Thursday, December 30, 2010

Year in Film: 2010

NOTE:  Each film on this list had to have had at least one theatrical screening in Milwaukee (though I only saw about a third of these films in a theatre), and they have to have premiered here in 2010.  I realize that some of these films were released in other parts of the world in 2009, and some won't be released until 2011, and some won't be released in certain areas at all.  For example, Carlos has not screened in Milwaukee so far, which means that it is not eligible.  As far as movies that did actually screen here that I didn't see, Restrepo is probably my biggest blindspot (it's in my Netflix Instant queue, but I haven't gotten around to watching it), but I did manage to see most of the things that I was interested in.  I wasn't keeping track of all of the short films I saw, and honestly none of them have particularly stuck with me, so this is simply a ranked list of the feature films that I saw this year, with brief comments on a number of them.

A   Masterpiece
1)  Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 108 min.)
I expected Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan to be to ballet as his The Wrestler was to pro wrestling.  And while that is partially the case, Black Swan is also a hyper-stylized and intense psychodrama that utilizes every filmmaking technique you've ever seen, and a few you haven't, to get viewers deep inside the head of its prima ballerina (Natalie Portman, in the role of a lifetime).  The most vital combination of sheer audacity, technical brilliance, and intense method acting since There Will Be Blood, and the best film of the year.

A-   Excellent
2)  Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 113 min.)
For once the eccentricities of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's oeuvre seem purposeful and tied to a specific mood, so that the proceedings can be appreciated on more than a scene-by-scene basis.  The film follows the titular character during the last days of his life, as he encounters ghosts from his past (some of whom look like a cross between Chewbacca and a Jawa) who help him remember his past incarnations (though it's never entirely clear who Boonmee is in these flashbacks).  As the film goes on, the distinction between the living and the dead, and the spiritual and the everyday, evaporates completely, and the effect is overpowering even for someone who knows nothing about the Thai culture that the film is playing off of.  This is the kind of film where inexplicable moments – such as a scene involving a catfish seducing a princess, or a memory of a violent act told entirely through still photographs – rattle around in your brain for months afterward.
3)  Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 94 min.)
This story of three young adults who have spent their entire lives isolated in their family's estate, and taught an insane, incorrect view of the world by their fascist parents, not only calls to mind Bunuel films like The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but is the equal of those films in satiric power and vivid surrealism.

B+   Special
4)  Collapse (Chris Smith, USA, 82 min.)
I can't think of a film timelier than Chris Smith's documentary about Michael Ruppert, an independent reporter who predicted the current financial crisis in his newsletter.  Ruppert's predictions about peak oil are terrifying, since he clearly knows what he's talking about and seems to have an answer for every possible objection to his arguments, but the film also subtly suggests the ways that his outlook has been influenced and biased by personal hardships.  Smith is basically copying the Errol Morris model of documentary filmmaking, but it's hard to fault him, because it's clearly the right fit for this fascinating story.
5)  The Red Chapel (Mads Brugger, Denmark, 87 min.)
A Danish theatre troupe infiltrates North Korea, entering their subversively ridiculous vaudeville act into a national cultural festival.  The premise of this documentary makes it sound like a Sacha Baron Cohen stunt, but what the filmmakers are after is less a full-frontal assault on North Korean fascism than an inside look at the psychology of a fascist society.  The troupe is assisted by a group of Korean handlers whose job is to make sure that the Danes don’t do anything inflammatory in their act (or their day-to-day activities), and the way that the handlers attempt to modify their charges actions is often as illuminating as it is funny.  And while the troupe does get a few laughs in at the expense of their North Korean hosts, the film offers a surprisingly multi-faceted – at times even sympathetic – portrayal of the people who are doomed to spend their lives propagating the insane doctrine of Kim Jong-Il.  This is by far the finest and most insightful films I've seen about North Korea, as well as one of the most entertaining films of the year.
6)  Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 100 min.)
This intense film is as smart and resourceful as its heroine (mesmerizing newcomer Jennifer Lawrence), a teenager struggling to hold onto the home she shares with her younger siblings.  The backwoods atmosphere feels authentic, and even the most minor characters are vivid, unforgettable character sketches.
7)  Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, Hungary/Romania/UK, 84 min.)
British ex-pat Peter Strickland's debut feature isn't necessarily original – the story has a bit of The Virgin Spring in its DNA, and the audio and visual aesthetic bring to mind the work of Andrei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr.  Yet this menacing fairy tale couldn't stand further apart from anything in theatres today.  The economy of the storytelling, the painterly beauty of the cinematography, and the consistently unnerving sound work give this tale of a raped woman's revenge the feel of a folk tale that has been with us for a very long time.
8)  Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, USA, 82 min.)
After being beaten into a brain-damaging coma outside a bar, amateur artist Mark Hogencamp returned to consciousness with substantial memory loss.  He retreated from the world at large and began to focus his energies on Marwencol:  a one-sixth scale, WWII-era Belgian town populated entirely by dolls representing Hogencamp's friends and family.  This documentary is at its best when it simply allows Hogencamp to explain the elaborate, intensely pulpy mythology of Marwencol and its inhabitants.  The all-American weirdness recalls Terry Zwigoff's Crumb.
9)  Bad Lieutenant:  Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, USA, 122 min.)
Almost everything in this film's credits suggests a direct-to-DVD piece of trash, from the fact that it is trading off of the title of Abel Ferrera's popular '90s crime saga despite being unrelated to it, to the appearances of Val Kilmer and Xzibit in the cast.  But the (talented) lunatics have taken over the asylum.  Werner Herzog frequently cuts away from the lurid story of police corruption to focus on random animals, and he gives Nicolas Cage more room than he's ever had to mesmerize audiences with his sheer craziness.
10)  A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France, 155 min.)
We probably don't need any more stories about drug kingpins rising to power, but Jacques Audiard's A Prophet is intense, gritty, and detailed enough to make the crusty crime genre feel vital again.  The first half of the film, detailing the rough prison stay of a young Arab (newcomer Tahar Rahim, in one of the year's best performances) is absolutely riveting, a nailbiting suspense story that reveals how the law can sometimes create criminals.  The second half of the film, which finds the young man becoming a powerful drug dealer, is a little more familiar, but the combination of Rahim's nervy performance and Audiard's technically assured direction keeps the story compelling.
11)  True Grit  (The Coen Brothers, USA, 110 min.)
This second adaptation of Charles Portis' western novel – the first earned John Wayne his only Academy Award – is an uncharacteristically warm and humanist film from the usually cynical Coens.  The surprisingly tender, good-natured tale of retribution is punctuated by brief, shocking moments of brutal violence, and the Coens handle both modes well.  Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld more than holds her own amongst the likes of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper, and Josh Brolin, even though all are working at the top of their game.  The same could be said for ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, who delivers some of the most beautiful images seen on screen all year.
12)  Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, Canada, 85 min.)
This documentary is ostensibly about the world's largest human migration – as 130 million Chinese migrant workers return to their homes for New Year's – and the strain that it places on one family.  But part of what makes Lixin Fan's debut so special is that it manages to use its seemingly limited focus to give a broad and multi-faceted look at what life is like in China today.  What emerges is an epic yet focused depiction of the distance between the working class and the wealthy, between the older and younger generations, and between rural and city life.

