Dour and dismal and downbeat and dark are a few of my favorite things… but this holiday season’s movies are ridiculously melancholy, not only the ones released during Christmas week, but the holdovers that still have drawing power.
Two disappointments for Christmas 2007: Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous, pomo version of Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed,” that bold slab of rage about oil and Jesus, “There Will Be Blood,” won’t take a crack at Chicago until January 4. And what? No “Rambo” until the end of next month? Disgraceful!
The year’s best Christmas line, among many bittersweet bites, comes from a movie that was supposed to have come out in 2005, and thought it’s not technically about the holidays, it’s full of the spirits of the season without actively invoking battlefields other than the bed: “Did you ever feel like you wanted to squeeze a kitten until the head pops off?” (That’s from John Turturro’s musical, “Romance & Cigarettes”; more on that further down.)
Generally speaking, movies take one or two or three years to get written, financed, made and released. Whatever was bothering a writer consciously or sussed by a producer, sometimes semi-consciously, rises to the surface and bobs around the multiplex. “In a world where…” rings from on high. Last Christmas, movies like “Apocalypto” tapped into the clandestine, undisclosed rivers of blood running in other parts of the world without reaching for theses. In 2007, four years after “Mission Accomplished” was declared in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve reached the Year of the Thesis, in which metaphor is shredded for outright tract-making in movies like “In the Valley of Elah,” “Grace is Gone” or “Rendition.”
Comparing those films to the Coen brothers’ “No Country For Old Men,” which becomes artful and indeed, art, for its mysteries, elisions, faithful adaptation of text but also genial deepening of theme, brings back the classic line by the German journalist and aphorist of the early twentieth century, Karl Kraus, who observed that “Satires which the censor can understand are justly forbidden.” A more cynical observation Kraus elevated from the coffeehouse was, “How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read.” (A reason not to wallow in more than three or four year-end “trend” treatises.)
A series of tracts that are more literal-minded than a Washington, D.C. journalist led entertainment writers to suggest viewers have misery malaise and are war-bored.
But somebody’s in the mood for blood: despite all the many fiction features, and especially documentaries, concerning war and fear and especially the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that haven’t been barn-burning smashes, it seems wrong to think that audiences are war-bored and woeful with misery malaise. Sometimes movies fail to attract an audience because they’re badly advertised, distributed, titled or a larger part of the subject doesn’t appeal. There are many reasons why almost no one went to see “Redacted” (U.S. gross under $70,000), partly because it’s a no-budget, woodenly acted retread of Brian DePalma’s earlier war-is-rape “Casualties of War,” and partly because it only opened on a fistful of screens.
Some of the blood is on the balance sheets of the studios because of shifting markets and the industry’s recurrent rotten fiscal decisions, with film writers on strike for the foreseeable future and a raft of layoffs by the studios to cut their bottom lines. (So many oysters, so few pearls.) But that’s behind the scenes. “Nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive ’em out in the open,” as a film industry caricature in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” observes. Still, there are documentaries that clear the palate with their plain-spoken astringency, like Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight,” which chronicles the ongoing follies of every step of the American occupation of Iraq, which you can rent now, and “Heavy Metal In Baghdad,” one of the most amazing movies about life on the ground over there, which you can only read about for now. (It debuted at Toronto and reportedly has American distribution lined up.) Produced by some of the hands behind the current version of Vice magazine, it wallops for its simple approach: you play music. What if you couldn’t play your music, what if you risked your life to play music?
Even the most sumptuous movies you can see after racing out of the familial abode are drenched in lies and treachery and regret, Death at every other breath: Blood is also thicker than eggnog. “Atonement,” likely the lushest of movies you could see this season, designed in a glassy, lysergic way-post-Laura Ashley exaggeration, is weighted with guilt and war and loves had and loves lost. To live is to be crushed, it seems to say beyond all of the themes handed down from Ian McEwan’s novel. There’s even literal death at hand: while 68-year-old Francis Coppola’s self-financed oddment, the beautiful, baroque, cryptic “Youth Without Youth,” about a 70-year-old struck by lightning who grows younger by the day, suggests that dreams and ideals can keep us alive to the world, most movie theaters will have the likes of “The Bucket List,” the feel-dead, feel-listless, feel-lethargic, feel-cheated film of the season. (Put that in your quote ad and smoke it.) “Grace is Gone,” with its dishonest contrivances about a cowardly father who lies to his children about his soldier wife’s death in Iraq, is close enough, seeing a Jack Nicholson character felled by chemo for laughs is not jolly at all. To lift from Sturges again, you’ve got grim death gargling at you from every corner.
