Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Did Roger Waters Get Inceptioned?

So, after seeing "The Wall" on stage tonight, I was checking out some of the animation on YouTube. And I came across this sequence from "Empty Spaces":

I noticed a segment of the animation, at around 1:57, looked oddly familiar. It featured an endless city skyline stretching off into the horizon, on a shoreline, under some dark clouds. Where did I know this image from?

Then it occurred to me. It's very similar to the a shot from "Inception" that was used a lot in the marketing. Here are the two shots side by side:

Weird, right? So, you tell me...Is this just an odd coincidence? Is it an intentional tip of the cap to the 1982 film version of "The Wall"? Or am I just seeing things?

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

LonsTV Episode #2: The Expendables

Below, find the second full episode of LonsTV, in which I review "The Expendables" and note the ridiculousness of recording one of these videos at night, when the lighting is bad and my dog is alert and noisy.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Monday, November 22, 2010

LonsTV Episode 1 is Out Now!

Just put up the first regular episode of my new daily YouTube show, LonsTV. It's a review of "Fable 3" and a lot of meandering discussion about trying (unsuccessfully) to redesign my YouTube channel.

Came out a big longer than I was hoping. In my head, this was a 2-3 minute show, and I managed to keep the "Introduction" video nice and lean. But now this one has ballooned to 5 and a half minutes. Not HORRIBLE, but it should be tighter. Gonna work on that tomorrow.

Any other thoughts or feedback are, of course, welcome.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hey, it's my new YouTube channel!

So, at the urging of a few friends on Twitter, I have decided to start up my own YouTube channel dedicated to doing daily reviews. I'll pick a different thing every day - a movie, a TV show, a book, an album, a song, a nice piece of fish - and throw a video of me chatting about it up on the Web for all of you (well, 3 of you) to enjoy! Maybe I'll occasionally just post rants or other stuff I want to talk about there as well, but it's not gonna be one of these Ze Frank-style Vlog Of 10,000 Cuts things. Because I don't really have the talent or dedication to do that 5 days of week, and all these Blu-Ray's I bought despite not having any stable income aren't going to watch themselves.

Here's my brief intro to the project:

Find the channel here:



Posted via email from Lon Harris

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Social Network review

Before we go any further, a small and probably obvious but still essential clarification...This review will deal with "The Social Network," which is a fictional movie based on some real incidents, as recounted in a popular non-fiction book by Ben Mezrich called "The Accidental Billionaires." I have read this book, and the movie does not diverge from its account of events significantly, but still, who besides the key players can really attest to its accuracy? So when I say things like "Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole," I don't mean the actual person Mark Zuckerberg, who created the actual site, Facebook. I've never met the guy. Maybe he's a non-stop delight and Mezrich's book/Sorkin's screenplay are full of lies, contemptible lies. I mean the character of "Mark Zuckerberg," played brilliantly in the film by actor Jesse Eisenberg. Ditto when I reference other characters in the movie who are based on real people. OK, let's move on.

"The Social Network" is not a movie about building a website. "The Accidental Billionaires" recounts, in detail, how Facebook came to be, the backstories of those who were instrumental in making it a reality and, finally, the disputes regarding ownership of the site. Many of these people and incidents find their way into the movie, but they are not its focus. Instead, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher have made a film about loneliness and isolation. Mark Zuckerberg's inability to relate to others made Facebook possible, they seem to argue, but also made enjoying or benefiting from its success impossible. Multiple times in the film, we're told that "money doesn't matter to Mark," and there seems to be no reason to doubt his assertion. (He also tells us, flat out, that he once turned down an offer from Microsoft to purchase one of his sites, only to release it to the world for free.) But if he's not in it for the money, or his co-founders, or the trappings of success (like girls or parties or drugs)...what's in it for Mark? Is it possible to invent something that's beloved the world over and changes the way we see ourselves...for no good reason?

We learn two things quickly about Mark in the film. He's too focused on himself and his own inner monologue to carry on a proper conversation, and he has no idea how the things he says will be interpreted by other people around him.

When we first meet Mark, he's on a date with Erica (Rooney Mara), who sticks around for a surprising amount of time, considering that Mark talks non-stop, mostly about how he doesn't respect her or the school she attends (Boston University). When she finally does leave, he's surprised. Not only surprised, but hurt! Not only surprised at hurt, but angry! And it's this anger that spurns him to create FaceMash.com, a snide little website that presents Harvard men with two photos of female students and asks them to choose the more attractive one. (He also blogs about how Erica is a bitch, how her family changed their last name, and how he finds the notion of comparing women to farm animals amusing.)

FaceMash brings Mark some amount of infamy on campus, which in turn attracts the attention of wonder twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), and their business partner, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella).

[A small aside here...the clearly, visibly Caucasian Max Minghella has been cast as a clearly, visibly Indian-American man for no apparent reason. Were no talented young actors of Indian descent available? Fincher is typically such a stickler for strict authenticity in his films. (It's said that, in the San Francisco Chronicle set from his movie "Zodiac," the desks were all outfitted with authentic '70s supplies and equipment, even though this would never be visible on camera). Surely, he must have cast Minghella in this role for a REASON, beyond just liking the guy's take on the character...but I'll be damned if I can puzzle that reason out. Personally, I thought it was distracting, and one of the film's few real missteps.]

The Winklevosses - privileged, attractive, confident - and Narendra have an idea for a website, and they need a talented programmer. The genius behind FaceMash seems like just the guy, so they sort of informally hire Mark to help him with their site. In his own inimitable, purposefully frustrating and distant way, he agrees. At around the same time, he comes up with his own idea for a social network called TheFacebook, which builds off of the Winklevosses concept while adding some elements of MySpace, Friendster and even FaceMash. Whether or not these two circumstances were directly related will form much of the conflict of the film.

More incidents from the founding of Facebook occur - Zuckerberg brings in his friend Eduardo Savarin (Andrew Garfield) to help fund his new project, he begins bringing in roommates and fellow coders to lend their talents, the site grows and comes to the attention of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) and other Silicon Valley types, etc. We start to wonder how someone who seems to lack an understanding of what "friendship" means can have such an intuitive understanding of its mechanics, and how these could be applied to the Web. Does Mark truly grok interpersonal relationships because he has spent so much time OUTSIDE them, studying their intricacies?

Many well-observed little moments all reinforce the central observation that Mark can't understand people, and that he resents them for it. His mannerisms, his body language, even his words seem to express the notion that "I don't like you, and that's your fault." We sense perhaps this is a defense mechanism gone horribly, horribly wrong. Mark feels incapable of truly "fitting in," so he has convinced himself that people are loathsome and stupid and not worth fitting in with anyway. But clearly, he's not entirely won over to misanthropy. A part of him still wishes he could be a part of something; he just doesn't know how, aside from building a website that everything wants to use. Something "cool."

Eisenberg's pretty magnificent here, ably suggesting Mark's awkwardness, his rapid-fire but clumsy speaking style, his arrogance tinged with insecurity, without going too far and turning the character into some kind of savant. It would have been easy to go "Rain Man" on Mark, present him as some kind of stunted genius, but Eisenberg keeps things level and balanced. His Zuckerberg is not mentally ill, or cartoonish or villainous. For all his apparent flaws, Eisenberg makes it hard to actively dislike Mark Zuckerberg. We're baffled by him at times, and pity him at others, but he remains a believable, three-dimensional human being in every scene.

Much of the credit for this also goes to Sorkin, who deftly anchors the film's narrative in not one but two simultaneous lawsuits. We see bits of Zuckerberg's deposition in the Winklevosses intellectual property suit, and moments from his deposition in Savarin's suit for part-ownership of Facebook. It's a clever device, not only because it helps to explicate and clarify the sometimes-complicated goings-on in the span of a fast-paced 2 hour film, but also because it gives us a flavor of Mark's experience of the world. In his mind, he's always facing off against a panel of hateful peers and disappointed elders. His whole life to this point has been one long deposition.

Fincher, who has made a career out of studying frustrated, isolated, claustrophobic characters, turns in possibly his most careful and subtle work to date. Gone is the showy provocateur of "Seven," the hyper-kinetic mindfuck artist behind "Fight Club" or "The Game" and even the detail-obsessed cinephile of "Zodiac." Instead, he's sort of turned this entire movie over to Mark himself, letting the character and his work speak for themselves. (Perhaps he's TOO subtle here? It took me a while before I even realized how frequently the movie cuts back and forth between shots of large groups of people and shots of Mark alone, even though the second sequence in the whole film is a montage cutting between a lonely dorm room and a bus full of drunk co-eds.)

Finally, I have to stop and praise the excellent score by Trent Reznor (who previously collaborated with Fincher on "Seven") and Atticus Ross. The film is graced by warm, piano-heavy, but vaguely sinister electronic music that beautifully offsets Zuckerberg's personal desperation, the frigid Boston setting and the cruel rivalries of the central characters. (It's oddly fitting for an examination of a fun, engaging site for friends created by a cold, calculating, largely humorless genius.) Interestingly, the music seems to clash with the Harvard setting of the film's first half, only to then compliment the San Francisco scenes towards the end. Is the implication that Mark truly belonged in Silicon Valley all along? Or that as his work on Facebook gains more ground, he becomes a bit more confident in his own skin, the drive to create a social network finally supplanting the drive to simply be social?

Though we all really know how this story turns out (Zuckerberg pays off his enemies to go away! Facebook gets really really popular! He's a billionaire now!), I'll still avoid "spoiling" the movie's last scene. Suffice it to say, it's beautiful and heartbreaking, and includes possibly the best closing song choice of any movie in recent memory. "The Social Network" overall is a movie that's more thought-provoking and interesting than emotional or wrenching...until that final scene. Then all bets are off, and Fincher decidedly goes for the gut. The result is about as close to perfection as movies get, and worth the price of admission alone.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Inception review

The worlds of writer/director Christopher Nolan and science-fiction author Phillip K. Dick blend seamlessly in "Inception," a cerebral summer entertainment that will almost assuredly require multiple viewings to pick up on all its careful details and clever asides. (The film's not actually based on a Dick novel, but the author's influence bursts through every confused, layered, mind-bending sequence.) The story of a brilliant but troubled thief who invades the minds of his marks via a process called "group dreaming," "Inception" combines pretty much every film genre into one tangled, complex, provocative 160-minute experience. It's a well-executed caper, an over-the-top action film, a trippy science-fiction fantasy, a brooding romance, a psychological thriller and even, at times, a far-out comedy. All Nolan really needed was a cowboy and a hockey game and he'd have every category of American filmmaking represented.

