In one significant way, this was an unusual holiday session at the movies: with the exception of the latest butt-numbing installment of the Harry Potter series, all of the films were at, near, or below the two-hour mark. My backside still has memories of Christmas 1999, when the three-hour-or-so Angela’s Ashes, The Green Mile, Magnolia, and Any Given Sunday were in release, and I appreciated not having to stock up on Bengay as 2010 drew to a close.
Otherwise it was business as usual, with any number of end-of-year prestige releases that wallow in misery and despair and torment, just in more concentrated form. (The family pictures, like Yogi Bear and Gulliver’s Travels, transferred the misery and despair and torment to the parents stuck taking kids to them.) Still, you’ve heard they’re good, and maybe you want to see them, but just how much Paxil should you bring to the theater? To help, I brought my patented Gloom-O-Meter to the following movies, to measure the amount of bitterness and unhappiness generated by each. Movies that rate on the lower end of the 1-10 scale are of reasonably good cheer; the closer you get to 10, the more thoughts of suicide are likely to impair your judgment, and you are forbidden to drive a car, operate heavy machinery, or use kitchen implements for a period of no less than six hours in duration after viewing.
The Gloom-O-Meter is not a device for criticism; its function is to save lives. Please be advised that until V.2 can be perfected Another Year and Biutiful will not be tested, as both originate from filmmakers for whom every day is a rainy one. Let us begin.
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The Fighter should have been a contender. Look at the elements: A decrepit part of Massachusetts that makes The Town look like Shangri-La; big hair, bigger accents, and a colossal gaggle of harpy sisters to plague the protagonist in between brutal brawls; sibling rivalry; crack addiction; actors (Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Melissa Leo) who haven’t cracked a smile since Ross Perot ran for president. Plus a director, David O. Russell, who doesn’t go in for triumph-of-the-spirit sentiment and as executive producer Darren Aronofsky—audiences are being carried out on stretchers midway through his Black Swan. But somehow The Fighter, shot in a jittery, coffee-jag handheld style by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In), chases the blues away. Terrifically entertaining, it provides uplift on its own gritty, foul-mouthed, R-rated terms.
Gloom-O-Meter Reading: To my amazement, just a 2. I loved, loved, loved this movie, as Roger Ebert is fond of saying—and the filmmakers deserve credit for raising the emotional temperature this one time. Gloom dispelled, audiences need to make it more of a TKO at the boxoffice.
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Any movie set in rainy England between the wars, photographed in beige and brown tones, automatically gets a 5. But The King’s Speech, too, works itself down the scale, though stuttering is at least a 7 where afflictions are concerned. And, boy, does Colin Firth stammer in this movie—what will the closed captions be like on the DVD? Not since Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda has any actor had such paroxysms, and here no one dares laugh. Firth makes King George VI a terribly affecting monarch, with more than vocal troubles—the family dynamics are the royal equivalent of The Fighter’s—and his sparring with therapist Geoffrey Rush over his primary and underlying conditions is bound to leave a lump in your throat. I wince every time we former colonists make a fuss over, say, Henry and Kate, but in general I’m a sucker for monarchy movies, and aided by a fine cast and unfussy direction by HBO and BBC favorite Tom Hooper The King’s Speech is a good one—The Madness of King George, without the madness (and the rapier wit and the sharpened intellect, either; this is a simpler, though satisfying, exercise in bio-episodic drama).
Gloom-O-Meter Reading: Another 2, but the device registered alarm at co-star Guy Pearce’s face, which changes shape with every role. Bad work? Insufficient nutrition? Add an extra half-point to the reading for a 2.5.
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Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere flirts with some sad topics: prescription drug abuse and child neglect among the rich and aimless, the existential plight of being Stephen Dorff. But to be honest all I can really remember is the twin pole dancers who entertain Dorff, a C-lister cast as an A-lister, in a couple of scenes. Coppola is fixated on them, too—they whip and whirl and add further texture to a movie that seems to be nothing but surfaces, a snow globe in L.A. limpidly photographed by the great Harris Savides. I’m not complaining. If you get on her wavelength, the movie is fulfilling in its not-much-going-on-at-the-Chateau Marmont-way, and then Elle Fanning, as Dorff’s daughter, brings you up short with a breakdown scene where you realize that you’ve grown attached to these people and whatever’s bugging them. Abundantly artful it’s also a little touching, not that Coppola makes a big fuss about anything.
Gloom-O-Meter Reading: A 4, not that it can tell me why. It just feels like a 4.
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Just as True Grit takes a turn toward the warm-hearted it freezes us out with a starchy epilogue that left me quizzical; does the book end this way? Whatever—it’s a reminder that the Coens, comfortable with gallows humor and mutilation and an uglier American West than usually depicted in 1969, don’t do warmth, even in circumstances that seem to demand it. The Gloom-O-Meter could sense the audience getting ready to stand up and cheer, as the Dude, bequeathed the sedimentary voice of the late James Gammon, inherited the mantle of the Duke with a final burst of heroics; then, nothing, except an uptick of melancholy. Typical mid-level Coens: accomplished, puzzling.
Gloom-O-Meter Reading: Leave it to the brothers to take what should be a 1 or 2 movie and turning it into a 5.
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Movies about the death of children are an automatic 10. Movies with Nicole Kidman are inevitably harbingers of death at the boxoffice, so add another 5 points. Movies about child death starring Nicole Kidman bury the Gloom-O-Meter needle. But Rabbit Hole, sagely adapted for the screen by Pulitzer winner David Lindsay-Abaire and directed with tact and sensitivity by the normally less contained John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), isn’t as much a dirge as you might fear, as Kidman and Aaron Eckhart struggle to find a measure of comfort following the accidental death of their four-year-old, he with a ”professional wallower” (Kidman’s term) in their support group (Sandra Oh), she with the teenage driver (Miles Teller) who ran into the boy when he ran into the street. Kidman, excellent, gives it a bristling humor (for once her admirable commitment to independent filmmakers pays off), the cast (including Dianne Wiest as Kidman’s mother) in uniformly strong, and the terse, clear-headed, yet not chilly play has been brought to the screen with great clarity. Believe it or not it wouldn’t kill you to see it.
Gloom-O-Meter Reading: A 7, high but not outstanding. A 91-minute running time takes the edge off.
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The Gloom-O-Meter Star of the Season is Ryan Gosling. Never one to turn his frown upside down the actor welcomes us to the dreariest month of the year with a pair of perfect 10s. In All Good Things, a title dripping with all the expected ironies, Gosling plays a fictionalized version of Robert Durst, the assuredly unbalanced and quite possibly homicidal scion of a family of billionaire slumlords, bringing commoner wife Kirsten Dunst (and her dog, among others) a lot of implied grief as he works out father issues with an intimidating Frank Langella. Durst says he likes it, which gives you an idea of how carefully director Andrew Jarecki (of the fine documentary Capturing the Friedmans) had to thread the needle between fact and fiction. No Reversal of Fortune though not bad for morbid true-ish crime buffs, with Gosling keeping a wary distance throughout.
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All Good Things, however, is merely a warm-up for the awesomely wrenching Blue Valentine. Here Gosling and Michelle Williams, no slouch at sadness herself, grope toward what looks to be the end of their tattered marriage at a weird love hotel, where they revisit, in messy, non-chronological order, the highs and mostly the lows of their union. He’s needy and can’t hold a job; she has no self-worth, and despite a cute daughter (and—no beating around the bush about this—his zeal at eating her out, which got the film into hot water with the ratings board), feels imprisoned by his love and lack of ambition, as the chords of Grizzly Bear crash all around them. Derek Cianfrance’s long-gestating drama is kind of a love child, the progeny of John Cassavetes and P.T. Anderson, as the two performers semi-improvise like mad and finally go out in a closing credits cascade to rival the final act of Magnolia. You limp out of the thing fascinated and exhausted, dumbstruck, whipsawed by its scenes from a marriage–and, get this, there’s another dead dog involved. Gloom-O-Meter warning: Seeing these Goslings back-to-back is like playing ”Same Old Lang Syne” over and over again in a car slowly filling with carbon monoxide.
But let’s throttle things back, hit ”reset,” and clear our heads as we junk our Christmas trees. In the eye of the storm Blue Valentine has a charming performance by six-year-old Faith Wladyka, whose good example encouraged her co-star to loosen up and find something to sing about this holiday season.