My Best Picture Nominees

I can’t claim to understand why the Oscars are taken so seriously. How could a voting body honor the likes of Crash, and still be given control over the conversation of what movies were great in a given year? The Oscars lionize as much tepid, whitewashed pablum as the Grammys, but the former remains an Event, and the latter is a punchline. It makes no sense, but I have to admit, I love that unearned cred. I love that my wife and I are planning an entire weekend around the Oscar broadcast, that I’m going to try and make fancy appetizers, that we actually watched The Imitation Game so we could marvel at its foolproof Oscar formula (British accents + misunderstood genius plastering pieces of paper to a wall + moment where a bunch of people say “if you fire him, then you’ll have to fire me” = nominations galore). I love that Birdman could win Best Picture on Sunday, and that some small, illogical part of me will actually be upset. On a certain level, I will care that a stylized PSA about the plight of famous American actors (who sometimes get bad reviews and aren’t taken seriously, poor dears) will go down in history as declaratively better than SelmaI don’t care about sports, but maybe this is why people love them – to have a pony or two in the race, and to be emotionally invested in how they do, regardless of how little sense that makes.

Anyhoo, I’ve put together a list of what I would nominate for the Best Picture of 2014. And goddammit, it’s because I care.

The Babadook

The Babadook

First-time director Jennifer Kent enters a realm of psychological horror in which Stephen King would feel downright cozy. The titular meanie is a horrifying Edward Gorey character gone mad, and as it jumps off its pop-up pages to infiltrate the lives of Amelia and her son Samuel, the frayed nerve endings of their shared family tragedy are painfully exposed. An allegory for the grieving process, and an exploration of how goddamn hard parenting can be, Kent’s film isn’t afraid to show its soul, and is all the more terrifying for it.

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Blue Ruin

On top of being a way to describe a feeling of utter desolation, “blue ruin” is also an archaic term for low-end gin. And in Jeremy Saulnier’s elegantly brutal, Kickstarter-funded thriller of the same name, his main character would’ve been better off medicating the former with the latter. Instead, Dwight Evans – played with quiet, schlubby intensity by Macon Blair – spends years planning revenge on the man who killed his parents. When his target is released from prison, this plan immediately goes to hell. From that point forward, the tension heightens in direct relation to the vacancy in Blair’s eyes. There’s no such thing as payback here. There’s just bankruptcy.

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Dear White People

Using a college campus as the setting for an exploration of 21st century black identity and white privilege – as well as the ways that social media, reality TV and family dynamics can promote the distortion of self – writer/director Justin Simien illustrates the frustrations of living in a deeply prejudiced society that really wants to believe racism isn’t a thing anymore. Weaving through the sharp Spike Lee callbacks and slobs vs. snobs satire are Sam White and Lionel Higgins (Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams, both terrific). Both are hiding elements of themselves, whether it’s underneath some passionate rhetoric or an unruly afro. And both reach new levels of self-confidence at a gruesome, hip-hop-themed frat party (whose basis in reality makes it all the more sickening). These character arcs form the backbone of Simien’s film. Their sweet triumphs are also his.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

When I first saw the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel, it looked like it was gonna be little more than an airy romp – a clever slapstick period piece set in a hotel that looks like a big pink layer cake. I feel for whoever had to cut that thing. Because this is writer/director Wes Anderson’s most ambitious story. He flexes his writing muscles more than ever, stacking flashbacks like nesting dolls until we’re back in 1932, watching wide-eyed lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and kinetic concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in a hilarious, tender, career-best performance) operate the titular hotel in its prime. What follows is epic and basic, funny and tragic, violent and sweet. But most of all, it’s romantic, in a way that transcends ornate set designs and vengeful Dafoes and vicious Nazi stand-ins. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one big celebration of that moment when you know you’ve found your person. With plenty of cake to go with it.