B   Very Good
13)  Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 128 min.)
Bong Joon-ho's murder mystery is a huge improvement over his overrated monster movie The Host.  After her mentally handicapped son is arrested for a murder that he didn't commit, an elderly woman (the riveting Kim Hye-ja) sets out to find the real killer herself.  Initially, this film seems as tonally scattershot as many Asian suspense movies, but the mind-bending twists of the story actually wind up justifying some of the awkward humor of the early scenes, and the film's conclusion is as achingly sad as it is strange. 
14)  Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, USA, 120 min.)
This simultaneous telling of the beginning and end of a long-term relationship isn't entirely original – in some respects it feels like a less raw, more slickly-directed version of Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence – but it isn't hard to see why it earned so much advance praise at Cannes and Sundance.  The storytelling device of cutting back and forth between the relationship's tender early days and bitter end is very well handled, and the incredible performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as the couple prevent several moments from feeling as false or clichéd as they probably should.
15)  The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 120 min.)
The most talked-about movie of the year enlivens biopic clichés rather than transcending them.  Which is especially dubious given that the film's history of the founding of Facebook is largely invented.  But the film is very lively, with dynamic performances by its entire ensemble (particularly Jesse Eisenberg, who's never been better), screwball comedy dialogue from Aaron Sorkin, a creepy score by Trent Reznor, and immaculate direction by David Fincher.
16)  Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, USA, 103 min.)
I'm not convinced that Toy Story 3 needs to exist – it repeats a lot of the thematic ground already covered by the series' second installment, and it’s a little depressing to see the always-reliable Pixar trading in the masterful innovations of Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up for an uninspired sequel.  But for the most part the film successfully distracts from its redundancy by being the fastest paced and most exciting action film of the year, and one with real heart and a great sense of humor to boot.
17)  Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA, 138 min.)
18)  Inception (Christopher Nolan, UK/USA, 148 min.)
No one is marrying big ideas to blockbuster budgets like Christopher Nolan.  Inception is ultimately more complicated than deep, and its multi-layered plot requires a high amount of clunky exposition.  So much exposition, in fact, that the insanely talented ensemble cast (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, and Cillian Murphy) doesn't have room to do much beyond explaining the plot.  But when the film really connects, as in its awesome shifting gravity action sequences, it is overwhelming and exciting in the way that huge-budget movies ought to be but rarely are.
19)  Splice (Vincenzo Natali, Canada/USA, 104 min.)
This horror film's craziness seems almost quaint in light of Black Swan, but it is still the best monster movie of the year.  Some of the plot points are a bit muddled, and the chase scene ending only seems to exist because the film needed a climax, but the creature effects are stunning and disquieting, and the story goes in much riskier directions than most of this year's multiplex entertainments.
20)  Buried (Rodrigo Cortes, Spain, 95 min.)
A lot of the fun of this exploitation film comes from the simplicity of its outrageous premise:  a truck driver working in Iraq (Ryan Reynolds, in the performance of his career) wakes up inside a coffin, with only a cellphone and a lighter, and spends 95 minutes trying to get back above ground before he runs out of oxygen.  Considering the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief required to accept the film's plot, the only way to make this material work is to turn it into a dark comedy.  Fortunately the script is essentially a morbid parody of the horrors of modern bureaucracy, with its call centers and contracts designed to limit a company's responsibilities to its employees.
21)  Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, UK, 87 min.)
An obsessive home movie maker attempts to capture notorious British street artist Banksy on film, but winds up having the camera turned on him as he decides to become a street artist himself.  The film is clearly designed to make viewers question what is real and what's being staged, which are appropriate topics for an interrogation into the appreciation of art.  But those issues were dealt with in a more sophisticated and interesting way 35 years ago in Orson Welles' F for Fake.  The real value of Exit Through the Gift Shop is in its footage of infamous street artists at work.
22)  The Art of the Steal (Don Argott, USA, 101 min.)
A surprisingly engaging documentary about the struggle for the control of the Barnes Foundation, a priceless private art collection that its now-deceased founder intended as an educational institution but that a number of his personal and political enemies want to turn into a tourist trap.  Director Don Argott keeps the pace lively and gives this potentially dry story the feel of a tense conspiracy thriller.
23)  My Perestroika (Robin Hessman, Russia/UK/USA, 87 min.)
I'm not sure that this documentary about the social and political changes that took place over the last 30-odd years in Russia tells us anything we don't know, but it does do an excellent job of personalizing those changes.  Director Robin Hessman follows several Russians in their 30s as they explain how seismic events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union have affected them personally and professionally.  The subjects are lively and interesting, and their interview footage is melded seamlessly with propaganda films, old news footage, and home movies.
24)  About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 119 min.)
The winner of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival's Award for Best Narrative Feature begins as a lighthearted chronicle of a weekend getaway to the Caspian Sea, develops into a tense thriller when one member of the party goes missing, and finally settles in as an intense dissection of gender relations in contemporary Iran.  There are a few notable flaws here – the film backs itself into a corner and just kind of stops instead of coming to a conclusion – but the cast has great chemistry, and director Asghar Farhadi handles the shift in pacing and tone very well.
25)  Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 100 min.)
26)  Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, USA, 87 min.)
27)  Best Worst Movie (Michael Paul Stephenson, USA, 93 min.)
28)  Winnebago Man (Ben Steinbauer, USA, 85 min.)
29)  The Other Guys (Adam McKay, USA, 107 min.)
30)  Jean-Michel Basquiat:  The Radiant Child (Tamra Davis, USA, 88 min.)

