston to get some more menacing reps in before signing up with LexCorp (although, in that department, Mark Strong’s a solid choice as well.)

Where’s a mermaid when you need one? Tom Hanks is in considerable peril on the sea in our second look at Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, also with Catherine Keener, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, John Magaro and Angus MacInnes.

I thought Greengrass’ most recent film, 2010’s Green Zone, was an overly preachy dud — I get annoyed with edutainment that aggressively berates me to endorse opinions I already hold. (I’m looking at you, Aaron Sorkin.) But Greengrass has a lifetime pass after United 93, Bloody Sunday, and the Bournes, so hopefully this is a return to form.

Thor Odinson, meet Clarice Starling: In a tight spot with a new Big Bad, Earth’s mightiest Asgardian (Chris Hemsworth) is forced to enlist help from his brother in the joint in the second trailer for Thor: The Dark World, also with Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, and Ray Stevenson.

After The Dark Knight, Skyfall, and ST:ID, I’m not sure we need any more villains unfolding their master plans from behind prison bars this decade — Heck, even Loki himself was doing this same shebang in The Avengers last year. Still, the first Thor was better than expected, and Marvel’s on a pretty consistent streak at the moment. I’m in.

I also thought the Nick Stoller’s 2011 reboot of The Muppets was decent enough, but I’m not getting good vibes at all from this first teaser for James Bobin’s Muppets: Most Wanted, with Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Salma Hayek, Frank Langella, Till Schweiger, Debby Ryan, Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and Christoph Waltz. Early yet, and I do like Stoller and Bobin’s prior output, but right now this looks like it’ll hit at about Smurfs 2 level.

So, yeah, Harrison Ford hasn’t gotten all that much better at voiceovers since Blade Runner, has he? Anyway, there’s also a new trailer for Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game, also with Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, and a ridiculous number of clich├ęs (the Inception BWOMP, “We’re running out of time,” etc.) Everyone wants a Ford comeback, but it’s hard to imagine this one getting my money, even if Orson Scott Card wasn’t a jackass. Oh well.

Angst amid the Hallows.

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.

It’s Not Easy Being Green.


On this St. Patrick’s Day, what better recent release to discuss here at GitM than Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone? Not only do we have two shades of emerald in that last sentence, but we’re now on the cusp of the 7th anniversary of the beginning of the War in Iraq. (It broke out, I well remember, just as I was heading to a March Madness weekend in Vegas.) Alas, I just wish I had a better sitrep to report.

I don’t mean to be too harsh — There’s nothing terribly wrong with this edutainment-y attempt to explain de-Baathification, highly dubious detainee procedures, and most notably the faked WMD casus belli to disinterested laypersons by way of action-thriller. And, in a way, I sorta admire the gutsiness of the the attempt. But, if you were already well aware of these grim developments, and I assume most GitM readers are, then it’s hard to escape the sensation that one is mainly just being talked down to for two hours. Wait, there were no WMD in Iraq? You’re kidding me, right? And, while I’m a great fan of Greengrass’ previous output — I said over and over again in this space that I wish he had stuck with Watchmen, and on the Top 100 films of last decade list, Bloody Sunday was #84, his two Bournes were at #49, and the exemplary United 93 was at #6 — The Green Zone feels quite a bit more leaden than usual.

As with the political edutainment project Greengrass aspired to here, I like the idea of fusing his highly visceral action work (the Bournes) with his fly-on-the-wall discursions into recent history (Sunday, ’93)…on paper. But The Green Zone gets lost somewhere in the interstice, and lacks the gripping power of either of these previous Greengrass grooves. Instead, Zone ends up mostly being two grainy hours of watching Matt Damon run around at night, as he tries to uncover an insidious government plot that our nation has been fully aware of for years…and has chosen to greet with a yawn.

More on that depressing problem in a bit, but, first, to bring y’all up to speed: Loosely based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a non-fiction examination of Dubyaite imbecility and excess in post-war Baghdad, Green Zone begins with a brief sequence set amid the original Shock-and-Awe period of the war, followed by, a few weeks later, a tense raid on a possible WMD storehouse by American soldiers. Led by Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon), this crack MW2-ish assault ends up finding, well, bupkis, just like the time before and the time before that.

