Thursday, December 30, 2010

How Do You Know

How Do You Know: F

I guess I should have known.  But I try to remain optimistic, and I felt enthused about the prospect of Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, and Jack Nicholson performing in a comedy/drama by the writer/director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets, Spanglish).  I thought it might maniputively pull at my heart strings, extrapolate a few shameless laughs, persuade me I'd made a good decision to spend $9.50 on a rainy San Diego day.  Shame on me because the new film How Do You Know is awful.  Jut awful.  Not awful in a way I'd recommend it, not so egregiously fucked that it earns some warped merit-badge of honor.  No, it's awful in a totally banal manner that slowly made me furious for sitting in the theater watching such a bloated bore of cinema.  I watched actors I've liked or loved in other films (Knocked Up, Diggers, Election, Freeway, The Royal Tenenbaums, Chinatown), and I felt initial disappointment give way to anger by the time the film dragged itself to the finish line, where it simply collapsed under the weight of its own hubris.  This film is another example of Hollywood pissing away millions of dollars on a worthless project.

Witherspoon stars as Lisa, a thirty-year old professional softball player who gets cut from the US national team.  Adrift in Arlington, Virginia, she begins a relationship with a Washington Nationals pitcher, Matty Cain (Wilson).  Cain is written as a type of vain, self-obsesesed playboy who sleeps around with various women.  He's got a drawer full of unopened toothbrushes for the ladies who spend the night as well as a closet full of new clothes in various sizes for them to wear so they don't have to shamefully leave the building in the same outfit they were wearing the previous night.   

The relationship between Matty and Lisa is complicated by George (Rudd), a businessman being investigated by the federal government for securities fraud.  He works for his father (Nicholson), a cantankerous business owner who you know will inevitably have something to do with George's troubles, since George is written as the nicest, most compassionate character who never says a bad thing, does a bad thing, thinks a bad thing.  It’s difficult to make Rudd boring, but Brooks has managed to do just that.  Eventually, George ends up on an awkward date with Lisa, and he soon realizes he's falling love with this woman.  However, she’s still trying to make her relationship with Matty work.

This film lacked a heart, it lacked a brain, it lacked a soul.  I could harp on the performances, but they were only following the direction of Brooks, so blame must fall on his shoulders, and/or studio hacks who meddled in the film's affairs.  Nothing of any consequence happened in this movie; no depth of character is developed, no intellectually engaging thematic elements are presented.  He took a common cinematic topic (relationships between couples) and zapped it of all consequence, humor, empathy, complexity; basically, he sucked all aspects of identifiable life from the picture.  I could go on, but it's not worth the time.  

One thing I do know: this film simply exists as a larger manifestation of Hollywood's intellectual and emotional retardation outside of a few select filmmakers when it comes to adult relationship issues.  Hollywood hacks sure do know how to greenlight bombastic, but entertaining, 100 million dollar would-be blockbusters and juvenile, sometimes admittedly humorous, comedies.  But the byzantine workings of grown-up affairs seem to be out of the mental grasp of big studio productions.   How Do You Know seems to be the perfect encapsulation of the infantalization of such grown-up issues; sex/nudity is never shown because God forbid we see two people grasping at catharsis or clarity through use of a specific sexual dynamic, and modern professional/personal difficulties are never addressed-in fact, only a couple of throw-away scenes even show the characters at work.  Do yourself a favor and rent George Washington instead; David Gordon Green's emotionally/socially resonant film featuring a cast of mostly nonprofessional child actors displays the intricate machinations of falling in love more perceptively than How Do You Know could ever hope to do.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Unstoppable: A-

So many critics hate on Tony Scott.  They criticize his ADHD film-making style as assaultive, frenzied, incoherent; they routinely pick on and belittle this aesthetic the way certain students might gang up on the kid who's a little bit "off".  They hone in on what they believe to be deficiencies instead of strengths, and they attack those characteristics mercilessly.  Basically, Tony Scott doesn't get much love.

That's a shame because to paraphrase Dennis Green, Tony Scott is exactly who we think he is.  And I love him for it.  I look forward to his oversaturation of film stock, his whip-pans, the fact the man never seems to want to use a stationary shot when the camera can just spin around or careen towards its subjects like the train at the heart of his newest film, Unstoppable.  One thing about Tony Scott:  his shit ain't boring.

Unstoppable is a terrific movie because it gleefully traffics in cliches (the grizzled veteran versus the privileged upstart; the amoral head honcho willing to sacrifice human lives rather than dollars; school children in grave danger).  However, it also subverts them by lending an aura of authenticity to the proceedings and it convincingly develops a deep empathy for the men and women involved in attempting to stop Train #777.  Based on a true story that occurred in Ohio ("The Crazy 8's"), the setting is now Pennsylvania and it concerns a runaway train with no one at the controls.  Several of the cargo cars are carrying Molten Phenol, a deadly chemical, and a host of other obstacles are placed in the path of a train studio suits vomited the hyperbolic title "unstoppable," although anyone with a few brain cells or knowledge of big-budget Denzel Washington pictures should know that if Denzel is in the mutha-fuckin house, he'll be the one person to stop it.  Molten Phenol be damned!

I'm not meaning to slam Denzel.  Like Tony Scott and Dennis Green, he is who we think he is.  He's never going to blend into an everyman role.  No movie star can do such a thing, no matter how talented, because the celebrity and the persona created by 24/7 infotainment has eviscerated the line between performance and person.  Remember - celebrities, they're just like us.  Shit, that reminds me I need to re-up my subscription to US Weekly.

And Denzel (as Frank Barnes) and Chris Pine (as Will Colson) do solid, natural work here; their characters are the two men who take it upon themselves to catch up to the runaway train and stop it.  Neither role is showy; the trains are the stars here, as they should be, and Scott wisely allows viewers the time to understand: a.) the complexity involved in the logistics of the railway system and b.) how Triple 7 was allowed to find itself hurtling at breakneck speeds.  Human innovation, intelligence, and ingenuity account for the first part functioning successfully, while human stupidity allows for the second.

This is a perfect film where content, context, and style merge to thrilling effect.  Scott's bag of visual flourishes keep the movie moving, but he restrains himself from CGI overload (with the exception of one egregious instance).  Scott does an admirable job of establishing the railway system, a system that rarely seems to earn any respect these days with the invention of some new technological wonder being trumpeted everyday (remember when the Segway was supposed to revolutionize travel?).

But the railway system helped announce the birth of narrative cinema aat the turn of the 20th century with The Great Train Robbery in 1903.  And despite the fact it might appear to be the older, uglier brother to its' airplane brethren, its' ruggedness has lasted centuries.  More importantly, its' historical mark cannot be underestimated.  Before planes or cars, the railway was the form of transportation both for people and economic goods.  Not to mention, the social economic issues that have accompanied railroads through the years from the Pullman porters (ex-slaves who were hired for work after the Civil War and allowed to unionize) to the various violent strikes over labor issues to regulation all the way up through today, where political battles rage over undocumented workers, many who come to this country aboard El Tren de la Muerte ("The Train of Death" - read Sonia Nazario's Enrique's Journey or watch the film Sin Nombre).  So despite the story told being inherently cinematic, the fringe details of the work portrayed allow the viewer a greater appreciation of the system and the men and women who work to operate it.  I'm not claiming it digs deep into the lives of these working-class employees (it doesn't have the time nor the vision nor the intent to be Season 2 of The Wire), but it doesn't neglect the lives lived around the tracks. When Barnes, an engineer, tells Colson he won't be able to fit their train into the siding off the main track and explains the math behind his reasoning, you see a man who's learned by doing.  Little scenes like this provide the film its emotional heft and Scott doesn't need nor use fancy visual acrobatics to sell it to the audience.  Unstoppable isn't merely superior entertainment; it's a love letter to the railway and the blue-collar workers who make the industry thrive.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Film Review: 127 Hours

127 Hours:  B+

Full disclosure:  I walked out during the climactic scene when the combination of electro-shock therapy sound effects and grimy, feverish camera movements almost made me faint.  When I got to the lobby, all I saw were black spots flashing everywhere.  I had to lean against the concession counter for a couple of minutes and focus on breathing before the nausea subsided and I could see clearly.   