B-   Good but flawed or insubstantial
31)  It is Fine.  Everything is Fine! (David Brothers/Crispin Glover, USA, 74 min.)
You have to admire the bravery of Steven C. Stewart, the star and screenwriter of Crispin Glover's second directorial effort.  The film is essentially an outlet for Stewart, a lifelong sufferer of cerebral palsy, to share his darkest obsessions with the world, largely through a series of (mostly) unsimulated sex scenes that fully display the ways that his body didn't work (he died shortly after the film's completion).  The film's willingness to follow Stewarts' fetishes to their most repellant extremes (he strangles several of his partners to death) is admirable and mesmerizing, albeit in a highly unpleasant way.  Not an easy film to forget, though you wouldn't want to watch it more than once.
32)  The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, USA, 103 min.)
Out of this year's glut of '80s action movie tributes, this was the only one that felt like the real thing.  You can't separate the fun of this all-star film from its utter stupidity, but its complete lack of ironic distance is refreshing, and Sylvester Stallone has a genuine talent for filming ridiculously violent action scenes.
33)  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows:  Part 1 (David Yates, UK, 147 min.)
34)  Night Catches Us (Tanya Hamilton, USA, 90 min.)
First-time filmmaker Tanya Hamilton displays a nice feel for period, place, and community in this Bicentennial-set exploration of the Black Panther's conflicted legacy.  The story involves an ex-Panther (Anthony Mackie) who returns to Philadelphia for his father's funeral, only to discover that many of his old associates (including several cast members of The Wire) are adrift in a haze of directionless anger, without the direction of the Party to guide them.  There are a few problems with the script – some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, and a few important characters simply disappear, but the atypical subject matter and the excellent cast mostly make up for it.
35)  Enemies of the People (Thet Sambath, Cambodia, 93 min.)
36)  His & Hers (Ken Wardrop, Ireland, 80 min.)
70 Irish females, ranging in age from very young children to very elderly women, discuss the most important men in their lives, whether they be their fathers, husbands, or sons.  Each woman is only on screen for a minute or two, they never mention the men's names, they appear in similar domestic settings, and they appear in order from youngest to oldest, which gives the viewer the impression of one coherent story rather than 70 different ones.  Veteran short filmmaker Ken Wardrop's formal experiment yields mixed results – it sometimes feels like a pre-feminist tribute to the "traditional woman," but there are also a number of genuinely touching and amusing moments, and the gimmick doesn't have time to overstay its welcome at only 80 minutes.
37)  Date Night (Shawn Levy, USA, 88 min.)
38)  Lemmy (Greg Olliver/Wes Orshoski, USA, 122 min.)
39)  The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, USA, 106 min.)
40)  Megamind (Tom McGrath, USA, 95 min.)

C+  Decent
41)  Machete (Robert Rodriguez, USA, 105 min.)
Any isolated scene in this overheated parody/homage to trashy action films is hysterically funny.  But the relentless sarcasm and juvenilia isn't enough to hold together an entire feature film.
42)  Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, USA, 107 min.)
43)  Cell 211 (Daniel Monzon, Spain, 113 min.)
44)  Perrier's Bounty (Ian Fitzgibbon, Ireland, 88 min.)
45)  Mid-August Lunch (Gianni di Gregorio, Italy, 75 min.)
46)  Vengeance (Johnnie To, China/France, 108 min.)
Johnnie To's bizarre, highly mannered version of a violent Hong Kong shoot-'em-up suggests a simultaneous deconstruction of Jean-Pierre Melville and John Woo, though it isn't clear what point To thinks he's making. The film works best when To lets his fantastic visual sense take over, as in a fantastic park shootout timed to the flickering light of the moon.  But too often the film returns pointlessly to awkward quasi-parodies of action movie conventions, which isn't enough to sustain a two-hour film.
47)  Rejoice and Shout (Don McGlynn, USA, 115 min.)

C   Mediocre

48)  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, UK, 123 min.)
Some of the flaws of Terry Gilliam's latest film can be blamed on the untimely death of star Heath Ledger, which occured while the film was halfway through production.  But it is telling that Gilliam's solution - to have Ledger's character (a charlatan clearly meant to represent Tony Blair) replaced in various fantasy scenes by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell - is actually one of the less sloppy elements of this extremely uneven and muddled film.  The confusing, awkwardly paced story and the shrill, tone-deaf comedy make this a hard film to recommend even for fans of Gilliam, though there are moments of visual brilliance.
49)  Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 108 min.)
Provocation is inherently interesting, but it isn't always edifying.  Lars von Trier's chest-beating existentialism and Medieval conception of femininity get a real workout in this horror film about a troubled couple seeking therapy in the woods.  There are a handful of vibrant images (unusual for von Trier), and Willem Dafoe and (especially) Charlotte Gainsbourg give great performances under the circumstances.  But the film simply isn't deep enough to earn the atrocities (including genital mutilation) depicted in its last half hour.  The aura of self satisfaction is more offensive than anything von Trier puts on screen.
50)  The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Austria/Germany, 144 min.)
Michael Haneke has been one of world cinema's most intriguing and vital voices of the past two decades.  Too bad he settled for second rate Ingmar Bergman existentialism in this dull look at pre-WWII Germany.
51)  Looking for Eric (Ken Loach, UK, 116 min.)
52)  Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, USA, 117 min.)
53)  The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, France/Germany/UK, 128 min.)
54)  Mesrine (Jean-Francois Richet, France, 246 min.)
55)  Police, Adjective (Cornelieu Porumboiu, Romania, 115 min.)
56)  Soundtrack for a Revolution (Dan Sturman/William Guttentag, USA, 82 min.)
57)  Freedom Riders (Stanley Nelson, USA, 113 min.)
58)  Sons of Cuba (Andrew Lang, UK, 88 min.)
59)  Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark, 93 min.)
60)  The Human Centipede (Tom Six, Netherlands, 92 min.)
For a movie with such a seductively insane plot – a mad scientist kidnaps three young people and stitches their mouths to each other's anuses, essentially creating one superbeing – The Human Centipede is a surprisingly dull film.  Tom Six knows how to make a low-budget film look professional, and thankfully uses suggestion more than graphic imagery for his gross-out effects, but he has no sense of pacing.  Dieter Laser, the Udo Kier-style ham actor who plays the scientist, supplies most of the entertainment after the initial shock value wares off.
61)  The Twilight Saga:  Eclipse (David Slade, USA, 124 min.)
The Twilight series' nonsensical storylines and bizarre sense of morality remain equally baffling and popular.  The third installment is a modest improvement over the first two, if only because the war between vampires and wolfpeople allows for more action and less brooding.
62)  Clash of the Titans (Louis Letterier, USA, 106 min.)
63)  Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, UK/USA, 140 min.)
64)  Budrus (Julia Bacha, Israel, 70 min.)
65)  Nora's Will (Mariana Chenillo, Mexico, 92 min.)
66)  A Film Unfinished (Yael Hersonski, Israel, 88 min.)

