Best of 2010 (Weekly Links)

Tahar Rahim, A Prophet

As always, a slow week for new openings; but I wrote these for the Herald:

Best movies of 2010. The link is dead; here’s the article, and list:

Ten Best of 2010

By Robert Horton

And so we bring down the curtain on Movie Year 2010, a real muddle of a year. 2010 was neither fish (as in “Catfish,” a film that refused to reveal whether it was documentary of fiction) nor fowl (as in “Black Swan” a crucially acclaimed but dumb movie about a ballerina who couldn’t tell black from white).

It says something when the defining films of the year were a dream-puzzle that nobody completely understood, and a story of the Ivy League jerk who re-arranged algorithms on the Internet. Both “Inception” and “The Social Network” delved into mystifying worlds, and both earned the right to be talked about. Neither film quite lived up to its ambitions: in the end, “Inception” was an adventure movie with mystical overtones, and “The Social Network” was a clever legal thriller that took stabs at telling us about the world we live in.

Elsewhere in Hollywood, the box office was considered flat—and it only kept pace with previous years because the studios charged a higher ticket price for 3-D films such as “Toy Story 3” and “Alice in Wonderland” (the #1 and #2 grossing pictures of 2010, as of mid-December). Animated films did very well, including pleasant surprises such as “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Megamind.” (Nobody was surprised by how good “Toy Story 3” was—the Pixar people have this stuff down.) Big sequels in the “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” series held their own—in fact, the top 11 highest-grossing movies of the year were sequels or remakes, except for “Inception.”

Critics are generally tepid on the quality of this year’s movies. I would agree that there were fewer instant classics out there than in previous years, but 2010 did have a batch of terrific small pictures and a great number of middle-range multiplex movies that provided a good time: “Kick-Ass,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “The Other Guys” and “The Last Exorcism” all scored in that category. It was a heckuva year for Jeff Bridges, who won an Oscar for his 2009 performance in “Crazy Heart” and had a holiday-season double whammy with “Tron: Legacy” and “True Grit.” It was another incredible year for documentaries, whether political (“Inside Job,” “Client 9,” “Waiting for Superman”) or otherwise (“Last Train Home,” “Waste Land”).

To my occasional irritation, it was also a big year for fake documentaries—or at least, supposedly true stories that felt manufactured. By virtue of being a prank played on the serious art world, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” was the most enjoyable of these, but “I’m Still Here” (the Joaquin Phoenix masquerade that was only admitted to be a stunt after the movie was released) and “Catfish” (a hyped-up cautionary tale that the filmmakers swore was all true) were simply tiresome.

The losers of the year included the “Sex and the City” team, which saw its sequel become 2010’s most widely-mocked picture—though I will always be grateful to them for the surreal image of Carrie & the gang singing “I Am Woman” at a karaoke bar in an Arab nation. Jake Gyllenhaal had a bad year: the supposed young-adult franchise “Prince of Persia” and the grown-up “Love and Other Drugs” both flopped. And Mel Gibson had a pretty rough year. His first starring role in more than half a decade, “Edge of Darkness,” opened to credible returns—and then the old personal demons asserted themselves again. Maybe every year is rough for Mel Gibson.

But it’s all over now—2010, that is. And we must choose the best movies to open locally in the last 12 months. A slightly used Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear to the following titles, more or less in order.

A Prophet. A young man enters prison as a vacant nonentity, and emerges a few years (and 2 ½ hours of screentime) later as a deft game-player—a shark with pearly-white teeth. I had a feeling back when I reviewed Jacques Audiard’s movie in March that it might be the best film I saw all year; watching the final scene play out was like watching the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle fall into place from a height of a thousand feet.

Winter’s Bone. No film at the Seattle International Film Festival in May made a sharper, cleaner impression than this American indie set in the Ozarks. Jennifer Lawrence gave a superb performance as a teenager navigating the thorny thickets of poverty and family ties. In an interview published in the Herald, director Debra Granik told me the film is really a modern western, with “a western hero in a girl’s body.”

Four Lions. A shockingly funny black comedy about Muslim suicide bombers. Ahem! Yes, risky stuff, but British director Chris Morris thoroughly researched his subject (as Kubrick did with his nuclear-war laff-fest “Dr. Strangelove”) in order to do what satire does best: force us to look at the logical consequence of fanaticism, which is absurdity.

The Ghost Writer. It’s not one of the director’s masterpieces, and the plot has a few soft spots, but Roman Polanski’s film about an unnamed ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) to a retired politician (Pierce Brosnan) is an elegantly troubling piece of suspense.

Sweetgrass. A dreamy documentary about sheep, and the people who herd them. This is another kind of western, where the cowboys have cell phones and the sheep have the last bleat.

The Kids Are All Right. A very skillful troupe of actors (led by Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo) pace through this well-observed comedy about lesbian moms whose children find their biological father. Nothing p.c. about the script, thankfully.

Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl. Just a lovely little 60-minute daydream of a movie, directed by a 100-year-old filmmaker, Portugal’s Manoel de Oliviera.

Mid-August Lunch. Another model of brevity (75 minutes), about a middle-aged man (director Gianni di Gregorio) living with his mother in a small Rome apartment, and dealing with the sudden arrival of other boarders. This movie is pretty adorable.

Greenberg. This one’s not adorable. Ben Stiller plays a jerky guy house-sitting in L.A. for a few weeks. The cringes are well-earned by director Noah Baumbach.

Inception and The Social Network. I thought both these well-received pictures had their flaws, but there was no denying the intelligence behind them or the sheer pleasure in watching them.

And we could also throw in “True Grit,” the Coen brothers’ remake of a classic western. The second tier includes: “Carlos,” the 5 ½ hour saga of a true-life terrorist; “Soul Kitchen,” that rare thing, a delightful German comedy; “Toy Story 3,” which contained quite possibly the most upsetting yet philosophical five minutes of any movie this year; “Trash Humpers,” a creepy nightmare that I would never recommend to anybody but which had its own unpleasant integrity; “Alamar,” a wonderful Mexican movie about father and son; the taut Israeli film “Lebanon,” which takes place entirely inside a tank; “Marwencol,” a fascinating documentary about a brain-damaged man creating art; “Waste Lane,” a must-see about the rag-pickers of Rio creating art; and “A Town Called Panic,” a demented stop-motion animation thing with toys.

We celebrate these titles. But of course each year has its downside. You know what I’m getting at. Let’s not draw out the torture. Here are the ten worst of the year:

“Sex and the City 2.” And yet there was almost something intriguing about this enormously tasteless enterprise—but I’m not going to spend time thinking about what that might have been.

“The Virginity Hit.” Teen boys decide to “lose it,” a prospect conveyed in faux-documentary style with incredible crassness. If only these guys had met the “Sex and the City” ladies.

“The Last Airbender.” M. Night Shyamalan came a-cropper with this attempt at launching a “Narnia”-like franchise; it’s the only movie of his that isn’t distinctive in any way.

“Eclipse.” Sorry, “Twilight” fans, but this installment of the vampire saga brought the story to a complete standstill. It might work in a book, but in a movie, it’s nice when something happens.

“Vampires Suck.” Of course, this parody of “Twilight” was even worse. It was about as obvious as its title.

“Takers.” Terrible heist movie, with good actors, that played more like a very long advertisement for SUVs and fancy clothes and large automatic weapons.

“The Runaways.” There should be a good movie in the story of the 1970s female rock band, but this vague biopic, which wasted the talents of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, argued otherwise.

“The Back-Up Plan.” An excruciating romantic comedy (one of many this year) in which Jennifer Lopez goes through the alleged hilarity of getting pregnant via artificial insemination at the moment she meets her dream man. This was J-Lo’s first movie in four years, which speaks badly of her career and the state of Hollywood screenwriting.

“Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.” Yes, there are plenty of duds amongst the arthouse movies, too. This one made two famous (and presumably interesting) people into sleepwalkers.

“Jonah Hex.” Absolutely dead zombie western. Josh Brolin’s facial prosthetic was so impressive he could barely get any of his lines out—which might have been a blessing, given the quality of the script.

Made in Dagenham. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Sally Hawkins, who made a vivid impression in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” in 2008, has the look of a British actress who might have flourished in the 1960s: Twiggy-thin, with toothy features and a kooky personality. So it seems perfectly apt that she should star in “Made in Dagenham,” a movie based on a real incident that happened in 1968. Hawkins plays Rita O’Grady, a factory worker who became a leader of a strike of 187 machinists at the Ford automotive plant outside London.

These particular machinists were all women, and one of the movie’s main points is that the female factory workers were treated even less well than the male employees. They were especially shoved around because nobody expected them to answer back, and because their own union representatives were overly cozy with the Ford management.

Rita O’Grady and her colleagues struck a blow for women workers in Britain, even beyond the confines of their Ford factory. It’s a splendid true story, and therefore just the kind of thing that a well-meaning movie can mess up.

Alas, that’s what happens in “Made in Dagenham.” Artificially inflated by pop songs and cutesy mannerisms, this movie can’t leave a good story alone. The director, Nigel Cole, did a similar thing in “Calendar Girls,” one of the raft of feel-good British films that came along in the wake of “The Full Monty.” Everything’s just a little too packaged.

The nice cast includes Miranda Richardson (lately in “The Young Victoria”) as the British secretary of state for labor. While officially a hard-liner against the strikers, her character knows all too well the way the old boys’ club works. (I couldn’t help thinking that an excellent movie might have been made telling the same story from her perspective.)

Bob Hoskins plays a sympathetic Ford union man, with one marvelous speech about his own mother’s working life; needless to say, an old pro like Hoskins knocks that one out of the park. Richard Schiff does duty as the designated American corporate jerk in the mix.

Sally Hawkins, whose bouffant hair threatens to topple her tiny body, is a spirited heroine for this tale; Rita balances home life with an increasing sense of empowerment as a workers representative. Something this movie gets spot-on is showing that, when it comes right down to it, the strike isn’t fundamentally about such things as personal empowerment—but more about the right to be treated the same as anybody else.

And more best of 2010: On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the list. Listen to the archived version here; the movie bit kicks in at the 14:00 point.

You can watch the abridged version of the Critics Wrap 2010, in which an esteemed panel sorts the movies of the year. It’s broadcast today on the Seattle Channel (channel 21 in Seattle) at 1 p.m. or 5 p.m., or New Year’s Day at 1 p.m.; or just watch the thing online.

Indiewire did their critics’ poll, with results here; my ballot, too.

Today’s movie at my other website, What a Feeling!: Drugstore Cowboy. Other postings this week at the ever-growing swamp of 1980s movie-ness include the Two Coreys in Dream a Little Dream and Charles Bronson in Messenger of Death.

Movie Diary 12/28/2010

Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942). Ronald Colman the amnesiac ex-soldier, Greer Garson the woman who keeps prodding his memory. MGM gloss and some very potent moments that stretch across time. The saga of what happened to the second female lead, Susan Peters (who married future director Richard Quine and was almost immediately paralyzed in a hunting accident), is even more haunting and tragic than what this movie is aiming for.

Latest reviews at my other website, What a Feeling!, a respository of the Eighties: Yentl and Ghoulies.

99 River Street, The Spiritualist, Framed (The Cornfield, #13)

Three impressions of noir.

