Thursday night was the New Year’s Eve first blue moon* in nineteen years and today is a numerical palindrome (01-02-2010). Are these signs that things are looking up? Excuse me for grasping at straws, but we sure could use some good news, so I’m going go with the positive portent postulate until something bad happens—in say, a half hour or so.

*A blue moon, for those who don’t know, is when two full moons occur in the same month. They happen, on average, about once every two years, hence the phrase “once in a full moon” to mean something rare. New Years Eve blue moons, as noted, are even more rare.



So here’s the deal. We rate films according to the year they’re available in America, not just New York and LaLa Land, hence our top (and bottom) films may technically be 2008 films. The ones marked with an asterisk (*) have longer reviews on the site that can be accessed from the “Movie Madness” archives.

1. Synecdoche, New York—This enigmatic film from Charlie Kaufman is a visual acid trip that defies laws of time, narrative, and logic but it’s central theme is profound: What if everything that happens to you is because of who you are, not what you do? The smartest thing I saw all year by a hair over…

2. The Limits of Control* — Jim Jarmusch is always both a deliberate challenging director and this film is no exception. Like Kaufman, Jarmusch asks big questions; in this case: What happens in the gaps between what we can control and what we merely think we can?

3. Julie & Julia — And sometimes going to the cinema is just pure fun. No film can close to this one as a life-affirming embrace of life’s simple pleasures. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci are fabulous together.

4. Up in the Air (to be reviewed)— We caught this on January 1 and were glad we did. It’s a sophisticated comedy that’s more bitter than sweet. Just when you think a cliché is about to emerge, Director Jason Reitman slaps you for daring to believe it.

5. Milk—Sean Penn’s triumphant performance reminds us, amidst the tragedy, of how far both Hollywood and society have come since 1977 when Harvey Milk was exotic for some and a target for others.

6. The Reader— Kate Winslet’s gutsy performance of an illiterate former Nazi prison guard. If you don’t think it’s gutsy, you try spending half a movie acting while completely naked!

7. Doubt— Meryl Streep has been getting lots of meaty roles, but her performance as the icy Sister Aloysius in John Patrick’s Shanley’s he said/she said drama is so powerful you’ll forget that this is really a play, not a movie.

8. An Education*— Carey Mulligan! Okay, it’s also a smart coming-of-age film set in the early 1960s that walks a very thin line between charming and creepy. Charming wins.

9. Frost/Nixon— Another film that’s really a play, but Ron Howard’s surprisingly deft direction is cat-and-mouse pas de deux between commentator David Frost and disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon. Frank Langella is so good you forget that he doesn’t look a think like Nixon.

10. Phoebe in Wonderland*— Elle Fanning’s performance in this is the finest performance by a child actor in many moons. The story line is predictable and any adult not named Patricia Clarkson so-so, but the magic takes over.

Worst Films:

See these at your peril and with a clothespin over you nose. In reverse order of badness:

Milk in the Land, Ballad of an American Drink— This documentary seeks to be a shake of various ways to think of milk, but it’s what you’d get if the base was sour and the ingredients incongruous.

Bright Star*— Jane Campion’s new film is easily the year’s most disappointing. It looks gorgeous, but it’s as vacuous as the moon’s (non) atmosphere.

The Informant!*— This Archer Daniels Midland corporate crime film is so tame that the ADM board couldn’t have bribed Hollywood to make it more lame.

The Wrestler— Like Nobody’s Fool for the WWF crowd and without Paul Newman. But I’ll believe Mickey Rourke as a wrestler before I believe that Marisa Tomei is a serious actress.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day— Really? It seemed like at least a month.

Serious Man*— If God really wanted to test Job, He make him sit through this film. Reviewed highly by critics who don’t know the difference between “subtle” and “empty.”

Taking Woodstock*— If you think there’s any redeeming value in this Ang Lee train wreck, please stay away from the brown acid.


Me and Orson Welles
Directed by Richard Linklater

CinemaNX, 107 mins.
* * *

Me and Orson Welles is half of a great film. See if for several fine performances, its glimpse into 1930s New York City, and its broad, but powerful character sketch of Orson Welles. Do not expect to see uniformly great acting, a scintillating script, or visionary filmmaking.

