The Moore the Merrier
One film looms over all others in 2004: Fahrenheit 9/11, released in the heat of summer and the heat of an election-year battle, cast all comers in its estimable shadow and renders them moot. Combined, the dozen or so political docs that received theatrical distribution this year didn’t make a fraction of its earnings, and deservedly so, because not one of them was a good movie — meaning not one outraged, engaged, or entertained the way Michael Moore’s did, no matter which candidate you were voting for.
Love the guy or hate the guy — and it’s possible to do both, even if (or especially if) you agree with him — he’s still a masterful director, a street-corner propagandist whose sense of outrage is tempered by his sense of humor. He’s too sloppy to make converts and too infuriated to make peace, but his was never offered as straight-up documentary; it’s political cartoonery, as A.O. Scott pointed out in The New York Times, exaggeration borne of genuine rage. And now, with his hoped-for regime change failed, it looks even a bit quaint — a man shaking his fist at 35 million people, who patted him on the head while on their way to vote for the guy he hates the most.
To list the other political docs released in 2004 would take up the rest of this small space; to add the others released on video and sold over the web would eat up the rest of this issue. Suffice it to say that Moore launched two separate industries: There were movies that looked an awful lot like Fahrenheit (Liberty Bound and Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: The War in Iraq) and movies that existed as its antithesis (George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, Michael Moore Hates America, and the incredibly dunderheaded Celsius 41.11). They all preached to the choir; none would make a single convert — or, for the most part, more than a single dime.
Some of the better political docs focused not on politics, but on the media outlets that report on them — and quite poorly, at that: Control Room, an even-handed look at Al Jazeera, damned by the U.S. government as the terrorists’ CNN; Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, Greenwald’s no-shit movie about how Fox News Channel is the Bush administration’s private press room; and Danny Schechter’s disturbing WMD: Weapons of Mass Distraction, which revealed how easily the media can be manipulated in the interests of maintaining the illusion of access. And for those with good-ol’-days nostalgia, there was The Hunting of the President, about the right-wing conspiracy to take down Bill Clinton. Smell that? I am inhaling. . . and exhaling . . . as you read this. — Robert Wilonsky
The Gospel According to Mel
Who needs studio publicists, when every fundamentalist pastor in the country is herding his flock to the multiplex? Why waste good money on TV spots when the Vatican is handing out rave reviews? No doubt about it, Thomas, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was a phenomenon unlike any in Hollywood’s long and florid history — a product fanatically presold by people who rarely go to movies, a $25 million gamble that won a major ideological victory for Right over Left, an act of faith drenched in blood. What else was it? Depends on who you talked to. Believers said this 126-minute depiction of Jesus Christ’s final hours as a mortal earthling was a cinematic “miracle,” and many of them returned to watch it four or five times — with their wide-eyed kindergartners in tow. Appalled skeptics called it medieval anti-Semitism boiling with hatred and the ancient blood libel.
However various beholders took it, Gibson has clearly come a ways since Mad Max. Claiming that “the Holy Ghost was working through me,” the action star, who’s morphed into an extremist Catholic zealot, depicted Jesus’s agony as a lurid horror movie, complete with rods and studded whips, a vengeance-crazed mob screaming for crucifixion, and the kind of trip up Calvary that the perpetrators of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street could scarcely have imagined. Having splashed actor Jim Caviezel’s torment-wracked body with quarts of sticky blood, director Mel nailed him brutally to the cross — and nailed his vast audiences with the inescapable notion that although his version of the Passion may not be the Greatest Story Ever Told, it may as well be the Goriest.
Alas, poor Michael Moore was left with no more fluent reply in the U.S. culture war than to bop George W. Bush a few times on the nose in Fahrenheit 9/11. As for Caviezel, he recovered quite nicely from his wounds, thank you. He was spotted just a few months later at the Westchester Country Club, swinging a niblick in something called Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius, a movie about the resurrection of a golfer. — Bill Gallo
History Kinda Repeats Itself
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” exhorts a character in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s advice that makers of historically and biographically based movies seem to have taken to heart. After all, why let a few pesky facts get in the way of a good story?
