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Gleefully Hate-Watching the Oscars

You can complain all you want about the Academy Awards, but admit it. They're fun, and the griping is nearly the best part. 

AP Photo/ Reed Saxo
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes M ost serious movie buffs—and not even only those of a certain vintage, which does at least provide an excuse for bitterness—never tire of expressing contempt for the Oscars. One of their favorite damning proofs of the Academy's puerility is that 2001: A Space Odyssey didn't even get nominated for Best Picture of 1968. That is, going on half a century ago, and talk about holding a grudge. In 1968, to put things in perspective, Christopher Nolan (director of The Dark Knight Rises ) hadn't been born yet. In 1980, when Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull scandalously— scandalously!— lost the Best Picture sweepstakes to Ordinary People, Wes Anderson was 11 years old. Perhaps the shock traumatized him into wanting to live inside painted boxes, but more likely it didn't. I don't recall any permanent damage myself. Nor do I get wrought up because, say, the obvious real Best Picture of 1990—at least to the handful of crazies who saw it—was Guy Maddin's gleefully...

Why Liberals Make Better Political Pop Culture than Conservatives

An image from the libertarian animated film "Silver Circle"
In my ongoing quest to reach across the aisle and foster bipartisanship, I come to praise Jonah Goldberg—yes, that Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism and innumerable appalling columns, for what he writes in the Los Angeles Times , in which he recoils at the suggestion by some of his brethren that they need to buy a movie studio and start churning out conservative films: There's a difference between art and propaganda. Outside the art house crowd, liberal agitprop doesn't sell. Art must work with the expectations and beliefs of the audience. Even though pregnancies are commonplace on TV, you'll probably never see a hilarious episode of a sitcom in which a character has an abortion — because abortion isn't funny. The conservative desire to create a right-wing movie industry is an attempt to mimic a caricature of Hollywood. Any such effort would be a waste of money that would make the Romney campaign seem like a great investment. There's something Goldberg doesn't mention,...

You Can't Lip-Synch a Hip Shake

Beyoncé's new documentary Life Is But a Dream marks a brief pit stop during her rise to world domination.

AP Photo/ David Drapkin
AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn If you're as stubbornly naive as I used to be, you probably think that following up a performance of the National Anthem at Barack Obama's second inaugural with one sizzler of a Super Bowl halftime show would be exposure enough for anyone. A pop-cult twofer that unprecedented might tempt even the most driven of superstars to rest on her laurels until, say, early March. So it's a relief to learn that Beyoncé Knowles—known throughout the Milky Way, of course, as plain and simple Beyoncé—has her head screwed on right: "I don't want to never be satisfied. I don't think that's a healthy way to live." Honest, that's how she feels. If you're so minded, you can see and hear her say so in Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream, airing on HBO on Saturday. She's credited as both "director" and executive producer, and adding "star" would be redundant at a level to invite the gods' mirth. Her 90-minute self-portrait hits cable under a month after she serenaded Obama's swearing-in, and...

Did Jodie Foster Just Come Out?

Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP
On Sunday night, as Jodie Foster accepted her Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes, made an awkward and extremely peculiar speech. No one seems to be entirely sure what she was saying. Was she retiring from acting? Was she coming out even though she didn’t actually say she’s a lesbian—and even though she’s made out-ish comments and gestures in the past? Here are the parts that suggested coming out most clearly: So I'm here being all confessional and I guess I just have the sudden urge to say something that I've never really been able to air in public, so a declaration that I'm a little nervous about. But maybe not quite as nervous as my publicist right now, huh Jennifer? Um, but uh, you know, I'm just gonna put it out there, right? Loud and proud, right? So I'm gonna need your support on this — I am single. Yes I am, I am single. No, I'm kidding. But I mean I'm not really kidding, but I am kind of kidding…. I hope you’re not disappointed that there won’...

Media Violence versus Real Violence

In the days since Wayne LaPierre of the NRA blamed the Sandy Hook massacre on violent movies and video games (in particular, for some reason, Natural Born Killers , a film that came out 19 years ago and was a critique of the media's obsession with violence), a number of people in the entertainment industry have been asked about whether their products contribute to real-world violence, and they've seemed extremely uncomfortable answering the question. They seem to have no idea what the answer might be. As it happens, this is a question that has been studied extensively, although the research is a bit ambiguous and unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I thought it might be worthwhile to go over just what evidence there is for the assertion. So if you're a Hollywood big shot, read on so you'll have some idea what to say next time the question comes up. But before we get to that, I was prompted to write this by seeing this interview Quentin Tarantino did with the UK's Channel 4. When the...