C-   Below Average
67)  A Screaming Man (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad, 92 min.)
68)  No One Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran, 106 min.)
69)  Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, USA, 108 min.)
Imagine how great a Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland would've been in 1990, with Winona Ryder as Alice, a less kid-friendly Johnny Depp still playing the Mad Hatter, and imaginative pre-CGI set designs.  The actual Burton-directed Alice from 2010 isn't a total waste of time – some of the performances are entertaining (especially Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen), even if they sometimes don't seem like they belong in the same movie – but it is still Burton's worst film since Planet of the Apes, and a sad reminder of his declining talent.

D   Awful
70)  Tron Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 127 min.)

D-   Nearly Worthless
71)  Baraboo (Mary Sweeney, USA, 99 min.)
You would think that Mary Sweeney, frequent editor for David Lynch, would be able to at least put together a technically competent feature of her own.  Yet the only thing that sets Baraboo apart from the average home movie are its painfully unrealistic characters.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top Ten Albums of 2010

      1)      Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
      2)      Baths – Cerulean

On his earlier albums, Flying Lotus proved that he was the most talented disciple of Madlib.  On Cosmogramma Lotus comes into his own, blending his own sophisticated sampling with elegant live strings and jazzy bass to create a powerful, celestial music that can't be mistaken for the work of anyone else.  Baths' Cerulean is just as distinctive as Cosmogramma, and is arguably more impressive considering that it is his debut.  The combination of Dilla's dusty future-soul and Grizzly Bear's moody choir music is as unlikely as it is gorgeous.

3)      Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot:  The Son of Chico Dusty

It's debatable whether Big Boi really needed to step out of the shadow of Andre 3000, since hip hop fans have long considered both to be among the most talented MCs of their generation.  But Sir Lucious Left Foot is just as adventurous, energetic, and infectious as any of OutKast's group albums, and arguably more consistent and coherent.  Each individual track is stuffed with more ideas than most entire albums can boast, yet they are all polished, refined, and catchy enough to be Top 40 hits.  The complex productions are a perfect match for Big Boi's vivid, mind-bending rhymes, which shift from battle raps to sexual boasting to politics without missing a beat.

4)      Zach Hill – Face Tat
      5)      Deerhunter – Halycon Digest

On the surface, Zach Hill's energetic noise and Deerhunter's gauzy bedroom rock have little in common.  But the avant-garde Face Tat relies as heavily on immediacy and catchiness as the poppy Halycon Digest does on atmosphere and tonality, and both albums utilize a ridiculously high amount of reverb.  The two discs are also united by being extremely consistent even as they find their creators branching out into new territory.

6)      LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

James Murphy and co. lose points for owing such a heavy debt to the music of the past.  The treated, sun-scorched guitars come from Bowie's Berlin period, the polyrhythms from Talking Heads, the metallic keyboards from Gary Newman, and the whole apocalyptic party vibe from Prince's 1999.  But on This is Happening, LCD Soundsystem sound like peers of their influences rather than imitators.

7)      Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

The first two Gorillaz albums felt like sketchy vanity projects for Damon Albarn and friends, with occasional moments of inspiration stranded in a sea of demo-quality Britpop and half-baked genre hybrids.  Plastic Beach, on the other hand, is a full-fledged album, one that doesn't sacrifice the "group's" adventurous, eclectic spirit for consistency and coherence.  Mos Def, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, and the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music all sound equally at home in Albarn's crafty pop productions.

8)      Strong Arm Steady – In Search of Stoney Jackson

This year, Madlib released an album-a-month series called Madlib Medicine Show, showcasing his interest in everything from reggae to bossa nova to jazz.  But Madlib's greatest guise is hip hop producer, and his album-length beat work for veteran Los Angeles crew Strong Arm Steady provided the most impressive look at his skills this year.  SAS' rapping is best described as "adequate," and they are honestly indistinguishable from most of the album's many guest stars.  But it doesn't really matter, because a flashier group of MCs would only get in the way of Madlib's dense, soulful, endlessly inventive work behind the boards.

9)      Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
    10)   Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Pop music's biggest overreachers make good.  The Age of Adz and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy could both use a little tightening up – the former could afford to drop a few flute trills or drum machine disruptions here and there, and the latter would be better with half as many guest verses, and both albums are simply too long.  But the overabundance of ambition serves to push both Sufjan Stevens and Kanye West into more daring territory than they've gone into in the past, with West finally unifying the various strands of his work and Stevens sounding more like a deranged mad scientist than a wussy troubadour.  Not everything works on either of these albums, but their most striking moments wouldn't be possible if they weren't risking colossal failure at every turn.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Fargo)

After three period films in a row, the Coen Brothers finally return to the present day with Fargo (1996).  (Well, almost the present day; the film is technically set in 1987, though it could've been set in 1996 without having any impact on the story).  The Coens spent their first five films bouncing between genres, but Fargo finds them returning to the rural noir of their debut, Blood Simple (1984).  After the uncharacteristically slapdash Hudsucker Proxy (1994) brought all of the duo's worst tendencies to the forefront, the return to streamlined, relatively modest drama is a relief.  It isn't hard to see why Fargo was the film that finally brought the Coens near-universal acclaim from critics, award voters, and audiences.  The modern-day midwestern setting assures that the Coens don't get too far outside of their comfort zone, and the simple story and reserved characterizations temper the brothers' weakness for shallow convolution and aimless misanthropy.  In Fargo, the Coens have found a vehicle to amplify their strengths and downplay their persistent flaws.  But evidence of those flaws still remains, and the Coens' good qualities haven't yet developed to the point that they can make a really great movie on their own.

The Coens' worldview is still the main unappealing quality of their films.  Once again, the duo presents a plot that hinges entirely on the corruption and/or stupidity of all involved parties, though for once they provide a kind-hearted and resourceful hero. (Perhaps as an excuse for their cynicism, the Coens begin Fargo with a "based on real events" title card, but they have since admitted that the film is entirely fictional).  North Dakota car dealer William H. Macy hires two sleazy contract criminals, blabbermouth Steve Buscemi and mute Peter Stormare, to kidnap his wife as a way to collect "ransom" money from her wealthy father.  The goons are pulled over on the way to their rural Minnesota hideout, and wind up killing a state trooper and two random passerbies before fleeing.  Small-town detective Frances McDormand investigates the murders, and gradually uncovers Macy's bungled conspiracy.

