Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Girls Are All Right: A Review of Bridesmaids

 Isn't it fun when there's excitement over a film? In the theater? With sold out shows and lines that wrap around the lobby far enough to make you worry that you might not get a seat? We may live in an age where you can watch feature films on cell phones or gaming systems or on-demand (or, or, or) but I think everyone out there will admit, there is really nothing like the experience of a good film on opening weekend in a theater. Seeing Bridesmaids at AMC Southdale 16 last Saturday night was very near perfect, so much so that I'm debating going a second time. For those of you that haven't seen it yet, go. Now.
The film, which stars (and was co-written by) Kristen Wiig is the story of Annie, a beautiful but down-on-her-luck woman who is charged with the task of standing maid of honor at her best friend's wedding (Maya Rudolph plays Lillian, the bride). Things don't go well, mostly due to Lillian's other, more refined friend, Helen (Rose Byrne). There are a series of one-upper speeches. A food poisoning incident. A drunken plane ride to Las Vegas, Wiig's limbs windmilling in directions that defy gravity, Annie's examination of self, the true meaning of friendship, etc., etc., and so on. And while the film is undeniably a success at its main goal, to get laughs, (and I say this at the risk of being labeled a buzz-kill) its credibility and originality as a production of a film *about women* also need to be acknowledged. But not until later.

In terms of the writing, the film's greatest achievement is probably its characters; they are interesting and believable despite their eccentricities (Becca, the Disney-obsessed newlywed, Rita, the burned out mother, and Megan, the gruff and loveable tomboy). More exciting than personal attributes, though, is the fact that all of these women are able, comical, and real---they captured us not by acting like men or serving simply as fashion mannequins but by showing us a women's realm and getting the job (of comedy) done on that turf. We get emotional ups and downs, bad decisions, competition, physical imperfections, Wilson Phillips, and so on, without it ever seeming overly estrogen-endulged or cheesy. 
This film delivers again and again, humor-wise, for two reasons, the strength of the writing and Kristen Wiig's ability as a physical comedian. If the story isn't vacillating between well-written dialogues filled with cattiness or sarcasm, it's got Wiig as Annie literally flailing her body around obstacles or having to be awkwardly silent or controlled, which is just as funny as the occasions where she loses control (which are many). One of the greatest scenes comes during the aforementioned bout with food poisoning from a restaurant Annie chose where she struggles brilliantly to convince Helen she's not affected as the sweat pours down her face and every other bridesmaid has . . . noisily and unabashedly fallen victim nearby.
Women have been waiting decades for a film like this. And to see Kristen Wiig and her mates on top of the world like this is utterly, terrifically inspiring (no matter how many times I nearly wet myself laughing in the theater). Bravo, ladies, bravo.

Rutger Hauer for the Win: Hobo With A Shotgun

Should you see this film? A simple litmus test first: go to director Jason Eisener's YouTube page:
and find "Report Card" or "The Number to Heaven." If you are entertained by these, you'll more than get your money's worth in ordering Hobo With A Shotgun through video on-demand (there is not a Minnesota theater release scheduled as of this date). 