The action, such as it is, revolves around New York’s legendary Mercury Theatre, a cast assembled by the steady John Houseman and the (ahem!) mercurial Orson Welles. Mercury assembled some of the finest actors of that generation: Welles, Anne Baxter, George Colouris, Joseph Cotton, Hans Conreid, Will Geer, Norman Lloyd, Agnes Morehead, Paul Stewart…. The Mercury players won fame (and infamy) for radio plays such as Dracula, Treasure Island, and The War of the Worlds, but it also did live theater.

The film story takes place during a few hectic weeks in 1937 as Welles and Houseman scramble to stage Julius Caesar. Welles (Christian McKay) presented it as a parallel to fascist Italy, a pathbreaking interpretation that remains the longest-running production of the play to date. Before it opened, however, chaos reigned as actors struggled to grasp Welles’s vision and cope with his whims, anger, and ego. Into this mess steps young Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high school student smitten with the stage and Mercury Theater’s office manager Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). Richard snags a minor role in the play and becomes the “Me” of the film’s title.

There are several fine secondary performances, many of them turned in by veterans of the British stage. Ben Chaplin plays George Colouris with a deft balance of braggadocio and near-crippling self-doubt. In like fashion, James Tupper portrays Joseph Cotton as an elegant rake who knows exactly when to advance and when to retreat to the shadows. One wishes also that Eddie Marsan had been given more screen time to air his Houseman, whom he shows as warring between his pacific and neurotic natures. Many Mercury Theatre associates railed at Welles, but Houseman’s was one of the few voices to register.

Would that everyone was as good as these three and McKay. Leo Bill looks good as Norman Lloyd and is occasionally great, but he also falls prey to histrionics. Claire Danes is competent as the sassy Jones, a woman perfectly willing to sleep with whomever it takes to land a job with David O. Selznik. Danes, who is thirty, doesn’t pull off the 1930s look, however. She’s supposed to be a seductive lass in her twenties, but she looks more like shopworn mid-forties.

The weakest role by far is Zac Efron’s Richard. Efron is mostly a TV actor and it shows. He’s supposed to be seventeen, but he plays it a made-for-television seventeen in which he has a teen’s cockiness down cold, but without the gnawing doubts and awkwardness that go with the chronological turf. In scenes where he’s supposed to pine, he’s as wooden as an oak.

As for the direction, well…it’s classic Richard Linklater in that it looks better than it is. He’s done visually appealing stuff with costuming, props, and recreating Depression Era venues such as the Comedy Theater and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As in other Linklater films (Slacker, Waking Life, Before Sunrise, The School of Rock) it’s all shiny, a surface sheen he hopes will blind viewers to a lack of depth. The foreshadowing homages Linklater inserts for Welles aficionados seem more contrived than clever, especially a telegraphed passage lifted from The Magnificent Ambersons. The overall script feels more improvised than written, and let’s face it, the hook of a movie about a director having trouble staging his play is not exactly the cold fusion of novelty.

What makes *any* of this work is Christian McKay’s stunning portrayal of Welles. It is a performance not to be missed and surely one of the year’s finest. Welles is shown as an unpredictable tempest of cyclonic energy, a genius but one who puts the “I” in egotism. When the storm blows, no one eats, sleeps, or dares protest until Welles’s spit-and-anger fury burns off. McKay doesn’t just *play* Welles; he inhabits the role physically and temperamentally. Were it not for an ever-so-slightly higher voice you’d swear that Welles had risen from the grave. He’s so good, in fact, that the *Me* role of Richard seems superfluous. We are supposed to infer that Welles—though he played Brutus—is akin to Caesar. In truth, a much better title (and focus) for this film would have been The Making of Citizen Kane.


I'm Just Saying!

Representative Aaron Shock (R, IL) is only twenty-eight, so why doesn't he buy his own health insurance?

Time for a grab bag of end-of-the-year musings;

--If Congress doesn’t see the merits of expanding Medicare to fifty-five-year-old uninsured citizens, shouldn’t Congress require that all its members under the age of 65 must buy private health insurance? That would be most of them; the average representative is 56 and the average senator is 62.