Numerous movies based on “real” people were released in 2004. While few, if any, of them choose the straight mythological route, just about all of them omitted, condensed, or modified facts. Among the epics and biopics were Alexander, Kinsey, Ray, Beyond the Sea, (about Bobby Darin), Finding Neverland (Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie), The Motorcycle Diaries (pre-Revolutionary Che Guevara), The Aviator (eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes), and De-Lovely (songwriter Cole Porter). Even King Arthur played around with the truth, although that’s easier to do when nobody quite knows what the truth was.
John Logan, who wrote the screenplay for The Aviator, speaks for many writers when he says that he considers himself a dramatist, not a historian. But he is drawn to stories about real people and events, and is not cavalier about messing with the historical record. The very fact that a writer chooses to concentrate on a particular period of a person’s life — in the case of The Aviator, Hughes’ love of flight — means that he is “editing” that life.
Because a two- or even three-hour movie could never cover all the bases of a person’s life, events are condensed or eliminated altogether, and supporting characters are rolled into one. At other times, the truth is a mere inconvenience, and is therefore softened in the belief that if the subject’s true personality were disclosed, nobody would want to see a movie about him.
Neither Ray nor Kinsey hesitates to reveal its hero’s less than admirable qualities, though each film does soft pedal the negative. Kinsey (Liam Neeson) admits at one point that he has become addicted to barbiturates. His alleged real-life drug intake was far greater than that simple line suggests, as was his level of promiscuity. But given that cultural conservatives campaigned against the film before it even started shooting, omitting some of the more sordid details was probably a wise decision. — Jean Oppenheimer
Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson
What is it about older women and younger men this year? No fewer than five films — The Door in the Floor, The Mother, Being Julia, Birth, and P.S. — featured May/December couplings, with decidedly female Decembers. Three of these constitute an official subgenre, heretofore known as older-woman-seeks-to-date-reincarnated-lost-love-in-younger-man. In Door in the Floor, Kim Basinger sees her dead son in a high-school student; in P.S. , Laura Linney sees her dead high-school boyfriend in an art-school applicant; and in Birth, Nicole Kidman sees her dead husband in — ewww — a 10-year-old boy.
The filmic examples of older men dating scandalously younger women are legion, and it’d be great if Hollywood were offering a saucy counterpart. But it’s hard to wish for happy endings when the setup is so creepy. (The movies in this maudlin threesome have much more to say about grief than they do about love.) Even when the film wants the relationship to work, as in P.S. , one senses imminent failure. As for The Mother and Being Julia — well, neither offers a whole lot of hope for the relationship, though they do offer a measure of redemption for the women. So when will we see a movie about a fun, healthy, and successful relationship between an older woman and a younger man? Don’t hold your breath. — Melissa Levine
Docs that Rock
Concert films, save for a handful of exceptions, are a crushing bore — the equivalent of a wish-you-were-here postcard that taunts you with glimpses of what you missed by choosing to avoid the crushing crowds, cigarette smoke, and flicked Bics. Which is why the recently released — and just as quickly closed — Jay-Z doc Fade to Black was such a dud: Its concert sequences never worked up a sweat, never amounted to anything more than a glitzy-glammy whoop-dee-do infomercial. Its best moments were the shaky-cam interludes between performances, as Jay-Z bounced from studio to studio, producer to producer, in search of beats he could borrow for his Black Album. Sometimes it is more interesting to see the sausage made than to digest the final product, after all.
This has been a particularly wonderful year for engaging, entertaining documentaries about musicians — those who fill the arenas with their monster-truck roars (Metallica), those who influenced generations without making fortunes (the Ramones), and those whose egos fill clubs that often go wanting for patrons whenever they play (Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols). There was even one starring the Grateful Dead and the simply dead: Festival Express, made in 1970 and released 34 years later, long after the footage and audio was believed missing and buried along with Janis Joplin, Rick Danko, Jerry Garcia, Richard Manuel, and others who boarded that Canadian train that derailed somewhere between Toronto and the cineplex.