Instead of beating the Grindhouse genre to death and throwing out comparisons to others like it, I'm taking a risk in proclaiming that this film strikes a chord not only through its production but its humanity. Yeah, you heard me correctly. There is a lot of heart in this film, from its creators to its actors to its music and props, Hobo With A Shotgun is not a slouch, even though it very easily could have been. 
(check out Wikipedia for a complete history of how this film came to be).
Rutger Hauer stars as a nameless Hobo who disembarks from a train into a small town overrun with crime, indifferent inhabitants, and bad guys who wear white (so as to spotlight all the red from the bloodshed they're so fond of causing, maybe). And if you made it through Eisener's short videos, still be forewarned---there is a lot of violent unpleasantness in this film: Barbed Wire. Ice Skates. Razor blades attached to baseball bats, and so on. As The Hobo pushes a shopping cart through the streets, asking politely for spare change, we see early on that despite being down on his luck, he is not without empathy or moral fiber, even in such an apathetic environment. In an isolated parking lot he's offered ten dollars in exchange for pounding a man on camera---he refuses and moves on. After initially creating a cardboard sign that referenced a (fictional) child with an injury, he writes a different, honest one: "Am Tired. Need $$ for Lawnmower." Later he strikes up a friendship with Abby, a prostitute whom he rescued from one of the white-wearers; the two plan to leave town and start a lawn mowing business together but things just don't go well. And as the title suggests, The Hobo takes justice into his own hands during a pawn shop robbery, choosing a shotgun over the pined-for lawnmower. 
This film is what it is primarily because of Hauer, the soft-spoken calmness he shows in most of his early scenes is a great contrast to all the roaring and gun firing he does later, just as Hauer's gentlemanly good looks (hello, blue eyes) play well against all the blood, abuse, and violence. His tenderness toward Abby--leaving a thank-you note and photograph of a bear in her empty picture frame, constantly referring to her as a teacher (not a whore), and bringing her a paper cup of wilted dandelions---these sorts of choices (by the writer and by Hauer's credible embodiment on screen) really set this film above and beyond many others of its kind. The violence is awful, almost too much to handle, but The Hobo as a reluctant hero is wonderful; complexities like these make for the very best narratives.
Also done well were the choices in color, special effects, and most of all, music. One comparison I will make is the link between good Grindhouse and a John Carpenter-esque score; it's almost a necessity in the horror genre, especially during those hospital scenes, and this film pulled it off brilliantly. There were some really great piano instrumentals going on, too, sometimes nostalgic and happy, sometimes menacing, but again, well done and interesting, adding a lot to the overall production. 
A disturbing, funny, bloody good time. Eisener's grade on this report card? FANTASTIC!   

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Less is Definitely More: Insidious

What do The ExorcistThe EntityThe Shining, and The Amityville Horror all have in common (besides the ability to cause nightmares)? They all got together and had a son,Insidious. And despite having been directed by James Wan, one of the creators of the Saw franchise, this film takes chances in its subtlety, slow buildup, and technique, and appeals to a slightly more mature audience than most popular (torturous) slasher films. If you come into this flick expecting immediacy or realism, probably best to keep walking, but if it's fright you want, it's fright you're gonna get. (I lost count how many times I actually screamed after three). Take that, Sydney Prescott.
The Lamberts, Josh, Renai, and their three children, notice strange happenings upon moving into their new house. Some books find their way out of a book shelf; a box of sheet music is misplaced and then randomly found in the attic; the baby seems to cry all the time, and so on. But along with these seemingly harmless occurances, Dalton, the eldest son, is suddenly stricken by a health condition that leaves him in a coma which no one can explain. When the child returns home from the hospital, Renai begins seeing and hearing things, an ominous voice speaking on the baby monitor, several intruders looking in on the family or pacing about on the balcony, and later, a bloody handprint at the foot of Dalton's bed sheets. Josh agrees to relocate the family to another house in order to placate Renai, but in vain as it turns out; whatever it is that is haunting them simply relocates, too. "It's not your house that's haunted," a family friend later explains, "it's your son." 
Technically speaking, the film also takes its time, using sound (string glissandos, sudden percussion, crackling noises) and motion almost more than image, at least at first. Camera shots are extremely well done; hovering back and forth, approaching a shoulder, or in a crouched-low from below; this film is terrifying without being in your face. We see the movement and lurking of the hauntings before we see their faces, and this is a good thing, because the look of these things was very nearly too much. All that slow buildup and leisurely getting there? They more than make up for it. A demon is a demon, a creepy old lady a creepy old lady, but for some reason, putting leering, constant grins on these things just about did me in. Adding "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" drives the point home even further---these things don't just want to take your soul, they want you to see how happy they are about it first! (Shudder).

This film's greatness is all about pacing and technique. Getting the audience to know and care about the characters is crucial, and while causing the film to unfold slowly in the beginning, it allows us to see the family in a personal, realistic way (unlike say, a teen slasher ensemble where character at all is an uncommon luxury). Renai holds Dalton in her lap and looks at old photos of herself. The baby is needy and requires holding a lot. Josh puts lotion on his crow's feet before bed and then annoys Renai by singing to her (these people are just like us!) When the scary business starts up, it's all the more alarming because we've been given time to identify with the Lamberts, and the fear we feel is not superficial but legitimate because of this "involvement."  This family, and by implication, all middle class American families, cannot be protected from the evil that stalks them; the devices they depend on ---baby monitor, home security system---are turned against them and they're left utterly helpless. 