This isn't a bad setup for a small-scale noir story, and for the most part the Coens are able to keep the story focused and engaging.  But, as usual, the Coens just don't seem to like any of their characters, or to even find any of them terribly interesting beyond their function in the plot and their one or two quirks.  It isn't enough that Macy is a bad husband and father, but he's also an incompetent crook and a pathetically bad salesman.  Buscemi is easily irritated and can't keep his focus on the task at hand, while Stormare lacks passion and resorts to violence at the drop of a hat.  Macy's wife is a crude caricature of a Midwest housewife, and she is given so little personality that her offscreen death doesn't even register emotionally.  By contrast, McDormand is virtually a saint, a woman who performs her job even while seven months pregnant, and uses simple common sense to solve an illogical crime.  The excellent cast manages to make these fairly basic characters compelling – Macy, Buscemi, and McDormand virtually owe their careers to these roles – and they are a lot more colorful and interesting than the stick figures of Blood Simple.  But the Coens still haven't managed to put a truly complex, plausibly human character on screen.

Though the Coens have barely developed their characterization skills, they have gotten even better at creating distinctive environments for those characters to play around in.  The busy production designs of their last several films give way to a sparsely populated, wintery atmosphere beautifully captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Ice-damaged car windows, heavy snowsuits, and barren fields of snow make the cold almost palpable, and provide a fitting yet genuinely unique setting for a film noir.  The Coens don't seem to be aiming for a "realistic" Midwestern setting – the characters' accents are accentuated to an almost condescending degree – but there is a musical quality to the best of their dialogue. 

As usual, there are a couple of energetic, inventively staged setpieces, including a clumsy, nearly botched kidnapping, and the aforementioned highway massacre, which recalls Blood Simple's burial scene in masterful tension building.  Fargo may be the Coens' most entertaining and well-made film to this point, but the level of their craftsmanship is still out of proportion to the simplicity of their ideas.  The crime story is exciting, but it is in service of a few easy jokes about rural Midwesterners and a banal "money isn't everything" moral.

UP NEXT  The Big Lebowski

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

TV on DVD: Dexter (Season One, Discs Three & Four)

Episodes covered:  Father Knows Best, Seeing Red, Truth Be Told, Born Free

I'm done with Dexter.

This isn't because I particularly disliked the last several episodes of season one.  On the contrary, these were probably the most compelling episodes of the show to this point.  I would even say that the season finale, "Born Free," in which Dexter races to free his sister from the Ice Truck Killer's clutches, is a very strong episode of television.  "Born Free" has a much stronger sense of momentum than the rest of season one's episodes, and the demands of the plot allow the series to play up its strengths (Michael C. Hall, the twisted superhero and supervillain origins of Dexter and the Ice Truck Killer) while downplaying its weaknesses (every character not named Dexter).

But the things that make "Born Free" and, to a lesser degree, the other episodes on these discs relatively effective don't give me any hope that the show is going to get better in later seasons.  The writers haven't addressed the series' many flaws so much as briefly hidden them while wrapping up season one's major storyline.  Looking back at my  review of disc one, I realize that the show hasn't done anything to change my mind about any aspect of the show.  A few of the characters are in superficially different places than they were at the beginning of the season, but none of them have become any more complicated or compelling.  If anything, the supporting characters have only become more boring as we've seen them each repeat their one or two character traits ad naseum.  Yes, Rita has finally started to suspect that Dexter may be too good to be true, and Doakes now appears to be actively stalking Dexter instead of just acting suspicious around him, and LaGuerta has been demoted, but these are all plot elements that could've explored during this season when the show was wasting time on generic police procedural plots.  All of these developments feel too little, too late.  The gulf between the daring, dark, ever-evolving series that Dexter could be and the timid, lightweight, formulaic show it actually is seems wider than ever.

Quick Thoughts:

- I realize that first seasons of TV shows tend to be a little rocky, and that virtually every long-running show improves from its humble beginnings.  But the consensus seems to be that Dexter's first season is the show at its best, and I just can't justify putting in the time commitment to continue watching a lengthy series that at its "best" is merely pretty good.

- For all of its flaws, Dexter is at least one of the best looking shows on television.  Romeo Tirone's eye-poppingly colorful cinematography, mixed with the photogenic Miami location, puts Dexter in the same league as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire visually, even if most of the other aspects of the show aren't nearly that strong.

- Early next year, I'll get back to watching The Shield, which will probably remain the focus of the TV on DVD posts through next summer.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Masterpiece Test: 25th Hour

Year of Release  2003
Country  USA
Length  135 min.
Director  Spike Lee
Screenwriter  David Benioff (adapted from his own novel)
Cinematographer  Rodrigo Prieto
Editor  Barry Alexander Brown
Original Score  Terence Blanchard
Cast  Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin

Beauty  The story of down-on-his-luck drug dealer Monty Brogan (Norton) is punctuated with striking imagery – a long sequence in a nightclub is particularly dazzling – but screenwriter David Benioff and the ensemble cast are responsible for 25th Hour's most elegant moments.  For better or worse, Spike Lee has always been an overreacher, and sometimes he drowns out his films' stories with an overabundance of style.  25th Hour is one of Lee's more well-measured films, but it does exhibit a few of his recurring flaws, such as the nonstop use of Terence Blanchard's score even in scenes that would be better off without any background music.

Strangeness  Lee's in-your-face style can be overbearing, but it is undeniably unique.  Most directors would've filmed Benioff's screenplay in either a purely functional, "filmed radio" style or in a shaky cam verite style.  Both approaches are part of Lee's arsenal, but he boldly adds a number of flashy visual and audio flourishes in places you wouldn't expect.  More importantly, Lee is willing to explore social and political issues that most filmmakers don't even acknowledge.  In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, a number of films set in New York were altered so that the World Trade Center was not visible, even if the films in question had nothing to do with the building.  But the aftermath of 9/11 is explicitly the backdrop of 25th Hour.  The constant reminders of the tragedy make the themes of Benioff's story more resonant, and the fact that Lee goes as far as to feature the devastated Ground Zero in the background of one memorable scene (and also make it the focus of the film's opening credits) really sets 25th Hour apart from any other fictional film made in the early 2000s.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  25th Hour is not just about the final hours before Monty goes to prison to serve a seven-year sentence.  It's also about Monty's loved ones and their reactions to his predicament.  Monty's girlfriend (Dawson) just wants to spend some time with him before he goes away.  Monty's best friends, a high school teacher (Hoffman) and a Wall Street stockbroker (Pepper), have opposite feelings about his situation, with the former ignoring the problem and looking forward to the day that Monty gets out of prison, and the latter drowning in misery and insisting that their friend won't make it out alive.  Meanwhile, Monty's father (Cox) is hatching a plot to help his son escape his prison sentence.  Although Monty is consistently at the center of 25th Hour, the film's point of view frequently shifts to that of the other characters, who view Monty's predicament in light of their own dashed hopes and ideals.  This constantly shifting focus gives the film a bit of a Rashomon feel, which is to say that the subject of the 25th Hour has less to do with Monty's story than with the conflicted reactions to his situation.

