“Greenberg” (2010)

All I knew going in was that it starred Ben Stiller and that I had heard positive things about his performance. I wasn’t sure if it was a serious role for him, or a comedy. I like Ben Stiller, generally, but about the most serious role I’d ever seen him in was the excellent (and filmed in Portland) “Zero Effect”, playing straight man Steve Arlo to Bill Pullman’s autistic and zany private investigator.

So last weekend, ignoring the awesome weather, I bought a ticket for a matinée showing of “Greenberg” to escape for a bit.

I was the only person in the theater.

Have you ever watched a comedy by yourself? You know a movie is funny when you laugh out loud and there’s no one else around. For some reason, our being in a group of people makes laughter more likely; likewise, being alone seems to make laughter less likely.

As I sat in the theater, alone, and watched Greta Gerwig as Florence, housekeeper/assistant to a rich and apparently high-strung couple, I wasn’t sure of the tone. It all felt so natural and understated. There were no laugh lines. Just people going about their business.

When the Greenberg’s leave for their vacation to Vietnam, and Florence gets a call from her boss’ brother, there’s no indication of trouble. But… it was Ben Stiller. And he was being very Ben Stiller-esque.

But was it funny? Or was it dramatic?

As the story progressed, and the 40-something Roger Greenberg displayed familiar entitled nice-guy behavior towards 25-year-old Florence Marr, I felt awkward and creeped out. Greenberg’s advances seemed predatory and both amply telegraphed and yet hidden. His passive-aggressive actions towards Florence, as well as towards his closest friend, Ivan Shrank (sad-faced Rhys Ifans), made me wince.

Around halfway through the film, I had the realization that this awkwardness is similar to what I feel watching Steve Carell on The Office. And that sometimes, it makes me laugh.

Is that what they were going for? I still can’t tell.

As a movie, I enjoyed it, though maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the right word. Stiller’s performance of a man who has deep issues with self-esteem and emotional expression was spot-on, though painful to watch – a pain that I sometimes express as laughter, because why not? I can’t believe he just did that!

I sought out the trailer after the fact, to see if I could discern if the movie was being marketed as a drama or as a comedy or something in-between, a “dramedy”. But given the generic trailer, I still could not tell.

Here, watch the trailer and judge for yourself.

“Sherlock Holmes” (2009)

I am not a Baker Street Irregular; I have no detailed knowledge of the life and adventures of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. I only know the basics. I know he lived on Baker Street in 19th century London; I know his friend and companion was one Dr. Watson; I know his lifelong enemy was Professor Moriarty; and I know Holmes valued logic and observation above all else, taking such to extremes that we find almost supernatural today. Bits and pieces, here and there. Drug abuse. His brother Mycroft.

But I know enough to identify some creative additions in Guy Ritchie’s and Robert Downey Jr.’s interpretation of “Sherlock Holmes”.

First, in the modern movie, he’s far more physical than I recall him being in the past. A rough-knuckled, manic-depressive, substance abuser. Can’t remember the last actor who had to have a six-pack to portray the detective.

Second, from what I remember, Watson was nearly always much older; a harrumph-ing white mustached sort of chap. So having Jude Law play him feels like a change. A change for the better, I think. It puts the two characters’ friendship into the realm of bromance.

I gotta be honest with you, Marge, I would watch Robert Downey Jr. in anything. He’s one of a handful of actors that I find captivating. So it was a forgone conclusion that I would enjoy “Sherlock Holmes”.

But Guy Ritchie’s direction gives London such a gritty, realistic look, and the proper bantering between Holmes and Watson, and even the addition of a love interest for Holmes, the scandalous Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams)… The movie was great fun, even if the actual mystery, involving a Satan worshipping nobleman, was a bit of a letdown.

Still, if you dig brass-and-glass fittings, and Victorian clothing, and cobblestone streets, this is the movie for you.

Movies of 2009

In 2009 I saw 30 different films. I attended showings of two movies multiple times: Star Trek got my money three times, and Away We Go got it twice. And this year, for the first time in memory, I had friends accompany me to more showings than in a very long time.