Comparatively speaking, every fan of horror films who sees this one will probably notice a hundred different nods to a hundred different ancestors, all of them brilliant. Casting Barbara Hershey (who starred in the extremely relevant The Entity) was a good one, having very similar-looking sisters peek around a corner, (grinning, of course) was another. Bottom line? You will get your money's worth from this film. And perhaps need to sleep with the light on for a few nights afterwards.

More Human Than Human: Hanna

 "Once upon a time, there was a very special girl who lived in the woods with her father. . . "
Yes, well, once upon a time, a time of excess, vapidity, and CG, there was a film that stood out. Its star was a sixteen year old girl whose face was unpainted and who never once revealed her breasts. Its director was a man whose vision was like every film you've ever seen and no film you've ever seen. Joe Wright's Hanna is like a puzzle, a Valentine to German cinema, and a fairy tale all wrapped into one. The mise en scene is breathtaking. The underlying theme is amazing. And there's techno. In other words, yeah, it's worth the buzz. 
The story is simple: an agency searches for someone infinitely wiser and more skilled than it, someone who knows things, someone who is in on secrets, cover-ups, and other bits of bad business. The sought-afters are a father/daughter pair, Erik (Eric Bana) and Hanna (Saoirse Ronan). If Erik, a former CIA agent, is the knower of the bad business then Hanna is the product of it, and he's spent her entire life preparing her for what will ultimately end up being the chase of her life. That's pretty much it; there are a few twists and turns along the way, a formidable enemy (played by Cate Blanchett), and a bit of trickery over "what" Hanna really is, but honestly, and I mean this with the utmost respect, the plot is the least remarkable thing in this (remarkable) film.  

The look, feel, and sound to this picture are all incredible. Colors, shapes, and vastness are everywhere; the snowy forest in Finland, the steely-circular holding rooms, the harsh shadows and lights played on the rotating columns as an army of agents chase by in lateral formation (there's your link to German expressionism; they used to just paint the blacks and whites onto the floors and walls--this had that feel but on a bigger scale). An open desert. Rectangular train cars. Spinning merry-go-rounds. The motion and movement never stop. The crazy thing is---and this very largely due to the music, original by The Chemical Brothers---we don't want it to. This was the first film in a long time that made me want to go back to the beginning and watch it all over again. To say the music was well-matched with the action would be an understatement; it gave the action such an unbelievable flow and drive that it's nearly impossible to separate Hanna's sequences from the melodies that were playing during them. Killer, just absolutely killer.
So beside the aesthetics, what of Hanna herself? She's a teenage girl who was raised by her father in isolation. Her innocence ends when she emerges into a giant, open world to fend for herself. These places are just as new to Hanna as the people who inhabit them, but somehow she's at ease, comfortable even. The "bad business" with the CIA and the reason for the chase by the end of the film become moot points; Hanna is special for many more reasons than her pursuers believe, which begs the question: what reason does Central Intelligence need for engineering super-soldier DNA when the product turns out to be more in touch with humanity than those who created her? Whatever the answer, it was a lovely ride. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Once Upon a Time in the Midwest

