Thursday, December 25, 2008
In my very first post, I shared issues with It's a Wonderful Life...a movie I used to love. This year, I seem to have found a new Christmas movie, and that's White Christmas. It's the whole package: a buddy movie, a holiday film, a musical, and even a patriotic (and timely) shout-out to the armed forces. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It may be the actual "anti-IAWL". The message, if there is one, seems to be that the best way to help others is to do what you love. Very Joseph Campbell, non?
Here, in my opinion, is the most brain-breaking moment of the movie.
Also...today we sadly bid farewell to an all-around entertainer, a classic sex symbol, and a free spirit ahead of her time. She also happened to sing one of my favorite Christmas songs. Rest in peace, Eartha Kitt.
Happy Holidays to all, however you celebrate.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
What really got me was that the boy was absolutely incensed. Okay, I will allow that the circumstances in which he found out (i.e., Hank coming downstairs naked) were far from ideal. But he acted as if his mother had been somehow dishonored.
Are we really living in in such a patriarchy, where it makes sense for a fourteen-year-old boy to act as the warden of his mother's chastity? Last I checked, I did not think a women in this culture had to defer to their oldest male relative, even if that relative was younger than her. Hank's daughter Becca was crushed as well, but that was only because of her boyfriend's irrational reaction.
Both Hank and the English teacher were available and consenting adults. They did nothing wrong. This could have been a teachable moment, but instead, Hank caved to a child's demands over his lover's protests. Her response should have been: "Look, I'm the parent here; and sex is healthy and fun as long as it'safe and ethical."
Okay, I realize that not everyone's values system allows for sex outside of marriage; but I don't think that was the paradigm that the boy was operating from. Even if it had been, Hank's mother was not a helpless victim and, I would argue, was no more besmirched than he was.
Of course, none of this kept Becca from getting all the best lines, as usual....
Saturday, December 6, 2008
Last Saturday, I had one of the worst night's sleep of my life. I had just seen Let the Right One In ("Lat den Rate Komme In") at Nashville's historic Belcourt theatre.
This Swedish film revolves around Oskar, a lonely 12-year-old boy living in a Stockholm tenement in 1982. He finds companionship when Eli, a strange girl his age, moves in next door. Soon, however, murders begin to occur in the area. The audience gets to see that the man living with Eli is committing them...but that she seems to be in charge. It isn't long before Oskar, like Bella Swan, figures out what his new friends really is.
As other reviews have pointed out, the action takes place in winter and mostly at night, either outside or under artificial light. This goes a long way toward setting the tone. While there are no weak performances here, Lina Leannderson's Eli is a fae and unsettling presend from the moment we meet her, when she executes a graceful drop jump from a jungle gym
As with most horror movies that are actually good, the true horror here is human nature. The bullying that Oskar stoically suffers is some of the worst that I've ever seen onscreen. There is believable and often moving tenderness between Eli and Oskar...such as the scene where she eats a chocolate to avoid hurting his feelings, and ends up retching shortly after. At the same time, this is juxtaposed with the cruelty she shows to others.
The story takes few liberties with vampire lore. These vampires have to be invited in and have to stay out of sunlight. (There is some ambiguity on how vampires are made.) There are a few cinematic innovations. Animals react strongly to vampires...very strongly. We never actually see any fangs, but we do see what happens if a vampire comes in without being invited. This is also not a movie that makes vampirism itself sexy. The murders committed for Eli are disgusting, and the victims are humanized. Her own attacks, too, are vicious--due to her age, she uses deception rather than seduction. You feel the horror of life with a monster.
Like Twilight, this movie deals with budding sexuality. It looks at an earlier stage, however, and never directly addresses the mechanics of adolescence. One dialog is a mirror of one that takes place in Twilight ("How old are you?"). There is one scene, where we see what vampires look like in pitch dark, that is creepier than anything in Twilight.
For vampire romance, I prefer stories like The Silver Kiss. The vampire moves on, in one way or another, because it's existence is unnatural, and it would not wish that on the one it loves. The human lover returns to normal life, both stronger and wiser for the experience.
This is not that movie.
Instead, at the end, we are left remembering the fate of Eli's human "father", and wondering Oskar's fate will be the same if he does not become a vampire. The looming question makes the tenderness that the children share, even in the last scene, all the more bittersweet.
I expected that Let the Right One In might be more frightening than Twilight. I did not expect it to be more romantic.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
I'm Thankful right now that I actually get the opportunity to pan something. Since I can usually find something in a movie to at least talk about, I worry that I come across as liking everything I see. I don't, of course, like all movies, but rarely do I dislike anything as much as I do Alice's Restaurant, which I saw for the first time Wednesday Night.
I actually love the song, which is based on real events. Arlo Guthrie's “anti-Massacree” message is a Thanksgiving tradition, especially in war years such as these. However, if it is homemade apple sauce--organic and fresh and perfectly cinnamon-spiced--then the movie is cranberry sauce, sloughing from the can with a sickening noise, jiggling and ridged.
The conventions of cinematic pacing were a little different when Restaurant was made back in 1969. Perhaps I am being biased in saying that I like it better now. Because of the pace of the action, it is hard to summarize what happen, because it feels like it wasn't much. An unreasonably beautiful and young Arlo Guthrie gets kicked out of college for following the sound of his own keyboardist. Undeterred, he climbs in his VW microbus (no, really) and takes up with his friends Ray and Alice, who have bought a deconsecrated church in which to live. Alice opens a restaurant nearby as well, the church becomes a shelter for a number of their counterculture friends
Romantic strife between the couple causes Ray to invite scores of their friends to Thanksgiving, so that Alice has to come back and cook. The dinner becomes an ill-fated trip to the dump the same day, and the rest is history. In the end, Arlo experiences losses in both his chosen and blood families. The movie concludes with a bittersweet (okay, mostly bitter) wedding for Ray and Alice.
If there was one thing I found interesting about the movie, it was a glimpse into the past. Arlo and his friends could be described as hippies, but there was also a healthy dose of “folkie”. Perhaps it's even vice-versa, but as we saw in the movie, the distinction was lost on the mainstream culture. Police power could be used to enforce social norms, and sticking someone on a bus out of town was considered a legitimate police activity. The group I watched with included some modern-day, self-described hippies my age; along with me, they cringed at how much was thrown away after the feast. We prefer to compost and recycle as much as possible.
The end of the movie left me so confused that I had to ask my host to explain it. She said that the community depicted was a dystopia...nothing ever changed, and none of their grand plans would ever manifest because no one had their personal shit together. Bleak, huh? No wonder people call this flick depressing.
My favorite part of the movie was my favorite part of the song...with the Army shrink. Ah, you know know what? Just listen for yourself. Arlo tells it better, anyway.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
A brief synopsis for the uninitiated: Loner high-school student Bella Swan is sent to live with her father, who she barely knows, in the rainy town of Forks, Washington. She involuntarily collects a few friends, but her true interest, and her true connection, is with Edward Cullen, the son of a mysterious local family. She soon parses out that the family are vampires. She and Edward bond, even though he considers himself a constant danger to her. They soon find themselves in over their heads when a trio of less ethical vampires swings through town.
As in the book, Bella and Edward's love tends toward the obsessive; but the script manages to make him less controlling. Bella's parents and friends are more prominent, in my opinion, than the were in the book, and this represents an improvement. I can't give Robert Pattison credit for any extraordinary acting here, but Kristen Stewart brings an unexpected gravitas to the role of Bella.
The Cullens as a whole are a treat. The casting and cinematography underscore the creepy way that everyone (except Edward) is paired off, as well as the youthful appearance of the parents. Peter Facinelli seems to be channeling Tom Cruise's Lestat as Carlisle Cullen, which was off-putting at first. He grew on me, though, and I went away regretting the omission of his story. If the movie could have used more of anything, it's Alice Cullen.
It is very difficult to break new ground in vampire lore, but Stephenie Meyer's vampires do so in a few ways, and the movie address them. The evil vampires are hardly original, but they are compelling. The baseball game scene is a lot of fun, and made more sense to me here than it did in the book.
At the same time, there are moments which will cause unintentional laughter. The wire-work gets a little silly. In the early science-class scenes, Edward looks more nauseated than love-struck...although arguably, this is true to the book. My best friend and I laughed particularly hard at one scene, where someone gives the new couple a pop-eyed look of disapproval.
There were scenes that were changed or added from the book, and I don't remember it well enough to say whether this movie will please or anger the purists. I can say, though, that this movie is worth your time...so long as you don't take it too seriously. There is a certain amount of cheesiness inherent in vampire stories...after all, sex and death are at once the most serious and the most funny things to humans. Add teenage romance to the mix, and your own personal riff-track is inevitable.
Twilight at least offers some genuine terror and suspense along the way. There is also a theme of self-sacrifice, which both makes Bella seem healthier and helps the movie's tone.
I now want to read the rest of the books, and see the rest of the movies. The characters of Jacob Black and his father are also well-cast, and with what I know about them, I look forward to seeing their story unfold.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
First, two confessions, in the interest of full disclosure. When I read Twilight, it was before giving that copy to my niece (who had already read it). I have also not read the rest of the series. I think that Stephenie Meyer is a good writer. I especially appreciate her ability to paint a scene. However, there was something about the gender dynamics in her book that made me twitch. I felt that Edward treated Bella like a possession, and ordered her around. I have a friend who has read and enjoyed the whole series, but says that that trend continues, not only with Edward but with Jacob and Bella's father. There is also something juvenile about Edward and Bella's attraction...it is strictly physical, even if the sense of budding sexuality is well-written. All of us who are past that age have probably been there, and I know that I run the risk of belittling young love. However, it is distressing to see Bella consider making potentially eternal decisions, turning her back on her family and everything she knows, at such a tender age.
I was fascinated by vampires when I was my niece's age, and much of that interest still remains. I remember reading the Vampire Diaries Series by L.J. Smith when I was in high school. The Silver Kiss, by Anette Curtis Klause, is still one of my favorite books. However, there is a plethora of what I call “vamporn” available today, and while Meyer is probably among it's best writers, I don't tend to read any of it.
I truly enjoyed The Host, also by Meyer. It is billed as her first book for adults, but I personally don't find it any more r-rated than Twilight. It is about Wanderer, a member of an alien race who inhabit the bodies of other species and take over their minds. Her species, the Souls, seem to have subdued the earth. However, when Wanderer is assigned to a human host, Melanie, she finds that Melanie's mind refuses to fade away.
There are some troubling gender dynamics here, too, as Melanie leads Wanderer in search of her little brother and her true love. (I gagged when wanderer concluded that Melanie's body didn't belong to her or to Melanie, but to Jared.) At the same time, I liked the way that Meyers writes here about the strength of human emotion, and the idea that emotional memory resides in the body. There is also a touching and believable story arc about the nature of family bonds, blood and chosen. I felt that she accurately portrayed the moral complexity of her world: everyone is faced with imperfect choices, and even the Souls, in the end, are sympathetic figures. To top it all off, Meyer's pulls a happy but cliché-free conclusion out of her a--I mean thin air.
In other words, I would recommend The Host to almost anyone. I also really hope to see it made into a movie one day...I even did some preliminary casting in my head.
So have a good weekend, whether you head to the multiplex at twilight or just host a good book in your home. If you are more Twihater than Twilighter, or if you can stand a little fun at your fandom's espense, check out the following links.
The Most Poular Book in the Whole World!
Occupation: Girl (Cleolinda is one of the greatest pop culture voices on the web, and also the one to whom I owe the "Sparkle Motion" thing.)
Twilight trailer spoof ("I see you brought a snack...")
Monday, November 10, 2008
For the most part, I enjoyed it. The technology seemed easy to use...the track only slipped out of synch once, and not by much. Most of the riffs were as dryly witty as MST3K veterans have come to expect.
There were two things, however, that I could have done without.
The first were frequent quips--mostly at the beginning--about Robert Downey Jr.'s former drug use. This is low-hanging fruit as humor goes, and in my opinion, there's nothing funny about it. I have friends in recovery, and it seem like he should get some credit for having been sober for several years now. Then again, it's hard to say, but it's possible that he would actually find these jokes funny. He seems to have a healthy sense of humor about himself.
The other thing that bothered me were the cracks implying that the character of Pepper Potts was stupid. This just doesn't jive with that character at all, or with what I know of Gwyneth Paltrow.
My favorite moment involved the quote in the title of this post. Another was when a "Sherlock Holmes deerslayer cap" was mentioned among the silly-looking hats that Tony Stark might wear.
On the one hand, RiffTrax! is taking on harder targets than MST3K ever did, just by riffing on good movies that people actually like. This can lead to trying too hard, where the badness of a B movie often speaks for itself. On the other hand, all movies require a certain suspension of disbelief, and we have probably all riffed on even our favorite films in this way.
Either way, we are lucky to still have the wise-asses of Deep 13 sitting in the back of the theater with us.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
I wasn't sure what to expect going in. I have not seen the first movie. That doesn't actually present a problem, as it turns out, because the movie does a great job of catching the viewer up. A lion cub named Alex escapes hunters and survives an ocean voyage to Manhattan Island, where he becomes a local celebrity and grows up with a giraffe, a hippo and a zebra. The previous film saw them fall in among the creatures of Madagascar after a plane crash. This time, early in the plot, they hatch a scheme to return to New York, in a comically cobbled-together plane, with an equally comic crew. They make it as far as Africa, and find themselves, for the first time, among their own kinds.
At the beginning, the references, quips, and quirk-establishment all comes so fast and furious that it's dizzying. Once the action turns to Africa, however, the tone and the pace of the story even out. There are some jokes that are possibly less than family-friendly, but they are so subtle as to slide under kiddie radar.
There is a lot here that we have seen before: an animal with a unique talent, which creates tension with his parents (Alex would rather dance than fight); an evil lion plotting against the king of the pack and his cub; Eddie Murphy's voice on four feet; funny penguins and monkeys; and a dialogue-free sub-plot involving a chase with a small creature. There is even, arguably, an extended shout-out to Joe vs. the Volcano. However, all of it has enough of a fresh spin to be enjoyable.
The story of Marty the zebra addresses something which I don't think I've seen addressed in kids movie's before; that is the idea that it is okay not to be unique...and that yet, at the same time, you're always more unique than you think you are. Gloria the Hippo finds herself in a classic movie dilemma, one part Walt Disney and one part John Hughes. She is torn between the popular male who only likes her for her for her looks, and a more awkward one who loves her for who she is. (As a fascinating side-note in our weight-obsessed society, the hippos have a “bigger is better” mentality.)
David Schwimmer's Melman was probably my favorite character, and the denouement of an extended shark attack was the thing that made me laugh the hardest. Madagascar 2 was a pleasure, and I look forward both to the first and future installments.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Saturday, August 30, 2008
I think it really holds up over time. But then, it doesn't hurt that Bill Pullman, Will Smith, and Jeff Goldblum are all totally hot in it.
I enjoyed a lot of the new material. Having seen the movie several times, I recognized most of it. Just for example, there was a sub-plot with Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) and his children, a sequence with Jasmine (Viveca Fox) making her way to El Toro AFB, and the global coordination of the final airstrike.
Best of all, they at least attempted to explain how David Levinson (Goldblum) could hack into alien computers.
Friday, August 29, 2008
LOS ANGELES - David Duchovny has entered a rehabilitation facility for sex addiction. In a statement released Thursday by his lawyer, Stanton Stein, the actor said he did so voluntarily, adding: "I ask for respect and privacy for my wife and children as we deal with this situation as a family."
The actor's publicist, Flo Grace, confirmed the rehab report, which first appeared on People.com.
She and Stein both declined to elaborate further.
Duchovny, 48, plays a sex-obsessed character on the Showtime series "Californication," which earned Emmy nominations for casting and cinematography. The show's second season begins Sept. 28. Showtime had no comment Thursday.
The actor appeared in the film "The X Files: I Want to Believe" earlier this summer. He has been married to actress Tea Leoni since 1997. They have two children.
My first thought was not about the irony of Hank Moody's behavior on Californication, but about Fox Mulder's infamous porn collection.
God bless you, David, and good luck. This one is a bitch, I have friends who can attest to that personally.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
HOWEVER...he recently made some pretty bold statements over at Moviehole about The Dark Knight. I first saw this reported at Yahoo! Here's an excerpt in case the link eventually goes away:
"My whole thing is that that I saw 'The Dark Knight'. I feel like I'm dumb because I feel like I don't get how many things that are so smart. It's like a Ferrari engine of storytelling and script writing and I'm like, 'That's not my idea of what I want to see in a movie.' I loved 'The Prestige' but didn't understand 'The Dark Knight'. Didn't get it, still can't tell you what happened in the movie, what happened to the character and in the end they need him to be a bad guy. I'm like, 'I get it. This is so high brow and so f--king smart, I clearly need a college education to understand this movie.' You know what? F-ck DC comics. That's all I have to say and that's where I'm really coming from."
I can't say that I agree with him about The Dark Knight. I thought it was extremely well-done—specifically the story, the performances and the special effects.
At the same time, I can actually see Downey's point. In being so ambitious, TDK stumbles in several places. The script tries to do too much. The intricate twists and subplots and the fast pace threaten to overwhelm the human significance of the things that happen. Chaos is overcome by human decency, but it leaves such misery in its wake that it still ends up seeming more powerful.
I honestly enjoyed Iron Man more, at least in the conventional sense. Like Batman Begins, it tells a classic origin story, straight out of Joseph Campbell. That story was executed perfectly, and given a heartbreaking (pun intended) contemporary angle. It also had a humor and a warmth that was missing from The Dark Knight.
One could argue that Iron Man was the less pretentious film, but then, I found The Prestige more pretentious than TDK by several miles. If you believe that all stories hav “messages” whether they mean to or not, then both of these movies may have messages that we need right now. In the case of Iron Man, it's “It's never too late to change”. Iron Man 2 is likely to follow the TDK mold in that it will veer into darker territory, but that is more likely to concern Tony Stark's lingering personal demons.
Unfortunately, in making these statements, Downey leaves himself open to charges of sour grapes. He certainly has a vested interest in Marvel Comics at this point. The fact is, though, this summer was going to belong the Jo—I mean to The Dark Knight no matter what. Headlining the second biggest event movie is an accomplishment in itself, as is bookending the main event...and he has accomplished both.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
* Speaking of Ritchie...his spouse Madonna drew fire this weeked, for concert imagery that seemed to compare John McCain to Hitler and Barack Obama to Mahatma Ghandi. It is difficult to know how exactly this came across without having been there, and I suppose that I understand the point she was trying to make. At the same time, I find both comparisons to be tasteless and excessive.
* Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Collin Farrell have donated their earnings from their new movie, "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus", to Matilda Ledger, the daughter of their late co-star, Heath Ledger.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
I want to hop back in the saddle by posting about fathers in popular culture. I could easily write about Ray Barone (a.k.a. Ray Romano), who's disinterest and incompetence with his own family is an exhausted cliché; or about Alias's Jack Bristow, who's love for his daughter Sydney sometimes led him to do dark deeds to protect her. However, I'd rather write about the two more recent examples--Indiana Jones and Hank Moody.
As you may already know, whether you saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or not, the grizzled archaeologist learns in it that he has an adult son. The young man's mother is Marion Ravenwood, Indy's romantic interest from Raiders of the Lost Ark—and, all of the sudden, his one true love. Indy and Marion had allegedly been engaged, until he ran out on her. I found the wedding at the end implausible, even though I know it's supposed to make the audience happy. First of all, Indy never struck me as the marrying type. Nor was I ever satisfied as to why neither of them had ever contacted the other, especially with the doe-eyes that the reunited lovers exchange. I just wasn't convinced that they could pick up where they left off so easily.
I found Crystal Skull to be a lukewarm conclusion to the franchise anyway. The best part was a breathlessly funny gag with a snake. If I were to rank the Indiana Jones movies, I'd put this one above only Temple of Doom. The alien origins of the plot seem like a non-sequitur for the series, best suited to pave the way for next month's X-Files movie.
Which leads me to my favorite recent discovery. Inspired by chatter on LiveJournal, I watched Season 1 of the Showtime series Californication, just to catch up with David Duchovny.
I was blown away.
Duchovny plays Hank Moody, a novelist living in Los Angeles. As the story begins, he has had writer's block for several years, and is forced to accept a job blogging—which he disdains. His breakaway novel has been made into a bad romantic comedy. Most importantly, Karen, his long-time live-in girlfriend, has left him with their fourteen-year-old daughter in tow, for a man more willing to marry her. Missing his family desperately, Hank is the definition of dissolute, losing himself in alcohol and casual sex.
First off, let me be clear: this is cable television. There is simulated sex of various kinds, mild violence, drug use, and—somehow the most jarring to me—vomiting. However, if you're okay with that, and already have a taste for mini-movies such as Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, you are likely to consider this another rare example of what scripted television should be. It is by turns hilarious, suspenseful, and heart-wrenching.
One could argue that the characters in Californication think and talk more about sex than people really do. At the same time, it feels a lot closer to real life than the umpteenth new show revolving around serial killers. In a lot of ways, this is a story about families, as Hank, his agent and his wife, and Karen's new family all navigate the complexity of modern life and field major transitions. No one is completely blameless or unsympathetic. My biggest objection is that casual cocaine use is depicted without consequence, which I do not believe is typical.
I must admit, the show has made David Duchovny hot to me again. (Perhaps I prefer his scruffy Hank to his polished “FBI Agent” look.) I always thought he was a better writer and director than an actor, but he has come a long way since The X-Files, and plays a far more demanding role here .
The plot takes a few delicious twists along the way, and the central tension of the main season is resolved in the last episode. This could be both good and bad. (It keeps things fresh, but forces the show to explore other conflicts.) Either way, I plan to catch Season 2, which airs later this summer, if only on iTunes or Netflix.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
It's called Eagle vs Shark, and it's my first time renting from iTunes. The movie poster got my attention last year. For whatever reason, I was expecting Office Space with a costume party. The marketing hinted at a new rivalry along the lines of Pirates vs. Ninjas, with people choosing sides. What I got instead was a New Zealand comedy with a quirkiness similar to Napoleon Dynamite, but without the warmth.
It begins with Lily, a cashier at a burger joint, who has a crush on Jarrod, a DVD store employee who comes in every day. She gets laid off, allegedly randomly, only to learn later that the selection was rigged. Jarrod invites one of her co-workers to a party, but Liliy crashes it instead. They hook up afterwards, and become a de facto couple. Eventually, Lily goes home with Jarrod to visit his family. She gets drawn into their dysfunction, and into Jarrod's plot to street-fight a high school bully.
The awkwardness and flat affect of the characters are what first reminded me of Napoleon Dynamite. “Freakin Idiot” is replaced by “Cockhole”. The biggest similarity, however is the concept of the crystal dragon—a phenomenon found in martial arts and in paganism. A crystal dragon is someone (often male, often young) who makes claims to great power, skill or training that they don't really possess. They are shaped like something fierce, but you can see right through them.