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Selma

It’s crazy that until last year, nobody had made a major motion picture where the main character was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But it just takes one look at the ongoing criticism of Selma’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson to understand why. These people prefer their condemnations of racism to come from the mouths of white saviors, and Hollywood’s compliance to those expectations has resulted in big box office (The Help made $169 million domestic). Which just makes Selma feel all the more masterful. Director Ava Duvernay has made a movie that – god forbid – credits King for the civil rights victories of the 1960s, by focusing on one event in his life, in a clear, measured way that avoids typical biopic lionization. It’s what Spielberg couldn’t quite pull off with Lincoln – a film that humanizes an icon by jettisoning easy re-enactments in order to focus on how the historical sausage was made. Instead of the typical loaded flashbacks, or they-feel-this-way-and-so-should-you shots of awe-inspired followers, Duvernay shoots meetings between organizers, arguments between planners. She directly addresses King’s marital infidelities. She gives as much screen time to his moments of doubt as his inspirational speeches. She gets a brilliantly subdued performance out of David Oyelowo that never feels like an impression. She depicts the voting rights marches that give the movie its spine with brutal clarity, and haunting relevance. By tackling one of the most emotionally charged moments in our nation’s history with a cool, even hand, Duvernay has made an MLK movie with a distinctly MLK sensibility.

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Wild

This adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir takes the concept of a redemptive journey quite literally. Writer Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Valleé let the metaphors fall where they may as we follow Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, in a rich performance that makes her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash feel like a cartoon) through a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. The vastness of the landscapes speak for themselves. As do the moments of toenail sloughing pain, and the unspoken, ever-present threats from the men Strayed meets in the wilderness. Through artfully deployed flashbacks, we learn the driving forces behind Strayed’s journey, in bits and pieces. Her mother, and her emotional bedrock, dies, and Strayed spirals into self-destruction. This backstory is treated with the same restraint as the main trekking narrative, giving us just enough of a glimpse to make a connection. Throughout, Wild is content with showing, and moving on. “How wild it was, to let it be,” muses Strayed as she nears her journey’s end. Here’s a film that takes that line to heart.

The Hobbit succumbs to dragon sickness

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“On The Lord of the Rings we had actors in prosthetics playing the orcs, and I was always a little frustrated by that. If I could have afforded it then, I would have much preferred to have all the orcs CGI. Now, in The Hobbit, I can.”

Peter Jackson

A few months ago, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that as of March 2014, the budget for Peter Jackson’s latest epic – three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit – was $745 million. It’s the most expensive trilogy of all time, costing around $500 million more than Jackson’s last massively successful go-round with Tolkien’s work – those triumphant, absorbing, lived-in adaptations of The Lord of the Rings novels. After seeing the final Hobbit installment, The Battle of the Five Armies, in a packed theater over the holiday weekend, I have no doubt that every penny of that budget was used to make these movies look great. Unfortunately, you can’t finance feeling.

TBOTFA picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with that titular dragon feeling over it after a far-too-long dwarf fight and laying waste to the vaguely Celtic people of Laketown. It’s a gorgeous and harrowing sequence, with Jackson capturing the grand terror of the dragon’s every swoop, both from above the town and in the thick of its clogged and scorched canals. But before you can relax and honestly hope for a stuck landing, the dragon (77-year-old spoiler alert!) is killed by Bard the Guardsman (Luke Evans). Only after the amber light elegantly leaves its body in midair does the film’s title appear.

You’ve gotten your Smaug, now prepare for the slog.

 

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The rest of the film transforms the last five chapters of Tolkien’s book into a battleground strategy manual. It makes good on its title for sure, with the armies of dwarves, elves, men, orcs and deus ex machinas turning each other into CGI slurry for a huge chunk of the running time. There are stunning visuals here; Jackson does not deserve the “video game” taunts. But he’s blinded by pixels. The patience, warmth and good humor of the underrated An Unexpected Journey are nowhere to be found; characters have no time to talk, let alone develop enough to get us invested in them. As a result, those looking for any kind of message from these movies leave with some paper-thin bullshit. Tolkien taught us a simple, poignant lesson – if you don’t lose sight of what’s truly valuable in life, you’ll be stronger than kings. To do so on film would require some quiet, reflective moments, however.