To Chief Miller, the problem here is obvious — the intel must be rotten. But, when he brings this up at the next briefing for high-level military muckety-mucks, he is basically told to shut up and do his job. Nonetheless, events soon conspire to introduce Miller to the “Jack of Clubs” in the Dubya deck, a Baathist general (Yigal Naor) with a still-clearly extant power base in Baghdad. And, when our hero digs deeper to figure out how this Jack might know “Magellan,” the top-secret source of all this lousy intel, he soon finds himself trapped — along with a very Judith Miller-y reporter (Amy Ryan) — in a power play between a slimy executive branch bureaucrat (Greg Kinnear, stuck no more) and a grizzled CIA hand (Brendan Gleeson), one that might just end up getting Miller fragged by the creepy Special Forces guy (Jason Isaacs, with great accent) who keeps popping up…

Along the way, there’s a digression into a detainee facility with all the makings of an Abu Ghraib waiting to happen, the tearful homecoming of the administration’s hand-picked Iraqi stooge (re: Ahmed Chalabi), some rather pained attempts to make the decision to de-Baathify an action beat…In other words, Green Zone is basically an attempt to dramatize the Iraq war for people who, for whatever reason, weren’t paying much attention the first time ’round. And, to be fair, it’s done with solid acting all around (including several folks recognizable from United 93), quality production values, and a reasonable degree of versimilitude throughout. (Note also the brief Paul Rieckhoff cameo, which should nip any IAVA whining about dramatic license right in the bud.)

But, for all its edutainmenty truths to tell, Green Zone still ends up feeling rather fake and film-ish to me, perhaps in part because — unlike Greengrass’ other recent histories — it seems to subscribe to a very movie-like All the President’s Men view of things, where, once word of misdeed gets out, justice will be done tho’ the heavens fall. Not to get all Debbie Downer up in here, but that’s not really the way the world works anymore, is it? One of the saddest and scariest moments in the recent and very worthwhile Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America is when Ellsberg explains how he thought everything would change once the Pentagon Papers got out…and then he finds that, in the face of clear and irrefutable evidence of government wrongdoing, most people just shrugged.

This is the uncomfortable horror that Green Zone almost seems willfully designed not to recognize. The whole premise of the movie seems to be that, if We the People knew what really went down in Iraq (or could just be taught via action-movie), we would be totally livid about the corruption involved. But, is the problem really that the American people don’t know what happened in the build-up to Iraq? Or is it that we know pretty well what happened and don’t much seem to care?

Just as with our indefensible dabbling in torture and indefinite detention in recent years, we have known about the lies and incompetence that fueled the Iraq fiasco for awhile now. And, alas, nothing ever happened. Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and the whole awful, lying lot are still deemed Serious People with Serious Opinions by the nation’s domesticated media watchdogs, who, by the way, have also been studiously ignoring the Blair hearings overseas. Our current president, elected with the largest mandate for change in a generation, has deemed all of this just the sins of the past and refused to “look backward” (or worse, made himself complicit in these Dubya-era crimes.) And life continues, much as it has this past age, with no sense of reckoning whatsoever for the Big Lies that were told.

One of the main reasons Bloody Sunday and United 93 work so well is that they offer complex, nuanced portraits of complicated times. But, as Green Zone moves along, it just ended up feeling more and more like a cartoon to me, and one predicated mainly on wishful thinking. Like I said, I guess I admire what Paul Greengrass & co. were trying do here, but Green Zone as an action film feels flat and mostly uninvolving. And Green Zone as a political enterprise — Iraq War: The Movie!, basically — often seems at best condescending and at worst dangerously naive.

The Dark is Rising.


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, director David Yates’ take on the fifth installment of J.K. Rowling’s (soon-to-be-completed!) series, is, I’m happy to report, a somber, suspenseful return to the increasingly dire matters at Hogwarts, and well in keeping with the higher standard set by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell in the past two movies. While I think Newell’s Goblet of Fire remains my favorite film outing thus far, this one is right up there in my estimation, and given how much less Yates had to work with, that’s rather impressive. (For all its girth, Book V felt basically like a holding action to me — the wider narrative arc didn’t progress all that much from the end of Goblet to the end of Order, and the story suffered from a wham-bang action climax that didn’t really work on paper (it comes off better on-screen.)) Indeed, Yates’ Order not only captures my most prominent impressions of the book — Harry’s burgeoning teenage moodiness, the growing sense among the students of grim times ahead and important events already set in motion — but also significantly streamlines and distills Rowling’s most-sprawling tome into two-and-a-half hours of sleek, well-paced cinema. No mean feat of magic, that.