I think that I saw fewer movies this year because I spent more time with friends, actually. And that’s not a bad thing. I want to be social and be around people I like, and who like me.

The following star ratings, from 0 to 5 stars, are given on the basis of the other movies I’ve seen this year, and are not meant to be compared to other years or other, older movies. I try to rate the movie based on my enjoyment, and how well it worked as that type or genre of movie.

Oh, fuck it, don’t make me justify my star ratings. I like lots of different kinds of flicks, so I’m pretty generous when handing out stars. Sue me.

The films’ title links to the IMDB page for the movie; the star ratings link to my blog post about that movie. Note that there are seven films on the list that I didn’t blog about; if I write about them in the future, I’ll update this list. Probably. If I think about it.

“Up in the Air” (2009)

I’m feeling ramble-y about this movie. Be warned.

People often use the term “arc” as a metaphor for the changes a character in a story goes through. Writers, mostly. And I’ve always pictured said arcs as a parabola, starting at one point, going up, up, up, peaking, then dropping down. Think the shape of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Watching “Up in the Air” reminded me that not all arcs go up.

Am I being ironic and cute? The title of the movie describes, after all, someone flying high over ground, looking down on all the rest of us. The “flyover states”. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a seasoned traveller who feels most at home when he’s in an airport or on a plane. He travels from place to place across the country and fires people for a living. This is the kind of soulless profit-driven job that has become a familiar starting point for emotional change in our movies. 60 years ago it was the traveling salesman who epitomized empty work; now we see lobbyists, contractors, day traders; they work for the minor corporations that serve the externalized needs of the major corporations, and actual human lives are just currency to them. Clooney’s charm made me feel uneasy about identifying with such a corporatist; I almost felt sorry for him, even before the story, and Bingham’s arc, began.

Bingham’s tidy, process-driven wandering is interrupted when a young, eager kid, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, who manages to embody the inner turmoil and exterior calm of many a corporate drone with just a tight purse of her lip or almost imperceptible roll of her eyes) comes up with the idea to use video conferencing to fire people and save traveling costs. This means the end of Bingham’s massive accrual of frequent flyer miles, and right as he’s about to reach his nearly meaningless goal: ten million “points” as a reward for his “loyalty” to a legal contract.

Of course, his “loyalty” has been paid with other people’s money, his expense account at the company, and not out of his own savings; Bingham is just a feeding tube through which passes abstracted value from one non-person to the next. And to earn those points, all he’s had to do is be the bearer of bad news and sit with each actual flesh-and-blood person while they break down, burst into anger, plead for another chance, pretended this isn’t happening, and, rarely, simply accept that their services are no longer required. His constant exposure to human emotion has made him sympathetic enough to realize that abstracting it even further with a computer screen may well be the breaking point. Or so it seems to me. Maybe Clooney’s charm won me over? After all, Bingham had a selfish reason to continue facing down his fellow corporate workers; his pointless goal of “loyalty” which will earn him status as one of only seven people to earn that many points.

This movie resonates with my growing passion against corporate institutions. Can you tell? I could deconstruct this movie for days, I think. And there may be some of you who find that interesting. But it’s also a movie, telling a story. And even though the director, Jason Reitman, is not a newbie director (he directed “Juno” and wrote and directed “Thank You For Smoking”, among others – that last one also about corporatist politics, though played as satire rather than straight drama, as in “Up in the Air”), he made some odd (to me) choices.

When I originally saw the trailer for this movie, it featured Clooney, as Bingham, giving a motivational speech. Here, let me show you it:

The monologue, with the sparse piano over it, and the flash of images, set a tone. Somber, serious, contrasting Clooney’s charisma with the sociopathic message of the words. To me it felt like a confession in a downtown bar on a weeknight, spoken over a drink or two – enough to get a buzz but not enough to really let go.

