October 30, 2010

“Wanna See Something Really Scary?”: 10 Movie Monsters for Halloween in These Dark Times.

“Wanna see something really scary?”  How about ten movie monsters for Halloween in these dark times of economic instability, ethical quandaries, high-stakes partisan hackery, and environmental degradation?  Trick or treat…


10. “Ricky Bobby” (Will Ferrell) in Adam McKay’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

Okay, so Ricky Bobby isn’t really a scary guy.

That is, he’s not scary until you start thinking about it: powerful, famous, influential…and dumb as a stump, with zero humility and hubris to spare. It’s no coincidence that a few years ago, when he was asked to assemble a series of film clips about America for the Academy Awards, iconic director Michael Mann chose to open with a scene from Talladega Nights: what better symbol for the terrifying rule of the big, loud, and uninformed in our political culture could we possibly have than Ricky Bobby?


9. “Leonard Shelby” (Guy Pearce) in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000)

The memory-impaired anti-hero of Christopher Nolan’s Memento piggy-backs nicely off of Ricky Bobby, I think: Leonard Shelby takes “ignorance is bliss” to a whole new level. Ricky Bobby doesn’t know any better, but Leonard does–and he choses to live there. Looking again at the world of politics, it’s easy to laugh at the ridiculously ignorant; but not so easy to laugh at those who use their considerable smarts and abilities for less-than-noble causes, such as their own selfish interest.


8. “The Zodiac Killer” (John Carroll Lynch? Richmond Arquette? Bob Stephenson? John Lacy? Someone else?) in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007)

As usual, I can’t seem to put it better than the folks at the A.V. Club. Here’s what they said:

What begins as a gorgeous evocation of a region under the grips of a cryptic serial killer—the opening, from the fireworks on July 4, 1969 to the haunting “Hurdy Gurdy Man” sequence that accompanies the first murder, is as good as it gets—becomes all the more fascinating once the case goes cold and only a miserable few can’t bring themselves to let it go. It’s an obsessive movie about the nature of obsession, made by a man who can’t distance himself from the puzzle any more easily than his bleary-eyed characters can.

As our culture of obsession gets even more intense with the perpetual evolution of (for starters) information technology, what could be scarier?



7. “Dalton Russell” (Clive Owen) in Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006)

In her review of Spike Lee’s excellent genre exercise, Ruthe Stein notes that Inside Man is “a treatise on power.” This is right on the money, and exactly what makes protagonist/antagonist Dalton Russell (played brilliantly by Owen, mostly through a mask) such a memorable character: he knows where the pressure points of everyone in the hierarchy of NYC power are, and how to mess with that entrenched structure to his enormous advantage. It’s hard to dislike a bank robber so invested in upsetting unjust order (even just a little bit); but for anybody with some measure of power (no matter how small), he’s a pretty scary dude.


6. “James Bond” (Daniel Craig) in Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006)

Martin Campbell and Daniel Craig’s stunning reinvention of James Bond as a borderline sociopath still within reach of redemption serves as a wonderful parable for the moral and ethical crossroads that the West finds itself at post-9/11. Still an imperialist rake with a ready quip and a license to kill, 007 is no longer anyone for the macho to emulate: in Casino Royale, he’s a self-medicating alcoholic who allows his rage, sorrow and considerable talent to be exploited by the state. And he’s not exactly out to save the world for certain destruction this time: the stakes here are keeping the “First World” in a position of economic and military dominance at all costs (including clear and willful violations of international law). The Bond series is finally relevant and contemplative, and offers a disquieting reflection of ourselves. This is a hero?


5. “Daniel Planview” (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007)

All of the worst aspects of capitalism, the most ruthless aspects of the American businessman, and the spiritual bankruptcy of our culture are wrapped up in the person of Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in his Oscar-winning role), who arrived in the wake of two questionable U.S. wars and Enron, and just before the U.S. economy collapsed.  Sorry, Gordon Gekko — you’re fired.


4. “Stephen Glass” (Hayden Christensen) in Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass (2003)

A lot of ink is getting spilled about David Fincher’s The Social Network and how it works as a much-needed bromide for the “me” generation.  But in many ways, Billy Ray’s dramatic retelling of the National Review/Stephen Glass scandal did it first and did it better.  Sure, Glass’s transgressions reach a level so profound that they made headlines, but there are aspects of desperation, neediness, and attention-starvation that should (uncomfortably) resonate with the Facebook set and keep us up at night.



3. “The Department of Pre-Crime” (Tom Cruise and others) in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002)

I’ll just leave it at this:  Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report would be my pick for the most prophetic film of the last quarter-century. Try watching the teaser trailer below (which first appeared in 2001) and not being at least slightly amazed at what the filmmakers seemed to see coming.



2. “Jaws” (Bruce the Shark) in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975)

Thirty-five years later, and still as relevant as ever… NPR recently considered environmental horror films, but have any come along to match the sheer horror of Jaws — a film that suggests nature has and always will respond without mercy when mankind encroaches upon and abuses its sense of equilibrium?


1. (tie) “The Joker” (Heath Ledger) in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) and “Anton Chigurh” (Javier Bardem) in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men (2007)

I’d give The Joker the edge, but it’s really hard to say which of these performances (both Academy Award-winners) best personifies the problem of evil — the recurrent conundrum of the human condition.  At the start of the twenty-first century, we’re no closer to resolving the issue, and both of these characters serve as timely, haunting reminders of that.  Happy Halloween…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJ6-ekvjOQw http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhXJcfczNIc
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