Sunday, December 28, 2014

#783. Seven Best Movies of 2014

1.) Interstellar
I've already called this one my pick for the year's best movie.  The reception otherwise seems to be lukewarm (the lack of Golden Globe nominations just one recent reminder), but that's the fickle public for you, after three huge blockbusters (The Dark Knight and Inception especially, and The Dark Knight Rises to a lesser extent, and perhaps now clearly the beginning of the cooling process).  This is Christopher Nolan's opus, in a career that seems already full of them.  What makes this so special is that it's the first time that the director has grounded his story less in flashy concept than the human drama that roots it.  All around it's Nolan pushing all of his instincts to the next level.  he was already among the elite.  Now he's making a bid for something greater.

2.) Winter's Tale
Based on the Mark Helprin novel, this is the second of three high concept movies that converged to make 2014 truly exceptional in that degree, movies that didn't merely suggest but demand their ideas take center stage.  Out of the three, it's no surprise that Winter's Tale ultimately proved the hardest to swallow.  This was Akiva Goldsman's directorial debut.  He's previously been known for his screenwriting, where no doubt opinions might rightly be split on his efforts (Batman Forever and Batman & Robin on one side, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man on the other, say).  I think his true apprenticeship for this movie came from his time working on Fringe, a TV series that sought to challenge audiences with the same mix of intimate character work and the baffling events that surrounded them.  Obviously, the fact that it stars Colin Farrell made me interested to begin with, but Winter's Tale itself continues to fascinate me.

3.) Noah
Darren Aronofsky's sixth movie may be his best.  This is a bold statement, in that his previous movies have a great deal of critical approval behind them (starting with Pi and continued through Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan).  Only The Fountain has stymied the critics to the extent Noah has, and that one fell through so many cracks I bet most people still haven't even heard of it.  Noah was always going to have an unavoidable profile, given that it's a biblical epic.  Sixty years ago this would have been an acceptable part of the mainstream.  Only this year have critics begun to speak of the controversial Passion of the Christ positively, and that one was released a decade ago to famously spectacular box office success.  The thing about Noah is that it's not "acceptable" by either mainstream or religious standards.  Aronofsky made an Aronofsky movie.  Anyone who saw Requiem will recognize its DNA in Noah.  Like Winter's Tale, Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are featured.  Crowe does some of his best work in a career filled with exceptional acting, portraying a man tortured by what he believed has been asked of him.  I've experienced many different versions of this story, and I've been fortunate to experience several good ones.  This is definitely one of them.

4.) Locke
The only actor to appear in the whole movie is Tom Hardy.  Released early in the year, it received a little bit of attention given that fact, but it's been forgotten largely overlooked, and that's unfortunate.  After everyone discovered Hardy in Christopher Nolan's Inception, it became harder to overlook the actor's incredible ability to reinvent himself in each new role, which is to say, acknowledge his considerable talent.  He's not the first person to be the only actor in a major motion picture (a recent example would be Robert Redford in All is Lost, a kind of more subdued Castaway), but this is literally a whole movie of watching Hardy drive.  He takes a series of phone calls, and as they continue, the drama escalates, because the pressure of the situation builds.  This is a life that has already come undone, but over the course of the movie, it becomes obvious how.  It's quite remarkable.

5.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2
In a year filled with excellent superhero movies, it's the one that the fewest truly seemed to enjoy that is arguably the best.  Maybe I was biased, given how much I enjoyed director Marc Webb's earlier (500) Days of Summer, but this is the best Spider-Man movie yet, one that truly appreciates the complexities of Peter Parker's life and explores it in ways many comic books have tried over the years, but never to this emotional degree.   The villains are the one concession Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes to what most other superhero movies have done.  The rest of it is what it proves can still be done, if only filmmakers make the effort.

6.) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
I liked the first one, but the second one is better.  Oh, it's better.  Critics have gotten audiences to agree with them that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have been collaborating on a glorified novelty act, one that is relentlessly misogynistic, but if that were the case, I wouldn't expect Eva Green and Jessica Alba to have been the best parts of A Dame to Kill For.  Green has been a bombshell of a different kind for nearly a decade at this point, blazing new ground in the mainstream since Casino Royale, and only recently has she begun to find roles worthy of her.  I suspect the best is yet to come.  Alba wouldn't get anywhere close to this kind of material from anyone but Rodriguez, which makes me anticipate the next time they work together.  Throw in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, and of course Mickey Rourke, and it's not just the way this one's presented that makes it so riveting, but what the characters in it are doing, which has less to do with shock value this time, with more emphasis on storytelling.