When I was in high school, I really dug the book The Grapes of Wrath. From the first moment I began reading about Tom Joad (and his brother Al) I knew I was going to like the story. I didn't know why, I just felt that it was something striking, something *for me,* by the strength of those first few chapters. I just went through a very similar situation after viewing the independent feature film, Once Upon A Time in the Midwest; I knew after only a few scenes that I was going to like it. And though I'd be hard pressed to say exactly what sold me most (humor, music, filmmaking), director Matt Kowalski had me feelin' Minnesota from the very first moment. Well, more than normal, that is, as I live here, but you know what I mean.
Once Upon A Time in the Midwest is a story about small town corruption, the man who finds himself suddenly thrust into its undoing, and the characters who aid him in his journey. When Jim Lessin (played by Dave Gerjets) stumbles into the Rock Bottom Bar in the middle of a storm one night, he's greeted by the crazed, wide-eyed rantings of a mysterious young man who tells him he must run for mayor. Unsure of his ability to fulfill this "destiny," and unrehearsed in politics, Jim seeks the advice of a friend who leads him to Trevis O'Keefe (Will Farley), a cocky, young punk with drug connections whose motives and methods are questionable but who seems at least agreeable to the cause. As the film progresses, we discover secrets from Trevis's past that link him to the town's corrupt administration along with another man, Frank Falk (Justin Hawkins), who gambles. The rest of the story centers on the interactions between these three men, and how despite completely different agendas, they end up fighting for the same cause in the end. As the banjo plays on, the bodies pile up, and while not exactly an optimistic sort of tale, it's still a (bloody) good time.
This film is clearly best suited for fans who won't shy away from violence but there are moments of comedy too, mostly involving (Kowalski's) Sheriff Deputy Zane Boulder's buffoonish eating or scenes where he attempts to pull rank on people. In terms of the other actors' performances, it was clear that some members of the cast were more experienced than others, and that a few scenes could have been tightened or maybe shortened a little just for neatness, but overall, the main characters were interesting and well-written and the actors played well together. Most outstanding was Dave Gerjets as Jim Lessin, who gave a completely straight-out, honest performance as the town's unlikely hero; his deliveries, his reactions, and most of all his validity really made the picture. We all know this guy, or someone like him, and though not exactly glamorous, Jim Lessin IS Minnesota. Nice work. 
In terms of production, especially a first feature production, the filmmaking and music were really well done. The only real critiques I have are on a few of the acoustics and the length of two or three scenes, but again, first productions are first productions, and no film is ever perfect. On the positive side, some of the strongest scenes in the film were the ones that showcased Kowalski's editing choices, close ups that show the status of the Boulder family (framed photograph, ringed fingers) or the continuity cutting that captured the tension outside the house of one of Frank's poker games. The song "Diggin' My Grave" by William Elliott Whitmore and original music by Kyle Pfeiffer were excellent throughout; the music placement overall was really good. Kowalski obviously has a solid background in clever films; many of the scenes were reminiscent of the filmmaking styles of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, and even a touch of David Lynch. It was fun seeing how everything tied up together, and though I liked the ending (ha, Twilight Zone, much?) I was kind of bummed when it was over. And while Tom Joad he ain't, I'd love to see maybe eight or ten episodes of Jim in that mayor's office, might there be a market for that down the road? 

Matthew McConaughey for the win: The Lincoln Lawyer

 Standing in direct opposition to many of its new-release cohorts and improving the image of attorneys everywhere, The Lincoln Lawyer is a skillful production of an interesting story with one of the best ensemble casts thrown together in years. Some viewers will love this film for its ambience: the Town Car, the bikes, the smooth music, and the booze; others will appreciate McConaughey's always-suave, hint of Texas drawl together with the white tank tops or the perfectly devilish curl to his hair---either way, director Brad Furman delivers.

The experience of this film is very much like watching Jagged Edge but trickier and with better hair. McConaughey plays nice-guy defense attorney, Mick Haller (whose trials and tribulations echo Glenn Close's in Jagged Edge almost meticulously). Different however is the level of likeability we get from the characters along the way and Mick himself; who knew courtrooms and penal systems had so much personality? These people (McConaughey, Lawrence Mason, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo) are the life of the party! The feel-good vibe stops once Haller's newest client (played by Ryan Phillippe, always disturbingly believable in wealthy, despicable roles) walks onto the scene; he's been arrested for the attempted murder of a prostitute with (you guessed it) a knife with a jagged edge. 
The trick is not so much determining guilt or innocence, but whether or not Haller will be able to do the right thing, as it were. One of McConaughey's best scenes comes when, drunk and upset, he admits to his ex-wife Maggie (Tomei) that he is scared by the evil that he sees, the people he fights to keep on the streets. The power of a film like this comes with how invested we become in Haller's character; we want him to win just as much as we want Phillippe's Roulet to tank! The subtle struggle between these two men, dressed alike and seated side-by-side in the courtroom is wonderfully tense and drawn-out, a good verses evil battle to the very end. And while the aforementioned knife gets retired long before the film's conclusion, don't think for a minute that come-uppances aren't as effective by the way of baseball bats . . . (!) Right on! 