So instead of letting his universally beloved main character Bilbo Baggins (the perfect and wasted Martin Freeman) steal screen time from the worms from Tremors, Jackson invents the character of Alfrid Lickspittle, the toady to the King of Laketown and sentient insult to our intelligence who spends TBOTFA being cartoonishly cowardly and greedy, pushing old ladies and then dressing up like one to avoid battle (which is funny in 2014, apparently). Instead of letting Bilbo actually have a conversation with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the newly crowned King of the Mountain struck with “dragon sickness,” the character can only come to his senses after a (terrible-looking) CGI hallucination sequence involving a floor of molten gold quicksand or whatever. Instead of having Bilbo do anything, we watch Bard save his “Da!”-yelling kids over and over and over again, because FAMILY. We learn about Legolas’s dead mom, because FAMILY. We hear the warrior-elf Tauriel talk about nothing but love and dudes, because WOMEN’S ISSUES=HALF-BAKED TWILIGHT-TYPE SHIT.

 

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When filming The Lord of the Rings, Jackson had to get creative to avoid blowing his budget. He had to lean on his actors and his script-writing partners. He had to shoot miniatures and build sets and use old camera tricks to make us believe that Ian McKellen was three times taller than Ian Holm. His passion and ingenuity were all over those films as a result; he was Sam carrying Frodo up the mountain. On The Hobbit, with that blank check staring him in the face, he felt like a King. His trilogy that started with such heart has ended in a haze. The dragon lives.

 

 

The Unintentionally Horrifying World of “Munchie”

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There are certain things specifically created to entertain children that I usually find horrifying – clowns, mascots, satanic Chipmunk versions of Adele songs, etc. But then I’ll see how happy kids get when they see a giant anthropomorphic dog hobbling towards them, how they squeal with glee and run to it, delivering rapid-fire high-fives into its bloated, outstretched paws, and I’ll realize how challenging it must be to create entertainment that children truly love. Sometimes, what seems borderline grotesque to a jaded adult can make a kid deliriously happy. How a creator of children’s entertainment can tell the difference between what’s kid-friendly/adult-creepy and what’s just plain creepy across the board, I have no idea.

And neither did the creators of Munchie, a 1992 direct-to-video story of a lonely kid whose life is turned upside down when he stumbles across a motormouthed bat-dog-thing in an abandoned mine. Crafted like a family movie/coming-of-age comedy, Munchie devotes its major plot lines to the relevant, real-life problems of tween protagonist Gage Dobson (Jamie McEnnan). But it’s also a movie destined to horrify viewers of all ages, thanks to the menacing design, bargain-basement special effects and bizarre voice casting of Munchie himself.

We meet Gage during a low point of his adolescence – he’s getting bullied at school, his mom (Loni Anderson) is dating a cartoonishly oily jerk (Andrew Stevens), and his only friend is a demented old scientist who lives across the street (Arte Johnson). Gage is presented to us as an overly imaginative kid, through some fairly un-imaginative fantasy sequences (e.g. he pictures his principal with devil’s horns). It’s a smart move in theory, setting us up to believe that this kid could be fanciful enough to believe that something like Munchie could exist, instead of just puking and shitting himself simultaneously when seeing him for the first time. But this proves to be problematic later, when the movie’s “be careful what you wish for” moral becomes painfully clear.

For now, though, Munchie’s moving along like any competent afterschool special (save the pre-credits sequence, in which we learn that Munchie drives human beings to the brink of insanity). But then Gage gets fed up with life and goes for a walk, finds the conveniently accessible mineshaft, and the nightmare begins – a voice that sounds a whole lot like Dom Deluise beckons to Gage from a box with runes all over it; Gage opens it, and this happens:

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Count yourself lucky that a) I haven’t paid the fee to allow video on this site; and b) Munchie clips on YouTube are scarce. Because as disturbing as the puppet looks, watching it move is what really makes the skin crawl. Director Jim Wynorski didn’t place a priority on the realism of Munchie’s movements, neglecting to sync up his eyes, mouth and hands in a way that resembles a regular living thing. It’s like Gizmo survived a horrible fire and we have to watch as he struggles to regain basic motor skills. And it doesn’t help that he really is voiced by Dom Deluise, whose jovial energy goes over like a hot pitcher of milk when you have the flu.

