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.