If all that sounds like a recipe for an overcrowded film, well...it is. And part of me thinks that this is actually a far superior screenplay than it is a film. But at the same time, the intensity of the viewing experience, the excitement of seeing so many brilliant ideas brought together and the polish that Nolan and his more-than-capable crew (particularly cinematographer Wally Pfister, composer Hans Zimmer and editor Lee Smith) bring to the material completely won me over. This is destined to be the most ingenious, and quite possibly the most entertaining, film of summer 2010. (Which is really saying something, as "Toy Story 3" was significantly ingenious and entertaining.)

The aforementioned thief is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), the world's foremost expert on group dreaming who has been using his skills at invading people's dreams to steal corporate secrets for profit, a process known as Extraction. That is, when he's not being haunted by visions of his mysteriously absent wife (Marion Cotillard) and the children he left behind in America. Cobb is then approached by a Japanese energy tycoon, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who asks him to use his team and abilities for a far more complex task than Extraction. Saito needs his main corporate rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), to make a business decision running contrary to his own financial interest, and wants Cobb to "plant" this idea in Fischer's head. This is known as Inception (hey, that's the title!), and most in the field of group dreaming (a surprisingly large field, now that I think of it) consider to be impossible.

This sets the stage for the 'heist' storyline I alluded to earlier - in which Cobb must assemble a team to design and execute a layered dream for Fischer that will lead to the executive changing his mind about the direction of his company - and it also leads to the film's extended conclusion, in which the inception must actually be carried out.

This is a complicated idea, and Nolan somehow manages to continually make it more complex and demanding, while keeping everything fairly brisk and relatively easy to follow. I wasn't 100% certain I always knew exactly what was going on in every moment of the film, but I rarely found myself having to go back and "get my bearings." The dream Cobb and his crew design for Fischer involves 3 different "levels" - an initial stage in a rainy city, a deeper dream set in a large hotel, and a final sequence set in a snow-capped mountain fortress - and Nolan cleverly allows the sets and costumes to visually cue us to which portion of the dream we're currently viewing. The layered dream conceit also allows for the film's best action sequences, in which the physics of one dream level (such as a van in which the characters are sleeping plummets off of a bridge) impacts the physics of the next dream level (causing people running down a hotel hallway to suddenly fly up into the air).

To avoid spoilers, I can't fully articulate the inventiveness of Nolan's screenplay, one of the most intricate pieces of writing I've seen brought to the big screen in years. (Nolan surely only got the budget to make this movie because he is Nolan.) There's a lot of talking and exposition in the movie, which I know has turned off some reviewers, but the ideas here are so fascinating and so well-established and considered, it really didn't bother me.

Take a sequence in which Cobb and his new "dream architect," Ariadne (Ellen Page), discuss the nature of the tactile world of dreams while sitting at an outdoor cafe. It takes a bit of chatter just to explain all the concepts that Nolan needs to get across in this scene - what it means to "create" the world of a dream, who these people are that are populating the dream world, what happens when someone is injured or dies in a dream, and so forth - but the dialogue itself is advancing our understanding of things we've already seen, and it all builds to a visually dazzling sequence in which the dream world itself begins to collapse. (This is a recurring motif in the movie - dreams crumbling and imploding on themselves - that's in some ways reminiscent of Alex Proyas' similarly-brilliant "Dark City" from 1998). It's heady and takes a while to get everything across, but it's nonetheless compelling, and there is a certain amount of brevity and efficiency in the explanations. Nolan doesn't take the time to tell us about anything he doesn't bring back later in the film for dramatic effect.

And even when the film is just two characters talking, there's a lot to love about "Inception." Hans Zimmer's score, for starters, is completely captivating, exquisitely framing both the unthinkable scale and the underlying sadness of Cobb's day-to-day life. It's his best work in years. The cinematography by Wally Pfister (Nolan's collaborator on the similarly beautiful "Prestige" and the Batman movies) is simultaneously elaborate and stark. The "dream worlds" are each given their own personalities, but there's also a gray, claustrophobic urbanity that runs through the entire film, as if Cobb is stuck in an endless, inescapable city, with unknowable secrets hiding behind every door. The effects work is also tremendous, and surprisingly subtle, considering this is a movie in which city streets fold in on themselves and skyscrapers crumbling in the background become an expected, almost quotidian, sight. The sound design also warrants mention. Part of the conceit behind entering and exiting dream states in the film has to do with repetition. Hearing dialogue and sound from reality will often jar people out of dreams, and small noises like the breaking of a wine glass or the spinning of a top take on great significance within the movie. All of this is handled delicately and with an attention to small observations that's unexpected from a big summer entertainment of this size.

Having said all of that...the final "inception" scenes tended to feel a bit long-winded, particularly in terms of the action. Putting together an effective action sequence has always been Nolan's Achilles Heel. (My one fault with his two "Batman" films is that the action never quite lives up to the visual flair of the movies around them.) He fares better here, and at least 2 of the action scenes here - a foot chase through the streets of Mumbai and the fistfight down the zero-gravity hotel hallways I mentioned before - are among the movie's highlights. But there's an awful lot of random punching and gunplay as the inception wears on (largely used to break up scenes of expository dialogue down the stretch), and it feels a bit unnecessary. The movie starts to drag a bit just as it should be picking up steam. Though we're always clear, as viewers, on which level of the dream we are seeing at any time, we're jumping between dreams so frequently that it tends to kill the tension of the shootouts or car chases. (How can you stay involved with a car chase if you're only seeing 2 out of every 10 minutes of that chase? That's one kind of action set piece you can't really "pick up" in the middle.)

There's so much that's great about "Inception," I feel like this is something of a minor quibble. Still, it's a 160 minute movie that probably would have been tighter as a 140 minute movie. And delightful as Tom Hardy is as Cobb's "forger" (and the film's comic relief), I don't really need to see him take out 30 dream soldiers when 10 would have done just as well.

"Inception" feels both like a natural extension of the major themes that have dominated Nolan's films up until this point - particularly in how it explores the subjective, even fraudulent, nature of what we perceive as "reality" - and a major step forward for him in terms of scope. If he wasn't already on the list, it ranks him among the most significant, interesting Hollywood directors of the moment. And though it's only July, I predict this will EASILY be the best, most imaginative screenplay we'll see brought to the cinemas this year, if not necessarily the best overall movie.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Predators" review

The original 1987 action/science-fiction film "Predator" doesn't really lend itself to sequels. There's no specific REASON you couldn't make more good stories about military-trained humans being hunted in a jungle environment, per se, but unlike a lot of other films about clever, technologically-sophisticated aliens, the Predators don't really have much of an inner life or much backstory to explore. That's the whole point...they kick major human ass because they have the element of surprise on their side. If their human prey ever began to really understand them - who they are, where they come from, what makes them tick, how their peculiar body suits work - it would just make them easier to kill, and thus less compelling adversaries.

"Predators" - the new edition in the series produced by Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimrod Antal - gets around this by basically just redoing the first film with two new twists. Rather than pitting a group of commandos against a Predator in a Guatemalan jungle, the film pits a group of commandos against 3 Predators on a distant alien world that just happens to look exactly like a Guatemalan jungle. Boom. Done. It's largely unadventurous, and comes to resemble the original film quite a bit, but as a reboot with updated special effects and some younger actors, it's certainly serviceable. "Predators" certainly fares better than the ridiculously terrible "Predator 2," which for some reason decided the best setting in which to place the Predator was a dystopian Los Angeles policed by Danny Glover, and it's also a significant improvement on the stupid "Alien vs. Predator" movies, which manage to suck all the fun out of not 1 but 2 fantastic science-fiction franchises at once!

But being better than "Predator 2" is hardly aiming high, and I can't help but wish that "Predators" was a bit bigger, bolder, more energetic and more exciting. Often, it has a feeling of going through the motions. The original movie and many of the other classic action films of the 1980s had a real sense of FUN to them. Sure, many of them, "Predator" included, play today as camp. (Carl Weathers and Arnold Schwarzenegger's manly forearm clench in the opening moments and Jesse Ventura's scenery-chewing performance - which gave rise to his lifelong catchphrase, "I ain't got time to bleed" - are often cited among the most nostalgic, memorably goofball moments from mainstream '80s cinema.)

But director John McTiernan and screenwriters John and Jim Thomas were holding nothing back. There was some emphasis on making their lead characters seem cool and badass, but above all, the movie was about packing in the most amount of entertainment value per minute of screen time as possible. Antal doesn't bring this new film the same "go for broke" sensibility (surprising when you consider the involvement of Robert Rodriguez, who tends to bring boundless enthusiasm - if little else - to his action films). To give just one example, his action hero has a big, iconic moment after besting a particularly ferocious enemy, and we get a shot that PERFECTLY lends itself to a little '80s-style action movie quip. A modern version of Arnold's classic "Stick around!" from the first film.

Instead, the hero just sort of shrugs and limps off screen, exhausted. Now, I get that a funny little one-liner might have taken the viewer out of the moment a bit, and wouldn't seem 'realistic' or work to make the character 'cooler.' But it would have been fun, and probably would have elicited cheers and been a real crowd-pleasing moment from the film. I'm not sure if the writers just couldn't think of anything good there, or if they were overly concerned with making the hero appropriately stoic and steely and cool (in the contemporary "Matrix"-inspired sense of the word)...but it was just a mistake. This is a movie about aliens in crazy suits who kidnap humans and then chase them around the jungle shooting bursts of electricity at them. Let us have a silly good time with it, would you please?