Unknown: You Can Do A Lot Worse

If you're looking to dissect plot-holes and debate narrative plausibility in mainstream cinema, you'll want to skip this one. However, if you're cool with puzzle-solving, car chases, and just a fun, entertaining event, (think The Game meets The Fugitive in Germany) it'll be right up your ally. Unknown is a smart, well acted, well driven spin on a concept explored many times over in literature, television, and film: the loss of identity. Whereas The Twilight Zone's "Person or Persons Unknown," which was no doubt the inspiration for this screenplay, dealt with an identity switcheroo on a calm and intimate scale, this film literally throws its main character (Liam Neeson) into a sea of confusion when he must not only determine why everyone in his life has suddenly forgotten him but also figure out how to prevent an assassination and breach of security involving his "work" in biotechnology in a foreign country. The result is a tense, visually thrilling experience which director Jaume Collet-Serra pulled off with style. 
Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, in Berlin with his stunning wife Elizabeth (January Jones) for an important biotechnology seminar. Once they arrive at their hotel, he realizes that his cab driver left an important briefcase back the airport; he hurries inside another cab to retrieve it. On the way, his driver (Inglourious Basterds' Diane Kruger) swerves to avoid hitting an appliance and the cab winds up in the river. After he wakes from a coma in a hospital four days later, no one appears to know who he is and another man (Aidan Quinn) has sidled up to Elizabeth, claiming that he (Quinn) is the real Dr. Martin Harris. The race is on while (the original) Dr. Harris enlists the help of his cab driver (Kruger) and an ex-East German spy to figure out what exactly is happening to him.
The look of this film is what captures; snowy, gray, not exactly grainy, but sinister, as if Berlin itself might be in on the deception. After Dr. Harris leaves the hospital against medical advice, he begins to have colorful, overexposed flashbacks of his wife and bouts of shaky disorientation; the filmmaking showcases these events nicely without overdoing. Once the bad guys show up we get a Benz versus Volkswagen car chase through the streets of Berlin, also skillfully done (and very reminiscent of 24 or The Bourne Identity). The intensity keeps on all the way through to the end, which wraps up with a twist, crash, and bang, literally. Bottom line? Briefcases *do* get lost, memories *can* get buried, and there *are* conspiracies. If you don't over-think and just shut up and watch, you'll probably be glad that you did.


The Dangers of Poor Middle Management: The Adjustment Bureau

"Do you believe in fate? (No.) Why not? (Because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.) I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU MEAN."
Back when Morpheus and Neo were having this conversation in The Matrix, audiences knew straight away that control was a bad thing, and that by association, the agents of the system that oversaw that control must also be bad. It was a given that human beings should be allowed to make their own choices. David Norris (Matt Damon) stumbles into a similar predicament in The Adjustment Bureau, and be it God or robots, control is still a bad thing.
This is actually a very sweet, very tender film that is carried by Matt Damon's skill and validity as an actor and by the chemistry he shares with co-star Emily Blunt. There are no robots, no slowly cascading bullets, and not nearly enough techno in this film, which is unfortunate. Many viewers will expect at least some action driven carry-over from Damon's Bourne films (in which screenwriter/director George Nolfi was himself involved) but that doesn't happen either. If you walk into the theater expecting testosterone, you'll be disappointed, but if you're okay with seeing a (faith-based) love story, and you don't fall to pieces over a little rule-breaking, you'll probably enjoy yourself.

That said, there are problems in this film. The Adjustment Bureau exists to make sure the events on Earth run according to plan, a royal, worldly plan handed down in interactive manuals to Fedora-wearing gentlemen from an unseen Chairman. No one comes right out and says that The Chairman is God and that the hat-wearers Angels, but they almost do, and identifying this Bureau as such creates problems because they don't seem to be very good at their jobs. David Norris's issues start when his Bureau Agent oversleeps during a crucial moment in his particular plan, and as a result, David runs into Elise (Blunt), the exact woman from whom they're trying to keep him. Luckily, the rapport between David and Elise, from the very first moment they meet, is interesting, engaging, and literally creates the driving force for the entire film; the love story between them is a good one. Later, when Norris stumbles upon a very Twilight Zone moment of human bodies frozen in time as The Bureau "re-sets" one of his co-workers, the men in hats explain exactly who they are and what they do: 
1. We control everything.
2. Everything we control is based on The Chairman's Plan.
3. We don't care about what you want.
4. If you expose us, we'll erase your brain.
None of what they say really carries all that much weight in the run of things, mostly because David (and viewers) have no choice but to take all this seriously without ever being shown that these things are true or even possible, which is a leap of faith that some people probably won't accept. And there's the whole not-being-able-to-make-your-own-choices thing, which won't sit well with anyone who has been taught to believe that their God is a loving one. As it turns out, the rest of the film shows that The Adjustment Bureau really isn't all that effective, is poorly managed, and makes a lot of threats; all it takes to shake up the system is someone like David who won't take "no" for an answer (there's your rule-breaking). Beyond this, there are several great scenes that involve The Bureau's power, their means of exiting and entering the human world, and just the menacing look of the men in hats, especially in a group---those things are fun; the film could have been strengthened by more scenes that cast The Bureau in a light of strength or ability. It's hard, though, to get past just how many times they keep getting it wrong, as well as the bigger concept that The Chairman doesn't really care about David's desires or feelings, and seems to employ a bunch of blowhard stooges to do His bidding. Send them all to Agent Smith for "Adjustment Re-training" and you've got a bulls-eye.

