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My thought on today

10 great antiheroes

citizen_kane

Charles Foster Kane proves money and good intentions do not a hero make.

There’s nothing I love more than a really sneaky, unpredictable, hateful and delightfully ee-viyill* villain. Unless we’re talking about antiheroes. And if we are, well, that’s a horse — or should I say jackass? — of an entirely different color.

Few things are more intriguing than characters who do that wavering, drunken dance on the line between good and bad and seem to stumble onto both sides equally at random. Those are the people, the warts-and-all sorts, we root for because they are human in their imperfections. They are us, and us real-life dwellers can’t seem to resist seeing a bit of ourselves magnified and flung up on the silver screen.

Here’s a list of 10 antiheroes who’ve made me laugh, cry and feel guilty about liking them (just a tiny bit):

1. Charles Foster Kane, “Citizen Kane” — There are many who would argue that Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is most certainly a champion of the common man. Look again. Whatever good Kane achieves, there’s always an ulterior motive lurking in the corner: greed, the desire for control, arrogance. His ability to wrap these flaws in the cloak of good intentions makes him the quintessential, iconic antihero.

2. Alex, “A Clockwork Orange” — C.F. Kane may be an antihero for the ages, but Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the focus of Stanley Kubrick’s highly disturbing “A Clockwork Orange,” is nipping right at his heels. Or pointing a gun to the back of his head, more like. A rakehell who swigs drugged milk and patrols the streets of futuristic Britain raping women and revelling in mayhem — what’s to like about a guy like this? Alex has a few redeeming qualities that nudge him away from “villain,” but not so many that they make him good. He’s an antihero for the annals.

opposofsex2

There are nicer people than Dee Dee -- we call them "losers."

3. Dee Dee Truitt, “The Opposite of Sex” — When a narrator describes her mother as “a loser bitch” and seduces her gay brother’s boy toy, you know you’re not in for a heart-warming tale. Savage wit, anything-but-good intentions and snarky condescension are all we get from the unflappable Dee Dee Truitt (Christina Ricci), one of the pluckiest, snidest and most irresistible characters ever created.

4. Rob Gordon, “High Fidelity” — What can you say about a bitter, broke leading man (John Cusack) so self-absorbed he’d rather stew about failed relationships than pay attention to the woman who loves him? It wouldn’t be incorrect to use words like “conceited jerk” or even “rampaging jackass” to describe Rob, a record store owner who elevates wallowing in self pity into an art. He’s not a nice guy, or even a halfway decent one, but that’s exactly why he’s such a compelling character.

5. Lester Burnham, “American Beauty” — Kevin Spacey has made a great and acclaimed career out of playing himself playing people who, uh, seem a whole lot like Kevin Spacey. Lester Burnham, a lumpish, discontent and disengaged spectator in his own life, is no exception, but he is one of the sharpest characters Spacey’s put his sarcastic stamp on. When Lester finally jolts out of his coma, we’re cheering his efforts to embrace life. Or least buy a dime bag.

5. Danny Balint, “The Believer” — “Conflicted” hardly begins to describe Danny (Ryan Gosling, fearless in his quest to take difficult parts), a violent young man who turns on his Jewish upbringing to become a fiercely antisemitic KKK member. And herein lies the contradiction: Brutish as he is, Danny’s also an educated man capable of kindness and intelligent, rational thought. It’s hard to like a character like this, but it’s equally as hard not to find him truly fascinating. 

Good and bad do battle in Gerd Wiesler.

Good and bad do battle in Gerd Wiesler.

6. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, “The Lives of Others” — Nations that call themselves “Democratic Republics” tend to be anything but, so it seems that a man (Ulrich Mühe) who rises through the ranks of the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s secret police, would qualify as a villain. But the rigid, grim Gerd Wiesler finds humanity in the couple he’s ordered to survail, and soon his own humanity emerges.

7. Ray Elwood, “Buffalo Soldiers” — It’s no secret I’m mad for Joaquin Phoenix in most anything, but resistance is futile when he plays men like the manipulative, shrewd and morally flexible Ray Elwood, who tolerates other people only as long as he can use them for something. He’s a real cad, to be sure, though there are moments where flashes of real feeling peek through, and those keep us coming back for more.