The story:

A bunch of nameless soldiers (played by Adrian Brody, Alice Braga, Danny Trejo and others) - and one nerdy doctor (played by TV's Topher Grace) - find themselves mysteriously transplanted to a jungle and have no idea how they got there. At first, they fight among themselves until it becomes obvious that they are, in fact, on an alien planet that functions as a sort of "game preserve," and they are being hunted by a trio of bloodthirsty Predators.

The action then proceeds much as it does in the first movie. One by one, their ranks are picked off by the Predators, and the survivors slowly get smarter about how the Predators hunt and what can be done to evade/kill them. Laurence Fishburne also shows up in a small role as a soldier who has figured out a way to avoid detection by Predators and stay alive on the planet for a good long while.

Screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch certainly came up with a clever way to reinvent the series without really changing much of what makes "Predator" Predator, and I really admire how the movie just sort of opens and jumps right into the main action without a lot of dilly-dallying or unnecessary exposition. However, there's still a lot of room for improvement here. I feel like one or two more drafts could have tightened up some elements of the story that just don't make much sense, and could have come up with some better pay-offs.

For example, early on it becomes apparent that, though the hunted humans share a military background, they all hail from different parts of the globe and exist on different sides of the law. There's a Mexican drug cartel enforcer, an American mercenary, a member of an African death squad, a member of the Yakuza, a convicted murderer who was awaiting execution on Death Row, etc. And yet, with the exception of the Yakuza guy who stars in the film's most fun, compelling and interesting sequence, NONE of these people are seen using their unique experience to their advantage. They all just behave like soldiers, operating under the same training and possessing largely the same skills. Why even bother to establish where they come from if you're not going to USE this information in any way? As well, the Topher Grace character - the only castaway without military experience, and a guy who seems oddly out of place for the entire movie - doesn't hold together at all. It's partially because Grace is actually a pretty terrible actor, but the character's also just a victim of bad writing. You don't believe for a second that he'd make the choices he's making, and even though he's given an extended sequence in which to basically deliver a monologue explaining himself, his behavior still doesn't actually make any sense. This whole portion of the Third Act needed a SERIOUS rewrite.

So, yeah, it's a mixed bag. Huge "Predator" fans or people enthusiastic enough about '80s-style R-rated action films to overlook some rough patches will probably enjoy the hell of this. But I feel like the bulk of the American filmgoing public would probably be better served by waiting for the DVD/Blu-Ray release. It's definitely the best film about Predators since the original 1987 "Predator," but that's not actually saying much...

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Monday, July 05, 2010

Rejected @Smosh Blog Post Submissions

Recently, I became aware of an available position to blog for the official site of the YouTube sketch comedy duo, Smosh. Here's a sample of their work:

Though I have a regular job - as the Creative Director of the ThisWeekIn web television network, and the host and creator of This Week in YouTube - such a position seemed simply too golden to pass up. Regrettably, and for reasons beyond my grasp, my submissions were rejected. I really felt that I had captured the "Smosh Voice" in the below posts. I have posted them here to allow the public to decide on my qualifications themselves...]

Submission #1: Duuuuuuhhhhhhh Duuuuurrrrrr Duuuuuuuhhhhhhh

Duh. Duh duh der der duh duh dur. Duuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrr!

Der de doobly doobly dur dee dur dur duh. Duuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrr!


Submission #2: You Have a Hat on Your Butt, Butt-Hat-Face-Butt!

Hey, look, it's a hat.

[Puts hat on his butt]

Wooooo! I have a hat on my butt!

And my butt looks like my face!

I have a hat on my butt-face-butt!

[Fart noise]


Submission #3: Attack of the Twilight Bieber Pokemon Ke$ha iPad Miley Cyrus Monster

You guys, look out! Behind you! It's a collection of up-to-the-minute pop culture references that would likely appeal to our target demographic of 11-year-old girls exploring their first awkward stirrings of adolescent sexuality! It's coming right for us!


[Loud clanging]


[Seriously, come on, you guys...This stuff is pure gold...]

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Sunday, July 04, 2010

"Today, we celebrate our Independence...That's it, just Independence..."

Bill Pullman's big, iconic line from the movie "Independence Day," has always bugged me. And today seems like the perfect day to talk about it.

The line is:

"Today, we celebrate...our Independence Day!"

Pullman says it as the President to rally the troops. Then everyone cheers and goes up in fighter plans to speciously kill supposedly technologically-superior alien beings who, for some reason, have never heard of Norton Utilities.

But the line is FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED. Because we don't celebrate our Independence DAY on July 4th. We celebrate our Independence. Period. As in, becoming independent from Britain.

To celebrate our Independence DAY implies there was a single day in which we became an independent nation, and each year, we go back and commemorate that one day in which we became independent.

That's a really fucking stupid way to approach the holiday. The amazing thing isn't that we declared independence. Anyone can declare that they are independent. It's that we actually won a fucking war to make ourselves independent. And that's, of course, what we're celebrating. The founding of our nation, not the signing of a piece of paper.

Come on...anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of American and European history knows that independence didn't happen in a single day. We declared independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, but it wasn't like independence was immediately conferred on the Colonies with the signing of that document.

The line even sounds better if you drop that word.

"Today...we celebrate...OUR INDEPENDENCE!"

Now that's rousing. The only reason to throw the word "day" in there is so you have one of those cheesy lines you can put in a trailer where a character actually says the name of the movie in the movie. And no one really likes that, ever. The only movie I can think of where that moment works is "Back to the Future," when Doc Brown says "Marty, we're sending you BACK TO THE FUTURE," and even then, it only works because (1) Christopher Lloyd sells it and (2) the line, out of context, seems like it doesn't make any sense, but then you hear it in context and it does.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Monday, May 24, 2010

Snap Review: "LOST Finale"


OK...In spite of my better judgment, I liked the "Lost" finale. It was sad, epic, funny and it felt emotionally satisfying. In the end, it was about the people who landed and how they learned to live together, not about the island and its special brand of baffling magic. I get that, and overall, it was probably the right decision. A finale that was more focused on explaining away all the fantasy elements and minutae wouldn't have really worked dramatically. (A lot of people got obsessed with stuff like Walt's powers in the early seasons, or why everything was influenced by Ancient Egypt, or the Dharma food drops...but I knew they'd never bother to go back and explain that stuff. Just no way to do that and make it an actual episode. Like in a David Lynch film, the surreal touches are just there to be surreal, and really exploring them robs them of their appeal.)

But having said all that, it's still quite bold of Cuse and Lindelof to even try to get away with such an obvious trick. They made up an entirely new story for Season 6 as a pretext to abandon the main narrative that has dominated the entire series up until that point. By inventing "alternate reality" at the beginning of 6 and then focusing almost the entire final episode on it, Cuse and Lindelof escape the corner they painted themselves in over 5 seasons. To torture the metaphor, they basically said..."Well, this whole room is painted, but look next door! A room without any paint at all! What's going on over there?" And because they thought up a nice ending to THAT story, one that gave them an excuse to explore all the main love stories that have played out over 6 seasons, the audience is tempted to overlook the fact that essentially NONE of the main questions get answered, and none of the big plot points of the first 4 seasons are dealt with in any way.

(Seriously, imagine trying to tell people watching the Season 3 finale or something what happened in the last episode. "So, um, they were all in this parallel universe, or it seemed that way, but it's actually where they all go when they die. And the island is a cork holding in an evil presence." Not a single thing that would have seemed really relevant to the show back then - like the significance of Walt and Aaron, or island's ability to heal people and hurtle them through time, or the strange experiments of the Dharma Initiative, or Libby's peculiar backstory, or the meaning of the "numbers" and their origin - means anything or gets any sort of conclusion.)

I don't know...this was a great episode of "Lost," but I sort of feel duped. It feels more like a season finale than the end of the show.

If you think about it, you could start Season 7 really easily in the Fall and it would still totally make sense.

- Rose and Bernard wake Jack up in the jungle. (Presumably, Vincent wandered over from their camp.) He's injured but he'll be fine.
- Hurley is now figuring out what they need to do in order to continue "protecting" the island. Hurley begins to discover he has Jacobian powers, but hesitates about using them. There's now tension between Hurley and Jack over who is really calling the shots.
- Ben gets jealous, maybe starts plotting how he can get rid of Hurley and Jack and run the show himself (?)
- Sawyer, Desmond, Kate, Claire et. al. return to the US. Kate and Claire discover that they will need to bring Aaron back to the island, as he's the rightful heir to Jacob, not Hurley. Unless they bring Aaron back...mysterious unspeakable bad things will happen. (Possibly involving Alvar Hanso, the founder of the Hanso Foundation, which funded the Dharma Initiative? Remember him?)
- We follow Richard as he struggles to begin a new normal life in the real non-island world.

And so on. My reasoning is, if this were truly going to be a FINAL episode that would give us all ACTUAL closure, there should have been a bit more of an effort to give it a real END. The island is destroyed or de-magic-ified, or a perpetual motion machine where these events are just going to repeat themselves ad infinitum. Either of those would be an ending.

Ignoring the lion's share of the show's genuine existential questions while setting most of your main characters off on new adventures, after assuring that they will all eventually meet again in the afterlife? I guess that's an ending, but it's not a real ENDING ending, if that makes sense. Part of me almost feels like they've intentionally left themselves with a loophole in case they ever want to do a follow-up movie or mini-series. I know they SAID they wouldn't ever do this...but then why not really close the sucker out?

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Iron Man 2 review

It's not that "Iron Man 2" is a bad film, or even a poor example of the contemporary "Marvel Film" style. I sense that my disappointment with the movie, which grew progressively as the film unspooled last night, was heightened by my great enjoyment of the original "Iron Man" movie, along with a general awareness that comic book films, as a genre, have essentially fallen into a rut. "Iron Man 2" follows the formula just fine, I suppose, but it's not surprising, innovative or inspired. It doesn't enhance my appreciation for or understanding of the Tony Stark/Iron Man character. Though the action is executed well enough, it's never more than par for the course for this kind of film, and it didn't really even seem to try to exceed or upset my expectations.