99 River Street (1953)

Awesome stuff from Phil Karlson, with a brutal boxing opening and a plot that puts ex-pug Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) through an equally brutal nightmare during one long evening. Payne is played for a sap by his wife, who then gets murdered in a jewel deal gone bad. Framed for the crime, he teams up with galpal Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), an actress who, in the course of the same evening, has hoodwinked Ernie into being part of a “rehearsal” for her new murder play (great long-take work as the camera follows her doing her role, as Ernie thinks she’s actually explaining her involvement in real murder at the theater). Karlson’s camera seems vibrantly, emotionally engaged by the action on screen, moving in and away as the moment requires. Keyes has another great scene later when she tries to snare the diamond thief/killer (Brad Dexter in good assholey form) in a waterfront café on River Street, as she dances around the joint and eventually leans way down into his face to light her cigarette from his. The sex stuff is strong. Payne is terrific (a cabbie now, he rarely takes his cap off). Good support: Jack Lambert, the poor man’s Lee Marvin, as a thug, Jay Adler as the Jewish fence, Peggie Castle as Payne’s duplicitous wife, Frank Faylen as a cabbie buddy. It’s a director’s film, in the best way, and within the budget there are some beautiful night scenes, including a longshot of a ship in dock, done with paintings.

The Spiritualist (The Amazing Mr. X) (1948)

Good noir stuff, primarily from cinematographer John Alton, who appears to assert his dynamic noir style over director Bernard Vorhaus (although Vorhaus has a profile in the sub-cult vault, a “subject for further research” type who once mentored David Lean and was blacklisted not long after this movie). The opening sequence alone grabs mood and angle from Welles/Kane and I Walked With a Zombie, as the camera approaches the Oceanside home of widow Lynn Bari, who can still almost hear her dead husband’s voice on the sea air at night. Kid sister Cathy O’Donnell tries to talk her into accepting the proposal of Richard Carlson; and while he succeeds, the framing keeps the dead man’s painting between the ostensible loverbirds. Bari bumps into a wiggy exotic (Turhan Bey) on the beach, a man with a raven and a hypnotic way of talking. Plus, he looks like Turhan Bey. Mind-reader type, with his own L.A. bungalow headquarters (visitors write a note to themselves, which he divines by reading the carbon under the pad they just used). He’s a lovely charlatan, savored by Bey in one of his best performances—he’s never not a phony, except in the final sequences, when he pulls some vestige of decency out of himself. His aim is to fleece Bari, but then her dead husband shows up very much alive, having faked his own death (for rather obscure reasons). He now leans on Bey to collaborate on driving Bari to her death (still not sure why).

Framed (1947)

Early Glenn Ford movie—he’s a mining engineer who rolls into town in a truck with no brakes. (Long story.) Accused of various things, he’s bailed out of jail by a tall, slender drink of water, Janis Carter, who’s working as a waitress at a slop joint but is actually the mistress of a married banker (Barry Sullivan) hatching a dirty plan. She and her sleazy boyfriend need a chump to kill, leaving the body to be mistaken for Sullivan’s, which will allow them to do somethingorother involving money. (Ford and Sullivan aren’t remotely similar in build, despite the movie’s protestations.) After getting a job on prospector Edgar Buchanan’s claim, Ford falls under the sway of hotcha Janis, and it takes a trip up to Sullivan’s country “shack” (cool split-level fuckpad) to realize that the two of them are, you know, together, indicated by the robe hanging in the bathroom with the word “PAULA” embroidered on it. Not cool. Ford continually gets blackout-level soused in the movie – a contrivance needed to set the plot in motion – even when he realizes something is up with the creepy couple. One single nice shock moment: close-up of Carter in a car at the moment a gun goes off and a car accident is staged, followed by a cut to one man alive, then to another man slumped over dead. The thing has plot holes, but it’s truly killed by the flat staging and lighting; though imitative of noir tropes, director Richard Wallace has no feel for how to enliven them. Ford is okay, with a couple of nasty, bitter moments. But why is anybody doing anything in this movie?

The King’s Grit (Weekly Links)

Merry Christmas, from Rooster Cogburn

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and other stuff:

True Grit. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Maybe it’s the voiceover narration that creates this impression, but there’s something about the new version of “True Grit” that resembles a favorite book read out loud. You’ve heard the story before, it’s not really new, but the delights of hearing a good old yarn are significant.

Where you’ve heard the story before is most likely the 1969 film version of “True Grit.” That box-office hit won a richly-deserved Oscar for John Wayne, who was then moving into the final phase of his career. Both films are based on a novel by Charles Portis.

This new one was adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen, who recently trekked west in “No Country for Old Men.” Their take on “True Grit” is a lighter movie than that, but it offers the pleasures of the western genre in abundance.

That narrator is Mattie Ross, remembering the story from middle age. As a 14-year-old, Mattie (played by Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in an unfamiliar town to send home the body of her father, killed by a scoundrel named Tom Chaney. Being a spunky girl with no small sense of justice, she hires a U.S. marshal, Rooster Cogburn, to find Chaney and arrest him. Cogburn, the old John Wayne role, is played by Jeff Bridges—decked out in eye-patch, paunch, and happy drinking habit.

Marshal and girl are accompanied in their manhunt by a Texas Ranger, LaBouef (Matt Damon), who’s been tracking Chaney himself. Much of what happens is arranged in a few big sequences: a spellbinding set of action around a cabin at night, and the trio’s eventual rendezvous with a gang led by a scurvy varmint called Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).

The real rendezvous is Jeff Bridges meeting up with a cantankerous character already well-known to movie history. Bridges plays the grizzled humor of it, and is especially good when growling out replies on the witness stand during a trial unrelated to the main plot.

This is an interesting lesson about movie acting. Jeff Bridges gives a nicely thought-out performance, and scores well with it. But John Wayne carried his movie-star presence (and the better part of four decades of westerns) around with him like the sizable gut that preceded his entrance into a scene. There was absolutely no denying him, or his scene-defining charisma.

Oddly enough, Matt Damon—who’s been on a hot streak of late—is underwhelming as LaBouef, and Josh Brolin a bit hammy as Chaney. The smaller roles are filled by a gallery of splendid faces and unfamiliar gargoyles. The movie looks gorgeous, as expected, and the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins create a beautiful interplay between wide-open spaces and intimate exchanges. The language of the movie, incredibly ornate, is also fun to listen to–it’s no mystery why the Coens, whose dialogue tends to be on the elaborate side, were drawn to this style.