By the start of Order, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is loose, Cedric Diggory is dead, and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), once more at the mercy of the Dursleys for the summer, is poised on the verge of adolescent rebellion. He hasn’t heard a pip from friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) for months, nor has he heard any news of goings-on in the magical world. So it is with no small amount of surprise and consternation that Harry finds himself first attacked by Dementors one gloomy evening, then expelled from Hogwarts — by authority of the Ministry of Magic — for using his wand to defend himself. Brought back into the magical loop by these events, Harry discovers that many of his former allies, including godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), have banded together to re-form the Order of the Phoenix in preparation for Lord Voldemort’s next move. More troubling, it seems Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) is not only not inclined to believe Harry that You-Know-Who has returned, but also views Harry and his mentor Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), as a political threat, and has turned the general public and popular press against them both. Finally, to further complicate Potter’s prospects, Fudge dispatches one Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to Hogwarts with a ministry mandate to stamp out both dark sarcasm and Defense against the Dark Arts in the classroom. Thus hemmed in, Harry, Ron, and Hermione find once more they need to take matters in their own hands, and begin to defiantly assemble what they call Dumbledore’s Army, a student organization dedicated to preparing for the worst. But, all the while, Lord Voldemort is up to his own tricks…and what good is Dumbledore’s Army if its young, bespectacled leader is already hopelessly compromised by his still-unexplained connection to the Dark Lord?

As the paragraph above attests, there’re a lot of balls in the air this time around, but Yates, screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, & co. do a solid job of keeping everything moving without doing grievous harm to any of the many included subplots. (Several have been excised regardless, such as this year’s Quidditch match. No real loss, imho.) And throughout, what Order of the Phoenix gets most right — in fact, one could argue it’s actually done better here than in the book — is the feeling that things are simmering to a boil. Hermione, Ron, and especially Harry have grown from wide-eyed, trusting children to gawky, hormonal teenagers (and better actors, for that matter), seething with imminent rebellion against the powers-that-be, and their world has similarly gone from a colorful, fantastic, and ever-so-occasionally dangerous realm of magical delights to a gray, ominous land of hidden agendas, political propaganda, fallible adults, and fatal consequences. In the last movie, Harry’s Hogwarts cohort were on the threshold of early adolescence, and had just begun to discover the tantalizing mysteries of the opposite sex. Here, slightly older, they come to another classic teenage rite-of-passage: finding that the world — and, more often that not, the people in charge — aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and that they may even actually be out to get you.

Of course, Yates is helped out tremendously in bringing Order to life by his ever-expanding Dream Team of British thespians. Imelda Staunton, as the main new cast member, is note-perfect as Umbridge. A pink-festooned, unholy cross between the Church Lady and arguably the real You-Know-Who of Rowling’s books, Margaret Thatcher, she’s like something out of a Roger Waters fever dream (and continues the “The Tories are Coming!” subtext I noted in my review of the last movie.) Even with Staunton aside, tho’, Order is packed to the brim with quality actors reprising their roles from the first four films — Oldman, Hardy, Brendan Gleeson, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson, Jason Isaacs, Robbie Coltrane, etc., and particularly Fiennes and Alan Rickman. They’re all excellent, and frankly it’s good fun just to see so many of them around again to help further flesh out the Potterverse. (Although, having seen Naked and The History Boys since Goblet, I’m slightly more concerned about Harry hanging around the likes of Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and Vernon Dursley (Richard Griffiths)…what would the Umbridges of the world have to say about that?)

2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004]

[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update…]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.

9. Sin City: One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ’em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the “let’s take a meeting” second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

The Union of the Snake


is on the climb…which means trouble ahead for Harry and Hogwarts in the surprisingly satisfying Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I said of Alfonse Cuaron’s Azkaban that it was probably the ablest representation of the Rowling books we were going to get on film, but you know what? I was dead wrong. Mike Newell’s dark and delectable Goblet is brimming over with energy and suspense, and, to my surprise, it’s probably the best Potter film so far. (And this is coming from someone who actually preferred Book III to Book IV on paper.)