10 years after "X-Men" massively renewed the general public's interest in seeing Marvel characters on the big screen, it's time someone threw us a curveball with one of these movies. I feel like we've now established that it's possible to adapt a comic book into a genuinely original, exciting cinematic experience. Now it's time to figure out how to take these stories in another direction, to make the material feel fresh again. Obviously, we've seen this story before...I'm not saying anyone needs to reinvent the wheel here, and there's only so much you can do with these Stan Lee backstories. But does the movie have to make it so OBVIOUS that we've seen this story before?

The plot: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a conflicted hero whose own fame and powers may prove to be his undoing. So in order to save the world, he's going to first have to save himself, along with a woman wearing a body-hugging, largely ridiculous outfit (Scarlett Johansson). You know, for a change.

Stark's facing challenges on a number of fronts, actually. His corporate arch-rival, weapons maker Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), has hired a brilliant but insane Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke), to create an "Iron Man"-inspired robot army. At the same time, Stark has discovered that the arc reactor in his chest, the device that's not only powering his Iron Man suit but also keeping his heart healthy, has started poisoning his blood, threatening his life unless he can find a cure. Also at the same time, he's being investigated by a cynical Senator (Garry Shandling...for real...), watched closely by the agents of SHIELD (including Samuel L Jackson's Nick Fury) and hounded by his friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, stepping in for Terrence Howard) because he won't turn the Iron Man suit over to the US Government.

Whew. It sounds packed with incident, but all of these stories develop in a pretty labored, exposition-heavy fashion, making the movie feel surprisingly tedious. The first movie also had a lot of conflict and different plotlines going on, but Favreau and his various screenwriters (5 are credited in total) approached them with a loose, comic attitude. There was a lot coming at Tony Stark, but it wasn't really about terrorists or Jeff Bridges' evil plot or Gwyneth Paltrow's reticence to get involved with her boss romantically. It was at heart a simple, entertaining romp about a very snarky guy named Tony Stark becoming Iron Man, and whenever the narrative threatened to get bogged down in plot details, they'd throw in a couple of jokes to smooth over the rough spots and keep everyone's attention. The sequel doesn't seem to know where to focus amidst all the chaos, and Justin Theroux's screenplay lacks a lot of the witty rejoinders that populated the first movie. (The decision to have the once-charming rogue Tony Stark think that he's dying for the entire film, and therefore too depressed to behave like his usual "self-aware selfish prick" persona, was a poor one. Downey Jr's usual snarky joie de vivre doesn't really mesh well with chronic depression. So the whole film becomes something of a slog.)

We get a lot of new characters, but Sam Rockwell as the sleazily incompetent Hammer is the only one who makes any sort of real impression. He's easily the funniest character, and Favreau wisely gave Rockwell enough room to sort of overplay the role and infuse it with a lot of his trademark goofiness. (His little silly dance while presenting his new weapons at the Stark Expo is one of the very few moments in the film that feels personal and human.) I'm not sure why they decided to make Hammer so glaringly poor at building weapons. Sure, the film gets some cheap jokes out of the fact that his inventions never work, but he'd be a lot more threatening as a nemesis if he was able to build something - anything - that could actually hurt Iron Man, right?

This is important, as the shockingly lame performance by Mickey Rourke as the villainous Whiplash renders Hammer the film's lone serious antagonist. Rourke clearly connected with the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson in "The Wrestler" only 2 years back, but he's sleepwalking through "Iron Man 2." Not only do we never for a second believe his character could possibly be a brilliant physicist, but there's honestly not a single scene in the film where I genuinely invested in the character's reality on any level. It's just Mickey Rourke with a variety of stupid-looking haircuts, fake prison tats and a bad Russian accent, not a real character who presents any sort of actual immediate challenge to Iron Man. I've always liked Rourke as an actor and want to root for him now that he's experiencing this big career revival, but I can't excuse the mess that he makes of the Whiplash character here. (It's not entirely his fault...The design on the character and his electrified whip weapon is sub-standard all-around. He looks like a homeless Star Trek villain.)

Other characters don't fare much better. Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts, one of the great surprises of the first film, seems on the verge of tears for this entire movie. I wanted to give her a hug and a muffin, and maybe tell her to take a nap, but not watch her in a film. Don Cheadle makes zero impact as James Rhodes, and it almost feels like Favreau purposefully keeps him sidelined during the bulk of the movie. Like he was embarrassed that they swapped out actors between films, and kept him in the margins so no one would notice. I forgot he was in this for 20 minute stretches at a time. Scarlett Johansson shows up to look hot but has essentially no character, and after her big "reveal" at about the halfway point in the film, she remains in the movie without anything to actually say or do. Sometimes, she's just in the background to be hot, or make for a better publicity still or something. It's obvious they just threw her in here as a further teaser for the forthcoming "Avengers" movie and didn't really think about whether she had a role to play in this story.

Actually, now that I think about it, this whole movie sort of feels like a promo for "The Avengers." Even the final post-credit scene (which I won't spoil here) serves more as an "Avengers" teaser than a capper for the movie we've actually just watched. I know Marvel execs and creative types (and maybe even fans) are all excited to have all these interconnected movies coming up, leading up to a massive "Avengers" film, but the rest of us still want the individual movies to entertain on their own merits, not as commercials for the REAL movie coming in a few years. It would be a shame if they muted the public's interest in the "Avengers" movie when it finally arrives by releasing a string of lazy, middling shitkickers beforehand.

Okay, so I feel like I'm harping on the film now and being overly critical. There's good scenes and fun little asides to be had here. The main action set pieces, particularly the final fight with Stark and Rhodes facing off against Hammer's robot army, work well and the Industrial Light and Magic effects are solid. Sam Jackson's clearly enjoying the chance to play Nick Fury, and has a lot of chemistry with Downey Jr. As I said, it's not a bad film. It's just a mediocre one, and coming on the heels of arguably my favorite Marvel film to date, that's a big letdown.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Friday is My Last Day at Mahalo

Congratulations on being employee number 2 at a growing company.

Do come back to the office and do email the team list.

I'm absolutely thrilled with you.

Best j

Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

From: Lon Harris <lonharris@mahalo.com>
Date: Wed, 5 May 2010 21:46:17 -0700
Subject: Friday is My Last Day at Mahalo

Hello Team Mahalo -

I'm assuming by now most of you have heard the news, particularly as we told the community during tonight's "This Week in Mahalo," but just to make sure...

Jason and Mark have generously offered me the position of Creative Director of ThisWeekIn.com, and I have accepted. So, Friday will mark my last day as Mahalo.com's Director of Community. Of course, I will still be in the office every day, and available should anyone have questions or need anything from me. But my attention will now be largely, if not entirely, focused on ThisWeekIn Studios on a day-to-day basis. So if there's anything you need to run by me or loose ends we need to tie up, please bring it to my attention whenever you can.

It has been a distinct pleasure working with all of you, and I can honestly say that in my 3+ years working for Mahalo, I've never felt as confident as I do today that the project will be a grand success. Thanks to all the developers, admins, salespeople, chefs, designers, product managers, CEOs, directors of strategy and, of course, my fellow community team members for all that you have taught me, for being such positive, productive collaborators and generally for making it such a pleasure to come in to work each and every day. I'll still be seated in your midst, so this isn't really goodbye, but it felt like a good opportunity to let you all know how thankful I am for your tireless efforts, and how proud I am to have been a part of such a talented team. Also, I'm buying my stock options, and I'm pretty sure I still get to come on this Vegas trip, so feel free to keep right on kicking butt and taking names.

Thanks again. See you tomorrow.


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Here's the thing about mandating health insurance...

The health insurance system only works right if everyone buys in. If you just have old, sick people buying insurance, every account pays out. Insurers can't earn any money.

You could theoretically solve this by just socializing the entire health care industry, and making it a not-for-profit wing of the US Government. But Americans don't really care for that idea. To be honest, though this is probably the version of health care reform I'd prefer, I share some of their concerns.

If, instead, you want to base the system on the continued existence of private, for-profit health insurance companies, the only way to make the system solvent and universally applied is to guarantee young, healthy people - who won't actually cost serious money to insure - pay in. I kept hoping that someone would propose a third option - a way to guarantee basic, affordable health coverage to every American through private insurers but without a legal mandate for all who were able to pay in to the system - but I've never heard one. If you have, please suggest it in the comments below.

These systems don't exist in a vacuum. Public policy has to work in the real world, not in the hypothetical world of ideological purity. I feel like that's where most Americans, at least the outspoken ones I've been speaking with and reading on Facebook, Twitter and blogs, lose the thread. They begin the discussion based on what's "right," the abstract way in which they would prefer America to function. They speak in moral terms and absolutes. They harken back to particular interpretations of Constitutional law. And, sure, they make compelling points now and again. But unless you're willing to sacrifice living, breathing human beings, suffering from a lack of health coverage or crippling medical debts, to ideology and argumentation, you have to think about how these things actually play out day-to-day.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Is it just me, or are Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes starting to look alike?

One of us, one of us! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! One of us!

(Image via Gawker)

Posted via email from Lon Harris

God of War 3 Walkthrough

Oh, how I wish "God of War III" were not a PS3 exclusive. Seriously, I love love love my Xbox, but sort of feel like the PS3 exclusives pwn the Xbox exclusives, especially now that the "Bioshock" series is available for everyone. (I like the "Halo" series, but I don't really LOVE it, and I don't know...can't build up enthusiasm for "Mass Effect").

Anyway, the idea of a kickass action game set in the world of Greek Mythology intrigues me. I've been following along the development of the GOW 3 walkthrough and HD walkthrough videos of the game for Mahalo and would really like to try it out. Anyone got a used PS3 they're looking to sell? To eBay!