For a film that climaxes with a man methodically sawing off his own arm, 127 Hours startles as much for its rich humanity as it does the grotesque nature of self-amputation.  Putting aside for now this act of horrific self-preservation, 127 Hours does nothing so much as emphasize the thrill of being alive, the little acts individuals embark upon to find a personal freedom, and the self-awareness that Maya Angela immortalized:  "That nobody, But nobody, Can make it out here alone."

Director Danny Boyle follows up his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire with an entirely different type of survival story.  He sacrifices the narrative expansiveness of his prior film and replaces it with a single-minded relentlessness that focuses on one major character: outdoorsman Aron Ralston (James Franco), who in 2003 found himself trapped by a boulder in a gorge and swallowed by the wild of Blue John Canyon, Utah.  The film's blunt title sums up nicely the length of time he remained trapped before he chose to become famous instead of dead.

While I haven't seen many of Boyle's earlier work in years, those films led him to this material if you're painting in rather broad strokes.  The sense of physical/spiritual confinement, the lethality of mental deterioration during stressful situations, the willingness to shun humanity, the human spirit's indomitable will to persevere - all are represented in various ways in Boyle's previous films whether it be David's retreat from reality in Shallow Grave to Renton's struggles in Trainspotting all the way through to Jamal and Latika's intense longing for the other in Slumdog.  Now, in 127 Hours, Boyle is able to focus on these various thematic elements while in the process he's whittled away extraneous baggage and sharpened his focus on a singular individual stuck for the majority of the film in one, solitary spot.

Fortunately, Boyle has always been director known for visual panache and he uses all of his considerable skills to keep the story from becoming lifeless.  He's aided by two talented cinematographers, Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak; a tremendous editor, Jon Harris; and a committed performance by James Franco.  You know you're in good hands when a film shows its' main character literally stuck in one place and yet your attention is held.  That's solid film-making.  Granted, Boyle does make judicious use of hallucinations and flashbacks, but the majority of screen time is devoted to Ralston's conflict in the canyon.

Franco doesn't overplay the role.  He lets you understand right at the beginning of the film that Ralston loves life, especially the thrill of escaping into the vast wilderness of Utah's peaks and canyons.  He's a personable, confident, and self-deprecating individual, evident when he meets two fellow, attractive hikers played by Amber Tamblin and Kate Mara.  But Ralston also prefers to be alone; he seems to enjoy the company of others, but he enjoys flying solo better.  This lack of connectivity to others coupled with his daredevilish exploits promptly lands him stuck with no one to count on.

What would you have done?  Could you severe your own arm with a dull blade?  Could you snap your own bones to provide even the opportunity to saw it off?  Could you slash through tendons while covered in your own blood?  It's a remarkable story, and prior to this scene, Boyle and Franco allow us to understand Ralston's resiliency and thoughtfulness; he may be foolish, but he's not stupid, and it's a testament to the storytellers that when Ralston makes his remarkable decision, you understand even if you cannot comprehend.

By the story's end, you're also left with the spine-tingling joy of witnessing something truly amazing.  127 Hours is rooted, like Ralston, in simple, true joie de vivre.  But it also tempers it's love by making it clear the world is too large, too wonderful, and too unpredictable to go it alone.  What would have happened if Ralston had simply told his mother where he was going instead of ignoring her calls?  What if he'd stayed with the two hikers he'd met and shared his love and knowledge of the outdoors with them for the day instead of carrying on by himself?  The opening montage plays to Free Blood's "Never Hear Surf Music Again" and Boyle uses it to juxtapose the rat race and Ralston energetically preparing for his trek to the wilderness; sure, we don't want to just be drones shuttling from one place to another, indentured servants to the economics of world's work force and blind to the beauties inherent in the world.  But, Boyle seems to suggest, we don't want to be spastically bouncing from one wonder to the next without  the sort of communal transference that can lead to a sense of enlightened transcendence.  To not share in the beauty the world has to offer, to want it only for ourselves to hoard, demonstrates not only selfishness, but a hubris that is bound to leave one spiritually adrift and alone.  Ralston learned his lesson the hard way.  May others be more fortunate.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Darjeeling Limited with nods to Rushmore and the Royal Tenenbaums

The Darjeeling Limited:  B+ (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums:  A+)

The 1-2 punch of Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums immediately placed Wes Anderson in the pantheon of directors I felt substantial admiration towards, a man who had just made two tentpole pictures that provided ballast for my cinematic sensibilities.  Granted, both films are smeared thick with nostalgia since I watched them during my days at Boston University.  I still remember the Rushmore bus pulling up outside the College of Communication during a typically overcast February day, where I spoke with Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman.  The film had come out of the Telluride Film Festival with a lot of good buzz especially concerning Bill Murray's career-reinventing performance as millionaire Herman Blume, rival to Schwarztman's Max Fischer for the affections of school teacher Rosemary Cross (played by the lovely, understated Olivia Williams).  Remember, back in 1998, the "serious" actor thing had bitten Murray, but he had not been infected yet (The Razor's Edge was 14 years in the rear view, while Lost in Translation was still 5 years away down the road).  Rushmore marked a turning point in a career that had stalled (deliberately or not, who knows). 

His performance deserved all the accolades bestowed upon it, but Anderson and co-writer Own Wilson deserve much of the credit.  They avoided the sophomore jinx following Bottle Rocket and (most impressively) they did what true craftsmen/artists should do:  they honed their craft, fine-tuning the delicate emotional baggage their characters often carry with an off-hand comedic sensibility that presents itself in Anderson's manicured images and the script's piercing dialogue.  The priceless shot of a disheveled Herman Blume, holding flowers and lighting up several cigarettes in a hospital elevator, being asked by Max,"Are you all right?"  The succinct response pregnant with pathos:  "I've been better."  Or the epiphany on Blume's face that Anderson captures when Max introduces his father at the barbershop: simple, sincere, heartbreaking.  Scenes like these encapsulated the whole tone of Anderson's film in a single scene:  utter compassion for its characters, laugh-out-loud visual acuity, and the dialogue that stirs the two together to create the perfect blend of melancholic euphoria.  I had never felt so high from being so low.
The Royal Tenenbaums continued Anderson's refinement of cinematic stylings whether it be his impeccable images or humanist eccentrics.   Some critics have carped about his methods (Stephanie Zacharek in Salon:  "The movie is so calculating that I could only imagine Anderson sitting in some darkened room somewhere, toting up the laughs and tears on a child's chalkboard."), but his careful consideration of what is/isn't shown and said in the mise-en-scene only accentuates the lives of his characters and what they desire:  love.  Love for what they want, but cannot have; love for the family unit and its sense of community/kinship; love for belonging somewhere, nowhere, anywhere.  Like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums lays out a world of deliberate artifice that walks a fine line between whimsical melancholy and contrived whimsy.  And while many critics accuse Wes Anderson of being too diaramic with his conceits and characters, sucking the life out of both because of a fanatical attention to detail that strangulates the proceedings, I don't buy it.

If anything, Anderson is one of the great humanists working in film-making today, a director who cares so much abut his characters and the worlds they inhabit that he wants to nail down every minute detail with microscopic precision in order to invite us into their world and invest us in their experiences.  In many ways, Anderson is the cinematic equivalent of John Irving:  someone who is adept at mixing the broad/subtle comedy of life with the physicality/emotionally violent conflagration of individuals exposed when human beings reveal themselves.  Unlike Irving, who has tackled thorny subject matter such as religion, gender politics, abortion, war, and whose plots sprawl and leap and gallop across lifetimes, Anderson has entrenched himself  on the familial battleground to lay bare the wounds of his creations, and his intense love for the characters that populate his stories presents itself in the sum of a film's parts:  art direction, costume, cinematography, editing, location scouting, and musical choice.  Watch as Margot Tenenbaum steps off the bus to the glorious strain of Nico's lamentation, "These Days," and she sees Richie; Anderson's switch to slow motion precisely implicates us in Richie's universe, an emotional tsunami where you're holding your breath under water while trying to climb to the surface.   Watch as Richie stares blankly at himself in the mirror and announces,"I'm going to kill myself," while Elliot Smith warbles "Needle in the Hay"; Anderson's use of blue/green gels dowse the atmosphere in the character's emotional detachment, and the shock cuts slash up the sense of organization that's marked the film and characters' lives.  Outside of Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, nobody packs such a wallop with the juxtaposition of visual/aural accompaniments to infuse an audience with a total immersion into the world of film, while also providing the giddy, palpable thrill of discovery:  "This is a fucking movie!"
Next came The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  I have still only seen the film once.  It lacked the emotional glue that held Anderson's previous two films together.  I laughed little, and I cared nothing for the characters.  Maybe it was the departure of co-writer Owen Wilson (who starred) with new co-writer, Noah Baumbach.  Whatever the reason, I didn't like the world created.  I didn't believe the animation added anything of value to the movie; instead, it proved distracting by taking away from the father-son dynamic of Wilson and Bill Murray's characters.  Along with the odd burst of pirate violence, this film left me disappointed so much so I wasn't even in a real rush to see The Darjeeling Limited.  The danger with idol worship is when the curtain is pulled back, you're bound to be more than disappointed; more likely, you'll experience a sense of betrayal at the fact that such an individual would inflict such hurt.
Thank God I didn't listen to myself.  The Darjeeling Limited is not a great film like either of the two already discussed.  It's a modest film, more scaled down than Anderson's previous two films, and new ground is not shattered here story-wise.  But it does what Anderson does best:  family dysfunction punctuated with dry humor all sealed within his hermetic visual wonderland.

The film tells the story of three brothers:  Jack (Jason Shwartzman), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Peter (Adrien Brody).  They've all joined up on the Darjeeling Limited, a train that will take them on a trip throughout India as they attempt to reconnect at the point in their lives where all of them are crippled at an emotional level none of them can quite articulate.  Most of the film, they simply discuss their current predicaments, while they alternately bicker with each other and deny the admittance of authentic feeling.

Much of the film is structured to have an obvious literal/figurative duality that Anderson presents without much artfulness, but he does it in such a manner that it never becomes too heavy-handed.  From the outset, we know the brothers are embarking on a journey in a foreign country while also undertaking a journey to find their mother while also journeying within themselves to address their personal crises.  This most clearly shines through in Anderson's technical approach.  He often shoots the three main actors so they're looking directly into the camera, but he will pan away, an external reflection of each brother's inability to be direct or straight about the baggage (again, literal and figurative) they lug around, never being able to open up with one another.  Each brother erodes a sense of integrity with the others as they compile a mound of half truths and white lies, while they believe such calculated works of fiction will prevent any harm from happening. 

India stands in as the film's fourth major character, a place overflowing with wonders, secrets, and beauty.  This change in scenery doesn't open up Anderson's diligent, refined approach to filmmaking and storytelling so much as it beautifully complements the myriad ways in which a person/country appear to others.  The eventual destination for the brothers (and viewers) is unimportant, and the cliche "It's the journey and not the destination" is fully embraced by Anderson.  Indeed, the destination leads the three brothers to their mother, and many of their problems stem from mother/woman issues (Peter's inability to confront his wife in the face of impending fatherhood; Jack''s longing for the comforts of his recent ex-girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman in the short film Hotel Chevalier).  Anderson's bluntness when trafficking in metaphors might strike some as heavy-handed, but he's developed such a wonderfully cinematic shorthand that allows for this viewer to forgive him his tendency to be blindingly obvious with some narrative decisions.  A number of sequences highlight this talent, while furthering the themes of isolation and disconnectedness (A beautifully compartmentalized series of snapshots into the lives of the train's travelers; Peter overtaking Bill Murray's character in a race toward the train set to The Kinks "This Time Tomorrow"; a funeral involving the death of a local village boy).
After The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited was a nice reminder of Anderson's skill as both writer and director.  It might not have been as exquisitely special as Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, but I felt relieved to see Anderson continue to mine the complexities of relationships that exist between people, and his broken-heart-on-a-sleeve approach serves him and us well in ultimately delivering a sincerely felt film.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Video Review: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist:  A-

I feel like I'm rarely surprised by movies any more.  That's part of the problem when you love something; you become so passionate about your love, it becomes an obsession (and not always a healthy one).  You rarely allow yourself the opportunity to let your love just be.  You can't allow any room for breath, for a sense that something startling might happen because you've replaced wonder with suffocation.  You've replaced a certain sense of childish thrill with a depth of knowledge that you use to drill down in order to see and observe and attempt to understand all the minutiae and pedestrian pieces that make up your love.

I read every review (thanks Movie Review Query Engine!); I Google multiple articles about various directors and writers and actors; I peruse the weekly box office receipts and then I decide to review the previous 3-5 years as well; I scan Variety and Entertainment Weekly and other magazines ruining the element of surprise in film after film.  The Internet has only further exacerbated my intensity of interest.  I can check on banal film facts in a mere minute thanks to my trusty IPhone.  But what I can't do is be surprised.  I can't just feel that little pop in my eyes when someone shows up in a film unexpectedly.  I can't get the hairs on my forearms to stand at attention.  I can't get that little jolt that shimmies up from the belly and shocks the brain like when you close your eyes on a swing and lean way back, feeling the rush go to your head.  It just doesn't happen.

But I felt Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.  I felt it deep in my organs like when you sit beside the fire place feeling the warmness of the fire seep into your skin and deeper after you have shuddered through the wicked Northeast winds that whip across your body and lash you on a violent January evening.  Now, a week later, I still feel it.  It's not a vivid memory; it's a bit too fuzzy and indistinct in certain areas.  It's more the mood of a dreamscape that you can't shake and find yourself pondering in a hazy, grinning reverie, sharp images and language fused with a loose and nimble euphoria.
It's a movie about the soul's awakening to possibility; about the joy of discovery, and the selfish altruism you exhibit when you bestow your discovery on others; about love and holding hands and bonding over music like your life depended upon it, the verses and the chords medicinal, fighting to keep the personal sickness at bay, each new discovered track another immunization against life's relentless relentlessness as it tries to steamroll you on its way to the next person.  It's about finding Fluffy, the elusive band the film's characters try to track down during their all night trek around New York City.  But the mysterious Fluffy is nothing more than the MacGuffin that leads everyone (including the audience) down the rabbit hole and it's no coincidence the band's white rabbit symbol evokes Lewis Carroll's classic tale; it works to propel the film's sense of squandered possibility when individuals embark on an odyssey and they do all they can to ignore or deny the existence of something magical.   "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" the rabbit intones and I cannot imagine there isn't a viewer out there who hasn't felt the galvanizing anxiety that life is swiftly passing by until it is too late:  all windows of opportunity have been slammed shut and locked, whether due to mental barriers, personal foibles, physical impediments.  So while Nick and Norah might be a blast of pure high fructose cinematic corn syrup, it amazingly refrains from a sickening sweetness due to its purity of spirit that practically calls out for everyone to just go for it:  follow your heart and make your dreams come true.  Simplistic idea to the core yet it retains a strong kernel of truth because while the directions might be easily understood, it doesn't mean the road won't be bumpy as all hell (is that a mixed metaphor or what?).

Michael Cera portrays Nick, a broken-hearted suburbanite from Hoboken pining for his ex, Tris.  I've never been a huge fan of Cera's, but I'm no hater either, and he does a great job here.  Rather than make Nick some whiny, pathetic, emasculated loser who might as well be a eunuch, Nick is a self-conscious indy music geek who plays bass in a band with his gay best friends.  I wouldn't mention the sexuality of the friends if it wasn't such a delight to see the sexual orientation of the two defined in such an off-hand manner that bespeaks of the great empathy both demonstrate towards their straight friend as they work to help Nick realize just how much he has to offer others, while protecting him from his own worst impulses (the worst of which is getting back together with his cheating ex girlfriend).  As they tell Norah, "Nicky is definitely worth the underwire."
The plot gets set in motion when the three of them play a show in Manhattan, where Nick meets Norah, who has already been introduced to us at the private school she attends with Tris and Caroline, her best friend.  We know Norah and Nick are made for each other since Norah snatches out of the trash the elaborately decorated and dramatically titled mix CDs Nick makes in a vain attempt to win back Tris.  The character of Norah is a bit of a writer's fantasy; the cool outcast who's rich (her father is some big-time music man) and gorgeous (but no one seems to notice), and in real life she wouldn't exist in such a manner.  But actress Kat Deelings

Not the most elaborate of dress to hang a movie upon, but the film isn't about plot, but mood and frequency.  And for whatever reason, I was tuned in to the right channel when I watched everything play out on screen.  For nearly the entire time I felt that sweet sensation of discovery like when you hear a song for the first time and every single note, every single lyric, every single second of mellifluous magic builds and builds towards an emotional/physical/spiritual deluge that bursts out and washes over you and sloughs off the old you.  It happened just last weekend when I heard Ray Lamontagne sing live "Joleen" and "Let It Be Me" underneath the stars or when Band of Horses played "No One's Gonna Love You" as the San Diego sun decided to go to lay down to sleep.  Transformative:  that's the feeling, and while Nick and Norah didn't equal those experiences, it touched upon them nonetheless.  And in this day and age of cinematic overload, that's meaningful to me.
Bits and choice pieces continue to simmer in my mind.  Andy Samberg, doing his best  "Saturday Night Live Mark Wahlberg  impersonation", makes a hilarious cameo as a deranged homeless man who encounters Nick ("You're like a little canary in skinny jeans, huh . . . Hey, let me ask you a question.  You ever hook up with a dog?  Don't.  It's not worth it.  I like you so much.").  A running joke involves Nick's yellow Hugo, which at one point gets mistaken as a cab by a drunk man and woman who proceed to furiously make-out in the tiny back seat while Nick and Norah try to manage an honest conversation (Seth Myers plays the man:  "I love you so much it's retarded.")   Nick telling his friends he doesn't want to go into the city to play a gig:  "I don't want to go.  I'm taking a mental health day."  Norah's best friend, the trashed Caroline, telling a male train attendant, "I was kidnapped tonight.  Seriously.  And this band with these guys talking about going 'balls deep.'  Sounds like fun, right?  Not always."  Other minute facial expressions and modest gesticulations and voice modulations pile up, but I'll let you watch the film and make your own decisions regarding your enjoyment.

The film isn't perfect by any means, but its flaws only amplify what it does so right versus wrong.  And what it does right is spark into existence the simplest, and yet most meaningful, of life's pleasures:  holding hands with the one you love, taking a leap into the void, and making something from nothing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Film Review: Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom:  C

Another victim of the hype machine, David Michod's Animal Kingdom is just a boilerplate cinematic recyclable that does nothing to make itself stand out from the pack nor does it re-contextualize its' proceedings in such a way as to make it worthwhile.  This Australian crime drama details the Cody family, a criminal unit tied into the armed robbery bracket in Melbourne.  Four brothers (mentally unstable Pope, drugged-out Craig, forward-thinking Baz, and malleable Darren) make up the amoral gang, but this testosterone-packed clan is overseen by its matriarch, Smurf.  As played by Jackie Weaver, Smurf is a petite, bottle-blond with pancaked, garish make-up who as the film progresses increasingly demonstrates a maternal love for her children that hinges on the sociopathic.  She's also the most engaging character in the film because of her warped love for family and her artful manipulation of those around her.

At the beginning of the film, the brothers begin to see the writing on the wall for their way of life due to the local law enforcement's decision to fight such illicit proceedings with swift, brutal, and decisive violence.  Into this close-knit clique comes the teenage Joshua "J" Cody, the nephew of the four outlaws, who has grown up outside the murderous world of his uncles and grandma because his mother had a falling out with the family.  The film opens with J sitting impassively beside his mother, who moments later we learn is dead from an overdose.  With seemingly no one else to call, he telephones Grandma Smurf, who picks him up and takes him under her wing.  Soon, J is plugged into a network of criminality both familial and police.

A huge fault within Animal Kingdom exists with the character of J.  Viewed as a sponge of sorts who absorbs all of the schemes and internecine conflicts that coalesce between cops and criminals (often one in the same), the character as written and portrayed is a banal, introspective man-child who must navigate the murky waters of right and wrong without ever quite revealing his desire to stay above water.  Only J's voice-over reveals his character as someone who has a deeper understanding of his surroundings and its inhabitants than he demonstrates.  The problem with this particular approach is Michod has written J as a conduit for the audience yet he lacks any real magnetism to draw us into into this particular animal kingdom.  J's common expression is blankness, a tabula rasa of sorts, which makes sense and makes J the character you least want to spend screen time on.

As the noose methodically tightens around the Cody family, Animal Kingdom does an extremely slow burn.  Very few scenes exhibit any sense of tension, which saps all potential energy from the film until it fizzles out.  A couple blasts of violence (the finest being a shockingly early one involving the bloody death of a someone believed to be a major character) attempt to jump start the film, but most of the movie remains lifeless.  Michod shows real restraint at avoiding gratuitously sordid situations, but I'll avoid the term "admirable" because I would have liked a little bit more shock and awe to add some pop to the film's proceedings.  The whole film feels rudimentary from its characters, a series of stock types, to the mechanics of the plot to its' central thematic concept spelled out in the film's title.  I don't know if critics are fawning over this film because they're enchanted by the Australian accents, but this film is simply another carcass littering the highway of cinematic crime dramas.  Go rent The Proposition for another Australian film detailing an outlaw family and the weight of morality, or lack thereof, that burdens the choices individuals make in order to stay alive.    


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Video Reviews: Descent versus Hostel 2

Descent:   C
Hostel 2:  D
Note:  The picture above is not the exact photo shown on the DVD cover.

The DVD cover shot intrigued me. A picture of a (seemingly) naked Rosario Dawson, her dark features engulfed by the darkness of her hair, flipped upside down; the photo merging with the title, like she was slowly submerging herself into the cover art; and, finally, the plug from The New York Times comparing Dawson's performance to those of Robert DeNiro and Hillary Swank in Taxi Driver and Boys Don't Cry, respectively. The back of the DVD featured all sorts of hyperbole like "Shocking" (Entertainment Weekly) and "A Masterpiece of Shock Cinema" ( If only Descent lived up to the sordid expectations I projected upon it. Unfortunately, the film itself is a brutally dull psychological slog that only achieves a visceral reaction during its’ two sequences of violence; until then, it's a straightforward, yet pretentiously abstract, excursion into the psyche of a rape victim that never garners the fist-clenching fury of the two films previously mentioned.

Dawson stars as Maya, a nineteen year old college student at what appears to be a predominantly lily-white college ( I think they mentioned Claremont). The film starts slowly enough during the winter time, teasing out Dawson's character more through her body language and facial expressions than dialogue. The director and co-writer, Talia Lugacy, realizes what a fantastic actress she has to work with, and she wisely does more with less in terms of establishing the character's reservedness, but also the power of her femininity. When the Maya meets Jared at a house party, his initial conversation with her hits all the right notes in that it feels forced, authentic, and superficial all at the same time, but it makes for a banal film-making experience. Maya, however, isn't a simple one-note character. One of the nice things about her construction and Dawson's portrayal is that Maya projects a vivid sexuality that makes it easy to see why someone like Jared would find her so attractive, yet she also presents the viewer a vision of an intelligent, prudent woman aware of herself and others. When Jared ends up raping her, a third of the way into the film, the scene is difficult because Lugacy refuses to cut away for most of its' running time; instead, she keeps the camera in a two-shot close-up, a long take of Jared and Maya making out for the first time that feels ominous, but sensual, until the sexual excitement is replaced by blunt power, as Jared uses his strength to force himself on Maya despite her attempts both verbal and physical to stop him. Jared (played with meatheaded gusto by Chad Faust) amplifies the abuse when he lets loose a series of racial/ethnic/sexist epithets, which jacks up the didacticism. Now the film has bluntly called attention to the power dynamics that exist in a white, male dominated world that for centuries has used force to overpower women and, more specifically, the feminine ethnic "other".