7.) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Peter Jackson's likely last visit to Tolkien's Middle-earth is less compelling than its immediate predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug, but by the time it finds echoes from the first of the six-volume saga, The Fellowship of the Ring, it's clear the director made an effort to encompass the whole experience in more ways than one as he says goodbye.  Until Smaug, Fellowship was my favorite of the series, with its strong character work, anchored by the death of Boromir.  When Jackson first introduced Thorin Oakenshield, I thought he was a big to be a surrogate Aragorn.  But as it turns out, he was Boromir all along.  I haven't read the book since I was in elementary school, so had forgotten that Thorin's arc exists in it.  The changes Jackson did make in his three films, including the creation of Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel, are all welcome decisions as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, December 19, 2014

#782. Farewell to Craig and Geoff

Tonight marks the final episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and I for one am pretty sad about that.

I mean, who else in the history of late night television ever had a robot for a co-star?  Good ol' mohawked Geoff, I think I'll miss you most of all.

But seriously, Ferguson always looked like he was having a blast, and his enthusiasm was contagious.  Jimmy Fallon knows how to have a good time, and Conan O'Brien is a master of the absurd, but the rowdy Scot who once penned a memoir entitled American on Purpose, was perennially unheralded but always great, in an era of hosts clearly aware of tradition and usually overly constrained by it.  Ferguson always played fast and loose.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

#781. 2014 in Parentheses

This is a story that does not yet have an ending.

A little over a year ago, I moved back home.  Yeah, I was part of the financial crush that hurt a lot of people, but the reason I was needed was much more simple than that: my mother was dying.  She was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in the fall of 2010, and it spread throughout the rest of her body in due order.  When I arrived last fall, she was still ambulatory, but that was a story that has since concluded.

She has deteriorated in regular intervals this year.  To say it has had a profound effect on me would be an understatement.  Everything that I have done over the past twelve months has been affected by her developing condition.

The first order of business, as I reported in my commentary a year ago, was to move my parents out of the house our family had lived in for thirty years.  The specter of her decreased mobility was present even then.  She couldn't walk up the stairs without terrifying those who witnessed her, and as such was the motivating factor for the move.  Falls seemed imminent each time.  At that point, they had not become a regular feature of her life.  This would change early in 2014.

When they began, they almost seemed harmless.  She was never seriously injured in any of them, unless you count the number of times her head struck the floor.  The day we had to have emergency services help us get her back up, we couldn't imagine, my father and I, that our evening would only grow worse when we got back home, after she was reoriented and evaluated at the hospital.  She couldn't climb the stairs to the house.  She had no power in her legs.  We struggled to help her.  I won't go into further details, but suffice to say at one point she became dead weight and lost all cognizance.  In some ways this was a mercy.  I looked into her face and saw someone I didn't recognize.

Last year I said I'd already experienced the worst moment of this whole ordeal, and I still stand by that statement, but it seems more hollow from this vantage point.  My sister's father-in-law helped us install a ramp.  She went from using a cane to a walker to what's called a transfer seat but by all appearances is basically a wheelchair, in rapid succession.  We started receiving assistance in the home.  It was only a matter of time before we could no longer adequately care for her in this manner.  A few weeks back she was moved into a nursing facility.

I have no idea how or when the story ends.  We visit twice a day, and she has good days and bad days.  Our victories are counted in what she has managed to eat.  She is barely communicative at this point.  There are flashes of the person we knew, and then there are times when all she can say is a series of numbers, and then when all she can do is open her eyes long enough to acknowledge us.  Sometimes her voice is only a whisper.

Thanksgiving was spent with her.  We ate with her, and other residents, in the dining room.  Christmas, hopefully, will be better.  She says the only gift she wants is coffee.  Actually, that has been the most pleasant thing to come from the past year, discovering how such a simple thing can so reliably give her at least one happy thought.

I hope you understand if I don't tell you the ending.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

#780. Fifty-One Years, Twenty-Two Days...

Last month held the dubious distinction of being yet another anniversary in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which has now crossed the half-century mark.  Someone at work turned up a copy of that year's Time magazine, dated November 25, 2013.  The issue carries two articles on this singular note in American history, David Von Drehle's "Broken Trust" and Jack Dickey's "Debunker Among the Buffs."

You may remember that I've written about the assassination here in the past, including on the fiftieth anniversary itself and in relation to Stephan King's novel 11/22/63.  To say the event fascinates me is about as good a way to put it as I can find.  I'm not exactly a conspiracy theorist.  For one, I'm probably half the age most of them tend to be, because those with the most vested interest were alive when it happened.

Time's coverage concerns the conspiracies.  Why is it, the magazine asks, we can't move past this, accept that what appears to have been the case was the case, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, fatally shooting Kennedy from a perch in the Texas School Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza?

I'm not going to do an in-depth discussion here.  The whole reason I'm writing about it today at all is because of Time's articles.  Time is one of the most-respected names in print journalism, an institution that seeks to maintain the integrity and dignity of a medium that has been declared a dinosaur waiting for extinction.  I myself have read it casually for years and have generally respected its contents.  When I saw this copy in the break room, I was excited to have stumbled into the opportunity to read its perspective on the anniversary.

I wonder now if this were one of those instances where fate plays cruel tricks on us.

Neither article is well-reasoned, actually.  They are blatantly written from a skeptic's eye, outright dismissive of the idea they seek to explore.  I'm not indicting the whole magazine, but it's certainly sad to see such an important moment covered so cavalierly by a major media outlet of any form.

For one reason or another, the assassination became a touchstone; arguably it was more important to Kennedy's legacy than his thousand days in office or the handful of crises he handled or even the ambitious projects his successors helped see to fulfillment (given how monumental they were, the moon landing and civil rights, that's certainly saying something).  Historians debate how significant the man was, but there's no denying the significance of his death.  That much Time properly acknowledges.

Von Drehle purports to examine the various conspiracies that have been propounded over the years, but right away, he turns it into a sensation piece, describing the assassination itself as so shocking it can't be explained in words even today without causing trauma to his readers.  "I recently waded into the thicket of theories," he continues, "trying to understand the roots and fruits of this vast enterprise, which is part scholarship, part fever dream.  I got just far enough to see how quickly the forest can swallow a person up."

In other words, he admits that the task he set out to accomplish immediately overwhelmed him.  Time might have done everyone the service of assigning this piece to someone else.

The thing everyone knew about Kennedy while he was alive was the image of Camelot, the romantic ideal he embodied as a young President who by his very presence promised something new, an occupant of the White House fit for the emerging age of the media.  While his policies split the country down the middle, Kennedy himself and his wife Jackie seemed to have stepped out of a fairy tale, one that ended like one of the Brothers Grimm stories indeed.

The day he died, it became impossible to reconcile the way it happened with the outsize role he filled in the public imagination, and so, as Von Drehle argues, the public responded by creating a reality where the facts fit the fantasy.  Or in other words, the conspiracy theories began.

This is not the same as saying it's impossible to believe that anything but what the Warren Commission concluded could be true.  Unfortunately, that's exactly what Von Drehle says, without once more than flippantly dismissing and hardly addressing any other possibility.  This isn't responsible journalism, and not the way to mark what the magazine has already determined to be an enduring moment.  Dickey's follow-up is a shorter, and correspondingly condensed, version of Von Drehle's lead.  He talks about how he eagerly debates theorists, but not how and without admitting that he could ever be wrong.  There's another word for that, and it's not argument.

Even from reading a work of fiction like King's 11/22/63, a strong case can emerge that supports plenty of justification to believe the portrait of Kennedy's assassination is murkier than history seems determined to make it, even as King himself vehemently concludes in the orthodox view.  It doesn't take a conspiracy for an assassin to act.  Every other President murdered in American history was a fairly open-and-shut case.  What makes Kennedy different?  A journalist would have explored that.  Even if Oswald did act alone, that's what a journalist's article in Time should have done.

This is not the time to brush the whole affair under the carpet.  Those who were alive on that day still say, like my father, "We'll never know the truth in our lifetime."  That's how deep this goes.  It's not even about specific theories, but the belief that there is, bottom-line, a wider portrait to be had than the one we've been given.

It's not so crazy to think that way, no matter what Time apparently feels justified in implying.

Friday, December 12, 2014

#779. Mock Squid Soup: Pulp Fiction

via Wallpaper Vortex
The merry meeting of the Mock Squid Soup society has nothing to do with Marvel Comics and less to do with counterfeit cephalopods (what a horrible thought!), but does involve a dude named Mock and another dude named Squid and movies that they've selected and sometimes watched together, because they don't just know each other on the Internet but somehow still communicate here and not through social media invented this millennium (I kid because of the soup!).

This month they selected Pulp Fiction, which was released twenty years ago but only five and a half films ago from director Quentin Tarantino, who lately has built his career out of helping Christoph Waltz win Best Supporting Actor honors from the Oscars.

It's a great selection, one of the defining pieces of modern cinema, and I don't just say that because there have seemingly been whole careers for critics built out of trying to identify which filmmakers were inspired by it.  Personally, I'd recommend you watch The Usual Suspects, Smokin' Aces, In Bruges, London Boulevard, Seven Psychopaths (incredibly those last three movies star Colin Farrell, but no one has ever identified him as prime Tarantino material), but start at the beginning with On the Waterfront and maybe Casablanca.

Tarantino has been called the child of pop culture, but that's not really true.  He's a veteran of the video store era, back when people watched movies as a hobby, and there was no bigger aficionado than Tarantino.  Except maybe this was a kid who grew up in the '70s and spent the '80s dreaming of a way to pay his respects, because that's what his budding career looks like, the best way to summarize Pulp Fiction.

Everyone remembers John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and especially Samuel L. Jackson, but perhaps the most telling elements of the movie revolve around Bruce Willis.  And mind you, Pulp Fiction is basically a Western, born from the aftermath of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name emerging and John Wayne dying and then later Eastwood's modern cowboy Dirty Harry, but with all the good guy glamour finally drained.  Pulp Fiction is a world of bad guys.  It's also a world without a defining war for the first time in the 20th Century, when such things came around every twenty years.  You can't be an American and not have thought about that.  But Bruce Willis is part of a new generation.  His character's great-grandfather fought in WWI, his grandfather in WWII, and his father, as memorably explained by Christopher Walken, in Vietnam.  Willis is a boxer, smack dab in the era when boxing began to become culturally irrelevant, Mike Tyson's career crumbling and nobody emerging to replace him.  This is also around the time when football began to take over with two Super Bowls dominated by, you guessed it, the Cowboys.

How any of that makes sense: actually, pretty much the same way as the pretzel logic of Pulp Fiction, in which Willis shoots Travolta dead in the middle, apparently, of Travolta's adventures.  I can't possibly argue that Americans liked the idea of war.  By Vietnam we positively revolted it, and that's shaped our culture ever since.  We'd once again be stupid enough to let Hitler run rampage through Europe.  It's the idea of individuals running around doing exactly how they please.  Not exactly lawless, but the law of the land is chaos.  The boxer is free to go unscrutinized.  Tyson bites someone's ear off, everyone screams bloody murder, then forget that boxing is already a pretty brutal past time and then decide, hey! MMA looks like an acceptable alternative!  So then we embrace football, where chaos is definitely the law of the land, and by the time another war or two rolls around, everyone decides that we should end them as soon as possible regardless of whether or not our objectives are clearly identified let alone met, and yeah, so ISIS.

And crazy people running around with guns executing people.  I'm not calling Tarantino a visionary, but his hand was definitely on the pulse.  In his later movies, he worries less about tricks than he does explaining himself so that he can't be misunderstood with all that showmanship he's so good at, everything people expect from him.  And somehow, his message keeps getting lost.  I think Tarantino gets away with breaking rules because people ultimately decide, it's Quentin being Quentin, but like the old rock critics, they also proclaim that he's not as good as he used to be and they'll never make another like him.

Whatever that means.

All his good guys are bad guys, and there are huge pieces of his stories that are never told.  Ving Rhames already has a band-aid on the back of his head when we first meet him, chronologically and story-wise.  It's not quite as extreme as Brad Pitt with the giant scar on his neck throughout the whole of Inglorious Basterds, but it's also the visual equivalent of the story Travolta and Jackson share about the last time someone had the task of babysitting Thurman, the story Travolta has in the back of his mind through most of the movie, and by turns, the idea of the watch Willis inherited from three previous generations, and even the mystery of what's inside Rhames' briefcase that Jackson carries around throughout, what he refuses to give Tim Roth, because it belongs to someone else.

Because it belongs to someone else.  That's it, really, isn't it?  It's the idea of greed, and what some people are willing to do and what some aren't.  Twenty years and counting without a war at that point.  Everyone was waiting for the next shoe to drop.  And it seemed like it never would.  What does that say about us?  It's a heck of a responsibility.  Everyone talks about peace, but even Jackson wants to retire but to "adventures," which is to say no peace at all.  The idea of "pulp fiction" harks back to a time when we glorified the bad guys (who else do you think Jesse James and Billy the Kid were, guys who helped inspire this subject matter?).  Pointedly, until Willis kills his opponent in the ring, without even realizing it, without giving it a second thought because he desperately needed to save his own hide knowing that he's made a deal with Rhames to lose the fight, he's never killed anyone.  He kills several people after it.  He kills one person with a samurai sword (the whole idea of Kill Bill percolates throughout Pulp Fiction).  It becomes a farce.  Okay, the whole thing's a farce.

It's a movie with multiple narratives, like the later Traffic, Crash, and Babel, but strangely I don't know that Pulp Fiction is thought of in that way.  Like I said, usually as a Tarantino film, a Travolta film, a Jackson film (arguably, somehow, still the only movie to have truly appreciated having him in it), but not a Willis film.  But it is a Willis film.  Watch the later 16 Block.  You wouldn't have 16 Blocks without Pulp Fiction.  But it's all of these things, and it doesn't even start with Travolta or Jackson or Thurman or Rhames or Willis, but with Roth, who has the least to do with anyone else.  By the time he interacts with Jackson, at the end of the movie, Roth's presence has completely vanished.  He's the least important element, but he's also a crucial element.  What is it that belongs to somebody else but has crucial value to yourself?  It's the movie's unspoken riddle, the answer you don't even realize you were looking for.  Maybe this is a movie about life in general.  It's a topical movie, eternally so, without even looking like it's trying to be.  That's film-making.

Of course it changed everything.  It's not an easy movie to figure out, and so you have all these people trying, and failing miserably, to do so, and identifying all the wrong elements about what Tarantino's contemporaries did after its release.  You might as well say it's exactly the same movie as Forrest Gump or The Shawshank Redemption, which by the way it basically is.  It's just, Pulp Fiction has flare.

Just as Willis is routinely overlooked, there's also Rhames.  Do you even know Ving Rhames offhand?  You probably should, but the fact that you might not speaks about all the injustices Tarantino is really talking about, the little crimes we perpetrate against each other (a foot message, say) while focusing on all the bad guys shooting their guns all over the place.  That's why Jackson and Travolta seem to talk in trivialities, because Tarantino realized that suddenly it's no longer the big events happening, at that time, but all the mundane little moments that get to us.  We try and focus on everything else, but really, who are we kidding?  That's what Jackson is thinking at the end of the movie.  Harvey Keitel shows up and he's the only guy who can calmly talk people through a crisis, until Jackson, the only one who learns anything, replicates the fete.  Love and war.  It's the idea of breaking eggs to make an omelette.

Rhames, by the way, has appeared in all of the Mission: Impossible movies, and starred in the excellent Rosewood, another unusual Western.  He's still routinely overlooked.  I think Thurman as a brunette in Pulp Fiction causes a lot of people to forget she was in that, too, why it took Tarantino to collaborate with her again in Kill Bill for people to remark that she was still making movies and very much capable of turning heads (you know, or decapitating them), but somehow still like Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, a couple of born stars who outside of Tarantino can't catch a break.

And you know who I realized seems to have adopted a lot of her persona from Thurman in Pulp Fiction?  Zooey Deschanel.  Obviously there are differences, but not as many as you'd think.  People tend to overlook her, too.  And she's as least as lethal a catch in (500) Days of Summer as Thurman in Pulp Fiction.

This is not my favorite Tarantino film.  Lately it's been whatever the newest one was, and that started with Kill Bill Vol. 2 and continued with Inglourious Basterds and currently rests with Django Unchained.  Because Quentin Tarantino is, ultimately, restless.  He's never happy unless he's challenged himself.  He's said that he's looking to retirement relatively soon.  He got angry after his script for The Hateful Eight was leaked, vowed he wouldn't make it as a result, but of course he will.  This is a guy who has probably spent his whole life telling himself stories.  You can see that in Reservoir Dogs, and even Death Proof.  That's why he's such a vital storyteller, because he believes in stories, the stories other people have told, and the ones he wants to tell as a result.  Some claim that he's nothing but a glorified rip-off artist.  I call him aware.  More and more, he's trying to make his viewers aware, too, cut through all the nonsense we like to tell ourselves (the telling scene in Django Unchained as Leonardo DiCaprio explains his version of why the black man is inferior, and the irony of Waltz explaining to him later that his idol, Alexander Dumas, was black).

Anytime you compare someone to Shakespeare, you have to have a really good argument, but you also have to remember, if it hadn't been for the folio of his works, Shakespeare likely would have been forgotten, and we wouldn't be sitting here explaining the eternal brilliance of him, either.  Tarantino, I'm convinced, is in Shakespeare's league. Pulp Fiction might be considered, above all else, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

And yeah, it's still cool, after twenty years.


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