When he says that Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit is “one of the most delightful films ever made” – something in my gut wonders first if he’s high, but next why, if it’s worthy of that kind of hyperbole, isn’t it in the Top Ten alongside a few pictures that, presumably, were not/could not also be ten of the most delightful films ever made. Or could they? It’s not that there’s a difference of opinion so much as there’s a lack of consistency and an ideological schism wherein the best “overlooked” picture of the year is suddenly not so overlooked if Ebert would only bump a stillbirth like Me, You, and Everyone We Know or Yes off his list. How is it that Miranda July’s film qualifies for the big leagues, anyway, while Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane is ghettoized somewhere south of the tropic of who gives a shit.
I want to start with number seven, though, Rodrigo Garcia’s Nine Lives that I’ve seen a couple of times but haven’t written on (the only one of Ebert’s ten that I’ve seen and am not on the record for) – a series of nine vaguely interlacing short films about nine different women that counts two as genuinely excellent, one as genuinely awful, and the rest filling in the gray areas in between. A good cast including Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Robin Wright-Penn, a couple of the ladies from “Deadwood” (and Ian McShane in a wheelchair), Dakota Fanning, and on and on go through their individual motions of regret and fury. Issues revolve around infertility, long lost loves, abuse, women separated from their kids, and women separated from their husbands – the best of which the same segment that Ebert identifies: a cautious, heartbroken orbit around open wounds between Wright-Penn and Jason Isaacs, that ends with one kissing the other’s belly.
In a just world, it would win the two supporting actor Oscars – if it were a film by itself, it would be one of my top films of the year. The other great segment is the first one, involving a middle-aged woman in prison, dealing with a visit from her young daughter. But, alas, there’s a lot of dross in here.
I’ve had it with Fanning, though – I mean, she’s preternaturally creepy and all, but that doesn’t mean that she should be shoehorned into anything just because she’s available. There are limits to the best of actresses and if I have to hear that forced giggle (make up your mind, either she’s a middle-aged woman trapped in the body of an eight-year-old, or she’s an eight-year-old – you can’t have her doing her alien shuck and then ask her to act all silly – the only thing that Fanning can’t do is act her age) again, I’m going to get up quietly, and leave the theater. Enough’s enough. If I had to rate it, I’d go for 2.5/4 – it’s like the Rebecca Miller flick that never was which means that it’s just good enough to make you wonder why it’s not better.
But more on that ideological schism: I question, seriously, if these picks reflect the ten films that Ebert thought were the best of the year or the ten that he thought were the best for him, politically, popularly, to choose. More troubling, maybe his top ten are films that he believes you need – which would be fine except that he so underestimates “us” that it’s insulting. The write-up on Crash, in particular, mentions Asians and homosexuals in the film’s pantheon of fabulized minorities, but unless he’s talking about a different film than the one I saw, the only Asians in it were horrible pastiches denied redemption. (Rent, another film whining about equality and acceptance, has as its only Asian a glimpse of an Asian businessman in a strip club.) You can make an argument about 2005 being the year that gays got a lot of positive exposure – but unless you’re talking about the mess around Memoirs of a Geisha, the slants got the shaft again. In any case, Crash was a lot of things, but it wasn’t a battleground for these two groups and so, in the writing, I do begin to question the progress of the essay.
The suggestion, though, that Syriana is “apolitical” is close to the mark though nothing to be proud of; but then I have to confess to being flummoxed by his suggestion that “Syriana argues that in the short run, every society must struggle for oil, and in the long run, it will be gone.” I don’t agree. Well, I agree, but I don’t agree that Syriana is about this at all – from what I could tell, Syriana uses some ideas as a backdrop to the central issue of family that becomes the beginning and the end of the discussion. I don’t know if it’s liberal or conservative to say that you should spend more time with the kids, but that’s all that Syriana seems to be saying. (Also, Matt Damon "sells" his first son for $75m not $100m - it's the second son that gets the century mark.)