Check out the in-progress Mahalo God of War 3 Walkthrough here:


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Thee Vicars, "Back on the Streets"

Really loving this song at the moment. Apparently, these guys are at SxSW. Read a blog post on Pandagon that featured this video, and I've had it in steady rotation since. Have these guys been around for a while and I've just missed the boat? Really awesomely retro sound.

Posted via web from Lon Harris

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Roger Ebert Speaks!

Roger Ebert, who had a portion of his jaw removed after a prolonged bout with thyroid cancer, will appear on "Oprah" today to show off his new voice, made possible by a Scottish company that designs text-to-speech programs. Basically, hours and hours of archived footage of Ebert's TV appearances have been cataloged, allowing him to type out language and have it repeated in his own speaking voice. The program can even do inflections, so if he writes an exclamation, his "voice" will shout what was typed.

Obviously, it's not perfect, but it's still fairly effective, and does at least simulate the effect of hearing the guy speak. Ebert's always been one of my favorite writers about film, and the few times I met him in person or corresponded with him, seemed like a genuinely good person. It's pretty inspiring to see him pushing on after all that tragedy...Hard to even fathom what it would be like to lose the ability to eat normal foods, speak, etc., especially for such an outspoken and active individual.

We're working on the Mahalo page right now. Check  back here for more updates and info:


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Thursday, February 25, 2010

New "Nightmare on Elm Street" Trailer

The latest, and most detailed, trailer for the new "Nightmare on Elm Street" has debuted online and it's not without its charm. Definitely less jokey and ridiculous than some of the other entries in the series. (I see no indication that anyone will be jerked around, puppet-style, by their veins.) Just watch out for those micro-naps.

Makes me wonder if Jackie Earle Haley ever intends to act in a movie using his regular speaking voice, rather than the gutteral post-Bale whisper-voice.

Also, can we stop the "using children's nursery rhymes in the background to heighten the tension" trick? Starting to feel a bit overdone.


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sarah Palin, like all other uptight people, hates Family Guy

"Family Guy" did an episode this past week about a girl in Chris' class who has Down Syndrome. The episode included a humorous line where the girl reveals that she's "the daughter of the former governor of Alaska," an obvious reference to Sarah Palin and her son, Trig. So Palin is apparently quite upset about the whole thing, because of course, SHE owns the exclusive rights to exploit Down Syndrome for personal gain, goddammit!

Anyway, the voice actress, Andrea Fay Friedman, has struck back, declaring what we all pretty much already knew - Sarah Palin has no sense of humor.

Here's the full "Family Guy" episode:

Read more on Mahalo's page:


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Jay-Z Grows Tired of Your Shenanigans

One person who's clearly no longer delighted by parodies of the "Single Ladies" video? Beyonce's husband. Here's Jay-Z and Diddy looking on as Chicago Bulls mascot Benny the Bull performs the infamous "Single Ladies" dance. Sigh...

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Gary Coleman Wigs Out on Set of "The Insider"

"Diff'rent Strokes" star Gary Coleman stormed off the set of "The Insider" the other day after a loud, angry confrontation with one of the panelists. Honestly, Coleman's obviously a bit unstable, but I'm not 100% sure this is all his fault, or just another example of him being all crazy. This woman really ambushes him and starts just yelling at him. It's less an interview than a wind-up. His only two options were to basically admit to being a spouse-abusing piece of crap (which, okay, he probably is) or to storm off the set. Although, granted, telling her to walk a plan and drown in the ocean may be a bit BIG considering the circumstances:

More info here:


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Austin pilot leaves behind insane manifesto

Joseph Andrew Stack has been identified as the pilot who crashed a small plane into the Echelon Building in Austin, Texas. He left behind a suicide note that could only be considered, um, extensive. More a manifesto than a note, really. It's always fascinating to me when suicidal people have this much to say. You'd think that, if you had all of these ideas to get off your chest, you would want to spend more time writing and speaking and expressing yourself, rather than taking the cowardly way out and ending it all.

The manifesto is as compelling as it is dumbfounding. A lot of blather about the evils of capitalism, the medical system, politicians and corporate greed. You can read the whole thing on our Mahalo page:


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Sunday, February 14, 2010

RIP Doug Fieger

It's hard to even conceive of the ubiquity of The Knack's "My Sharona." This is a song that every human being in the West over the age of, say, 10 has heard eleventy bazillion times. You hear it so much, it becomes kind of shrill and annoying, when in reality it's a pretty ingeniously simple, catchy little pop song. An ideal radio single.

Anyway, the man behind that song, singer-songwriter Doug Fieger, died from cancer today at age 57. He wrote some other popular songs, too, but none of them were THIS big. Once Weird Al has parodied you, that's how you know you've truly arrived.

So maybe it's time to give the song another listen, with fresh ears.


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Is Kevin Smith Too Fat to Fly?

This is an issue that, of course, hits home for me, not only because Kevin Smith is a great guy who should not be disrespected in this way, but because he and I share a similar...um, girth. So it's pretty much inevitable at this point that I will, some day, be asked to remove my oversized ass from a Southwest flight.

Here's the story: Smith was already seated on a Southwest flight from Oakland to Burbank before being approached by a flight attendant and asked to leave the plane. Apparently, the captain felt that Smith was too large to fly on the plane and posed a "safety risk" to other passengers.

This just seems ridiculous, both because Smith is clearly not a morbidly obese individual who could actually prevent the flight from arriving safely, and because he was already sitting in the seat. What could go wrong at that point? He'd get up to use the restroom and put on an extra pound, thus making it impossible for him to sit back down?

It's one thing for airlines to set weight policies as a matter of safety and logistics. But it's another for them to publicly abuse and discriminate against people due to their size without merit. Hard to say, without knowing all the details (I'm judging the entire situation based on Kevin's Twitter feed at this point), but this seems like a case of pretty extreme overreach by Southwest, and a decision they'll probably regret soon enough now that everything is public.

Bonus question for Smith fans: Which is the more hilariously cringe-inducing Smith weight-related confessional? Getting kicked off a plane because he's too fat, or breaking the toilet at Laser Blazer, the DVD store where I used to work? You decide!

Read more about the incident here: http://www.mahalo.com/kevin-smith-southwest-airlines

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Thursday, February 11, 2010

BioShock 2 Walkthrough

We're hard at work right now filling out our BioShock 2 Walkthrough over on Mahalo. Looks like our writers have reached about the 4th Area, "Pauper's Drop." Can't believe this game has been out all this time and I still don't have it yet. The first one is seriously among my favorite games ever. So much atmosphere, and such a great narrative...It may be the single best written video game of all time.

Anyway, I love the ability to use plasmids and weapons simultaneously in the new game,a nd it looks just as creepy and intense this time out. Can. Not. Wait.


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Best Ads of Super Bowl 2010: Simpsons for Coca-Cola

Here's my next favorite early Super Bowl 2010 commercial: A bit based on "The Simpsons" in which billionaire C. Montgomery Burns falls on hard economic times. He takes a walk in the park and discovers everyone enjoying Coca-Colas, only to be given one for free by shopkeeper Apu.  Can Coca-Cola turn even the most misanthropic miser around? Let's find out together!


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Best Ads of the 2010 Super Bowl: Yo Gabba Gabba for Kia

We've got pages on Mahalo for every single Super Bowl ad, so I've either seen the ads or at least extended previews for them at this point. And I have some predictions about what the best ones will be. So I'm going to post them throughout the day.

First up, this ad for the Kia Sorento, featuring the stars of Nick Jr.'s "Yo Gabba Gabba".


Posted via email from Lon Harris

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Lovely Bones review

Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," based on a popular novel I have not read by Alice Sebold, tells two parallel stories. In the first, a typical 14-year-old Pennsylvania girl named Susie Salmon (Saorise Ronan) is murdered by a creepy neighbor and finds her spirit in limbo, stuck between the world of the living and Heaven. She watches with the audience as the second story, about the impact of her death on the rest of her family, unfolds. It's a technique that almost assuredly works better in prose than on screen. Any narrator in any work of fiction enters a sort of limbo, if you think about it, perched between the real world (in which they are telling you, the reader, a story) and the make-believe realm in which the story's events take place. So it's probably not very challenging to accept Susie's situation, occupying a magical heavenly afterlife of her own creation while relating events she witnesses on Earth, in print.

In a film, though, the device simply falls apart. Susie's predicament, by its very nature, is internal. We follow her story, and get a sense of her mental turmoil (do you have a mind in limbo?) as she struggles between lingering affection for her old life and a desire to move on to Heaven. But she now lives in an environment and a situation that's almost entirely random and intangible, that seems to operate independent of logic or consequences. Limbo is erratic; rules are established for Susie's life there, but they all seem more or less fluid based on the concerns of the plot. (For example, she tells us that there is no "time" and nothing ever changes, and then later says she has the same dream "every night." How is there an "every night" if there's no time? How does a dead person even dream, anyway?)

Anyway, it's nearly impossible for Jackson to provide this half of the story with any sort of real narrative momentum. The afterlife he depicts is certainly beautiful and imaginative, as relics of Susie's life on Earth (like the "ships in a bottle" she once built with her dad, or the charms from her old bracelet) reappear in impossible or outsized ways. One particularly memorable, decidedly eerie shot sees Susie and a young friend named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) whom we presume has also died, running through a field of grass that's actually its own, tiny, spherical planet. But the Limbo sequences almost never drive the story forward, and none of them really build to a satisfying climax. Susie can have or do anything she wants; if she can imagine it, it will appear before her. That might be nice for a while, but it certainly isn't the sort of conflict that can drive a film.

Perhaps if Jackson were interested in exploring some of the metaphysical and spiritual questions raised by Susie's story, the film's afterlife sequences could have developed more of a sense of purpose. For a vision of the next world that's so aesthetically pleasing, this is also a cruel turn of events for Susie. After being murdered at 14, she's given a chance to communicate and interact with her beloved parents, but then told she's not supposed to. She's provided with horrifying visions of her own killer, informed that he has killed before and will likely kill again, but is completely unable to confront or stall him. Save for some visits from Holly, a stranger who speaks cryptically about the Heaven that awaits her once she agrees to turn her back on her family, Susie is entirely alone. She's even taunted by visions of a boy she once dreamed of kissing (Reece Ritchie), who has now taken up with a different girl, and images of her younger sister getting the first kiss she was denied. And this is where you go if you're bound for HEAVEN! I'd hate to think of what awaits the rest of us.

Considering how much time is spent in Limbo, I wish Jackson had more intellectual curiosity about the place. How can we exist eternally in a state of bliss and perfection if we've retained our human consciousness, our memory and our sense of time? No matter how perfect a world we'd created, wouldn't we still get horribly bored and lonely? How does Susie know about world events that happened after her death, and why does she care? (At one point, she laments that her story took place "before missing kids were printed on milk cartons," but how does she know that would happen? Are there newspapers in Heaven?) I'm not trying to poke holes in the movie, really, but to look at all of the avenues that Jackson and the his script (written along with frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) could have possibly explored to make the scenes of Susie in Heaven more compelling. Instead, they exist mainly to compliment the main story, which follows Susie's family, and which doesn't really need the abstract dead-girl fantasy elements. Susie is at the center of the film, but she comes to feel like little more than a distraction.

The real-world narrative lacks the rich visual majesty of the afterlife scenes, but holds together as drama far more successfully. There's very little here that dozens of other movies haven't already explored - how the death of a child so thoroughly devastates parents and rends families apart, how a lack of closure can prevent people from moving on after a tragic loss, how pain and tragedy can bring people together, how survivors feel guilty that their lives continue after others' have ended - bit it's still undeniably well-executed. Jackson's ease with building tension serve him well, as always, and he and DP Andrew Lesnie create a rural Pennsylvania town that's both believably real and strikingly impressionistic. (I hope no children are currently growing up right behind a cornfield this sinister.)

Susie's entire family is, of course, devastated by the loss of one of their own, but none seem to take it quite as hard as her father, Jack (a solid, understated Mark Wahlberg). His obsessive need to find Susie's killer and punish him drives away his fragile wife, Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and frustrates the detective assigned to the case (Michael Imperioli). His investigation eventually leads him to George Harvey (Tucci), an eccentric loner who lives a few doors down, and spends his days in his basement, building doll houses. Tucci completely disappears into the guarded, quick-tempered Harvey. It's a chilling performance that's probably a bit TOO convincing; this guy's such a creep, it's hard to believe he wouldn't be everyone's prime suspect. (If Christoph Waltz weren't such a revelation in "Inglourious Basterds," I'd probably be behind Tucci for Best Supporting Actor.) Susan Sarandon also appears, mainly for comic relief, as Susie's boozy grandmother, who shows up for a bit to help the family through the healing process. There's a montage of her trying to help out around the house despite a lack of parenting and homemaking experience that's kind of funny, in a sitcom sort of way, but also brings the momentum to a screeching halt. 

Jackson also (and some of this might be Sebold's fault, I don't know) completely belly flops the ending. He's getting worse and worse with endings all the time. I personally thought "Lord of the Rings" ended on a dry, emotionally inert note, with its 12 different, equally dull, conclusions, and the hacky final third of "King Kong" unfolds almost entirely in slow-motion, trying to turn a simple story about a giant ape who gets loose in New York into a "Schindler's List"-esque catharsis. Here, he resolves essentially all of the stories on a sour, predictable or unsatisfying note. Susie explains the meaning of the title "the lovely bones" to us in a voice-over at the end, and basically implies that the story of her time in limbo was REALLY the story of her family's path to healing and recovery, but the only story that Jackson truly manages to wrap up is Susie's. Jack, in particular, gets the short shrift; he's the film's only driven, passionate character and he gets essentially sidelined for the entire third act. And let's not even get into the fate of George Harvey, whose final scene in this film represents one of the absolute low points of Peter Jackson's entire film career. This is an embarrassingly cheap, utterly fraudulent way to finish one of the film's key plotlines. If Jackson, Walsh and Boyens care so little for what happens to George Harvey, why follow up with him at all? Ambiguity is better than a lazy cop-out, any day.

What I'm saying, in the longest, most drawn-out way possible, is that the Salmon Family stuff could really be its own passable (but not great) movie, without the need for what essentially amounts to a gimmick. Perhaps, in the book, the connections between Susie's reality and Earth are handled with more subtlety and care, but Jackson repeatedly insists on drawing attention away from the story that's actually interesting (the family struggling to get over a violent, horrifying death) and towards the vague, scattered, ultimately pointless and frequently silly "Limbo" bit. Yes, yes, we get it. Susie was killed in a cornfield, and saw a picture of a lighthouse before she died, and now these icons serve as Limbo landmarks. There are bird sculptures on the walls of her dad's den, so the leaves on the Limbo trees turn into birds. George is obsessed with houses, and we see him menacingly stare in the windows of the small dollhouses he builds like a perverted Brobdingnagian. (I mean, come on...a middle-aged unmarried, childless suspected child killer, a who builds doll houses as a hobby? The cops weren't at least a little suspicious of this guy? No one felt like they were laying this on a bit thick?) A bit of this goes a long, long way.

And why bother with tons of those sorts of asides when there's such an interesting situation to explore going on elsewhere? It feels like Peter Jackson got distracted by the special effects and the aesthetics of Susie's world, and failed to focus on the real emotional core of the story - the living human beings. I'll end with a prime example. There's a very important, very sad scene in which Jack goes to get film shot by Susie before her death developed, against the wishes of his wife, who can't bear to think about and remember her lost daughter. And Peter Jackson chooses that moment to give himself a goofy cameo, jerking around a very '70s video camera in the background. (Get it? Har!)  Perhaps this is just modesty - he figured no one would recognize him - but it totally pulled me out of the scene for no good reason to see him back there. He just kind of didn't care so much about what could have been a significant and above-all HONEST scene about the horror of losing your child. The very thing his movie's supposed to be about.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The 50 Best Films of the Decade, 20-1

It's already more than a week into the new decade.  Time to finish this sucker up.  Sorry, again, that it has taken me so long.  I guess I decided to write too much about each film and turned this into a greater commitment than I really had ample time to see through.  But I have persevered!

20. The Incredibles (2004)

I read a "decade wrap-up" blog post recently knocking Brad Bird's riff on superhero movies and spy flicks, and even after the well-written and clear review, I still don't quite get how anyone can dislike this utterly charming, 100 mile-per-hour blend of action, fantasy and comedy.  I'll admit, I had my doubts at first, mainly due to it's sort of creepy motif about championing the stronger and more intelligent, and allowing them to lord their gifts over inferior beings.  But the film is just so relentlessly fun and exciting, so clever in how it rewires pulp imagery and some very adult genre films into something accessible to mass audiences and children, so packed full of incident and spectacle and humor...it just overwhelms you with goodness until you completely forget your reservations about its "Ayn Rand for Beginners" theme.  This is PIXAR's greatest triumph out of a decade in which they rarely faltered.  (I mean, wow, "Cars"...Seriously, what the hell happened? Why did they have shelves if they were talking cars!  Cars can't reach shelves!)

19. The Devil's Backbone (2001)

Forget the over-rated, disjointed "Pan's Labyrinth"; this is the best film Guillermo del Toro's ever made, and the decade's best horror film.  During the Spanish Civil War, young Carlos finds himself at a strange orphanage, haunted by a ghost named Santi.  Del Toro is, on one level, making a creepily effective conventional ghost story, as Carlos and his fellow orphans get increasingly bold in their paranormal investigations.  But "Devil's Backbone" is also more serious film about the terror inherent in childhood, borrowing liberally from the surreal Spanish drama "Spirit of the Beehive." Carlos, a sensitive and perceptive young man, is fully aware of his surroundings, and knows things well before most of the adults in charge figure them out, but is thoroughly unable to affect genuine change...Over time, this reality gets far more dangerous and upsetting to him than the spirit who may or may not be roaming the grounds.  The way Del Toro gradually builds tension during the film is nothing short of masterful, typified by the undetonated, defused bomb planted in the center of the orphanage's courtyard.  This place, we come to understand, is not IMMEDIATELY threatening, but bad things have happened here, and very likely will again.

18. Borat (2006)

In 500 years, no film will offer a more compelling, clear depiction of who the Americans of the past decade were, how we lived and how we saw ourselves than "Borat."  We're just going to have to deal with that.  Sacha Baron Cohen's crude, mean-spirited and gut-bustingly hilarious pseudo-documentary takes his Kazakh TV host character on the road, meeting an assorted variety of rubes, misogynists and bigots and tricking them into revealing their true natures to a global audience.  The film became an international phenomenon on the back of Cohen's skill as a comic performer - his fearlessness, his way with a catch phrase, his quick wit in the face of massive idiocy - but he's also a frequently insightful and cutting social critic.  A scene where Borat discusses dating and sex with some intoxicated fraternity brothers gets some laughs, but soon enough becomes deeply troubling, even stomach-turning, and far more revealing than anyone appearing on camera (Cohen included) probably realized at the time.  I like!

17. No Country for Old Men (2007)

After back-to-back disappointments ("Intolerable Cruelty" and the reprehensible "Ladykillers"), the Coen Brothers returned in fine form with this cold-blooded, nihilistic modern-day Western.  The film hits on all the Coens' greatest strengths - colorful dialogue, enigmatic characters, a carefully consistent aesthetic, unexpected bursts of violence, expert use of repetition - and it's easily their most suspenseful film to date.  From the moment the fiendishly clever, totally intractable hitman Anton Chigurh (an almost-unnaturally, inhumanly laconic Javier Bardem) is introduced, "No Country for Old Men" refuses to let the viewer relax, plunging us into a relentless pursuit that could only end tragically.  Chigurh is chasing some misplaced drug money that has accidentally come into the possession of welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), and is himself being pursued by the largely apathetic, contemplative Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), but Bardem constantly remains the driving force at the film's center.  Consider a shootout in which Chigurh pursues Moss out of a hotel room and into the city streets.  We barely even need to SEE Bardem in this sequence at all.  He has established Chigurh's menace so convincingly in previous scenes, just a faint shadow against a nearby wall, or the sound of him busting through a door by blowing a hole through it with an air gun, is panic-inducing.  In many ways, "No Country" is more concerned with the nature of Chigurh's chase than the specific incidents, or where everyone ends up.  What could possibly motivate him to keep going, despite hopelessness, defeat and injury?  Why push forward, even though he doesn't seem to need the money or care about what happens to him?  He's capable of great acts of cruelty and brutality, but what's most chilling about Chigurh is his total lack of motivation.  He just kills.  It's what he does.

16. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino's thrilling WWII saga is wonderfully cinematic, and filled with innovative, beautifully realized images, but I almost feel like it would work just as well as a play.  This isn't true of any of QT's other work, which is so tied to the cinema and its history that it wouldn't even make sense in another medium.  But "Inglorious Basterds" is really a series of long scenes about liars and the slow, deliberate, methodical ways that their lines are undone.  The script is sometimes reminiscent of mystery plays, such as Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth," in which a game or puzzle is introduced, and we follow a character gradually untangling everything in real time.  Only in "Basterds," the man working out the mystery is a Nazi known as the "Jew Hunter," and we're firmly on the side of those attempting to conceal the truth.  Christoph Waltz is a revelation as the villainous and brilliant Nazi, Col. Hans Landa, who seems to delight equally in toying with his victims and reveling in his own powers of deduction.  Probably Tarantino's best-written film since "Pulp Fiction," and the one that best marries his love for film history and his unerring knack for genre dialogue with his preternatural ability as a storyteller.

15. What Time is it There (2001)

When I say that Tsai Ming-liang's ingenious, impenetrable "What Time Is It There" isn't for everybody, I mean it's for hardly any people at all.  A sometimes-funny, sometimes-depressing but always self-conscious and deliberate "art film," the movie's slow pace, frequent digressions and ambiguity are sure to thwart any filmgoers who don't have the patience to just experience the cinema without having to figure everything out.  There's really no clear statement I can make with confidence about what Tsai's film actually "means" - the story concerns a lonely street vendor (Hsiao Kang) who sells his watch to a woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) on her way to Paris and thereafter becomes oddly obsessed with this encounter. But these incidents are just a jumping off point for Tsai's amusingly dark (or darkly amusing?) observations about the disconnectedness and cold isolation of modern urban life, and how we're most alone when lots of other people are around.  He suggests, by the end, that we are all more in sync than we realize, but that to behold and appreciate this synchronicity would destroy it.  Which is a depressing thought...but also kind of funny.

14. Minority Report (2002)

Here's a word you can't often use to describe Steven Spielberg movies: Under-appreciated.  But I'll be damned if "Minority Report" missed out on its fair share of accolades for including some of Steve's best-ever action sequences EVER, a twisty, unpredictable noir-inspired script, a perfectly-realized and detailed near-future setting and gorgeous, hallucinatory cinematography from Janusz Kamiński.  "Minority Report" just keeps upping the ante, getting more intense and provocative and imaginative as it goes along.  This is a relative rarity in the science-fiction genre, where the best ideas are usually explained by some opening text before the main action even starts.  "Minority Report," conversely, is overloaded with clever, well-thought-out little touches, from experimental (and gruesome) future eye surgery to mechanical retinal-scanning spiders to realistic vomit sticks and jet packs to cereal boxes that play their own commercials.  There's enough material here to power five conventional, mainstream sci-fi films.

13. Head-On (2004)

Fatih Akin's "Head-On" is a romance set in Germany's Turkish immigrant community that builds to an absolutely devastating climax.  Why does the conclusion hit me so hard each time I watch the film?  I think it's because Akin cleverly opens the movie with comedy, winning us over to the character's perspective by letting us laugh at their rough-edged humanity.  Then, once we're committed, he injects tragedy to their lives.  The film opens with a premise that could be played completely for humor...Aging addict Cahit (Birol Ünel) crashes his car into a wall (on purpose) and is taken to a psychiatric hospital.  There, he meets the equally suicidal Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), and the two of embark on a marriage of convenience, allowing her to escape from her overbearing, traditional father and brothers and party to her heart's content. The unlikely love that develops between them is handled with humor and honesty, and Akin's script and his actors rarely hit a false note. And, of course, it builds to one of the saddest endings of any contemporary film.  This is the sort of honest conclusion that most American directors, even iconoclasts like Alexander Payne or Wes Anderson, repeatedly prove too timid to explore, a recognition that even things which seem destined to work out sometimes don't, and that life is about surviving the disappointments and coping with the failures as much as anything else.

12. Ghost World (2001)

Terry Zwigoff's film takes feelings of alienation and isolation that you may have never been able to put into words, and sets an entire film around them.  The film's intelligent introverts have accepted as inevitable the idea that they will always be all alone, forever, and it has made them utterly unable to connect with other human beings even when the opportunity presents itself.  But it's, you know, a comedy.  Just as cynical, geeky recent high school graduate Enid (Thora Birch) finds herself outgrowing her friendship with her classmate Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), she encounters another lost and lonely soul, record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi).  They embark on a tentative friendship that largely reveals a lack of experience with the ritual on both sides, but also a mutual intelligence and respect that sets them apart from the dullards around them, before eventually drifting apart.  The haunting final sequence finds Enid leaving it all behind for good - Seymour, Rebecca, her father, her former life - and bound for nowhere in particular. She's a bit older, and a bit wiser, but not really any happier.

11. Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher's gripping police procedural about the never-solved Zodiac Killer case contains more raw information about the real murders and the major players than you'd likely get from a 2 hour History Channel documentary.  But though it covers all the names and dates, all the leads and false positives and blind alleys that kept the case open and the killer walking the streets for decades, the film's not about Zodiac the person or his motives.  As in real life, those remain beyond the film's grasp...Even when suggesting whom the killer might be, "Zodiac" never even pretends to understand who he really was, or why he did what he did.  Fincher's focus remains squarely on the men who grew obsessed with catching the Zodiac, what drove them, and how their eventual failure to actually get their man wrecked havoc on their lives.  He also finds time to give a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the police investigation unfolded, and to offer a compelling theory on the identity of the actual Zodiac Killer.  And it's impossible to talk about the genius of this film without mentioning the obsessive realism and attention to detail, in particular the stunning recreation of San Francisco in the '70s.  (One of my favorite moments is the amazing time-lapse recreation of the Transamerica Pyramid being built, a perfect visual encapsulation of the passage of time and a poignant reminder that, though the Zodiac investigators were running around in circles, the city picked itself up and moved on.)

10. The Dark Knight (2008)

After the grandiose, incident-packed "Batman Begins," which got the Christian Bale Batman series off to a fresh but largely conventional start, co-writer/director Christopher Nolan really elevated the superhero genre with the follow-up, "The Dark Knight."  No longer a movie about sacrifice, duty and heroism, as you typically expect with Batman movies, Nolan was now making a film about the corrupting nature of power, the sinister appeal of Fascism and authoritarianism, the way fear and anger spread virally, infecting whole populations overnight, and the nature of madness itself.  That the film also has the feel of a crowd-pleaser, and contains sufficient spectacle to rank among the most popular movies of all time, is a testament to Nolan's gift for storytelling and for balancing high-minded themes and explosions without diluting either.  Heath Ledger, unrecognizable under grotesque make-up, gives one of the decade's most frightening, transformative and memorable performances as The Joker; through unfortunate circumstance, he essentially disappeared into the role and was never heard from again.

9. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

"Rushmore" will probably always be my personal favorite Wes Anderson movie, but "Royal Tenenbaums" is the one that distills his idiosyncratic style down to its most essential and clearly-expressed form.  As much a word-of-mouth family history as a story, Anderson careens around through time and between the Poles, giving us just enough of a sense for who the Tenenbaums are to appreciate the next sequence we're about to see.  Gene Hackman gives my vote for the Best Comic Performance of the Decade as patriarch Royal Tenenbaum, whose lifelong selfishness and duplicity have not exactly endeared him to his family, but who is now determined to unite them all under one roof.  In later Anderson films, like "The Life Aquatic," his familiar quirks - the '60s British Invasion music and folk songs, frequent montages focusing on details and minutae, labels and titles that emphasize the "written" aspects of the story, deadpan humor - feel like gimmicks, shorthand that he's contractually obliged to use to remind people they're watching a "Wes Anderson movie."  But here it feels accurate, like he's not overwhelming us with Wes Anderson's favorite things but channeling the Tenenbaum Family's style and personal taste.

8. Oldboy (2003)

"Oldboy" is like a nightmare you remember well enough to talk about later, with images you can't shake out of your head for days and a strange, internal logic all its own.  Mild-mannered Oh Dae-Su (Hwang Jo-yun) is kidnapped from off the street and imprisoned in a spare hotel room for 15 years with no explanation.  When he gets out, he's determined to find out who kidnapped him and why...but when he eventually pieces it all together, he doesn't like the answers much.  Director Park Chan-wook directs with a manic energy that viscerally simulates his hero's mounting paranoia and desperation.  He will do anything to find the person responsible for what happened to him, a task that's more important to him than the people around him, than his own health and well-being, that may even be more important than his freedom itself.  One virtuoso sequence of Oh Dae-Su sacrificing his sanity in the service of his revenge plot follows another - the incredible single-shot hammer fight, eating the live squid, the tooth-pulling - all of them infused with an off-kilter, dreamlike quality that makes everything seems somehow unreal, too brutal and purposelessly cruel to have actually happened.

