Saturday, January 31, 2009

"I'M SO MEAN I MAKE MEDICINE SICK!" Muhammad Ali and When We Were Kings

Every so often I feel compelled to revisit Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford’s solid, powerful documentary on the 1975 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” When We Were Kings, largely because of my fascination not only with this period of sports history, but specifically because Ali is such a formidable, fascinating personality all on his own. His magnetic persona, and his status both as an iconic entertainer and a political force, sustains for me now, as it did when I was a teenager and watching his fights in the ring and his sparring matches with Howard Cosell on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, my interest in a sport—boxing—that otherwise compels relatively little interest for me. Ali is such a spectacular figure in America culture because he was so controversial, so polarizing during the peak of his career during the '60s and '70s—his refusal to fight in Vietnam and his embrace of the Nation of Islam gained him no quarter in the enclaves and on the front porches of white, middle-class Americans in the ‘60s—yet he has retained, perhaps even strengthened his stature by never apologizing for his political stands while the country seems to have adapted and changed around him.

One of the great coups of Gast and Hackford’s film is the interviews they scored with writers George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, who both brilliantly and compellingly elucidate the ambience of being in Zaire for the fight, as well as insights into Ali’s pre-fight psychology. Mailer suspects that Ali feared Foreman’s youth and prowess in his own private moments much more than his arrogant public persona would ever allow to be revealed, and Plimpton relates a story of a Congolese witch doctor who predicted that Foreman would be visited by a strength-sapping succubus who would open the door to defeat at the hands of his older, apparently weaker opponent. Both provide excellent analysis of the fight itself, and in the process provide a window through which to see boxing as a battle of balletic strategy as much as brute force, as well as specific insight into Ali’s lightning-fast moves (extensive use of the right-hand jab, which is telegraphed much more easily to the defender but which Ali successfully used on Foreman because it was the least-expected punch) as well as the deceptive craftiness of the rope-a-dope, which ends up seducing Foreman into punching himself out of the fight long before Ali lands the knockout blow.

Charles Taylor, considering Ali in this bout, and When We Were Kings upon the movie’s release in 1997, wrote the following:

“I think the key to why so many of us, and particularly so many writers, are stunned by Ali lies in this performance. He is one of the most perfect unions of thought and action anyone has ever seen. The conceptual beauty of his victory over Foreman is indistinguishable from the beauty of its execution. Athletes think with their bodies. Physically, Ali was able to express not just strength, but more intelligence and wit than any athlete ever has. The movie ends with Plimpton relating a story about Ali delivering a commencement address at Harvard. Responding to the cry, "Give us a poem!" Ali delivers two words: "Me. Oui!" But the movie has already made a stronger case for him as a poet in the ring. And it's poets who touch people more than kings.”

It is precisely this poetry—his pre-rap freestyling that enraptured so many along the color line in the 1960s, but also his poetry of motion, of thought, of choreographed beauty, of force, and of restrained force—that I’m drawn to whenever I think of Ali, his young self as seen in this film, and even the older version, enfeebled by Parkinson’s Disease. (Mailer intimates in Kings that the onset of this malady was a direct result of the brutality visited upon his beautiful frame in the 22 fights that ensued after the Rumble in the Jungle, a fight many speculated would be the one, win or lose, that would end his career.) The elderly Ali has none of the speed and grace of the man who once murdered a rock, killed a brick and who was so mean he made medicine sick. But he has the dignity that comes from a life which extended so articulately the principles of power he executed in the ring and brought into the social arena as an ambassador for social change and an icon of hope and pride, not only for African-Americans but all Americans. It’s easy to watch When We Were Kings and realize why Ali is thought of in some circles as closer to a god than a mere mortal. Even awareness of his mortality doesn’t get in the way of playing this game; if he’s a diminished god now, When We Were Kings provides ample evidence of his divinity in the ring.

Taylor also suggests that the musical elements of When We Were Kings ironically tend to bring the energy of the film down, and I can see what he means insofar as the film’s commitment to telling the story of the concert built around the Zaire fight seems half-hearted. (The energy having been relatively dialed down, Ali always returns and gooses things to life again.) But rather than excising them altogether, the film might have benefited from going further in the other direction. We get brief intercutting, snippets of B.B. King, a morsel of James Brown, and a thematic motif which casts Miriam Makeba’s somewhat sinister onstage persona as the spirit of the succubus that some (Plimpton included?) believe brought Foreman down. Had the movie allowed for a more expansive canvas that might have showcased complete performances, it too might have gained some of the epic quality that was surely present during the actual event. Taylor also quite correctly observes that the movie skimps a bit on the background which led to the murderous ascendance and foul continuance of President Mobutu Sese Soko, who provided the $10 million to stage the event that he hoped would promote his newly formed country, formerly the Belgian Congo, as a world force. It is in the interweaving of elements such as this that great documentaries are made, and the absence of a particular depth here harms When We Were Kings, keeps it in the realm of the geopolitically superficial, even with such galvanizing figures as Ali and Foreman at its center.

However, each time I see the movie I am captured once again by the slinky energy of The Spinners; I’m reminded of Brown’s inimitable force onstage; the pleasure to be had in watching B.B. King’s face in close-up as he wrings heavyweight emotion from Lucille’s strings; and perhaps most of all, and most frustrating of all, I’m reminded of the pre-fusion velocity of The Crusaders (pianist Joe Sample, drummer Stix Hooper, saxophonist Wilton Felder and trombonist Wayne Henderson) at their peak. Their nimble, super-swift “Young Rabbits” is heard punctuating the opening credits, which interlaces the jazz classic with newsreel footage of Congolese unrest and Ali at his funniest, during a press conference announcing the fight. But we get just a fragment of the song, enough to lodge that amazing sax-trombone syntax into the brain, and then it's gone. Not two minutes in I end up with a powerful desire to hear the whole piece, which the movie denies.