When you read Ebert’s review he tells you that he doesn’t understand how everything fits and then proceeds to make suppositions about what he thinks the film might be “saying” about the amorality of the oil business. There’s a quote in the sidebar, it’s a speech from the film about the role of corruption in world affairs and it ends with the line “Corruption. . . is how we win” which a lot of people have equated with Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” – one such person mentioned it in Ebert’s Answer Man column and so Ebert transcribes the speech in its entirety on his site. Have to say that the phrase is as good for describing this administration as the other was for the Reagan, but see, that’s me being a liberal sort of guy writing a liberal cheap shot about a middling review for a film that is, yep, apolitical. It is, and here’s me making a supposition, another film that Ebert thinks will make people better for having seen it.
Just like Crash, which is essentially apolitical, too.
Just like Brokeback Mountain. First thing (after “gay cowboy”) that people say about this film is that it’s beautiful. Well no fucking shit. Give me a camera and a day in the American West and I’ll come home with a goddamn postcard collection. It’s just not very good and only the fifteenth, twentieth film I’ve seen sort of like it (though it’s surely the prettiest). The only reason it’s a breakthrough is because the zeitgeist is ready to wonder how it is that Bush Jr. won another election (besides the fact that he was running unopposed). Pick up Prick Up Your Ears or My Beautiful Laundrette - or, as Bill suggested to me the other day, the Rimbaud flick Total Eclipse starring Leo DiCaprio and David Thewlis, buggering one another in the altogether instead of discretely, and in beautifully-worn denim.
Here’s another liberal take: the Democrats would stop getting mudholes stomped in them if they quit massaging the “apolitical” pump. I don’t think the democratic leadership are “flip-floppers”, I think they’re a bunch of fucking pussies.
Then there’s Yes which posits the theorem that the projection of film imitates the function of the eye while presenting everything in rhymed iambic pentameter. It gives people so inclined a lot of room to thrill to it, but at its essence it’s a class piece about the “invisibility” and wisdom of the working class (and the gentle mysticism of the Lebanese), Millions, a British fable about a dim child and the Catholic pantheon of saints, ends in Africa somehow with our heroic child relieving drought and famine – and then there’s Munich - a film I haven’t seen but now worry about. Even more worried than I was already, even. So five (maybe six) of the Top Ten are obvious middlebrow equivocations to hot-button topics that they pretend to address and the sixth is directed by Steven Spielberg.
Crash is a race melodrama using racial stereotypes that, regardless, reserves its harshest punishment for African-Americans;
Syriana is a modern intellectual potboiler about the oil trade that never mentions Iraq or the current administration (the head of which got his start in a couple of failed oil businesses that, mysteriously, turned tidy profits);
Brokeback Mountain is a gay cowboy movie that treats homosexuality like a chaste situation comedy;
Yes is pompous orientalism of a more discrete kind than Memoirs of a Geisha;
and Millions, besides being inspid and over-directed, is ultimately horrifyingly paternalistic;
And all of them, presumably, are films that Ebert believes you’d be a better person for watching. Thank you, Roger. Of what’s left, I’ll show my hand and say that Ebert and I are going to agree on at least one of these films (Munich’s the wild card) – and that I really liked Junebug, too, especially Amy Adams who’s good enough in it to deserve a look during awards season.
I do wish that he’d clarified which scenes he thought to be so risky that the “tightrope might break” – but maybe taking that tactic would have alienated the very audience he presumes and so condescends to. Populist, middlebrow, and after a while, I’m the one who’s an idiot for being disappointed year after year.
We talk a lot about Ebert around here, but the question I want to pose is what compulsion governs us when we recommend a film to someone else? Is it the desire to improve them as people? Something else, altogether? For me, it’s the desire to examine an experience and to learn through conversation and debate about that examination, more about myself and how I perceive myself in the world through the prism of art. Recommendation or not, in fact, just the act of writing on a film (if the film is really thought-provoking) provokes in me a kind of introspection that feels like a good therapy session. It is, in other words, essentially selfish. So is that better or worse than Ebert’s proudly-worn evangelical altruism?
