Hugo brought lots of other movies to mind—Amelie, Ratatouille, Kontrol… I mean, upon exiting Hugo with the rest of the unwitting Thanksgiving-weekend throng, I wished to see another movie immediately so that I might wipe the dull taste of Hugo from the mouth of my poor movie brain, Hugo being like a chocolate-flavored rice cake: containing a necessary trace of hydrogenated vegetable oil, a kind of passable color-flavor combination, but underneath pure tasteless healthy.
The other movies it brought to mind—two set in the same accordion-soaked Paris as Hugo; one in a similar train-station conceit—were far superior if only because their directors showed a defter hand than old Scorsese with the construction of world—construction of viable, idiosyncratic worlds being the only thing any movie, nay work of art, is responsible for—Ratatouille was good because that little rat knew his way around the kitchen in explicitly unknowable ways, his rat-ness driving both story and scenery; Hugo, alas, is neither animated nor particular savvy about its ostensible locale: the eponymous child actor seems barely able to navigate the obvious back-lot he’s found himself on—at one point hiding from the station inspector by crouching in front of some stacked-up chairs.
I mean come on! He’s supposed to live in the station! Know all the crannies! Take us on a mind-whizzing tour—in Kontrol, the main character knew his labyrinth so well he could even sleep there, avoiding the security camera’s gaze, and didn’t Amelie understand the sightlines in her little apartment complex well enough to set up some seriously adorable hi-jinx?
Yet there are so many things wrong with Hugo, it seems unfair to linger on just that one: besides its sins of worldlessness, Hugo falls flat in an NPR-kind of way. The New Yorker, mine old frenemy, declares, “Hugo is superbly playful,” and yet the kind of blitheness Hugo achieves is distinctly pat, almost platitudinous: art is the arena in which the most trivial kinds of redemption are looped in endless reels of feel good puffery. Everyone ends up smug and satiated in Hugo,including Sasha Baron Cohen’s maimed Station Inspector, who seems to have wandered in from the set of a much funnier, more interesting movie. Had Hugo simply played the old movies it tries to celebrate, with some Ali G commentary to boot, I would have been totally and completely satisfied, my movie mouth full of cavities like it should be.
In Time’s ethos is less carpe than CRAPPY diem. Something about class and the unequal distribution of wealth goes on in In Time, which led me to whisper-shout “OCCUPY TIME!” at obnoxiously regular intervals throughout it.
The New Yorker review of In Time is a hazard to public safety and so I’m going to take the rest of the time allotted this review and rebut its claims, one by one:
“Andrew Niccol, the genre-twisting director of ‘Gataca,’ delivers another entertaining mind-bender”: In Time is mind-bending only if the last time you experienced your own mind functioning was en route from Pretzel Maker to Auntie Anne’s and were like, how will I ever decide which is the better pretzel store?
“The film stars Justin Timberlake, as an heir to a fortune of extra time who flees the corrupt police force known as Timekeepers”: this bit of innocuous plot explication is so wrong I wonder if Bruce Diones took the time to even watch this abysmal time-waste of a movie.
JT is NOT an heir, but a man accused of stealing time from this rich guy who comes to the wrong side of the time zone because he’s been alive for so long and “people want to die” and so he gives JT his time while JT is asleep and JT tries to use it save his mom but she—zzzzzzz….
“Niccol’s zippy direction, joined to a sleek, rich production design, keeps the movie spinning like a shiny toy”: In Time was filmed on the back lot of the back lot of The Sopranos during stray moments when no one important like Edie Falco was looking.
“It zooms past plot holes”: In Time is one giant plot hole in the middle of a cul de sac it jerks off behind the tree at the end of.
“The remarkably good-looking cast includes Amanda Seyfried”: Seyfried looks like a grotty Skipper doll made of last year’s Top Shop.
“As for Timberlake, he shows some smart acting moves, dialing down his inherent charisma and letting the movie pop…”: Any popping In Time manages is of the white-head-boring-a-hole-in-the-center-of-your-chin variety; when it goes it’s timely, but you wish it had never happened in the first place.