Here then to fulfill that jones is a YouTube clip which features a live recording (not the Zaire performance, unfortunately) of “Young Rabbits.” There is no video to go along with the thrilling music, but I’m grateful for it nonetheless.

I’ve also included a clip from When We Were Kings-- that hilarious press conference announcing Ali-Foreman in Zaire—in which the fighter displays once again the hilarious boastfulness that so polarized and captivated sports fans and regular humans alike back in the early ‘70s.

My next visit with Ali will be courtesy of Mailer’s The Fight, a full-scale accounting of the atmosphere and politics in Zaire as well as the events that led up to the fight itself; I’m expecting a book-length version of the kind of keen, entertaining observations that Mailer provided to raise the bar within the Gast-Hackford movie. And maybe someday someone will undertake to create the ultimate Ali documentary. But until that day, When We Were Kings slakes the recurring thirst for insight into and time spent in the presence of one of the most dynamic figures in American history, and it’s hard to be ungrateful for that even in the face of the movie’s occasional deficiencies.

Monday, January 19, 2009


At long last, my official goodbye to 2008, and not a minute too soon (in fact several thousand minutes too late, by my estimation). As always, I would never pretend to have seen it all. Those regular readers of this blog are undoubtedly well aware, in fact, of just how much I miss on a regular basis. Even so, and given a particularly grueling schedule of school and work that characterized most of the moments of the year for me, I still did manage to see enough to give a good go at a year-end round up. (Winter break was very helpful in this regard—I crammed in a lot of holiday movies in those two weeks.) Some fulfilled my expectations, some were big disappointments, some surprised me on both ends of the scale, but all in all I have to say that to my mind, unless the last impression of a less-than-stellar package of Christmas releases is what colors the entire year for you, 2008 was a fairly strong year across the board. It’s inevitable that in most years, good and bad, more lousy movies will end up on screens than worthy ones—that’s the law of averages when applied of the cutthroat business of modern movie production. But any year that produces a list like my top 20+, and showcases so many excellent roles for and films about women, has to have something going for it. So let’s begin this lengthy stroll down the path of the most notable triumphs and failures of the year from my perspective, with some hopefully entertaining side trips along the way. As always, we begin with the list—this year in ascending order, from 20-11, a brief break to consider one genre that was truly outstanding in 2008, and then 10 straight on up to number one.

20) WALL-E (Andrew Stanton) Pixar’s formally fabulous, at times almost Keatonesque science fiction fable isn’t as original as has been claimed (Silent Running is an obvious ancestor). I also found it less captivating than masterpieces like Ratatouille or The Incredibles, or even the far less ambitious Monsters, Inc. And I think there’s something to the argument that points out a certain degree of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do hypocrisy inherent in a movie about a world suffocated in inorganic trash created by one of the movies’ most prodigious sources of marketing tie-ins and other such consumables. That said, Wall-E is still so visually splendiferous, its evocation of the loneliness inherent in even the most sophisticated technologies so moving, that the shortcomings of its satire and its point of view on global redemption don’t come into clear focus until after you’ve already left the theater swooning. (And I still can’t wait to see it on Blu-ray.)


18) KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL (Patricia Rosezma) I’ve had a lot of occasion to think about how many of the movies aimed at kids condescend to their audiences, about how many aren’t bothered about narrative or emotional shortcuts that dumb-down the material because the underlying notion is that most children won’t care for the meat of real experience to go along with the sweets of their entertainment. But this terrific picture strikes a real balance between kid-level sophistication and the need to reach deeper, and its themes of empathy for the many have-nots during the last Great Depression should have chilling resonance for adults as it simultaneously prepares the hearts of its younger viewers for an understanding of what it really means to give and receive during times of need. The fine cast, which includes Stanley Tucci, Joan Cusack, Julia Ormond, Chris O’Donnell, Wallace Shawn, Glenne Headly and Kenneth Welsh, is headed by Abigail Breslin in the title role. She sparkles at precisely the right level of real-girl incandescence, absent the kind of annoying precocity that might have been reasonably expected, and director Rosezma’s sure hand grounds the story with remarkable steadiness of purpose. This is a well-crafted, well-told movie rooted in that rarity or rarities, a realistic perspective on the point of view of a preadolescent girl, which opened on Independence Day and was lost in the media rush to anoint Hancock the movie of the weekend instead. May it find its true life on DVD.

17) MILK (Gus Van Sant) This terrific mainstream telescoping of the political life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, can’t hold a candle to Rob Epstein’s searing, complicated documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. However, as docudramas go it has unusual grace, an engaging lead performance by Sean Penn (no one’s first choice for the actor one takes to one’s heart), and the good/bad luck to find its great theme of empowerment through the political process reflected by the setbacks in the gay rights struggle v. 2008. Van Sant trades off his usual avant-garde leanings for a much more straightforward approach, one that makes room for a vivid portrait of the emergence of a political community, as led and encapsulated by Milk, whose most desperate fight is the one to finally emerge from the shadow of otherness and be seen as fellow human beings.

16) REDBELT (David Mamet) In which we see Mamet being Mamet, but with a much more commanding control of the camera and a much less clinical approach to both the dialogue and the usual mouse traps he loves to set for his characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor is riveting as a jujitsu instructor who must navigate the manipulations of the movie business and ultimately redeem his idealistic standards about what it means to fight. The plot elements are no less convoluted here than usual, but because the dialogue is less self-conscious and epigrammatic, and the acting uniformly strong (no consciously wooden stunts a la Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna in House of Games here), Mamet seems freed to make a film rather than a specimen under glass, and the result is the most riveting, resonant movie of his directing career.

