Saturday, June 23, 2012

Eat The Rich, Katniss: The Hunger Games

It's been said, recently, that a book commits suicide each time one watches Jersey Shore. As soldiers die for their countries, Kim Kardashian x-rays her hindquarters. And while millions post lavish photos of themselves online in various positions of vanity and consumption, people all over the world go to bed hungry. There are middle grounds, of course, between absolute pain and absolute gluttony; most of us are fortunate enough to inhabit them, as human beings, and as film spectators. But disparities such as these are impossible to be ignored, and make for the most meaningful stories, in fiction and in life. If there is a message to be taken from Gary Ross's film, The Hunger Games (adapted from Suzanne Collins' novel), it's not the violence, the effects, the chemistry between the actors, or the development of its characters (though plenty of critics have voiced their disapproval over these things). It's rage against the machine, it's "Do the Right Thing," and it's a question for humanity:
Are you all right with what's happening? Because no matter whose side you're on, you're implicated simply by watching.
In a dystopian society, The Capitol rules over the country of Panem and its twelve districts. Once a year, each citizen between the ages of twelve and eighteen enters his or her name into a drawing which will decide the tributes for Panem's "Hunger Games," a fight to the death among the districts that is televised, live. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a citizen of district twelve who hunts, volunteers as tribute when her younger sister's name is chosen; Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is the male tribute who joins her. As the two make their way to The Capitol to prepare and train, they're guided by a team of coordinators, stylists, and their own district's lone former victor, Haymitch Abernathy(Woody Harrelson), who serves as mentor to the pair, but has a difficult time staying sober.

Once Katiss and Peeta arrive, they're both at a loss to absorb the sheer spectacle of The Capitol and its inhabitants, not to mention the sudden availability of endless food, luxurious spaces, and materials thrust upon them, but they both seem oddly immune to such allure---Katniss defiantly so, shooting an apple from the mouth of the judges' roast pig to protest their indifference to her training ("Thanks for your consideration,") but Peeta in a way that suggests he's known all along what the games are really about ("I want to show them that they don't own me.") Once the games begin, Katniss follows Haymitch's advice to forego any resources and to first find water, and uses her keen hunting skills to survive in the wilderness, but news of her ability and rebellion has spread, and before long, Katniss Everdeen is on a dangerous hit list spanning from the tributes hunting her to the Game-makers all the way to Panem's own President (played by Donald Sutherland).
In a tale concerning such a distasteful moral dilemma (teenagers killing each other, some of them gleefully), the viewer has to understand the motivation or identify with the characters (or both) in order to become invested in something so taboo, and the scenes of Katniss's history along with the underlying ideology of her character accomplish this well. Her home in district twelve is gray and dusty. Rare is a smile or light-hearted event---life is hard for everyone that lives there. Katniss transitions easily between hunter, barterer, friend, and surrogate mother (to her younger sister) and eventually would-be martyr; out of necessity, she's become an omnipotent woman long before she reaches adulthood. This ability and later selflessness persists in the game arena as she keeps herself alive, only kills in defense, threatens her own safety forming an alliance with little Rue, (the tribute from district eleven, no doubt a reminder of her own sister) and later risks her life to acquire medication for a seriously wounded Peeta.
That the seemingly lesser-violent camp of tributes (Katniss, Rue, Peeta, Thresh) manages to hold onto its humanity inside the arena is huge, and stands in direct contrast to the ferocious, uber-violence displayed by the Capitol-supported "career" tributes of districts one and two, who seem to take sick pleasure with each kill. Despite this, the good guys refuse to be thwarted, even in such desperate circumstances: Peeta forms an alliance with the careers to keep them from Katniss. Katniss covers a fallen ally in flowers and sobs. Thresh spares Katniss's life because of her empathy, "Once, Twelve, for Rue." These acts are those of children, yes, but also tiny acts of rebellion toward the system that has forced these children to live hungry, watch others die, and now would have them carve each other up for the entertainment of The Capitol. There is pain and suffering, but there's heart, too. Haymitch Abernathy, though a supporting character, gives one of the film's most loaded reactions as he watches and grimaces when a young Capitol boy gleefully opens a toy sword and starts thrusting it upon everyone in anticipation of the bloodbath the games will bring.
Why are we doing this? What if we didn't?
(A kiss and three fingers to you, Miss Everdeen).


Hard times are when it makes the most sense to dream.
Martin Scorsese's Hugo might be about many things---a fatherless boy, a filmmaker, an automaton, French cinema---but underlying every act in the film are the central themes of memories, dreams, and yearnings, whether they be the characters' or the director's. Nothing is out of grasp, not really. Wars happen, people die too early, but occasionally there do come happy endings. And though times have definitely changed since the those of young Hugo Cabret and French film pioneer George Melies, we still dream, we still imagine, and we still need the magic and escape of movies. This is a topic no one knows better than Martin Scorsese.
Hugo, based upon Brian Selznick's novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is the story of a young boy (played by Asa Butterfield) who, through an incomplete automaton, hopes to somehow reconnect with his departed father. He lives alone inside a railway station in Paris, tending clocks, occasionally scoring croissants here and there, and stealing spare mechanical parts from the toy vender just outside his peephole in order to continue fixing the automaton according to his father's special illustrated diary. Things don't go well for Hugo once the toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley) catches him red-handed; he seizes Hugo's diary, as well as the miscellaneous spare parts he was carrying, and takes the lot home. As Hugo stubbornly tags along, he meets the man's Goddaughter, Isabelle, who is sympathetic to his situation and agrees to get the book back for him. The two become friends, sharing a love of adventure, stories, and eventually movies. As Hugo glides effortlessly through the inner workings of the different areas of the clock tower, he must carefully avoid the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), find food for himself, and work further at both retrieving the manual and fixing the automaton, as he's convinced it will bring forth a message from his father. In so doing, he and Isabelle discover the secret that her Godfather is not just a shopkeeper but a very special man, indeed.
Anyone familiar with Martin Scorsese's history will no doubt see the link between Hugo (especially the giddy filmgoing version) and Scorsese himself. Having admittedly grown up in movie theaters, many of which showed the films that would later influence his own work as a filmmaker, Scorsese isn't just paying homage with this film---he wants everyone to know the story, the origins of the blessed medium he loves so much. If Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas were the offerings to the auteurs of the French New Wave, then Hugo is a tribute to the man who largely made it all possible, George Melies.