I didn’t actually see Insidious. The New Yorker described its leading little boy as a “nest of evil spirits” and no doubt the movie trotted out every weird-shit-on-walls/mysterious-thuds-overhead/doorknobs-turning-of-their-own-volition/static-on-random-electrical-devices horse in the Stygian stables that is the Possession Genre. Instead, I stayed in and watched a real horror film: Junebug. The fact that this movie is often housed under “drama” or perhaps even “comedy” should not fool you. If the pact we make with horror is a boozy, adolescent one—trading the pinot noir of plot and cabernet of character for the warm 40 of shock—Junebug attends to the murderous, blinding bath-tub brew that is actual terror, in our actual lives. Its potent swill of family, class, culture, and shame induces a visceral reaction that few horror movies can, for what we react to is not a “nightmare” (realized in the shaky camera effects and suggestive soundtracking we’ve been trained to recognize one as), but the contours of what approximates real horror in our post-secular, post-bourgeoisie, capriciously capitalistic, and endlessly commodified times. The camera freezes on interiors in Junebug as if a crime has been committed: the carpeted stairs leading down to the basement, and the fake wood paneling in that basement; the Stairmaster at an odd, sad angle in the master bedroom; the matching cherry dining set. Everything came from someplace like Furniture Barn or Wood Unlimited, and did so 20-25 years ago. Junebug’s protagonists are middle-class, and monstrous. When the prodigal son returns home with his expensive, elegant wife, what happens, happens. And it’s scary. And I hid my head in my T-shirt more than once.
And it reminded me of what else I did today: attend a teach-in. My political history is vague and unwinning: I once slept at a “peace camp” protesting the rerouting of a highway through contested sacred Native American ground in college. Then I committed myself to poetry, the discovery of sex and booze followed soon after, and the political, except as a whetstone for whatever theoretical model I was attempting to learn the jargon of, limped out of my life like a pudgy, discarded BFF. Distancing oneself from the grimy, sweaty, generally unattractive earnestness of “activism” is a time-honored tradition of the intellectual classes. Whether you advocate to rescind the inhumane system of capitalism in favor of a just and equal socialist nation (as one speaker at the teach-in did), or accuse those who organize events like the one I attended today as “whiners” (a-hem), you’re equally drowning in the gooey vat of diagnosis; in stopping at the café of the critical-descriptive, you miss the mad rush for the spit, where the hordes grill and devour the endless, rotten meat of the so-called civilized, and their civilizing process. I spout nothing new here. The facts I heard today were discouraging, and horrifying. The response I felt in myself even more so. For when asked to stand and chant, “Tax the Rich!” did I stand and chant? Did I want to? Here is Susan Sontag on Emil Cioran: “His aim is diagnosis. For relief, it may be that one must abandon the pride of knowing and feeling so much—a local pride that has cost everyone hideously by now.” Sweet dreams, folks.
As we type this it is the end of January, the heap of it: the carcass of fall lies prostrate behind us, the sylvan glory of spring hunches nowhere in sight. Through the wreckage of the holidays wander some women, lamenting the fallen or possibly combing them for bounty. They are hot-tempered and wrongfully accused (The Next Three Days), or whiny and self-absorbed (Tiny Furniture); or two-timing and witchy (The Dilemma); they strive neurotically after the perfect pitch of ululation (Black Swan); though young and feisty from afar, as they near we see that they are one-armed and loveless (True Grit). Leading this harried group of harridans are two of the more beautiful, impossibly damaged females to traipse the recent battlefields of cinema: Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole) and Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine). What is the state of women in film these days? Icy and treacherous as the steps to our back porch, it seems. Kidman and Williams should probably split the Oscar for their performances in these movies, like the dueling moms in that Bible story. They are so agonized and angry and, you feel as you are meant to, fucking real, that faced with Solomon’s suggestion, they’d each walk away, stoic and empty-handed, as the camera followed their skinny, ram-rod spines into the metaphorical backdrop of choice. Both BV and RH are serious, seriously sad movies that you should under no circumstances see on consecutive nights, as we did, no matter how desperate you grow in these downpours of snow.