7. Gangs of New York (2002)

Yes, I know, this is probably the single most controversial film on the entire list, and it's here in the Top 10.  To all the haters, I say...bring it.  Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," his best film this past decade, is a constantly entertaining and artful illumination of a largely-obscure period in American history, highlighted by the expressive, sweeping photography of Michael Ballhaus, the massive eye-popping Dante Ferretti sets and a perfect, scenery-chewing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis.  Amidst all this awesomeness, to think that people have the audacity to complain that supporting player Cameron Diaz was miscast, discounting the entire film on the basis of her sometimes-unrealistic accent. clear skin and pretty face.  As if the distraction of seeing a well-known starlet reasonably acquit her way across a few dramatic sequences were enough to undo brilliant sequences like the feuding fire fighting companies, the scores of immigrants pouring off of arriving ships, the knife-throwing demonstration or the Draft Riots.  Scorsese wisely realizes that the main narrative, a revenge story about a kid who infiltrates the gang of the man who killed his father, was mainly a frame on which to hang his real subject - the community that grew up around New York's "Five Points" in the mid-19th Century, and how events at that time shaped the urban American landscape we know today. 

6. Children of Men (2006)

It's such a cliche to say that something "works on so many levels" that even Homer Simpson has been known to adopt the phrase.  But Alfonso Cuaron's ingenious, dystopian sci-fi thriller "Children of Men" genuinely deserves such praise.  The story of a world where humans have lost the ability to reproduce, and thus have resigned themselves to impending extinction, is a haunting examination of how the present only has meaning when considered as one incident in a larger narrative, and how human beings process tragedy while clinging to hope.  It's also a social commentary on how fear makes us turn against the weakest and most helpless people around us, and how governments and regimes (from both sides of the political spectrum) hold on to power by perpetuating this fear and scapegoating minorities.  Plus it's a tender and involving human drama that pays close attention to small character details, and manages to fold in more than its fair share of surprising comedy.  And finally, it's one of the best action films in a generation, turning the loud, flashy, quick-cut style of faux-auteurs like Michael Bay on its head in favor of deliberate, immaculately-realized single-take sequences that put the audience directly in the midst of gruesome, chaotic violence.

5. City of God (2002)

Pretty much every young international filmmaker with a lot of energy and a fondness for contemporary music gets compared to Martin Scorsese, but Fernando Meirelles' relentless, ceaselessly inventive crime epic really does warrant consideration alongside Marty's classics.  This is mainly because Meirelles embarks on a similar project to Scorsese - the dissection of a particular neighborhood, how it functions, the individuals who fill various roles and how these shift and change over time - and does so with a personal flair and a puckish, child-like desire to subvert expectations.  The film demands our attention from the first moment; it opens with blurry, frenetic footage of a chicken darting through the streets of the Rio slum known as 'City of God,' trying to avoid having its head chopped off. Its characters will essentially replicate the bird's behavior for the rest of the movie.  Though the neighborhood has its resident stone-cold killer (Lil' Ze, played with ferocity, but also sympathy, by Leandro Firmino da Hora), most of the characters are laid-back and likable.  They go into crime not because they relish the thought of breaking the law, but because it is the best (and in many cases, only) opportunity presenting itself to them at the time.  The film spans decades and eventually gives you the sense of familiarity with your surroundings, but it's not familiarity with the twisty, multi-faceted and overcrowded neighborhood itself.  That would take much more than one film (even the follow-up TV series wasn't up to the task).  Instead, it's a familiarity with the rhythms of life there, and the complex choices faced by those the City's residents. "City of God" was the most audacious, brave and purely entertaining film of the decade.

4. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Peter Jackson's last great film, and easily the crowning achievement of his "Lord of the Rings" adaptation project, "The Fellowship of the Ring" was everything its sequels yearned to be but weren't.  Let's face it...Some time between this film, the ponderous final half of "The Two Towers" and the bombastic, overlong and punishingly maudlin "Return of the King," Peter Jackson started believing his own hype.  He stopped making larger-than-life, exciting, risky genre movies (of which "Fellowship" is the best example) and started making "serious cinema."  Now his movies are 4 hours long and exhausting, and not nearly as fun as they should be.  "Fellowship" is everything you'd ever want from a Tolkein adaptation, and really seems to "get" the timeless appeal of the books.  Sure, the monsters and swordplay and sorcery are fun, but it's really a eulogy for humanity's pre-Industrial way of life, when we were just finding our way as a species, and were, by necessity, still in touch with the natural world around us.  Jackson infuses every scene in his film with a sort of quiet, stoic melancholy, a sadness at seeing innocence drained from the lovable main characters that permeates the whole film from the first scene onward, but somehow never gets in the way of the spectacle.  I don't want to be too hard on the following films...They both have their strong points (particularly Gollum, still the most compelling and life-like motion-capture animated character in film history), and the trilogy taken as a whole is a remarkable achievement.  But watching the other two can, at times, feel like a chore.  "Fellowship" is thoroughly enjoyable, a sweeping, effects-driven, continent-spanning adventure that's still quirky, intimate and oddly personal.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Charlie Kaufman understands the mechanics and shifting emotions of relationships better than any other screenwriter working today.  He (along with director Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth) could have written a straight-forward, chronological movie about the love affair at the center of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and it would probably still appear somewhere on this Top 50 list.  Instead, he sends us hurtling through Joel and Clementine's life together backwards then forwards again, jamming the awkward moments of dysfunction right up into the first kisses and pillow talk.  The result is a head-trip that feels instantly relateable, the kind of movie that seems to crystallize thoughts you've always had but just never seriously entertained before.  Kaufman's premise resembles those in Philip K. Dick's more caustic satires - Joel (Jim Carrey, in his best performance to date) pays the somewhat questionable Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) to erase all memory of his previous relationship with the moody, eccentric Clementine (Kate Winslet) from his brain.  Joel experiences the process of "forced forgetting" as similar to time travel. He's whisked backwards through his time with Clementine, seeing incidents unfold and then disappear forever into the void.  Simultaneously, we see scenes of Dr. Howard's assistants, one of whom (Elijah Wood) is stealing Joel's moves from his memories and using them to seduce Clementine, who has also had a procedure to erase her memory of Joel.  And this gets to the heart of Kaufman's concept; the fading relationship of Joel and Clementine, just like the budding relationship of Patrick and Clementine, is doomed to end in failure, but that does not mean it was not real love, and that the experience of it wasn't authentic. Even if Joel and Clementine wound up repeating the pattern forever - dating, forgetting one another, then getting back together - that could itself prove to be a certain kind of happiness, with the thrill of finding one another outweighing the heartache of being torn apart.  I'm realizing now that I just got through an entire discussion of the wonders of this movie and didn't even talk about Jon Brion's amazing score, Michel Gondry's wonderfully light touch with the film's sometimes surral visuals and brilliant use of repetition and visual patterns or Ellen Kuras bright, kinetic, even disorienting cinematography, which reinforces Joel's feelings of sensory overload and fatigue!  Crap!

2. There Will Be Blood (2007)

There was no more complicated, fascinating, inscrutable, iconic film character in the '00s than Daniel Plainview, and this is a movie that's entirely about him.  Therefore, it's #2 on the list.  Oh, sure, it has other attributes.  In more than a century of gritty Westerns, the cinema has rarely portrayed the American frontier as a more dark and menacing hellscape than cinematography Robert Elswit and director Paul Thomas Anderson present here.  The depiction of the early days of the American oil industry and the outlines of how the business was conducted in the early part of the 20th Century is fascinating and relevant to our own moment in history.  In order to power our machines, we must send men literally deep into the bowels of the Earth, at great risk to their personal safety, and this movie makes that decision horrifyingly, palpably real.  The character of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a small-town pastor who will resort of Machiavellian tactics to achieve his goals, is compelling enough to warrant a movie of his own.  But this is Daniel Day-Lewis' film all the way, embodying a man who's as much a force of nature as a character.  Somehow, Day-Lewis was able to gain an understanding about this man, who scarcely seems to understand himself.  Plainview speaks in calm, measured tones to disguise his impulsive, reckless temperament.  He surrounds himself with colleagues and family despite a professed hatred for people.  He will allow himself to be humiliated in front of a large crowd of people, but will rage at minor perceived slights.  It's a bit like seeing a fearsome monster playing at being a person, afraid to upset the natural order of things.  It's a thrilling, classic performance.

1. Mulholland Drive (2001)

No film this decade was more intriguing, and no film demanded rewatching, further speculation and discussion more than David Lynch's masterpiece. I think it's his greatest film, which is saying something, because the guy's responsible for a number of fantastic movies, as well as one of my favorite TV series of all time.  In addition to its puzzle-box structure, that rewards careful attention and repeat viewings, Lynch manages to perfectly balance between comedy and suspense for over 2 hours. The movie can be SCARY and hilarious, almost at the same time, which both enhances its dream-like quality (because dreams, as we all know, can shift moods in a moment) AND makes it just an extremely entertaining way to pass a few hours.  The film's first hour coalesces roughly into a sensible story (really a few interconnected stories, as these scenes were designed as a pilot for a TV show): Betty (Naomi Watts) has come to LA with stars in her eyes, and lands an audition for a big movie role; the film's director, Adam Kesher (Justin Thoreaux), loves Betty but receives a variety of not-so-subtle warnings that he must cast a different goal in the part; Betty's new roommate Rita (Laura Elena Harring) has been in a car crash and doesn't remember who she is; and all the time, a vague conspiracy involving a cowboy and a little man in a wheelchair and a homeless man behind a dumpster and a scruffy hitman is forming, with Kesher's film at its center.  The second half follows people who resemble their alter-egos in the first half, but are clearly different individuals (Betty is now "Diane," Rita is now "Camilla").  Soon enough, attentive viewers will sense the connection between the two stories, how we've seen one view of reality as it exists and one alternate depiction of reality from within a character's subconscious mind.  Throughout, Lynch uses stock Hollywood techniques and allusions to classic cinema, mixed with absurd dialogue and surreal imagery, noting the way that movies (and the industry that creates them) recreate our dreams and then slowly dismantle them.  By the time it's all over, he's built up the central conceit so deftly and with such fascinating ambiguity, you want to go back and watch it all again just to pick up what you missed.  That still happens to me, and I've seen the movie at least 12 times.