Sunday, February 27, 2011

WalrusList: The 10 Greatest Oscar Injustices of the Past 20 years.

Tonight, the 83rd annual Academy Awards will bring us yet another round of gold trophies to debate and flame-war over. It's shaping up to be a fight between Tom Hooper's The King's Speech and David Fincher's The Social Network for the top award, and there are more than a few film writers and movie geeks who will cry FOUL if the feel good period piece wins out over the socially relevant social media drama. With that in mind, let's take a look back at the last two decades of the Oscars to see where else they've gone wrong. Here, in chronological order, are the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' absolute worst "What the hell were they thinking?" moments.

Dances with Wolves defeats Goodfellas, 1991
How do you get the balls to say no to these guys?
Confession of bias in this instance: Goodfellas is my favorite film. I'm talking hands down here. No second thoughts about Casablanca or Citizen Kane or The Godfather. Martin Scorsese's 1990 gangster epic will always and forever be the peak of cinematic achievement.
But even if that weren't true...
Dances With Wolves did not deserve to win Best Picture. Nor did it deserve to win Best Director for Kevin Costner (who blessedly lost the acting award). Perhaps it deserved the Best Original Score win for composer John Barry, but I still happen to think John Williams' work on Home Alone was catchier. Of its 12 nominations, Dances earned 7 wins. Goodfellas, which has stood the test of time far better than its bloated competitor, earned just a single win from six nominations, a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor victory for Joe Pesci. This means that not only did it lose Best Picture, and Martin Scorsese lost Best Director, but it also lost an editing award for the great Thelma Schoonmaker as well as a Best Adapted Screenplay Award for Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi. And perhaps an even greater tragedy the film wasn't even nominated for Best Cinematography. Have you seen Goodfellas? The "Layla" sequence alone is worth 12 Oscars. Case closed.

Forrest Gump wins bigger than it should have, 1995
I'm not here to convince you that Forrest Gump is a bad film. It's a great film. I'm also not going to claim that it's undeserving of accolades. But when you really look at the field from 1994, you can't help but wonder if that Academy got a few things wrong. I mean, Gump is a feel good movie beyond compare, but let's put this in perspective. This was the same year that both Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption were also up for Best Picture, and neither of them seemed to stand a chance. I know Pulp Fiction is a somewhat divisive film, but we can all get together on Shawshank, right? In addition, Tom Hanks, who already took an Oscar for a much more challenging and moving performance in Philadelphia just a year earlier, again took Best Actor honors over both Nigel Hawthorne for The Madness of King George and Morgan Freeman for The Shawshank Redemption. Hawthorne was a long shot, but Freeman had to wait until Million Dollar Baby, a decade later, to win an award, and that was only for his supporting work. 

Shakespeare In Love takes Best Picture, Saving Private Ryan loses at least two awards it probably deserved, 1998
The man fought a war. Doesn't he at least get a statue?
Two terrors in one year. Lest you think I don't have love for Hanks, rest easy. I'm back on his side this time. Hanks lost a well-deserved Best Actor of 1997 award for his role in Saving Private Ryan to an exuberant but obnoxious Robert Benigni for the Italian film Life is Beautiful. Sure, Hanks already had two Oscars by then, and if you think he didn't deserve, it's hard to argue that Benigni did, particularly when you realize that other nominees that year included Ian McKellen for Gods and Monsters and Edward Norton for American History X.
But that's not all. Saving Private Ryan, despite earning Steven Spielberg his second Best Director honor of the '90s, lost the Best Picture award to Shakespeare In Love, a heartily entertaining flick, but one that doesn't handle a candle to Private Ryan in terms of cinematic awestrike (I invented a word. I do that.). Again, even if you don't want to hand the award to the World War II flick, note that Shakespeare In Love also beat Elizabeth and Terrance Malick's The Thin Red Line (Yes, also a World War II film, but just go with it.). And did I mention that Cate Blanchett lost her Best Actress Oscar  (for Elizabeth) to Gwyneth Paltrow's Shakespeare In Love performance? It's an entertaining film to curl up on the couch with, but if Shakespeare In Love truly was the best film of 1997, we're all in very real trouble.

Russell Crowe beats four actors who are better than him, 2001
I'm not here to beat up on Russell Crowe, but once you brush aside the gruff handsomeness that earned him so many points with the ladies, you have to admit his acting work is pretty uneven. He's gone from great (The Insider) to terrible (Robin Hood) to highly entertaining (State of Play), but he's never been famous for consistency. His work in Gladiator is somewhere in the middle, not great but definitely not terrible, but also definitely not Oscar-worthy. He received a nomination because he was the star of Ridley Scott's badass Roman epic, and that's fine, but the fact that he won is just sad. To get a picture of just how sad, let's look at his fellow nominees. First, there's Javier Bardem, who was too obscure at the time to really have a shot at the award, but is definitely a better actor than Crowe. There's Tom Hanks, whose work in Cast Away, while far from his best, still makes Crowe look like an amateur. Then you've got the real contenders, the two men who deserved it. Geoffrey Rush and Ed Harris both lost this award needlessly, Rush for a brilliant performance as the Marquis de Sade in Quills and Harris for hi stirring portrait of tortured artist Jackson Pollock in Pollock. If you don't believe me, watch either of those films. Gladiator is epic, but Crowe got lucky.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? misses out on Oscar love, 2001
"Damn, we're in a tight spot."
For a long time, I thought O Brother, Where Art Thou? might end up being the best film Joel and Ethan Coen ever made. They've seen proven me wrong twice (with No Country for Old Men and True Grit),  but that still excuse the shocking lack of respect the Academy showed to this film at the 2001 ceremonies. It received only two nominations, Best Adapted Screenplay for the Coens and Best Cinematography for Roger Deakins, and lost both times. No Best Picture, no Best Director (though Steven Soderbergh managed to get nominated twice), not even a Best Supporting Actor nod for John Turturro or Tim Blake Nelson. For shame.