Best Picture Nominees: An Eventual Sort of Group

In his short story, Everything's Eventual, Stephen King uses the adjective "eventual" as one would use "excellent" or "awesome." The story's main character uses the word to describe a rush of frenzied creativity (as he realizes his own sense of power and ability while making an elaborate blueprint to end his neighbor's dog): "I felt like I was going to be sick . . . but I still also felt totally eventual." Eventual = exciting; eventual = terrifying.
Many of this year's Best Picture-nominated films were, as a group, very eventual. Wonderfully creative, powerful, but (not unlike a Stephen King tale) armed with the ability to rattle and disturb us, some for days after the viewing. Don't believe that films can cause physical reactions? Take a look at these: 
1. 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle. James Franco stars in this true story of Aron Ralston's five days in a Utah canyon, thirsty and alone. Being trapped anywhere is horrible enough, but Ralston's predicament is localized only to his arm, everything else on his body is completely unencumbered. This becomes an extremely grim viewing experience, not just emotionally, but viscerally. Franco pulls, struggles, and we grimace along with him. He begins to ration his water, we feel our own lips drying out. Once it's clear that the arm, the only thing holding him back, is going to have to go, we feel our own blood pressures rise as he prepares himself for what must be done---bone, skin, nerves, and all. We aren't experiencing any of Aron Ralston's pain, physically, but in some ways, we are. It takes an extremely well written and well performed film to do this, not just to make us writhe in discomfort, but to reach us emotionally as well. It's a near certainty that many, many people, after seeing this film, either called their parents, hugged their brothers, or maybe saw Nature a bit differently. Heavy, right? 

2. Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Natalie Portman is young ballerina Nina Sayers, struggling for perfection in her starring role as The Swan Queen. This might be a fairy tale, it might be a coming-of-age piece, but the film so deftly sweeps away, disturbs, and enchants that definition and reality cease to matter. Emotionally, this film is a like a crankbait at sea; Nina's ups and downs become our own, and her quest for perfection among her stuffed animals, hovering mother, and sexual awakening together with her literal breakdown over her role in the ballet create an exhilarating, terrifying experience. This film is also filled with visceral, grimacing moments: we fear for Nina's feet and legs as she pushes herself too hard and injures them, we cringe, first at the sight of a reddened rash and compulsive back-scratching, but then tenfold once (as the obsession over her role plunges deeper) she plucks a black feather from her skin! So wait a minute, she becomes the swan? Paintings talk? All that really happened? Make your own decisions (but it's totally eventual). 
3. Toy Story 3, directed by Lee Unkrich. The Toys are back, this time to deal with empty-nest syndrome when Andy packs up for college and they get shipped off to Sunnyside Daycare. This is the harshest, most emotional (yet eventual) film, let alone kid's film, you'll ever see. Harsh, as in it unapologetically deals with something adults and kids both understand, abandonment. The toys are made to believe that this sort of thing is inevitable, something they must accept after they admit to themselves that Andy has outgrown them. Through the flashback of Bear-in-Charge Lotso's "abandonment", viewers are served a giant slice of devastation as they hear him scold Big Baby outside their owner's window, "She don't want you no more!" after he reached out his hands for Daisy ("mama!"). Could there be anything worse? Well, yes, as it turns out. Everything is nearly sorted out as the film heads to its conclusion and then, BAM, more excruciating heartbreak, this time in the form of a slow fall into a fiery incinerator. For anyone who has spent time with these toys, enjoyed the films, read the books, or actually purchased the toys outright, there is no moment more real than Buzz and Woody, dirty and helpless, clasping hands for what they believe will be the last time. These events are heavy, and this is not a film one soon forgets (some film writers have even been known to tear up while writing about it!).
But we need the heavy, we need the visceral, and we need the emotion, it's more than just a narrative, it's humanity! These films were great because they frightened, they saddened, but they ignited and inspired, too. Life is like that. And very eventual.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Clash of Kings

Sometimes people ask me why I hate on chick flicks and mushy literature so much; it's probably because my favorite things in the world are clever, powerful stories with clever, powerful characters (not often found in the aforementioned media).

Or maybe there's just so much garbage out there that finding someone who actually has the ability to craft both words and ideas into something really spectacular literally causes me to ripple in amazement. I'm a pretty easy film audience (in a year of doing proper reviews, I've given only two sub-par ratings that I remember) but books are harder. Writing is a hard thing, and you can tell every time if someone knows what they're doing or have been lucky enough to, well, get lucky. I'll go with skill over luck every time (BIG, BAD SPOILERS AHEAD. BEWARE):

Men were crawling from the river, men burned and bleeding, coughing up water, staggering, most dying. He led his troop among them, delivering quicker, cleaner deaths to those strong enough to stand. The war shrank to the size of his eye slit. Knights twice his size fled from him, or stood and died. They seemed little things, and fearful. "Lannister!" he shouted, slaying. His arm was red to the elbow, glistening in the light off the river. When his horse reared again, he shook his axe at the stars and heard them call out, "Halfman! Halfman!" Tyrion felt drunk.

The battle fever. He had never thought to experience it himself. Jaime had told him of it often enough. How time seemed to blur and slow and even stop, how the past and future vanished until there was nothing but the instant, how fear fled, and thought fled, and even your body. "You don't feel your wounds then, or the ache in your back from the weight of the armor, or the sweat running down into your eyes. You stop feeling, you stop thinking, you stop being you, there is only the next fight, the foe, this man and then the next, and the next, and the next, and you know they are afraid and tired, but you're not, you're alive and death is all around you but their swords move so slowly, you can dance through them laughing." Battle fever. I am half a man and drunk with slaughter, let them kill me if they can!

They tried.

See that? The guy that wrote it knows what he's doing.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

GOT, The Raven, 50 Shades, and Avengers

Hey Theon. You look like an opossum.
This doesn't happen to me very often, but I've been rendered both speechless and utterly useless by someone else's media: George R. R. Martin's book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and show, Game of Thrones. I don't want to watch or read anything else, and I barely can manage the time to write anything, either, as I just want to hide and obsess (which is something I do often, actually). Although this DOLT over here (left) really needs to be eliminated. Soon.

In the meantime, I saw Cusack in The Raven and thought it was really excellent. The big critics panned it, which doesn't surprise me, because I suppose in a way, it was a loud and cheesy homage to EA Poe (and big critics don't like loud and cheesy). I do, of course, and I was all over this shit. Lots of flapping black capes, horses, and snarling wit, not to mention the clear lip service it paid all genius writers whose editors dog them for the sake of sales ("DON'T YOU CHANGE ONE WORD!"). It was like a mix of Se7en and Shakespeare in Love; I had a great time. If you like Poe's short stories (The Pit and Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Masque of The Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado, and a few others) you probably will, too.

I got these, instead.
So while I was checking out the GOT selection at Barnes and Noble tonight I ran into a promo table of about sixteen hundred 50 Shades of Gray novels . . . I am really not keen on this but I suppose I'll end up reading it, if for no other reason to find out what the hell the fuss is all about. Unlike Rhianna, I don't enjoy S&M, like, at all, so I don't imagine reading about it will be my cup of tea, plus the idea of some timid virgin slinking around a delusional millionaire does not impress me at all. It seems tired and a waste. On second thought, fuck it all, I'm not reading it. There's only so much room in my head.

The Avengers.

Yeah, minus Gwenyth, who I wanted to punch in the face for every moment she was onscreen, it's pretty much the coolest thing I've ever seen. I went, I saw, I enjoyed, and I fully expected to. I suppose I should give Whedon credit for the massive effects and witty banter the principals all had with each other (since these items were pretty damned major) but I keep going back to something again and again:

There is a scene after Loki is captured and brought on board the aircraft where he is being escorted by a group of about six or eight armed guards, flanking him in equal numbers. There isn't any audio and it may have even been slow motion, I can't remember every detail, but it's jarring in its silence and seriousness. As they lead him just past Banner's makeshift laboratory, Loki looks in at Banner and gives him a huge, knowing smile. If you end up seeing the film, you get what that smile would eventually mean, but damn. Now, the entire last hour or so of the film had me pretty much bawling in awe, but that whole scene (above) gave me chills and I wish like hell I could see it again. Moments of subtlety among complete spectacle. Nice. See this one in the theater if you can.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Game of Thrones: House Targaryen

House Targaryen of Dragonstone
Blazen: Three-headed dragon
Words: Fire and Blood
Family: Prince Viserys, Princess Daenerys

This is the story that thrills me to no end, it's like it was written specifically for me: Blonde girl gets married off to the baddest Dothraki Khal that ever was, loses both her husband and newly born son in the same space of days and then hatches three dragons and takes over as the leader? And look at that sigil! COME ON. I couldn't possibly love it any more.

