Movies

A Homeric D'oh

The Simpsons celebrates a television milestone but where has all the edge gone?

(Flickr/wallyg)
Watching The Simpson s now is like watching the movie version of the Broadway show based on John Waters’ classic Hairspray . The form is the same, but the spirit just isn’t there. When the 500th episode of the show aired Sunday night, I couldn’t be bothered to care. The main problem is that the show jumped the shark more than a decade ago and, while it still manages to pop off plenty of laugh lines, it lacks the satirical heart that made it truly groundbreaking when it made its debut 23 years ago. The Simpsons first aired when I was in the seventh grade, and like much of the country, I fell in love with the characters and embraced it with the same enthusiasm that I had shown for other, more wholesome programs like The Cosby Show . Certainly, The Simpsons felt rougher around the edges, darker, and definitely more controversial than previous sitcoms. Homer frequently leapt on Bart and choked him in rage. Marge was stupid, and Lisa misunderstood. Still, the show adhered to the sitcom...

The Help's Same Old Story

The film boasts Oscar-worthy performances but spotlights black exploitation in Hollywood.

(AP Photo/Dale Robinette)
Much has been written about The Help ’s whitewashing of American history in the Jim Crow South. The film’s revisionist plot follows the efforts of an altruistic white savior, played by Emma Stone, as she writes a book about the daily lives of maids in 1963 Mississippi. Certain realities of the time, including the death of prominent civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, are brushed aside, glossed over, or completely misinterpreted. Tulane political-science professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry has called the movie “ahistorical” and “deeply troubling.” With the Academy Awards two weeks away and The Help, which was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, poised to win big, what does the film’s success say about Hollywood’s unwillingness to properly tell black stories? James McBride, who co-wrote the upcoming film Red Hook Summer with Spike Lee, recently penned an open letter to Hollywood in which he noted the irony of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer receiving acting...

Will the Real Citizens United Please Stand Up?

(Photo: Patrick Caldwell)
CPAC, DC—The Citizens United case is back in the news this week with the Obama campaign's announcement that they would coordinate to help raise funds with the super PAC Priorities USA. As the presidential campaign ramps up, it's easy to forget what the actual Citizens United organization is: a mini-film studio with a conservative bent. The group is all over CPAC this week, airing their films in the CPAC Theatre, hosting a blogger briefing Wednesday, and sponsoring a panel Thursday morning titled "Advancing the Pro-Life Movement through Media.” And of course, they also have a booth selling DVDs of their various films in the CPAC vendor basement. (The American Prospect/Patrick Caldwell) Citizens United displays its greatest hits. I caught up with the group to see which films had sold the most copies in the conservative crowd. " The Gift of Life is always very popular," the young woman selling DVDs told me, mentioning their film featuring Mike Huckabee relaying various inspirational...

The Libertarian Romantic Thriller

(Photo: Patrick Caldwell)
REPUBLICAN CENTRAL, DC—Every Republican presidential nominee is speaking in CPAC's main ballroom today except Rep. Ron Paul. He sent his son, Sen. Rand Paul, in his stead last night and the libertarian's message is being spread—if not always explicitly—down in the CPAC dungeon of booths. (The American Prospect/Patrick Caldwell) Filmmakers have been marketing "Silver Circle" to comic book fans and conservatives. Set in 2019 during the aftermath of an economic collapse, the animated film "Silver Circle" is a "fun thriller romance," according to producer/director Pasha Roberts. I walked up to this booth expecting the typical Paul friendly organization arguing against fiat money, but was instead treated to behind the scenes clips of actors on a green screen stage edited with shots of the completed footage, fully animated in a manner evoking the rotoscoped effect of "Waking Life" but far more halting and amateurish in appearance. "Silver Circle" follows the soon-to-be true story of anti-...

Woody Allen's Excellent Adventure

Midnight in Paris is nothing more than a dilettante's guide to the City of Lights.

AP Images
U p for four Academy Awards on February 26 and Woody Allen's biggest box-office hit ever, Midnight in Paris seems likely to overtake even 1977's Annie Hall as the man's most beloved movie. And I wish I could belove it myself, honest I do. In this case, it's no fun to disparage the core audience's genuine pleasure. It's not as if a marketing juggernaut turned the thing into a must-see. Nobody expected Allen's latest to do much business until old-fashioned word of mouth brought his longtime fans out of the woodwork while earning him more than a few new ones. Since I live for chances to fake being an endearing sort of fellow, it's just my lousy luck that I couldn't help abominating Midnight in Paris pretty much from lights down to closing credits. Presumably, you all know the premise by now. On vacation in the City of Light with his snot of a fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and his gargoyle-Republican future in-laws, discontented screenwriter Owen Wilson finds a portal in time that lets him zip...