Mulholland Drive gets snubbed, 2002

Google David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and you'll find scores of accolades, include an improbably large number of "Best of the Decade" honors. Then realize that at the 2002 Oscars it didn't even get a nomination for Best Picture. Lynch took a Best Director nod, losing (predictably) to Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind, but the film itself got nothing. Interestingly, Oscar viewers, and even host Whoopi Goldberg, focused their attention on the supposed travesty that Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann was left out of the Best Director category even as the film received a Best Picture nomination. It deserved neither. Mulholland deserved both.
It would be too much to hope for to see Mulholland Drive, one of the darkest films of the past decade, win any award at a ceremony held a scant six months after September 11. Even if such a horrible thing hadn't happened, it would be unlikely to walk away with gold. The Academy has a long history of nodding politely to the challenging film, then picking the safe one. In this case, Mulholland Drive didn't even get the nod.

Chicago wins Best Picture, 2003

There is a school of thought (which I may or may not subscribe to) that argues that any film featuring Renee Zellweger should be barred from Best Picture contention. But that's hardly the point. Chicago is a highly polished, reasonably entertaining musical. That means it should be winning awards for makeup, costumes, sound, music and art direction, which, by the way, it did. What it should not be winning is Best Picture, especially when its competition includes Gangs of New York (a flawed film, but still a great one), The Hours, The Pianist and The Lord of the Rings: The Towers. If that weren't enough, Catherine Zeta-Jones AND Queen Latifah somehow managed to earn Best Supporting Actress nods for the film, and Zeta-Jones won. She's a fine actress, but she definitely wasn't better than Julianne Moore in The Hours or Meryl Streep in Adaptation. The tunes were catchy, sure, but this is just ridiculous.

The Dark Knight is ignored ("...because he can take it"?), 2009

You would think that after handing Peter Jackson and company 11 well-deserved Academy Awards in 2004 for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (awards that were not so much for one film as for three) the Academy would be a little more open-minded to the cinematic wonders of genre films. You'd be wrong.
The Dark Knight, the highest grossing film in its year and widely acclaimed as the best superhero movie ever made, received eight Oscar nominations and won only two, Best Sound Editing for Richard King and Best Supporting Actor for the late Heath Ledger's extraordinary performance as The Joker. The six losses did not include Best Picture or Best Director for Christopher Nolan. Instead they were in technical categories, most of which The Dark Knight should have probably won.
It's puzzling to think that The Dark Knight faced this plight only to have Avatar, a mediocre film at best, gross even more money the very next year and very nearly take the Best Picture Oscar (thank God we dodged that bullet). What makes it all the more sad is that the Academy seemed to go out of its way to keep Nolan's film out of the running for the big awards (More than a few film writers wondered why it didn't make the Best Picture list instead of The Reader or Frost/Nixon), and you have to wonder if Ledger's brilliance would have been so acclaimed by the Academy if he had still been alive to fight another awards season. At least we live with the comfort that Batman will never die.

Meryl Streep's long drought (28 Damn Years)
To your right is an image the last time Meryl Streep won an Academy Award. It is now nearly three decades old. Streep won her last Oscar in 1983 for her work in Sophie's Choice. She was pregnant with her second child on Oscar night. She has since had two more children, made dozens of films, and been nominated for an Academy Award 12 more times, bringing her total nominations to 16, more than any other actor or actress in the history of the award. Those dozen nominations include her work in Silkwood, Out of Africa, Postcards from the Edge, Adaptation, Doubt and Julie and Julia. She didn't deserve all of them, but the fact that the woman almost universally accepted as the greatest actress alive (maybe ever) hasn't received an Oscar, despite 12 nominations, in 28 years is the greatest travesty I can think of in the Oscars' 83 year history.

Friday, February 25, 2011

'Exit Through the Gift Shop'

Banksy lurks in silhouette like a girl in the opening credits of a Bond film.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is, apart from being an immensely entertaining film about the world of underground street, a bizarre kind of meta-documentary, a film constructed in layers. It begins as the story of a man who films street artists, then morphs into the story of a street artist being filmed, then into that street artist making a film about the man who filmed him. This convoluted exploration of art, creativity, commercialism and ambition is the most noticeable thing about the film, but it’s only part of what makes it great.