Tradition  In terms of style and content, 25th Hour seems most influenced by the "New Hollywood" cinema of the '70s.  Martin Scorsese's blend of verite naturalism and pulpy expressiveness has always had a clear influence on Lee (unsurprising, since Scorsese was one of his mentors at NYU).  Scorsese's influence is particularly palpable in the scene where the high school teacher and the student he not-so-secretly has a crush on (Paquin) recover from an awkward bathroom embrace, and are filmed as if they are floating in time with the cameras, just like the characters in Mean Streets.  It is perhaps too early to tell whether 25th Hour has had a lasting impact on cinema, but recent films like Blue Valentine feature a similar mix of raw emotion and slick style.

Repeatability  25th Hour certainly deepened for me on a second viewing.  It may not be an artistic landmark like Do the Right Thing (still the definitive statement on race relations in the United States) or the extraordinarily thorough Hurricane Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, but 25th Hour should nonetheless stand the test of time as cinema's only accurate portrayal of the nation's post-9/11 mindset.

Viewer Engagement  The shifting point of view mentioned above is the key to 25th Hour's success.  Viewers are constantly placed in different characters' shoes, and Benioff's empathetic dialogue, combined with the cast's uniformly excellent performances, make each of the main characters' points of view relatable.  Because each of the characters has a different outlook on Monty's illegal profession, and on whether or not his impending punishment is just, the viewer is constantly invited to ask herself where they stand on these issues.

Morality  Like any good moral film, 25th Hour does not provide easy answers to the questions it raises.  Part of the film's value is that it discusses issues that viewers are not normally asked to think about, and that it gives equal credence to several different opinions about how society should treat drug dealers. Lee and Benioff don't let Monty off the hook for his actions – he has certainly helped a lot of people destroy their lives, as evidenced in an early scene where a desperate, haggard junkie begs Monty for a fix.  But the filmmakers don't ever let us forget that Monty is a human being, either.  And if we don't care about what happens to this self-destructive man, does that mean that we shouldn't care about how his incarceration will affect his loved ones?  Unfortunately, the film's empathy doesn't extend to its minor characters in the way that it does in Do the Right Thing.  The policemen pursuing Monty are one-dimensional harassers, and the Russian mobsters who Monty works for are even more stereotypical.  But the one-note treatment of these supporting characters can only stand out in a film that is otherwise so smart and complicated.

25th Hour fails the Masterpiece Test due to a number of minor flaws, though it remains an important document of its era.

UP NEXT  Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way, a critical favorite that never found an audience.

Monday, December 13, 2010

On Season Three of Sons of Anarchy and Season One of Boardwalk Empire

Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire were two of the most highly anticipated series of the past television season.  The outstanding second season of Sons set the bar prohibitively high for its future, but the exciting cliffhanger that it ended on demonstrated that creator Kurt Sutter wasn't going to let the show rest on its laurels, and also seemed to promise fans that this year would further develop the show's underlying mythology.   Though Boardwalk Empire debuted this year, in many ways it had as much to live up to as Sons of Anarchy.  Boardwalk's pedigree – Terence Winter (one of the head writers of The Sopranos) + Martin Scorsese + Steve Buscemi – and the fact that HBO was reportedly willing to invest upwards of $65 million for its first season alone set expectations that the series would be better than virtually anything else on TV.  Neither the first season of Boardwalk nor the third season of Sons entirely managed to live up to fans' sky high expectations.  Both seasons were nearly as frustrating as they were fascinating.  But most of the flaws of either show were the result of a surplus of ambition rather than a lack of imagination, and each show laid interesting groundwork for next year's seasons.

Season two of Sons of Anarchy ended on an exclamation point, with Jax (Charlie Hunnam) distraught over the kidnapping of his baby by one of SAMCRO's IRA contacts, and Gemma (Katey Sagal) on the lam after being framed for a double-homicide.  Ending a season by severely upsetting the status quo is bold.  But the very plot points that made the conclusion of season two so thrilling also backed Sutter and his writing staff into a corner for season three.  Jax's baby Abel has never really functioned as anything other than a thematic symbol or a plot point, since the fast pace of Sons has never allowed for many scenes of Jax-as-a-dad.  It's harder to get invested in the quest to get Abel back than it would be if someone like Jax's girlfriend Tara (Maggie Siff) had been kidnapped instead, since she is a full-fledged character who fans are invested in.  By placing something as dramatic as a missing baby in the center of season three's plot, Sutter and his writing staff created a ticking time bomb that the audience constantly wants to see defused or see explode.  Anything not involving SAMCRO's efforts to get Jax's baby back is doomed to seem like a waste of time.  And since the complications involved in travelling overseas to retrieve Abel from the IRA require SAMCRO to function as a coherent unit working toward a common goal, the show has to sacrifice to a large degree its most compelling element – the complications in the personal relationships between SAMCRO's members.  The individual members of SAMCRO are bound to get short shrift in a season where they are all working toward Jax's goals.

In the early goings of season three, Sutter and his writing staff managed to sidestep most of the inherent flaws of the kidnapping storyline by deftly writing their way out of the corner they'd put themselves in with the Gemma-on-the-run plot.  The show couldn't separate SAMCRO from its matriarch for an entire season, because Gemma has been at the center of most of the show's major storylines, and because the interactions between Sagal and the other actors tend to provide Sons' most emotionally resonant moments.  So the writers very wisely gave Gemma a brief story arc to start the season that fulfilled the plot demands created by the end of her season two storyline while also giving thematic weight to a season (and a series) that is at its heart all about families.  When we first meet up with Gemma in season three, she is at a motel being guarded by Tig (Kim Coates).  Gemma's husband Clay (Ron Perlman) is attempting to keep her in the dark about the Abel situation, in the hopes that they can settle the kidnapping situation before she comes home.  (The third season picks up just days after the end of season two, before SAMCRO is aware that Abel is in Ireland).  After learning about her mother's passing, Gemma reunites with her estranged ex-priest father (Hal Holbrook), who is in the grips of dementia.  This four-episode arc was emotionally powerful enough (and well-acted enough by Sagal and Holbrook) to not seem like an unnecessary distraction from the Abel plot.  It also allowed for all sorts of inspired zaniness, including a hilariously deadpan cameo by Stephen King, that stood in tonally effective contrast to the brooding search-for-Abel story.  After Gemma loses her father to Alzheimer's, she becomes more firmly committed to holding onto the family that she does have - which makes it all the more devastating when she returns to Charming and finds out the truth about her grandson.