Watched the original Producers on its new DVD last night and it’s just all kinds of sucks. I remember liking this a lot when I was twelve – but I’m just old enough to hate it now and not old enough to like it again. It’s stupid, reductive garbage, and this from a guy who not just loves Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety, but respects them, too. That the update is that much worse says volumes about how miracles are still happening every day.
Also watched the first season of “Project Runway” in one compulsive sitting: it’s the first reality show since the first season of “The Apprentice” that I actually enjoyed without a lot of guilt and, when all’s said and done, I think it’s better. It’s a show about product, and sweat, and inspiration instead of twelve monkeys in a glass cage with one banana. I believed it was about a functioning meritocracy – maybe I was duped – I’m going to assume that I wasn’t.
I thought of a lot of ways to handle a three-way tie with one to go in the event that one of the three doesn’t get the “tiebreaker” – but I’m thinking what we’re going to do is call it “first to three” – good luck, freaks, and let me just say that I’m not just a little bit impressed and intimidated that after that first screen capture, I haven’t had to give out one solitary clue.
Hot off the Presses
Bill tackles the DVD write-up on the mercurial Fox's screener of Transporter 2 and I tackle, with no little squeamishness, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Back from a screening of Munich and I like the words but not the music. Somewhere along the line, I felt like I stopped learning anything and in a film this didactic, that's poison. The idea that it's a bad thing to trample our ideals in the defense of them is, obviously, especially given the week or two we've just had in national politics, a topical one - and as far as it goes, it's better at saying what it has to say than Syriana - but it finally succumbs to its doubling tropes and matching shots. I mean, the weight of them is friggin' huge - you'd have to be Atlas not to be crushed beneath their aggregate compulsion. It's a movie that I sort of respect, I guess, but I wanted to be enthralled, captivated, outraged - I wonder if it's the film's fault that these little revelations start to feel mundane.
Not even an oblique little reference to The Conversation won me over.
Hot off the Presses (12.20.05)
Two new releases, two new disasterpieces: Jim Carrey's desperate and useless update of Fun with Dick and Jane and Adam Shankman's Cheaper by the Dozen 2 - both of which with a shot at a certain end of year list, but getting a lot of heat from my realization that with one star, I may have tragically, tragically over-rated The Family Stone.
Hot off the Presses (12.22.05)
Plus, Travis' love for The Jazz Singer is on the rocks. I do appreciate his quotation of J. Hoberman's brilliant Vulgar Modernism (which we haven't reviewed, but is well worth a blind buy). Hoberman, by the way, also didn't like Munich - here's his review.
Hot off the Presses (12.24.05)
The tweaked and twisted, pulled and taffied drive-in double-feature of Wolf Creek and Hostel - two films that I'm beginning to suspect are heralding a new subgenre of the slasher flick. More than just the traditional "raped by nature (or the naturals)" movie, these films (along with Open Water) seem to have something else on their minds. We'll be watching with interest to see if this develops into something to chew over - just the Saw series by itself might perpetuate the trend. In a real way, these are the children of The Blair Witch Project.
And, of course, I'll be curious to see what QT and Robert Rodriguez come up with next year with their own double-feature of atrocity.
Travis, meanwhile, tackles The Nutty Professor: the one Jerry Lewis picture that I've seen more than a few times, and the one that's always given me the ever lovin' heebie-jeebies. Even before I knew who Dean Martin was.
Hot off the Presses (12.24.05 late)
Another reason to stay home this Christmas: The Producers. See, if they were going to just film the stage production but pretend it was a movie, you should sit about a quarter of a mile away and use opera glasses. It's a nightmare.