Thierry Guetta is a French immigrant running a vintage clothing shop in Los Angeles and capturing much of his waking life on film. He’s compulsively operating his video camera, training it on his work, his kids, his wife, and the rest of his generally pleasant existence. His obsession gains focus when, while on a trip to France, he learns that his cousin is the street artist Space Invader, and begins following him on his nightly excursions to paste his art around Paris. Slowly, Guetta begins to see the shadowy yet panoramic world of street art all around him, and when he returns to Los Angeles, he begins following other artists, including the now legendary Shepard Fairey, and captures thousands of hours of nocturnal street art work around the globe.
But there’s one artist in the pantheon of street art gods that Guetta can’t seem to track down: Banksy, the infamous British stencil artist whose images appear throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. When Guetta final does reach Banksy, he’s given a kind of access to the artist that no cameraman has ever had before. As the relationship between the pair evolves, Guetta’s ambitions shift from cameraman to artist in his own right, and his attempts to become the next Banksy alter the street world.

In the end, it is Banksy who becomes the filmmaker, as he attempts to document the unlikely transformation of Guetta from businessman, to chronicler of an art revolution, to wannabe to major player.

Apart from simply producing the intriguing tale of a man sucked into a dynamic new world, Exit Through the Gift Shop manages to become, without any sense of pretentiousness, a film about what it means to make art. Banksy contrasts his own work, and the work of his contemporaries like Invader and Fairey, with the populist, seemingly commercialistic style of Guetta, who eventually styles himself as Mr. Brain Wash. The questions asked as a result of the developments, though, have nothing to do with whether or not it’s OK to sell out. What largely seems to be at stake is whether or not it’s OK for someone like Guetta to simply spend a lot of money and make himself into an art phenomenon with seemingly very little hard work. As the film closes, it’s a question that remains unanswered. As Banksy himself puts it, Guetta broke all the rules, but then again there aren’t supposed to be any rules.

Added to the mystique of the film, which already includes a number of anonymous figures making art and running from the law, is the idea that the whole thing might be another of Banksy’s elaborate pranks, that maybe Guetta’s rise wasn’t so meteoric, or maybe the whole thing was Banksy (with a little help from Fairey) pulling the strings. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t seem to matter. If anything it adds to the film’s aura.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of those rare films that simultaneously offers perspective and a sense of overwhelming mystery. It’s a brief glimpse into a world where bare walls are turned into masterpieces overnight, and sometimes men are too.

Matt’s Call: One of the best documentaries I’ve seen in years. Very deserving of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, and also deserving of your undivided attention

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Beginner's Guide to 'Doctor Who': 10 Essential Episodes

Doctor Who holds the distinction of being the longest-running science fiction television series in the history of television. It premiered on the BBC in 1963 and ran continuously, through seven stars and 26 years before being cancelled at the end of 1989. In 2005, the BBC revived the series, and it’s been climbing in pop culture status ever since. Chances are you’ve heard someone mention it in conversation at least once, and you might have even flipped past a rerun one night, but didn’t stop to watch. Rest assured, though, if you’re a fan of science fiction storytelling at all, and you’re not watching this show, there’s a gaping hole in your world.

OK, so it’s essential viewing. It’s cool. It’s legendary. It’s something you really should be watching, but all this brings up a rather obvious question: What in the hell is Doctor Who?

There’s no easy way to explain this, so we’ll just have to take a deep breath. Ready?

Doctor Who follows the exploits of a time traveling alien who has no name to speak of other than “The Doctor.” The Doctor has been played by 11 different actors over the course of nearly five decades (currently it’s Matt Smith), and each change in casting is written into the story as part of the character’s alien biological makeup. He’s an alien, you see, so if he’s mortally wounded he can simply regenerate into another incarnation. The Doctor’s purpose in life is to travel in his time machine, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension In Space), a blue police call box from the 50s that’s much bigger on the inside and can go anywhere in time and/or space. He often travels with companions. They have adventures, fight enemies, tell jokes and promote general mayhem. It’s wonderful.

Interested? Good, but it’s a rather daunting task to tackle a program with so much history in it. Where, after all, do you begin? Luckily, you can become well-acquainted with Doctor Who with only a moderate amount of back-viewing. The new season, the sixth since the series revived, is set to debut in April, which should give you just enough time to hunt down these 10 Doctor Who stories, all of which will give you a firm grounding in the tone, plotting and general feel of the series.

The Doctor gets a handle on things.
“Rose,” 2005
The very first episode of the revived series introduces The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) as he works to save a London shopgirl (Billie Piper) from an army of living mannequins animated by an alien consciousness. It’s funny, it’s action-packed, and it’s delightfully whimsical. The perfect starter to a strange journey.

The Doctor meets an old enemy.
“Dalek,” 2005
The Doctor (still Eccleston) and Rose (Piper) encounter a wealthy collector of alien artifacts in the not too distance future, who just happens to have what might be the last living specimen of the Doctor’s greatest enemy, an alien race who knows nothing but destruction. It’s a perfect introduction to the Doctor’s darker, more frightening side.

The Doctor must say goodbye...for now.
“Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways,” 2005
Eccleston’s final story as The Doctor is a two-part tale that pits him once more against his ultimate enemies, and forces him to make a daring choice. It’s an excellent goodbye to the Ninth Doctor, as well as a prime example of how epic Doctor Who can get.

The Doctor tries to put the cart before his new friend.
“The Girl in the Fireplace,” 2006
The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), and Rose face off against a squad of clockwork robots who are chasing down a woman in 18th century France. It’s an episode that’s equal parts danger and whimsy, penned by current Doctor Who head writer Steven Moffat.
Carey Mulligan takes on a stone-faced enemy.
“Blink,” 2007
Also written by Moffat, this episode might well be the best story yet told in the modern Doctor Who series. It’s a deceptively simple horror tale starring Carey Mulligan (An Education), as a young woman who encounters a race of alien beings who only move when they’re not seen, and when they are seen they appear as creepy stone angels in various states of repose. The Doctor and his new companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) appear only briefly, but the pure storytelling power of this tale means you barely notice they’re gone.
Yes, that's a skeleton in a spacesuit. Hard to explain...just watch it.
 “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” 2008
The Doctor (Tennant) and companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) encounter shadows that feast on human flash in the middle of a deserted planet that’s one big library. This episode also introduces one of the more important modern Doctor Who characters, River Song (Alex Kingston).

No one does crazy eyes like David one.
“Midnight,” 2008
The Doctor finds himself trapped on a broken-down tour bus with a creature that seems to be getting into everyone’s heads. This dark episode is a prime example of just how thrilling and dark the series can really get.
The Doctor ponders just how big a contact lens can get.
 “The Eleventh Hour,” 2010
The first episode for Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith, his companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), and new executive producer Steven Moffat shows the Doctor facing off against a new and mysterious threat, and the looming doom of the universe preparing to break apart. It’s the kick-off to one of the most satisfying storylines of the series, and breathtakingly funny at the same time.

The Doctor, Amy and Van Gogh...pre-ear slicing.
“Vincent and the Doctor,” 2010
The Doctor and Amy visit Vincent van Gogh, who’s being harassed by an invisible chicken creature. I think I’ve said enough.

The Doctor faces his greatest challenge, a cube much harder to solve than a Rubik's.
“The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” 2010.
The payoff of the story that began with “The Eleventh Hour.” The stakes have never been higher, and the series has never been better.

Doctor Who returns to BBC and BBC America this April.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Walrus Darkly's 2011 Oscar Picks

It’s Oscars week, kids, and that means it’s high time I got on my soapbox and played cinema-sage to you all. Here are my predictions and picks for who takes home the gold this year. Note, a prediction is my attempt to tell you who will win the award, while a pick is a declaration of who I think should win the award.

Best Picture

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The Nominees Are: Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit and Winter’s Bone.

Prediction: All roads point to a showdown between The Social Network and The King’s Speech. The former is the critical favorite; the latter, while still popular with critics, is the audience pick. Thanks to big wins at several major guild awards earlier this year, it seems The King’s Speech is now the likely winner.

Pick: Christopher Nolan’s daring, unforgettably intense film about criminals who invade your dreams is a rare commodity: a truly unique piece of cinema achievement. It might not be the most culturally or socially relevant of the films up for the top prize, but it is the best. Inception deserves the Oscar.

Best Director

David Fincher
The Nominees Are: Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan, David O. Russell for The Fighter, Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech, David Fincher for The Social Network and Joel and Ethan Coen for True Grit.

Prediction: It seems that Hooper is the clear choice, given that he’s already nabbed the Director’s Guild Award. But don’t be surprised to see Fincher finally earn his gold after more than a decade of great cinema.

Pick: My true pick, Inception director Christopher Nolan, is absent from this list, but I’ll settle for Fincher.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

The Nominees Are: Javier Bardem in Biutiful, Jeff Bridges in True Grit, Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, Colin Firth in The King’s Speech and James Franco in 127 Hours.

Prediction: This is Colin Firth’s year. It’s possible, though improbable, that Franco could nab it, but all signs point to Firth finally nabbing an Oscar.

Pick: Firth. It has to be his.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

The Nominees Are: Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right, Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine.

Prediction: Natalie Portman seems to be the universal choice.

Pick: Portman. If you’ve seen Black Swan, you know why.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

The Nominees Are: Christian Bale in The Fighter, John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone, Jeremy Renner in The Town, Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech.

Prediction: It’s going to come down to Bale or Rush. Since this award comes early in the night, it might be a good gauge for how well The King’s Speech will perform for the rest of the evening. Rush is a good bet, but if he wins it’ll be by a slim margin.

Pick: John Hawkes did some incredible work in Winter’s Bone, but he doesn’t stand a chance against the heavyweights. Christian Bale gets my vote.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Melissa Leo in The Fighter.
The Nominees Are: Amy Adams in The Fighter, Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech, Melissa Leo in The Fighter, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit and Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom.

Prediction: Unless “The King’s Speech” completely sweeps (and it very well might), this will go to Melissa Leo.

Pick: There were actually two snubs in this category: Barbara Hershey for her work in Black Swan and Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right. As it stands, my pick is Leo.

So, that covers the major awards. I’d also like to declare my support for Exit Through the Gift Shop as Best Documentary Feature, and note that the real best animated film of the year, Despicable Me, was tragically snubbed. Tune in Sunday night and see if I’m right about this stuff.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

WalrusList: Five Comics You Should Read RIGHT NOW

If you’re an avid comics reader, I’ll assume you’re familiar with the classics already: Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Death of Superman and so on and so forth, but there may be a few more obscure corners of graphic literature you haven’t explored yet. If you’ve never read comics before, it’s quite possible that said classics just don’t interest you, that you’ve never had, and will never have, a taste for superheroes. If you fall into either of those categories, now’s the time to remedy your situation. Here are five comic series to bring you up to speed fast.

Fables by Bill Willingham
The conceit of Bill Willingham’s long-running DC/Vertigo series is so surprisingly complex and yet so “Why didn’t I think of that?” simple that it’s a marvel no one tried it before. In the world of Fables, all the characters from popular folklore, including fairy tales, folks tales, legends and the like, have been driven from their homes by a mysterious and malevolent force known only as The Adversary, and taken refuge in a large apartment building in New York City (except the ones that are talking animals, who live on a farm upstate). The series’ principal characters include Snow White, The Big Bad Wolf (humanized and living under the name of Bigby), Bluebeard, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, all of whom have their own thoroughly modern, and thoroughly human, issues with living in a world while they must hide in plain sight. Over time, this series becomes sprawling and epic as the Fables begin to fight to take back their lands from the mysterious Adversary, and Willingham’s storytelling just keeps getting better.

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
One day, for no apparent reason, ever single living thing with a y chromosome, which is to say every male in every species on Earth, drops dead…except for two. Y follows the exploits of Yorick Brown, quite literally the last man on Earth, and his pet monkey Ampersand (that last male monkey on Earth), as they journey through a world women are fighting to rebuild, while some are hellbent on destroying it. It sounds like a one note story, but the complexity of Vaughan’s series builds quickly, and his knack for cliffhanger endings makes you want to keep reading.

The Invisibles by Grant Morrison
If you’ve ever felt you’ve needed to do drugs to experience things beyond your level of understanding, reading just one issue of this seminal 90s comic will change your mind. The Invisibles is a wild, chaotic journey into a mix of magic, science, conspiracies and absolute mind-melting mayhem. Its principal characters, from the bald cosmic shaman King Mob to transvestite witch Lord Fanny, are fighting through the ether of modern civilization to combat an eons-old conspiracy that wants nothing more than to destroy our very existence. It’s The Matrix before The Matrix, only a hell of a lot weirder and intellectually challenging.

Buffy Season Eight by Joss Whedon and Various Writers
If you were a fan of the WB series about a vampire slayer who fought high school and monsters at the same time (Even if you won’t admit it, we know you watched it.), then this series, extended the story of Buffy and her pals beyond the show’s final season, is a must-read. The enemies are bigger, the stakes are higher, and the magic is weirder, because this time Whedon doesn’t have the constraints of a TV budget to contend with. Buffy Season Eight dreams big, and the results are freakishly entertaining.

Bone by Jeff Smith
If you fall into the category of people who read comics regularly, but you’ve always shunned Bone because you saw it as “kid’s stuff,” you need to rethink your worldview. This cult series is not only one of the best introductions to the graphic novel format for non-comics readers, but also a seminal work that ever die hard fan of the medium should be flogged for not picking up. It starts as a simple fantasy story about a trio of white creatures called Bones, and follows them as they journey out from their home and into a valley filled with equal parts delight and peril. But as it grows, it becomes the stuff of epic fantasy, and every bit of it is peppered with charming humor, beautiful art and lots of heart.

'She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth' by Helen Castor

The premise of She-Wolves - if you’re a medieval history buff or even a history buff in general - is almost intoxicatingly promising. It promises an exploration of the women who (nearly) sat on the throne of England’s in the centuries before the reign of Elizabeth I, an examination of what made them powerful, what drove them, and why they ultimately didn’t reach the apex of British power.

Castor begins her journey with Matilda, the daughter of Henry I who challenged her cousin Stephen for control of her nation in the early 12th century, and nearly won out. The chronology then follows to her daughter in law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her now-legendary power struggle with her husband Henry II. The tale then jumps ahead to Isabella, wife of Edward II, who some chroniclers went so far as to deem a “She-Wolf” as she fought to depose her ineffective husband. From there, Castor moves into the life of Margaret of Anjou and her struggles to hold England together as the Wars of the Roses loomed, and finally to the nine days reign of Lady Jane Grey and the brief rule of Mary Tudor.

It’s an intriguing set of larger than life women, but beyond the initial jolt of thoroughly fun history, She-Wolves often fails to find its center.

There’s nothing wrong with Castor’s writing. She’s engaging, knowledgeable, thoughtful and even charming. It’s not the concept either. It’s one of the best ideas for a work of popular history you could ever hope to come across. What’s wrong with She-Wolves seems to be something in its execution.

At times, particularly when discussing the death of Edward VI and the proposed accession of Lady Jane Grey, or when discussing the intricate power struggle between Matilda and Stephen of Blois, Castor seems in complete command of all the powerful drama of history. It’s her playground, and she relishes it. At other times, such as her discussions of the many foibles of Edward II and the many and varied nobles struggling for power during Henry VI’s decline, she seems to be going through the motions. The writing slips out of the realm of engrossing history and into the realm of yawn-worthy chronology. The deeply textured discussion of who these women were and why they were able to go toe to toe with the men of their age is when She-Wolves is at its best, and its best is very, very good. The trouble is that those moments are often divided by great swaths of dry factual recitation and an endless parade of male names.

In fairness to Castor, discussing at length the machinations of the men surrounding these women may have been part of the point, but relevant or not, it doesn’t work. What does work is the strength, the determination, the cutthroat resolutions of these remarkable women. If She-Wolves had more of that, it would be more than passable history.

She-Wolves is available everywhere Feb. 22.

Advance Reading Copy courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Album Review: 'Dancing Backward in High Heels' by New York Dolls

If you don’t know who the New York Dolls are, you get a pass, just this once. If you care anything at all about rock and roll over the past 40 years, you can’t afford to go on living without them.
The Dolls released only two albums during their initial run from 1971-1976, but in doing so they created a new scene. Without the New York Dolls, there would be no Ramones, no Blondie, no Talking Heads. And their influence runs even deeper than the New York City punk, post-punk and glam scenes. Their reach extends to the likes of REM and even across the pond to the legendary Smiths.

 They are more than just a band. The New York Dolls are a watershed act in rock history.

Dancing Backward in High Heels, the band’s third full length album since reforming in 2004, is a testament to the guts and lipstick-smear glory of the Dolls’ early days, but also a forward reaching work by a band who’s still unafraid to take chances. The title is taken from a Hollywood aphorism: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did backwards and in high heels.” The dolls have never been a mainstream band. They’re not interested in being one. They’re interested in those high heels.

After a somewhat tentative series of opening tracks with a mellower than normal sound, the Dolls launch into the stuff that make them the Dolls. “Talk to Me Baby,” the album’s fourth track, kicks off a series of rollicking rock ‘n’ roll gems, including “Round and Round She Goes” and the stellar “Funky But Chic.” It’s this little trilogy of tracks that give the album its New York Dolls backbone. The band takes off on other flights of rock fancy, taking the slower, softer route at times, but they’re still at their best when they boogie.

The band is down to just two original members these days, but they still have their fire. Frontman David Johansen might have lost a bit of his wail, but he’s still got all of his swagger, and it shows all through this record. He’s still got the sound that influenced three generations of frontmen, and all the old rock star jokes in the world don’t mask the fact that he’s still got it.

Dancing Backward in High Heels has its fair share of flaws, but there’s a joy to those flaws that’s uncommon in a modern record. They aren’t the tired old mistakes of a band who doesn’t give a damn. They’re the missteps of a band still filled with the abandon of rockstars, still in love with their game, and still reaching for something better than what they’ve done before.

Dancing Backward in High Heels is available everywhere March 15.

Friday, February 18, 2011

'Tonight I'm Frakking You,' The Ultimate Nerdgasm

Must share with everyone this nerdtastic video via Originals. It's got everything: a hot Princess Leia, a Vulcan Jedi, Pac Man, Boba Fett references and Kunal Nayyar (Raj from The Big Bang Theory) rapping about Naboo and broadswords.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

'Winter's Bone,' a haunting rural noir thriller

Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes in Winter's Bone.

Winter’s Bone, the top winner at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival that recently garnered four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, is a startling, intoxicating blend of dark family drama, gritty crime thriller and coming of age tale dropped into the deeply impoverished Ozark Mountain region of Missouri. At first glance, it’s a combination of effects that seems to generate more despair than drama, more unease than entertainment, but if you have the stomach to keep watching, it will grab you and refuse to release.

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is 17, and already dealing with the problems of a person twice her age. Her father is a meth cooker on the run from the law, her mother has withdrawn into a deep depression and doesn’t even speak, and she has two younger siblings to feed, clothe and educate with little food and almost no money. Things only get worse when the local sheriff arrives to announce that her father, Jessup, has skipped out on his bond and is likely to miss an upcoming court date. Because Jessup signed away his house as collateral for his bond, if he doesn’t make it to court, the house will be repossessed, leaving Ree and her family with nothing.

Determined to find her father, Ree trudges through a rural underworld of meth dealers and cookers, a kind of mountain mafia that includes her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) and the brutal Merab (Dale Dickey), gatekeeper for the area’s head honcho Thump Milton (Ron Hall), who may be the only person who knows where her father is.  With few resources, little hope and a gallery of shadowy figures who would rather beat her senseless than hand someone over to the law, Ree keeps fighting to run down the quasi-legendary spectre that is her father, and save her family in the process.

Though the undeniable symbolism of a girl searching for a father pervades the film, the thing that sets the tone, and holds it throughout, is the simple fact of ubiquitous poverty. Ree and her siblings shoot squirrels for dinner, feed questionable leftovers to their dogs and take any handouts from their family and neighbors they can get. Added to this is the simple desolation of the landscape. At times, as Ree walks through the hills from house to house in search of her father, it feels like she’s journeying through a wasteland, past burned mobile homes, rusted trucks and toppling barns. The beautiful photography of, director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough only serves to raise that awareness that this girl lives in a kind of apocalypse, a place where the only escape for many is drugs, and the only redemption for her is to shoulder the burden of her family and carry them through the dark.

From beginning to end, the film is a battle for Ree, a battle against the simple-minded men who govern the region, against the drugs that cripple nearly everyone in one way or another, and against the unseen force of her father, who moves like a ghost through the landscape of the story. We never see Jessup, but everyone feels his influence, Ree most of all.

It’s this struggle, the struggle of a girl against every circumstance of her often pitiful life, that makes up the meat of the tale, but the tragedies of Winter’s Bone are highlighted and offset by the trappings of a classic film noir. There’s a man on the run through the darkness of a criminal underworld, but this time, instead of Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum on his tail, it’s a tough as nails teenage girl with no weapon but her own determination.

Without that determination, the film falls flat, and it’s because of Lawrence that Winter’s Bone soars. She has the strength and sensitivity of an actor far beyond her limited experience, and her quiet, intense, rock-solid interpretation of Ree is the thing that ties the movie together. Hawkes and Dickey add their own hauting, often terrifying performances to the mix, and the rest of the cast, largely a group of unknowns, make Winter's Bone one of the most naturally, effortlessly acted films of the year.

Despite its grim exterior, within Winter’s Bone is something exhilarating, something primal and energetic and even hopeful. It’s this unlikely mixture of sorrow and spirit that makes it a great film.

Matt’s Call: This film deserves every accolade it’s received. It’s under the radar, but it’s definitely worth seeking out.

Monday, February 14, 2011

It's My 100th Post!

I noticed my post count was sitting at 99 late last week, and spent the last several days agonizing over what I should do when that bad boy kicked over into triple digits. For a long time I was anti-blog, but clearly I just didn't have enough faith in my own narcissism. Now that I'm cured of that nonsense, I've been her for almost five months, gotten more readers than I would have thought possible in such a short time, and even garnered a little bit of praise.

This is gratifying to me, not just because it means people are ambling into my little corner of the net and actually caring about what I'm saying, but also because I'm being allowed to do it my way, with no themes or gimmicks. I will stop writing A Walrus Darkly the day it stops being fun, and today it's not even close to not being fun.

So, how shall we celebrate? A wise man (That would be me.) once said that if you're ever in doubt, you should always turn to Frank.

And, because I have a highly evolved appreciation of the finer things, here's Duran Duran singing about God knows what.

Thanks readers, for 100 little adventures. It's only going to get weirder.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Valentine's Day Flicks For the Both of You

Movie night is a time-honored tradition for couples, but Valentine’s Day is often a painful time for at least half of that couple. Men being men, they tend to shy away from films that contain, as friends of mine put it, “feelings.”

So, in the spirit of romantic compromise, I offer five films that provide a healthy dose of romance (and yes, gentlemen, even a few “feelings”), but still manage to pack in enough action and amusement to keep those of us with y chromosomes happy.

Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette...before she could talk to ghosts.

True Romance (1993)

Quentin Tarantino penned this Tony Scott-directed crime/comedy/romance film starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as Clarence and Alabama, a couple who meets under unusual circumstances and then, through even more unusual circumstances, find themselves in possession of a briefcase full of cocaine that they opt to sell to a dealer in Los Angeles for a lump sum. Funny, charming, sweet and even a little violent, it’s a strange blend of crime and love stories, and co-stars the likes of Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Chris Penn, Brad Pitt (as a pothead, no less) and James Gandolfini.

The late Brandon Lee in one of the best films of 1990s.

The Crow (1994)
This supernatural gothic drama is the story of Eric (Brandon Lee, who died during filming and  became a cinema legend.), a spirit who returns to the world of the living to seek vengeance a year after he and his fiancĂ© were murdered by a gang of thugs in their apartment. Haunting, thrilling and darkly beautiful, The Crow is a cult classic for many reasons, not least of them its powerful message of everlasting love.

Sega and lesbians...What more could you want?

Chasing Amy (1997)

Easily the most broadly appealing of the films of director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Cop Out), Chasing Amy is the story of Holden (Ben Affleck, pre-Armageddon), a comic book writer who falls for a friend, fellow comics writer Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), only to find out later that she’s a lesbian. What follows is a kind of comic high-wire act in which Holden must balance his feelings for Alyssa with his desire to remain her friend, as well as the annoying criticisms of his best friend and business partner Banky (Jason Lee) and their gay friend Hooper (a hilarious Dwight Ewell). Heartfelt, hilarious, and refreshingly honest about love, Chasing Amy is among the most unconventional yet accessible romantic comedies ever made.

Milla Jovovich as we were all meant to see her.

The Fifth Element (1997)

French filmmaker Luc Besson (The Professional) directed this quirky, lightspeed future film about a super-being called Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) who is man’s only hope as an unstoppable force of darkness spins toward the Earth. If Leeloo is to succeed in her quest to save the world, she must be protected from an evil business tycoon (Gary Oldman) and shepherded along by a priest (Ian Holm), a hyperactive DJ (Chris Tucker) and a down on his luck cab driver (Bruce Willis) who just happens to fall in love with her. As romance goes, it’s no Casablanca, but it packs a spellbinding punch.

Ryan Gosling had a lot of trouble finding his next Rachel McAdams.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Ryan Gosling gives one of the best performances of his career as Lars, a lonely man who spends his evening ducking dinner invitations from his brother (Paul Schneider) and his pregnant sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) and his days working listlessly at a cubicle job. When one day he finally tells his family that he’s met girl, the small town Lars lives in is shocked to find that his girlfriend, Bianca, is actually a sex doll he bought on the internet. At the advice of the town doctor, it becomes a collective delusion, and everything changes. It sounds weird. It is weird, but Lars and the Real Girl is one of the most touching films you’ll ever see.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Walrus Eats: Caramelized Nectarines in Honey Wine Sauce

Somewhere in the course of my adventures, I became a foodie of sorts. Somewhere more recently, I became a food writer...of sorts. I'm terrible at writing recipes, but nonetheless I will begin sharing my the tastier of my experiments with you here more or less regularly. Here is my first offering.

Caramelized Nectarines with Honey-Wine Sauce

4-6 Nectarines or Plums, cut into large chunks
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
¼ cup sweet white wine (Arbor Mist Strawberry White Zinfandel is a good choice)

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a nonstick skillet. Carefully add the fruit to the pan, flesh side down, and cook for 1-2 minutes or until the flesh starts to darken. This may need to be done in batches. Remove to a plate.

Melt the third tablespoon of butter in the skillet. Add the brown sugar and honey and stir to combine. Add the wine. Let simmer 3-5 minutes or until sauce begins to thicken. Return the fruit to the pan, turn the heat down to medium low and simmer for 5-10 minutes or until the sauce turns thicker and coats the fruit. The fruit will begin to color the sauce. Serve warm over ice cream or chill and serve for breakfast with pancakes, waffles or French toast.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

'127 Hours,' an exhilarating adventure.

127 Hours, like Titanic and The Alamo, is a predictable film. We know how the story of Aron Ralston - the climber who was trapped in a canyon in Utah for more than five days in the spring of 2003 – ends. We saw it on the news. If the point of the film is the ending, the film sputters and dies before it even leaves the gate. Put Ralston’s story in the hands of a genius like Danny Boyle (Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire), and it becomes more than a feat of survival. Through Boyle’s eyes, and the eyes of star James Franco, 127 Hours becomes an intellectually challenging, daring film about what drives a man, and what saves him.

The film opens in true Danny Boyle fashion: with a rush of kinetic energy. Clips of frantic human life – sporting events, traffic and other crowds – jump across the screen, intercut with Ralston (Franco) preparing for a trip to Utah’s Blue Dog Canyon. Boyle immediately sets Ralston apart from the world, and signals that he’s about to be even further distanced.

Setting out on a sunny Saturday morning, Ralston bikes to his climbing destination, then meets a pair of girls (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) who take an idyllic dip in a hidden, cavernous pool with him. Alone again, he starts his descent into the canyon, only to slip and go tumbling into a ravine, where a boulder crushes and wedges his right arm against a stone wall.

With very little food, and even less water, Ralston takes stock of his situation. He can’t move the boulder, he can’t budge his arm, he’s miles away from anyone and he told none of his family and friends where he would be climbing. After hour upon hour of panic, rage and despair, he uses his camcorder to tape a message to his family explaining what happened to him.

It is here that the film moves beyond a mere adventure tale and into the realm of truly powerful cinema. As Ralson begins to tape his goodbyes, dust rains down on him from above. Thinking that someone is walking overhead, he begins to shout for help. When he realizes he’s still alone, he plays back the recording of his own desperate shouting. As he sees how much life he still has, he whispers to himself: “Don’t lose it.” It’s one of the most powerful things you could ever hope to see on screen.

Eventually, of course, the story you heard on the news plays out. Ralston, starving, thirsty and delirious, amputates his own arm just below his elbow, rappels down a rock face and walks several miles before finding help.

The brilliance of 127 Hours is its creativity, both in the directing and the acting. It’s a film about a man who is trapped, with nothing to do and no to talk, for five days, and yet it never stops being compelling. Boyle uses the isolation, and the outright savagery, of Ralston’s situation to great effect, finding the moments in between the efforts to escape. As he drifts in and out of consciousness, Ralston encounters his past, including his self-imposed, pride-motivated cockiness, his romantic failures and his childhood. He also drifts into the possibilities of the future, and delirious montages of food, drink and other delights of the modern world that he’s missing. Boyle’s visual style is a sensory assault, an artful kinetic frenzy of imagination, sorrow and determination. It’s a surreal interpretation of the human experience of Ralston’s journey.

The experience itself falls solely on Franco’s shoulders, and never has a young actor carried a film so brilliantly. In less than two hours, he must travel the distance from carefree to crushed (literally and figuratively) to liberated, and he never misses a step. It’s a stirring, shockingly genuine performance that proves not only the spirit of the character, but the spirit of the actor.

Lastly, a note to the squeamish. Yes, this film is about a man who had to cut his own arm off. Yes, this scene is portrayed on film. No, you cannot afford to miss it on that basis alone. For all the publicity surrounding the film’s gruesome climax, “127 Hours” actually pays very little attention to its great escape. It’s not a film about escaping. It’s a film about discovering what it is to be human, what it is to be gloriously and breathtakingly alive, all over again.

Matt’s Call: One of the best acted, best directed films of this or any year, and one of the most stirring. It doesn’t matter that you know the ending. 127 Hours will make you cheer.