15) BURN AFTER READING (Joel and Ethan Coen)

14) FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON (Hou Hsiao-hsien) The spirit of Albert Lamorrise’ s 1956 film The Red Balloon shadows Hou Hsiao-hsien’s delicate expansion of its themes into a haunting, placid meditation on the contradictory impulses and inexplicable fragility of life as seen from the perspective of a tentative seven-year-old boy. Handed over by his distracted artist mother (Juliette Binoche), herself reeling from the disorientation of a broken relationship with the boy’s father, to a Taiwanese nanny (Fang Song ) who is also a filmmaker, the boy watches with bemusement as the nanny begins to adopt his methods of drifting through the Parisian streets as a way of finding her own footing in an unfamiliar world, and the two begin to forge a quiet relationship. Perhaps not as resonant as some of his other films, Hou’s near-invisible processes here still ripple with the quiet confidence of a master and result in a tone of unexpected tenderness and underlying sadness that makes each step through Paris, as conjured by Pin Bing Lee’s camera, a specific journey of these two hearts where we discover everything and nothing all at once.

13) HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (Guillermo Del Toro) Del Toro’s gifts as a spirited storyteller come bound to the breathing of new life into overly familiar CGI techniques, imbuing them with a certain lovely, handmade quality that is his hallmark. The resulting designs and sensibility of the fully imagined worlds he offers up here, in a sequel that makes the bounty of the first Hellboy movie look positively stingy, offer no justification for their own rich pleasures, just grander and more gleeful indulgences in them. For sheer delight, there’s no moment in the movie that’s more alive than Hellboy and company’s tour through a bustling troll market in search of an evil forest prince, a hidden neighborhood of ogres and monsters where, unlike the streets of Manhattan, they can roam unnoticed; for spectacle and aching beauty, there’s the titular hero’s battle with a spore-spewing elemental god that looks like a giant, pulsating beanstalk, a creature which will be consigned to extinction should it be defeated. Hellboy II: The Golden Army taps into the plight of the outsider, the freak, but never with a heavy hand to match the one attached to our hero’s scorched-red right arm—it’s too busy showing all the other lead-footed fantasies how to entertain in style.

12) MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (Wong Kar-wai) Never has the simple act of sitting at a counter in a bar or diner looked or seemed so seductive, so dense with yearning, as it does in Wong Kar-wai’s somber, subtly romantic mood piece. Norah Jones’ status as a fledgling actress works in her favor here—she drifts away from potential love with the owner of a diner (Jude Law) and across the radar of some outsized personalities, including a self-destructive cop (David Straithairn), his beleaguered, apparently insensitive wife (a career high mark for Rachel Weisz), and a gambler with delusions of grandeur and some serious daddy issues (Natalie Portman), all the while reflecting their insecurities and neuroses back on themselves as she attempts to make sense of her own rudderless life. Jones seems disaffected at first, but she’s really just a romantic without access to the means of expressing it. Wong enriches the frame with planes of shimmering, textured imagery meant to celebrate her and the other, lonely, sometimes tragic characters and to cocoon them in environments spun from their own haunted interior landscapes.



I saw enough excellent documentaries in 2008 that I decided to just give them their own category and celebrate them all. Alex Gibney’s GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON, locates the nexus between the journalist’s brilliance and his demons. MAN ON WIRE (James Marsh) celebrates the inspired dance of Philippe Petit along a thin wire stretched between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and, by silent extension, the ghosts of the Towers themselves. No movie, fiction or nonfiction, was as frightening or disturbing as TROUBLE THE WATER (Carl Deal, Tia Lessen), an examination of the spirit of a pair of Hurricane Katrina survivors built around extraordinary home video footage shot in the hours leading up to, and during, the devastating storm. The best of the bunch I saw was certainly Werner Herzog’s ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD in which the director finds fresh, visually expressive ways to contemplate the beauty and terror of Antarctica and the necessary eccentricities that enable men to survive there. (The film’s title is, as one might expect from the benign pessimist Herzog, charged with double meaning.)

Less perfect than these four, but still worthy of the price of a ticket, were YOUNG AT HEART (Stephen Walker), BILLY THE KID (Jennifer Venditti), UP THE YANGTZE (Yung Chang) and the polarizing, caustic and hilarious RELIGULOUS (Larry Charles), in which the debate over Bill Maher's status as an asshole (he probably ranks) takes a back seat to the host’s take-no-prisoners incineration of the function of religion. The movie, in a rather strangely moving way, makes a good case for the importance of doubt in opposition to the relatively fearsome surety of absolute belief, from which all forms of fanaticism are forged, and does so by giving the various representatives of God in the religion debate enough rope to, if not hang themselves, then seriously tangle themselves up. It’s always been true of satire, genteel or caustic, that it has no obligation to the rules of fair play in striving to hit its targets; therefore, complaints of Borat-style ambushing or Maher picking and choosing his “victims” based on their ability to argue their convictions with cogency seem beside the point. The highest praise I can give to Maher and Religulous is that it put me in mind of perhaps the most pitiless and clearheaded thinking on religious belief I can think of—that of Mark Twain. Of course Maher is no Twain, but they are kindred spirits in their impatience for the intolerance and illogical consistencies with which their holy subject seems to be regularly shot through. At the risk of preaching exclusively to the choir, Religulous gets an “amen.”


10) SHOTGUN STORIES (Jeff Nichols) Like Gran Torino, an examination of the snowballing effect of violence, albeit in a minor key that eschews much of Eastwood’s penchant for melodrama in favor of the poetry of silence disrupted, of the inescapable patterns of coarse prejudice and willful misunderstanding that hang in the air like humidity, infecting generation after generation. Michael Shannon’s deceptively quiet performance as the oldest of three brothers embroiled in an increasingly ugly conflict with the stepsons of their recently deceased father masks a lifetime of unease that seems to inform the entire landscape of the small Arkansas town in which their personal tragedy will play out. Shannon draws you in with his deadened eyes; he makes identification with this brother’s frustration seem effortless, palpable. It’s a major performance, but it’ll be overlooked, like the movie itself, because it lacks ostentation, the big look-at-me moment. And like Shannon’s intuitive, deeply felt work, the movie feels artfully lived in, a glimpse into the heart of a place of sadness from which some men will never return.