The movie goes to great lengths to tell us that Munchie is funny – he pulls pranks with banana peels; sings “Hello! Ma Baby;” talks repeatedly about having to “update his act;” throws a Risky Business-style kegger – but every corny gag just adds to the character’s cavernous uncanny valley. Adding to this queasy mix of creature-feature horror and Borscht Belt comedy is a shoehorned “Monkey’s Paw” moral – Munchie has the ability to grant Gage’s every wish, but he causes unintended havoc in the process. For example, when Gage wishes for the bullying to stop, Munchie’s solution is appallingly hypocritical – beat up a kid until he’s bloody and unconscious. The scene gives you a hollow feeling that no pizza skateboard can fill.

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As a result, we have a movie that encourages kids to use their imaginations, but also warns them to be careful what they wish for. It so badly wants us to love Munchie, but also not to trust him. As we’re forced to watch those directionless eyes lolling around on a face forever plastered in a frozen corpse-smile, at least it’s easy to do the latter.

What I Learned From “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal”

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Is there a more underrated actor out there than Sam Neill? Not quite a leading man type, yet more substantial than a character actor, Neill tends to avoid Oscar-bait-level emoting, preferring a subtle, intangible kind of humanity that rarely feels out of place in a role – whether it’s an archeologist who can’t believe his eyes, a repressed frontiersman in colonial New Zealand, or a grieving parent framed by some devious-ass dingoes. Notice that I said “rarely” out of place. That’s because I recently watched Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, a 2000 Hallmark Channel mini-series that featured Neill as Thomas Jefferson. SH:AAS is as cheap and flimsy as its title would suggest, possessing all the hallmark touches we’ve come to expect from a Hallmark Channel project, save a subplot where a nice single mom finally finds love with Santa’s hunky-yet-approachable nephew. So here’s what I learned:

1. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson met cute.

You see, Thomas Jefferson is at this party in Paris, and Sally Hemings shows up with her brother Mario Van Peebles. When Jefferson lays his eyes on her, he wonders aloud about who this girl could be, clearly thinking she’s some Parisian debutante he somehow hadn’t met before. But in reality, she’s his 14-year-old slave! There’s a wacky misunderstanding for ya! Don’t you just love love?

2. Sally & TJ were just like Audrey & Bogie.

I’m clearly not an expert on Jefferson or Hemings, ’cause I used to just assume that their relationship probably wasn’t much like the kind of love affair you’d see in an Audrey Hepburn movie. But Sally Hemings: An American Scandal set me straight on that, depicting their initial time together in Paris as the kind of coy May-December flirtation we saw from Hepburn and Bogart in Sabrina. And instead of running away to Paris like Linus and Sabrina do in that beautifully impulsive way, our star-crossed lovers run away from Paris back to the U.S., where everything turns out great! If only Billy Wilder had stuck with his original ending, where Linus has a surprise waiting for Sabrina in France – a life of endless toil on his Parisian brie plantation.

3. Sally Hemings could’ve left Monticello at any time, but she didn’t, because love.

At the end of Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, something scandalous actually does happen – Hemings (played by Carmen Ejogo, who gives it her best shot I guess) reveals a note in Jefferson’s handwriting that grants her freedom. A note that was written decades earlier in France! Which means that she chose to live as a slave, to have six children by a man who would never acknowledge them, not to mention acknowledge her entire race as being 100% human. Not that I’d question the integrity of this project, but according to a study by the Research Committee On Thomas Jefferson And Sally Hemings (conducted the same year SH:AAS was released), there is no written record that Hemings was ever granted freedom. Even after Jefferson’s death, she “would have been recognized as free in her local community but, without any legal ‘free papers,’ she could not have safely left the neighborhood where she was known.” Well, you know what, Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings? You can shut your faces, because this ain’t the History Channel we’re talking about. This is the motherfucking Hallmark Channel, and on the Hallmark Channel, it’s all about the love – the bubbly, inspirational, slave-on-president love.

4. Thomas Jefferson couldn’t have fathered Sally Hemings’ kids, because he lived in the sky.

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5. Thomas Jefferson’s life was boring.