The storyline with Gemma and her father was smart and purposeful, and provided a logical yet unpredictable way to reunite the show's major characters.  Unfortunately, the middle part of the season wasn't plotted nearly as clearly or logically.  Too often the third season of Sons was complicated but not sophisticated.  The show has never had time to flesh out all of the regular SAMCRO characters, and this season was already going to need to introduce an entirely new cast of characters with its Ireland storyline.  Was this really the most logical time to also introduce several new gangs, three new SAMCRO "prospects," a bounty hunter, a lawyer, and another DEA agent, while also greatly expanding the roles of several minor recurring characters?  The season managed a few grace notes amid the chaos – neo-Nazi Darby (Mitch Pileggi) realizing that he's getting too old to hold on to pointless hatred, Tig and Kozik (Kenneth Johnson) gradually revealing the source of their long-running animosity, Otto (Sutter) calmly resigning himself to life on Death Row.  But, frankly, a lot of season three was a mess, the result of the writers trying to cram too much plot into thirteen episodes. 

The lack of focus really hurt the Ireland storyline, which is a huge problem since the season was essentially built around it.  There was certainly a lot of potential in SAMCRO heading to Ireland.  Presumably Sutter meant to expand the show's mythology by exposing Jax to characters who could tell him more about the circumstances surrounding his father's death, and by detailing the history of the club and its connection to the IRA.  But this storyline was bungled to the point that fans could be forgiven for feeling like they came out of season three knowing less about Sons' mythology than they did before SAMCRO went to Ireland.  It was fine for figures like Father Ashby (James Cosmo) and Jimmy O'Phelan (Titus Welliver) to be somewhat opaque before SAMCRO got out of California.  But nearly all of the information we wound up learning about these characters later in the season was maddeningly vague, confusing, and, at times, contradictory.  Considering that the Irish characters' motivations and relationships to each other essentially drove the most important narrative arc of the season, it would've been nice to have some sort of understanding of what those motivations and relationships were.  Instead, the Abel storyline was filled with as many shifting allegiances and inconsequential plot twists as The X-Files' alien conspiracy.  The Ireland trip did come to a surprisingly strong conclusion in the episode "Bainne," which found Jax contemplating leaving Abel with the straight-laced adoptive couple who wouldn't expose him to the dangers that Jax's lifestyle inevitably would.  It's nice that the Ireland storyline wound up refocusing Sons by bringing it back to its original theme – Jax's struggle to reconcile his sense of morality and his desire for peace with his violent way of life.  But I would've preferred if the show had taken a less sloppy route to get there.

Considering how frustrating the Ireland arc was, it was a pleasant surprise to find Sons returning to California for the last two episodes of the season.  These episodes not only wrapped up a number of the season's many plot threads, but also provided some interesting hints about the direction that next year's season will bring.  The big plot twist involving the way that Jax had manipulated Agent Stahl (Ally Walker) was a bit of a cheat; there were so many factors that had to go just right for his plan to have possibly worked out as well as it seems to have, and it doesn't seem like there would've been time for Jax to even explain his plan to the rest of SAMCRO, let alone execute it.  But Sons look at gang life has always been more The Warriors than The Wire, so I don't mind it when the writers value sheer entertainment value over verisimilitude.  Also, the twist allowed for a pair of satisfying conclusions to two of the show's longer running storylines.  Opie (Ryan Hurst) finally got his revenge on Stahl for her role in his wife's murder, while Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) was finally put in a position to eliminate the normally untouchable O'Phelan.   Aside from supplying surprising resolutions to two of the show's most important arcs – and providing some powerful material for supporting players who were too often pushed to the sidelines in Sons' third season – these scenes allowed the show to clear the decks for the fourth season. 

It looks like year four will pick up a year or two after the events of season three (the first three seasons take place over a span of a little more than a year), with most of the members of SAMCRO emerging from prison to a very different Charming.  Jacob Hale (Jeff Kober), who has already expressed hostility toward SAMCRO, will most likely be the mayor.  Unser (Dayton Callie) will no longer be the chief of police (and may have finally succumbed to his cancer), so the gang will no longer have an inside man to get them out of legal scrapes.  And the sinister Russian mobsters introduced at the end of season three could conceivably take over a good deal of SAMCRO's business, perhaps destroying the already fragile truce between the Sons and the Mayans.  In any case, it sounds like the fourth season will largely find SAMCRO out of favor with the town that they have been accustomed to running.  A potential stumbling block of this prospective storyline is that Sons has never given a clear picture of what life for the average citizen of Charming is like.  Even Tara's nosy boss (McNally Sagal) has been revealed to be a former gang groupie, so there aren't any established characters on the show that have no connection to the club.  Still, the direction that the show seems to be headed in has the potential to get into the morality of what SAMCRO does on a much deeper level than the show has had time for up to this point.  Even after a highly uneven third season, I can't wait to see where Sons of Anarchy goes next.

If there is less to talk about with Boardwalk Empire, it isn't because its first season was any less ambitious than Sons of Anarchy's third season, but because it did a better job of balancing its many characters and various plot threads.  Aside from some specifics involving a robbery that took place toward the end of the pilot episode, I never found myself confused about Boardwalk's narrative, despite the fact that the show already has more major regular and recurring characters than most shows do in their second or third years.  Every scene had a clear purpose, leading logically into the next scene while also introducing plot points that would develop and pay off later on in the episode or the season.  Few veteran shows are as rationally or smoothly structured as Boardwalk Empire already is after its first season.