Just as many of us have forgotten about or are uninterested in the histories of things like phones or automobiles, there are plenty of folks out there who surely love movies but have no clue how they really got started; this film will show you. Film theorists like to talk about "self reflexivity," or how a film pays attention to the fact that it's a film, even giggling about it, if you like; through the inner mechanics of the numerous clocks, the constant scenes showing film and film projectors, not to mention Hugo and Isabelle's jaunt inside the movie house---this film will show you that, too. Though we do care for them, what happens to the characters very nearly becomes secondary to seeing Scorsese's valentine unfold, to experiencing first hand what can only be described as complete and total passion and excitement for the craft, and to knowing that Scorsese was dreaming these big dreams, too, just as Melies had. The lights and colors are always striking; events foreshadowed in the films the characters watch actually happen in the manner depicted; two lonely people (one a boy, one a grown man) find new focus and joy in life. Wow.
Scorsese once said in an interview, "My whole life has been movies and religion. That's it. Nothing else." I say film is your religion, Marty, and the rest of us dreamers are all the better for it.


"How can you not get romantic about baseball?"
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) wonders this several times throughout the film. To a large extent, it's a fair question, although baseball and sports in general may not be every filmgoer's cup of tea. What is romantic, irrefutably so, is the experience director Bennett Miller has given us, which in the end is only partially about baseball. If you've ever struggled with a confidence problem or simply wanted your actions to mean something, this is your film, America.
Beane is a former major league ball player-turned general manager for the Oakland Athletics whose budget is unreasonably tight. Forced to acquire new, inexpensive players to fill in for those the team lost to free agency, Beane radically employs a young analyst with a degree in economics (Jonah Hill) as his assistant and together, the two pull together a team that focuses heavily on the players' on-base percentage (OBP) and other unique statistics in order to gain runs and eventually win games. Virtually no one in the franchise supports Beane's decision, and one loss after another seems to shoot down the credibility of his plan----until it actually starts working.

This film, like many other Best Picture Nominees before it, is about the underdog and taking chances, but it's very much a story about trust, too. A fine example of this (and unarguably one of the film's greatest scenes) happens at Beane's meeting in Cleveland to arrange player trades where Peter Brand (Hill) is introduced. When an entire row of personnel agrees to a certain trade, Brand leans in quietly and briefly gives his disapproval; the manager doesn't ask a single question but immediately seconds Brand's veto. Beane immediately catches on and seeks Brand out moments later, "What just happened in there? Why does he listen to you?" Brand's ideas are unpopular and extreme, as Beane soon finds out, but somehow there becomes a trust between the two men as they put the formulas into action. When dissent starts flowing freely through the team clubhouse, coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks Brand if he agrees with Beane's decisions; "One hundred percent," he replies. 

Another inspired scene has Beane explaining to Brand the correct way to cut a player; Brand feels he should relay at least some level of sympathy but Beane disagrees, admitting he doesn't mix with the players, travel with them, or engage in unnecessary dialogues. Later, as the team's standing in the league become dire after a significant losing streak, Beane revises his social philosophy slightly and works together with Brand and his players in order to explain what they're doing and to build confidence (which coincidentally is when the team begins what would become a twenty-game winning streak). Once the team gets going, they go damned near all the way.
Narrative aside, this film boasts the most solid production of any this year. The two principal actors, forgive the pun, obviously brought their A-game to the filming, but the driving orchestral accompaniment, so invaluable to desperate, life-changing situations such as these, and the editing choices of classic baseball clips and pages on end of statistics really come together with the present to entice and entertain us, while using close up shots of Beane's reactions, mostly his eyes, to remind us just how much heart and dedication this story has on a human level.
Early on, an announcer scoffing at Beane's system says, "It's not about statistics, it's a game about people." What may have threatened the old boy network was the fact that money just may not have been the most important factor in someone's success.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

As with the holocaust, films concerning the terrorist attacks of 9/11 should not be taken lightly, even if indirectly linked to the event. Stephen Daldry has made a film that has a lot to say, almost too much, ties up neatly at the end, almost too neatly, but definitely won't be taken lightly. A child's uniqueness, the near-obsessive way he deals with his father's death, and overall quest to make sense of the tragedy are half of this story; the actual tragedy itself plays second chair to the former(s) for most of the film, but through news reports and frantic phone calls, America is transported right back to that day, the worst day as it's often referred to, and even a decade later, not all of us are ready. 
Thomas Horn, in an epic breakthrough performance, plays Oskar Schell, an eleven-year-old boy whose life was turned upside down by the events of 9/11. His father (Tom Hanks) who is portrayed as he appears to Oskar with nothing short of demi-god status and larger than life, is killed in the collapse of one of the towers. While searching for pieces of his father in his closet some time later, Oskar comes across a small envelope labeled, "Black," which inside holds a key. As Oskar clings to the key as a link to his father which may unlock something, anything, that might bring the two together again, the film shows just how dedicated Oskar is to organizing his mission, hinting at his maybe-Asperger's Syndrome and alluding to New York's experience the morning of the terrorist attacks here and there. Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow, and John Goodman all shine in interesting supporting roles, but are mostly overtaken by the bigger issues of Oskar's feelings, experiences, and elaborate system to (symbolically) get his father back.

The film, though competently created, suffers from taking one main issue (Oskar's search for his father/remembrance of him) and branching it out into several other secondary ones that while seeming adequately interesting and relevant, really just eat up the clock, or serve to make Oskar's screen time feel overly bloated. The renter across the street. The Blacks in Brooklyn (Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright). The numerous stories of the people Oskar encounters. At 129 minutes, the film definitely could have been slimmed down some, but instead each secondary issue is kept and ultimately tied up a little too neatly in the end. Where neatness is concerned, (and this might be where most other critics' beef with the film really lies)---just as Oskar's mother (Bullock) explains that one cannot make sense of 9/11, one also shouldn't try to illustrate it, organize it, or simplify it into a kitschy little scrapbook or collection of objects, which ultimately ends up happening here. 