Going by what I’ve learned from TV miniseries, John Adams was a colorful, highly influential, endlessly interesting figure in American history, and Thomas Jefferson was a guy who wore wigs and went to things in them. Neill plays Jefferson – one of the more eccentric and compellingly contradictory Founding Fathers – like a less enraged Alistair Stewart, his quiet, emotionally log-jammed jealous husband from The Piano. He gets a little fired up when other men seek Sally’s affections (remember about all the true love?), but over the course of the THREE HOURS of the miniseries, this Hallmark Jefferson is little more than a wallflower. Even when he’s signing the Louisiana Purchase, or teaching youngins in his old-guy makeup, or bemoaning the loss of Monticello to his debtors, it’s clear that only one thing could interest the great Sam Neill during this shoot – his paycheck.

Movies From 2012 That I Saw And That I Liked

Yeah, I know, it’s totally 2013 now. I should have shared my favorite movies of 2012 with you weeks ago. But then I saw the cover of the John Travolta and Olivia Newton John Christmas album, after which I was briefly hospitalized. Now that I have my basic motor skills back, I can get to blathering! So here goes nothin’. My top 10 movies of 2012 are:

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10. Lawless

In 2012, Guy Pearce continued his criminally underappreciated run as one of the most versatile actors working, including a great, wiseass turn in the delightfully ridiculous “save the president’s daughter from space jail” tale Lockout. But it was in this Prohibition gangster flick that he truly shone. As the sadistic and vain Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, Pearce pursues the Bondurant bootlegging operation with a twisted sense of justice, his eyebrowless face and a thick central part in his hair making him look as disquieting as can be. Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave aimed for a similar kind of grim morality with 2005’s very good The Proposition, but Lawless takes it to thrilling new heights – instead of cops and robbers, it’s just a whole bunch of guys with blood on their hands.

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9. The Queen of Versailles

If you ever need a reminder of the chasm that separates documentary film from reality TV, take in this stark, uncompromising but ultimately sympathetic tale of Jackie and David Siegel, a billionaire couple whose time share-fueled gravy train dried up after the economic collapse of 2008 – right after they started construction on what was to be the largest, most expensive single-family home in the U.S. It’s the kind of story that seems readymade for a reality series, beaming dump trucks full of schadenfreude into our insecure brains every week. But Lauren Greenfield’s movie captures the stress, sadness and stubborn hope that’s the stuff of actual reality. The Walmart shopping binges, lingering dog turds and humiliated nannies could easily be treated like laugh-and-point moments, but when contrasted with images of David nursing his wounded pride and Jackie innocently trying to come to terms with the upper middle class life that lies ahead, it’s impossible to ignore their humanity.

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8. Django Unchained

Given how prevalent themes of revenge are in Quentin Tarantino’s stories, it was only a matter of time before he gave us his own, uniquely pulpy take on a Spaghetti Western. Django Unchained is just that – a revenge fantasy/love story/buddy action movie set in the antebellum South, where snappy dialogue and cartoonish, exploding-blood-capsule-style violence is grounded in unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio are all at the peak of their powers – Foxx in the Eastwood role as the titular freed slave, natural sharpshooter and heroic husband, Waltz as a fatherly dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and DiCaprio as a monstrous Francophile plantation owner. The issue of whether slavery should be an off-limits subject for a genre picture like Django is a thorny one for sure, but to me, Tarantino has given us a reminder of the unforgivable sins our country has committed, and we can’t have too many of those. The fact that he weaves it into a dynamic, darkly funny, exceptionally entertaining midnight movie? What more would you expect from Hollywood’s own “little troublemaker”?

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7. Looper

Time travel will always be a touchstone of science fiction, because more than anything, time makes us its bitch. But in Looper, writer and director Rian Johnson attempts to depict what might actually happen if time travel was invented. Like the war on drugs, it becomes a highly illegal practice appropriated by a criminal underworld, who send people back in time to be killed by “loopers” – men who end their careers by “closing their loop,” a.k.a. killing their older selves. The first half of the movie is spent patiently building this intricate mythology, while introducing us to Joe, the brooding looper junkie played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But once Bruce Willis appears as Joe’s future self, Looper becomes much more than your typical sci-fi shoot-em-up. The third act moves the action from Johnson’s slums-o’-the-future to a farm house, and what happens there is a poetic exploration of the nature of evil, the consequences of our mistakes, and the immeasurable impact of the things we do right.