Another doc acted as a different kind of tombstone for a bygone era: Shortly after the release of End of the Century, Johnny Ramone died after a five-year battle with prostate cancer, leaving drummer Tommy Ramone as the last of the living Ramones (there were other drummers, none as essential). End of the Century, then, marked the last time Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy would assemble to recall the ups and downs and downers of a career spent making noise off which so many would make so many millions.
Nobody in Metallica is dead yet (well, Cliff Burton, but that was a long time ago), but the band came close to winding up on the extinct list before going into therapy to work through some issues, chief among them James Hetfield’s penchant for booze and his refusal to have a heart-to-heart with pal Lars Ulrich, who apparently was sired by a Lord of the Rings extra. The chronicle of that experience, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, coulda been gooey — whose heart breaks for multimillionaires who tend to whine? — but wound up an essential portrait of a band at work while working it out.
The stars of Dig!, Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe and Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor, probably wouldn’t go in for a little head-shrinking but sure as hell could use it, even after their rise turns into a protracted fall. Someone oughta make an album about them. — Robert Wilonsky
Closing Credits: “Dutch”
When Ronald Reagan died on June 5 at the age of 93, his political adherents hailed him as the president who “made America feel better about itself” in the 1980s. Nobody claimed he made America feel better about movie acting. A genial featherweight who went in for neither introspection nor artifice, “Dutch” Reagan the actor played upright, well-scrubbed romantic leads in more than 60 mostly B-movies, many of them for Warner Brothers. Antagonists scoffed that he once shared top billing with a chimpanzee (in 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo), and everyone who ever bought popcorn was relieved to learn, as the details of his Hollywood career became clearer amid his political success, that Warner executives had replaced him at the last minute before shooting one of the studio’s best-loved films. It’s hard to imagine Reagan, instead of Bogart, delivering the deathless lament: “Of all the gin joints in all the world . . .,” in the wartime classic Casablanca.
That’s not to say the former contract player and host of General Electric Theatre was bereft of acting skill. In his most demanding role, an eight-year run as the last Cold War president, he often spoke forcefully and dramatically. Neither Americans nor Germans will ever forget the Great Communicator’s stirring challenge in the waning days of the Soviet Union: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Little matter, when it was all over, that even Reagan’s most loyal friends acknowledged that he often could not distinguish between a dashing part he’d essayed half a century earlier in, say, Code of the Secret Service and his most recent exchange with Margaret Thatcher. He was what he was — a player untroubled by self-doubt when the klieg lights came on. — Bill Gallo
The Year in Queer
The gay films of 2004 merit a solid fair-to-middling overall rating, with a couple of lovely exceptions. Chief among those was Miguel Albaladejo’s Bear Cub, a poorly titled but beautifully rendered story of a (tubby, hairy) gay man who learns how to parent his abandoned nephew. The Legend of Leigh Bowery, a documentary from Charles Atlas, chronicles the life and all-but-indescribable career of the eponymous clubgoer, performer, musician, provocateur, and fomenter of outrageous artistic expression. The film presents a cascade of unforgettable images, all of them engineered by its subject during his brief and blazing reign over the ’80s club scene in London.
The year’s other notable gay movies came with flaws:
· John Waters’ A Dirty Shame was a sore disappointment, opting for hysterical, mind-numbing farce rather than bothering to make a shred of sense.
· There was plenty to love in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, including a foregrounding of male homosexuality rare for the Spanish director and a superstar turn by Mexican delicacy Gael García Bernal. But Almodóvar undermines the power of his material by forcing it into a genre (noir) that doesn’t suit.
· Newcomer Jonathan Caouette blazed into town with Tarnation, a sui generis scrapbook of his tormented childhood assembled from countless hours of stills, Super 8’s, video, DV, and everything else he used to record the events as they happened. Tarnation doesn’t linger on Caouette’s sexuality, and that approach works beautifully; the trouble is the abundance of on-screen titles and the overindulgence in their explanation.