Having said all that, the Coens’ “True Grit” carries with it a slightly academic air; it doesn’t have the dreadful undercurrents of their recent pictures (even the slapstick “Burn After Reading” had a sinister quality), and it doesn’t have the pizzazz of a story from a born entertainer. And yes, you’ve heard this yarn before—but hearing it again is just fine.

The King’s Speech. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Those of you with a weakness for movies about the British royalty—complete with vintage costuming, political intrigue, and stiff-upper-lip wartime perseverance—should find yourselves positively weak-kneed during “The King’s Speech.” The movie’s like a weekend marathon of “Masterpiece Theatre” crammed into two hours. It also happens to tell a marvelous true story, and it features a couple of skilled actors doing crowd-pleasing turns.

We first meet Prince Albert (played by Colin Firth) during a public appearance—something the royal family keeps to a minimum, for Bertie is afflicted with a debilitating stammer. Because his older brother Edward is next in line to the throne, Albert’s excruciating handicap shouldn’t be a huge issue—he can live out his life with his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) and his two daughters in quiet privilege.

Still, after attempting a variety of failed cures for the stammer, his wife discovers a no-nonsense Australian named Lionel Logue—even his name sounds like a speech exercise—who gives elocution lessons at his nondescript office. Logue is played by “Shine” Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, an impeccable actor who manages to keep the character true even when the script threatens to get overly cuddly.

The friendship between Logue and Bertie is at the heart of the movie, and perhaps the most touching element is the way this Aussie—who, because of his accent, is looked down on by the English keepers of propriety—is responsible for affecting the speaking voice of a king.

Yes, a king: for in 1936, when their father (Michael Gambon) dies, Edward and Bertie are thrown into quite the royal pickle. The unmarried Edward is living the luxe life with a divorced American (thus raising the question: which is worse for the royal succession, a divorcee or an American?), and looking increasingly unfit for a long reign at the top. Which is how Bertie becomes King George VI, and why his daughter, Elizabeth, has the gig today. This section of the movie is perhaps its most engrossing, in part because Guy Pearce’s performance as Edward is without sentimentality—this is a reminder of the royal family as weird, outmoded tradition.

Ah, but director Tom Hooper (“The Damned United”) will recover to remind us that George VI played a role in bucking up the spirits of his embattled people during World War II—especially in a 1939 speech that required every ounce of therapy Logue could apply. It’s a satisfying conclusion to an eager-to-please movie, ably delivered by Colin Firth. There’s been much speculation—since before anybody saw the movie—that “The King’s Speech” would bring Firth an Oscar, after he missed last year for “A Single Man.”

Hard to argue with the logic. He’s got the Jeff Bridges element (many years of respect, but no statue), and the role lets Firth show his stuff. Time to crown him as Hollywood royalty.

Rabbit Hole. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

There are just enough intriguing things happening in “Rabbit Hole” to make it seem better than it is. This movie doesn’t really come off, but a handful of memorable scenes and a revelatory performance by a new young actor leave an impression.

It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, and although the story revolves around the death of a child, everything here is the aftermath of that traumatic event. The dead boy’s parents have settled into their grief, and despite their efforts to move ahead, show little sign of coping. Nicole Kidman plays Becca, whose bitter rejection of group therapy or religious consolation have made her even more isolated from her husband, Howie (Aaron Eckhart). One of those memorable scenes comes when Howie, flying solo at a group session, smokes pot beforehand with an unattached woman (Sandra Oh) and they both get the giggles during an extremely serious round of sharing.

For her part, Becca becomes drawn to a teenage boy who played a role in the family’s past. Their park-bench conversations are compelling—both people dream about physics theories in which every person has multiple parallel lives. “So this is just the sad version of us,” Becca muses. “Somewhere out there I’m having a good time.”

Kidman is very good in these scenes, projecting the naked intensity of someone who must find something to hold onto. The teen is played by Miles Teller, an unremarkable-looking young man who delivers a terrific, fresh performance. You are surely going to be hearing about this kid, whoever he is.

If “Rabbit Hole” were as consistently good as its best scenes, it would be something special. But director John Cameron Mitchell, who previously did “Hedwig the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus,” appears to be primarily interested in the material as an actor’s showcase. He has a monotonous reliance on matching close-ups for most dialogue scenes, and the heated arguments between Becca and Howie sometimes burn out into more heat than light. Adding some welcome character variations are Dianne Wiest and Tammy Blanchard, as Becca’s passive mother and trashy sister.

This is one of those ultra-grim movies that only come around at holiday time, when awards are being given out and audiences are sometimes in the mood for something heavy. Since not much is heavier than the death of a child, “Rabbit Hole” will be a test even for serious moviegoers.

Tiny Furniture. (dead link; review  below)

By Robert Horton

The advance buzz on “Tiny Furniture” implied that this micro-budgeted indie picture might be insufferable: a privileged 24-year-old writer-director, casting herself and her own family in a tale set against the Manhattan art scene, maybe with a collection of mumbled observations dribbled along the way. A diagnosis of self-indulgence was indicated.

Well, this is why you see the movies before you make up your mind. “Tiny Furniture” is indeed modestly-budgeted and set in the Tribeca loft of the filmmaker’s artist mother. But it’s also funny and tough-minded and smart—and it even looks better than most hand-made indies (banish all thoughts of hand-held jiggliness here).

Lena Dunham is the 24-year-old in question. She plays Aura, a schlumpy college grad who returns to New York suddenly single and without a job. Aura moves back into her mother’s fabulous art studio/apartment, where Aura’s younger sister still lives. They are played by Dunham’s real relatives; her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a well-known artist who creates pieces with dolls and—you guessed it—tiny furniture (she also directed a fascinating film, “The Music of Regret,” with Meryl Streep).