9) GRAN TORINO (Clint Eastwood) A bitter, bigoted retired auto plant worker who resents just about every intrusion into his life after the death of his wife reacts with frustration and annoyance at the Hmong family who moves in next door into his Detroit neighborhood, but soon becomes a protective force when the family’s teenaged son is threatened by a local gang. Eastwood sidesteps almost every pitfall in what sounds like just another white savior/unwashed peasant scenario and infuses the proceedings with humor, authenticity and a stab at redemptive grace. The reductive trailer may have helped sell this moody, conversation-heavy piece as a meat-and-potatoes action flick—an octogenarian extension of familiar Dirty Harry tropes—but the movie has the bittersweet tang of life and a measure of the real cost of violence, as well as the mournful classicism that Eastwood has virtually perfected in most of the films he has directed since White Hunter, Black Heart (1990)-- the inept Absolute Power (1997) and the heavy-handed Changeling (2008) hereby excepted. And if this is indeed Eastwood’s swansong as an actor, as has been hinted, he’s chosen perhaps his strongest performance to go out on.

8) IN BRUGES (Martin McDonagh) Two hit men on the run (Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell) are dispatched to the medieval Belgian city of Bruges and ordered to cool their heels after a bloody incident back in London. Farrell is randy, restless and haunted by the events from which the two are fleeing, and rails against the city’s ghostly resistance to modernity, while Gleeson settles in amongst the canals and Gothic architecture and begins to see life from a freshly minted perspective as he keeps a paternal eye out for his slightly loose cannon of a partner. These are two of the year’s best performances fleshing out a sharply stylized meditation on male bonding and the acceptance of responsibility woven from the fabric of the movie’s lyrical, slightly acidic dialogue. Playwright and first-time feature director McDonagh also has filmmaking chops—In Bruges glides along on a breeze generated by its patience, visual acuity and skewed comic perspective, all of which results in a shoring up of the film’s emotional investments when the boys’ boss (a foul and funny Ralph Fiennes) hits town and the check for their stay finally comes due.

7) U2 3D

6) THE CLASS (Laurent Cantet) One school year inside the classroom of a French linguistics teacher telescoped by director Cantet, working from Francois Begaudeau’s script, based on Begaudeau’s book (he also stars as the teacher, Mr. Marin). The verisimilitude of the classroom setting is at first shocking—those who crave the phony, comforting dramatics of To Sir, With Love or Dangerous Minds will have little to grasp onto here. The brilliance of The Class lies in its precise examination of the multicultural reality of that classroom—the intricacies of language and personal experience that can mask shades of meaning-- and how Marin’s failure to integrate and adapt his style to the needs of his students, to fully appreciate how their different backgrounds can shape how they see what they’re going through in the classroom, can sow the seeds of conflict—the kind that cannot be easily wrapped up within the confines of a narrative film. Respectful of Marin and his passion, as well as the students, even at their most resistant and indifferent, this is a movie that sheds rare light on the frustrations inherent in educational systems that transcend the limitations of language and enter into the realm of the universal.

5) RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (Jonathan Demme) This picture is probably closer to what I think of as being a Demme movie than anything since Something Wild, yet at the same time it feels, at least stylistically, like a new breed. Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn employ an impatient hand-held style (the antithesis of the patience of a film like Melvin and Howard) that earns its keep because, as David Edelstein suggests, it becomes an extension of the jangled nerves and dysfunctional patterns of the characters. A moneyed Connecticut family of musicians and artists hosts a weekend wedding celebration that turns testy when the sister of the bride—a narcissistic junkie just out of rehab (Anne Hathaway)—arrives and immediately begins picking at the scabs that precariously bind her familial relationships together. The difference between this movie and a squirm fest like Margot at the Wedding is a matter of simple empathy—Demme is not in the business of pinning butterflies. The multiculturalism at the heart of the movie is not imposed by him either; it is dictated by the lives of these people, yet it accurately reflects his inclusionary attitude, one which extends to Hathaway’s Kym, her equally needy but more outwardly stable sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), and the family matriarch (Debra Winger), whose brittle countenance reads simultaneously as protectiveness (of herself and her daughters) and selfishness. Rachel Getting Married is Demme’s return to form, and he gets there by channeling his inner Altman and coming up with a challenging, exasperating and invigorating comedy that tests the limits of a family’s forgiveness.

4) HAPPY GO LUCKY (Mike Leigh) Is there a braver, more difficult-to-sustain stance to take in these increasingly grim times than that of the relentless optimist? In the female performance of the year, Sally Hawkins portrays Poppy, a kindergarten teacher whose positive outlook on life seems at first to border on the delusional. She floats through her nights with careless abandon and her days with professional passion undaunted by all evidence that might contradict her enthusiasm. But when she comes in contact with a surly, fanatically tinged driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) the limits of Poppy’s worldview are tested. Leigh shares his admiration for Poppy through the exuberance of Hawkins’ performance, which is never less than welcome, and it is a measure of just how tender are the director’s feelings that Poppy is never allowed to be seen as shrill or a receptacle of condescension, that her attitude seems mostly a natural byproduct of her general sensitivity, not a lack of intellect. Happy-Go-Lucky may in many ways be the polar opposite of a relentlessly bleak narrative like Naked, but that’s not a backhanded way of saying that it, like Poppy, chooses to ignore the dark side. When Poppy comes face to face with the rage she can’t understand, her sober assessment, and her fear, is palpable, a tonic balance for the happiness which, as it should, will eventually hold the day.