· In a historical turn, director Rodney Evans brought us Brother to Brother, an uneven, overearnest film that nevertheless has its merits, including a young, gay black man with a healthy dose of self-respect and a look into the lives of key players in the Harlem Renaissance.
· Jim de Seve’s Tying the Knot is a heartfelt endorsement of gay marriage that fails to consider whether the rights of unmarried and uncoupled people, gay or straight, should be considered in the struggle for equal rights.
Meanwhile, lesbians? Anyone? Anyone? — Melissa Levine
Kid Movies Grow Up
Have we finally outgrown the notion that movies have to be cloying and cute in order to be acceptable to children? It sure seemed like it this year. Possibly the most sentimental major entry was The Polar Express, but that was due only to the source material — director Robert Zemeckis did his best to distract from the sap with several runaway-train sequences and scary wolves that pushed the boundaries of a G rating. Pixar simply ignored the G for the first time with The Incredibles, in which characters die and children are menaced with guns.
It should go without saying that Shrek 2‘s references to Angelyne and Ricky Martin, and Shark Tale‘s riffs on Mafia movies, aren’t exactly targeted at an innocent audience. Nor was Disney’s Teacher’s Pet, in which a boy’s favorite dog becomes an adult human who romances his mom . . . ewww! One might suspect that a Garfield movie would be aimed only at preschoolers with no standards, but by adding Bill Murray’s voice to the mix, the filmmakers actually managed to make something entertaining out of almost nothing. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie even alienated some critics on the religious right by being “too dark and edgy” — the bit with David Hasselhoff’s morphing pecs was probably too much to handle. Naturally, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban induced frenzies among those same prudish faithful, with its freaky werewolves and demonic Dementors.
Yet one smaller, under-the-radar family flick that even managed to get approval from notorious right-wing scold L. Brent Bozell and his Parents Television Council was The Dust Factory, a surprisingly complex and mature piece of surrealism that packaged a variety of philosophical and spiritual ideas about death in an appealingly odd tale of a drowning boy trapped in a purgatory-like dreamscape. Little seen in theaters, it deserves your attention on video.
If sickly sweet crap was what you wanted for your kids in 2004, you didn’t have much luck, though Hilary Duff came through for ya in A Cinderella Story. (As for the Olsen twins, let’s just say New York Minute, with all its “accidental” near-nudity, seemed to be shooting for a whole new demographic.) — Luke Y. Thompson
Ever since Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros exploded onto American screens in 2000 — followed soon after by Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mama Tambien and Fernando Meirelles’ City of God — American audiences have been taking notice of Spanish and Latin American cinema. The year 2004 was no exception, with The Motorcycle Diaries from Brazil’s Walter Salles and Bad Education from Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar the most widely seen.
It may not be fair to lump the movies of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Spain together under one roof, but it is undeniable that films, directors, and actors from these countries have brought a new excitement to American audiences. And the films do share some similarities, beyond the obvious Spanish or Portuguese language. First and foremost is their sociopolitical point of view.
The plight of the poor and the disenfranchised is front and center in The Motorcycle Diaries, which charts its heroes’ political transformation during a cross-continent journey. Y Tu Mama Tambien, another road movie from a few years ago, emphasized the disparity between the rich and the poor. These frequently brutal depictions of life south of the border tackle everything from prison conditions (Hector Babenco’s Carandiru) to pedophilia in the Catholic Church (Bad Education) to the Civil War in El Salvador (Innocent Voices, Mexico’s Academy submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year).
Not yet released in the U.S., Innocent Voices focuses, like so many other recent Latin American films, on children and the effect that war, poverty, drugs, and governmental indifference have on the youngest, most vulnerable members of society. Interestingly, many of these films — City of God being the most notable example — marry elements of Italian neorealism with today’s sophisticated postproduction techniques to produce an in-your-face realism of visceral and dazzling power.
Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón, who moves easily between Hollywood and his native land (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Crime of Father Amaro), has suggested that the new burst of creativity can be traced in large measure to the changing political landscape in Latin America. When military dictatorships fall, artists are inspired — and censorship no longer presents an obstacle. — Jean Oppenheimer
Love Letter to Alexander Payne
Dear Alexander Payne: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
1) You made Election and About Schmidt, two hilarious, probing comedies about suburban anomie and human angst.
2) You followed these with Sideways, transporting the same deep humor into a totally different milieu and combining a loser-buddy pic with an homage to the Central California coast.
3) You cast Paul Giamatti.
4) You cast Virginia Madsen.
5) You turned down George Clooney — who wanted the part of has-been actor Jack — because nobody would believe he was a has-been.
6) Instead of Clooney, you went with Thomas Haden Church, an actual has-been, who aced the role.
7) You refused, in short, to sell out.
8) Even though your money was coming from a studio.
9) You knew how to maintain control, including in the casting.
10) And you trusted that your vision was superior.
12) Finally, you stayed intimate, resisting the temptation to make a grand, Hollywood-style epic with Big Themes.
13) Unlike some directors I could mention, but won’t.
14) Okay, it’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose films are getting successively worse.
15) What is A Very Long Engagement? It is an overhyped, overly sentimental rehearsal of a thousand films we’ve seen before.
16) But enough about him.
17) Thanks, Mr. Payne. I love you. — Melissa Levine
Gore Wins! The Year in Carnage
Perhaps it’s because we see real-life violence on the news every day now, not to mention in political documentaries, but nobody seems too worried about excessive bloodletting in the movies anymore. That’s good news for gorehounds.
The year kicked off with Ashton Kutcher impaling his own hands in The Butterfly Effect and continued with a full-fledged revival of the zombie movie, starting with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, continuing with the video-game-based Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and going truly international with the U.K. hit Shaun of the Dead. Cary Elwes hacked his own foot off in Saw, John Waters got his face melted in Seed of Chucky, and “comedy” troupe Broken Lizard used tits and blood to (unsuccessfully) sell its Club Dread. Meanwhile, Hellboy and Alien vs. Predator showed that you can have as many disembowelments as you want in a PG-13 movie, as long as the only victims are demons and outer-space creatures that bleed funky neon colors. From across both oceans, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War and A Very Long Engagement brought the intensity and realism of war to an audience that may not have expected it.
The award for Funniest Use of Gore goes to Team America: World Police, in which Danny Glover and Sean Penn (in puppet form) got mauled to death and had their guts chewed on by Kim Jong-il’s “giant panthers” (actually a pair of black housecats). The Pointless Gore Award goes to art-house snoozer Twentynine Palms, for the scene near the end when the protagonist suddenly appears to turn into the Toxic Avenger.
Still, the biggest triumph of big-screen bloodletting came indisputably thanks to Mel Gibson, who managed to peddle a splatter movie to the very people who’ve condemned them most loudly. His secret? Make sure that the person being stabbed, beaten, ripped apart, abused, and mutilated happens to be Jesus Christ. Do that, and audiences will even read subtitles. — Luke Y. Thompson
Closing Credits: “Bud”
If Marlon Brando — “Bud” to his family and intimates — was not the finest movie actor who ever lived, he certainly had the greatest gift for reinvention. Between the opening night in 1947 when the lean, cruelly handsome young Nebraskan shouted “Stel-lahhhh!” in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire to the moment, three decades and 200 pounds later, when he filled a dark jungle hut with a murmur: “The horror . . . the horror,” he took on many forms. He was, in turn, the charismatic ’50s rebel, the weird Hollywood iconoclast, a menacing Godfather, and a real-life father agonized by his son’s conviction for manslaughter. By the end, which came July 2 at age 80, he had so many encrustations of myth that the real Brando, if there ever was one, had almost ceased to exist. But his legacy is unquestionably profound. Having absorbed the Method at the Actors Studio, he dispensed it far and wide through the performances of every awestruck actor who followed him. Troubled and tragic, Marlon Brando had become nothing less than a condition of life.