The movie catalogs Aura’s awkward re-adjustment: getting a nothing job as a restaurant hostess, hanging out with a mismatched and needy friend (Jemima Kirke), and gamely trying to attract the attention of a couple of guys. One guy (Alex Karpovsky) is a maker of cult YouTube videos, and thus sort of hip and cutting-edge…except he’s really just an old-fashioned freeloader, looking for a place to crash for a couple of weeks in Manhattan.

The other guy is a creepy chef (David Call) who sends out all kind of warning signals, which Aura blithely misses or chooses to ignore. This leads to a few last-act disappointments for Aura.

The fact that Lena Dunham allows Aura to do foolish things and make wrong moves and generally be as irritating as the other people in the picture is a measure of Dunham’s control over the material. She strikes just the right critical distance from her sometimes likable, sometimes annoying characters. Plus, the movie’s a comedy. As an actress, Dunham herself is so deadpan it’s understandable that some viewers aren’t sure whether this is supposed to be sincere or funny, but almost every scene has a sneaky comic undertone.

No doubt about it: these people in this milieu might drive you up the wall if you encountered them in person. But refracted through a sardonic lens, the whole thing manages to click.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Steve Scher about the current crop of movies, including True Grit, Black Swan, The Tempest, and Tron: Legacy. It’s archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 14-minute point.

The sixth annual “Critics Wrap,” a bunch of critics sitting around talking about the movies of 2010, is available for viewing in an abridged form on the Seattle Channel (channel 21 hereabouts), including a 9 p.m. showing tonight. Click here for the schedule of future broadcasts, or to watch online.

The trade paperback of Rotten (collecting the first six issues) is available now. Call you local comic book store to check for availability, or order online from Moonstone or your seller of choice. I mean like, now.

Today’s Eighties movie at my other website, What a Feeling!: Santa Claus. Aka Santa Claus – The Movie, aka a horrible career decision for Dudley Moore.

Movie Diary 12/23/2010

Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947). A really good movie. When Kris Kringle speaks Dutch to the little war orphan, forget it. The film is part of the movement at Fox in the late forties to shoot on location, and the vintage Manhattan stuff is splendid. It even has Thelma Ritter.

Today’s Eighties movie at my other website, What a Feeling!: Scrooged.

Movie Diary 12/22/2010

The trade paperback of Rotten (first six issues) is finally – finally – out this week. Hie thee to the nearest comic book shop, or, if you must, order it online. You could start at the publisher’s website: Moonstone. Noodle around at the Rotten tab above for more information and links.

The 2010 Critics Wrap (an annual panel of Seattle film critics sorting through the year’s best movies), held at the Frye Art Museum last week, will be broadcast in a one-hour format on the Seattle Channel (channel 21 hereabouts) beginning Thursday night at 11 p.m.; you can also watch it online after it debuts. The schedule is here.

Today’s Eighties movie at my other website, What a Feeling!, a growing thicket of 1980s movie-ness: Ernest Saves Christmas. I am sorry; you go to battle with the decade you have, not the decade you want.

Movie Diary 12/21/2010

Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010). A rough go for a doomed criminal-father, played with heroic fortitude by Javier Bardem. The director’s customary mood of despair prevails. (full review 2/?)

Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, 2010). Some of the deadpan comic observation wanes toward the end, but Dunham does have her own mode, as both director and actress. When flatly-delivered, throwaway lines have a lethal comic landing (“I’m a chef,” for instance), something is working. (full review 12/24)

Today’s Eighties movie over at What a Feeling!: Gremlins. A few more Christmas movies to come this week.

Movie Diary 12/20/2010

Black Moon (Roy William Neill, 1934). Voodoo, pre-production code, Fay Wray, the strange beating of jungle drums. I go on about this here.

They Made Me a Fugitive (Cavalcanti, 1947). Really dynamic Brit-noir, with Trevor Howard as a bracingly sarcastic aristo who gets involved with the wrong underworld types. The thing is full of sassy dialogue and some very intense violence, and the atmosphere of postwar England, with rationing and dark hangovers, is everywhere.

Today’s Eighties film at What a Feeling!: She’s Out of Control, starring Tony Danza. This is a film so bad it causes existential unrest in film critics.

Black Moon (The Cornfield #12)

Very first thing in the movie is the sight of a wealthy urban sophisticate sitting in her child’s room, beating out a hypnotic rhythm on a large primitive drum. This is Juanita Perez Lane (Dorothy Burgess), wife to successful businessman, hale ‘n hearty, everybody-loves-him Stephen Lane (Jack Holt). Check her name: two exotic morsels followed by dull-as-dishwater Lane; the lady was raised on a Caribbean island, part of the only white family there, and as this opening indicates – the servants respond with a “there she goes again with the drums” reaction – she has never entirely gotten over her voodoo-inflected upbringing (parents killed at an early age, neglectful uncle, prolonged outings with the natives). When you get to the end of the picture, you wonder what she’s doing with this trance-like drumming: communing with her true wild self, or preparing her daughter for a ritual sacrifice to come?

This is Black Moon, a 1934 Columbia film directed by Roy William Neill, who had come up through silent films and would do Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and a great many Sherlock Holmes titles in the 1940s. It comes two years after White Zombie and (given a few saucy references to things like “living in sin”) just before the Production Code really settled in. In U.S. culture an interest in voodoo and zombies remained in the air in the wake of William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island, and Black Moon hits a lot of the signposts of that world, many of which would come up later in I Walked with a Zombie. There’s a triangle here, as there would be in I Walked with a Zombie; accompanying Juanita to San Christopher is Stephen’s secretary, Gail (Fay Wray), who has already made it clear to the audience (if not to her thickheaded boss) that she is in love with him.

Once on the island, there are various nocturnal walks, a couple of voodoo ceremonies, and a great many moody, forceful compositions. Neill and cinematographer Joseph August (who did Sylvia Scarlett and The Informer within a year and was clearly in a groove) create true backlot mysterioso here, from the overgrown yard of the plantation house to the noirish interiors. The scattered dribs of Creole language add to the mood, and Juanita’s talk of the islanders being oppressed by their white employers – delivered after she has definitively gone over to their team – comes as a well-aimed dart, even if most of the natives in the film fall into the realm of background menace.

