Vox in the Box quietly turned 5 years old, last month. I had a shot of tequila and threw a snowball into a fucking pine tree. Went inside, had a "sandwich." Thought about writing. Didn't. Fell asleep thinking that I'd write when I woke up. Did not. But I did have half-a-cheescake for breakfast and watched He's Just Not that into You. I came to several obvious yet important conclusions: 1.) I want no part of Ginnifer Goodwin in this film, despite being extremely attracted to her every second she's on Big Love. 2.) Jennifer Connelly is no longer attractive. And I'm ok with that. We'll always have Career Opportunities. 3.) Jennifer Anniston is a true talent, but not even she could sell her and Affleck together. 4.) Scarlett Johansson is unfairly hot, to the point that I wish she didn't exist. 5.) While I once wrote that only Vincent Chase is a worse actor than Adrian Grenier, I was wrong. That honor belongs to Kevin Connolly. 6.) You are probably wondering: Which Some Kind of Wonderful character am I? Well I'm no longer Eric Stoltz. And I'm sure as hell not Watts. After 36 years of paying my dues, I am finally Miss Amanda Jones.
So much for opening paragraphs. They're overrated. This morning, I celebrate the way I started in January of 2006. Counting off my favorite films from the previous year. Roll'em:
10. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Oliver Stone has always been a victim of his own ambitions, and his Wall Street sequel is more of the same. Like most Stone films, it prods along with the highest intentions and then the narrative gets lost amidst well-acted, murky scenes and politically- charged, preachy motifs. Nevertheless, Money Never Sleeps demands relevancy. Not only because Michael Douglas grabs you by the balls in his iconic Gordon Gekko role, but also because the film is uncompromising in detailing the events of our economy's collapse in the fall of 2008. Just as no excuses were necessary for Gordon's ruthless, unquenchable desire for excess in the original film (1980s greed is now viewed as a charming personality-part of that decade's nostalgia), the sequel is equally unapologetic in it's scathing commentary on the ineptitudes displayed by our government and largest financial sectors.
Stone, unfortunately, can't suppress the hollywood-urge to save the relationships at the heart of the film. And, perhaps, since the banks received a necessary bail-out, then so did hotshot Jake Moore (Shia Labeouf) in his romance with Gekko's daughter. But their reconciliation feels fake, especially with the audience dizzy from the financial speed chess played by Jake, Gekko and Bretton James (an all-of-the-sudden-very-intimidating Josh Brolin). Using a reformed, older and wiser Gekko as his mouthpiece, Stone takes a giant swipe at corporate America's penchant for moving money in circles to show a profit rather than old fashioned ingenuity. Yet, oddly enough, Money Never Sleeps is an endorsement for American resiliency. If you don't work in the banking industry, you may not appreciate how banks changed their lending philosophies literally overnight. Even Stone would have to admit that, 23 years later, coffee is still for closers. Wall Street II just takes a little too much cream and sugar.
9. Winter's Bone
Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter is a rich and forbidding piece of art. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence in a star-making performance) is a poor, hardass teenager on a mission to find her drug-addicted father. The film is steeped in deep-south authenticity in the vein of Monsters Ball, Sling Blade, and Boys Don't Cry, but is surprisingly amplified by a virtually unknown cast. If you dig layered messages, character redemption, and a worthwhile payoff, this ain't your gig. Winter conveys almost a singular theme of survival, and unflinchingly depicts Ree's suffering and fruitless quest. Speaking of fruitless, it would be one of the great miracles of our lifetime if Winter's Bone wins Best Picture on Sunday night. The odds are set at 4000-1!
8. The Social Network
Stylish sets, slick script, scintillating soundtrack. Something so shiny on the surface usually lacks soul, and Social Network is no exception. Aaron Sorkin's smart dialogue works much better on television. Feels a bit manufactured in a movie. Most reviews were loveletters from critics bowled over by the film's style, but at what cost? Midway through it, I realized I didn't give a shit whether Mark Zuckerberg got over on the Winklevoss twins or vice versa. And maybe that was the point? Despite the stellar acting, the characters in Social N are as lifeless as the majority of your facebook friends. The film purports to be a commentary on new millennium communications, but is often relegated to a semi-riveting, snarky, GenY revenge flick.
I was hoping for a docudrama that exposes the destruction and disintegration of our culture caused by Facebook. Look, if you've had a drink or two with me at Pub on Lee over the past two years or so, you know that I believe Fbook has taken over the world for worse. Ever play the decade game? Pick two events that had the most impact or shaped each decade. I don't remember the 70s, but I'll go out on a limb and say Watergate and the Vietnam War. The 80s leave more room for debate. I say the Challenger Explosion and the fall of the Berlin Wall. You say the assassination of John Lennon and Black Monday. Same with the 90s: I'll pick the OJ trial and Clinton sex scandal, but you can argue it was Magic Johnson testing HIV positive or the emergence of the internet. But last decade, there are no arguments. 9/11 and Fucking Facebook. That's it. Case closed. And since Facebook has evolved into a dominant cultural force, I was looking for a film with a sturdier plot and a lot more depth.
7. Toy Story 3
I love kids, but I don't like kids' movies. Or kids' TV shows. Or kids' music. My daughters may hear fluff like "Wheels on the Bus" in Grandma's car but I exposed them to Springsteen, Heart and PDiddy when they were still in diapers. GrandmaVox argues I'm robbing them of their childhood; I counter that I'm just serving their artistic taste buds an early appetizer, like my dad did when he took me to R rated movies when I was 9 years old (I turned out OK, right? Right?? Don't answer that, fellow CSTers). But I'm a sucker for the Goose, and I easily obliged when she asked to see Toy Story 3. I figured I'd fuck around with facebook mobile and dominate my slush 'n popcorn while Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody (really?) did their thing.
Of course, you know what's coming- I was strangely entertained. Moreover, since I hadn't seen the first two films, I was delighted when the Goose happily filled me in about Andy's plight. We have so many priceless moments as parents, but, for me, nothing compares to seeing your child smile ear to ear while walking out of the theatre. My father and I didn't have a whole lot in common growing up, but we did have the Center Mayfield, the Severance Mall MultiPlex and whatever they called the theatre (The Mayland?) that turned into a bookstore and later transformed into the douchiest place on earth. You know it as the Boneyard, these days. Break out your Affliction T-shirts and get your d-bag on.
Since I'm the only person on earth that has seen this film, please watch this teaser and then tell me with a straight face you didn't just put Chloe in your Netflix queue.
5. The Fighter
CST's Senior Writer gets the damn thang done here. Superb review, and spot-on, but I enjoyed the film more than Doug did. Mainly because of the rather unexplainable Mark Wahlberg Effect. It's a weird phenomenon that I can't put my finger on, but I am physically and mentally unable to dislike any movie that stars or features an appearance by him. It's not like he's a tremendously dynamic or gifted actor. He's not. He's certainly capable, and outstanding in Boogie Nights, but there are much better actors all over the planet. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, he's a game-changer for me. Same with Amy Adams. I spent most of the film fixated on her, wishing for five minutes with "Charlene." She's your modern-day Lea Thompson; just trade in All the Right Moves, Some Kind of Wonderful and Back to the Future for The Fighter, Doubt and (eek) Leap Year. So, I guess I don't mind being manipulated by sports films the way I originally thought. Just as long as Adams and Wahlberg do the heavy lifting.
4. The Town
Since I've copped to my Wahlberg fetish and I'm already in confession mode, I'll admit to liking The Town before I saw it. If you've read me long enough, you know about my Point Break obsession. And, of course, I enjoyed Heat and Inside Man; bank robberies are the criminal extension of the American Dream. They've been romanced every which way on screen, and The Town was a thrilling course in advanced thievery. My affection for the film, however, is in direct conflict with one of my core beliefs: Ben Affleck can't carry a movie. But, while Town easily rates as Affleck's best acting job, it quickly becomes Jeremy Renner's playground. Credit Affleck's smart direction for that, too. It's intriguingly similar to The Fighter, as the love/hate relationship between two alpha males becomes the real crux of both films. We're in Affleck's territory, here; he delivers his best on-screen speech since pep-talking Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting when he angrily confronts Renner in regards to their upcoming heist: "All you care about is your coke and your X-Bawx!"
3. Blue Valentine
Seems like just yesterday, Michelle Williams was playing second fiddle to Katie Holmes in one of the most annoying/compelling shows in television history. You may have overlooked her heartbreaking, textured turn in Brokeback Mountain, but there's no denying Williams' masterful performance here. Valentine is like Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love album, on screen. I've never seen a more realistic portrayal of a crumbling marriage in a lifetime of seeking out these kinds of films. I was sick with discomfort, as director Derek Cianfrance deliberately dissects a failed relationship-- doomed from the first meeting. "The Future Room"-- a theme room at an adult motel where Cindy and Dean attempt to avoid divorce-- is filled with the kind of unnerving, striking symbolism last seen in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. But, while Eyes enthralled me and spurred repeated viewings, Valentine took me to places in my mind I'd prefer not to visit for a long time.
2. Brooklyn's Finest
When Ethan Hawke declared "So I smoke my camel lights and ride my own melt, " he became the Generation X poster boy. I watched Reality Bites in the dorm room of a girl I dated for about 15 days, arguably the best two weeks of my college life. We'll call her Winona. But when I think back on our brief romance, one short conversation always stands out. And I can't shake it. She didn't like Ethan because, in her words, he had "fucked up teeth." To this day, I wish I had responded that I don't care what the hell he looks like-- based on Dead Poets Society and Reality Bites, Ethan is the best young actor since my man EStoltz. But I bit my tongue, and silently nodded in agreement. I cheated on myself that night, but I finally got Ethan's back in this column. So, Winona, if you're reading this...did you see the kitchen/bathroom scene in Training Day? Before the Devil Knows Your Dead? Ethan is an acting clinic, and Brooklyn's Finest is another Hawke tour de force.
While the film isn't as cleanly scripted as Training Day, Antoine Fuqua delivers yet another intoxicatingly original, savage cop drama. The genre had been stale for years, until Fuqua arrived. Cops as criminals is hardly a new idea, but Brooklyn's characters are potently complex and drowning in the kind of moral ambiguities that made Tony Soprano famous. Credit Fuqua with the resurrection of Wesley Snipes, who stays even with the talented Don Cheadle in the film's most engaging scenes. Richard Gere, dangerously close to useless in his last ten films or so, instantly engages us with his best turn since Primal Fear. Critics will snipe about the film's predictability and Italian-cop, Irish-cop, Black-cop stereotypes, but Brooklyn succeeds with sharp direction and powerful performances. The ending is a pulsating convergence of three unconnected stories that proves Fuqua always has a firm grasp of what's at stake in his exposition.
1. Black Swan
In the winter of '96, I was this close to flunking out of college. It was my third year, but I was still a freshman in the eyes of the University. I was failing classes (at least the ones I didn't drop first), sleeping through lectures, even cutting in the afternoon for no good reason other than to watch All My Children (the streak stopped at 19) and/or One Life to Live (here's what to do when you don't find the rainbow's end!). I still can't recall why I dragged myself to class on a chillingly supercilious wednesday morning in early February, but I'll never forget that day. English 202: 19th/20th century Brit Lit with Professor Barbara Rigney, and she was about to change my life. I was writing rock lyrics, and not even half paying attention to the class' analysis of "Leda and the Swan" by William Butler Yeats. All I knew is I was surrounded by about three dozen nerds that all read the poem they'd been assigned and I hadn't even bought the fucking textbook. And then Professor Rigney said it: "Yeats was the Jimmy Morrsion of his generation." This 60-year old Doctor of Literature had referenced the Doors, and woke me up from a two and a half year slumber. By the end of her lesson, I learned Yeats had crafted a political and sexual masterpiece about a swan-rape that could be interpreted a thousand different ways (And the beauty of it?: there could be no wrong answer when it came time for me to turn in my term paper!). I walked out of that classroom an English major, and I will never forget the poem's last two lines: Did she put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Fifteen years later, watching Darren Aronofsky's dark drama The Black Swan, I was back in Professor Rigney's class- inspired, shocked, saddened and filled with conflict. Nina (played flawlessly by Natalie Portman) is Leda, complacent in her own rape. Or, maybe, a willing participant in her own seduction? Her mother, instructor and rival all wear the masks of swans, but are still methodical in their destruction of Nina. Or does Nina destroy herself? My colleague at CST, Kevin, wrote a fascinating comparison of Black Swan and The Wrestler, and perhaps we need only to look at Aronofsky's companion piece for the answers. Like Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Nina couldn't see past her own pain. With no identity outside of the ring and stage, Ram and Nina become victims of their own art. Every achievement is seemingly undermined by delusion and doubt; every revelation is plagued by fear and obsession. By the time Swan concludes, the separation between reality and dream is no longer significant to Nina or the viewer. All that's left is the literal and figurative resurrection of the protagonist, as Aronofsky takes us to previously unseen heights in filmmaking.
See you next Vox. And, until then, the balcony is closed.
I am Roger Ebert in the box.