The strongest moments then become the ones where the film steps outside that neatness and structure and allows unchecked emotion----Oskar's physical collapse as the first tower also falls; the mysterious quality of the renter; Oskar's breakdown that begins on the streets of Manhattan and continues in his mother's arms. Since we've been a little distanced from Oskar as a character, not just because he's slightly anxious or socially awkward but also because of a somewhat stiff and theater-esque speaking voice with which the narrative is explained, (which is not a criticism toward the actor but the director) these unrehearsed-feeling, true moments become crucial in our becoming invested. Like everyone else in the film, we'd like to get closer to Oskar Schell, and like him, we yearn for a catharsis that isn't possible and that no film, no story, will ever give us.

The Descendants

I almost didn't finish this film. In fact, I kind of spent a week hating it, not knowing if it was my gender or personal impatience that drove me to do so, but regardless, I wasn't sold. There were definitely things about it that I thought were well done, and if you'll grant me a tiny spoiler allowance, the ending definitely ranked among my top five favorite film endings, ever, so it really bothered me that I didn't love it and I gave it another shot. What I took from the second viewing was that this is an incredibly powerful, emotionally difficult story that captures the very essence of humanity; The Descendants might just be the most honest thing to come out of Hollywood yet.
George Clooney plays Matt King, an Oahu-dwelling lawyer with a life that seems to be headed for disaster. His wife has just been seriously injured in a boating accident, he's having a hard time relating to his two daughters ("I'm the back-up parent, the understudy,") and he's in the middle of a landmark decision over the property his family owns on Kauai, something the entire state is following. Soon after Matt learns that his wife will never come out of the trauma-induced coma she's in, his teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) informs him that her mother had been cheating on him, and the two had fought about it at length before the accident. Armed with this uncomfortable knowledge, Matt makes arrangements for friends and family to say their farewells and eventually comes to terms with his own feelings and what he wants for his family.

Before we get to the film's Oscar-worthiness, it's necessary to address that this is a man's story, a father's story----and one that might leave women (at least at first, the way it did me) feeling a little cast aside. Matt King's wife, Elizabeth, never utters a word during the course of the film, and is repeatedly shown defenseless in her hospital bed, greasy-haired and open-mouthed. That she cheated on Matt is obviously unpleasant and undisputed, but she doesn't ever get the chance to explain her actions. Save for the brokenhearted pleadings of her father (Robert Forester) and the two framed photographs of her, one as a child and the other as an adult, Elizabeth as a human being and Elizabeth's feelings do not factor into this story very much. We're mostly able to see pieces of who she was through stories of rebellion (extreme boating, cheating, doing things always "her own way"), and through her daughters, who obviously cared for her but are conflicted about their feelings over her infidelity, but make no mistake: this is Matt's story.

The journey is an important one, and one that however uncomfortable, is pertinent for a lot of men. Money. Property. Communication. Common concerns, yes, but coupled with the certain death of an unfaithful spouse, things start to get tricky. When Matt receives the news that Elizabeth will never recover, Clooney's acting chops have never been better, transitioning from a controlled emotional breakdown (conveyed mostly through facial expression) to instant optimism when faced with the couple's two best friends, inquiring as to her condition. Later, when he informs Alexandra that her mother will soon die, she, too makes to hide her reaction (plunging underwater in the family pool) but then discloses her mother's infidelity to Matt, who listens carefully and then takes off running. It's not an arbitrary thing, Matt and his daughter disguising their true feelings; in a lot of ways, the story focuses on being honest, choosing forgiveness, and putting yourself on the line for your family, especially when it's the most difficult. 
So in addition to Clooney's performance, what makes this film an Oscar contender? Director Alexander Payne obviously has made great strides in showing us just how laborious and painful life can be---mainly that the people we love can and do hurt us and parents don't always have all the answers--but while focusing upon a very serious set of situations, still manages to keep Matt King's story from becoming dark or depressing. There's something very awe-inspiring about an average man, thrust into chaos, who in the end does the right thing. Paradise might initially be told to go fuck itself, but at the end of the day, this film's resolution and closing scene are as close to perfect as any I've ever seen. Things aren't fixed, exactly, and there will inevitably be more problems down the road, but in the world of parents and children, sometimes all that is needed is a quiet evening on the couch with ice cream. Would that all our problems iron out that way.

Radcliffe and Company Nail It: The Woman In Black

At last, a proper horror film! Director James Watkins' The Woman in Black (adapted from the Susan Hill novel of the same name) gives not only ample scares and carefully crafted nods to its thriller predecessors but wins with inspired performances, sound design, and cinematography as well. Although less is not always more in thrillers like these (or so the suits love to argue) the subtlety and control used by the screenwriter and director in creating this film serve to bring us what might possibly be the classiest endeavor the genre has ever seen (of which lead Daniel Radcliffe is obviously a large part).
Radcliffe plays widower Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who must leave his son and nanny to settle the estate of an elderly woman off the shore of the eastern corner of England. He's greeted with hostility by many of the villagers, and obviously senses there is a darkness about the isolated residence he's been paid to set in order, but he stubbornly agrees to finish the job---until a strange woman in black shows up and starts manipulating the village children into various acts of doom. Sam Daily, a villager (who is also of professional status) takes a liking to Kipps and invites him into his home but refuses to believe the woman in black is real or has any impact on the village, despite having lost his own son years prior and the fact that his wife strenuously feels otherwise. Kipps' problem, then, lies not only in doing his business in a hostile work environment, but also in uncovering the stalking woman's past and preventing her from doing harm to more children in the village and eventually, his own son.
The aesthetic decisions made in this production were crucial to its overall success, charm, and status as what I earlier referred to as "proper." The constant grayness in color, the long, wide shots in filming the estate, and its proximity to the (gray, long, wide) ocean created a very isolated, drowning sort of feeling, giving the house a sinister personality all its own even before Kipps enters. The villagers don't want him nosing around, won't go there themselves, and once the tide rises for the first time, covering the long, tiny, spindle of a driveway completely, we're with them----who wouldn't be? Radcliffe plays Kipps similarly; melancholy and serious (exemplified wonderfully by his son Joseph's constant sad-face drawings of him), and with neat, angled sideburns and those striking blue eyes, is a bit of a visual treat himself.