Yet in some ways Boardwalk could benefit from being messier.  The series is set primarily in Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition, a rich setting that places the characters at the intersection of politics, crime, and the proto-feminism of the Temperance movement, while also allowing the show to deal with fascinating issues of race, sexuality, and the immigrant experience.  At the center of this world is Nucky Thompson (Buscemi), the treasurer who runs the city by figuring out exactly what everyone around him wants, and then giving them just enough of it to feel that they owe him a debt.  The writers are nearly as calculating as Nucky in slowly doling out storylines for the other characters, including Nucky's reluctant mistress Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), troubled WWI vet Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), and religious fanatic Federal Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon).  In addition, the writers have carefully developed characters that exist outside of Nucky's immediate orbit, such as New York City gambler Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Chicago mobster Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), and Torrio's henchman Al Capone (Stephen Graham).  Each of these characters has been given a convincing, well-rounded personality, and all of their individual storylines have been compelling and focused.  But for a show set in the Jazz Age, Boardwalk Empire can sometimes feel a little too much like a classical piece.  Other period shows like Deadwood and Mad Men frequently pause to luxuriate in the weirdness of their settings, and those shows worlds are immeasurably richer for including material that is tangential to their main storylines.  It feels strange to criticize Boardwalk Empire for having a well-constructed narrative, but its intense focus on pushing the story forward can sometimes make the show feel a little cold and distant.

The tone of Boardwalk would be less problematic if the story had made more progress, but a lot of this season was about defining the characters and putting them in position for the presumably more dramatic events of the future.  It seems that the main narrative of the show will be Nucky either becoming more corrupt as he becomes more powerful or him gradually losing his grip on the city as it becomes more violent.  Nucky's relationship with all of the major characters is tenuous at best, and most of the characters were frustrated with his reign of power by the end of the first season.  The penultimate episode of the season seemed to be bringing several of these plot strands to a head, but the season finale – tellingly titled "A Return to Normalcy" – found the characters either reverting back to old habits or just beginning to formulate plans to overthrow Nucky.  "A Return to Normalcy" is a fine episode of television by any standard, but it also serves as a reminder that the first season of Boardwalk Empire was essentially a prologue to the real story.

But these are ultimately minor flaws.  Boardwalk Empire hasn't yet overthrown Mad Men or Breaking Bad as the best show currently on television, but there is no reason to believe that it won't get to that point in its presumably more dramatic future.  The sheer scope of the series is unmatched by anything on the air, and no show can boast a more fascinating setting or better production values.  Check out that boardwalk set – a seamless combination of production design and special effects, realistically populated by dozens of extras.  Every member of the ensemble cast is great.  Relatively minor characters like black community leader Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) and tin-faced war vet Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) are as fascinating and feel as lived-in as major players like Nucky and Jimmy.  And when the show finds opportunities to work in really explosive set pieces – Chalky's "bookshelf" monologue, the Torrio crew's slaughter of a rival Chicago gang, Van Alden's baptism/murder – it has a sense of grandeur that outpaces any of today's Hollywood epics.  Maybe all that season one of Boardwalk Empire ultimately amounted to was interesting place setting for a truly masterful series to come – but there is every indication that the series will become one of the major works of art of this decade.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (The Hudsucker Proxy)

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) is The Coen Brothers' third period film in a row.  While the construction of its world is more elaborate, dense, and impressive in some ways than that of Miller's Crossing (1990) or Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy also has the most problematic approach to history of any Coen film to this point.  Miller's Crossing had some anachronistic dialogue (which isn't atypical of period films in general), but its conflation of gangster film tropes from several decades seemed purposeful, since the genre enjoyed its first highpoints in the '30s and '40s and was based around real-world events from the '20s.  Barton Fink similarly borrowed stylistic and historic elements from the '30s and '40s, but the tight focus on that film's titular character – to the point that the events of the plot may have been taking place in his head - basically negated the need to stick to a realistic depiction of its setting.  With The Hudsucker Proxy, The Coen Brothers don't seem to be indifferent to or contemptuous of history so much as unaware of it, which makes the use of their usual "people are stupid" theme especially unconvincing and unfair.

Hudsucker Industries founder Charles Durning unexpectedly commits suicide during a board meeting by jumping out of a window in one of the top floors of the company's massive skyscraper.  Facing the threat of stockholders taking control of the company, vice president Paul Newman and his board of directors hatch a scheme to take their power back and make a lot of money in the process:  they'll hire a rube to sit in as president, so that when the stock inevitably plummets, they can buy it back at a low price.  Their mark is small-town boy Tim Robbins, a buffoonish mailroom employee who dreams of mass-marketing the world's first hula hoop.  Local reporter Jennifer Jason Leigh suspects that something is wrong at the company, and poses as an aspiring Hudsucker employee to get close to Robbins and uncover what the company is up to.

All of this is supposed to be taking place during 1958 and 1959, but you'd never know it if the characters didn't occasionally bring it up.  The art deco look of the sets comes from the '20s (with the massive clock tower evoking Harold Lloyd), but the character's costumes are straight out of the '40s, and their fast-paced banter is clearly modeled after the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s.  Aside from the invention of the hula hoop, and some passing nods to beatnik culture, there is virtually nothing about the film's plot, scenery, or characterization that calls to mind either the real 1950s or the movies of the '50s.  This wouldn't be such a big problem if the film was aiming for a feeling of timelessness or making a larger satirical point, two things that Terry Gilliam's Brazil (which clearly had a large influence on the visuals of The Hudsucker Proxy) manages to achieve with its pastiche of different eras.  But The Coens don't do anything with the various tropes that they've reconfigured for this film.  The Coens' carefully crafted setpieces and dialogue have an ironic, cynical distance to them, but they aren't trotting out various clichés because they have anything to say about them so much as because they can score some easy laughs from the "hip" modern audience.

There are undeniably some laughs to be had in The Hudsucker Proxy – Robbins proudly busting out his blueprint for the hula hoop (literally a drawing of a circle) is a good recurring gag, and the script (co-written by Sam Raimi) has some of The Coens' finest absurdist dialogue to date ("I do remember, and I was impressed, but that's all forgotten now").  The set design is impressively detailed even by Coen standards, and some of the visuals, such as a warehouse full of colorful hula hoops, are worthy of Dr. Seuss.  But the spectacular effects dim as it becomes clear that The Coens don't really have anything to say with this story.  A lot of the recurring jokes, like the ridiculously caffeinated banter of the newsroom, are funny the first time they show up, vaguely amusing the second time, and then increasingly shrill as the film limps closer to its conclusion. 

The complete lack of investment in the characters prevents the growing romance between Robbins and Leigh from gaining any steam, largely because the filmmakers lack the imagination (or interest in humanity) to turn their stereotypical characters into plausible human beings.  The Coens obviously intended to mock the outmoded clichés of old movies, but because they don't have anything of substance to say about them, it often seems like they are resurrecting old chestnuts simply because they can't come up with anything original themselves.  For example, Bill Cobbs' supernaturally wise maintenance man is probably supposed to be a parody of the "magical negro," but it's hard to parse how much the film is making fun of this stereotype and how much it's reinforcing it.  You can't really make a "knowing" film if you don't know anything.

UP NEXT  Fargo