Viserys Targaryen: Assumed heir and last blood of the dragon. Total prick and absolute poser (not a dragon). Wants a golden crown from Khal Drogo's Khalasar, after drawing a weapon on sacred Dothraki ground and insulting Daenerys, he gets it. Poured in molten form over his head by Drogo.

Khal Drogo: A true Dothraki warrior never conquered, he purchases wife Daenerys from Viserys in exchange for a golden crown (see above). Is weakened and eventually poisoned by blood magic at the hands of a witch-woman.

Ser Jorah Mormont: Daenerys' exiled knight and bodyguard. Seems an interesting man. I like him.

Daenerys Targaryen: The true blood of the dragon: cannot be burned, enchants Khal Drogo enough to desire intercourse in face-to-face positions, conceives son, consumes raw heart to completion, loses baby, smothers vegetative husband, nurses dragons, wins the loyalty of the remaining Khalasar:

"Jhogo took the whip from her hands, but his face was confused. 'Khaleesi,' he said hesitantly, 'this is not done. It would shame me to be bloodrider to a woman.'

Aggo accepted the bow with lowered eyes. 'I cannot say these words. Only a man can lead a khalasar or name a ko.'

'You are khaleesi,' Rakharo said, taking the arakh, 'I shall ride at your side to Vaes Dothrak beneath the mother of mountains and keep you safe from harm until you take your place with the crones of the dosh khaleen. No more I can promise.'

. . . When the fire died at last and the ground became cool enough to walk upon, Ser Jorah Mormont found her amidst the ashes, surrounded by blackened logs and bits of glowing ember and the burnt bones of man and woman and stallion. She was naked, covered with soot, her clothes turned to ash, her beautiful hair all crisped away . . . but she was not hurt.

The cream-and-gold dragon was suckling at her left breast, the green-and-bronze at the right. Her arms cradled them close. The black-and-scarlet beast was draped across her shoulders, its long, sinuous neck coiled under her chin. When it saw Jorah, it raised its head and looked at him with eyes as red as coals.

Wordless, the knight fell to his knees. The men of her khas came up behind him. Jhogo was the first to lay his arakh at her feet. 'Blood of my blood,' he murmured, pushing his face to the smoking earth. 'Blood of my blood,' she heard Aggo echo. 'Blood of my blood,' Rakharo shouted."


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

30 second reviews?

Ebert does one-minute reviews; I have quite a few more familial commitments so I'm doing 30 second ones. Yes, I know you all shot me these recommendations back IN JANUARY.

The Lion King: Good voice talent (James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons) but music is pretty weak. I do bawl every time Simba takes back the kingdom, though. My kids loved it.

Troll Hunter: This is the experience I had hoped to have at The Blair Witch Project (and obviously didn't). Otto Jespersen is one hell of a bad ass; you should seriously put this one on your list.

Forrest Gump: I'm kind of over this by now, but I'll always enjoy the military scenes and Jenny's changing hair and outfits. Sally Field severely annoys me in this, sorry, although I suppose her accent is better than most morons who attempt a southern. Give me Celeste Taubert in Soapdish over Mama Gump any day.

Music is cool.

Waitress: This was cute, I guess. Cute and I don't know, dorky. Pies were good, and Jeremy Sisto was extremely convincing as the jealous husband, but it all seemed much too sappy and chick-flicky for me. It felt like someone watched Bagdad Cafe (which is a good film) and made a bland, annoying rip off.

Rushmore: My first Wes Anderson experience; I found it clever but overlong even at only ninety-three minutes. Unfortunately our PS3 kept splitting the screen on the disk about every five minutes so my patience was thin already. My favorite parts were all Bill Murray, topping the list was his slapping the basketball out of the kid's hand as he walks through the park. Brilliant.

One last thing: I was in my last year at the U when this came out; say what you will about the film itself, it's still one of my favorite trailers, ever. Watching it makes me happy.