But then, you can only do so much in 68 minutes, and what Black Moon does it does well. And with some eeriness, too: why do Juanita and Gail look almost identical? Is the whole movie some sort of oddball dream Stephen has, about replacing his unreachable wife? Within Jack Holt’s giant noggin, the idea must have been there: sure, he got cool cred for marrying the foreigner, the slinky alien lady with the jungle history and the sugarcane patois, but now his friends are raising their eyebrows about her incessant drum-beating, and after all, although she comes from money, it isn’t our kind of money, is it, old sport, and really what sort of a name is Juanita Perez? Not exactly one for the Blue Book, eh? So Stephen lets her go off to San Christopher, with daughter in tow, as she promises him that “When I come back, you won’t know me. I’ll be mild, placid, positively meek.” Evidently her nervous condition has made her something of a handful. He lets her go, despite the fact that every single person in the movie talks about what a dire idea is for Juanita to get anywhere near the old island ways. It is also necessary to overlook the Perez family emissary who comes to the U.S. to deliver a message but gets a knife in his back before he can say what he’s come about.

We don’t see what Juanita does when she goes off for her prowls, nor is it detailed what happened to her during her voodoo upbringing – except that her uncle saved her from “a living death.” She merely vanishes for long sections, and returns looking zonked-out and over-heated. What we do see involves a couple of glimpses of voodoo rites –  singing and drumming and that – the point of which is human sacrifice. This is where enforced discretion often creates intrigue in movies. What does she do out there, in the tropical jungle? She has knowledge that Stephen can’t possibly understand, with his fat smile and his good faith and his ease in a cold climate. This can’t go on, between the two of them. He doesn’t get her, and she must, as she says, go back home. As she sits in her daughter’s room in the opening scene, we may appreciate the ordinary space. But also notice that the classy wallpaper is decorated by a large drawing of a tree, whose tangled limbs spread out over the wall in this corner of the room. The ancient things are calling.

Tempest Tron Yogi Fighter (Weekly Links)

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week, and other things.

Tron: Legacy. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The only title I saw on this movie was the word “Tron” lighted up in big letters, but the ads claim it’s called “Tron: Legacy,” so there you go. Having a definitive title is a so pre-digital.

“Tron: Legacy” is, of course, the sequel to a 1982 film that wasn’t a blockbuster at the time but has been a cult fave for years. “Tron” has become a “Gone With the Wind” for nerds, a sweeping technical spectacle that pointed the way toward the digital age we live in now. The original movie reeks of the era of Space Invaders and quadraphonic speakers, an idea the new movie has some fun with. We are told that Kevin Flynn, the man who established himself as the alternate-universe blend of Bill Gates and Indiana Jones in “Tron,” vanished a few years after the events of that movie.

Flynn (played then as now by Jeff Bridges) actually got himself temporarily digitized in the first film, so we can be forgiven for suspecting that he might have spent the last couple of decades whizzing around inside a mainframe somewhere. And that’s what his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) learns when he goes poking around his father’s hidden underground computer lair.

“Tron: Legacy” takes its time; the early scenes, meant to be seen in two dimensions, eventually give way to Sam’s journey inside the computerized, 3-D world of the compu-verse. It’s extremely dark in there, but then it was extremely dark on the outside, too.

A very thin plot ensues, but that was true of the corny “Tron” as well. The visual dazzle is the whole show, and the film is full of swooshing lines of light and translucent structures seen against a pitch-black background. There’s also the effect of Jeff Bridges, seen as both his real-time self and his youthful avatar, Clu. The digital creation of his young face isn’t completely convincing, but it’s not bad, and we can forgive the Botox-like strangeness of it because we’re inside a computer, anyway.

Which brings me to my main stumbling block with both “Tron” films. These human beings are digitized—all right, I’ll go along with that—and then when they’re inside the computer they move around like pieces of code or something—uh huh—and sometimes if they fall a few stories they bounce back, and sometimes they shatter in pieces. But then they duel and race motorcycles and, in the case of the elder Flynn, eat roast pork dinner. And sometimes the big battles come down to a fistfight. A fistfight? What are we watching, exactly?

These questions do not seem to bother first-time director Joseph Kosinski, who concentrates on making things look totally rad. And there are some visions in it, especially the great space tramway that the Flynns try to escape on. (Original director Steven Lisberger is on board as producer this time out.) Curiously, the blackness of all the backgrounds makes the 3-D less necessary than it was in “Avatar” (and barely noticeable much of the time). As for the human element, Hedlund is a bland hero, Michael Sheen and Olivia Wilde add character parts, and Bruce Boxleitner returns to his role from the first “Tron.”

And then there’s Jeff Bridges—in his robes and beard, his character suggests that “Tron: Legacy” might be the second version of Shakespeare’s “Tempest” opening this weekend. He swans about his digital island, spouting computer mumbo-jumbo and the occasional “Big Lebowski” one-liner—a walking, talking vote for humans over technology.

The Tempest. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Shakespeare has gotten the switcheroo many times in movies, from wacky updatings (“10 Things I Hate About You” was “The Taming of the Shrew” in high school) to casting stunts—Kenneth Branagh always seems to find room for the likes of Robin Williams or Billy Crystal or Keanu Reeves in his Bard adaptations.

And “The Tempest” was given imaginative re-thinking when it turned into “Forbidden Planet,” that classic Fifties sci-fi film starring the late Leslie Nielsen.

So at this point the central device of Julie Taymor’s new version of “The Tempest” feels almost tired. The male role of Prospero, the conjurer-lord of his own island, is taken by Helen Mirren, a decidedly non-male actor. Aside from some dialogue-tweaking, this change does surprisingly little to affect the experience of the play, outside of the curiosity of seeing Mirren tackle the role. As it turns out, she doesn’t so much tackle it as cozy up to it gradually.