3) WENDY AND LUCY (Kelly Reichardt) Of all the movies on this list that, in one fashion or another, reflect or are rooted in the acrid soil of the national economic disaster which we seem poised to endure for the foreseeable future, none expresses the attendant fears of that position with greater visual economy, obstinate dignity and plain poetry than Wendy and Lucy. The movie has, in its aching heart, the ability to make your own spirit soar even while it takes its share of that ache as its own. A homeless young woman, Wendy (the sublime Michelle Williams) on her way to a job in Alaska has car troubles in a small Oregon town and, over the course of waiting for the repair, loses her dog Lucy. Within that simple framework Reichardt orchestrates (from a screenplay she wrote with Jonathan Raymond) a wrenching, beautifully observed chorus of emotions as Wendy begins to face the very real possibility of a life completely, profoundly derailed. In this exceptional film every grace note is hit and sustained without an ounce of overstatement—in its unassuming way, Wendy and Lucy is devastating and pretty nearly perfect.

2) LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Tomas Alfredson) The wintry landscape that blankets and informs this softly spectral and unnerving horror film gives it a literal chill, but the chill in your bones comes directly from the fashioning of a prepubescent coming-of-age story in terms of perpetual night, the procurement of blood and, of course, the deceptive appearance of youth. And what’s so surprising is the immediacy of the friendship between mousy, violence-obsessed 12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrandt) and the mysterious Eli (Lea Leandersson), also around 12, who feels no cold and hides in her bare apartment during the day while her grim-faced companion (a man of at least 60) goes trolling for victims to drain for her. The title of the film implies not only the finding of one’s soul mate, but also the lore which prevents a vampire from entering a house without a specific invitation from the intended victim. Alfredson and scenarist John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own book) connect us profoundly with Oskar’s longing to find a special person in Eli with whom to grow up. But just under the surface of the movie’s ostensibly liberating conclusion lays a disturbing undercurrent which suggests there can be no liberation for Eli or Oskar, only hunger, servitude and even longer, colder nights.

...and then there was one...

1) SPEED RACER (The Wachowski Brothers) For every one of us (and there are a few) who embrace this much maligned would-be blockbuster as a pop masterpiece of velocity, digital artistry and visual/aural inspiration, one concerned with the coexistence of family bonds and artistic principles as well as the heady rush of disorientation to be found racing in a world in which physics seems to be refined and redefined with every race, there are at least 10 who decry it as “candy-colored caca” (Owen Gleiberman) or some other manifestation of What’s Wrong With Movies. At this point I’m not going to convince anyone, nor should I even try, that Speed Racer is bound to be influential—there are those who think it might just end up being the Blade Runner of its time—or that it’s brilliantly, enthrallingly entertaining, shot through with visual poetry and comedy and resistance to camp or cynicism, the ultimate Funk Decimator for any occasion. No, I’ll just be happy to maintain my delusional stance that it’s a great movie and try not to worry about whether anyone else agrees. No other movie this year surprised me more, or more consistently, or gave me such pleasure over multiple screenings. I’m telling you, folks, it’s one for the ages. Cool beans.

************* OTHER GOODIES FROM 2008***************


MIKE GILBERT ON CINEMA (Andrew Blackwood, Mike Gilbert)

The lightning-speed mind of ex-stand-up comic Mike Gilbert is given more or less free reign to riff on everything from Paris Hilton to Michael Mann in this verite cross between stand-up comedy and a spectacular act of regurgitative rationalization. Sort of a mini-Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema for the attention-deficit age, Gilbert’s hyperventilated observations are often simultaneously absurd and exacting, precise and preposterous, and always shot through with the frightening electricity of the truly movie-obsessed.

GANDHI AT THE BAT (Stephanie Argy, Alec Boehm) Newsreel footage, previously suppressed and newly discovered, of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s once-in-a–lifetime experience pinch-hitting for the 1933 Yankees is the centerpiece conceit of this impressively mounted, Zeligesque comedy. It’s an admittedly odd joke, but no less funny for that, and the production’s recreation of both newsreel style and the details of a bygone era of baseball is worthy of a budget far greater than what was undoubtedly at the filmmakers’ disposal. Giddy fun.


RUN OF THE ARROW/MERRILL’S MARAUDERS, Egyptian Theater, January 13, 2008, with Andrew Blackwood and Sam Fuller’s widow signing books in the lobby.

U2 3D, Universal City IMAX, February 3, 2008, with my wife Patty, losing ourselves in the multiple layers of visual and aural sensation.

THE MIST, Movies 12, Springfield, Oregon, February 22, 2008, with Bruce—because seeing a movie like this with a kindred spirit is essential.

HOT FUZZ/SUPERBAD, DVD, February 23, with Bruce—see above.

CHARLEY VARRICK/THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3, Aero Theater, March 6, 2008.


JOE DANTE’S MOVIE ORGY, New Beverly Cinema, April 22, 2008, with Aaron Graham, Joe Dante, et al. The enthusiasm was so contagious, I think I floated on the fumes of this screening for at least a week.

DEATH RACE 2000/ZOMBIE/INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS, Mission Tiki Drive-in Tiki Invasion II, May 3, 2008, with Haruka Sometani-Straight, Max Straight, Paul Reilly and Steve King (only Haruka, Max and I made it all the way through the third feature; in fact, we were the only car left on the drive-in lot at 2:00 a.m.…)

SPEED RACER, Opening Night, May 9, 2008, Americana Glendale 18, with my two daughters, unexpectedly caught up in what I was expecting to be one of the year’s worst.

SPEED RACER, Universal City IMAX, May 19, 2008, with Don-- because seeing this movie with a kindred spirit was essential.

SANSHO THE BAILIFF, New Beverly Cinema, July 2, 2008

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, Americana Glendale 18, July 26, 2008, with my youngest daughter, who loves Hellboy because he loves cats.

BEND OF THE RIVER, DVD, July 26, 2008, late night with my sleepless older daughter, watching her discover the pleasures of old-fashioned storytelling.

EXPLORERS, New Beverly Cinema, September 28, 2008, with my oldest daughter, thrilling with her to the zippy comedy of my favorite Joe Dante film.