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6. Turn Me On, Dammit!

As heartwarming as it is frank, this Norwegian film explores the awkward lows and joyful highs of teenaged sexual awakening, through the prism of its main character Alma – played with believable angst by Helene Burgsholm. As Alma goes through the confusing process of growing up, she gains and loses friends, has innocent fantasies run aground by weirder, far more interesting realities, runs away from home, and bewilders her single mother until, eventually, their bond deepens. There’s no punishment or reward for Alma, no real danger or grand romance. Turn Me On, Dammit! is just trying to show how it feels to be a 15-year-old girl in a backwoods town, being picked on at school and getting caught calling phone sex lines at home. To see this kind of story told with such positivity is as refreshing as Scandinavian mountain air.

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5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I understand why Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien trilogy is called The Hobbit. But it would be more accurate to call it Middle Earth. Because while the basic plot follows that timeless children’s adventure story in all the important ways, Jackson’s first installment makes it clear that he wants to tell a grander tale, one that looks at Tolkien’s singular universe with the eye of a storyteller and historian. Hence, on top of the piles of breathtaking whiz-bang, and the skilled characterizations of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and Gollum, we get to explore the tragic, pseudo-Biblical backstory of the dwarves of Erebor, see the seeds being planted for the return of Sauron (aka The Necromancer), and meet Radagast the Brown, a birdshit-covered Jane Goodall of the Hedgehogs. Many have accused this detailed approach of being nothing more than a shameless money grab. But in the eyes of this Tolkien nut, The Hobbit is as much, if not more, a labor of love than the Lord of the Rings movies (which I kinda liked a little). The fact that hours upon hours of lovingly adapted Tolkien texts can be seen as something remotely capitalistic is a credit to Jackson’s ability to film the “unfilmable.”

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4. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

On their weirdly endearing cut-and-paste cartoon Tom Goes to the Mayor, and the subsequent public access acid trip theater of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! and Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim proved themselves to be masters of disturbingly hilarious short-form comedy. Which made the potential pitfall of their Billion Dollar Movie an obvious one – would their shenanigans translate to the longer, more plot-driven confines of feature film? Well obviously, I think that they did. Billion Dollar Movie is a delightfully anarchic middle finger to mainstream comedies, taking one of their most common plot lines – protagonist must save struggling school/restaurant/shopping mall, hilarity ensues – and using it as a backdrop on which to project their obsessions with local TV commercials, father-son dynamics and diarrhea. Fantastic supporting turns from John C. Reilly, Will Forte and Zach Galifianakis are just cherries on top.

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3. The Cabin In The Woods

When I first saw Scream, Wes Craven’s snappy 1996 satire of slasher movies, I enjoyed how it made fun of me and respected me at the same time. But after seeing The Cabin In The Woods, Joss Whedon’s writing credit from 2012 that wasn’t The Avengers, I felt more than entertained. As a self-aware horror fan, this movie felt like a new stage of enlightenment. Director/co-writer Drew Goddard and Whedon make the same broad point as Scream that slasher scripts tend to be like Mad Libs; just change out the location/monster/method of death and presto, you’ve got a different movie – but they do it with an initially baffling, and eventually mindblowing, top-secret government surveillance subplot. What at first looks like just another bunch of dopey teenagers venturing out to be killed in the woods becomes a psychological study of humanity that connects the popularity of horror movies to that of ancient pagan rituals, while taking the time to make an even more salient point – if you’re ever in a bind, trust the stoner, not the hunk.