Prospera, as she is called here, has lived for twelve years on the island after being exiled there because of the political machinations of her wicked brother (Chris Cooper). She’s been brewing up supernatural powers with her now-adult daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) and two slaves: the spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw, from “I’m Not There”) and the wretched creature Caliban (Djimon Hounsou).

As the story opens, Prospera causes a passing ship to wreck on her island’s rocks, thus bringing her brother and his cohorts ashore. Before settling the old score, she will see her daughter take up with the dewy son (Reeve Carney) of the King of Naples, Alsonso (David Strathairn), as they have also been washed up.

The construction of the play is rock-solid, and the language contains some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful passages. You would not necessarily know this from the movie, which has a curious stop-and-start rhythm as well as its share of fumbled line readings. (One of Ariel’s great moments, the stanza that begins, “Full fathom five thy father lies,” is almost over by the time you realize it’s being sung on the soundtrack.)

The casting of Alfred Molina and comedian Russell Brand works nicely, as two bumbling survivors of the wreck; they manage to work up some energy that the other players lack. And an old pro, Tom Conti, does a bit of scene-stealing as the King’s counselor.

Taymor is known for her visual invention (currently being tested with the accident-prone Broadway musical of “Spider-Man” she’s directing), and there are some cool-looking costumes and landscapes. Yet despite the Hawaiian locations and some well-designed sets, the movie feels underdeveloped. Even the toolbox of computer effects—which ought to hold some wonders for anybody making “The Tempest”—isn’t well handled. The decision to make Ariel a digital sprite is especially poor, and even the storms are unconvincing. When you can’t get a good wind going in something called “The Tempest,” there’s trouble.

How Do You Know. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

James L. Brooks is such a dawdler, he creates expectations. He’s written and directed five films since 1983’s “Terms of Endearment,” so if one of them comes out merely a nice little movie, it seems like a noticeable under-achievement.

His new one, the first since 2003’s “Spanglish,” is “How Do You Know.” It’s a nice little movie.

In the spirit of the film, let us quietly elaborate. Reese Witherspoon plays an Olympics-level softball player whose dedicated career is, at age 31, winding down. She’s thrown by the sudden re-adjustment of her life, and wonders how she fits into the world: “I don’t know if I have what it takes for the regular plan.”

She’s got the distraction of her goofy new boyfriend, a pitcher (Owen Wilson) for the Washington Nationals. But his charm comes in equal measure to his irresponsibility. Meanwhile, she’s also been noticed by a guy (Paul Rudd) who works for his father’s business, which I guess is a bank, or some other kind of financial place where they push money around.

Dad is played by none other than Jack Nicholson (who won two previous Oscars under Brooks’s eye, in “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good As It Gets”), which gives the role a certain oomph it doesn’t really have on the page. Rudd turns his puppydog gaze on Witherspoon, and in true screwball-comedy fashion, they find excuses not to get together. The financial subplot keeps coming up as a mechanical device for working things out eventually.

Even if you didn’t know Brooks spends years on his projects, you’d probably sense that “How Do You Know” has a labored-over quality, especially if you compare it to snappier dialogue-driven films that came out this year, such as “The Kids Are All Right” and “Please Give.” The movie doesn’t so much flow as creak from one scene to another.

But some of those scenes are pretty great. Kathryn Hahn, as Rudd’s pregnant secretary, shares a handful of exchanges with him that generate energy much of the rest of the film lacks. Witherspoon’s interplay with Wilson is tepid, maybe because he’s the only character in the movie who doesn’t worry over every little thing. Brooks seems happiest when his people are engaged in extended, neurotic soul-searching.

Because Rudd and Witherspoon are good at that, and because Brooks has some funny situations in his pocket (especially a scene in a hospital maternity room, where Nicholson unleashes a few priceless reactions), “How Do You Know” gets by on its own terms. By the time it reaches its ending, a pleasant glow has settled in—and you find yourself wishing Brooks didn’t spend so long on his odd, hand-wringing projects.

The Fighter. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Certain movies are exactly what they’re cracked up to be, and “The Fighter” is a prime example. No better or worse than what you’d expect, this is a boxing saga based on a true story with a reasonable level of human interest.

The one wrinkle here is that director David O. Russell and star-producer Mark Wahlberg have kept the actual fight scenes to a bare minimum—only the climax of the film, a championship bout, gets the full-on rock ’em sock ’em treatment.

Wahlberg plays “Irish” Micky Ward, a welterweight from Lowell, Massachusetts, who managed to scrap his way to the top of his class by the end of the 1990s. But the movie is less focused on Ward’s pugilistic career than it is on the complicated ties of family and neighborhood. The lion’s share of the attention goes to Micky’s older half-brother Dicky, played by Christian Bale. A once-promising fighter himself, Dicky lives off the memory of having once decked Sugar Ray Leonard in a match, and has slouched his way into a serious drug addiction.

The tortured relations between the brothers form the central axis of the story, but Micky’s also got a domineering mother (Melissa Leo) and a no-nonsense girlfriend (Amy Adams) to contend with. There’s also a nest of sisters and half-sisters, each one with a more fearsome hairdo than the last.

The fight scenes are deliberately shot in the style of an HBO videocast, and Wahlberg seems convincing enough in them. In the rest of the film, he appears content to let everybody else do the showier acting—he’s like a slightly detached host presiding over a series of main-event acts.

Showiest of all is Christian Bale’s busy performance as the brother. The actor has once again starved himself to achieve a gaunt junkie’s look, and he creates some choice moments in this portrait of the neighborhood hero who tries too hard, laughs too loud, and stays too ready for a fight (not the kind in the boxing ring).

The double-edged sword of family closeness is brought to life in Russell’s restless directing style. He directed Wahlberg in “I (Heart) Huckabees,” and was a late addition to this long-developing project, which may be why “The Fighter” doesn’t play as distinctively as Russell’s “Three Kings” or “Flirting with Disaster.”

