Friday, December 31, 2010

Top Movies of 2010 — the list

Well here we are, folks, the final list of my top movies of 2010. As I said in last week’s post, I’ve seen a hell of a lot of movies this year, and plenty of them were pretty good. For all the disappointment I felt this summer brought, come fall it seemed one great thing was coming out after another. As overwhelmed as I kind of felt during the worst of it, it seems to have shaken out more or less, and I feel comfortable with the number of things I’ve seen this year. 

If you feel like checking my work, you can feel free to look through my list of movies I saw in 2010, but I don’t really think there’s any noticeable absences that would have made their way onto this list. I already spilled well past the borders of ten movies anyway, with many that I had fully intended to write about hitting the cutting room floor once I got serious about trimming the list down.  As it is, I don’t think I could cut any of these picks without feeling as if I’ve betrayed my experience of this year. I love all of these movies fully. 

The movies aren’t sorted in any particular order, and I have no intention of claiming one is better than the other.  I found a surprising correlation between my picks and most of the major critics of note this year, which makes me think I need to either A) see weirder stuff or B) start charging to talk about these movies. Hell, if my list can so closely mirror people who do this for a living, why am I doing it for free? 

Of course, all of that aside, great movies are great movies, no matter who calls them so.  These are some great movies. I hope you find the list worth your time. If something sounds interesting, go out and watch it! None of these movies are secret traps of so-bad-its-good. And feel free to share your list in the comments, or tell me how wrong I am, or maybe even agree with me. I mean, that last one isn’t as interesting, but I don’t mind being right.

All right. No more preamble!  Here comes


My Top Not-10 Movies of 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs The World                                              
directed by Edgar Wright

scott pilgrimThere are a lot of things I could write about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It’s a dense film, and it touches upon many things that I feel very passionately about beyond the scope of the store of the film itself.  It’s a monumental stride in integrating a subculture I’ve long been a part of into the greater mainstream of movies and art. And despite it’s initially disappointing impact at the box office, it seems to have found its audience on home video. 

But what Scott Pilgrim really is is a love letter to visual storytelling.  It’s a movie that lives to mesh images with words and dialogue and sounds to create something new and exciting.  In adapting the original graphic novel Edgar Wright has gone far beyond the most abstracted examples (Ang Lee’s version of Hulk, Sin City) to mesh conceits of that storytelling style into a filmic space.  Sound effects aren’t just given special notice, but they permeate the film.  Scenes slide into frame like panels, with aggressive use of split screen and jump cuts to create the feeling of the original graphic novel without relying on the actual animation of said panels to overstate the point.  Speed and sound lines drip off of everything.  It’s lush with effects, creating a world that’s part cartoon and part comic book but still feeling complete and grounded in its own strange reality. 

Scott Pilgrim is an ambitious film, in parts incredible action film, broad coming-of-age comedy, and off-beat romance.  But what its eccentric cast represents is the broken individuals of my generation, people too self-aware to not realize that they’re a mess of cliché but unable to do anything about it but laugh at themselves.  Nobody is wholly good, and the heroes are often as petty as the villains, but when isn’t that the case?  For all its unreality, Scott Pilgrim presents a more colorful version of the life I think most people live out every day. 

Of all the movies on this list, I feel Scott Pilgrim is the most fun, the most creative, and potentially the most flawed.  But it is amazing for all the things it reaches for, even if it doesn’t quite capture them.  It’s a film full of magic, insightful and clever even when it’s being stupid and awkward.  For all its unrealities, it is about the truth of all of our dreams, the life we live within our imagination.


The Ghost Writer                                                                                                                             
directed by Roman Polanski   

ghostwriterposterThe story of an author thrown in over his head, Polanski’s The Ghost Writer involves Ewan McGregor being hired on to write the memoirs of Pierce Brosnan playing a very Blair-esque British former Prime Minister recently accused of war crimes.  What begins as an uncomfortable story of ethics quickly evolves into something much more sinister as McGregor’s character begins digging up information on his client and those around him. 

The best thing about The Ghost Writer is how muted it is as a thriller. It’s laid out from the outset that whatever secrets are here have caused the likely death of one person already, but at the same time the story is about an author doing research for a biography. The ticking clock so paramount to the genre is almost non-existent, with only the hazy idea of a deadline for the book keeping McGregor’s writer moving at times when he’d happily rather just not push deeper into the labyrinth of the plot.

And it’s that easy pace that really makes The Ghost Writer surprising. Things unfold almost casually but end up in dark places, with conspiracies and paranoia blossoming naturally in the environment of political intrigue we find ourselves. It’s obvious that nobody is entirely trustworthy but it’s not clear whether it’s because of some dark secret or because that is simply the reality of modern politics. 

Special note should be given to Brosnan, who turns in perhaps his best performance as the beleaguered Adam Lang, a man who is little more than a pretty face in a nice suit to figurehead the motivations of others. It’s a subtle performance, a man deluded into thinking he has a legacy, slave to the policies set out by his betters. But Brosnan sells his helplessness with incredible charisma and empathy. When he arrives on scene, you want to believe he is what he claims to be, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

It’s a film that’s slow to unwind, but when it does get to its tension points it does so with an understated brutality that feels all the more real for doing so.  In many ways I was reminded of Michael Clayton, another thriller with a similarly muted sense of tension.  And like Michael Clayton, it lives by its inspired cast.  Also like Michael Clayton, it’s a fantastic film. 


The American                                                                    
directed by Anton Corbijn

theamericanposterThe American isn’t especially original.  It’s the story of a suave assassin played by Clooney who is doing One Last Job because he is Too Old For This Shit, and also probably Weary Of The Killing. Yeah, I know, you’ve seen all of those things before. Thankfully, a movie doesn’t have to be conceptually unique to provide a unique experience. 

The American is a quiet, understated film, a modern spin on French new wave cinema.  As such, for a film about assassins and for the brutally violent opening, most of the run time of The American is muted and incredibly understated.  Clooney’s unnamed assassin finds himself in a beautiful Italian village building a custom rifle for another assassin. At the same time, forces seem to be gathering against him, enemies hidden around every turn. 

It’s a film content to be still, about the paranoia of a quiet morning spent contemplating the obvious oncoming fate, the presence of an actor inhabiting a role so comfortably that there’s little need for exposition or even dialogue.  Instead it is devoted to a unique visual beauty—a fog drenched Italian city, beautiful women lit dimly in questionable places, the stark grace of Clooney assembling his instruments of death.  The American is the most European of movies on this list, with sensibilities that run counter to most of modern cinema. 

Which is what makes it so compelling to watch.  The movie is intense and remote, an internal monologue that the audience is never let in on, relationships that are hinted at but rarely explored, and all driven by Clooney as a man of deep emotion and few words trying to keep alive and morally intact.  It is a movie wrapped around the gravity of a single performance, that of Clooney reaffirming the argument that he’s the biggest star of his generation.


directed by Bong Joon-ho

mother_final_movie_posterMother is the perfect example of why South Korean movies continue to be some of the most refreshing, compelling foreign cinema out there. The story starts simple enough. Do-joon is a mentally disabled young man who works at his mother’s medicinal herb shop. The titular, unnamed mother dotes on Do-joon, henpecking the lowlifes he hangs out with and trying to keep her son out of trouble.