--If the citizens of Connecticut don’t launch a recall vote of Joe Lieberman we can only conclude that residents of the Nutmeg State are unworthy of suffrage rights.

--American families racked up $973 billion worth of unpaid credit card debt in 2008 (the last year for which statistics were compiled). Shouldn’t a lot of folks clean up their own act before they criticize the government’s deficit spending habits?

--Need more evidence that the Democrats are brain dead? Martha Coakley, the heir presumptive to Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, reversed herself and said she will vote for a health care overhaul that includes abortion restrictions. She's not even been elected yet and already she's back pedaling.

--If we do want to cut government spending a good place to start would be to abolish the U.S. Senate and move to a unicameral legislature based on population. Maybe bicameralism made sense in 1783, but in 2010 it’s ridiculous that states with less population than Los Angeles or New York wield the same amount of power. Dumping the Senate would also be the first step in getting rid of the Electoral College, an institution beloved only by Republican lawyers and ballot box stuffers.

--If you really care about government debt, a very simple way to cut into it is to check the label of things that you buy. If it says “Made in China,” put it back on the shelf. You’ll kill two birds with one stone—you’ll reduce America’s balance of trade deficit and you’ll end up purchasing higher-quality goods.

--Why does the U.S. have an ambassador to the Vatican? Nobody lives there and aren’t Catholics virtually represented in the embassies of nations in which they actually reside?

--What if we ran the nation like we run Major League Baseball? Let’s set a cap on what businesses can dole out in salaries and require a dollar-for-dollar match for what is spent above the cap that gets divided equally among those below the cap.

--Donald Trump has $3 billion in net worth. If we got rid of him we could give ten bucks to every man, woman, and child. I could use a Hamilton, so I say we do it!



We got lucky, but we need to get better!
And now it begins again. It’s easy to predict the next breaking wave in the wake of the disaster-that-almost-was-in-Detroit. The attempt of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up an airliner will certainly lead to beefed up airport security. Translation: longer lines, more searches, and more bad news for under-booked air carriers already pitching in turbulent recession air.

Congress is also certain to get into the act, and one can only hope that it does more than add to the turbulence. At the end of the day, there are, at present, only three options and each is problematic: search everyone, implement whole body security scanners, or profile.

Searching every passenger (and their luggage) would be enormously time consuming, would entail hiring many new security agents, and would certainly entail steep rises in airport security taxes. Airlines are likely to resist this option as it would devastate the lucrative short-haul business flight sector. Why fly from Boston to New York if you have to show up four hours early for an hour-long flight? Why not take Amtrak or the bus and save the hassle?

The best long-term solution is to follow the lead of airports such as Schiphol in Amsterdam and require every passenger to pass through a whole body scanner that sees through clothing. This technology faces hurdles in the US because: (a) it’s costly, and (b) alarmists have tarred it as a dirty-old-man machine. In truth it produces images of the body’s contours, not the kind of lurid detail Superman’s x-ray vision could offer, but this needs to be sold to prudes, privacy advocates, and politicians.

That leaves one other option, profiling, and it raises the ire of civil libertarians, civil rights veterans, and liberals. The latter can be summarily dismissed from the debate if they manifest bleeding heart symptoms. Liberals may want to believe there is good in everyone. They also make a good case when they say that US policy is responsible for anger toward Americans. Fine. That and a dime will get you… well, nothing. Let’s talk like grown-ups and admit that there are some truly nasty people in the world, many of whom share none of altruism of well-meaning one-world advocates. And while we’re on the subject, let’s have the common sense to admit that a disproportionate number of security risks come from the Muslim world—enough that it makes sense to profile Muslims.

Are all Muslims terrorists? Of course not! The vast majority of Muslim people are victims of the damage that terrorists do to the reputation of their faith. They are innocents. But then again, so are most of the victims of terrorism. Until the day that air terrorism ceases to be associated primarily with Muslims, the barbarism of those acts will continue to taint followers of Islam. Is that fair? No. Is it the reality? Yes. Profiling might ironically help law-abiding Muslims cast off the terrorism stigma. Imagine the response if Muslims led the hue-and-cry for airport profiling.