The location shooting adds flavor; seeing these particular houses and street corners provides not just a backdrop but an entire, mostly depressed, way of living. It’s effective, yet none of film’s qualities give the reason we should be watching this particular boxing story at this particular time. In the end, the movie is as straightforward as its title.

Yogi Bear. “Enough environmental activism to warm Al Gore’s heart.”

I Love You Phillip Morris. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Jim Carrey sails into new heights—and for him, that’s really saying something—in “I Love You Phillip Morris,” a cracked tale based on a true story. A very odd true story.

Carrey plays Steven Russell, whose seemingly ordinary life masks a bunch of problems, not least of which is his secretly gay identity. A brush with death leaves Steven with the conviction that he can’t live a lie anymore, so he leaves his wife (Leslie Mann) and embarks on life outside the closet. Funny thing about Steven, though; he can’t seem to live without pretending.

Being a full-time con man will put him in jail, which is where he meets a mild-mannered Southerner named Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor, in a very precise performance). The love story that ensues is, safe to say, not quite like any other in movie history: a series of prison breaks and complicated impersonations and occasional domestic idylls.

The film is written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who worked on the script of “Bad Santa.” Shaping a true story into a three-act screenplay is tricky, and the movie has a slightly wobbly shape because of that. But it’s got some funny ideas, plus an unabashed embrace of its leads being, as Steven puts it, “Gay gay gay gay gay.” I think if the material had a first-rate director (this is a debut directing job for Ficarra and Requa), it could have been remarkable rather than workmanlike.

As it is, the film’s got some giddy sequences. There’s one forced separation between the two jailbird lovebirds that is staged with all the sweep of a 1940s Hollywood musical—it’s both funny and sweet. And Carrey has some supercharged early sequences as he attempts to find his biological mother—leading to an awkward encounter on the lady’s front porch, as Carrey goes through some heroic physical and vocal contortions.

In fact, Jim Carrey is in his element throughout the film, tearing it up when he needs to (his character has a “Catch Me If You Can” quality, and the ability to pass himself off as a variety of different people) but dialing it down in the quieter moments.

If a respectable actor were playing the part, like Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon, it would likely receive some awards notice. But Jim Carrey is not a respectable actor—he does comedy, right?—so this crazily inspired work will probably not get the attention it deserves. But it’s a world away from Ace Ventura.

Queen of the Lot. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

In one revealing scene in “Queen of the Lot,” the main character, a Hollywood actress named Maggie Chase, explains that she is obsessed with Googling her name, counting her hits, and reading reviews of herself. Maggie is horrified that Ty Burr, film critic of the Boston Globe, wrote that she gave “the most irritating performance of the year.”

This tells us something about Maggie’s needy, self-absorbed personality, but it also has another ripple. That review by Ty Burr is real, but it doesn’t refer to the fictional Maggie—it describes the actress playing her, Tanna Frederick, in her previous incarnation as the same character in the 2007 film “Hollywood Dreams.”

Confused? Don’t be. It’s all part of the casually self-referential world of Henry Jaglom’s films, which make little observations about life, love, and showbiz in L.A. He’s been cranking out his movies (which he finances) since 1971—in fact his first film, “A Safe Place,” is included in a brand-new new DVD box set devoted to the production company that made “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces.”

Frederick is the latest in the line of Jaglom’s protégées, and her performance in “Hollywood Dreams” was indeed notable for its shrillness and lack of restraint. Yes, we must cut her some slack, since her character was a real handful—but still.

That character craved Hollywood fame; in “Queen of the Lot,” she’s found it, albeit in unexpected ways. She’s the star of a series of action comedy films (“Red Wrecker III” is the newest), she’s linked in the tabloids to a supposed Hollywood hunk (Christopher Rydell), and she’s just received her second DUI notice. The drunk-driving bust has gotten her an ankle bracelet and a month under house arrest, which she decides to spend at the home of her managers (Zack Norman and David Proval, two Jaglom regulars).

Some mild Hollywood satire is followed by a couple of roundabout plot developments. It all hangs together loosely, as per Jaglom’s usual style, but the most notable thread involves Maggie’s boyfriend’s brother (Noah Wyle, of “ER”), a downcast type who of course falls for Maggie’s craziness. A late-night interlude in which she chews cookies and ice cream and then spits them into a bowl without swallowing joins the list of unlikely movie romance scenes.

A weird selection of Hollywood types shuffle through the storyline, including Peter Bogdanovich (as a filmmaker invited to remake the Lubitsch classic “Trouble in Paradise”), Bing Crosby’s wife and daughter Kathryn and Mary, and Paul Sand, a comedian who was a fixture in movies and TV in the 1960s and 70s.

Jaglom’s method is to roll his camera (he still shoots on film rather than video, to his credit) and let his actors improvise their way through scenes. Actors can sometimes make something charming out of this, but such moments are extremely rare in “Queen of the Lot.”

Even though Jaglom’s films usually set my teeth on edge, at this point I find myself weirdly fascinated to see what he’ll come up with next. Won’t have to wait long: his new film, again starring Tanna Frederick, is due to arrive next year.

All Good Things. “Gravitational pull toward aristocracy and power.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I spend an hour with Steve Scher and Fred Hopkins sifting through the tradition of dark-Christmas movies, exemplified by Rare Exports. Archived here.

Tonight on the Seattle Channel’s Art Zone with Nancy Guppy, I drop by the Rat Pack interior of Vito’s to recommend Mid-August Lunch to our host. The show bows Friday night at 8 on the Seattle Channel and Sunday night at 11 on KCTS-9 (and will be visible to watch online thereafter).

Today’s Eighties movie at my other website, What a Feeling!: Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria.

And thanks to all who made last night’s “Critics Wrap” a scintillating event at the Frye Art Museum, notably panelists Jim Emerson, Kathleen Murphy, and Andrew Wright. Our ten best lists are posted here.