In the early part of the movie, when we first hear Bingham give this speech (he gives it, or a variation, three times by my memory throughout the course of the film), the music is much more upbeat. It’s a subtle difference but I noticed the change. It felt wrong, sitcom-like. The mood was off. I wondered if I had been tricked by the trailer and my man-crush on George Clooney into the wrong kind of movie.

When Bingham meets his female counterpart, frequent flyer Alex Goran (Vera Farmgia), spellbindingly beautiful and confident, a terrific match – again, with the tone-deaf music.

When Bingham flies back to the home office and has a meeting with his boss, and his boss is Jason Bateman, again I felt the tone was off. I love Bateman, but I love him for his comedic timing and snarky anger, which jarred, just a little, with what I hoped to be the intent of this movie. I felt a bit betrayed, and hoped that this wasn’t a comedy in the conventional, and classical, sense. I hoped for a deeper meaning and more mature tone to emerge.

Emerge it did, in the final half. Perhaps Reitman was aiming for contrast; I think I would have preferred a more consistent tone. This is a dark story, a classical tragedy, and, eventually, it arrived there.

“Pirate Radio” (2009)

I loved and laughed nearly every scene in “Pirate Radio” (released as “The Boat That Rocked” in the UK).

I adore the plot line of a rag-tag group of rock and roll rebels challenging the stifled, stiff-uppper-lip British officials.

I want a copy (legal or not) of every song on the soundtrack. The soundtrack contains 36 of the over 60 songs from the actual movie. That’s a good start.

And the movie left me wanting more. Mainly, how did Quentin (Bill Nighy) come to own and operate the boat/radio station? He seemed an unlikely entrepreneur. Was he the station manager, the captain, the owner, or some combination of all three?

But in the end, it was just a cute little comedy that plays very well on my internal anti-authoritarianism.

Still, I can’t imagine it being 3 hours long, as Wikipedia claims. Glad they edited it down for US release. But I’d probably watch every deleted scene if I buy the DVD.

“The Box” (2009)

There may be spoilers in this review.

At about 45 minutes in to “The Box” I was pretty sure I could see the ending.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a suspense/horror flick. As the master of the genre, Hitchcock, explained, suspense is built when the audience knows something’s going to happen but the characters don’t.

The question is, is the journey there a satisfying one? Does the end make sense for these characters?

Well, I thought so. Mostly. I didn’t entirely feel that the punishment fit the crime, but… OK.

But some of the odd turns and plot points seemed superfluous. Mars? The wedding? The creepy student? Waiting through all that made the movie a bit tedious. Just a tad.

“Men Who Stare at Goats” (2009)

Hearing Ewan McGregor ask, innocently and warily, about Jedi, is a wonderful bit of self-referential humor.

And it nicely sums up “Men Who Stare at Goats”.

These aren’t real Jedi that Bob Wilton (McGregor) are finding out about, but members of a secret group within the United States Army, who are practicing and honing their psychic warrior skills, like instant complete awareness of their surroundings (Level 1), intuition (Level 2), and invisibility (Level 3). George Clooney as Lyn Cassady, doing his most earnest, deadpan reading, patiently explains all this to Wilton, on a road trip from Kuwait into Iraq during the early stages of Iraq War 2. It isn’t until later that we learn about Level 4, the ability to stop a goat’s (or other living animal’s) heart simply by staring at it.

The tales are told in flashback, as Cassady describes how a New Age guru, Bill Django (played by Jeff Bridges), a loving, peaceful kind of warrior, passing out daisies and smiling beatifically, becomes a force for good within our military, giving training exercises in dance and handing out psychedelic drugs to unleash the soldiers’ inner children. All of which is a response to spy reports that the Soviets are working on developing their own Jedi, which they started in response to false reports that we were working on it. Which explains why it all needs to be kept secret; can’t have the Soviets finding out that the project they falsely learned we were developing was in fact, not a secret.

The serpent in this new camo-colored Garden of Eden is Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey, who makes a great Dark Sider), a former sci-fi writer who tries, but just can’t seem to get all this crazy empathy stuff, and who works to undermine the unit. It’s he who introduces Level 4 – which causes Cassady to balk.

