Worst Films Viewed in 2010

Winner of the not-so-coveted Worst of the Worst Award!

Everyone has a “Best of” list and so will we later, but let’s ring in the new decade properly with a list of films to avoid for 2011. If you have any of these in your Netflix cue, delete them immediately.

Rule one for bad cinema is that the film doesn’t have to have been made in 2010, merely viewed in that year. Rule two is that big-budget disappointments stink worse than independent ineptitudes, so some of these fall into the “big-hype-little-pay off” category. Rule three is that we can revise initial ratings. Some films just seem worse the more one contemplates them.

The films that show up with links will take you to a full-length review, just in case you want more turkey feathers strewn across your screens. Lars’ top ten turkeys are, from awful to merely horrible are:

1. Shaun of the Dead--a film about zombies that was apparently also acted, written, and directed by zombies.

2. Vincere--Some art house geeks loved this film, but Mussolini as Don Juan? Are you frickin’ kidding me?

3. Broken Embraces--Another pretentious stinker from Almodóvar, who hasn’t had anything to say in years yet continues to say it.

4. Avatar--All that money for plagiarism bathed in blue?

5. Black Swan--Showgirls in tutus.

6. Chloe--The entire film is simply a voyeuristic excuse to see Julianne Moore roll about naked with Amanda Seyfried. Okay--but a script would have been nice.

7. The Girl Who Played with Fire--The middle part of the trilogy and it feels like what it is: a heavy link between parts one and two.

8. The Fantastic Mr. Fox--A highly hyped piece of neo-con family values hogwash masquerading as clever animation (which it isn’t).

9. Nowhere Boy--I’m surprised that John Lennon hasn’t risen from the grave to repudiate this revisionist whitewash of his boyhood.

10. Harper--That rarest of things--a bad Paul Newman film. This 1966 Newman- as-hardboiled-PI aged more like American cheese than gruyere.


Black Swan Less than Half Cooked

Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

108 mins. Rated R (Sexual situations, language)

* *

They hype has been enormous. Black Swan hadn’t even opened before Natalie Portman was said to be a wrap for an academy award. Now that it’s here, Ms. Portman may want to wait before she buys a gown for Oscar night. I hate to say it, but a whole lot of Black Swan plays like Showgirls in tutus.

Think that’s harsh? The stories are nearly identical. First, replace Vegas with the New York City Ballet. In Black Swan we have aspirant prima donna Nina Sayres (Portman). She’s basically a good girl, but she’s ambitious and everyone around her tells her she needs to be more aggressive to get to the top. That list includes her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who stood where Nina now stands and had to give up her career when she got pregnant with Nina. Also high on the list is maniacal choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who is equal parts brilliant and smarmy--the sort who wants both to produce groundbreaking ballet and get into the Danskins of his principal stars. Leroy’s bold idea is to produce the classic Swan Lake in such a way that the same dancer is both the white (good) swan and the black (evil and destructive). The perfectionist Nina is ideal as the white swan, but can she summon enough misanthropy to dance the black? Also standing in her way is Lily (Mila Kunis), her understudy, and Beth MacIntryre (Winona Ryder), the washed-up queen whom Nina seeks to supplant and whom Leroy has already cast aside.

A familiar story indeed…. It’s 42nd Street, which was the basis for Showgirls. Nina’s a bit classier than Elizabeth Barkley in Showgirls, but she’s every bit as naïve about what it takes to get to the top. She’s been a pampered princess, fiercely protected (and driven) by her single mother and kept pristine and virginal behind a frilly pink wall of stuffed animals. (Barkley had abusive parents.) So, of course we know what will happen next--Nina’s bubble will burst when she’s pushed to go beyond her expectations. Nina is on course, but others have been her GPS and she has no idea what direction to go when she’s forced to take a detour. How bad does she have to be? With whom must she sleep? Whom must she destroy? Whom can she trust? Yep--just like Showgirls. The only major difference is that, at its core, Black Swan is a tale of Nina’s unraveling rather than her arrival.

With better direction this might have played better, but Aronofsky is so ham-handed that Nina’s descent is telegraphed and plays more like a grade-B horror film than a classy drama. And it really does look a lot like Showgirls, with Cassel standing in for Kyle MacLachlan and Kunis for Gina Gershorn. There’s even a gratuitous lesbian sequence between Portman and Kunis that would have been way more appropriate for Showgirls than for Black Swan. Okay, so Portman is a way better actress than Barkley (who isn’t?) and I’ll concede that the film looks gorgeous and is well acted, though if anyone should win an acting Oscar it should be Cassel, not Portman. In the end, though, Black Swan no amount of high-falootin’ ballet and longhair music can’t disguise the fact that it really is Showgirls with less nudity and crudity--it’s histrionic, campy, and trashy.

PS--It’s not a “chick flick” either; most of the women I know who’ve seen this film agree that it’s not exactly Swan Lake.


Celtic Extravaganzas a Mixed Bag

Welcome to the post-Riverdance Celtic world. Riverdance has toured the world, done a stint at Radio City Music Hall, and its rebroadcasts have been a staple for PBS fundraisers for over a decade. It’s done more to revitalize interest in music from the Celtic lands than anything since the 1961 debut of the Clancy Brothers on the Ed Sullivan Show. Riverdance has also spawned a cottage industry of smug critics, their complaints over the show’s more garish moments fueled in no small part by lead step dancer Michael Flatley’s flamboyant--some would say egotistical--personality. Riverdance begat Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames, and Celtic Tiger. Those who like these shows use adjectives such as “theatrical” and “sensational” as compliments; those who don’t use the same terms pejoratively.

I have come neither to praise nor bury Riverdance, rather to offer a few thoughts on a recent viewing of another Irish-themed stage show, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. In my view, all of the so-called “Celtic” stage shows have similar virtues and demerits. Let’s start with this: the purists don’t have a leg to dance on when they slam such shows an “inauthentic.” Celtic music, as scholar June Skinner Sawyers wisely observed, is at core a “marketing term” that has little connection to music’s origins. Very, very little of what is called “traditional” music actually is, and most of what we think of as “Irish” or “Scottish” music is a post-1970s reinterpretation of songs and tunes that were canonized during the nineteenth-century after the Victorians cleaned them up. And, as every musician and fan of music knows, traditions that don’t change wither and die. So let’s just judge these things on their own merit, not some romantic (and mythical) standard.

I caught A Christmas Celtic Sojourn in Northampton, MA at a nearly full Calvin Theatre on December 12. This show is the brainchild of Cork-born Brian O’Donovan, now a mainstay of WGBH (public) radio in Boston. O’Donovan emceed a show that was one-part Riverdance and several parts A Prairie Home Companion--a sprawling night of music, dance, and storytelling loosely structured around Yule themes. O’Donovan is witty and charming--think Garrison Keillor with a brogue. Throughout the evening he acted as the interlude between musical numbers as he read poems and told stories. His Irish fruitcake tale was a delight that found the seam between a cultural education and a shaggy dog tale.

Like Riverdance, Sojourn also featured lots of step dancing. The principle dancer, Donegal-based Caitlín Nic Gabhann, is a veteran of Riverdance, which means there is actually some upper body movement. She has clearly mastered all of the technical aspects of step dancing, but her gestures and arm movements are classically post-Riverdance in that they are informed as much by modern dance as Dublin’s misty past. As good as Nic Gabhann is, she was upstaged by the pint-sized Harney Academy of Irish Dancing troupe of Walpole, MA. These kids--including an Asian-American lad who’s as short as a New York minute--are so good it’s scary. Their precision is such that they conjure visions of vaudeville stage parents pushing them to precocious heights. Crowd pleasures for sure!

The music itself was decidedly mixed. Seamus Egan of Solas served as musical director, but the evening’s low lights were none of his doing. There were some fabulous performances, and how could it be otherwise with fourteen of Celtic music’s brightest and best on stage? The set done by Orkney fiddler Chris Stout and harper Catrionia McKay (from Dundee, Scotland) was nothing short of brilliant--edgy, experimental, dynamic, and wistful one moment, and shot through with energy the next. Many of the group tunes were wonderful, especially when Stout’s bowing was supplemented by the other fiddlers on stage: Hanneke Cassel and Amanda Cavanaugh. Toss in McKay, nonpareil cellist Natalie Haas, squeeze box artist Seán Óg Graham, bass player Chico Huff, and percussionist Eamon Murray and they can light up even a big barn like the Calvin.

The low spots? They occurred mostly when the forced Yule theme emerged. I love Celtic music (whatever it might be) but I’m just bored, bored, bored with Christmas carols and I doubt many of us paid to hear “Joy to the World” and “Oh, Holy Night.” Heck, we’ve been hearing those at the mall since mid-October. I also confess that I am not a fan of Heidi Talbot, the Irish-born lass who crooned most of the carols. Many people think she has a lovely voice, which I’d not dispute, but her whispery little-girl intonation wears thin, which is also an adjective I’d use to describe tones that are mostly upper-range and have little bottom or grit. The vocal star of the evening was actually Robbie O’Connell, a graying vet who was in fabulous voice. His rendition of John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches” was a poignant moment. It also served to remind that Celtic extravaganzas generally work best when they do the unexpected. A Christmas Celtic Sojourn is now in its eighth year and one hopes that as it evolves that it will choose to accentuate what is unique and leave the canned seasonal jollity in the mall.