To Stop Rape Culture, Ring the Bell

Very few men are rapists . Very few men are abusers. Or stalkers. Predators are the minority. The vast majority of men are decent people who want to do the right thing. What would it take to shift from a rape culture to a respect culture, and end violence against women? You have to involve the decent men. You have to let them know they are our allies, not our enemies. You have to let them know what they can do to help—to interrupt violence, to help spread new norms—without having to call themselves feminists or become full-on activists. In yesterday’s post, I wrote about some such efforts in the United States. Bystander-intervention efforts, in which groups train young men and women in what it takes to derail a situation that could lead to rape. Today I spoke with Mallika Dutt, founder of the binational organization Breakthrough, which works in both the U.S. and India to build a respect culture and prevent all kinds of violence against women—one by one, at the local, personal level,...

An Inescapable Truth

In the Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers, Israel's domestic spymasters make the price of occupation clear.

As I watched The Gatekeepers in a small hall in Jerusalem, three thoughts kept repeating in my mind. The first was that if the new Israeli documentary were showing on prime-time television rather than in tiny cinematheque auditoriums, the country's vapid election campaign might morph turn into an urgently needed debate on the occupation. The second was that once the film opens in U.S. theaters on February 1, its interviewees—former heads of Israel's Shin Bet security service—will probably not be invited to speak before certain "pro-Israel" groups in America, the kind that conflate support of Israel with silencing criticism of Israel policies. The film's Oscar nomination for best documentary will not be celebrated in those organizations. The third thought was that if dissident Israeli philosopher and theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz were alive, he'd watch The Gatekeepers with the furious satisfaction of a prophet proved right. Leibowitz raged against the moral price of occupying the West...

Fracking versus the Boondocks

Promised Land bills itself as an environmental movie, but it’s far more concerned with preserving Dan Barry-esque small-town America mythology.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File In this April 22, 2008 file photo, a natural gas well pad sits in front of the Roan Plateau near the Colorado mountain community of Rifle. Opponents of a law restricting federal oversight of injecting fluids underground to boost oil and natural gas production hope a new bill and a new administration will tighten regulation of the practice called fracking. T he first sentence of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring proves a good template for most stories about the environment in America: "There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. … Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change." Promised Land , which opens nationwide today, begins its story about fracking, the drilling technique that’s...

Making Liberal Hearts Bleed in Anytown, U.S.A.

What is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land?

Political issues come and go, but message movies never change. Thanks partly to a relatively novel subject—fracking—and partly to an elliptical set-up, Gus van Sant's Promised Land , written from a story by Dave Eggers by its stars, Matt Damon and The Office's John Krasinski, varies from the norm only in fooling you for almost half an hour into thinking it actually might be up to something interesting. Too bad the movie turns into the same Ibsen for Idiots combo of a burning deck and a stacked one that was creaky when Jane Fonda was just another lonesome gal with a few New York modeling gigs to her credit. His brow as furrowed as if he's just woken up in a voting booth with no pants on, Damon plays Steve Butler—as in "loyal servant," no doubt—who's snapping up mineral-rights leases on behalf of a corporation unsubtly named Global somewhere in generic, Great Recession-ravaged Heartland, U.S.A. The setting's lack of specificity is your first hint that flyover country will go on looking...

Making Liberal Hearts Bleed in Anytown, U.S.A.

What is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land?

Political issues come and go, but message movies never change. Thanks partly to a relatively novel subject—fracking—and partly to an elliptical set-up, Gus van Sant's Promised Land , written from a story by Dave Eggers by its stars, Matt Damon and The Office's John Krasinski, varies from the norm only in fooling you for almost half an hour into thinking it actually might be up to something interesting. Too bad the movie turns into the same Ibsen for Idiots combo of a burning deck and a stacked one that was creaky when Jane Fonda was just another lonesome gal with a few New York modeling gigs to her credit. His brow as furrowed as if he's just woken up in a voting booth with no pants on, Damon plays Steve Butler—as in "loyal servant," no doubt—who's snapping up mineral-rights leases on behalf of a corporation unsubtly named Global somewhere in generic, Great Recession-ravaged Heartland, U.S.A. The setting's lack of specificity is your first hint that flyover country will go on looking...

Condemned Love

Amour, Michael Haneke's latest film, is a horror story with a foregone conclusion.