He may be remembered most vividly for his jowly, grave Don Corleone (“Tataglia is a pimp . . .”), but who among us wasn’t captivated by the depressed U.S. expatriate he played in Last Tango in Paris, his tormented pug in On the Waterfront (“I coulda been a contendah”), the vengeful outlaw of One-Eyed Jacks, or the enigmatic, half-crazed Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, who embodied the American misadventure in Vietnam? Was the giant without humor or irony? Hardly. In The Freshman (1990), he happily parodied his Godfather role and, for reasons known only to himself, he reportedly required all visitors to his Tahitian island hideaway to produce, well . . . stool samples.
“What are you rebelling against?” a sweet-faced teenager asks Brando’s sneering, leather-clad motorcyclist in 1954’s The Wild One. “Whaddya got?” he replies. That might be epitaph enough for one of moviedom’s few authentic geniuses. — Bill Gallo
The Future of Modernism
Flash back to 1999. George Lucas steps back into the director’s chair after two decades of absence and produces the critically derided Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Though its visuals are praised, many writers note the stilted acting and suggest that Lucas’ extensive use of bluescreens rather than actual sets is partially to blame. In 2002, the second Star Wars prequel seems to bear that out, and the use of “virtual sets” starts to look like a bad idea.
Or does it? Lucas, as has been the case before, may have been ahead of his time. This year saw two wildly different auteurs use the blue- and greenscreen techniques to create two of the most expensive “personal” movies ever. Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow existed as a fully realized story inside a computer before a single actor was cast, while Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express allowed actors to portray characters who transcend their physical limitations. Yes, there were accusations of stilted acting this time around as well, but more critics and viewers started warming to the notion of bluescreens, especially after viewing The Polar Express in 3-D IMAX, which revealed minute details that were invisible on a regular-size screen.
The real breakthrough is still coming. Now that Lucas, Conran, and Zemeckis have pioneered the technology, it’s going to get cheaper and easier, and proof of that arrives in spring 2005 with the Henson Company’s Mirror Mask, a computer-generated/live-action fantasy film by Sandman comic-book creators Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, shot mostly against a greenscreen for a paltry $4 million. Robert Rodriguez, who experimented with the style in Spy Kids 3-D, will follow shortly thereafter with Sin City, a highly stylized rendition of Frank Miller’s hard-edged graphic-novel series. Early glimpses of these flicks wowed the faithful at the San Diego Comicon last July.
Also hitting the festival circuit in ’05 will be a remake of the classic German expressionist horror movie The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, in vintage-style sepia and white, but using virtual sets to recreate the surreal look of the 1920 original.
Oh yeah, and there’s that one with Darth Vader in it too . . . — Luke Y. Thompson
Some Like it . . . Not
When My Big Fat Greek Wedding scored a surprise hit for comedienne Nia Vardalos, the former Second City star may have figured any old second act would do — even a penny-dreadful rip-off of one of Hollywood’s most beloved classics. Not so. A flop at the box office, lambasted by critics, and quite possibly the most unwatchable movie of the year, Connie and Carla labored mightily to update Some Like It Hot with the tale of two loud-mouthed showbiz wannabes (Vardalos and Toni Collette), who take it on the lam from a Chicago drug dealer who thinks they’ve filched a kilo of his coke and flee to L.A., where they disguise themselves as drag queens in a gay nightclub. Never mind the conceit that these corn-fed pseudo-dragsters convince a far hipper, more observant transvestite crowd in West Hollywood that they, too, are men impersonating women; they also wow the locals with their awful caterwauling. Vardalos attacks the scenery like a starved hyena. Collette shrieks like a banshee, her jaw three inches from the camera.
Accessories to the crime include director Michael Lembeck (although it looks like Vardalos wore the pants on the set); an uncomfortable-looking David Duchovny, who bravely essays the part of a straight guy who falls for Vardalos’s overwrought Connie without quite knowing why; and the great minds at Universal Pictures, who bankrolled this lame vanity project in hope of cashing in on the quickly dissipating Vardalos heat.
Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and Billy Wilder would be appalled, but have no fear: Their legacy is probably safe for another generation or two. — Bill Gallo
Wake Up, Spike Lee
Dear Spike Lee:
The opening words of Do the Right Thing, your 1989 breakout film, were these: “Wake up!” You wanted the world to awaken to the deep and painful rifts in American race relations — between black and white, brown and white, black and brown, the whole enchilada. You followed your feminist debut, She¹s Gotta Have It, with this electric and thoughtful movie. We saw it. We talked about it. And you opened the door for a new wave of African-American filmmakers. We were counting on you to keep making intelligent, provocative films. So when did you fall asleep? 2000’s Bamboozled was an utter mess of stereotypes and misdirected rage. And this year’s She Hate Me? Perhaps the angriest, most obnoxious movie to pollute the screen.
You’re blaming lesbians for the unhappiness of the black man? Lesbians are the problem? It didn’t help that you admitted to not knowing any lesbians of color; did you have to portray them as scheming, manipulative, and man-hating bitches? Whose conversion to bisexuality is just one good (or even mediocre) fuck with a man away? Puh-lease. We’re not buying it. Frankly, it’s perplexing. How is the same man who made 25th Hour, 2002’s gorgeous, jazzy tribute to New York City (among other things), capable of She Hate Me? Maybe it was the writing. (And maybe you should leave the writing, as you did in 25th Hour, to others.) Where did your brain go, Spike? Wake up. We miss you. — Melissa Levine
They Sucked: A Contrarian Perspective
It’s easy to bash the big-budget blow-’em-up epics that Hollywood wants audiences to like, but harder, as a critic, to go against the tide of movies deemed Important Artistic Triumphs. I’ve always been a contrarian, though, so with due apologies to my critical colleagues, here are the movies you’re wrong about:
Closer — A better movie back when it was called Your Friends and Neighbors and directed by Neil LaBute.
Maria Full of Grace — “Based on 1,000 True Stories” is the most pompous tagline of the year by far, especially from an American director claiming to speak for all the people of Chile. It does, however, explain why the characters feel so one-dimensional — they’re ciphers standing in for a thousand others, after all. Yes, the drug-swallowing scenes are discomforting, but I saw the same shtick in a Beavis and Butt-head episode a decade ago.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead — Mike Hodges and Clive Owen tried to repeat the cleverness of Croupier and ended up sending us to slumberland a good deal sooner than the title implied.
Open Water — Just because Blanchard Ryan does full-frontal nudity doesn’t make her a good actress. Especially since, while she’s suffering from sunstroke, dehydration, hunger, seasickness, and jellyfish stings, she still looks like a million bucks. Applaud the actors for swimming with real sharks, but don’t applaud the lack of drama that ensues.
Bright Leaves — Director Ross McElwee seems to have no idea how boring he and his family history are. Understandably, those who liked Sherman¹s March wanted to find out what happened to its director-protagonist; the answer turned out to be: not much.
Red Lights — If you want good reviews, make your film in French. American critics will hail films on that basis alone — even this tonally inconsistent hodgepodge about an obnoxious drunk who drives badly.
The Aviator — Of all the figures in cinematic history I’d be willing to spend three hours watching, Howard Hughes ain’t one. If you genuinely think the special effects here are good, you might be on crack.
Mean Creek — Angry kids on an unsupervised boat trip? Constant ominous music? Gee, wonder what’s going to happen next?
Garden State — You mean to say that depressed people can snap out of their funk after sex with Natalie Portman? Never woulda guessed.
Shrek 2 — Using “Livin’ La Vida Loca” as a set-piece musical number should be grounds for an automatic thumbs-down. Stealing an entire song from Footloose for the climax ought to clinch the deal. Mostly, though, depending upon a stale pastiche of recycled gags from other movies is pure cinematic laziness, and needs to be labeled as such. — Luke Y. Thompson