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The Oscars recognize women in non-traditional roles, but leave actors of color behind.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
With all the election-season ugliness, the announcement of the nominations for the 84th Oscars provide a welcome relief—at least until they remind us that Hollywood is largely in the business of telling the stories of straight white men. This year, we have some bad news and some good news when it comes to the acting categories for the Oscars. The good news is that, unlike in years past, the nominating committee didn’t have to scrounge to find ten great performances from actresses—a process that in the past often resulted in the embarrassing problem of having unknown names in the actress categories that leave viewers asking, “Who? In what?” Women are beginning to be recognized for playing more well-rounded characters with their own identity, such as heads of government or hacker-warriors, instead of the role of “Mom” or “Girlfriend.” Melissa McCarthy’s nomination for “Bridesmaids” even suggests that women might be sloughing off the requirement that they be conventionally attractive to...

The Yahoos Are Winning

A longtime movie critic's departure from the Village Voice signals a changing cultural tide.

Two unrelated but oddly congruent events riled up the movie blogosphere at the turn of the year. One was the inclusion of Forrest Gump— the 1994 Best Picture winner about a Candide-like naïf (Tom Hanks) stumbling through the 20th century from Kennedy's New Frontier to Reagan's morning in America—in the National Film Registry's annual choice of 25 "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films" worth preservation by the Library of Congress. The other was the Village Voice 's January 4 firing of senior film critic J. Hoberman after 24 years in the top slot and a decade more than that of contributing to the paper. Besides the timing, one link between the two was how many of the same people were dismayed about both. In other words, a certain sensibility felt under threat, while—in Hoberman's case, anyhow—a brasher one shaped largely by backlash against the first was making merry. And neither kerfuffle was apolitical. To be sure, some earnest cinephiles objected to Gump 's...

It All Falls Apart

In the beautiful A Separation, even the family is no refuge from society.

Berthold Stadler/dapd
W ho are you to judge? Another’s life, the beliefs and attachments, rational and otherwise, that make up another’s choices—how can anyone evaluate such things? Yet the arguing Iranian couple in A Separation demand judgment. They face the camera in the opening scene, a comely woman with dyed-red hair under her veil, and her bearded, exasperated husband. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are presenting their case for divorce to an unseen magistrate and in turn, to us. She seeks a better life for their daughter abroad; he refuses to leave behind his home and his elderly father, who is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. The judge denies them a divorce, declaring, “My finding is that your problem is a small problem.” They are stuck with each other and with us. These are the seemingly low stakes of Asghar Farhadi’s latest, which has the unlikely distinction of being an Iranian film with Oscar buzz. (Iran hasn’t had a nomination since Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven was up for...

Yes We Camelot

What cultural artifacts will come to embody the current presidential administration?

F eel free to try this at home, but I guarantee you won't get anything out of it except a migraine. Imagine you've been a bit prematurely asked to fill a time capsule with telltale cultural artifacts of the Age of Obama—the evocative movies, TV shows, hit tunes, and other creative whatnots that will someday exemplify the ineffable atmosphere of our 44th president's first term. Realizing nobody has called these times "The Age of Obama" since early 2009 should be your first clue that this is no easy job. Try to persevere, though. Um—J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot, maybe? Obama's partisans and detractors alike do dig comparing him to Mr. Spock. TV's Glee and Modern Family? Hey, how about post – everything pop diva Lady Gaga? That's the best I can do off the top of my head, and they're all a bit of a stretch. The multiculti on steroids—OK, asteroids—of James Cameron's Avatar may be less of one. Yet the movie's conception predated not only Obama's presidency but George W. Bush's. Anyway,...

More Like Tin

The Iron Lady, short on substance and long on sentimentality, is just the sort of film Margaret Thatcher would hate.

C all it the Meryl Streep money shot, the scene most likely to appear in the Oscar montage for best actress. Margaret Thatcher sits in a patient’s paper gown, grasping for her wits through a fog of Alzheimer’s, aware she must perform a charade of competency. A young doctor peppers her with questions about whether she’s experiencing hallucinations and how she's feeling. And just like that, the anxious old woman transforms, replaced by a former U.K. prime minister who draws herself up, fixes her opponent with a glare, and issues a flinty indictment about the tyranny of modern life, dominated by those who “care more about feelings than thoughts and ideas.” The irony is that the much-anticipated The Iron Lady hews precisely to this formula. Long on sentiment but short on statement, the film is a star vehicle for Streep, who does her usual, impeccable job of conjuring flesh and blood out of a stale script. This time she’s channeling director Phyllida Lloyd’s take on Thatcher as a grocer’s...