1941/I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, New Beverly Cinema, October 26, 2008, with Sal, Mr. Peel, et al. Oh, yeah, and Nancy Allen and Bob Gale and the ever-present spirit of Wendie Jo Sperber. Sort of a dream come true.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR, Americana Glendale 18, November 1, 2008, with my oldest daughter, discovering for myself just how much she’s begun to open herself up to the emotional side of going to the movies.

ROAD HOUSE (1947), DVD, November 29, followed by the audio commentary by Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan—like watching a great movie populated by old friends (Richard Widmark, Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde) with two other good and wise pals. This commentary, which beautifully balances scholarship, camaraderie and sharp, possibly bourbon-fueled observations, is the best I’ve heard in a long time. (And speaking of Richard Widmark, who we lost during the past year, take a gander at who Fred “Hunter” Dryer is starting to resemble these days…)

EARTHQUAKE and THE TOWERING INFERNO on successive weekends during the American Cinematheque’s Golden Age of Cataclysmic Cinema series, with Patty, Don, Danny, Corey, David and special guests Genevieve Bujold, Laurent Bouzereau and Carlena Gower. I’d never seen Earthquake in Sensurround before, and it was a huge amount of fun. The movie itself is entertaining, but by no rational standard could it be thought of as good. It is, however, the pinnacle of disaster camp. The movie’s technical and miniature effects are still impressive today and go a long way toward offsetting the general lack of style and personality that director Mark Robson fails to provide during the lulls between rumbles and crumbles. (And it’s still a lot more fun than a serious catastrophe like The Swarm.)

The big surprise is the degree to which The Towering Inferno works as spectacle and suspense when you’re lucky enough to see a pristine ‘Scope print like the one the Egyptian Theater unveiled. Sure, it’s lumbering and kinda dopey at times, and there’s really no excuse for hiring Fred Astaire and giving him absolutely nothing to do. (His love interest, Jennifer Jones, is far more active and mobile, especially during her tumble out of that scenic elevator.) But even though it is inarguable that the events of 9/11 have led us to be more sensitive/empathetic/potentially horrified at the spectacle of people trapped in and falling from a burning skyscraper, the fact is that it is still possible to see The Towering Inferno on its own terms. (Relatively speaking, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center made me feel queasier over its transgressions and opportunism in dealing with the actual tragedy in question.) And those terms, silliness and occasional tastelessness and all (seeing Susan Flannery ignite and then take a flying leap still bothers me), are those of a well-constructed thriller that has a few aces up its sleeve: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and the relatively unsung director John Guillermin (The Blue Max, The Bridge at Remagen, Shaft in Africa the 1976 King Kong and, yes, even Sheena). I’ve always enjoyed Guillermin’s unpretentious presence as an action director, and when combined with credited “Director of Action Sequences” Irwin Allen the talented journeyman makes the most of his gigantic canvas. But whether or not you argue over who staged the action, the movie is anchored by the presence of its stars (who presumably fell more under Guillermin’s influence than Allen’s), and Newman and McQueen consistently give the movie the kind of human gravitas a monster-sized film like this needs. (I was most grateful for Newman’s performance in particular—I had forgotten just how good he could be even in a movie that few would consider an actor’s showcase, and this fiery blockbuster is as good a display of his movie star magnetism as anything he ever made.) I think The Poseidon Adventure is still the high-water mark of the golden age of cataclysmic cinema, but it made for an exciting movie night indeed to find out that there is, after all the years of not thinking so, another movie that could contend for the title, and The Towering Inferno is it.


HANCOCK All except for that part Thom talks about below. (I’ll save it for her, since she reminded me of it again tonight.) Peter Berg overuses fast cutting between close-ups like no film since my old cropped VHS copy of Once Upon a Time in the West.

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA Standard-issue late-period Woody Allen, but in a new and exotic setting and with a Spanish fireball at the center. At times charming and involving, but really we’re traveling Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy terrain here without the nods to a far superior work of art.

CHOKE Pleasantly nasty at times, but ultimately much more conventional and sentimental than even it thinks it is. Sam Rockwell is terrific, but the movie’s dingy heart is reflected by its murky look and indifference toward its characters.

W. A superficial treatment of an everyman cipher. Entertaining, but dismayingly toothless.

DOOMSDAY Coming on the heels of The Descent, this may be one of the year’s biggest letdowns. Neil Marshall’s futuristic thriller is as derivative as his previous film was relentless and horrifying. It’s a testament to their good humor than neither George Miller or John Carpenter raised a huff over plagiarism.

MOTHER OF TEARS I like a busty, leather-clad demon matriarch as much as the next guy, but this Dario Argento potboiler (and flesh-ripper) takes the final plunge, one the director has been flirting with for years, into ridiculous self-parody.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL I’m not a fan of this series (with the exception of Temple of Doom), but even I have never said that an Indiana Jones movie was dull… until now.

THE RUINS A perfectly sadistic and engrossing book has become an uninspired (however beautifully rendered) gore fest on screen, no more, no less. And who among you will be surprised that Hollywood has adapted this inescapably bleak story and somehow seen fit to tack on a supposedly “audience-friendly” ending that betrays the entire spirit of the enterprise?

THE DARK KNIGHT What more needs to be said? I just don’t see how this is a better movie than Batman Begins or any number of interchangeable writ-large modern action movies (like say, Iron Man), and all the inevitable, audience-baiting Oscar nominations are unlikely to change that. Not disreputable by any means, but murky in its visual choreography as well as its arguments for illegal surveillance (only for those who warrant being spied upon, of course), and far too enamored of its own deep-dish pronouncements about the complementary qualities of good and evil, anarchy and order, desire and restraint that are supposedly encapsulated or magnified by the Joker/Batman dichotomy.

SHINE A LIGHT Yet another Rolling Stones vanity project in which the geezers trot out their hits, sidestep the dirty business, and come off occasionally inspired but more often bored and, finally, hypocritical about their own dark humor.

HAMLET 2 A comedy about relentless positivism among the untalented, the devilish humor loses focus just when it should be sharpest. There are few things more embarrassing than a movie that practically begs for points on shock value when the material in question—a ludicrous Andrew Lloyd Webber send-up called “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” inside a play called Hamlet 2-- is as tame and thickheaded as it is here.