I assume most of y’all out there already know the story, but in a nutshell, Harry’s fourth year at England’s premiere Magickal Boarding School is one marked by three novel, terrifying, and wholly inscrutable challenges: (1) The Tri-Wizard Tournament (held every few years against rival academies Beauxbatons and Durmstrang); (2) the possible return of You-Know-Who (as announced by the sight of His Mark at the Quidditch World Cup); and (3) girls. Yes, on top of their usual troubles with magical enchantments and strange goings-on, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have hit those awkward middle school years, when a brief conversation with Cho Chang (Katie Leung), a waltz with Parvati Patel (Shefali Chowdhury), a bath with Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), or a date with Victor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) becomes as nerve-rattling as facing down a wayward basilisk. Nevertheless, the Yule Ball is only the least of Harry’s worries, as — for some reason and in defiance of all the usual protocols — he’s been picked as a fourth entrant in the highly dangerous TriWizard Tournament…and, even with the aid of new Dark Arts teacher Mad-Eye Moody (a superb Brendan Gleeson), it’ll take all the wits and combined resources of our teenage trio (well, and Neville) for Harry to make it through intact.

To their credit, Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves have done an excellent job scaling down the dense 700-page novel into a sleek two-and-a-half-hour film. Goblet moves at such a brisk clip that rarely did I find myself (as I did in Azkaban) enumerating the remaining plot points to be explained. [For what it’s worth, the House Elf subplot is gone, Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson, note-perfect) has basically one-and-a-half scenes, and the other TriWizard contestants — particularly poor Fleur Delacour (Clemence Poesy) — get somewhat short shrift.] In fact, even Harry’s usual nemeses — Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and the scions of Slytherin — are for the most part pushed to the background here (although fans of those Schoolboys in Disgrace, the Weasley twins, will be happy to know that they get considerable screen time, and Ginny’s always lurking around too.)

Whatsmore, we’re definitely in PG-13 land this time. [Warning: Here there be spoilers, particularly for non-book-readers] Goblet is a film filled with unsettling images from its opening moments, from the floating Death Head above the World Cup to the highly creepy Pensieve flashback of Karkaroff’s plea hearing (Given recent events involving torture and secret prisons, I found this scene — and the contraption they were keeping Karkaroff in — particularly perturbing.) So it’s a testament to Newell’s vision that the scene everyone’s waiting for in Goblet of Fire, the big climax, is the creepiest one of all. The wretched, fetal You-Know-Who was disturbing enough, but once Voldemort emerges in all his twisted glory (looking a bit like the head vampire in Blade 2), Ralph Fiennes ratchets up the freak to eleven and almost runs away with the film. As I went to sleep last night after the midnight show, it was Fiennes’ crisp, lithe, and serpentine Voldemort (and his band of Klannish Death Eaters) that stuck in my head, exactly as it should be.

[As a tangent, and I’m probably thinking about this too much, but now I really like the shaggy haired dos of all our protagonists in context of the film — I don’t think it’s just a nod to Kinks/Pink Floyd-ish boarding house visions or a post-Anakin fad. There’s method to Newell’s madness…As Stephanie Zacharek also points out, he’s deliberately invoking the 70’s as the uncertain, transitional adolescence after the heyday of the Sixties, as well as the cultural moment just before Thatcherism and the Tory revival. Everything’s going to change, indeed.]

More than Half-Full.

The new trailer for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire premiered this morning, and it’s nine kinds of great — I didn’t have much faith in Mike Newell at the outset, but this looks like it may have turned out even better than Cuaron’s Azkhaban. Check out Mad-Eyed Moody, Cho Chang, Rita Skeeter, the lovely ladies of Beauxbatons, and is that You-Know-Who at the very end? Update: There’s also a new international trailer floating around.

Gone to Potter.

Some trailers from afar: Psychiatrist Ewan MacGregor goes slightly mad (with Naomi Watts and Ryan Gosling) in the trailer for Stay, and Harry fends off Triwizard contestants and schoolboy crushes alike in this teaser for the trailer for Goblet of Fire.

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