Courtesy of Sony Classic Pictures
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Amour , featuring Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant D on’t be fooled by the possibility of a kinder, gentler Michael Haneke. It would be easy to let down your guard given the title of his latest, gruelingly good film, Amour , and the release poster’s image of a beautiful, aging woman’s face cupped by loving hands. But Haneke has made a decades-long career out of crafting haute horror stories, and old habits die hard. As do the habits of Amour ’s octogenarian couple, struggling to hold on to routines as if that could stave off the inexorability of death. Set almost entirely within the confines of the pair’s Paris apartment, Haneke’s latest Cannes-winning film centers on Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) as she confronts her slow demise from stroke and dementia and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) accepts the crushing task of serving as her caregiver. Haneke’s films are a tough haul—icy in their austerity and remove, fueled on expertly...

Don't Put Flowers on Hollywood's Grave Yet

Film could be headed for a renaissance instead of its long-predicted journey into the blockbuster night.

AP Photo
T his has been a fertile year for people to lament the decline of movies. In fact, two of the most distinguished critics around—Davids Denby and Thomson—more or less proclaimed in 2012 that the jig was up for film as an art form. Since one of them is 69 and the other is 71, the " Après nous, le d é luge " side of this might strike skeptical readers as a mite self-involved. Nonetheless, if they're talking about Hollywood's output as opposed to very-much-alive-and-well world cinema, they don't lack for circumstantial evidence. Between endless iterations of durable comic-book franchises and ever dumber, more ineptly made comedies, no wonder lots of people who used to love movies now prefer HBO and Showtime when they want their intelligence massaged. All but the worst hack reviewers dread the paucity of recommendable commercial movies for grown-ups until Thanksgiving's arrival starts coughing up the usual Oscar fodder. And then a lot of the Oscar fodder—e.g., Silver Linings Playbook— just...

Zero Dark Thirty: Homeland's Prequel?

In both cultural depictions, September 11 is a wound that never heals.

Courtesy of Showtime
Courtesy of Showtime A scene from Homeland , with Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin K athryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty opens to blackness and the sound of a conversation that we immediately know is real. Trapped on a high floor of a tall building engulfed by fire, a young woman says, “I’m going to die,” while the emergency responder at the other end of the phone tries to reassure her otherwise. “I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” she keeps repeating, her voice already becoming unmoored from her few years on this earth and pitched at some impossible place between hysteria and resignation. The emergency operator keeps promising help; both women understand it will never come. We understand as well because this is the 11th of September 2001. When the call disconnects, we hear the operator mutter under her breath, “Oh my God,” and nothing in the movie that follows will be as wrenching as these few seconds in the dark; the next two and three-quarter hours are haunted by this prologue that...

Zero Dark Thirty's Morality Brigade

Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden movie doesn't endorse torture. 

(Rex Features via AP Images)
(AP Photo/Sony - Columbia Pictures) Z ero Dark Thirty doesn't even come out until next week, but Kathryn Bigelow's much-hailed movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is already provoking outrage in some quarters for allegedly "glorifying"—OK, sometimes it's "celebrating"—torture. As all too bloody usual, the loudest howls are coming from people who haven't actually seen ZD30 , some of whom—yes, Andrew Sullivan, I mean you —really ought to know better. Ginning up controversies about movies without bothering to watch them first is really more Bill Donohue and the Catholic League's sort of thing, and does Sullivan want to be in that company? Since plenty of other folks apparently do, I hope you won't mind two cents from a lowly movie critic who admires the hell out of Zero Dark Thirty and isn't exactly big on vindicating Dick Cheney's world-view. There are really two separate arguments here, and people shouldn't confuse the two—though they already have. One is about factual accuracy,...

Dial M for Meh

Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock fails to capture the artistry of the famed director.

(Sipa via AP Images)
Among reputable movie critics, by which I do not mean the New York Observer ’s unkillable Rex Reed (“ Hitchcock grabs you by the lapels like a suspense classic by Hitch himself—a knockout from start to finish.” Yes, that’s a real quote), Sacha Gervasi’s atrocious Hitchcock has its defenders. They notably include The New Yorker ’s stimulatingly unpredictable Richard Brody, who certainly can’t be accused of being a blurb whore by any stretch. Yet it’s worth noting that Brody made the case in favor of Gervasi’s crude fantasia about Hitchcock’s inner life during the filming of Psycho almost entirely on conceptual grounds—i.e., by praising the “audacity” of conceits like Sir Alfred’s imaginary dialogues with real-life serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the original inspiration for Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates. He didn’t have a lot to say about Hitchcock ’s, ahem, cinematic qualities, no doubt because finding them would require Sherlock Holmes’s indefatigability and even Brody knows...

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