APPALOOSA Everything is in place here for a rousing western except for a surefooted hand behind the camera. Ed Harris, beside Viggo Mortensen, has the on-screen gravitas to play a self-appointed sheriff with a penchant for pulling the trigger, but Harris the director lets scenes and set pieces dribble on and on, mixing and matching tones without a sense of how to build atmosphere and tension. Some might suggest the aimlessness is intentional, a stab at a new tone for the genre, but I think it’s just ineptitude.

THE WRESTLER To paraphrase Pauline Kael, here’s a Darren Aronofsky movie for people who don’t like Darren Aronofsky movies. Except that I didn’t like this one any better than I did Requiem for a Dream. The director trades in his stock visual hyperkineticism for faux realism, all the better to follow around the specimen known as Mickey Rourke with a Steadicam and stay out of his way while he mines a roster of sports/relationship movie clichés for all they’re worth, simultaneously making the movie as much about Mickey Rourke as it is the titular “beat-up piece of meat.” Ultimately as phony, puffed-up and exploitative as the world of wrestling that it depicts, this movie congratulates itself (and audiences) for buying into its dime-store Christ mythology largely because it’s impossible not to notice that the guy selling it looks and talks like he’s lived anything but a pampered Hollywood life. That may be a novelty, but it can’t paper over a litany of tearjerker moves that would make Rocky Balboa blush.

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS The most prevalent argument for this movie (and it’s not necessarily a bad argument) is that it is the dumb, dopey action flick the red-eyed rogues played by Seth Rogen and James Franco would fancy themselves in, that they’d want to see, or that it’s all some kind of meta-joke, a tall, wild tale cooked up and embellished by the stoners in question at the breakfast table the morning after. Whether you buy into that or not, it seems to me that any comedy which apparently requires the audience to be as baked as the main characters in order to inspire a steady stream of laughter is probably lazier than it even wants to admit. Even Nice Dreams had more ambition than this, and it didn’t insist on elaborate rationalizations (on the part of the filmmakers or its fans) to explain the pungent haze where its good sense ought to be.



and MEET DAVE: I can’t account for the wrath delivered upon this agreeable, well-performed family sci-fi comedy. Outside of one annoying bit (featured in the trailer) where Eddie Murphy’s humanoid-spaceship “Dave” does a Barry Gibb impersonation—nothing more timely than a stale “Stayin’ Alive” joke—this surprisingly funny movie doesn’t operate in the same universe as a howler like Norbit or even, for that matter, other family-oriented Murphy hits like Dr. Doolittle or >Daddy Day Care. Meet Dave (a lame title) was a huge flop theatrically and that fact, combined with low expectations in the wake of Norbit, apparently doomed this picture from the start. But the irony is, the movie, a kid-friendly wrinkle on a great Woody Allen sketch from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…, is a hoot, and it features Muprhy’s best, most sustained and nuanced performance since his original turn as Sherman Klump (and Buddy Love) in the remake of The Nutty Professor. “Dave” is a spacecraft that takes human form, precisely mimicking the various forms of human behavior it encounters (with the added comic zing of wide-eyed, mechanized detachment)—Murphy plays the ship as well as its absurdly British-accented captain, who resides with his crew in the ship’s “brain.” (As in Allen’s movie, all the body parts have dedicated crew members, though apparently Spaceship Dave has no need to reproduce.) Murphy’s comic instincts seem sharper here than they have in years—roles like Klump and this one encourage the kind of physical identification, the full-bore commitment to a part that he thrives on as a performer when he’s hitting on all cylinders. (The lack of same was part of why he was such a drag in his overrated Dreamgirls appearance—just getting behind a mike and “doing” James Brown is apparently no longer enough.) The actor finds the absurdity in the premise and uses it to his advantage—every blip on the ship’s blank face, every quizzical, noncommittal reaction to outside stimulus, every attempt to mimic language and behavior is a tiny marvel. (Dave, incredibly, never even blinks.) The aliens’ quest to regain possession of a precious and life-saving, salt-extracting orb from their planet, which has landed in the hands of the requisite 10-year-old boy, is merely a device used to set Murphy down in the urban thicket of New York City and riff off the conflicts—interior as well as exterior—as he pinballs around the streets until the plot is forced to kick in at around 75 minutes in. Anyone silly enough to expect it to be more than that would probably count themselves among this movie’s many disappointed viewers-- director Brian Robbins has not delivered, nor would he be capable of or interested in delivering Eddie Murphy’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. But why all the hate based on the movie’s admittedly lowbrow humor? You either find Dave’s inability to modulate his braying impersonation of a friend’s (white) boyfriend funny, or you don’t; a set piece in which Dave ingests hot peppers, thus forcing the workers manning the stations of the tongue and tummy to endure a tidal wave of masticated jalapenos, is either clever or insufferably dumb. That’s why comedy is hard-- nobody’s funny bone gets tickled in quite the same way. But the effort exerted to condemn this genial and delightful picture seems misguided and over-scaled. Even if one insists that Meet Dave is tasteless or less than hilarious, it could hardly be called punishing or aggressively annoying. Could the same be said of Pineapple Express, or even Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? For those willing to give it a try (and I eagerly passed on it in theaters just like you probably did), Meet Dave might qualify as the year’s biggest surprise.

SCARIEST (Fiction Division)

THE STRANGERS I fancy myself a battle-hardened horror veteran, and when movies scare me they are most often in the get-under-your-skin category, of which this year’s Let the Right One In is an excellent example. But The Strangers somehow managed to bypass all my defense systems and sent me straight back to the hypersensitive brain of my ten-year-old self. This movie may not be a classic—hell, it may not even be reputable—but it surely is effective. There are set-ups and pay-offs here that are so rudimentary, so central to the iconography and structure of horror technique, yet so smoothly executed, with a slight tweak in timing or framing for good—or evil-- measure, that it often felt like I couldn’t close my eyes tight enough or sink low enough in my seat to hide from the horror. No greater praise, then, for a movie that takes its time anchoring the audience to empathetic, potentially off-putting characters via fairly subtle expository foundations and has no other agenda other than shaking the shit out of you. Mission accomplished.