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2. Moonrise Kingdom

It’s no accident that Moonrise Kingdom is set on an island. Its main characters, Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, are kids who don’t feel connected to their surroundings, be it a foster home that looks like an Army barracks or a family that’s quietly fraying around the edges. Wes Anderson’s seventh film is the story of them finding each other, the bliss they feel at finally being understood, and the hilariously low-stakes havoc that their meticulously planned elopement causes. In case your twee-dar is starting to go off, never fear, because Anderson realizes Sam and Suzy’s puppy love in an achingly sweet, thoroughly realistic way, contrasting it all the while by the loneliness of the goofy adults who form the search party (including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton and Bruce Willis, who are all wonderful). Shot in the gorgeous detail that is Anderson’s stock in trade, Moonrise Kingdom posits that while you might feel like an island from time to time, you never know who might be canoeing your way.

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1. The Master

People are attracted to things that purport to define their personality, be it the signs of the zodiac or a quiz that tells you what Saved By the Bell character you are. But in the pivotal scene of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s relentless study of the underbelly of belief, this desire for enlightenment about ourselves is abused in the name of ego and profit. In it, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L.Ron Hubbard-ish leader of a philosophical movement called “The Cause,” convinces Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a volatile WWII vet, to partake in something called “Processing” – a series of quick, probing questions, in which the subject is not allowed to blink. In the performance of the year, Phoenix shows us a deeply disturbed, utterly lonely man who is intoxicated by Dodd’s attentions, through his facial expressions alone. The title of the movie most obviously refers to Dodd, but by the end, it more poignantly applies to Quell – a twisted man who lost everything we see as respectable, except for his free will.

Honorable Mentions: Bernie, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, Lincoln, Lockout, Men In Black 3Prometheus

Easy Targets: Liz & Dick

Easy Targets is an idea for a blog series that I just made up, which I imagine will cover moments in pop culture that are of such obvious heinousness that making fun of them is unnecessary. And then, you know, I’ll make fun of them. Our first entry? Liz & Dick, the glorious tire fire of a Lifetime Original Movie that debuted this past Sunday, pissing all over the freshly turned soil of Elizabeth Taylor’s grave.

Let me take a moment to thank god for made-for-TV movies. Thank you for giving us easy access to hysterical trash-drama and thickly slathered camp, saving us from the depths of the straight-to-DVD bargain bin and The Films of Sandra Bullock. Thank you for being a community theater for actors whose dreams would’ve otherwise died. Thank you for paying Dean Cain’s heating bill. Thank you for helping Joanna Kerns avoid having to go back to school and get that hotel management degree. And thank you for lowering all of our standards to allow something as lazy and absurd as Liz & Dick to become an actual viewing event.

What separates Liz & Dick from your typical made-for-TV movie is that it’s not a bad idea for a movie. The tumultuous romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is one of the most compelling love stories in Hollywood history, full of ferocity and tenderness in equal amounts – a production devoted to exploring their one-of-a-kind dynamic, with the height of 1960s Hollywood ostentation as a backdrop, could be biopic gold. So, just by holding to the typical, low-rent Lifetime Original Movie template, Liz & Dick is already committing a sin. And lucky for us, it doesn’t stop there.

Lo, Liz & Dick wallows in its own unworthiness, with Lindsay Lohan delivering an “I couldn’t give a shit” performance for the ages. Faced with playing one of the 20th century’s most iconic and recognizable figures, Lohan doesn’t bother with the details, barely attempting to alter her own pack-a-day rasp of a voice, and generally behaving like a sleepwalker. (I know Liz loved her mood-altering substances, but to my knowledge, she never had a lobotomy.) In a cringeworthy scene where her and Grant Bowler (who actually attempts to make us believe he’s Burton, which is bo-ring) meet Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? screenwriter Ernest Lehman at a party, we’re supposed to believe Taylor is talking Lehman into letting her and Burton star in it by staging a argument. But in real life, the dazed woman droning “What was he, some Roman homosexual that you buggered?” would be asked to leave the premises. (The decision to reprise scenes of Woolf, the movie that best illustrated the battered genius of both actors, was just cruel – even for this.)