Once inside the house, the experience widens with further visual scares, monkey statues, old toys, startling ravens, not to mention the sighting of the woman through the window, but also with aural scares, too: high pitched, threatening notes (very similar to Jack Torrance's psychological breaking point in his investigations of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining), thumps and footsteps in various rooms in the house, the juxtaposition of joyful, wind-up toy music in a child's bedroom (thanks, Insidious, I love evil mixed with an insanely happy melody) with the creaking and exaggerated swaying of a seriously demented rocking chair . . . without ever seeing the villain close up (at least at first), her evil accompaniment, the subtle, material hints of who she is and what's she's done are enough to make us cringe, again and again.

Probably the most important aspect to this film is its setting, not only the house in question nor its location, but the period in time as well. Noted (in Wikipedia) to have taken place during the Edwardian Era, the story, while not exactly holding women in very high esteem on the surface, poses several interesting ideas about power and ability in woman, specifically mothers, during a time when such things were virtually unheard of. Sam Daily's wife, at first shown to be a bit off her rocker (feeding the family dogs at the dinner table, rocking one in a cradle) claims to be able to communicate with her departed son; Sam is embarassed by her and blows her off. The Woman in Black, as it turns out, lost a son of her own, and was driven crazy by her need to reclaim him. Kipps' own wife, having died in childbirth, seems to pop up every now and then, though it's never really clear if her presence is just Kipps' wishful thinking, daydreams, or actually happening, but given the fact that two other women are unable to let go of the children they lost and seem to have developed superhuman abilities in either simply relating to them or avenging them, it's reasonable that Mrs. Kipps, too, might be hanging around for just such a purpose.
No fury like a woman scorned? Yes. And also don't mess with her son, either.

Wahlberg on a Boat FTW: Contraband

It's undeniable that Mark Wahlberg has one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood, even some of his greener acting projects are worth checking out (having been party to more than a few bad boy infatuations, his David McCall in Fearwill always be one of my favorites). His roles are often times sly and softspoken, and always fun to watch, but much of his appeal seems to come in knowing that just under the surface, a deep, explosive reaction is waiting---even when he's completely in control. His latest film, Contraband, directed by Baltasar Kormakur, succeeds on many levels, but I think mainly by working Walhberg's underlying fierceness into character Chris Farraday, building tension and uncertainty all the way (together with gunfire, explosions, and switcharoos).
Farraday is a former smuggler turned security systems specialist, who in an unexpected turn of events emerges from retirement to bail out his brother in law, Andy. After having dumped (and lost) the illicit goods of one of Farraday's former smuggling colleagues (played wonderfully by Giovanni Ribisi), Andy needs Chris's help to not only score something big, but to safely transport it back to the states on a ship and unload it while Ribisi's unsavory character, Tim Briggs, keeps watch over Farraday's wife (Kate Beckinsale) and young sons.

Heist films are fun, though since the success of the Ocean's Eleven franchise, nothing is really ever stolen in the manner outright portrayed anymore, and this film is no exception. I daresay that the thrill in this film is not so much the outcome of the narrative but the actions, reactions, and relationships between its characters. The characters are interesting, well-acted, and we care about what happens to them. Farraday's relationship with his wife and brother in law are important, but so is his connection with his former partner in crime/best friend, Sebastian (Ben Foster) and the camaraderie and trust shared among the container ship's crew (most of whom are absolutely giddy with excitement to welcome him back). Though we never witness any hard evidence or flashbacks of the glory days of Farraday's smuggling past, everyone else in the film radiates such a respect and almost awe for the things he's done, we don't really need to---when the time comes (which yes, takes a while to arrive), we're not disappointed; Farraday definitely still knows his stuff.

Despite the eagerness and occasional humor that keeps Farraday's early scenes on the ship mostly positive, there's just as much darkness and tension concerning his wife and children back at home, Tim Briggs, Sebastian, and the eventual heist, once it gets going. When the film starts exploring these things, one can't help but cringe with worry in how it's all going to come together (or not) in the end, giving very much the same vibe of danger and discomfort as during the cocaine scam/firecracker/Jesse's Girl scene in Boogie Nights, but stretched out for nearly an hour on until the film's conclusion----just GET OUT, you want to yell, time and time again!
It's still a good time though, further kudos for the opening credits, the music, especially the ending scene, and casting choices Lukas Haas (who in Mars Attacks, puzzles over "maybe they no-liking the human beings?" with waitress) and J.K. Simmons (Schillinger from Oz). Well done, all. And Mr. Wahlberg--- though we're not technically acquainted, please feel free to say hello to your mother for me.