“I Am Legend” has Will Smith as the last movie star on Earth in a decaying, deflating, abandoned Manhattan. He’s arrayed department-store dummies just to have someone to crack bad jokes to; his long-suffering German shepherd is more of a confidant and fellow warrior. (Deck the halls with blows of zombies.) Adapting the best-selling “The Kite Runner,” we see children whose spirits remain high even in the face of Taliban restrictions, poverty, ongoing military action and man-on-boy rape. In ” P.S. I Love You,” a dead lover leaves messages for the surviving half of the couple. “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a satire in which a decidedly thickheaded politician makes unlikely stands toward getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s, which, as a sudden final title indicates, we fumbled. In “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” revenge is a dish best served in a tasty meat pie, as Edwardian London joins in a feast of collective community cannibalism. Tim Burtonesque whimsy persists mostly in Sasha Baron Cohen’s incarnation of a huge tool: literally. Even all the dick puns in the crazy, crazy comedy of the month, the Judd Apatow-produced “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” rock out with their calamity out, as riches-to-rags music biopics get the full-on comic treatment.
Serious enough yet? In the darkly funny, deeply humane “Juno,” a smart-mouth, pregnant teen decides to keep her child. In the autumn-toned “Starting Out In The Evening,” Frank Langella is great as a blocked, dying artist. In Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages,” estranged mid-life siblings Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney have to get their early-onset dementia father, played by Philip Bosco, into assisted living. Laughs are earned. Hurt is relentless. Survival? Simply necessary. One of the two most elevating movies of the season, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is an expressive, experimental feature about a man who has a stroke in middle life and then, with the help of several nurses and therapists, writes his memoirs with the only part of himself not paralyzed: with the flutter of an eyelid, again, again, again. Julian Schnabel’s vignettes of loss and beauty are powerful, and gain power until its obstinate, expressionistic final images. Schnabel idealizes women and food and rich, rippling photographic grain, but scenes between male friends, and especially, between Mathieu Amalric, as the Marie Claire editor and bon vivant felled by a burst of inner electricity, and Max Von Sydow as his weakening father, attain an uncommon emotional power, eliciting tears but with the power of transformative art that observes human frailties with respect, even awe.
One of the best fallback movies if you’re stuck in the house also has one of the most amazing soliloquies of the movie year. “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But, the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things… the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something… and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”
Yes, Anton Ego in “Ratatouille.” All the great things in that movie, all its yummy classical elements, and the speech of the year to boot. (Even beyond any professional nodding I would be compelled to make toward its sentiments.) Which leads me to a movie I only just caught this weekend, the holiday’s strangest movie, a heartening down-to-earth but helium-filled Cinderella story that’s just gone wider in Chicago, John Turturro’s “Romance & Cigarettes.” Made by United Artists a couple of years ago, before its sale and reincarnation under Tom Cruise’s aegis, Turturro’s working-class musical was cut loose by its buyer (Sony, who will release it on DVD in the spring). While a hit on the festival circuit, it only got a release because of the actor-writer-director’s perseverance. In general, I don’t trust any filmmaker who doesn’t want to make a musical, but Turturro’s cast-off shaggy dog has a shock of scented, flavored greatness here. One man’s infidelities in the outer boroughs lead to community-wide outbursts of drama, melodrama and song. James Gandolfini is the goof who cheats on the mother of his three daughters, Susan Sarandon, with a giddily blowsy Kate Winslet. The characters’ earthiness is as persistent as the sounds of the planes making their clunky dervish sounds overhead on their way to and from JFK (shiny silver tubes jam-packed with even more human drama and pop songs than on the ground below). Sarandon has a few declarative passages that are rich and ribald and raw and I won’t repeat them, only to say that while you can make a comparison to movies like the original version of Dennis Potter’s “The Singing Detective,” the comparison only informs, it does not reduce this tear-streaked, blood-stained musical treat. Let me try to describe one scene. Gandolfini’s best friend is played by Steve Buscemi. They’re both working high steel on one of the spans across the rivers that divide Manhattan from the boroughs, and Buscemi, perched on the edge of air in protective goggles and an armful of bolting machine, power-tightening a lug or two, suddenly feels compelled to confess, and with the blue sky behind him, observes simply, in a vulgar, beautifully cadenced line, lovingly delivered, “I like to fuck a woman with a backside the size of the world.” Oh, the best Christmas present: something that may seem like something else but in fact is something new and touching and tender and bawdy and pretty damn great.
Life after wartime…