Movies in the Great Recession

Jack Black is one special effect among many in Gulliver's Travels.
  • Jack Black is one special effect among many in Gulliver's Travels.

During the Great Depression, films were good at lifting spirits. Quite often, life at the movies really was like a bowl of cherries.

Cherries included W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Bette Davis, Mickey Mouse, Mae West, Shirley Temple, Marie Dressler, Laurel and Hardy, Powell and Loy, Marion Davies, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Will Rogers, Powell and Keeler, James Cagney, Gable and Lombard, Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Jeanette MacDonald, Barbara Stanwyck, Bob Hope, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Maurice Chevalier, Deanna Durbin, Busby Berkeley, Bill Robinson, Jimmy Stewart, young Mickey and Judy, rising Humphrey Bogart, fiery Kate Hepburn, and those streamlined zephyrs from paradise, Astaire and Rogers.

So, here we are in what is called the Great Recession (depressing for many), and where is our film relief? I’m not begging for a new outbreak of buddy comedies and chick flicks, but we seriously need some delight, rather than:

James Franco, delirious and exhausted, carves off his forearm with a tiny knife in 127 Hours. Natalie Portman plunges into psycho-ballet hell in the loopy, kitsch migraine Black Swan. In Burlesque, we witness a botox vs. pancake-makeup duel between Cher and Christina Aguilera. Disney offers Tron: Legacy, the only surprise being that 1982’s cold sci-fi oddball has a legacy worth extending.

Despite its depressing story, the seventh Harry Potter attains box-office glory, and the third Narnia chronicle receives a tepid response, maybe because so much of it seems plastic. The return of Yogi Bear is…not a gift. Jack Black is one special effect among many in Gulliver’s Travels.

Of the Coen brothers’ grim, crafty overhaul of True Grit, I will say only that its equine trauma does not, for me, equal the fate of Lágrimas, Bob Mitchum’s steed in The Wonderful Country (1959).

Recycling Rapunzel, Tangled raises the issue of whether a CGI-loaded “feminist” cartoon can recover its huge cost (yes, probably). In The Tourist, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp go to Venice and fall into a dry canal of thriller clichés. Jim Carrey plays flamboyantly gay in I Love You Phillip Morris, and the world yawns. Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale are potently macho in The Fighter, yet much of the film has the appeal of a spreading sweat stain. Love and Other Drugs, Little Fockers, and How Do You Know demonstrate the faltering power of movie stars.

The good news? Carlos, a 330-minute epic about a vicious terrorist, has stacked positive reviews. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are superb in The King’s Speech, though the crux of drama is a royal stammer. Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, and young Miles Teller are ace in Rabbit Hole, a dirge of parental grief.

But what we really need, right now, is a visit from Fred and Ginger, on a Bakelite dance floor, plus champagne. Instead we face the usual typhoon of hype. Countless sites and pages are plastered with ads for Black Swan. The tabloids and Entertainment Weekly are reliable fireballs of puffery. Access Hollywood tries to suck out your brain with glitz and buzz. The L.A. Times cranks out its Oscars section called “The Envelope,” and the N.Y. Times counters with Carpetbagger. In this ballyhoo climate, it’s a modest relief to turn to Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin on the Turner Classic Movies channel, their chummy nostalgia almost making us believe that cinema’s golden age continues.

Then there’s the Golden Globes, about two billion Top Ten lists (I join the parade next week), and the annual splurge of lofty endorsements from any number of groups of critics. The San Diego Film Critics Society named Winter’s Bone the best of 2010. Not a bad choice, though I’m not a member (no taste for collective taste).

We are paying the hangover tax of too much blog noise and “No. 1 this weekend!” special-effects mania and sensationalized violence, “the critics rave!” and “thumbs way up!” buzz about grosses, and viral Oscars fever. We may also be suffering now from too many screens (TVs, iPads, laptops, PCs, plasma panels, YouTube, cell phones).

Movie fun has gotten tired, but the itch to scratch out an opinion endures:

Gulliver’s Travels

Jonathan Swift, wrote Aldous Huxley, “hated bowels with such a passionate abhorrence that he felt a perverse compulsion to bathe continually in the imagination of them.” The Swiftian moment in the new, silly Gulliver’s Travels is when the hero (Jack Black) douses a Liliput palace fire by urinating from his gigantic height. This got major laughs from preview fans aged five to ten or so, who also liked Black reverting to School of Rock form by jamming on a guitar and making funny faces. Swift was better served by the first (1902) filming of his classic adventure.

Our squat, nimble, and amiable hero gets to lord over little people, but not even 3-D can make Black’s bulging face and gut more imposing or menacing than a swollen Teddy bear. Other actors (Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly) are also dwarfed by grandiose views and scale models of England’s Blenheim Palace and the Royal Naval College. The juvenile plot demonstrates how a fabled social satire can become a rehash of committee ideas, so-so effects, and postcard vistas. The potential is pissed away.

White Material

No skin has ever looked whiter in Africa than Isabelle Huppert’s in White Material. She is the ultimate vulnerable Caucasian in a land of angry black people. Huppert’s Maria Vial runs a coffee plantation. French forces are pulling out, and ridiculous “survival kits” are being dropped from helicopters. Roving bands of rebels (mostly teen boys) and arrogant soldiers terrorize the country. Against all reason, skinny little Maria hangs on like Scarlett O’Hara at ravaged Tara.

French director Claire Denis (who spent part of her youth in Africa) achieves, as in Beau travail, an eroticized pressure of racial tension and saturated suspense. Black faces become traumatic masks of fear or vengeful entitlement. At 57, Huppert looks like a bleached bone, but she can still carry a movie. She is subtle, and the film is schematic. Isaach De Bankolé is a wounded rebel leader and an icon of martyrdom. Maria is the lost dream of colonial idealism. Her spoiled son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is white guilt mutating into radical chic. As so often before, French brilliance tilts to the didactic.


Casino Jack

Kevin Spacey, as the scandalous D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff, starts off with a funny, compelling spasm of vanity and profanity while brushing his teeth. He never again hits that level in Casino Jack, though he does some amusing impressions (not, alas, his Bobby Darin from Beyond the Sea). Spacey has cutting, cynical riffs with his cohorts-in-greed, Barry Pepper and Jon Lovitz. The film gleefully sinks fangs into Bush Republicans, but it remains too breathless and cartoonish to engage the moral or political ramifications of Abramoff’s tawdry career. This movie, its thunder already stolen by the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, is the exit work of director George Hickenlooper, best known for Hearts of Darkness and Picture This. He died October 30, 2010 at the age of 47.


Newsreel: The San Diego movie critics’ club named Darren Aronofsky best director (Black Swan), Jennifer Lawrence top actress (Winter’s Bone), and Colin Farrell the year’s best actor (Ondine). Foreign film: I Am Love. Animation: Toy Story 3. Documentary: Exit through the Gift Shop. Duncan Shepherd was voted the Kyle Counts Award for his nearly 40 years of critical writing at the Reader.

Newly reviewed in this week’s capsule listings: Brotherhood and Rabbit Hole.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader