Friday, November 4, 2011

Horror on TV

For me, horror works best on TV in an anthology format, like Twilight Zone, Thriller, or Night Gallery. I'm not a big fan of hour-long dramas of any stripe, but I did enjoy several seasons of The X-Files, which for me worked best when it was almost like an anthology show, with Mulder and Scully investigating a new weird case each week, but then the background arc story stuff got too thick. I watched Supernatural for a few weeks, but it had the same background problems. This season, two new non-anthology horror shows have debuted and against my better judgment I sampled them.

American Horror Story, on FX, had promise, with one of the most traditional horror tropes at its center: the haunted house. A couple (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton) move in to a house where people have either died under strange circumstances or been driven out by strange occurrences. Sure enough, there are ghosts, not just in the house but next door (the eccentric neighbor is Jessica Lange, seeming a stone's throw away from her Big Edie character in Grey Gardens). Dylan and Connie have moved in order to put the past behind them: she had a miscarriage, he had an affair, and their daughter is a cutter. But of course, things just get worse in the haunted house.

Each episode has a story that gets resolved, but the arc story is clearly more important, and there are some interesting plotlines set up. Lange's mentally disabled daughter has a disturbing tendency to 1) pop up in McDermott's house uninvited and 2) predict that people will die in the house. There is also a man in a leather fetish suit who has sex with Britton and gets her pregnant (she thinks it was her husband, but we know it wasn't). A disfigured former tenant of the house (Denis O'Hare, pictured with McDermott) shows up from time to time, trying to tell McDermott to get out of the house. But there is also the very tedious story of the messed-up daughter and her messed-up boyfriend (who might be one of the ghosts). There are R-rated obscenities, and almost R-rated nudity (Mr. McDermott is in damned good shape at 40), and a dark look and brutal tone which seem borrowed from movies like Saw.

Despite the promise, it failed to hook me after two episodes. The arc story lines are many, and like lots of arc-story shows, there's the feeling that either things won't get explained, or when they do, they'll seem stupid. None of the characters is sympathetic; in fact, I was kind of rooting for Jessica Lange to get rid of the whole bunch. Perhaps its biggest failing is the most obvious: why the hell are these people going to stay in this house for a full 13-week season? Next post: Grimm.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Connections or the Lack Thereof, Part 2

Wow, it's been almost two months since I wrote Part 1. Time flies whether you're having fun or not. Anyway, the other book pop culture book I read was Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne. For this baby-boomer who was coming of age in the early 70's, this was a fun read. I owned 3 of the 4 albums under discussion in the book: Let it Be, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Deja Vu (I've never owned a James Taylor album even though I liked his early music). The author does a nice job writing about the circumstances of each album's recording, release, and reception. Most of the material about Let It Be was old hat to this Beatle fan, and as I recently read Shakey, a biography of Neil Young, the CSNY material was familiar to me. Most of the new information I gained was about James Taylor: I didn't know he lived with Joni Mitchell for a spell--I suspect a list of her lovers would read like a Who's Who of 70s California rock--and though I knew he was hooked on heroin in his youth, I didn't know he was on and off of it for so long.

The disappointing part of the book comes in connection with the subtitle, and the "connection or the lack thereof" of my blog entry title. Browne begins by saying that 1970 has gotten a bad rap in pop culture history, that years like 1967 (the Summer of Sgt. Pepper) or 1969 (Woodstock) are considered more important, but that 1970 truly marked the end of an era and the beginning of another. He points out that 1970 was the year of the last albums by the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, and the first albums by CSNY and James Taylor, but never explains the significance of this. It's not like the last/first dichotomy really works--there was a previous CSN album, and Young only made a couple of albums with the group; there was also an earlier James Taylor album but it didn't make the charts. And Paul Simon continued to be a force in pop music at least through the 90s.

I like that Browne does make some fun if insubstantial connections, such as that 1970 started with Paul McCartney attending a Crosby Stills Nash & Young concert, and that James Taylor's first album was on the Beatles' label Apple, but ultimately the connections don't hold up, and certainly there is no real argument made about the cultural importance of 1970. Browne is also inconsistent about discussing the music: he does a nice job with Taylor and some of the songs on Bridge Over Troubled Water, but not much with the other two groups. Still, he did do his homework, and this was fun to read from a nostalgia viewpoint. He also sent me back to the music of these artists, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Connections or the Lack Thereof, Part 1

Two pop culture books I’ve read recently take group of artists bound by genre and time, and try to make overarching connections among them. Neither book is really successful at fulfilling its thesis, but both are interesting reads. The first, Shock Value by Jason Zinoman, is about the filmmakers behind what he dubs the “New Horror” movement of the late 60s and early 70s. He correctly points to Hitchcock’s Psycho as the seed for the more graphic horror films that came later, and he gives a lot of attention to all the right people--George Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon--and gives interesting anecdotes about the making and reception of films like Night of the Living Dead, The Last House on the Left and Halloween, but the most interesting thing he does is start with two movies not often grouped with the other grisly thrillers: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets.

Zinoman argues that Rosemary’s Baby was the first modern mainstream horror hit, making a big pop culture splash (and a lot of money) and marking the end of the career of 60s schlock filmmaker William Castle, who produced the movie and wanted to direct it until Paramount nixed that idea. (A Castle Rosemary’s Baby would almost certainly have been cheap-looking, had some chintzy gimmick--like a man dressed as Satan running up and down the aisles in the theater--and had a blonde, big-breasted screamer as Rosemary.)

Targets, a B-film co-produced by Roger Corman, who was a more successful Castle, was one of the last films of Boris Karloff, who plays a washed-up horror movie star lamenting that the horrors of the real world have surpassed all the old movie monsters. Though not a hit, it’s a good movie that is still worth watching, and Zinoman argues that it was the first to have a “monster” that wasn’t explained; in this case, an average young man who goes on a shooting spree for no discernible reason. He is ultimately defeated but his rationale is never given. The author draws a line from Targets’ shooter to Michael Myers in the first Halloween, an “empty space” at the center of the movie. In both cases, we are given just enough information to make guesses at each killer’s motives, but we are left not knowing for sure.

Coverage of the actual “New Horror” films is predictable but interesting and highly readable. Most of the directors were rather bookish and academic, and weren’t looking to become horror specialists, but got penned in to the genre after their first big hits. Zinoman spends an inordinate amount of time on Dan O’Bannon, a rather cranky writer who, after making Dark Star, a B-sci-fi spoof with John Carpenter, went on to write the first draft of Alien. He was frequently in a lot of stomach pain due to Crohn’s disease, which inspired the infamous stomach birthing scene with John Hurt. But after that, O’Bannon seemed unable to work well with others and he never had the career that some had predicted for him. O’Bannon and Carpenter had a major falling-out and O’Bannon spews a lot of bile aimed at Carpenter, who is never defended in the book’s pages.

I wish Zinoman had been able to make his larger connecting arguments with more force. He’s good about the films and the people, but not so good about looking beyond, at popular culture and the tenor of the times. I like that he considers Jaws a horror film, and that he includes Brian DePalma as one of the seminal horror directors of the 70s (even though only Carrie is probably, by definition, a real horror movie). Definitely a good addition to the bookshelf of any movie buff. Next post, a book about the music of 1970.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The magic of Lord Dunsany

I think of myself as having been a fantasy fiction fan in my youth, but really I was more in love with the idea of fantasy. Starting with Ray Bradbury when I was about 11 years old, I immersed myself in, to give it a more inclusive name, speculative fiction, which pretty much covers fantasy, science fiction, and anything that takes place in a world that isn’t quite ours. Bradbury is generally thought of as a sci-fi writer, but really most of his work is fantasy, with scientific concerns only secondary to his poetic explorations of nostalgia, childhood, and social issues. The Mars of The Martian Chronicles is much more like an earthly fantasy world than, let’s say, the harder action/sci-fi Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

But when I started reading traditional fantasy, I realized I wasn’t really such a big fan. In high school, the perfect time to discover Tolkien, I read The Hobbit twice, but could not get more than about 150 pages into the first of the Lord of the Rings book (and I tried three times). I dipped my toes in sword and sorcery, Tarzan, fairy world books, and spiritual fantasy (George MacDonald, CS Lewis) but never really took to any of those genres like I thought I should. Now, with the preponderance of trilogies and wizard children and the like, most things labeled "fantasy" don’t appeal to me at all--except for Lovecraft and his kind, whose writings are more horror than fantasy.

However, while reading a new book called Electric Eden, about the quasi-psychedelic folk-rock movement in the England in the 60s, I came across a reference to Lord Dunsany, a fantasy writer of the first half of the 20th century (pictured). I went down to the basement and, sure enough, there was a old Ballantine paperback of one of his novels, The Charwoman’s Daughter, which I'd bought used many years ago and never cracked open. I did so that night and am quite glad I did.

Despite the dragons on the cover of the paperback, the world of The Charwoman’s Daughter is not too far removed from the real world; it's set in Spain during a time referred to as "the Golden Age." The Lord of the Tower and Rocky Forest has come upon hard times and is trying to arrange a good marriage for his daughter despite having no money in her dowry, so he sends his son Ramon Alonzo to be tutored by a old magician who lives deep in the woods, alone except for an old cleaning lady, the charwoman of the title. The father, who did a favor for the magician many years ago, hopes the magician will teach the boy the art of alchemy so he can create some gold for the daughter's dowry.

At first, the magician seems kindly, but soon Ramon Alonzo discovers that the price for such learning is his shadow. The charwoman sold her shadow to the magician in her youth and has regretted it ever since; she is shunned for not casting a shadow (the townsfolk assume she has struck some kind of demonic deal) so she hasn’t left the magician's house for years. Despite the warning, Ramon agrees to give the magician his shadow and comes to regret it. Out of a sense of chivalry, he vows to get the charwoman's shadow back, and ideally his as well.

This is not a fantasy novel full of swords or magical creatures, though the magic of the magician is indeed real; there is a strange and evocative scene in which the magician communes with the various shadows he has taken over the years, sending them into deep space to faraway planets. The magical world is vague and mysterious; there are imps in the background, and a love potion plays an important role in the last half of the book. The spell this book casts is largely through language. As in an epic poem, there are certain almost incantatory phrases used throughout; the magician's secret room in which he keeps the box of shadows is always referred to as "the room that was sacred to magic." There is a character known as the Duke of Shadow Valley (almost sounds like a superhero). There is some beautiful writing: twilight is described as "the hour when Earth has most reverence, the hour when her mystery reaches out and touches the hearts of her children." A romantic relationship develops between the young Ramon and the old charwoman which is predictable (if you know your fairy tales) but still satisfying. And the last few pages, which involve the fate of the magician, and the Golden Age itself, are almost hallucinatorily beautiful.

In short, this is the fantasy novel that I was hoping to find in my youth, that might have kept me a fan of the genre for a long time. I’m hoping to spend much of the summer in the company of Lord Dunsany.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Neil makes Noise

Reporting back finally on the May 3rd trip to Cincinnati to see Neil Young in a solo concert. In this case, solo did not mean laid-back and quiet. Young is touring behind his latest album Le Noise, which is also solo, using only guitars (usually electric) treated with studio effects by producer Daniel Lanois, known for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel. So though Young did dig back into his catalog for some gems ("Cinnamon Girl," "After the Gold Rush," "Cortez the Killer"), almost half of the show was comprised of songs from the new album. Lyrically, the new songs are nothing special--mushy but noisy love songs ("Walk With Me," "Sign of Love") and long confessional (and noisy) songs about his life and career ("Hitchiker," "Love and War"). But musically, they're interesting, or maybe I should say "sonically," as most of the interest comes from the layers of echo and feedback on each track.

In concert, Young achieved most of the atmospheric effects through volume--loud and noisy but not enough to call for earplugs--and feedback, though he opened the show with a fairly quiet set on acoustic guitar ("My, My, Hey, Hey," "Tell Me Why," "Helpless"). What surprised me most was how clear and strong Young's voice is. His vocal trademark is usually closer to whiny and fragile, but here, even at the age of 65, his voice sounded better than ever. Because Young has been know to be a bit of a contrarian in concert, deliberately withholding his big hits and playing lesser-known and unreleased stuff, I was pleasantly surprised to hear these three early songs. He then did an unreleased song, "You Never Call," which seemed to be Young complaining about a friend who had passed on who never calls from Heaven, followed by a batch of songs from Le Noise.

After every song or two, he would put down whatever instrument he was playing (guitar, harmonica) and meander about the stage to choose another instrument (piano, pump organ). It looked very casual and almost improvised, although apparently his set list never varied a bit during this tour. He performed a lovely new song called "Leia," about (I assume) his granddaughter, and did a sublime version of "After the Gold Rush" at the organ, which brought tears to my eyes. Another quiet moment was his piano version of "I Believe in You." The biggest surprise of the night was his protest-song hit from his CSNY days, "Ohio," appropriate not only because he was in Ohio but because the next day, May 4th, would be the 41st anniversary of the Kent State shootings, the subject of the song.

But the hardcore fans were probably happiest when he dragged out three rockers from the old days: "Cortez the Killer," "Down By the River," and my favorite, "Cinnamon Girl" (see the video below from a live show in New York a few years ago) and did them justice even without a backing band. People around us were yelling for "Old Man," but really, can a man who is now officially a senior citizen sing that song without seeming deluded? I looked around me and noticed how old everyone looked--the dressed-to-the-niners, the bleary-eyed hippies in their tie-dyed t-shirts--and then realized that most of these folks were my age (mid-50s) or younger. An unwanted epiphany that did not spoil a great show.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Neil, Neil, and I

Over the past year, I've become good friends with a co-worker (or “bro-worker,” as he was dubbed by yet another co-worker); let’s call him Neil. We initially bonded over music; though our tastes were not especially similar (he likes punk and U2, I like 60s bubblegum and the Beatles), we found common ground with New Order. He turned me into a fan of Joy Divison and, well, he at least tolerates most of the bright glossy pop confections on my iPod. But we also discovered that we are both fans of Neil Young. So when we found out that Young was playing Cincinnati in May as part of his current solo tour, we made plans to go.

Neil Young has spent the last 40-some years flying high and low, in, around and through the pop culture radar, and he remains one of the few rock musicians from the 60s to sustain a viable career making new music and continuing to hit the album charts with relative frequency well into the 21st century--his latest album Le Noise hit the top 20 when it was released last fall.

One reason he's lasted this long may be his chameleon-like quality. Like Madonna (yes, I'm comparing Neil Young to Madonna), Young has re-invented his image and his music frequently, and in doing so brought new and younger fans into his circle. I imagine the average pop music listener thinks of Young as a folkie; he began his career in 1967 with folk-rock group Buffalo Springfield, his only top 10 hit was 1972’s "Heart of Gold," a folkie-strummer if you ever heard one, and most of his highest-charting albums (Harvest, Comes A Time, Harvest Moon) have a quiet folk-country vibe.

But most of his hardcore fans think of him as a rock & roller, pure and simple--though he's anything but pure and simple. From the beginning he was hard to pin down; his Buffalo Springfield songs were squarely in the pop-folk genre except for the suite-like 6-minute "Broken Arrow" with its almost avant-garde use of atmospheric sound (you can’t really dance--or even sway--to it) and the slow, slightly spooky "Expecting to Fly," with its opening and closing chords right out of the Beatles’ "Day in the Life" by way of Enya. On his second solo album he produced three lasting FM radio rock classics: "Cinnamon Girl," "Down By the River," and "Cowgirl in the Sand."

After Harvest and "Heart of Gold," Young produced three albums that have become known among fans as the Ditch Trilogy, because on the liner notes to his compilation album Decade, he says he took a detour out of the middle of the road and into the ditch. All three albums (Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and especially Tonight's the Night) are sloppy, almost primitive sounding--an early grunge style, maybe--and filled with performances which were largely alcohol-and-drug induced, and songs with depressing and defensive lyrics, some about the dark side of the drug world, triggered by the deaths of band member Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. These were not big sellers, but they cemented Young’s "street cred," so to speak, among his harder-rocking fans.

In 1979, he recovered commercially with Rust Never Sleeps, an album that is almost exactly 50% folkish acoustic songs and 50% noisy rockin'-out songs with his grungy band Crazy Horse. Probably if the average person knows any other Neil Young song besides "Heart of Gold," it’s "Hey, Hey, My, My" with the line, "It's better to burn out than to fade away," which became notorious after Kurt Cobain quoted it in his suicide note. Since then, he has recorded rockabilly, electronic music, more folk, more noisy rock, protest songs, love songs, and hit a late-career high in the mid-90s when he cut an album (Mirror Ball) with Pearl Jam. Of course, I guess since he’s still going strong in 2011, "late-career" is not the right phrase.

My friend Neil considers himself a diehard Neil Young fan, knowing obscure songs and lyrics (like "Last Trip to Tulsa": "Well I woke up in the morning/With an arrow through my nose/There was an Indian in the corner/Tryin' on my clothes") and having seen him in concert many times over the years. But I probably know more, "academically" speaking, about Young's career and personality--at least partly because I read the huge biography Shakey. Neil and I come at Neil Young from different sides of the 1977 career hinge Decade, a 3-LP set collected from the albums of his first ten years. My favorite Young albums are all pre-1980 (After the Gold Rush, Comes a Time, and Rust Never Sleeps); my friend Neil doesn't seem to think in terms of favorite albums, but he knows very little from Young's early days except what's on Decade, tends to like Young's long crazy songs such as "Tulsa," "Like a Hurricane," "Cowgirl in the Sand," and "Cortez the Killer," and he's a fan of the Kraftwerk-like electronic album Trans. So I imagine on our road trip to Cincy on Tuesday, we'll give each other crash courses on our areas of expertise. I'm looking forward to a long strange trip and will report back on the concert soon. (The video below is of "Sample and Hold," one of the Trans songs)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Illumination

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier sold itself to me based on this plot description: one evening, all over the world, pain begins to emit light. A flesh wound, a cold sore, a headache, cancer; all physical pain manifests itself with light which, in the language of the book jacket, glitters, fluoresces, blazes. I knew this would not be science fiction, for the rest of the plot description makes clear that the book will tell the stories of six people who all experience various kinds of pain and who all have contact with a notebook that is a collection of daily love notes left by a husband for his wife.

This book is really a loosely-knit short story cycle, the kinds of stories you'd find in the New Yorker--that's not mean to be a compliment or an insult, just a description. Ultimately, it struck me that both the "Illumination" and the notebook were gimmicks in order to have a framework for otherwise unconnected narratives. Most of the individual stories are interesting, but I wound up being disappointed that the gimmicks didn't amount to much. The plot point of pain emitting light is not crucial to any of the stories; it adds some nice grace notes here and there, but very little is done with it. Is it science or God or something else entirely? One story, about a missionary, seems about to touch on the spiritual nature of the Illumination, but it goes nowhere.

The notebook with its single sentence love notes ("I love how quietly you speak when you're catching a cold"; "I love how you fumble for words when you're angry"; "I love the joke you told an Eli and Abby's wedding reception") winds up being more important to the characters. Each of the six characters takes possession of the book, reads from it, and wonders about its origin; one of the stories is about the man who wrote the notes, which his wife, now deceased, kept in the notebook. One story is about a writer, suffering from terrible mouth pains (ulcers, cancre sores, etc.) who draws inspiration from the notebook for a story she writes.

Even though I felt tricked and let down by the book, I thought most of the stories were worth reading. One is a little creepy: a photojournalist takes a picture of a high school girl cutting herself in public (perhaps to see the Illumination, though her reasons are not clear), winds up taking her in when her parents throw her out, and by the end of the story has joined her in her flesh-cutting activities. The story about the writer is the most interesting one, and it has the added bonus of a story-within-the-story that she writes about communicating with the dead.

The overwhelming feeling I got from the book was sadness. Perhaps because recently I've had to deal in relatively minor ways with the aches and pains of aging, I was touched by the descriptions of physical suffering here, but each character is also going through incredible emotional pain as well. Sometimes, as in the story the husband with the notebook, the tone almost becomes too much to bear. At other times, as with the missionary, it's difficult to pin down what the suffering is about. But rarely have I had a book leave me in such strange, ambiguous moods each time I put it down. Recommended for readers of, well, The New Yorker.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

From a Whisper to a Scream

Netflix streaming is a wonderful thing--on a whim, thousands of movies are available to watch at home, whenever you want. Hit movies, cult films, classics, and best of all, little oddities that you might never have searched out, but run across doing a random search on genres. While looking for a Friday night horror movie, I found this oddity from 1986, From a Whisper to a Scream, aka The Offspring. It's cheaply made, with an odd mix of actors who had all seen better days, but it's grotesquely quirky, and gets away with more blood and kink than a more polished big-studio film of the day would have.

It's an anthology film, set in the cursed town of Oldfield, Tennessee. The frame story has Vincent Price (in one of his last films, but still full of the old fire) telling a reporter four tales of horror set a various times in the past of the town. I have to use spoilers in summarizing the first story because it's just so freakin' weird: a nerdy old man (Clu Gulager) who lives with his sickly sister (who may have an incestuous bone or two in her body) falls in love with a co-worker, but when their first date goes badly, he strangles her, then has sex with her dead body. Nine months later (hint, hint), he goes even further off the deep end and kills his sister (while she's naked in the bathtub!). But something has crawled out of his ex-date's grave and comes looking for revenge. Yes, it's a killer baby born of a dead woman. Far-fetched doesn't even begin to cover it (either the baby or the fact that it took him nine months to kill his obnoxious sister) but the climax is compelling.

The second story, set in the 50's, has a wounded thug (Terry Kiser), on the run from some other thugs, escape into the swamps. He is found and nursed back to health by a black hermit (Harry Caesar) who has stayed alive for hundreds of years through the practice of voodoo. To save Kiser's life, Caesar endows him with eternal life, but when Kiser tries to double-cross Caesar, Kiser soon regrets his gift. The horrific ending is right out of an old EC horror comic--actually, all of these could have come from Tales from the Crypt or the Creepy and Eerie comics of the 1960s.

The next plot, a little more traditional, is set in the 30s and involves a group of carnival performers with Lovecraft’s Traveling Amusements, centering on a young man who can eat metal and glass, the non-freak show girl who loves him and wants him to leave the show, and the forceful woman with supernatural powers (Rosalind Cash) who runs the carnival and is loathe to let anyone go.

The last and best story, also the town's origin story, is set at the end of the Civil War and features a small group of union soldiers led by sadistic, cold-blooded Cameron Mitchell, who guns down one soldier (C.J. Cox) who wants to give up killing. They wind up at the mercy of bunch of Confederate orphans who are given orders by a mysterious figure called the Magistrate. Between these "Children of the Corn"-type kids, and the not-quite-dead Cox, you know the Yankees aren't long for this world.

Each story has its plotholes, but each also builds to a nicely gory climax, with the ending to the second story taking the cake for sheer horror. The acting is variable; Gulager is very good, I guess, but because his character is so creepy and rather unbelievable, you really really want him to die. I also liked Rosalind Cash (maybe best known as Charlton Heston's leading lady in The Omega Man) who does a lot through the force of her personality with a barely-sketched-out character. It was fun to see Terence Knox (the rapist doctor on St. Elsewhere) in a small role. For a low-budget film, the effects are effective--I jumped and yelped and turned away in disgust several times. At one point it was titled The Offspring. Recommended for fans of gory B-horror.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Out of hibernation

Whoa! I haven't posted here since November. That would suggest a winter hibernation, and that's kinda what happened. During the busyness of the holidays, I was dealing with a cold, then 2 days after Christmas, I got a nasty stomach bug, followed promptly by the flu which it took me almost all of January to really get over. And then I sort of just forgot about this blog.

But I've still been consuming media products and I hope to get back in the swing of things this spring. First, let me get out of the way a bunch of movies I saw between December and now, at least the movies I can dismiss in just a few words, or just a "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" manner:

I'm Still Here, the Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary/hoax: Though I was prepared to hate this one as a product of an over-privileged celebrity, I enjoyed it. It's not exactly fun, but it's not painful and it's even a little thought-provoking at times. Phoenix does a nice job playing an asshole (that's meant as a compliment, I think). Pictured are Casey Affleck, who directed, Sean Combs, who contributed a nice cameo, and Phoenix.

Inception: Hated it. Interesting plot germ (fiddling with people's dreams), executed in a silly, heavy-handed fashion.

Devil: Handful of people in a stuck elevator, and one of them is a demon. OK, though I have since forgotten how it all came out.

Dinner for Schmucks: The dinner party scene is fun, the rest is painful, despite Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell.

Zombieland: Zombie apocalypse comedy; OK, with Woody Harrelson very good, and Bill Murray in a cameo that is almost worth sitting through the whole movie for.

Red: Thumbs down. Even Helen Mirren can't save everything.

Never Let Me Go: Clone romance drama; good acting especially from Carey Mulligan who is shaping up to be a fine actress. One problem: why don't the clones ever think of rebelling?

The Kids Are Alright: They get over the same-sex family thing quickly, and it becomes a fairly typical family melodrama about fidelity and weariness and interlopers. The script could have used some sharpening, but the acting all around was fine.

The Social Network: Loved it. Great story (not really about Facebook, but about people and relationships), solid acting (though between this and Zombieland, Jesse Eisenberg may be a bit of a one-noter), sharp dialogue, wonderful camerawork, and a great score that didn't exactly draw undue attention to itself, but excitingly propelled the movie forward. I haven't seen The King's Speech yet, but I was really pulling for this one to win the Oscar. Pictured are the handsomest men in the movie, Armie Hammer and Max Minghella