Every time Clooney tries to explain psychic warfare to McGregor, he appears oblivious to the fact that he’s wrapping a bit of magic around a balls-out crazy physical attack; the way he talks about getting into an enemies’ mind to dissuade him from attacking, before giving the punch-line of stabbing the enemy in the neck with a pen to create a fountain of blood. Uh, wouldn’t the stabbing part be the effective part? Clooney tacks that on almost as an afterthought.

And McGregor, playing an emasculated and cuckolded reporter for a small-town paper, buys into it all. Eventually. He wants redemption for losing his wife to his boss. And given Clooney’s charm, I very much could see someone overlooking the crazy to see the message underneath.

But then, I’m one of those crazy dirty fucking hippies who hate war in the first place. Of course, I’d buy it all.

But I’m not going to leap into a fight without even a knife, trusting in the Force to guide me though. That’s just nuts.

“Where The Wild Things Are” (2009)

Carol, the angry almost-leader of the Wild Things, has taken his King, Max, on a tour of all the things Max is King. Carol has shown Max the forests, the deserts, the beaches, and up into the mountains.

Hidden up in the mountains, in a cave, is a miniature mountain range; each mountain a tall, pointy, white-capped sculpture of twigs. Hidden in the twig-mountains are small clay replicas of the Wild Things.

The dream logic is impeccable – of course there are tiny mountains hidden in the larger mountains. Carol is a Wild Thing, a monster, anarchic, free in a terrifying sense. But of course he has spent some of his creative energy to craft and control a tiny world that’s a lot like the larger one he can’t control.

And in a moment of vulnerability, he has taken his King to see his handiwork.

Max, of course, is a human boy, who has donned his wolf suit and run away from home. Max’s mom is overwhelmed with work that she has to bring home, and is now dating a “friend” since Max’s dad is absent. Max loves his mom and needs her attention more than ever, but he doesn’t have the experience or language to know why, exactly.

So Max ran away, and sailed the wide ocean, and found where the Wild Things are.

The Wild Things are pure id – raw need, and rage when their needs are denied. And Carol is the second-most dangerous one of them all (the first being the bull-like Wild Thing who almost never speaks, just groans and chuffles and looms). But showing off his twig-mountain sculpture to Max, he bares a sensitive soul.

“Do you know that feeling,” Carol says, “where your teeth are all falling out? And they start to fall out faster and faster?”

Aha, I thought, hearing that. It’s explicitly a dream. Almost too explicit. But the pull of the images on screen, and the connections I made to the feelings invoked by the Wild Things’ monstrous visages, and surreal dialogue and their dysfunctional, wounded, bipolar interactions, entranced me.

I’m more prone to dreaming that my teeth are rubber and I’m unable to chew. Or that I have wads and wads of chewing gum that is stuck to my teeth, and I pull and pull but there’s more and more, filling up my mouth and threatening my ability to breath. But I’ve had the tooth-falling-out dream, too.

And I have the strong feeling that tonight, again, I am going to visit the same place that Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, and Maurice Sendak have pulled their words and images from.

Maybe I’ll learn something tonight, like it appears Max did.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” (2009)

Watching Michael Moore’s latest effort, Capitalism: A Love Story, at least two things occurred to me, at two different points in the narrative.

First, while watching Moore ask the question, “Is capitalism evil?” of successively higher officials in the Catholic Church gave me a strong sense of disorientation. Really, Michael? You’re basing part of your argument against the excesses of capitalism on the opinion of one of the most staggeringly wealthy institutions on the planet?

The Age of Enlightenment caused a shift in power and money from the church, particularly the church allied with government in the form of inherited rule. Capitalism was one of the economic ideas that grew out of the elevation of reason and intellect that was the Enlightenment, so it could be argued that capitalism reduced the Catholic Church’s power and shifted it to business and government.