Young Adult: An Enjoyable Train Wreck

Is it possible to have a positive experience viewing a film about someone detestable? I wouldn't have thought so. In fact I was so conflicted about my feelings for this film I debated even writing about it because my reaction and opinion both flip-flopped at least once a day (and it's been almost a week). Director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking, Up In The Air) seems to have a unique talent for making dysfunctional social awkwardness both tragic and funny, for bringing honestly colorful performances from his actors, and for forcing the discomfort of real-life scenarios, many of them unpleasant, onto his audiences with no effort to sugar-coat anything---and all that is truly impressive, but this little tale was different. Between severe writhing (in embarassment for the main character), hating her, and wondering whether or not it was appropriate to laugh, I obviously felt something for the film, I just don't think it can be identified yet.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a writer of Young Adult fiction; from the first moment we see her we realize that her life is not exactly a happy one. Maybe she's a cliche writer who's just a heavy-drinking, downer of a person, or maybe she's upset at her parents for naming her Mavis, who knows? Between slugging diet coke, sometimes tending to her dog, and constantly subjecting herself to dysfunctional reality television programs, Mavis hammers out pages for her latest YA novel, which is to be the last in a cancelled series. In between paragraphs, she finds in her email a birth announcement for her ex-boyfriend's new baby daughter ("the best thing that ever happened to us.") After printing out the baby's picture and reflecting for a while, Mavis inexplicably drops everything, packs a bag, and heads off to her hometown, Mercury, Minnesota, where the ex-boyfriend and his family still live, apparently in effort to win him back. Things don't go well. 
So what makes the character of Mavis so detestable? She's insensitive; her ex-boyfriend is just supposed to drop everything (including his wife and daughter) because she decides they should be together? She's deluded (see above). She's callous; after running into an old classmate at the bar who had been beaten with crowbars during their senior year, she's curious only about the attention he gained from the accident and if his genitalia still worked afterwards. Once she meets up with Buddy, the ex, Mavis becomes downright unbearable; it's obvious he's happy, and sees her only as a friend. Her advances and overblown attempts at getting him to reminicse over the good old days are embarassing and sad, yet she refuses to give up. There are moments of insight into who Mavis really is, and these are vital to the film since without them she'd be absolutely rude and boring instead of just rude----her drinking is significant, she seems upset over her divorce, she pulls out strands of her hair, one by one, and the only time she manages to dress like an adult is when she's going to the bar or crashing in on Buddy. Any writer will pick up on the fact that she is clearly unhappy with what she's doing, creatively, but one also can't help noticing how comfortable she is in her series' YA genre---catty, self-important, teen-queen characters whose utterances come directly from what she overhears in food courts . . . Mavis is writing herself, over and over. 
As a production, the film was very well-cast, but Patton Oswalt was huge in its overall success (if you can call it that). His character, Matt Freehauf, isn't exactly thrilled with life, either, but he manages to bring light and humanity to a film that would have drowned itself without him. In the film's most emotionally raw moment, Mavis stands half-naked and vulnerable among Matt's spliced comic statue figures, confessing to him why she's doing what she's doing; Matt (who knows exactly what he's getting into) simply listens and abides, unable to treat her as she's treated him and many. If there is a message in this film, Matt is a huge part of it. And though it's tempting to have a whole lot of disdain for a film that makes no secret of the fact that sometimes there are people who are just dead on the inside, I still think there's more going on than just that.
Also, I just can't hate a film where the main character listens to a pink and gold Memorex mixed tape. Just can't do it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

When I originally published this review, someone didn't like the assumptions they thought I was making about Indian culture in the comments about the traditional Mumbai section (and comparing them to Temple of Doom). I apologize if it seems like I'm making fun of anything or assuming this is what goes on in modern-day India, I wasn't, only that it was interesting, definitely over the top, but something nostalgic in that it could be linked to another of my favorite films. Maybe I didn't really need to say that, but I suppose it helps to be clear. I'd hate to think that someone out there might see a film with a Nazi in it and think all Germans were like that Nazi.

What originally began as a plan simply to ogle the splendor that is Josh Holloway (Sawyer from JJ Abrams' LOST) turned out to be a suprisingly wonderful experience; this was a fun, fun movie. And while no kid's film, whatever skill and ability director Brad Bird picked up at Pixar was not wasted here--- aesthetically and viscerally, Mission Impossible delivers again and again.
The film's premise is simple enough----Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is after bad guys who plan on doing bad things with nuclear launch codes. The IMF (Impossible Missions Force), for political reasons bails, leaving him with only three other rogue agents to aid him in his mission, invoking "Ghost Protocol." There are some personal bits of story along with the action: one of Hunt's agent colleagues seeks vengeance for her departed love; Hunt seems upset by the breakup of his marriage but unwilling to discuss it; and Brandt, the newest member of the team (played by Jeremy Renner), is there only reluctantly, and eventually reveals inside knowledge into both his experience as an agent and Hunt's own history.  

The story isn't what makes this movie great (though it's quite well-written); it honestly isn't anything we haven't already seen from the previous films or even 24's Jack Bauer. This film is what it is because of its style, special effects, and driving pace. There are some impersonations (a couple which involve masks), numerous explosions, impressive uses of technology, and amazing stunts. The locations and the way that they're constantly changing keep the film always racing toward that next conflict, or that next piece of the puzzle---Budapest, Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai become exciting settings in which Hunt's extreme prison break/search for materials/con game/and ultimate fighting championship (with a vehicular twist) all take place. Very rarely is there time to take a breath, but it works.

In addition to all the amped-up action, there were moments of humor (mostly snide utterances by sidekick Simon Pegg) and nostalgia. I personally enjoyed Cruise's Terminator-inspired speed running, which happened more than once, and the traditional Indian dancers at the palace toward the film's conclusion, very reminiscent of Temple of Doom, donned in white instead of red. Would an offering of snake surprise or chilled monkeybrains have been pushing it? Maybe, but the film does plenty fine without it. 

Here's to you, Bad Robot. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Citizen Ruth

This is probably one of the most twisted things I really, really enjoy. My husband told me once when we were first dating that I reminded him of Dern as Ruth. Super.

Recently available on Netflix instant download, Citizen Ruth is a dark comedy starring Laura Dern that takes place in the middle of some radically serious events. In forwarning, this is not a film for everyone; the things that go on are disturbing, and whether you're pro-choice or pro-life, you'll cringe, a lot. What makes it worth watching, however, is the way director Alexander Payne (who is having a great year with the Oscar-buzzed hit The Descendants) captures the brilliantly human moments in Ruth's struggle, together with well-done (and at times way too chipper) music and an amazing supporting cast. You may not end up liking the principal character very much, but you might find value in her message.

Some killer deck sealant.

Ruth Stoops has a difficult life; she's homeless, newly pregnant with her fifth child, and any money she comes into she spends on booze and spray paint (for huffing). After getting picked up by the cops with a new can of silver deck sealant, Ruth is brought before a judge who makes an example of her by charging her with criminal endangerment of her fetus but before returning her to jail suggests that he might reduce her charges if she had an abortion. In jail Ruth meets some women who belong to a group called "The Baby Savers" and who are outraged at the judge's suggestion; Gail (Mary Kay Place), the lead member of the group, pays Ruth's bail, cleans her up, and takes her into the family home, hoping to convince Ruth to keep her baby and to stay off drugs. Which doesn't go well.
After a bit of a fallout with Gail over some model airplane glue and the slugging of her son, Ruth gets passed over to another Baby Saver, Diane (Swoosie Kurtz), who actually turns out to be an employee of Pro-Choice in disguise. Ruth decides she wants to have an abortion, and Diane and her partner Rachel are willing to help her obtain one, but as soon as Gail and her husband (played by Kurtwood Smith) find out, they declare a national Baby Saver Alert, attracting the attention of the organization's national chair, Blaine Gibbons (played by Burt Reynolds). In the end, both sides, which claim to be acting in Ruth's own best interest, show they'll stop at nothing to influence her decision but Ruth, mostly oblivious, sits on the sidelines listening to cassette tapes on wealth-building (and ingesting whatever random substances she can find). Can there be a winner in a battle like this one? Not unless it's Ruth (which in a way, it is). 