This scene, along with the final scene, is the rubber-necking experience I had been expecting, where you want to look away, but find yourself drawn into the degradation. Unfortunately, the middle section, entitled "Spring" is a tedious muddle. An overt, heavy-handed symbolic reference to rebirth, this section is visually presented in Dawson's physical appearance, which now consists of a short bob (more deliberately masculine, but still allowing the feminine sexuality) and her one facial expression (glum, bordering on catatonic). Maya invests herself in her work at a retail store, while falling into an after-hours routine of dance clubs, drugs, sexual exploration, and a strange friendship with Adrian, a muscular, tattooed DJ. Lugacy even provides Dawson with her own "You talkin' to me?" scene when Maya stares at herself in a mirror while uttering the confessional "Yeah, you are" repeatedly. Like Travis Bickle, Maya really is the only one there, a figure who's withdrawn herself into herself and who seeks to disappear in a world of sex and drug use in order to mask her own emotional stuntedness. And like Bickle, she will not take it anymore and she seeks release to wash the personal scum in her life off the campus green.

Part of the problem with this middle third is the presentation. Lugacy favors using long tracking shots, periods of no dialogue, blackouts, voiceover, and garish red lighting to suggest the hellish underworld that Maya descends into in order to rediscover or reinvent or simply numb herself. Much of it feels hazily realized, intentionally so in order to depict Maya's semi-conscious state of mind. At times, these techniques work to create a feeling of dread and fear. A static shot of Maya dressing/undressing a mannequin at her job does a better job than any in the film at subtly suggesting how woman are treated as window dressing, something to be made-up and redone and presented in such a fashion as to be visually, rather than intellectually, appealing. However, much of Maya's journey is simply a bore and the psychological underpinning never feels fully explored. The film feels made by an academic rather than a dramatist. Her relationship with Adrian never feels fleshed out and her reclamation of sexual power (evident in the section's final scene, where Maya makes out with a woman while getting eaten out by a man) seems strained, rather than earned because the filmmaker hasn't provided strong enough evidence to make this seem plausible.

The final section ("Fall" - again, heavy-handed title card) seems shorter and turns Maya into an avenging angel.  I don't want to spoil too much, but the final scene, shot with implication rather than explicitness, is primal in its power.  It also subverts the initial rape scene and demonstrates an alternative reality where the (ethnic/racial/sexual/linguistic) abuse that has historically been aimed towards women and minorities is righted old testament style.  Much like the climax of Taxi Driver, this scene confronts viewers. It forces us to take into account our own personal and moral beliefs, and makes us consider whether our own primal desires trump our highfalutin "black and white" belief system when the theoretical becomes reality.

It will be interesting to see more from Lugacy. Descent is her first full-length feature, and she has a command of visual/aural relationships used to provoke an atmosphere of a world coming unhinged. I hope her storytelling steps up to become leaner and meaner, more interested in dramatically juicing her stories so they don’t become so narcoleptic. Because when all is said and done, Descent is ultimately a grindhouse revenge thriller disguised as feminist post-traumatic rape treatise.

With that being said, the director of Hostel 2, Eli Roth, could learn a thing or two from Talia Lugacy. I never meant for the two to be viewed as companion films, but it just so happened I rented them on the same night and watched them back to back. As a matter of fact, I think Hostel 2 would have been much improved if Lugacy had left her textbooks at home and directed this trash.

Hostel 2 is a replica of the first film, where a bunch of backpacking college kids end up in Slovakia for good times only to end up kidnapped and sold to the highest bidder invested in a “murder for sale” business known as Elite Hunting. The only difference this time around is the sequel replaces the callous boys of the original with a trio of young women. This is probably Roth’s idea of female empowerment. Anyways, if you have seen the original, you’ve seen the sequel by default. If you enjoy seeing a naked woman hung upside down while another woman slices her open to bathe in the girl’s blood while seemingly masturbate, this film is for you.

What really struck me is the idea of Lugacy making this kind of trash. Roth has no intention nor desire to generate the threat of violence or humiliation or intimidation through a strategic manipulation of image and sound; he wants to get to the good stuff and wallow there. The problem with this approach is no real menace, no real fear is generated as the story unfolds-instead, the viewer is subjected to recurrent scenes of disembowelment, cannibalism, and the climactic money shot, a castration shown in full where a cock gets devoured by Dobermans jonesing for some real meat. Lugacy could have shot the lights out of this film and provoked some real tension, some real atmospheric dread, and most importantly, some genuine scares. She has a great understanding that less actually can be more, and her instincts would have left Hostel 2 a more horrific film rather than the tired piece of shit it becomes.

I didn’t hate Hostel 2. It’s not repulsive enough to hate. It’s just not scary. The original Hostel, despite any objections to content, contained some real chills. Now that the cat’s out of the bag concerning the protagonists’ fates, Roth would have been wise to go in the other direction. Less focus on gore (much of which is more comedic than frightening—not deliberately, I believe), more on sustaining a mood. Because it’s not in the knowing, but in the telling, and in Hostel 2, Roth simply tells us the story in the same exact way. If I’d known this to be the case, I would have rented Hostel again.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Film Review: The Kids are All Right

The Kids are All Right:  B+

Watching the new film by Lisa Cholodenko, I felt a lot of initial admiration for the execution of such a film.  It's rare these days to find a film that attempts to juggle adolescent insecurities, middle age marital woes, family values, and more, while subverting many of these everyday issues by filtering the film's lens through that of Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Benning), an upper-class lesbian couple raising two teenage children in the vastness of Los Angeles.  And while I sat ensconced thoroughly enjoying this dramatic comedy, I marveled at its ability to juxtapose comedy and drama often within the same scene in a fashion that made the proceedings, well . . . really, really likable.  Every major character in this film comes off this way while on screen, and I salute all of the actors (Moore, Benning, Mark Ruffalo as the kids' sperm donor, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the kids) for investing their characters with a lot of humanity that stems from the littlest of gestures just as much as it does the pointed dialogue that often finds its mark ("I need your advice about as much as I need a dick in my ass!").

And yet . .  and yet . . . and yet, one narrative decision bothers me in a fairly egregious fashion that doesn't stop me from recommending you go see the film (for one thing, it's a pleasure to see a film centered around two flawed, adult, educated women and both major performances deserve recognition), but I am disappointed and a bit concerned by this major element that I believe weakens the film's overall impact.  This flagrant narrative miscalculation doesn't derail the film in its entirety, but it raises certain issues in a way I feel seem to be a gross error in content and, more importantly, in a macroscopic perspective of societal norms.  Since my concerns revolve around this major plot point, I cannot write about it without spoiling a part of the film (although previews hint at it).  Therefore, you should stop reading now and jump to the section where it states:  End Spoilers!


Jules begins to have an affair with Paul, her children's sperm donor.  What begins with a kiss turns into a sexual liaison between two consenting adults that threatens to destroy the life Jules and Nic have made for themselves and their children.  An affair would be a point of conflict between various characters regardless of the characters' sexual orientation, but the affair proves troubling in this film because beneath the surface complexities of cheating on your significant other lies the potentially dangerous assumption that homosexuality is a choice.  I don't believe the director/co-writer, Lisa Cholodenko (a lesbian), believes this to be true; I don't dispute the fact that Jules could potentially be bisexual (though we are not given any clues to suggest this); and I don't equate sex with sexual orientation-one can be separated from the other I believe.  However, Jules' decision provides people who oppose homosexuality/homosexual marriage or unions with an example of how homosexuality is a choice rather than something predetermined via genetic/environmental/societal factors.  After talking with my brother, my mother, my sister, and her wife, we were all a little perplexed and some of us were flat-out bothered not by the infidelity (this has organic roots in the presentation of Jules and Nic's struggling relationship), but in Cholodenko's choice of gender.  Why did Jules, a lesbian who for all we know has been faithful to Nic for 18 plus years, need to fall off the homosexual wagon by sleeping with a man (her children's sperm donor no less, a major plot contrivance)?  Why couldn't she have had an affair with another woman?  It would have been more messy in an emotionally authentic way to present Jules and Nic's strained relationship via a third woman rather than Paul's character since the emotional dynamics would be reflected through the prism of an established sexual point of view.  Granted, the film is about relationships (homosexual and heterosexual), but the whole affair rings false at best and dangerous at worst, something to be used as propaganda by those who believe you can be converted back to heterosexuality.  Not exactly the lesson I think the film was trying to make, but one I believe it (unintentionally) makes regardless.