Both these movies work through the subtlest characterization: what you learn about everyone involved is carefully managed, though BV wins in our book based solely on the single most excruciating abortion scene ever (and we’ve seen that Romanian film with all the numbers in its title), when you learn whole pages about Michelle William’s character as the nurse takes her medical history. The secret of some movies is that they transfer their glamor to your own quotidian existence, suddenly making you re-see all your mess and slop and stuttering as cinematic: while wrapping you in their story, they also wrap your own in art. Such is BV’s appeal. But on the heels of that New Yorker article about The Feminine Mystique, we couldn’t help notice how all these females in all these movies are, well, sorta…like…hysteric? Like maybe kinda…essentialized? Granted, Kidman’s dealing with the death of her child, and William’s with a long history of father issues and sexual misfortune, but the newest take on the female seems suspiciously akin to the old one: dankly mysterious creatures who scratch, or shy, at the well-meaning but hapless embraces of men. The men are good in these movies too—actually, they’re great, both as characters and as actors playing those characters. They are “better” than the women, though it’s the women who are up for Oscars. Real pain’s still paying its artistic dividends. Poets take note.
We really did not plan on going to see The Dilemma. There seemed no reason for it: we were never a teenage boy and so never watched Swingers with anything more than soporific bewilderment; thus we have never “loved” Vince Vaughn (who is sounding more and more like a robot in need of a tracheotomy, or late Cher); we were also too young to ever regard Winona Ryder, at the height of her fame, with anything more than a little sister’s wide-eyed confusion and spite; and since we actually kind of hate TV, we have never even seen “The King of Queens,” and so spent much of the opening of TD trying to figure out why anyone would ever think Kevin James belonged anywhere other than a Burger King commercial. We saw The Dilemma because David Denby gave it a mildly good review in the New Yorker. We should know, after his similarly anodyne take on Love and Other Drugs—which was way worse than TD, believe us—never to trust him in matters of rom-commery. (David Denby! In the same issue he panned The Green Hornet, which we continue to maintain was not that bad.) But such is the power of the mildly good review, in the middle of January.
The power of criticism is its potential to persuade you, before imbibing the cinematic, or literary, or artistic swill on offer, that what you are about to receive is a finer, or richer, or poorer, or more flavorful, or less, vintage than it actually is. Criticism wraps its flavored condom around the sex of culture and keeps us all safe from being impregnated with our own opinions—keeps us from suffering the bloat and irritation and parturition of thinking for ourselves. Criticism smacks of elitism—of intellectualism, of pointy-nosed, bespectacled know-it-alls and smarter-thans. Or it’s simply opinion, the vice of our times. It’s either heinously against the spirit of America, or woefully a symptom of it. Denby’s review drove us into the waiting arms of The Dilemma. Here’s his assessment: “It’s an essentially serious, sometimes dark movie about infidelity, friendship, and male madness, dotted with patches of broad physical comedy and some spectacular Vince Vaughn riffs.” There is ONE “spectacular V.V. riff” in this movie and it involves a blow-torch and V.V.’s now-puffy face, lit by rage and wasted talent. Kevin James is a huge, dull whale; Winona Ryder bangs her one note of two-timing, elfin bitchiness; Jennifer Connelly looks pretty. Queen Latifah is also there, for no good reason. The movie is “serious” in that it presents characters you fail to develop feelings for in situations you literally could care less about (there’s some subplot about building a loud electric car engine, for example), with few laughs in between. Denby got us to the theater all right, greasing the wheels of the last manufacturing economy the US can still drive: Hollywood. But once there, he reminded us of why we write these reviews at all: as disinterested, hopelessly marginal figures, we can still occasionally speak tiny truth to the hegemony of bad art. Call it opinion; call it our only hope. Don’t go see this movie unless you love the Man, we mean Vince Vaughn.