Limbs on her and Zubaz on him. Fab.

The humanity in this film comes at you in a few different ways; the offensive and the raw together with the honest and the (albeit rare) tender. Ruth's early scenes are dirty-feeling and almost viscerally uncomfortable---the unsentimental sex scene at the film's opening followed by Ruth's violent outburst, the silver around her mouth after we see her huff for the first time, the vomit, her face on the concrete inside her holding cell---pretty repulsive. Later, when Ruth is first adopted by The Baby Savers (wearing a furry animal sweatshirt with hair perfectly curled) and then Pro-Choice (donning Diane's striped Guatamalan jacket over a Frida Kahlo tee), we see her for what she becomes to each group, a pawn, but we are still uncomfortable at each side's inability to "fix" her in helping her, if that's even what they desire to do. It's clearly difficult to have respect or empathy for someone like Ruth, given her actions (abandoning her children, continuing to use drugs after she learns of her pregnancy, physically harming Gail's son, responding carelessly to Diane and Rachel's offer to pay for her abortion, etc.) but one can't help but wonder about her, and be slightly entertained by her outlandish antics throughout the film. 
Bunny Sweatshirt.
Ruth's humanity is slightly damaged, and serves mostly as a joke (constant profanity, flailing limbs, kicking and windmilling when she's scared, to name a couple) but it's still there. As she looks into her brother's window and sees her children eating breakfast, she lingers and later asks how they are. Her first huff of spray paint is shown first with a casually ritualistic setup but then ends with an extreme close up shot of only her eyes, which seem to be filled with more and more fear with each inhale. Later, there are almost-tender moments between Diane and Ruth as Diane legitimately attempts to soothe and comfort her physically, (in a motherly way) but they usually end in Ruth's withdrawl. How did she get this way? Her pacing, explanation scene (performed brilliantly by Dern) after dinner during her first night at Gail's alludes to past abuse, as does one of the final scenes involving Ruth's mother (played by Dern's own mother, Diane Ladd) "Ruthie! Don't do it! What if I'da aborted YOU?" she pleads. Ruth seizes a megaphone and essentially responds back loudly that then she would have at least been spared abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend (in different, more blunt vocabulary). 
In any case, the film doesn't apologize for Ruth but makes an interesting statement about social conditions in America, politics, and money. Was it really anyone's business? Hard to say, but I can't say I'd choose either of the two protest sides if hard-pressed . . . 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Battle of Hogwart's: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt. 2

Sentimentalists like me usually have a difficult time with things coming to a close, and this film, the final installment of the Harry Potter series, was no exception. How best to describe the epic to end all epics? With an unsentimental rave, of course, because there are no two ways about it--- director David Yates nailed it. Even the trailer makes me cry a little.

When we last left Harry, he, Ron, and Hermione had just buried Dobby the House Elf after being rescued (along with Luna Lovegood, Griphook the Goblin, and Mr. Ollivander) from Malfoy Manor. Beginning first with a sobering picture of Hogwarts as led by new headmaster Severus Snape, the film continues the hunt for Horcruxes as the three plus Griphook break into Bellatrix Lestrange's vault at Gringotts. After the goblin double-crosses them, they bust out of the bank on the back of an albino dragon and return to Hogwarts where they are aided by Dumbledore's brother, Aberforth, and greeted warmly by a dwindling, battered group of students. McGonagall fumes, Snape flees, and Voldemort---now onto the three's hunt for pieces of his split soul---lays siege on the castle. As the frantic search for the last Horcruxes continues, giants, overgrown arachnids, Dementors, werewolves, Death Eaters, and the Elder Wand all threaten to destroy not only Harry, but everything he's ever cared about.The film succeeds in telling this extremely full and complex story by achieving harmony and balance in all that it does. By focusing extremely well on (and at times, overexplaining) the two secondary topics of wand allegiances and the peculiarities of Severus Snape, the film avoids becoming too convoluted in biting off more than it could reasonably chew from the novel. The differences in overall dynamics, calm and subtle versus chaotic and engaging, were also well matched and kept the film from getting lost in explosions and "Avada Kadavras." The subtlety of Snape's observance (from above) of the Hogwart's students from the film's opening moment, which is all the more meaningful for those who've read the novel; the juxtaposition of Harry's plunge into the lake with Voldemort's realization of what they've been doing, ending with a jarring, silent close-up; the sudden casting of Snape into a tender and sentimental light as Harry looks into his memories---these things gave pause and contrast against the constant action and struggle present in the surrounding scenes.