Profiling is, by nature, distasteful and imprecise. Many Americans recall the high-profile 1989 Carol Stuart murder case in which Boston police pursued black suspects—and even made an arrest—before it was revealed that Mrs. Stuart and her unborn child were slain by her husband Charles, who concocted the black assailant lie. Twenty years later racial profiling remains troublesome and many African Americans complain that whites remain too willing to assume that black drivers, shoppers, and passersby are crime-prone.

So why on earth should we profile Muslims? Lost in the Stuart ballyhoo is the fact that Boston police actually conducted their investigation pretty well. Stuart was the prime suspect early on and police only shifted their emphasis when medical examiners assured them that Stuart’s wounds were unlikely to be self-inflicted. Police then investigated based on what little evidence they had. They did not profile white Bostonians because the assailant was said to be black. The cops were wrong, but their reasoning was sound. Why profile? Because it’s all we’ve got at present.

As things currently stand it is simply absurd to pull Iowa grandmothers from security lines and search them just so we can say we don’t profile. We have enough evidence to suggest what kind of profile security should be looking at. In order, a terrorist is most likely to be a male coming from Muslim countries who is not traveling with family, a male with an assumed Muslim name that is not his birth name, a person traveling to or from a Muslim country who is traveling alone, a Muslim who has studied engineering, an American who has spent considerable periods of time in Muslim lands, and loners.

As in the Stuart case, profiling is hardly foolproof. Erstwhile shoe bomber Richard Reid might have still slipped through the net. So too would domestic copycats, unbalanced individuals of various persuasions, and recruits to the terrorist cause who fall outside the profile. And, yes, profiling would also stigmatize Hindus, Buddhists, and other anyone else who “looks” Muslim.

Should we do it? My choice would be the whole body scanner. Those too shy, too paranoid, or too prudish can choose not to fly. But until the machines come, rational profiling is the best we’ve got. And we need to do it because (sigh!) the world isn’t always the way that liberals and civil libertarians would wish it to be.--LV


White Ribbon: Village of the Damned

Our London correspondent recommends this challenging film--just don't believe your own eyes!
The White Ribbon
Dir: Michael Haneke
137 mins (b/w)

* * * *

Michael Haneke has always investigated society’s thin veneer of respectability and in this recipient of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Festival, the investigation is of the eighteen months before the outbreak of World War I. In a feudal North German religious community, a series of accidents and disasters affect the normality, such as it is, of an inward looking people presided over by their main employer, the baron. No one is found to be responsible for these disturbing happenings though a collection of children seem to appear, always together, like the children of the damned. The enclosed society punishes its children severely and to make amends, each child is forced to wear a white ribbon to signify, and naively recapture, their purity. There are other family secrets unfolding concerning sexual molestation and ill treatment of wives and housekeepers. But this is not all. The entire story is narrated by the village teacher, now an old man, and his chaste relationship with a young nanny is threaded through the film. His narration might be unreliable, but we are asked to question this in conflict with what we see for ourselves – suggesting that not only is all memory unreliable, but even what we see and experience for ourselves is open to interpretation. Shot in crisp black and white, the bright exterior scenes are in harsh contrast to the imprisoning darkness of the houses’ interiors.

Haneke is an unusual filmmaker in that he operates outside the norms - preferring to concentrate on the darker side of human behaviour without resorting to clichéd melodrama. Some of his earlier films, Benny’s Video, The Pianist, Funny Games, and Hidden, dwell on this extensively but force us to confront its depiction in fiction and representation. The White Ribbon bears some resemblance to Rainer Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, a film of Theodore Fontaine’s bleak novel about the subjugation of a young woman by her aristocratic husband. Other comparisons are Carl Dreyer’s‘ Days of Wrath and The Word, both set in austere communities. Here, the power held in the hands of the few in a pious religious community could be seen as a metaphor for the encroaching war and the eventual Nazi rise in the 1930’s, and indeed at the film’s end, the singing congregation is gathered in church and filmed from on high over the altar as if watched by God as a voice announces the outbreak of the war - Archduke Ferdinand had been killed. This is a part thriller and part a study of an unjust social system that’s morally and physically disintegrating though no-one is prepared to confront it. Haneke’s masterful control of the drama leaves you space for contemplation amid the decay and downward spiral, in the end leaving you with the idea of the demon seed.

Lloyd Sellus.