And yet the Catholic Church is still vastly wealthy; after several Google searches I can’t find a decent estimate of the total wealth hoarded by the Pope and all his minions across the globe. Surely the many fabulous palaces and works of art in Vatican City alone are priceless heirlooms of human history. Would members of such a institution, which has stockpiled uncounted riches for century upon century in spite of its founders’ admonishments to give away all wealth, view capitalism and its ideal of hard work making one wealthy, as evil? Probably so. No shit, Sherlock, as they say.

And for Mr. Moore to use Catholic priests as mouthpieces for his movie to label as evil the economic system that dethroned the Church just invites consideration of what, exactly, on a moral scale, the Church would be. The Church uses its vast wealth to protect it’s clergy from taxes as well as from legal justice (which is the least satisfying form of justice) against accusations of pedophilia and abuse of authority. Oh, and sure, to a degree, the Church does some good work, too, though I’m far too lazy a blogger to go looking for examples. I think the millennia of greed, warfare and injustice would wipe out any good works they may have done.

My laughter at the parade of clergy on the screen was surely not what Mr. Moore intended. To be fair, I was already in agreement with the filmmaker on the morality of capitalism as it has been practiced for the last 100 years or so; I just thought his method of arguing the point was tone-deaf.

Speaking of justice brings me to my second point, where social justice – which is the best kind of justice – makes its appearance in the movie. Moore mentions that our country’s Constitution does not specify capitalism as an economic system, and that leads him to an observation that I have found to be true: for all the love of democracy we have in this country, there is damned little democracy in our workplaces. The standard business is run as a dictatorship. Where workers and employees have any power at all, they have it amongst themselves in the form of electing representatives to negotiate with the exalted rulers known as Management.

But Moore goes one step further, and shows examples of businesses in America that are run democratically: co-ops. He shows a bakery in California whose name I am far too lazy to search for that is set up where every employee is a part owner, and everyone, from the CEO on down, has one full vote in the operation of the business. And Moore claims that this bakery makes money, and lots of it, to stark contrast with titans of industry like Enron, Worldcomm, General Motors, Lehman Brothers, the list goes on and on.

The employees at this business can vote out the management if they wish. In a flash, as soon as they’d mentioned that, I realized just how differently a business would be run if management had to submit to a vote of their subordinates.

And in a second flash, I knew what was wrong with government.

What reason can anyone give for not running government agencies and bureaus like a democracy? If Democracy is held to such a high ideal in our country, and the topic of many many beautiful speeches by impassioned elected officials and unelected business tycoons alike, then why are we not running our government agencies like a freakin’ democracy?

Businesses can be run any way the owners want, so I’ll leave them out of the question for now. There are still folk who would prefer to just follow a king and not have any personal responsibility or power. But government? Why isn’t the City of Portland, or Multnomah County, or the State of Oregon, or even the Federal Government itself, staffed and organized on the principle of “One person, one vote”?

If it’s good enough for the country as a whole, why isn’t it good enough for everything?

I’d really like to know. And now, finally, I have a life goal to work towards.

Whip It (2009)

Aw, crab, another movie seen and no review has been written.

I caught a 4:40 PM showing of Whip It yesterday after work. It’s Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, and she has a small role in it as a crazy roller derby chick. There’s a lot of crazy roller derby chicks in it, since the movie is about roller derby and finding a family and doing your own thing and the beauty myth.

It’s a great movie and I loved to see the empowerment message aimed at the female segment of our population, in the form of Ellen Page sneaking off to join a crazy roller derby team and abandoning her best friend to get busted for underage drinking, because, hey why not?

But the most surprising part of the movie for me was discovering that Kristen Wiig, who is known for her one-note deadpan passive-aggressive bit parts, is actually pretty hot when she smiles. Also, she very much reminds me of my favorite stripper, Sharai, especially in the scene where Maggie Mayhem (Wiig’s character in the movie) shows up to practice wearing a long muu-muu; I’ve seen Sharai show up to work wearing something very similar, before she goes up the stairs to Dancer Heaven and comes back all stripperfied.