As this epic finale is quite different from any of the other films, the photography and effects were hugely responsible in its success; many of them were visually breathtaking. The albino dragon in the bank's dungeon, McGonagall's knight-soldiers, and the professors' protective shields over the castle are just a few fine examples but there are many more. The music, while consistant with basic battle and tension in the appropriate places, also set the film apart from its predecessors through a minor, vocal opening theme with an almost Braveheart-like melody. It returns again later in the film at a very emotional time as Harry stumbles through the rubble and it's very effective.
Thematically, it might be dissmissive to narrow down an entire (magical!) series to something as simple as Karma and the good old Golden Rule, but well, there it is. Harry buries Dobby, a house elf, with his bare hands as to show his gratitude for his heroism. He risks his life in the room of requirement to save Malfoy, someone who has treated him with nothing but scorn. And during his interlude in the bright place, Harry obviously pities what Voldemort has become, which Dumbledore acknowledges: "Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living. And anyone who lives without love."
Well said, Albus. And thanks for the memories. (sniff).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Stoogey but Successful: Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses is a film with universal appeal. Everyone has had an unpleasant boss at least once in their lifetimes, and seeing others onscreen deal with something familiar, even if it's uncomfortable, can be cathartic. And almost everyone out there will appreciate the film's focus, that age-old act of sticking it to The Man. But most people will enjoy this picture because of the reassuring nature that comes from seeing three grown men bumble around ridiculously for ninety minutes--the viewer walks out of the theater reveling in a sense of triumph (hell, at least I'm not that stupid) and fondness (those guys were idiots but they were damned funny).
Directed by Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) and written by Michael Markowitz and John Francis Daley, Horrible Bosses is the story of three friends who want to knock off their respective employers. Nick (Jason Bateman) lost out on a promotion he'd been counting on; Dale (Charlie Day) is being sexually harassed, and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) has to take orders from his former boss's cocaine-addicted son. Each of the men genuinely enjoys his work, but the bosses make day to day life unnecessarily miserable. The solution? Would-be assassin/Murder Consultant, Mother F-er Jones (Jamie Foxx), theirs for the asking for $5k.
As you could probably guess, things don't go well. There's a lot of cursing, a lot of yuppie banter, and Kurt is mostly a perv, but through it all you get the overwhelming feeling that you're watching the Gen-X version of The Three Stooges, and it works. If you can drop the ideology and laugh (as withBridesmaids), you will. A lot. My theater (AMC Southdale 16) was literally rolling through the entire film and ended it with applause and cheers, which was fun.

Together with the crude humor and constant verbal sparring going on between characters, the film does physical comedy well, too. Jumping cats, bad kung-fu, crazed sifting of cocaine, implied sexual acts with food props, and rear-end humor inside the bosses' domains are all good for chuckles, but the best scene, by far, was the scene shown in the parking lot where, armed with rat poison and peanuts, the three men attempt to drive away in their own vehicles but only end up boxing each other in, nearly colliding, and going in circles. It's not just funny but indicative of the entire vibe of the film and its characters; they drive their cars the way they live their lives and make their plans: thoughtlessly, ridiculously, and like little men-children. 
Other elements of the production that added a lot to the film's overall success and flow were the musical selections and their placements. The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" was an undeniably perfect accompaniment for Nick's (imagined) attack on his boss (Kevin Spacey) just as The Heavy's "How You Like Me Now?" was a great companion for the scenes depicting the planning of the murders. More goodness: white block description titles of each horrible boss and slow motion shot of the three guys rounding the corner as they're picking up the supplies at the store? Nicely, nicely done. This was a very well-made well thought-out comedy, and one the players clearly enjoyed making (make sure you stay for the end credits!). 

Enjoyable, but where was the Van Halen? Bad Teacher

It's a rare day in Hollywood if a woman is said to be getting better with age, but it's happening to Cameron Diaz. Either that, or her voice has gotten wonderfully lower and she's choosing better roles (along with a killer wrinkle cream that keeps her looking no where near thirty-eight). Bad Teacher is the sort of film that like Billy Madison or Summer School, is at its core silly nonsense, but is filled with enough heart and well-written comedy that you start to love it despite its crude, inappropriate nature. And despite the fact that Diaz's character is mostly unappealing for the entire film, it would be remiss for me (previously not-a-fan) to fail to acknowledge that even considering such distaste, Diaz's performance made the film a lot of fun.
Bad Teacher, directed by Jake Kasdan and co-written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (The Office, Year One) is the story of Elizabeth Halsey, a recently dumped, foul-mouthed English teacher who really doesn't want to work. At all. Forget the fact that her seventh grade class is composed of the most unrealistically well-behaved students ever assembled or that the rest of the friendly (albeit McGoo) teaching staff genuinely tries, time after time, to engage with her---she's just lazy, rude, and unmotivated. The silly nonsense angle comes when Elizabeth decides that a pair of breast implants might just give her the edge she needs to snag herself another fiancee, and suddenly she decides to use her connections as a teacher (car wash fundraiser, tutoring, test award bonuses) to get the ten thousand dollars she needs for the operation. 
While not exactly becoming or at all realistic where professional educators are concerned, the teacher characters were interesting and well-written. Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) is Elizabeth's across-the-hall neighbor who seems better suited for Kindergarten than middle school; Lynn Davies (Phyllis Smith) is an older, soft spoken woman with whom Elizabeth commiserates over her cash flow problems. Almost stealing the show out from under Diaz are Jason Segal as Russell Gettis, a gym teacher, and Justin Timberlake as substitute Scott Delacorte. While the hip, smooth-talking Russell argues with a student over LeBron James's inferiority to Michael Jordan, Scott, wealthy but awkward, gyrates and sings terribly to 867-5309/Jenny at the school dance, and surprise----Timberlake plays drippy amazingly well! Elizabeth's overall inappropriateness was really well-balanced between Russell and Scott, and both characters added their own specific brand of comedy to the film. A lot of banter over on IMDB seems to indicate viewers having problems with casting, but considering the fact that again, this was a film focused around breast implants (and perhaps secondarily, booze and drugs), the actors couldn't have been better or more comfortable---they knew what they were doing.

One of the most memorable scenes of the film comes just after Elizabeth discovers the lucrative potential of the annual car wash and decides to boost profits by getting involved, herself. Armed with a hose and clad in a tied-up flannel, daisy dukes, and heels, she drapes, flails, and sprays herself over a parked car while the group of junior high boys (not to mention their fathers) looks on, utterly entranced. The soundtrack, Whitesnake's Here I Go, Again, was an excellent bit of nostalgia, although probably wasted on anyone born after 1990 (but nicely played all the same).

And while we're on the topic of luscious eighties rock bands, I refuse to believe there wasn't a way to fit Hot For Teacher in there somewhere, preferably the end credits. Had it in fact happened,
at least one person in the audience would have given it a hollering standing ovation.

There's Hope For Slackers Yet: Green Lantern

In order to enjoy certain films, sometimes it helps to have perspective. This film, Green Lantern, isn't perfect, but it certainly isn't horrible, either. It's one of those slightly above-average films that when seen in an ideal set of circumstances becomes remarkable. Ideal circumstances in this case being after a few drinks or on the extreme cheap. Better yet, see a seriously terrible film the night before, (Vanilla Sky, Gigli) have a few drinks, and make someone drive you to the theater and pay for your ticket, this will give you the necessary perspective and mindset to enjoy this film. Optimism is the key. Too much work, you say? My advice, then, is to stay at home and wait for Transformers or Harry Potter.
Green Lantern, based upon the comic book series by DC Comics, is the story of Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) and his initiation into the intergalactic police force, The Green Lanterns, whose ability is marked by fearlessness and willpower. Despite being a gifted and able test pilot, one of the best in the country, Hal frequently abandons his commitments and folds under pressure. He is chosen by the green ring of a wounded Lantern, who in trying to escape a ferocious enemy (Parallax), crash lands onto Earth and eventually dies. Hal seems a strange choice for a super hero (just as many critics have pointed out that Reynolds was a poor choice for the role)---he's a slacker, he's sarcastic, and he plays by his own rules, but his inner fearlessness and perhaps thirst to prove himself make him a striking would-be Lantern. Many times after doubting himself, Hal is assured by other Lanterns, "the ring is never wrong."  As Hal struggles to accept his new responsibilities, Parallax, who is fueled by the fear of others, looms closer and closer to Earth. Through the "infection" of a biologist (Peter Sarsgaard), and feeding upon the fear of everything he encounters, Parallax plans to destroy Hal, and presumably the Universe after that, although it wasn't all that clear. 
This is not to say that Parallax wasn't without merit; the visual effects were very good, and in his case, extremely frightening---an all-consuming, tentacled monster. Visually, the film was amazing; whether it was Sarsgaard's metamorphosis to evil, the Lanterns' willpower made physical, all the flying, or Ryan Reynolds' body, there was plenty for the eyes. And if you're someone who likes homages to other films, the entire dogfight with the jets in the beginning will feel like a cocky, amped-up Top Gun sequence ("Did you just abandon your wingman as a decoy?") Nice. 

The weakest element of this film is unfortunately the writing, which is a difficult thing to recover from---honestly, I had to check Wikipedia several times in order to answer my own questions about why something happened or character names. This is obviously more of an issue for viewers who haven't read the comics, but it's legitimate. Given the fact that the entity, Parallax, is making his way to Earth (off screen) for much of the time, and the goings-on between Hal and the biologist, Hector, were pretty significant most of the time, the transitions between Hal's business back to Parallax seemed a bit abrupt. You get so focused on Reynolds' and Sarsgaard's scenes that Parallax almost fades away entirely, and when he pops back in, it's jarring because so many other things are going on.
There are other aspects, mostly thematic ones that made the film worth seeing, the Daddy issues of both Hal and the biologist, the Inception-esque way the Lanterns created their items out of thin air, and probably most of all, the upward trajectory of a man who by all definitions was a slacker, a fuck-up. Couldn't we all lose our fearlessness and rise to the occasion like Hal? Would that it were true.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Super 8: A Feeling Person's Blockbuster

There's never a shortage of comparisons or complaints in the sci-fi world, is there? "It's ET, remade." "It's Stand By Me, remade." "It's The Goonies, remade." "J.J Abrams is Steven Spielberg, remade." Forget all that. Super 8 is a film, an excellent one, created by a man who loves films, is skillful at writing and making them, and who hasn't forgotten what it's like to be a child. What more can you ask?
A synopsis is hardly in order, as most everyone has certainly seen the previews by now, so here's what you probably already know: a group of junior high kids witness a train crash while making a zombie film; something scary was in one of the train cars. People start disappearing, electricity starts acting weird, the military shows up, and so on. What you might not know however, is that the principal character, Joe (Joel Courtney), has just lost his mother and like all the best cowboys, has a few daddy issues with his father, a deputy policeman. Super 8 is really two stories, the story of the scary thing that came out of the train car and the story of Joe, his grief, his feelings, and his connections with everyone around him. The film weaves the two tales together brilliantly by the strength of its characters, effects, and skillful use of suspense.
Seeing interesting, likable kids in pain (Joe deals with the loss of his mother and emotional unavailability of his father) or danger (the kids witnessed the train crash and captured the escape of the "cargo" on film) puts the viewer in a state of concern and tension, and by feeding us, little by little, just enough information to sustain those feelings, the film succeeds (not unlike Abrams' LOST) in stretching two basic issues into layers of ongoing questions. Don't fret; these questions eventually all get answered and resolved (and the Super 8 Zombie picture gets finished!).

Much like Martin Scorcese, J.J. Abrams is a director who cares very much for his characters, it's evident in every scene. The lines spoken come from a carefully crafted script and the actors give realistic, moving performances having obviously been coached and directed well. Joe Lamb is just one of the youngsters tearing around town lugging film equipment; the rest of his posse includes Charlie, whose zombie film they're making, Preston, Martin, Cary, and Alice, the love interest. Their honest banter, their innocence, and most of all, their total commitment to each other as friends again and again strike emotional chords in the viewer; they're interesting, likable kids. 
The film's most brilliant scene, aesthetically, is unarguably the train crash and Joe's struggle to escape it; part Saving Private Ryan and part Jack Shephard from the pilot episode of LOST, we see one of the most moving, troubling disasters ever created. The feeling and experience of confused panic, often times solitary, is one that Abrams knows and knows well; it's one he consistently forces on his heroes (and his audiences). The explosions, the fire, the grinds and scrapes of metal on metal, and complete chaos of the crash scene are horrifying, and not unrealistic. Once the "creature" escapes and the film's focus shifts to it, there come some further wonderful (horrible) moments of both sight and sound: the sheriff lingers outside a gas station after pack of dogs chase by (something scary); a serviceman hovers in his truck's cherry picker as he attempts to fix some wiring (something scary); and Joe and Charlie see part of what their camera actually recorded the night of the crash (WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING?). The incomplete glimpses, the swells of orchestral score (original music by Michael Giacchino), and hearing the creature's noises before ever seeing it created exciting, suspenseful drama. 
One can't help wondering just how much of his own youth Abrams put into the story, Charlie's explanation of successful drama to Joe, constantly hollering, "production value!" each time something interesting happened in the film's background, repeated script changes, and so on. Whatever the history, it was beautiful, a remake of absolutely nothing, and a filmmaker's Valentine to film from start to finish. Bravo.