This all comes crashing down when a high school girl turns up dead and circumstantial evidence places Do-joon near the scene of the crime. The police, incompetent and bowing to intense public pressure (see Lady Vengeance for another example of appalling South Korean police work, which makes me wonder if there isn’t some truth to it) railroad Do-joon into custody, slapping him with an ineffectual attorney and tricking him into signing a confession.

This begins a quest by the Mother to prove Do-joon’s innocence, a trek that takes her throughout the town, uncovering the seedy truths of the world around her, finding her working with people she previously despised, as the truth slowly begins to reveal itself to her. 

The trappings are straight out of the best noir, but where Mother excels is in how quickly it transcends them. What begins as one story slowly morphs into another, as events take wild left turns that shock and horrify, but never seem out of place. It is an amazing character study, a deep exploration of just how far a parent’s love can go, and the dark places to which it leads.  It is in many ways a genre mashup, a close-to-the-vest thriller, a strangely touching character piece, all wrapped in an amateur detective story. But it remains incredibly compelling, powerfully acted and beautifully shot, even as it strays down the darkest of alleys.


I’m Still Here                                                                    
directed by Casey Affleck

imstillhereposterThis is undoubtedly going to be the most controversial movie on this list, but I’m okay with that.  From the beginning, I’m Still Here set out to be controversial, to spark discussion. In light of the truth of the film finally coming out shortly after its release, it was clear that all along the movie existed as a piece to engage the viewer to debate the things it was putting forth. The question of quality, then, rested entirely on how well it expressed those topics and how subtle or not subtle those questions were. 

I’m Still Here is first and foremost an uncomfortable film.  Even knowing that Joaquin’s performance as an unraveling version of himself is indeed a performance, it’s painful to watch.  He’s erratic, moody, his body and thoughts seeming to disintegrate in tandem from the figure audiences had come to know from his movies. That it’s captured with all the graceless mess of a seemingly home movie makes it all the more jarring. It is a party that has long since ceased to be fun, yet everyone is still there going at it just the same.

It’s obvious even from the beginning that his aspirations at a music career are little more than a pipe dream. He’s actively terrible, clueless as to how to begin and pushy and oblivious when people start trying to call him on the fact that he’s no musician. Yet, for all of this, the people closest to him and the people fartherst away, the celebrity watchers, do nothing. And that’s where the most troubling aspects of the movie come in.  Despite his obviously unwell state, nobody stops it. Nobody from the outside steps in and tries to intervene. The celebrity gossip machine marches forth, jokes aplenty, steamrolling over what could have been the last gasp of a very troubled man. But who cares, right? Everyone is far too self-invested or too skeptical to genuinely be concerned.

It’s a good thing the performance was just that, because otherwise everyone on that film would have been an accomplice to something awful, obviously neglecting a person in need of serious help.  And it’s that neglect that is most obvious in the film. This idea of stardom, of expectation, comes with it an easy disregard when people don’t live up to those images we project of them. Joaquin puts himself forward as a sacrifice to this machine of parody and spite, turning the lens more on it than himself. It is not a perfect film, but it’s a movie that dares to turn our fascination with celebrity back on us and ask whether or not we truly care or are just looking for the next scandal, the next tabloid explosion.

I Am Love                                                                          
directed by Luca Guadagnino 

i am love posterI Am Love is the hardest movie in this list for me to talk about, because so much of what makes it special is completely intangible.  It’s a movie about beauty, about the juxtaposition of image and sound, about the use of color and the lining up of the perfect shot. It simply defies proper encapsulation with words. And yet I’m going to give it a try anyway. 

I Am Love is a movie about the wealthy Recchi family, Italian textile manufacturers. Tancredi, recent heir to the family business, is left in co-ownership with his recalcitrant son Edoardo.  Tancredi’s wife, Emma, played by Swinton, is a native-Russian who in this period of familial turmoil begins to grow disaffected with the formal matriarchal status that has been thrust upon her, and begins to explore the idea of an affair with her son’s best friend, a chef named Antonio. 

Which doesn’t begin to touch the magic of this movie. The reality of I Am Love is one of a passionate spirit, long fettered by responsibility, beginning to shake that repression and rediscover a more sensual side of life. And it is expressed to perfection by the etherial Swinton, who carries the entire film, selling the fact she speaks Italian and Russian and not a lick of English, incredibly empathetic as a woman who is exploring new frontiers in her life. 

I could go on at length about I Am Love, but trying to write about texture and sense is a fool’s errand and that is the main focus of the film, from the sterile open to the operatic and overwhelming ending. I will include here the trailer, which is in itself a work of art in how it uses its music and images.  The film isn’t quite as kinetic as this, but the same care is taken with the texture of the film at large, care that is hard to find and much appreciated when it is done as well as this.


The Social Network                                                          
directed by David Fincher

the social network posterThe Social Network is the easiest choice for this list. It’s on just about every critic of note’s end of year list, it has universally positive reviews, and is on a very very short list of Best Picture frontrunners. Put simply, The Social Network is the safe bet.  That said, I’m not going to be some movie hipster and ignore what is one of the most tightly wound, well-paced, entertaining semi-true movies to come out this year. 

Love him or hate him, Zuckerberg is a presence in the world. But Fincher and Sorkin’s triumph is dragging what is a very insular, introverted personality out onto the screen, to be analyzed and critiqued and finally made relatable. For all the buzz about how negative the portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is in this movie, Jessie Eisenberg’s portrayal is, from the first moment, of a fragile man uncomfortable with everything in life but the inside of his own head. 

It’s easy to melt down the film into the broad strokes of what did or didn’t happen, but what’s great about The Social Network is how little that reality matters. The movie isn’t about telling us a true story, it’s about showing the perils of genius, the tenuousness of friendship in the face of ambition, and the ephemeral nature of all of our relationships in the modern era. Enemies, rivals, friends, business partners, it’s all relative and fluid and changing at the speed of light.  The Social Network is a frame of interaction in the era of the internet, both seen from the outside and living in that moment. It is the first great comment of many on the aughts, reflective without nostalgia, critical without anger or ignorance.


127 Hours                                                                          
directed by Danny Boyle

127hoursposter127 Hours is a pretty well-known quantity. The true story of Aaron Ralston, the hiker who got his arm pinned by a rock and then was stuck for the titular 127 hours before he cut his own arm off and escaped alive. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that going into it I was idly interested only due to the names attached. An uplifting survivalist story really isn’t my thing.

Except that’s not really what 127 Hours is about.  Yes, Franco as Ralston gets trapped under a rock. And yes, it has a similarly gruesomely triumphant ending, but the reality of the film is vastly different than the abstraction. 

First off is Danny Boyle’s typically hyperkinetic style.  It creates an amazing juxtaposition here between the modern life and internal monologue of Ralston and the incredible, monolithic static position he finds himself in.  It’s a film that balances perfectly between the concrete and the subjective. It’s a delicate line, but it is expressed with incredible compassion for the subject matter. 

But the real key is the story that’s hung upon the facts of the situation. Ralston’s story is one of survival, but in Boyle’s hands its transformed into an ode to the human spirit.  It is about the need for others, the struggle of the individual versus the social realities of today, a flawed hero discovering truths through suffering that would never have otherwise occurred to him.

It all runs a huge risk of being saccharine and preachy, but the film is neither of those things.  It’s swift and beautiful and shocking, but never does it rely too heavily on sentiment. There isn’t enough lucidity in Ralston’s experience, and too much bravery in Franco’s performance, for anything so easy. 


Exit Through the Gift Shop                                              
directed by Banksy

exit through the gift shopExit Through the Gift Shop got a lot of buzz earlier this year on account of many of the people who saw it being convinced that the story wasn’t true, that the documentary about the world of underground art was, in itself, a subversive art piece. What most people failed to realize is that there is nothing preventing the truth to be just as much a work of art as a work of fiction. Semantics be damned, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a compelling piece of art about art, no matter where the reality of the situation ends up. 

Initially the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant in Los Angeles who becomes obsessed with street art. Taking a camera and heading out into the night, he begins assembling the largest collection of first hand footage of the subject ever assembled, charting much of the emergence of the movement.  However, after an encounter with the enigmatic Banksy, it is revealed that for the thousands of hours of footage Guetta has filmed, he has no motivation or ability to put it together into the documentary he’s so fervently talked up.  Banksy offers to take custodianship of the footage in order to piece together something coherent from the madness and sends Guetta off to practice the street art he’s been so fascinated with. 

What happens next is part farce and part scathing critique of the art community, but it never feels untrue and never descends to outright parody. Exit Through the Gift Shop is amazing in how fine a line it walks, exploring the pretentions of the art world without openly criticizing them or where they come from, encouraging people to explore their own artistic talents by interviews with the most passionate, devoted street artists of the medium. But it’s also a cautionary tale, a story of too little talent and too much ambition, the power of hype, the dangers of association.

It is the perfect companion piece to a movement as controversial and divisive as modern street art, a loving tribute and a bitter critique, all wrapped up in an otherwise straightforward attempt to chronicle the history of the form.  The film is a work of art, Banksy’s insightful commentary on a medium he rose to the top of, a fable about dreams and where they can get you.  Truth or not, it is honest and incredibly compelling.

directed by Nathan Greno, Byron Howard

tangledposterTangled is the real surprise of this list, because I honestly went into the movie convinced that I was going to hate it.  Not because I’m inherently opposed to animated movies—far from it—but because I felt (and feel) that every single ad for the movie was singularly terrible.  It looked incredibly derivative, straight out of the Dreamworks playbook of overly self-aware, utterly lifeless gags broadly defined as ‘comedy’. 

Thankfully, the ads were simply terrible, and the movie was not.  In fact, it was great.  Tangled is easily the best thing Disney’s produced since Lilo & Stitch, and might belong to some of the best of their work from the mid-90s.  From the incredibly expressive, painted art style of the CG to the smart updates of the ‘Princess’ mythologies of Disney’s greater works, Tangled is a pretty remarkable achievement from a studio that’s been turning out work that ranged from meh to downright bad for years. 

The real triumph of Tangled is in its characters.  Rapunzel balances the enthusiasm of a young woman just learning to explore the greater world with the sadness and neurosis of someone who has been so reliant upon their (abusive) caretaker all their life.  The male lead, Flynn Rider, is a great subversive send up of the typical bravado-driven male leads in animated features in the past two decades without falling into easy parody. 

But the really amazing thing here is how the villain Mother Gothel, the woman who kidnapped and raised Rapunzel for her magical hair, relates to Rapunzel.  It’s an amazingly subtle dynamic, a parent who keeps her child under her thumb by instilling self-doubt and poor self-image through infuriating and all-too-relatable passive-aggressive jabs.  It’s a smart piece of work, and speaks to a more realistic way people relate to people, and parents sometimes relate to children, than you see in almost any animated feature that isn’t by Miyazaki.

It’s a surprising movie, on all fronts.  There’s a maturity of story-telling, without relying on pop culture references or jokes that only play to adults or kids, that is hard to resist.  There was a time when Disney produced some of the greatest movies, not just of animation but of the medium of film. Tangled is a great attempt to once again reach towards something greater than the narrow, disappointing box most children’s animation has been in in the modern era.


True Grit                                                                           
directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

truegritposterThe Coen Brothers initially seemed like a strange choice for a Western, as their brand of film usually involves the deeply eccentric and the intensely personal. That said, No Country for Old Men proved they could shoot a beautiful film when given the canvas to work with, and upon reflection True Grit is the perfect personal story for them to work with. 

True Grit is, at its core, a coming of age story. One girl with one task, set out in a world of uncertainty and danger, trying to find her way.  Which seems almost too simple, but in the Coen Brothers hands becomes something pretty magical. What purports to be a morality tale about the triumph of good over evil becomes an awakening to the villain in all people, the goodness and honor that even murderers carry. From the first scene, where young Mattie Ross stands stoically as condemned men speak their last words before being hanged, to the end where she is negotiating with outlaws, it is a morality tale set in an amoral time, a piece that makes no moral judgments. The men Mattie hires are as good and as evil as the man she seeks to capture. 

It’s amazing that a film hinges so heavily on an unknown actress, but Hailee Steinfield stands up to Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon giving pitch-perfect performances and not only holds her own but steals many of the scenes she’s in.  Special mention needs to be given to Damon, however, who is at his unlikable best as a boastful, slimy Texas Ranger who hits all the right notes of being an utter ass but who is, in many ways, the only real hero of the story.  It’s an impressive, surprising piece of character work, up there with Damon’s perfect performance in The Informant

For all of its intimacy, though, True Grit plays out with the epic scope befitting a Western. The Coen Brothers shoot a beautiful film, a dirty revisionist take on the Western that sometimes ascends to the abstract without feeling jarring. It is the desolate landscape writ large, made immediate and evocative, the perfect existential setting for the characters to inhabit. And they take to it perfectly, with some of the best dialogue in any movie this year, and one of the most compelling small character pieces.  For all the buzz Winter’s Bone got this year, I feel this is the movie that best reflects a young woman navigating through a space where the world of black and white becomes a world of greys. 


Black Swan                                                                        
directed by Darren Aronofsky

blackswanposterThere was a moment, halfway through the movie, that I was convinced I was going to hate Black Swan. The weird tension between Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman’s rival ballerinas had changed into something resembling friendship, and after a night on the town the two of them headed back to Natalie Portman’s depressing, sterile hell of an apartment that she shares with her possibly psychotic, definitely controlling mother. It’s a scene that could ruin the movie, an obvious bit of misdirection that seems built for the trailer more than to be believable in context. 

Yet for all of the precarious wire-work the film does in moments like these, when the erotic thriller moments dictate the plot beats, Black Swan is a film to be marveled at. Because as dangerously close to camp as Black Swan veers, it does so within the context of its story, one of madness and unreality, the artifice of art and the all too real impacts it has upon those who pursue illusive ideas like ‘perfection’.  Black Swan is a movie almost beguilingly without a twist, the ending presented to you within the first ten minutes of the movie yet so perfectly pitched that even when you know how it will (how it must) end, you find yourself wishing for a different result. 

And that is the genius of the film. As Natalie Portman’s character Nina descends deeper and deeper down into a place of devotion to craft that we know will exact a high price, we are torn between wishing it didn’t have to be this way and breathlessly hoping to see what emerges once she passes that metaphorical line in the sand. And Portman doesn’t disappoint. Her performance is the best she’s ever done, easily the best acting I have seen this year (and many others), until the finale, when the curtain falls and we’re left with an inevitable end that still manages to touch and move with an immediacy and passion that belies its ancient roots. 

Black Swan is more than a great movie, it is also a great dark fairy tale, a mood piece on art and personality, about the warring sides within all of us, and about the eternal chase for the impossibility of perfection and the power of humanity to realize artistic dreams at any cost. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

HMS Dichotomy

Let me present to this royal court
the tale of the  HMS Dichotomy,
brought before you all this day
as its crew needs a lobotomy.

For all the logic of seaward men
The Dicohomy openly flaunts
and the pow’r of God’s own physics
this damned ship sneers at and taunts.

She was built of timber in savage lands
curses laid upon the planks of her deck
a dark power that seized her wrights
until they all found escape by the neck.

The ship is seaworthy enough, tis a shock,
despite its non-Euclidean geometry.
It carries its conscripted souls safe and far,
that is, those souls that resist the urge to flee.

The masts were built on the underside,
sails replaced with the scales of a beast,
infernal machines that toil below.
She moves a fast clip, at the least.

The ships berth is no constant thing
unnatural rhythm of the hull’s breath,
until the men are kept up till late hours
contemplating the hell of this living death.

I beseech you, lords of the court, to find
in your deliberations the compassion
to scuttle this evil ship to the depths,
and never its like attempt to fashion.

And if you will not destroy it thus,
send it hence to the service of our foe,
for all the might of our royal navy
would ever cause them such depth of woe.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

written on christmas eve, 2010, to commemorate a dinner with old friends

We raise a toast to celebrate those that are here on this night. It doesn’t matter that it pains us all, so late and so cold, to venture from our families and out into the wild. The slick-song whisper of a snowy winter night beckoning us all to warmth and light and company.

We raise a toast because that’s what we’ve always done. We fondly remember those who could not be here, even when we don’t fondly remember those who are absent. It is a night for putting those things out of ones mind, at least sitting round the table with old friends such as these.

Roads taken. Roads forsaken. We are the results of our choices, sundered by the seas of time and distance and occupation. At times one looks upon those gathered and thinks that there but for the grace of god go I, other times a man heart swells with a dark jealousy for the fortune of friends, unspeakable longing for half-remembered futures and hastily constructed pasts. 

Years might have past. Days. Hours. Old jokes spring forth, easy informality a warm blanket against the season, laughter pours forth to smooth over the gaps in knowledge, the vast unmentionable spans of time between moments such as these. We gather not to remember that lack, but to celebrate the riches we have now. The memories. The stories. New stories or old, the stories are what bind us. We share and we grow closer.

Yes, we toast to all of this. To shared experience and experience shared. To those who left us, and those who could stay. And when we leave this table, we know not when we’ll sit here again. On this night, this yearly tradition, we come together more by fate than the calendar’s sway. And someday, in some distant future we can only barely dream about, perhaps we shall do it again. Yet if we only have this moment, this one cold evening where we came together in true friendship, then that will warm us on many more nights such as these where there is no fellowship to comfort us. 

We part, one by one, leaving as they came. Each back to their own heads, their own hearts, their own homes. Connections broken, destinies sundered. Alone. But with the ghost of togetherness, that ephemeral spark of company and happiness, to validate all the other, all the blackness and wondering and loneliness and nostalgia oh nostalgia that bitter drink of spoiled dreams and chased after moments. You sat at our table too, you ruiner, and marveled at us.

We thank you too for your silence, however brief it might have been.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Prelude to the End: 2010s Random Movie Awards

Three hundred and forty.  That’s how many movie’s I’ve seen in 2010 as of the time of writing this.  Don’t believe me? Don’t worry, I keep a list. That’s not quite a movie a day, but it’s awfully close and if you want to get real serious about it, nearly a dozen of those entries are TV seasons and should maybe count more than once.  Needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of time in 2010 watching movies. 

I can’t even begin to sum up what kind of an experience that’s been.  Movies are my passion, the thing that I enjoy doing more than anything else. Like any good passion, sometimes I let myself get carried away with it, but I really never regret it. We all have something in life, and this is my thing, and I’ll follow that cinematic rabbit hole as far as I have to.

Of course, that turns the movie awards at the end of the year into something of a mess. Yeah, I have picks for the top 10 movies that came out in 2010, but I also have innumerable other things I want to talk about. Movies that were great, moments that I felt like sharing, bad experiences I feel like others should suffer along with me. Movies are, at heart, a social medium. They were conceived to view with others, and even when we don’t do that so much anymore, they’re there to tell us our stories and encourage us to share with others.

So let’s talk some movies. Not the top movies, because that’s for next week after I’ve seen the last of the movies that are going to come out in theaters here before 2011 rolls up on my doorstep and starts demanding I retrain my fingers to type the year again. No, this is instead more of a hodgepodge collection of things I feel like talking about. Random would be the best word to describe it, though that isn’t to imply that I didn’t give these awards a lot of thought. 

So feel free to let me know what you think about any of this stuff. This is just the first course, a nice soup or salad to get you started. The main dish is coming next week, once I finally finish tying it all up with a neat bow (and hopefully cutting it down to 10, though I can promise NOTHING).  Until then, enjoy…



The Avatar Award – 2010s best argument for 3D                                                            
Step Up 3Dstepup3d

Look, I agree with everyone, 3D movies have a big problem.  For all the hype coming into this year, with Avatar blowing most people away with its spectacle (and even the haters have to admit, it was a spectacle) and bringing 3D to the masses, 2010 has been a piss poor showing for the fledgling display format.  For whatever reason—be it the difficulty in shooting in 3D, the length of production meaning movies in 2010 were already shot when Avatar made its impact, or just because everyone’s not sure how to approach what is supposedly a hard format to wrap one’s head around.

But some movies are definitely trying, and they come from the strangest places.  Which leads us to Step Up 3D, the third film in the dance/coming-of-age franchise.  Full disclosure, I’ve not seen the other films in this franchise as of the writing, but I doubt it’s going to be necessary. Step Up 3D isn’t going to win any awards with its story, with its simple rival dance teams/star-crossed lovers storyline.  But the part where it’s a dance movie is where it justifies not only itself, but the format it’s shot in.  

There’s a sense of shape and form to dance that really lends itself to 3D, with spaces being well defined and the intricacies of people performing a physical art well pops off the screen and is given a surprising energy through the layering of 3D.  It’s an enthralling thing to see, full of energy and a great sense of fun.  It’s a movie where the thing you came to see is most suited to the format, that increases the immersion and impact of the actions, and that’s what I feel 3D does best. 

2010s best movie of 2009                                                                                                  
House of the Devilhouseofthedevilposter

Classic horror is a hard thing ti pin down.  The genre has had some pretty extreme evolutions in its time, and many of the fond memories people have for old horror movies don’t hold up.  This is especially true for many of the low budget slasher films of the 70s and 80s.  So it is a great relief that a movie like House of the Devil exists, which is not only steeped in the history of horror, but validates a whole genre of movies that might not have ages particularly well by crafting a great modern entry into it. 

On the surface a tale of Satanic cults and of a girl being stalked for a sacrifice, House of the Devil sets itself apart from the seedier aspects of the genre by the incredible pacing choices, especially in the middle act.  The main girl, left in charge of an empty house and to watch over an old woman we have never seen sleeping in a top floor room, is a pitch-perfect 20 minutes of the most agonizing shots of her exploring this structure.

Any horror fan knows the shots to look for, the scenes staged in a doorway or at a high angle, where the camera sees more than the heroine, where the shot lingers a second too long and we expect a killer to appear in a hallway or mirror.  House of the Devil knows all these tricks, and extends the foreplay of the drawn out reveal until it becomes torture for the audience. The girl in peril goes about her business with an almost infuriating innocence, but for those of us who know what’s coming and can read the signs we’re being given, it had me squirming in my chair, wishing the tension would finally stop.   It is that pitch perfect tone, that balance between the slow build and the film cue combination assault that make House of the Devil stand out as one of the best horror movies in years.  

Film Unjustly Thrown Under a Bus By All You Assholes Award                                      
Let Me Inletmeinposter

I could say a lot of things about Let Me In.  But instead I just want to take a moment of silence to lament how poorly this movie did in the face of audience apathy and the most misplaced cinematic activism I have ever seen.  Oh, Let Me In, we hardly knew ye.

Now, let me tell you a bit about Let Me In.  It is both a remake of the Sweedish film Let The Right One In and the novel of the same name. Most people probably know the story by now, troubled boy meets mysterious girl who turns out to be a vampire.  But what most people don’t know is that Let Me In is as good of a movie as the original, in some ways an even better one. For one, the casting is stronger, with the boy played by Kodi Smit-McPhee offering a much more compelling main character than in the Swedish original.  Chloe Moretz, hot off of Kick-Ass, is amazing as a creature that is both beguilingly vulnerable and incredibly dangerous, a delicate balance between nostalgic longing and cruel brutality that the entire film is based in.  There are decisions made in this movie, from its 80s setting to the construction of specific shots, that give it a tone all its own, a tone that grounds the source material in our culture without destroying what it was. 

Yet for all its effort the movie has been largely ignored.  It’s a shame, as most of the people who refused to see it would probably very much enjoy it.  In a world with terrible remakes and adaptations, one must never forget that a good reworking of material, if it brings something new to the table, can be as effective as an original film.  Only the most foolish and short-sighted would forget that the history of cinema is littered with quality remakes.  Only the most stubborn, wrong-minded movie fan would ignore Let Me In. 

Bucket List Award for Best Film Experience of 2010                                                       
the restored Metropolis

metropolisposterThe best movie moment for me this year is a no brainer.  Earlier in the year, Kino Films released a restored version of Metropolis, the 1927 sci-fi epic. The story of Metropolis’ various versions is almost as incredible as the movie itself, but needless to say that the version they were putting out was vastly more complete and in better shape than the previous ‘definitive’ version which I had seen two years prior. 

In touring the country with the film, I had the opportunity to see it with a live performance of the soundtrack by the Alloy Orchestra, a three piece ensemble that performs a version of the original score to the film as it’s playing.  And if you have never seen a silent film with live music, it is a real treat, a mixture of the energy of a concert with the enjoyment of a great film, a mashup of mediums that is incredibly powerful in a way that’s hard to define. 

It doesn’t hurt that the restored version of Metropolis is a thing of beauty.  Now that the film is out on DVD and Blu-Ray, any fan of cinema needs to see it.  I consider it one of, if not the, most influential film ever made. It’s incredibly ambitious, effective even in the modern era, with a story that still resonates because it has been so often readapted in our time.  The new version is likely as complete a film as will ever exist, with only a few minutes now missing, and the picture it paints is sweeping and beautiful.  If you care at all about movies, you need to see Metropolis. 


Next Week’s Top 10’s Most Notable Absence                                                                   

Of all the movies that I expected to make it into my top movies of 2010 list, Inception was the most obvious. Christopher Nolan has always been a favorite director of mine, with many of his films ranking as my favorites of that year and Memento easily in my top 5 movies ever.

So how wouldn’t I like Inception? It’s a complex, well-made, intricately structured puzzle box of a movie, a movie with great actors doing crazy things, a movie for people who like their movies both epic and intelligent. I can’t deny any of those things. Inception is a great movie, to be sure.  But it still didn’t make the cut onto my top 10 list, and I feel like I should explain why.

The problem with Inception isn’t a lack of skill but a lack of heart. For all of its bombast (and it’s got that in spades) and intricate layering of plot (that too!) Inception is a very cold movie. For the first half of the movie characters are laying out the groundwork of this universe in such painstaking detail that character moments are breezy and limited, and in the second half the action and scope expand too far for all but the most cursory emotional beats. It’s only at the end that Nolan remembers to engage the heartstrings, at which point it starts to feel too late.  There is too much world building and not enough character building to make those emotional moments pay off in any real way.

The problem is that in many ways Inception isn’t a great story. It is an amazing clock, a framework of gears that are laid out for us neatly and tick inevitably towards the conclusion. But clocks are inherently dispassionate and in deciding to be a clockmaker over a filmmaker, Nolan turns Inception into something remote, just out of the ability to fully empathize with. Which means, for all its greatness, it becomes a movie to be respected rather than a movie to be loved.  As such, I couldn’t justify putting it on my list, when there are so many things I DO love that have come out this year.


The Badass Award for New Achievements in Ridiculousness                                             
The Good The Bad and The Weird

goodbadweirdposterKorean cinema is a strange beast. I’ve normally been more exposed to Japanese cinema, with its traditional history and modern descent into weird, fanboy-exploitation nonsense. It’s fun, it’s weird, but it’s all kind of easily pegged as ‘crazy Japanese movie’.  I’m simplifying, of course, but that’s certainly true of most of the things that make it to our shores.  Korean movies, on the other hand, seem to come from a place where there are no rules. Genre doesn’t seem to really matter. Comedy and drama walk hand in hand without feeling pandering. A horror movie can be touching. A noir movie can be horrifying, or hilarious, or absurd.

The Good, The Bad, and The Weird is, on paper, a reinterpretation of Sergio Leone’s masterpiece The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It’s about three gunslingers of questionable morality going after a McGuffin that carries them all across the countryside as their paths continue to cross. But instead of the American southwest, this movie takes place in China, and instead of Leone’s carefully paced, methodical epic of a film, this movie goes at a hundred miles an hour.

Part action movie, part revenge drama, part absurdist comedy, The Good The Bad and The Weird is at times hilarious and at times depressing, but it is always awesome. Whether people are swinging across vast sets shooting six-shooters like they were automatic rifles, or horses and jeeps get involved car chases better paced than most modern car chase movies, or with wild music selections that elaborate on many of the absurd Spaghetti Western choices Tarantino made for the Kill Bill movies, The Good The Bad and The Weird is relentless in its quest to be badass. And it succeeds admirably, making it all look effortless and cool and exhilarating. It takes a lot of balls to try to so blatantly riff on an undeniable classic like Leone’s masterpiece, but this movie’s got balls to spare.


The Back Catalogue Award (best movie pre-2009 I saw in 2010)                                    
Double Indemnity doubleindemnityposter

This was the hardest award to peg down, simply because I’ve seen so many great movies in 2010. But of them all, only one or two jumped out at me as possible contenders for this award, and it was easy to pick the winner out of that list. Double Indemnity is not only one of the best examples of film noir, but it’s one fo the best movies ever made. 

It’s not just the weaving plot, which has its twists and turns, danger and dames, murder and intrigue, but it’s the incredible dialogue, the characters that exude a deadly charm, the incredible cinematography, all shadows and framing. 

Just look at this piece of dialogue when the two leads, played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, meet for the first time:

Phyllis: I hope I've got my face on straight.
Neff: Perfect for my money.
Phyllis: Neff is the name, isn't it?
Neff: Yeah, two 'Fs,' like in Philadelphia, if you know the story.
Phyllis: What story?
Neff: The Philadelphia Story.

There is something about Double Indemnity, the pace at which it moves, the inevitability of violence and its fallout, the lack of any truly noble character, that makes it a marvel to watch. It’s not that they don’t make movies like that anymore, it’s that they never did. Double Indemnity is one of a kind.


Best Direct to DVD Movie                                                                                                 
Batman: Under the Red Hood

batmanredhoodposterBatman: Under the Red Hood is the 2nd best Batman movie of all time, right behind Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.  Yeah, I’l let you think about that for a second.  But it shouldn’t be any real surprise. Batman has always worked better in his animated outings than he has in his live-action ones, and as much as I like the Nolan adaptation of the character, nothing has quite felt as genuinely Batman since Batman: The Animated Series went off the air.  Kevin Conroy’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader will always be the Batman I hear in my head..

That said, the adaptation of   the darker, more violent “Death in the Family” and “Under the Hood” comic story arcs collected here in one movie serves as one of the more honest appraisals of Batman ever committed to film.  Batman is a man driven, and in his quest to achieve his goals often he strays far over the line of what constitutes heroic behavior. 

This movie is probably the darkest Batman story on film, a story of death and betrayal, of the potential for good intentions to go horribly awry, the struggle of a man devoted to stopping evil struggling not to cross over the line to become evil himself.  It feels very devoted to telling a Batman universe story without compromise, a story of the human responses (both inspirational and disheartening) to the dark side of life.


2010’s Most Disappointing Movie                                                                                     
The Expendablesexpendablesposter

The Expendables is not the worst movie of 2010, but it is decidedly the most disappointing.  The initial reports about what the movie was going to be about seemed like a movie buff’s wet dream—gather together every famous and not-exactly-famous action star from the last 20 years and throw them into one giant, ridiculous homage to the action films of yore.  This movie was, before production had kicked off, one of my most anticipated movies of this year.  How could you fuck that up? 

It turns out, it’s not actually all that difficult.  First off, right out of the gate, Stallone had to compromise on the cast. Names that should have been on this movie were approached and turned it down: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, Steven Seagal, Kurt Russell.  Instead we get wrestlers and NFL stars.  Second, for an homage to the lost action movies of yore, The Expendables suffers by emulating the worst part of the modern entries in the genre.  

CG is all over the movie. I’m not sure there’s a single actual squib going off in the entire movie, as each bullet hit is a mess of crazy, cartoonishly dumb CG blood. Guns are incredibly over exaggerated, shotguns blowing people limb from limb at range.  It’s a ridiculousness borne out of modern Asian action films, but with none of the sense of play.  Instead, The Expendables is oppressively self-serious. What should have been a riff of actors hamming it up and causing chaos turns into a story about a mercenary team liberating an oppressed people and oh yeah they have family issues at home, too.  It is a tumor of misspent machismo, a world where people call each other “brother” unironically. For all of its promise, it’s a sagging, unfortunate reminder that the classic action movie is dead, never to return. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Podcast is Born!

So, ever since I started listening to the damn things, I’ve wanted to do a podcast. There are a number of reasons, chief among them being I Like to Talk, and I Have A Lot Of Opinions. Those seem like good reasons to do anything, so I’ve been hunting for the right topics, the right venue, and the right cohost.

Well, I’m still looking. (But seriously folks) in the meantime I decided to go ahead and make one with the ever engaging Elizabeth Ditty, who is my partner in crime when it comes to talking way too much about movies. But instead of allowing it to become a petty back and forth in an IM window, we’ve burst our discussion out onto the greater internet for you all to enjoy!

That’s right, we have a movie podcast up RIGHT NOW. Here’s the link: YO CLICK ME BITCHES! Also see the handy embedded player below. The hosting solution probably isn’t permanent, but it’ll do while we find our feet.

The topics covered in our first amazing episode include such delights as:

  • Why 3D movies are ruining theaters.
  • The whole mess of movies coming out this holiday seasons.
  • 127 Hours
  • Black Swan
  • Some Netflix whoring and recommendations for movies to watch that aren’t in a theater.

We’re planning to do another one of these next month, but between now and then we need your feedback. Among other things, we have no title for our little Christmas miracle of a show, and are offering a CASH PRIZE (well, as close as an amazon gift card gets to a cash prize) for the person who offers up the perfect name.

So have a listen, comment either here on this blog post or on Elizabeth’s, and you can always hit either of us up on twitter for a more immediate sense of communication in this bleak, lonely world (I am @litrock and she is @ditty1013, and you should definitely be following her if you are me!). Enjoy the podcast, have a great Christmas and New Years, and stay tuned this week for more movie-themed madness as I go in depth about my favorite stuff this year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

deep down tasty

“In the afternoon, the sun often heats the city up into the triple digits, especially in the early afternoon before the rain comes,” Carolyn read from the guide book.

“Great,” her husband huffed beside her.  “I already feel like I’m drowning just from breathing the air.  How can it get any hotter?”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” she said.  “Look at all the people going about their business like nothing is strange.”

“Yeah, but they live here,” Tyler said, taking another deep breath and grimacing.  His hair, carefully styled to impress as they left the hotel this morning, was matted down onto his forehead with sweat.  He continually pulled it back, trying to wring the moisture out of it, but there was no way to escape what it was doing to him.  He felt deflated. 

"Well, we don’t want to stand out, do we?”  She seemed to be holding up to the heat a lot better.  Her hair was naturally thin and pulled back in a pony-tail that hadn’t moved since she tied it back.  The heat just gave her skin a beautiful glow.  Tyler was envious, even as he realized how stupid that was.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s keep moving.  Maybe one of these huts has an AC.”

Carolyn rolled her eyes.  “They’re huts!  Most of them don’t look like they have electricity. But I’ll tell you what, you humor me while I find something crazy at one of these stalls, and we’ll head over to the restaurant street and get some lunch. Or at least some water.  They all looked like proper buildings.  At least they’d be inside.” 

“It’s your day to pick,” Tyler said.  Yesterday he had picked a hike up to the mountains that loomed above them to the north. It had been fun, to see this dense jungle give way to the kinds of trees he recognized. It had been refreshing to feel the air get cooler.  In fact, their hike had taken them high up to where there were still lingering patches of snow.

The memory of snow made him suddenly feel wrung out and dehydrated.  What he wouldn’t give for a sno-cone right about now. 

Carolyn lead the way to a variety of stalls, looking for souvenirs to take back.  This was their big shopping day, the one he had agreed to, so he couldn’t complain too loudly. That didn’t stop Carolyn from doing the same, however.  Many of the stalls sold the same cheap trinkets they had seen and refused to buy on the cruise ship.

“I don’t understand how hard it is to find a good shop,” she said.  “I just want something interesting.  A piece of art, a small statue or something, maybe a homemade fabric.”

“It doesn’t look like anyone here is wearing homemade fabric,” Tyler said.  “They’re wearing the same stuff anyone does. I think I saw an Ed Hardy shirt on that guy who was selling the beaded necklaces.” 

“Ugh,” Carolyn, totally disgusted, stormed down to the end of the street, checking every stall with a glance.  Then she marched back up to Tyler and grabbed him by the arm.  “There’s nothing here.  Come on, let’s go get something to eat.  We’ll ask one of the locals while we’re eating.  Maybe they can point us in the right direction.”

“No arguments here,” Tyler said, taking the lead and making their way up the street towards the road that lead to all of the town’s restaurants.  They were all clustered together, a menagerie of signs, people drifting in an out at a steady pace.  It was shortly past the lunch rush, more people leaving than were coming. 

“Where do you want to eat?” Tyler asked her. 

Carolyn looked around.  There were multiple restaurants that seemed to be themed, colorful decorations of pirates or voodoo or whatever else they thought people wanted to see. Tyler could practically hear her sneer beside him as she looked at those. 

Beside those were the ones catering to the unadventurous, places that offered ‘down home American food’.  Tyler was baffled by that. Why come all this way to get a cheeseburger?  He could stay on the boat and get that garbage.  This did not bode well for finding a nice, quiet, authentic place to eat. 

“What about that one?”  Carolyn pointed, and Tyler looked down the street to a small little place near the far end of the street.  It looked incredibly small, tucked between two of the larger establishments.  And the front of the restaurant was incredibly modest, the window a large painted sign that said On Shoals: the edibles is deep down tasty. 

“They can’t even use proper English on the sign,” Tyler said with a sigh. 

“Exactly.  Obviously they’re not concerned with marketing themselves.  They must be a bunch of locals.  Probably generations of people who worked there.  Come on, let’s go.”

“I guess,” Tyler said.  “I don’t know if I’d trust seafood from a place that can’t even write a sign.”

“Oh, stop being so stuck up.  You wanted an adventure, this’ll be one.  Think of it as gastronomical hiking.”

“Right,” Tyler said, but decided to play along.  The two of them went into the small restaurant, blinded by the darkness of the interior compared to the bright sunshine outside. It was, at least, mercifully cool inside.  It felt almost like a cellar, a vaguely damp sort of darkness that Tyler remembered from the basement of the house he grew up in.

“Can I help you?” A voice called out from the darkness. It was heavy with the accent of the island, but Tyler had a hard time locating it at first.  Carolyn, who was obviously adjusting to the dark better than him, took the initiative. 

“Yes, we’d like a table for two, please.”

“Of course,” the figure said, and Tyler felt he could make out the flash of white teeth in a broad smile, but that was all he could see.  Carolyn pulled him along as they made their way further into the restaurant, where there were dim lamps illuminating each of the alcoves where a booth was.  In the darkness, it was impossible to tell which booths were full and which were empty.  There was no natural light, the one window of the building painted over for that unfortunate sign. 

They sat down and Tyler could now make out the face of their server, a strikingly tall, thin woman.  She had much darker skin than most of the people on the island, which made her broad smile stand out all the more.  It was nearly dazzling.  Tyler wondered, for a second, whether or not he had some sort of heatstroke. The cool air made him feel completely detached from what was going on.

“What can I get you two to drink?” she asked, her voice lyrical.  Tyler blinked, and hesitated. 

“Iced tea for the two of us,” Carolyn said. The woman nodded and disappeared into the darkness again. 

“See?” she said once the woman had left.  “This is nice,” she said.  “Quiet, romantic, perfect.”

Tyler looked around, his eyes starting to adjust.  The restaurant was certainly dark, though not nearly as much as he had thought upon first walking in.  The booths were very isolated, lined up along one side of the narrow building, the other side taken up by a large, ornate bar. 

“Yeah, it’s nice,” he said. 

The girl quickly came back with their drinks and handed them menus.  Carolyn spoke up, though.  “What do you suggest we get?” she asked the woman.  “We’re feeling adventurous.”

The woman smiled again, all teeth and grinning eyes.  “Of course, ma’am. I might suggest the house soup.  The chef makes it himself, it’s an old family recipe. Fills you up, but doesn’t make you feel sleepy or too heavy to go back out into the sun. And, we just cooked up a new batch, completely fresh.”

“Perfect,” Carolyn said.  “We’ll have two.”

“Escellent choice,” she said, taking the menus and disappearing quickly once again.  Tyler watched her go, and then took a long drink of his tea. 

“You know…” he started.  “Maybe I didn’t want the soup, did you ever think that?”

“Oh, c’mon,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve ordered for you before.” 

“Mhm, right,” Tyler said, but with an obvious grin.  Carolyn lightly kicked him under the table, and the two of them broke out in quiet laughter. 

Their soup was brought out to them pretty quickly, two large bowls.  The ingredients weren’t immediately apparent but the soup smelled incredible.  Tyler suddenly felt his stomach, which had been fine, growl impatiently.  His hunger was immediate and vast.  “Oh man, this looks great,” he said aloud as he reached for his spoon. 

“Glad you think so,” the woman said.  “Go ahead, take a taste, see how it suits you.” 

They both lowered their spoons and took a taste of the soup, some sort of meat and vegetable stew.  It was rich and spicy but refreshing in ways that Tyler couldn’t immediately identify.  He eagerly scooped up another spoonful, downing it even quicker than the first. 

Carolyn talked around the spoon in her mouth, “This is good,” she said.  She quickly followed with her second spoonful.  “No, scratch that, this is fantastic.”

“I’m glad you think so,” their smiling server said to them.  “I’ll be happy to tell the cook.”  She then turned and disappeared into the back room once again, leaving them to their meal. 

The next ten minutes were spent in relative silence, punctuated only by the quiet scrape of spoons against bowls and the slurping of soup being happily eaten.  Neither of them seemed to get enough of their meal, one spoonful after another, until they were both drinking the last of the broth out of the bowls.  They both leaned back, almost in unison, and groaned their satisfaction. 

“That was … oh man,” Tyler said. 

“Tell me about it.”  Carolyn took a deep breath, adjusting on her bench.  “I hope I didn’t overdo it.” 

“We can always go take a nap if that’s the case,” he said.  He turned to look for their server, who didn’t seem to be out in the main dining room.  “I have to talk to the chef, find out what’s in that soup.”

“If it’s a family recipe, he probably won’t tell you,” she said.  “You know, cooks guarding their secrets and all.”

“Doesn’t hurt to ask,” he said, standing up.  He stretched and sighed happily.  “That was super satisfying.  Come on, let’s find the cook. I at least have to let him know that he deserves the huge tip he’s getting.”

“All right,” Carolyn said, climbing out of her side of the booth.  The two of them looked down the rest of the restaurant, where there were two doors, one swinging door that seemed to lead to the kitchen and another, proper door with a handle. 

“Probably that one,” Carolyn said, gesturing to the swinging door. 

As they walked towards it, Tyler took a look around the room.  It was surprisingly quiet, and Tyler noticed that all the booths but theirs seemed to be empty.  He had a moment of disquiet, but shrugged it off as it being the down time and this being kind of an out of the way place.  He headed towards the kitchen door and began pushing it open.


The voice behind him was startling, but it was too late.  Tyler pushed the swinging door to the kitchen open even as he looked behind him to see their server come out of the other room, her face contorting with horror, her mouth a silent O of outrage, her teeth still large and bright.  He also felt Carolyn freeze up next to him, a kind of sudden rigid jolt that was so sudden it pulled his attention towards her. 

“What’s wrong?”he said, addressing both their server and Carolyn at the same time.  The server was running up to them, but when Tyler turned to look at Carolyn, he noticed her looking ahead, stock still, her skin suddenly incredibly pale, her hand which had reached out for the door trembling in the air, frozen. 

“What’s going on?”  Tyler turned, even as he saw their server rushing towards him, her teeth bright, her mouth wide, her features distorted in the darkness and how quickly he looked into the kitchen.  When he saw what was in the kitchen, his concerns about their server were forgotten compared to what he saw in here.

In the middle of the room was a spit, a long slab of meat roasting over a heating element, turning automatically.  It made Tyler think about rotisserie chicken, but it was obvious whatever the meat came from was much larger than a chicken.  Then he spotted the bones, the long white bones and the rounded skull, as familiar as any anatomy textbook or police procedural on TV, sitting on the table, haphazardly scraped of all meat. 

And then he saw the thing that Carolyn had seen, the thing that caused her to go completely rigid.  The large pot of soup, more of a barrel than a pot, and the monstrous thing stirring the pot.  It was large, with a blue-black shell that reminded Tyler of a beetle, but it moved more like a squid, long black tentacles spreading throughout the kitchen, mixing sauces and grabbing spices, bringing it all to the cauldron where the stew was simmering. 

The creature seemed to look up at the noise and intrusion, its face a mass of white jellied things that must have been eyes, though they were unlike anything Tyler had ever seen.  It had a long mouth, a snout of sorts that was almost like another tentacle, though on it was a thick beak like that of the parrots he had seen just this morning perched on the island. 

The beak opened, squawking at him in sounds that made his teeth ache.  He tried to move, but found he couldn’t, watching this thing’s many arms set down the various tools it was using and reach out towards him, a mass of tentacles that slowly slithered along the floors and walls, up the door, reaching for him and Carolyn’s extended limbs. 

As the first one touched his skin, cold and wet and exuding some viscous slime he couldn’t begin to name, he turned and saw their server push between them.  No, not push.  She was slithering, her slender body distended, her neck seemingly as long as his arm, her wide mouth now permanently an O, the white teeth a ring of teeth around that gaping maw as it clamped down on his arm.  He felt the teeth moving, seemingly hundreds of them, and felt a searing pain even as the first tentacle pulled him forward.

He didn’t even have time to properly scream.

Nighttime.  The lights strung up all over town were lit up, fires burning on torches, the whole city awash with a bright glow.  An older couple, silver-haired asians, walked into the small restaurant.  They were shown a table, talking cheerfully between themselves. 

“What is best?” the husband asked in broken English. 

“The soup,” the server said, a tall, slender girl with bright eyes and an even brighter smile.  She intimidated the man, but he said nothing.  He did not see people who looked like her very often, and he was old and unused to the wider world.  But his wife had been so happy to finally go on this trip now that he had retired. 

“What kind soup?” 

The woman’s smile widened, if that was possible.  “Chef’s secret recipe.  But it’s very good. Been passed down for generations.  And just special this evening, we have a fresh batch of it. New ingredients passed through that very same door you did not four hours ago.”

His wife smiled enthusiastically, her eyes wide.  They had been eating at Pirate Pete’s the past two days, and their food had been stale and terrible and overpriced.  This, at least, seemed like the real thing.  He nodded his agreement. 

“Two fresh soups.” 

“Gladly, sir.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Piece of Cake

“And don’t forget to pick up my cake!”

Helen’s voice was shrill even from a floor away. Renold sighed and walked out to his truck, trying to keep the list of things he had to get in his head. Not only did he have to stop and pick up a variety of parts to fix the leaking sink, he also had to pick up some groceries and medicine.

And now she wanted her cake on top of it?

Renold gingerly climbed into the truck. At nearing eighty years on this earth, he found going out and running errands took more and more effort each time. His hips ached and feet and hands were cold no matter how many layers he seemed to wear.

Renold drove through the snowy streets down to the hardware store in town to pick up some drain cleaner, a few lengths of pipe, some washers and bolts. Next door was the grocers, where he picked up the fixings for a big pot of ham bone soup and his next batch of insulin.

Then was the long trek to the bakery to pick up Helen’s blasted cake. She wouldn’t settle for just any cake, store bought or made at home. No, he had to go to a small, ornate bakery twenty minutes away on the other side of town. He wasn’t sure who was the bigger fool: her for thinking the trip was worth it or him for making it despite knowing better.

Ah, the joys of marriage.

He pulled up to the bakery and entered. Just like they did every week, the young girls on staff welcomed him in. He had been coming here like clockwork for over a decade now.

“Good morning, Mr. Irving,” the girl at the register said as he came in. He couldn’t remember if her name was Naomi or Kelly, his glasses too fogged up from coming in from the cold to fake it and make out her nametag.

“It’s certainly been a morning. Nobody knows how to drive in this weather.”

“Well me about it,” she said. “I had someone take off my mirror the other day trying to change lanes into me.”

Renold did a good job feigning alarm. “I hope you’re okay.”

“Yeah, thankfully they were quick about getting back into their own lane, and I was quick about noting their license plate. But once there’s snow on the streets you better believe everyone’s going to lose their minds.”

“Anyway, can I get a piece of your cheesecake, to go?”

“Certainly,” she said, heading over to the glass display case and pulling out the cake. “You sure you don’t want anything for yourself?’

“I can’t,” Renold said. “With the diabetus and all.” He pronounced it with all the Brimley-esque nobility he could, mostly because he knew the young girls here thought it was funny when he did so. He was rewarded with a smile and a small laugh for his trouble.”

“We have sugar free stuff, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” he said. “But you wouldn’t sit a starving man in front of a banquet and tell him he can have a saltine, would you?”

“Of course not, but … oh,” she said, his comparison dawning on her. She shook her head. “I can only imagine. Why come in here, then?”

“The missus insists this is the best in town, and heaven knows that after fifty years I’m pretty sure it’s just the liberal application of baked goods that really keeps a marriage together.”

The girl cut off a slice and boxed it up like they did every week. “Well, your wife at least has good taste,” she said, giving him a big grin. He had the good taste to look a little embarrassed.

“Thanks,” he said, paying for the slice of cake. “Have a good day.”

“You too,” she called after him. “See you next week.”

* * *

Renold sat all the bags he had brought on the kitchen table. From the floor above him, Helen’s voice called down. “You got my cake?”

“Of course,” Renold said loudly, trying not to let the frown on his face show in his voice.

“Bring it up!”

“I will,” he said, looking at the bags before him. “Give me a second. I have to put this stuff away.”

“Don’t take too long,” she said, her voice drifting off. Renold got to work putting all the tools out for when he’d need them later. Then he got out his syringe and gave himself his scheduled dose of insulin. Once he was done, however, he didn’t immediately pack up his stuff. Instead, he looked at the things spread out on the table. And he popped open the lid to the drain cleaner and dipped the needle into the liquid, pulling up the plunger and with it some of the noxious looking blue liquid.

He turned and opened up the box with the cake. The needle slid in, so tiny it wouldn’t leave a mark. Renold depressed the plunger in a few spots, little drops of the cleaner that quickly diffused into the cake. He had been doing this long enough that he knew just which type to buy that it didn’t taste funny. She certainly hadn’t noticed by now, and he expected she was far too gone to at this point.

That done, he tossed the needle in his hazard bin and washed the syringe well. It wouldn’t do to have traces of that cleaner in the syringe when he used it. That stuff was dangerous!

His medical supplies safely put away, he grabbed a fork and took the box containing the cake up to Helen’s bedroom. Soon she would be happily eating her weekly treat, then she’d lay back down feeling ill and he could have piece for a few hours longer.

Cake really was the glue that held a marriage together.