Another problem stemming from the affair is the impact it will have on the children.  The title of the film is meant with a smidgen of irony; we’re introduced to Laser as he and his friend tip over trash barrels and snort drugs.  Yet the film uses the affair to deal more with the fallout between Jules and Nic rather than their kids, who take more backseat roles as the story progresses.  This seismic shift in Joni and Laser's world is not ignored completely, but it's treated in such a shallow, lazy way.  Joni gets drunk at a party.  Joni fights with Nic.  Joni tells off Paul.  Laser ignores Paul when he comes to the house.  Nothing in the film really attempts to address in a sincere, meaningful way the fact these teenagers are watching their mothers' relationship implode, which is a shame because the film started off with a focus on the children.  After all, Laser and Joni were the ones who searched out Paul and they started to form a relationship with him, however tentative or naive.  After they first met Paul, their initial reactions to him seemed so sincere.  Joni was taken with Paul's groovy lifestyle choices (he owns/operates a restaurant utilizing local ingredients and he drives a motorcycle) which seemed so less rigid and formulaic a path than the one she had embarked upon, while Laser's critical comments of Paul reflected his level of genuine hurt disguised as nonchalance after Paul had innocently belittled organized sports, something at which Laser excelled.  By the end of the film, I felt like the children had been marginalized from the affair's fallout and the audience gets treated to a facile ending that neglects to truly deal with the kids and whether they are all right.


Other, little things bothered me.  Jules hires a middle-aged Latino man to help with the landscaping of Paul's backyard, which is a truthful portrayal of the hired help most readily available in LA.  But despite the class condescension towards this character, believable since Jules lives an upper-class lifestyle, her remarks and the director's stabs at humor come off as racist and unnecessary.  All scenes involving this man should have been edited out since they added zero to the film and cast another ugly glow on it.  All of these mistakes weaken what is essentially a strong relationship drama.

And yet  . . .  I do no completely dismiss The Kids Are All Right; in fact, I highly recommend people go see it and judge for themselves.  Something the film gets right, more than it gets wrong:  the little moments in a relationship that establish a sense of lives lived together where your significant other knows just the right thing to say or do and just the wrong thing.  It's these little slights Jules and Nic playfully and antagonistically give off that provide for a lot of the film's prickly humor and dramatic depth whether it be Jules' needling of Nic's need for more wine or Nic's verbal barbs concerning Jules' lack of professional commitment (Jules is trying to get a landscape design business off the ground, while Nic obviously is the monetary provider as a doctor).  Their relationship feels real and both actresses perform it gracefully.  Many of the difficulties they face as a couple transcend labels and can be universally applied to anyone in a long-term relationship.  Does this person still love me?  Does this person even find me attractive any more?  Have I sacrificed more than I've gained from this relationship?  If so, am I OK with the decisions I've made?  

At its heart, The Kids are All Right forges ahead to erase a line between what is a traditional family and what is an alternative family.  I admire its willingness to tackle this issue even if I strongly believe it places roadblocks in its way that hinder and weaken the argument that there's really no line of demarcation:  they are both one and the same.  Hopefully, though, this film will only be the start of many films that present such families on screen, warts and all, in a way neither somberly dramatic nor infused with sterile eccentricity, but, in a word, is merely real.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Film Review: Restrepo

Restrepo: B+

Regardless of your stance concerning the war in Afghanistan, which has entered its 9th year, you should go see Restrepo to gain a more visceral understanding of life during wartime for the men and women (both Afghan natives and American military) struggling to survive. The companion piece to Sebastian Junger's recent book entitled War, the film alternates between the footage Junger captured when he was embedded with the US Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan and interviews with the soldiers who came home after their 15 month deployment. This is tough, tough stuff not so much in the sense that the documentary wallows in violence (the battle scenes are all first person point of view and mostly bloodless, but they put to shame the disorientation shown during the Battle of Normandy that opens Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan), but in the sense that these young men literally put their lives on the line every second of every day to battle a faceless foe. This is a film dripping with tension in scenes; when gunshots burst during this film, these characters might not get up from their wounds. And while this isn't anything groundbreaking, it contextually provides "us" (citizens here in the states) a point blank lens with which to see "them" (US military and Afghans) during the course of this awful war.

Make no mistake, the film refuses to produce an ideology towards the war, but not towards war itself. Politics are never directly mentioned and the president at the time, Bush, does not exist at all in the film except as a spectral presence by which all we witness directly and indirectly transpires. None of the soldiers articulate the feelings of being caught in a quagmire that will be determined by more than simply boots on the ground and superior firepower.

However, the images and conversations captured and reassembled in Restrepo (named after one of the first soldiers from the platoon to die) provide viewers an intimate perspective on how war creates a culture among a group of young men that has far more to do with brotherhood and life's fleetingness than any kind of masculine, macho stereotype. These men are not unemotive killing machines. These are men who bond as a unit, who fight as a unit, who joke as a unit, and who console as a unit. They fight for each other, not for a mission statement. If we cannot attempt to understand what they do not only for our country, but for themselves, we are acting as cowards and charlatans; it's easy for those of us who have never experienced war to criticize our soldiers since we view them from afar. Restrepo attempts to not let us make that mistake. If ever you feel like making an easy moral judgement on the men and women in the armed services, watch the scene in this film where a soldier breaks down in mid battle after a close colleague of his is shot dead.

Restrepo makes it clear: these men are charged with a Sisyphean task of not only trying to defeat the Taliban militarily, but they must simultaneously work to win the humanitarian battle of the Afghan "hearts and minds". This is much easier said than done when the enemy is everyone and no one, everywhere and nowhere. The Taliban are never seen during any of the firefights, yet they killed so many soldiers that the Korengal Valley was at one point considered the most violent part of Afghanistan. Villagers caught on film may or may not be Taliban, but you get the suspicion some of them cooperate with the Taliban.

Because of this fog of war, collateral damage is awful, unfortunate, and expected when information being provided to help the US forces is inaccurate. Afghan hearts and minds harden when their homes are bombed and their children killed, a chilling scene caught on film here that produces extreme sorrow for both sides. Junger and co-director Tim Hetherington aim their camera at the Afghan villagers and their hardened eyes speak of the deep distrust many of them have towards the US; many of them will never come to see the US side and you almost feel as if you are witnessing the next generation of insurgents being born before your eyes. This collateral damage is great propaganda for the Taliban to use to persuade villagers to join their fight against the infidels. It is no wonder when you watch the soldiers go about their day to day activities you really begin to understand the enormity of their task as well as the extreme hardships Afghan men and women have dealt with for generations.

Various other scenes in the film stand out.  Some Catch-22 style humor exacerbates the grimness of the story such as when an Afghan man tries to barter with the military for compensation due to his cow being killed.  The man wants money.  The soldiers are authorized only to provide the weight of the cow in beans and rice.  The man walks off, but you realize the cow is a source of income for the man.  Should he have been compensated monetarily, where the money might be funneled to the Taliban, or with the food offered?  Another scene that evokes a momentary release and escape from the deathly grind displays soldiers dancing joyously and jokingly to some terrible techno song within the confines of a tiny room.  Other times, the expression "lost in translation" seems appropriate not just linguistically, but culturally.  The weekly meetings Captain Dan Kearney holds with the village elders that exist to influence the most respected and relevant members of the Afghan communities become exasperated bits of blackly comic ineptitude where neither side seems to make progress.  These meetings, even more than the physical violence, project an air of dread and disillusionment.  If we cannot even seem to win over one group in one region, how can we successfully persuade most of the populace to side with us rather than the Taliban?  Indeed, after eight years, the Taliban has only gained in strength despite our military and humanitarian efforts, while Al-Qaeda (the US's initial target in Afghanistan) is not even mentioned.