8. Sherry, “SherryBaby” — As a rule Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t sign on for parts that have less than 37 layers of complexity, but she outdoes herself here as Sherry, a fresh-out-of-prison ex-heroin addict working to get custody of the daughter she hasn’t seen in years. She’s rude, immature, brash, selfish and confrontational, and her love for her daughter is tainted by a sense of entitlement — Sherry’s hardly her child’s beacon of hope. Yet we cannot write her off because she sees herself clearly and tries, in her small way, to change. That’s my kind of woman: a real one.

The only thing Bernie's good at? Losing. Hard.

The only thing Bernie's good at? Losing. Hard.

9. Bernie Lootz, “The Cooler” — Look up synonyms for “pathetic” in Merriam-Webster and you’ll likely find photos of Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) beside every single word. He’s unlucky to a fault, and what’s worse is that his bad luck is contagious — so much so that casino bosses use him to “cool off” gamblers on a hot streak. Yikes. There are many moments where you wonder what there is to like about this wimpy, hapless sadsack, but it all boils down to Macy, who plays Bernie as a man who accepts his faults and means well. Sometimes, that’s enough. 

10. Dawn Weiner, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” — Todd Solondz doesn’t really people his movies with “happy,” or even marginally cheery, characters, but Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) may be a new low even for the guy who made “Happiness.” Dawn’s a clueless nerd, the target of frequent and vicious bullying, which might endear her to us if she weren’t so dismally dull, whiny and downright cruel. She’s the girl you feel sorry for, No. 3 on this list might say, “but in real life you wouldn’t be sitting next to her either.”

 
*Hedley Lamar-approved pronunciation
Honorable mentions: Luke (“Cool Hand Luke”); Miles (“Sideways”); Jim McAllister (“Election”); Ruth (“Citizen Ruth”)

Embrace the mush: A few really good V.D. flicks

I made this New Year’s resolution, see, that it seems I’m going to have to keep in the face of the most unspeakable, unholy, unfathomable truth: Saturday is Valentine’s Day.

Still, I am nothing if not steadfast in keeping resolutions, and so I will struggle valiantly to accomplish Number One on my list: Do things people don’t expect. And you see, anyone who knows me will tell you the LAST thing I’d ever do on or near V.D. is make a list of ooshy, gooshy Valentine’s Day movies that warm this cold, cold heart of mine like a Snuggie.

Yet do the unexpected I must, so I dug down deep (whoa, alliterate much?) into the darkest corner of my psyche and unearthed a list of romantic movies — some comedy, some drama, some a McCombo of both — I’ll watch any day of the year, but especially on Valentine’s Day.

Because as it turns out, there is a tiny shred of romance left in me.

Great. I outed myself. Congratulations, universe. You win.

* “Lars and the Real Girl” — How could a film about a man in love with a life-size, anatomically-correct doll be funny, whimsical and deeply moving, you ask? There’s no way to explain it; you have to see it for yourself. What Ryan Gosling accomplishes as Lars, a tactile-phobic recluse, is spectacular. The expressions, the gestures, the quiet lines of dialogue all add up to an enormously entertaining little movie that’s as much a coming-of-age movie as a romantic comedy. This is beautiful, masterful work.

* “Slumdog Millionaire” — I suspect throwing “Slumdog” in the mix is cheating because it’s not out of theaters yet, but this is the kind of sweeping, decades-spanning romance that could not be left out. From frame one, “Slumdog” stamped out all my cynicism with its wild tale of two star-crossed lovers, Latika (Freida Pinto) and Jamal (Dev Patel), who spend a lifetime trying to reconnect. There’s passion, drama, intrigue, excitement and a soul-satisfying kiss. What more do you need?