Lohan’s presence is, of course, what made Liz & Dick must-see trainwreck TV, and yes, our cups filleth over with delicious schadenfreude thanks to her performance. But to paraphrase the movie’s painfully overused line of dialogue, its flaws are more like an ocean. As far as the filmmakers would have us believe, Richard Burton was a bitchy guy who drank on occasion and died all pretty-like, and Liz Taylor was a drugged out zombie who could barely tip over a table when angry. These were two brilliant, gruesomely spoiled alcoholics who subsisted on brutally barbed exchanges, but the most the script provides is the occasional fat joke. Yes, Lohan trying would’ve helped, but there’s a bigger problem – this movie is only interested in its own existence, in the fact that it would get people to exclaim “She’s playing Elizabeth Taylor?!?!” Shining any kind of light on what these fascinating people were like behind closed doors? Fuck that. Taylor herself, in her prime, couldn’t salvage this.

By which I mean to say it was everything I’d hoped for. Less, even. Thank you, Lifetime, for understanding that funding, promoting and airing an insult to a legend a year after her death makes for the perfect kind of classless mess – a transcendently horrible made-for-TV movie.

What I Learned From “Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction”

Having just watched every episode of The Wire in a marathon session, I’m more familiar than ever with the devastating failure that was the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs.” The jury’s out on whether or not the people who crafted this policy ever cared about stemming the tide of American drug use, or just wanted to give law enforcement an excuse to lock up as many black people as their heart desired. This I do know for a fact, though – the campaign’s slogan, “Just Say No,” was hilariously ignorant, and offensive to any person who turned to drugs to numb their pain. The same kind of shortsightedness that birthed “Just Say No” is what inspires Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, a fantastically campy  TV movie broadcast in 1983, one year into Reagan’s first term. Starring Dennis Weaver (the voice of Buck McCoy!) as an aging California real estate agent struggling to compete with a flashy youngster who’s starting to outsell him, Cocaine paints everything in hysterically broad strokes, as Weaver’s character goes from a respectable blue-collar guy to a bloody-nosed psychopath over what feels like a couple of weeks. It’s just the kind of movie that will make a young person want to try cocaine, if only to prove that what he just saw was a load of shit. Anyways, what did I learn?

1. Dennis Weaver has some nostrils on him.

I know that cocaine will make you act like an asshole and ruin your life and all that, no matter who you are, but I think there’s a logical explanation for just how quickly Weaver’s character hits bottom in this movie – his cavernous nostrils. There’s no doubt that he’s consuming 10 times more coke per snort than his fellow addict friend (played with suicidal glee by Jeffrey Tambor). It makes you think, if Jimmy Durante was a cokehead, how long would he have lasted?

2. Cocaine will make your midlife crisis even crisis-ier.

In the early stages of Weaver’s “seduction,” he suddenly becomes better at his job, his newfound drug use loosening him up around clients and making him ready to make the jump to selling the big-time listings. It’s at this point that he decides to look the part too, cruising the SoCal freeways looking like a dad having a nervous breakdown, a wreck of leather, black shades and wide-collars.

3. Cocaine will make you betray James Spader.

When Weaver’s wife discovers cocaine in the house, it’s not his – it’s his son’s (played with extreme blondness by James Spader). Of course, Spader actually stole his from Weaver’s shaving kit stash, which makes for some wonderful “I learned it by watching you!” moments. Throwing his own son under the bus marks the low-point for Weaver, who begins the long road to recovery soon after. Which you’d never make a movie about, because bo-ring.

4. Cocaine is highly addictive, but ’80s movies about drugs are even more so.

I know that we’re supposed to be devastated by how far Weaver has fallen in this movie – from a rock-solid family man who topped the sales chart at the office for a decade (“10 years!”) to a jittery douche who would sell out everybody he loves for another fix. But Weaver is just so brilliantly hammy, he turns this message movie into one hell of a good time. Watching him get progressively sweatier, more paranoid and bug-eyed, sneaking hits during showings, hornily grabbing his wife by the sink, it’s like manna from heaven for camp lovers. I’ve since watched several more movies like Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, none of them matching its intoxicating blend of hyper-melodrama, over-the-top acting and low-ball budget. Netflix offered this one to Watch Instantly; when they take it off, I’m going to have to buy it. That’s how the pushers get you hooked. That, and VHS packaging like this: