The Movie Club
Dana, Carina, Keith, beloved Slate readers,
I'd like to atone for calling Adriana Barraza's Babel character a maid (thank you, Dana). Indeed, she is a nanny, but I don't think the distinction ultimately matters in the eyes of the movie. I'd also like to say, not by way of apology but as a matter of real appreciation, that Babel has its moments of fine filmmaking: the wedding, the disco, etc. (I know what you're all thinking, but no one from the studio has gotten to me.) Still, Iñárritu and Arriaga—the Hall and Oates of world cinema, whose solo albums I anticipate—deserve all the credit in the world for inspiring in me such negative passion. I dislike their movie as much as I adore Fast Food Nation, Inside Man, Children of Men, Climates, Inland Empire, Three Times, Shortbus, Old Joy, Our Daily Bread, Dave Chappelle's Block Party. (Dude, breathe.)
I'd also like to clarify a statement I made earlier in the week. Daniel Craig, James Bond, and Martin Campbell might be certifiably heterosexual. But, aside from the testicular tortures, the sensation produced in me for much of Casino Royale was a homoerotic wonder—a male director taking rare immense pleasure in his male star as a physical, sexual specimen. Sure, I thought of Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer and Alain Delon in Purple Noon, but Craig's Bond is ultra. Ladies, I did not mean to omit the power of your gaze or the consistency of your drool. But Craig's thrilling vanity in preparing for the part is staggering in way that struck me as Travoltan, if not completely homosexual. In the event, his treatment is centerfoldish and self-consciously porny. It's a body to be looked at by all, but envied lustfully by certain watchful men: He broods only for me.Casino Royale celebrates his figure, remarkably by not upstaging it with yet another Bond girl objectification. As I'm sure has been noted elsewhere, Eva Green is a Bond woman. This 007 might not swing both ways, but interpretations of his effect on moviegoers certainly do. A wonderfully thoughtful woman named Amy Vincent wrote me out of concern. I fear I've only muddled things further. (Amy, I'll think some more. But for now: Can we share?)
Dana, I forget about Amy Adams in TalladegaNights. She has one good scene, but she's excellent in it. Other chocolate chips I forgot to pick out: Penélope Cruz in Volver. OK, the dough here is of supreme quality, too. But for the first time, that woman made human, sensual, and cinematic sense to me. This is what should have happened to Julia Ormond (another Euro talent misapprehended by horny movie executives), but where's the British Almodóvar? That Inland Empire cameo aside, where's Julia Ormond?
In Running With Scissors (Ryan Murphy's valentine to Augusten Burroughs' valentine to himself; yeesh), Annette Bening is a tripped-out gorgon. But there's something fearless about how grotesque she's willing to make that woman and masterful in her heavy patrician airs. Like her character, she doesn't want our sympathy. She demands our applause, all of it, until it makes her sick.
Sergi López had great theatrical menace in Pan's Labyrinth, seamlessly navigating the kiddie nightmare and the political realism with low-fat comic villainy. I also like a few key moments of Kate Winslet in Little Children—her Madame Bovary book-club defense and every moment she has at that public swimming pool, where she's not talking. I'm not crazy about her American accents; they leave all her Hollywood performances off-key. But Todd Field, the director of Little Children, gets so many things right about some of the people in his film. Keith, this is a suburban movie that for a terrific hour or so captures that cognitive-dissonant moment in which the parent in you makes you feel like an alien to yourself. Patrick Wilson's uncanny Newman-esqueness probably upstages how good he is as a Narcissus who's lost his mirror and uses Winslet's fatigue and ennui to re-see himself. But the Hawthorne heights the movie scales demand a great screenplay, and this one's brilliance steadily diminishes.
Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering is a trifling, sometimes egregiously delusional, but extremely watchable movie about class and ethnicity in London. Keith, I liked Vera Farmiga fine as the Russian hooker, but she was even better as a New Jersey mom in the otherwise reprehensible Running Scared, which should be rented for her big scene with the child molesters. It's a good thing Jackie Earle Haley didn't cross her path in Little Children. For me Breaking and Entering was all about Juliette Binoche, whose bottomless emotional depths kept me from wondering where on earth this Serbian peasant gets such fabulous clothes and expensive-looking haircuts. And don't even start with, "She plays a seamstress."
Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, and Alec Baldwin in The Departed: While Nicholson Jack-ed off, these four were earning our money. The movie, meanwhile, starts out on such a high, promising to tell the story of Boston's recent racial and class strife. My mouth watered for the story of my life in this town. Then it just turns into a Michael Mann picture. Yes, Scorsese returned to form, but whose? Keith, after your stimulating conclusion that this decade has no obvious definitive director (the decade's not quite over, but my money's on the Mexicans), you ask me to endorse a conditional comparison between The Departed and Army of Shadows. I can't. Scorsese's movie, blistering as it is, is just flashy. Watch it again (I did). It's all lightning, no rain. Melville drenched me.
Before I detour permanently of out acting land, it seems wrong to mention in a little more depth what really is the year's shrewdest feat of acting. I know it's unanimous, but for once it should be. In The Queen,Helen Mirren does the impossible. Carina found it hard to describe, but I'd like to try. Her Elizabeth is a trauma-proof shock of comedy. It's not an impersonation but a full-on embodiment of hubris and principle, the likes of which the movies haven't seen probably since Ingrid Bergman. The difference is that Mirren cares not for glamour—or applause (take that, Annette Bening). Her Elizabeth is powerful but not omnipotent, looming large but life-sized. She's playing a robot whose circuitry is increasingly revealed to include flesh and blood: The sugarless moment of awareness that her public needs her (and why they do) is played small, but you feel the earth move. And Mirren's exquisite physicality in this movie is nothing short of a modern-dance miracle. If she had choreographed that Bob Dylan musical, it might still be playing.
Gang, this has been a blast. Dana, thanks for putting us up and for putting up with us. And editor Bryan Curtis, you've been a gentle, patient conductor.
Finally: I didn't get around to the subject of love in movies, but that's because, in part, I raised it, all those posts ago, to make a point about war. If movies seem to excel better than ever at re-creating the latter, maybe it's because it seems that is our state of affairs. But it's not purely for that reason. Yes, the philosophical question these movies ask are ones I myself have pondered, and the battles they reproduce are as grueling as the ones I could imagine, if not more so. Really, though, I'm more willing to believe in certain movies' war because I've never been at war myself and have no grounds of knowing when the movies get it wrong. I'm placing faith in a vicarious, personally unknowable experience. I just know what feels right. Love is another matter. I've felt and given it, so it's impossible to settle for a movie that insults and mocks it and reduces it to a gimmick. (A holiday house swap? That magical sci-fi mailbox? Comeon.) Love means something to me, and I assume to many of us. For American movies lately to get it so wrong so habitually is unfathomable, yet inevitable from the studios' standpoint: Teenage boys fight more than they love, and they tend to love fights. For the rest of us, what Stevie Wonder knew 30 years ago seems just as apt now: Love's in need of love today. Why are we not at war over that?
Wesley Morris is a staff writer at Grantland.