* “Harold and Maude” — I’ve blathered on endlessly about my love for this 1971 cult favorite, but I’ll repeat myself (the movie’s that good): This is the kind of movie that redefines the rom-com genre. This is what romantic comedies should be: quirky (what’s quirkier than a life-loving octogenarian dating a morbid, death-obsessed teen-age boy?), intelligent, thoughtful, unexpectedly touching and life-affirming. It’s a work of art, plain and true, and it deserves a spot in the heart of anyone who appreciates truly original romantic movies.

* “Benny and Joon” — There’s nothing I love more than a romantic comedy that’s about more than two characters locking lips, and “Benny and Joon” fits the bill. This quaint little jewel tells the tale of an illiterate, Buster Keaton-imitating eccentric (Johnny Depp) and a whip-smart schizophrenic (Mary Stuart Masterson) who meet, change each others’ lives and then fall in love. This one aims to warm the cockles of the heart. Consider them warmed.

* “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — “Sunshine” isn’t so much a movie as a total experience for the mind, the heart and the senses. The costumes and colors and sequences are overwhelmingly original, and then there’s the plain love story: an emotional hermit (Jim Carrey) falls for an impulsive free spirit (Kate Winslet), and their relationship is simultaneously expectedly mundane and beautifully epic. And that, perhaps, is what makes “Sunshine” so brilliant; after all, isn’t every relationship boring and legendary in the mind of the lovers involved in it?

* “Definitely, Maybe” — Here’s a movie I walked into expecting to hate (the trailers alone made me gag) and walked out of thoroughly impressed. You see, “Definitely, Maybe” is smarter and twistier than the average rom-com; it uses the girl-meets-boy formula (times three, actually) but subverts it, then serves up an ending that is satisfying yet completely unexpected. It doesn’t hurt that it stars three first-rate actresses — Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz — who understand the importance of subtlety and comic timing. This is a romantic comedy for people who enjoy using their brains to watch movies.

* “Under the Tuscan Sun” — OK, confession time: I’ll watch any movie starring Diane Lane. She’s an actress of such vulnerability and wit that she elevates every project she takes on (well, except for “Untraceable”). “Tuscan Sun” is no exception. This is another gem that uses your own expectations against you, surprises you at almost every turn and leaves you feeling all warm and happy inside. As Frances, a divorcee who buys a crumbling villa in Italy, Lane is divine, and she’s surrounded by a strong cast — including Sandra Oh — against the backdrop of beyond-gorgeous Tuscany. If this one doesn’t lift your spirits, it’s because you have none.

* “High Fidelity” — Ah, nothing beats a movie that lets John Cusack do what he does best: Be John Cusack. (If you don’t get what that means, ask any reasonably intelligent woman. They get it.) And “High Fidelity” gives us Cusack at his witty, snarky best as Rob, a music snob reeling over a breakup with his girlfriend. His narration alone is great, but what makes “High Fidelity” memorable — and timeless — is Rob’s transformation from selfish S.O.B. to actual human being. And Jack Black’s in it. That doesn’t hurt, either.

* “Secretary” — Call me a cynic, but I fell hard for this WAY offbeat pitch-black romantic comedy about a self-mutilating secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who makes me go all aquiver inside even though I am a heterosexual woman) who engages in a little S&M with her unflinchingly rigid lawyer boss (James Spader). This isn’t “Debbie Does Dallas,” though — far from it. It’s the story of two outsiders who discover common interests — in this case, uh, bondage and whips — and begin to open themselves to the possibility of happiness and romance. They get all the neuroses and love each other because (not in spite of) them. I can’t think of anything more romantic than that.

* “Sideways” — For me, “Sideways” will forever be the movie where Paul Giamatti — who gets my vote for Sexiest Man Alive over Mel Gibson or Brad Pitt any day — stepped out of the shadows of two-bit sidekick parts and became a leading man. And what a leading man he is: As balding, failing writer/high school English teacher Miles Davis, he’s drowning his depression in Pinot and Xanax. Then he meets Maya (Virginia Madsen), a kind-hearted waitress and budding botanist who convinces Miles not to give up on life (or love) quite yet. There’s comedy, sure, but the real meat of “Sideways” is Miles and Maya’s tentative, awkward, slow-blooming relationship. This is no Cinderella tale — and thank God for that.