From London, With Angst

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles the last days of Britain as a superpower.

AP Photo/Matt Sayles
Spying is popularly conceived of as a glamorous line of work. The James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission Impossible films are all cocktails, trysts, gunplay in the tropical sun, and evil brought to heel. The audience gleefully absorbs the antics of the hero-spy, a romantic figure who easily escapes the institutional harnesses of his superiors. Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy takes place in a different world. There is no super spy here, just a vision of the claustrophobic, embittered world of the intelligence community and its human cost. Based on the novel by John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor is concerned with the hunt for a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the highest levels of the British intelligence establishment, an agency known at “The Circus”. (Le Carré’s work popularized “mole” as a term for a double agent.) Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, Tinker Tailor ’s rumpled, aging hero. Smiley, enmeshed in a corrupt institution, represents an elite obsessed with perceived...

Snobs Like Us

When did cultural disdain become the province of the left?

Y ou can always count on Hollywood panjandrum Harvey Weinstein to be bombastic about his own restraint. “In 20 years of coming to the Toronto Film Festival, I’ve never released a statement for a film,” read the statement e-mailed to journalists in mid-September. “But I would like to take this moment to formally invite Republican Congresswoman from Minnesota and Republican presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, to co-host with me the big premiere of Butter in Iowa in a few months from now. I know Michele will already be in Iowa for the caucus, so we can save some money on airfare and travel. I would of course be more than happy to fly in the other leading members of the Tea Party movement to make an entire day of it.” The Weinstein wit has clearly stayed hidden under a bushel too long. Note the effortless contradiction between the joke about saving money on airfare and the munificent offer to fly in—well, how many dozens of Tea Partiers might qualify for Harvey’s largesse? There...

The Showman

This "lost" interview shows Steve Jobs as an incredibly charismatic figure.

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
A few nights ago, I took to the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., to watch the “lost” interview Steve Jobs gave to Robert X. Cringley for a 1996 PBS television series, “Triumph of the Nerds.” The series included ten minutes of the interview, the rest of which was never seen, and feared lost, until Cringley discovered the mastertape following Jobs’s death last month. The interview shows Steve Jobs at 40, ten years into his career as head of NeXT computer, 9 years into his position as co-founder of Pixar, and a few months before he would sell NeXT to Apple, the first stop in a process that would end with Jobs as CEO of Apple Computer. If you’re familiar with Apple’s history, nothing in this interview should surprise you. Jobs goes over the well-worn stories of Apple’s founding by himself and Steve Wozniak, its initial successes with the Apple II and the Macintosh, his ejection from the company in 1985, and Apple’s failure to keep up with Microsoft in the late 1980s and early 1990s...

Beautiful Annihilation

Director Lars von Trier's latest film asks: What do you do when the world's coming to an end?

Christian Genisnaes A s Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier would have it, there is little more maddening than a depressive in one’s care. The lachrymose lump under the covers, the dead-eyed gaze at dawn, the obstinacy—almost pleasurable, it can seem—in clinging to suffering. Nothing is worse than taking care of such a person, perhaps, except being the depressive herself, lost in a scratchy fog of sadness and anxiety punctuated only by guilt and the unanswerable, unrelenting question: Why can’t you be happy? Von Trier’s response: Because the world is coming to an end. In Melancholia , the director has made his version of a zombie apocalypse film, with Kirsten Dunst as the living dead. I don't mean to be flippant, really, as the thing is deadly serious when it’s not pitched for perverse laughs—an operatic three-parter that focuses on two sisters as they grapple with the end of the world. The film is stunning—if you go in for the director’s brand of cinematic sadomasochism. Reviled for what...

FutureSex/Class Warriors

In Time is a movie for the attractive, radical redistributionist in your life.

AP Photo/Ed Andrieski
The thing to understand about In Time —the latest from Gattaca director Andrew Niccol—is that it isn’t a good movie. Characters lack compelling motivations, action set-pieces veer from boring to incoherent ( In Time apparently takes place in a world where everyone is an expert marksman), and it’s hard to take Justin Timberlake seriously as an action hero. But for as much as In Time fails as an action thriller, it fascinates as one of the most overtly ideological—and openly left-wing—movies of the year. The film’s premise is straightforward: at some indeterminate time in the future, humans were genetically modified to stop aging at 25, at which point they receive a year of time, which is the world’s currency. Time can be exchanged between people through a touch on the forearm or earned through work, and when you run out, you die. Like most people in this world, Will Salas (Timberlake’s character) is time-poor, lives in the slums, and works an industrial job in order to scrape through a...

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