SCARIEST (Nonfiction Division)

Speed Racer, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Burn After Reading, My Blueberry Nights, Meet Dave, Quantum of Solace

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Changeling, The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, Pineapple Express

Best Director
(Runner-up: Tomas Alfredson, Let the Right One In, Laurent Cantet, The Class, Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky, Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy)

Best Actress
(Runners-up: Gillian Anderson, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Anna Faris, The House Bunny, Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married,
Elizabeth Pena, How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy)

Best Actor
MICHAEL SHANNON, Shotgun Stories
(Runners-up: Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Redbelt, Colin Farrell, In Bruges, Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges, Danny McBride, The Foot Fist Way, Sean Penn, Milk, Paul Rudd, Role Models)

Best Supporting Actress
ROSEMARIE DeWITT, Rachel Getting Married
(Runners-up: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Susie Essman, Bolt, Ahney Her, Gran Torino, Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In, Rachel Weisz My Blueberry Nights, Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married)

Best Supporting Actor
ROBERT DOWNEY, JR., Tropic Thunder
(Runners-up: Roger Allam, Speed Racer, Billy Connolly, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Emile Hirsch, Milk, Michael Kelly, Changeling, Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight, Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Role Models, Brad Pitt Burn After Reading)

Best Screenplay
MIKE LEIGH, Happy-Go-Lucky
(Runners-up: John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In, Martin McDonagh, In Bruges, David Mamet, Redbelt, Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading, Andy and Larry Wachowski, Speed Racer)

Best Cinematography
(Runners-up: Darius Khondji, My Blueberry Nights, Pin Bing Lee, Flight of the Red Balloon, Declan Quinn, Rachel Getting Married, Peter Zeitlinger, Encounters at the End of the World)

Best Editing
ROBIN CAMPILLO, The Class (Entre les murs)
Tim Squyres, Rachel Getting Married, Roger Barton, Zach Staenberg, Speed Racer, Barbara Tulliver, Redbelt, Jon Gregory, In Bruges, Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire, Roderick Jaynes, Burn After Reading)

THE PICKINGS OF MY DAUGHTERS (Six-year-old Division)

Best movie of the year: HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (“Because it was very action-y!”)

THE PICKINGS OF MY DAUGHTER (Eight-year-old Division)

Best movie of the year: SPEED RACER (It has romance, action, and it’s funny too. There’s nobody funnier than Spritle and Chim-chim doing so-so kung fu! The best!”)

3) HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR (“Happy and full of good songs!”)
4) KUNG FU PANDA (“A little weird, but weird is good!”)
5) STAR WARS: CLONE WARS (“Very violent! And then there’s Jar Jar Binks!”)
6) KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL (“Mysterious! Who’s the bad guy?!”)
7) WALL-E (“A cute movie!”)
8) MEET DAVE (“Hilarious!”)
9) BOLT (“A very sweet movie! My favorite character, Rhino, was very strange!”)
10) GET SMART (“Very secret agent-ish!”)

THOM McGREGOR’S PICKS (Spouse Division)


U2 3D


5) The first half of HANCOCK, if only for the moment, completely out of left field, when our stubbly, burnt-out superhero lands in jail and, in a super-Shawshank reversal, shoves a predatory convict’s head up his own ass, complete with squishy sound effect and—what makes the whole thing nonsensically delightful— to the musical accompaniment of Quincy Jones’ Sanford and Son theme song! It’s all downhill from there!




END OF YEAR LINKS (in no discernible order)

Richard Corliss on Speed Racer and the inevitable smart-ass knock on him for putting it on his 10-best list.

And here's Khoi Vinh from the blog Subtraction on Speed Racer's graphic design.

Scott Van Doviak’s Top 10 Unwatchables (with clips!)

NATHANIEL R.’s CINEMA HALL OF SHAME (with links to Hyperbole Glut, December Glut, Underappreciated Films, Doc of the Year and Top 10 of 2008)



Hollywood Bitchslap’s 10 Best and WORST of 2008 (Boll-Free)

CRITICAL MASS: Sean Burns and Matt Prigge discuss the films of 2008.
















Seattle film critic Robert Horton moderates a film series panel discussion at the Frye Art Museum on the best and sometimes worst films of the year. Kathleen Murphy (Queen Anne News,, Andrew Wright (The Stranger), Jim Emerson ( and Horton also provide their top ten movie lists of 2008.


Use this handy guide from the Los Angeles Times to help you decide what movies to skip in 2009!

It’s Armond White’s annual BETTER THAN list, guarantee to shock, surprise, delight and perhaps even annoy!

Join DAVID EDELSTEIN for a look at his top film picks for 2009.

Andrew Schneker’s fine, restrained piece on GRAN TORINO

Appropo of nothing 2008, read Bruce Handy’s excellent piece on composer extraordinaire JOHN BARRY

…and Ed Howard’s EARLY HAWKS BLOG-A-THON would be an excellent way to get 2009 started in style, you know…

PLUS, just because:



And as if things weren’t already weird enough in 2009, how about A WEDDING AT TACO BELL?

Finally, belated goodbyes to Patrick McGoohan from Glenn Kenny, Ricardo Montalban from the Los Angeles Times and now, word of the death of Ironside actor Don Galloway from Allan R. Ellenberger. May these talented men, and all those who have left us over the past year, find peaceful rest...

And before I forget, the year's worst.

Second runner-up: The Happening (M. Night Shamaylan)

First runner-up: Mamma Mia! (Phyllidia Lloyd)

And the year's biggest loser, Zach and Miri Make a Porno (Kevin Smith)