But the film doesn't linger on these scenes since it isn't strictly about policy, but people. These scenes do illustrate just how difficult soldiers have it in a world totally foreign to them. In the end, Restrepo is a relevant film because it allows us into a world alien to most of us back stateside, who know more about Lindsay Lohan's quarter life crisis than we do about the men and women fighting half a world away in a war seemingly without end.  Restrepo might not ask much more than for viewers to look and listen to these men in uniform, but by doing so, the film demands those viewers to look beyond their often myopic, even fanatical viewpoints to really empathize with those soldiers struggling to survive one day at a time.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Film Review: Get Low

Note: In the original incantation of this review, I accidentally wrote how Robert Duvall had starred in Righteous Kill and Meet the Fockers when I had meant to write Robert DeNiro. My apologies; DeNiro, not Duvall, starred in those pieces of cinematic shit.

Get Low: D+

Get Low is one of those films that just sits there like a dead creature trapped and preserved in amber: momentarily beautiful and briefly compelling, but it remains very much a lifeless object. The film never seems to breath; it is merely an extension of handsomely composed scenes that leave you pondering why the hell this film had to get made at all. If anything, Get Low appears to be a lean 20 minute film that has ballooned into the bloated body of a 90 minute movie.

Based somewhat on a true story, the movie takes place in the 1930s and details the life of a man, Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), who wishes to "get low" and determines he wants a funeral party before he dies. Felix decides to invite everyone from the neighboring counties so they can come and share their stories about him, most of which would seem to be highly fictionalized accounts centered around the fact that Felix self-exiled himself 40 years before and created a hermetic life in the backwoods. Bill Murray and Lucas Black play the funeral director and his apprentice who acquiesce to Bush's funeral wishes, and Sissy Spacek plays a widow who has known Felix for years.

I'm not sure who to blame for this picture. Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, and Bill Cobb all deliver strong performances, but every character is thinly defined and evaporates once the film concludes. Each actor has his/her moments, but that's the problem; each piece doesn't lead to any significantly larger whole. For example, Duvall's character was good friends with Bill Cobb's preacher at one time. From a time period standpoint, this friendship that transcends racial barriers must have been an arduous struggle due to all the vitriol and hatred aimed towards African Americans especially in what appears to be the South. But we're never given anything to understand this element of the film, which shortchanges the entire relationship. So I blame director Aaron Schneider and the film's writers. This film has no momentum, which is a significant and sizable problem when you base an entire film around what amounts to one man's spiritual deliverance. When you finally learn about the secret the Bush has kept all these years, the reason he's secluded himself and developed the reputation that precedes him, the air completely leaks out and the film achieves complete ascepticism. It wasn't even much of a surprise, which I wouldn't have minded so much if the events prior to this climax developed characters, developed style, developed energy, humor, pathos, anything, you name it. But they don't. The whole film treats the secrecy of Bush's past like it's sacrosanct, when really it's simply mundane.

Basically, Get Low is a bore through and through. What a waste of talent. It's not like Bill Murray and Robert Duvall whore themselves out like Robert DeNiro and appear in a bunch of shit like Righteous Kill or Meet the Fockers. They're a bit more choice with their film selections. Unfortunately, this time they chose unwisely.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Film Review: Salt

Salt: C+

Far be it from me to disagree with two thoughtful, articulate critics (Roger Ebert and Matthew Zoller Seitz) who obviously took a strong liking to the new film, Salt, but their praise of the film seems wildly overrated. Reading their reviews got my hopes up. And then my hopes were slowly stripped from me.

Don't get me wrong; Salt is entertaining and it does a good job of adequately keeping you guessing how events will play out, though you never really doubt Angelina Jolie's character, Evelyn Salt, will be on the side of righteousness at the end. After all, this is the summertime and the film stars one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood in a PG-13 rated spy thriller. Do you really believe the studio would pay Angelina upwards of 20 million dollars to be a sexy Russian spy who actually murders the President of the United States by the conclusion? If you do, I have some BP stock to sell you.

Speaking of Jolie, she doesn't so much do great work as get in a great work out: leaping from moving vehicle to moving vehicle, bursting out of an in-flight helicopter before plummeting into chilly waters below, bouncing off walls while delivering lethal kicks and punches to her assailants, free climbing her apartment building while dodging her adversaries, jumping from metal beam to metal beam while descending an elevator shaft. This woman can do it all. The film's director, Phllip Noyce, does his best to ground the film although it eventually gets carried away on the wings of absurdity. By the end, Evelyn Salt has single handily infiltrated the most secure, remote location within the WHITE HOUSE! while killing/disarming too many men to count. Take 1/3 amnesiac killing machine Jason Bourne, mix in 1/3 patriotic-to-the-core Rambo (the cartoonish one of numbers 2 and 3), and a final splash of sexy, yet lethal, Mrs. Smith, and you have Evelyn Salt.

Both Ebert and Zoller Seitz praised Noyce's direction; Zoller Seitz went so far to exclaim the film the "best pure action film to come out of Hollywood in a long time." I saw nothing of the sort. Noyce does a competent job; the action moves along crisply and his sense of spatial relations is generally true. The film isn't hacked to pieces by Stuart Bard so a sense of coherence is retained within all the pandemonium that breaks out even if the film's set pieces become increasingly more ludicrous. But I never got that giddy, elated, tingling-from-head-to-toe action movie high Zoller Seitz calls "maximum ludicrosity." The action is fun to watch (especially the initial foot/car chase that sets Salt running), but I'd be hard pressed to fire Salt up on DVD to study its action scenes the way I would the bank robbery in Michael Mann's Heat or the restaurant shootout in John Woo's Hard Boiled or the climactic shoot-out in the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix ("We need guns. More guns") or the House of Blue Leaves battle in Tarantino's Kill BIll Volume 1 or . . . I could go on and on. Those films had me rocking back and forth with my eyes popping out of my head like a cartoon silently saying, "Holy shit is this fucking awesome!" Granted, those aren't "pure" action films, but neither is Salt; it is a hybrid action-spy thriller, and none of the action approaches such levels of incredulity which balloon into pure cinematic bliss. I guess we've really lowered the bar when competence in our directors (often insultingly labeled as "workman like") is viewed as the exception rather than the rule.

The minor twist is the fact the film stars Angelina Jolie. Originally written for a man (Tom Cruise), the film makes the small statement that gender roles within Hollywood action porn can be flip-flopped and not suffer cinematically nor at the box office (although I would be hard pressed to think of another female who could play the role with such carnality, athleticism, and perverse pleasure at all the violence). Female action stars are not exactly new, but for these type of big-budget Hollywood multi-million dollar pictures they are. Sure, we've had Charlies' Angels, but those characters were presented to be tongue-in-cheek. Sarah Connor's ripped biceps served notice in Terminator 2, but she still was only a key supporting character. Ellen Ripley in Aliens comes closest, but Weaver and Cameron made her into an actual character, not a character like Salt who's stripped of fat, sinewed down to lean and economical emotional muscle that produces a simple context ("My husband, I've got to help my husband.") with which keeps the action hurtling along on a crash course with the next extravgant action sequence.

Should we herald this as promising? That the ladies now get to join this particular men's team? Movies like Salt seem more to follow the maxim "If you can't beat them, join them." But was this a team ever worth joining? It's extremely rare these days to wow audiences any more with pure, unfiltered kinetic action regardless of the main character's gender; you need the right alchemy of gripping plot, intriguing characters, and a sense of auteurship that exposes the audience to something that feels fresh even if it's being subtly recycled. I feel fine with women partaking in these roles, but I still would prefer to see real flesh and blood heroines like Ree from Winter's Bone. Meanwhile, we'll have to make due with Salt in terms of action-oriented cinema until the next true action star (male or female) comes along.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Film Reviews: Winter's Bone versus Inception

Winter's Bone: A-
Inception: B-

The relevance of setting cannot be underestimated. It personifies the belief "Show, don't tell," and it allows the viewer to either slip into a picture's reality, or disengage from it due to its mishandling at the hands of the director and/or writer. Too many filmmakers these days take too little time not only in not establishing a setting, but neither in allowing the setting to organically define the story that will be told. Filmmakers are too busy dumping viewers into the middle of plot complexities/inanities or flinging shitty special effects at viewers and calling it entertainment or strangling us with quirky (read: inauthentic) characterizations, all to disguise the simple fact the emperor has no clothes. What happened to stories defined by their environments?

Two new films address this issue to different degrees of success. Inception, the highly anticipated follow-up to The Dark Knight by writer/director Christopher Nolan, and Winter's Bone, the recent Sundance prizewinner. To be blunt and succinct, Winter's Bone is the superior film, and the manner in which it achieves its superiority is through its environmental richness. The images (dilapidated homes haunted by hard-bitten lifers, barren woods breathing bitter cold, yards swollen and shrunken from neglect/poverty) propel the story, which involves a 17-year old girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) as she searches for her father, who has disappeared after posting bail. The problem (besides the obvious): he bonded over the house and its land where his children and wife live in order to vanish. So Ree embarks on a journey to find her father before the law takes ownership of the dwelling she, her younger brother and sister, and mother need to survive.

Winter's Bone is nothing new. However, the film is a wonderful example of (regional) film making that oozes environmental authenticity to achieve a level of malevolent suspense that puts most big-budget pictures to shame. As I watched Ree encounter a series of unsavory characters in the backwards of the Ozarks (some family members, others neighbors who have dug themselves in like ticks into the hardscrabble hillsides), the film took on an aura of menace and violence due to the poverty of the region and the customs learned through such brutal conditioning. This setting establishes a mood that provokes genuine discomfort during the various altercations between individuals and it breeds a stolid concern for our heroine; this is a character worth rooting for even though you know the success you want her to find will only provide a glimmer of hope in what appears to be a hell of a home life. This is, after all, a girl raising two younger siblings and a near catatonic mother on no money. Ree hopes to join the army, not as a means of escape, but as a means by which she'll earn some income; despite the enormity of her surroundings, Ree demonstrates a proud, fierce protection of the world which she inhabits.

Having taught in inner-city communities for several years, I identified with many of the characteristics inherent in Ree's community: the native distrust of outsiders and the law (one and the same), the fanatical unwillingness to snitch, the unhinged devotion to blood ties no matter the circumstances. These character traits plus the visual verisimilitude (fingernails caked with dirt, hollowed-out cars beached on lawns, squirrels vividly skinned for food) are key ingredients that further refine and enhance the setting so much so that you begin to realize despite the surface level superiority of the film's suspense mechanisms, the movie really uses genre to allow its viewers to peruse a forgotten America, an America that has neglected and discarded many of its own, young and old. I was reminded of the book The Working Poor; you're shocked (but shouldn't be) that such extreme conditions exist within a nation and without regard to ethnic backgrounds. Author David Shipler writes, "for practically every family, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause (p.11)." This is true of the circumstances encountered by Ree. Many of the characters in this film all look ten years older than their age, and while it's often easy to pity or caricature such individuals, the makers of Winter's Bone (director/writer Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini) simply allow their characters to demonstrate how they find ways around the fences that have been created to keep them in one environment and out of others: hunting for food, shouldering the burden when others cannot (Ree's neighbors offer to raise her brother), bartering for favors, and, in this film, cooking methamphetamine, the drug of choice. By the end of the film, you've come to develop an odd, but sincere, empathy and respect for many of the characters as they attempt to survive living within their ravaged, barren, apocalyptic Americana. And a fierce bitterness that such a setting flourishes within this country.

Inception's sense of place hinges around its central construct: the world of dreams, and dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams, and . . . oh, I could go on, but I'd be wasting words on something for which words do not do justice. Remember what I said about showing and not telling earlier in this article? Well, Inception is a film that does a lot of both (paging Ellen Page's character!). And neither works very well to reinforce the other, to provide ballast for a stronger film. If anything, I could have seen this film with only a musical score and enjoyed it just as much. It's a series of set pieces, some worth our admiration, some not. Paris folds on top of itself so that cars drive upside down; a locomotive smashes through a series of cars on a busy street; characters float in zero gravity through hotel hallways while engaging in a fight to the death; and so on. At times, the film feels the weight of its estimated 160 million budget and bench presses it numerous times, each thrust provoking awe at the ephemeral beauty Nolan produces (the fight sequence in the hotel hallway stands out-it's lucid, balletic, and riffs on, without merely copying, Inception's forebearers); other times, the film's budget appears to crush any sense of ingenuity, such as the sequence in the wintry Alps that appears cheap, uninspired, and no better than a cheesy 80s action flick. One true appreciation I have for Nolan is his lack of reliance on lowest common denominator CGI. Inception's images never really feel like they were created on a computer unlike so many other big-budget films. Unfortunately, other images such as many of the chase scenes are frantically chopped, so ferociously demolished, they appear to be outtakes from a Tony Scott film. So my respect remains tempered with a bit of disappointment.

Which leads to the setting in Inception, a world of dreamscapes that does not feel organic at all, which for a film about various levels of dreaming seems a little bit astonishing. These dreams don't feel like dreams; they feel like plot devices meant to "Wow" an audience that is either too easily impressed or has forgotten the film's precursors (most recently, films like Dark City, The Matrix, and many others). I'm sure people will say the films shouldn't feel like actual dreams because they are created by the characters within the film knows as "architects," but I still felt very little lack of wonder, no sense of the possibility that anything can happen. And isn't that cinema as metaphor? That the subjective filmmaking world (is there really any other kind?) can create and manipulate stories and worlds filled with an abundance of imagination where audience members collectively flock for a variety of reasons? Unfortunately during Inception, most of the time I felt a mild unpleasantness at Nolan's artful manipulation of us as viewers; he's a con man playing a shell game (albeit a very skilled one), and I don't get the sense that his tropes serve any greater function other than to hoodwink his viewers. Even the artificially amazing images are not that amazing.

Thinking back, all of this doesn't come as much of a surprise since films like Memento and The Prestige dealt in subterfuge (The Dark Knight, his most straightforward film, remains his most potent since it shed itself of trying to deceive it's audience and instead focused on theme, character, and fucking awesome set pieces). From my perspective, Nolan has quietly become the next M. Night Shyamalan. Everything is a con, and everything leads to a final "Holy Shit!" moment that is meant to supposedly stun the audience and make you rethink everything you've just watched. But Inception never did that for me. It's world of dreams was mildly intriguing, but I never was on the edge of my seat wondering what he would think of next probably because I didn't care about the setting the way I did in Winter's Bone. When you know the people can't really die since they're in a dream world, it takes away some of the suspense. And DiCaprio's backstory with regard to his wife left me emotionally cold; I never cared about their marriage, and I never truly believed Nolan did either. In this case, the setting overwhelmed the emotional nuances and the intricate, intimate details that define a marriage; why should I give a fuck about the ending and what really happened when Nolan is more enthralled with the landscape around the husband and wife?

I'm making it seem like I disliked the film more than I did. I appreciated it to a degree. It's simply that I can't bear to spend too much time thinking or caring about about Nolan's hollow house of cards when Winter's Bone's contextual milieu enlightened and enthralled rather than simply exasperated.

End Note: Inception is more a film you'd like to see on the big screen; it's vast visual effects will seem manicured on television, while Winter's Bone's sense of hermetic, saranwrapped claustrophobia will play well in the movie theater or television.