There is so much wrong with Lily and Jarrod's relationship, I don't even know where to begin. In their first love scene, he's sexually unskilled in a way that goes past normal or endearing. Instead of cuddling or talking with her afterwards, he makes a threatening phone call. He stands her up for a date, then tracks her down at her house, where he cuffs her on her arm and accidentally smashes a cake she made him. This he chalks up to his “depression” and “intensity”. On their car trip, he is rude to her and her brother. Once they're with his family, embarasses her with inflated claims about her. He has a daughter that he didn't tell her about, but he clams up about his dating past. He dumps her, stranding her away from home, and goes out with another woman to please his father.
Let's be real clear: many of these are classic warning signs of an abuser.
Jarrod's absurd revenge fantasy culminates in him attacking a man in a wheelchair, only to loose the fight anyway. After all of this, Lily takes him back, just because he finally figures out that a woman named Lily might like lilies, and because he gives her a gift that he's already tried to give to two other people. She's already reclaimed some of her power by taking the center of attention at a party, but still, it made me twitch.
Why is the audience supposed to be happy about this? Because we love happy endings? Because being in a couple is better than not? The underlying idea seems to be to me that that Lily is there for Jarrod's redemption—to do the emotional labor at which women excel--whether or not its good for her or he's good enough. No, no, no, no no. I am beyond sick of these ideas, and I would feel the same if the roles were reversed.
Thursday, May 8, 2008
If that ultra-creepy moment at the end of tonight's episode wouldn't do it, then the "she will do you" comment at Career Day would. And this is coming from someone who usually understands Michael Scott as just being well-intentioned but stupid.
Plus, this comes on the heels of the hand-on-the-knee incident in the "Chairmodel" episode...and the crude, thinly veiled oral sex joke in the "Dinner Party" episode. Neither of those were Michael, of course. I wonder if they're going somewhere intentional with this.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
As much as it pains me to say it, The Forbidden Kingdom was forgettable. There is almost nothing about it that stays with you after you've left the theater. In brief, it is the story of a young boy, a fan of Wuxia films,who gets transported back to a fantasy version of ancient China. He aquires two mentors, played by Jackie Chan and Jet Li, who recognize him as the prophesied hero who will rescue the magically imprisoned Monkey King. None of the characters are three-dimensional, none of them grow or change emotionally or psychologically. It bothered me that a secondary protagonist who is eaten up with rage dies without getting past it. For some reason, not even the fight scenes hold the attention—which is tragic, considering how long Jackie Chan and Jet Li have wanted to work together.
The very best part of the movie is the Monkey King. Not only is he a joy to watch, but The Forbidden Kingdom would be a good movie for anyone who wanted to better understand the concept of the Trickster God.
One review that I read compared The Forbidden Kingdom to Willow as a movie that a ten-year-old might enjoy and remember fondly. I was that age exactly when Willow came out, and I think it's the better movie of the two.
Coming out of that disappointment, I saw Iron Man this morning, and now I feel that summer has truly begun.
Iron Man begins in the Afghan desert, with the kidnapping of brilliant multi-billionaire weapons developer Tony Stark. A rogue warlord tries to force him to recreate one of his newer and deadlier weapons, but he escapes instead, by creating a robotic soldier suit. Once selfish and irresponsible, Tony returns home with a new perspective and new energy technology (also his design) keeping him alive. His former captors soon want the suit for their own. To the frustration of the military, Tony, still characteristically reckless, acts on his own to stop them and to help the civilians in the area. His best friend and his personal assistant help him (as does a robot with an adorable canine disposition), but another old friend turns out not to be what he seemed.
I really enjoyed this movie. The action sequences were engaging, and the beautiful, super-cool gadgetry will appeal to the kid in everyone. (There were times when the audience literally moaned over the suit—even the girls.) The story has been updated for our complex times without taking a divisive stance, or losing touch with the themes that make comic books meaningful. (The scene where Iron Man targets baddies using human shields made me wish for a real hero so adept at avoiding “collateral damage”) The movie takes full advantage of Robert Downey Jr.'s comic talents, including one moment at the end that will leave you laughing and saying “Hell, yeah!" We get to see Tony Stark grow up, and the process, as other writers have observed, mirrors Downey's own redemption. (As a former heart patient, I really appreciated the very symbolic “heart” subplot.)
If you do go to see Iron Man, stay for the clip after the credits. It reveals a bit of future Marvelverse casting that had my audience—mainly gamers and comic fans—squeeing. It's been a while since I've been around that many people that happy at one time.
Part of the fun today was seeing trailers for upcoming movies, like The Dark Knight and The Incredible Hulk. Summer is the time for being outside and playing in the water; but it is also the time for slick, big-budget spectacles featuring talented and beautiful folk embodying beloved archetypes. I can't wait!
Saturday, May 3, 2008
The first film was Electricity: Unplugging the Myth , the 2007 48-Hour Film Festival Winner from Marflux Productions. The character that all of the teams were given to work with was an electrician. The result in this case was a very cute moc-doc predicated on the idea electricity is not real, but really just the actions of microscopic workers. (Needless to say, this theory is disproved in the end.) You could tell that the movie was made in limited time, but it looks really good considering.
Also screened was Blindsided, by Eleven After Films, which won the festival's Tennessee Independent Spirit Award. In it, a young man brings his girlfriend to meet his family for the first time. They are startled that she is blind, but not nearly as startled as she is by the toxic family dynamics into which she has been thrown. The parents' marriage is falling apart, and they and the young man's siblings air their conflicts with each other. This film was filmed in twelve hours, with stage actors, and it practically crackles off the screen. It is by turns funny and shocking, as everyone is “blindsided” by something. While the wisdom proffered at the end is hardly original, it is well worth the reminder.
Fight It, by Darrin Dickerson of Ghostwater films, is perhaps best described a public service announcement for personal activism. We see a young man using money that he has earned and collected at a gym to feed the homeless, provide toys for orphans, and donate to cancer research (his mother is ill). At the end, the viewer is encouraged to “choose one thing and fight it”. The DVDs include include envelopes for related charities, and are available for free. Ghostwater can be contacted online, and Dickerson wants the DVDs to be shared between people and used by various groups to foster discussion and action.
Watkins College was well-represented by recent graduate Brent Montgomery, who directed and starred in The Pugilist. It is the story of a boxer who doesn't realize that he has been the beneficiary of rigged fights, until he is asked to take a fall. One of the most interesting things about this film was its sense of timelessness. There are elements—not just costumes and set, but also newsreels and home movies—that appear to be from different points in recent history. The movie as a whole has a 1920's or 1930's feel. The acting is good, and the boxing elements are well-researched. There are many dry, intelligent laughs, and a tentative love story which ends the film on a tender note.
The evening wrapped up with The Mother Hen, by Carlos Griffin of Half and Half Productions. Set in Middle Tennessee, this is one of the best films I have seen about the topic of immigration. A young Hispanic woman shows up with a baby at the home of a friend of a friend. Her husband has just been picked up by ICE, and she needs shelter until her brother can come get her. Her host is reluctant. The women gradually develop a connection, but not before ICE comes knocking. I felt that this piece told a very human story about the two biggest issues in America today, and managed to do so without being heavy-handed or divisive.
Tennessee Film Night One was an enjoyable and informative evening that highlighted the amazing film talent that we have here in Music City.
The first night, I saw Trailer Park of Terror, based on the Imperium comic book series of the same name. It was directed by award-winning music video director Steven Goldmann. Several of the film's stars were there, including Trace Adkins, who has a running cameo as the Devil himself.
The film begins with the tragic story of Norma, a young woman who tries to run away with her fiancee to escape the baseness and poverty of the trailer park where she lives. (A few small details, including the opening graphics and a later newscast, set the story solidly in our own beloved Middle Tennessee.) The ensuing confrontation is a perfect illustration of the “crabs-in-a-bucket” phenomenon: if the people around Norma can't get out, they don't want her to, either. When the lecherous redneck men who control the community accidentally kill Norma's fiancee, and the Devil helps her get her due.
The film picks up a few years later, with a youth ministry group of troubled teenagers whose bus wrecks on a rainy night. They soon find that Norma and her neighbors are still in the trailer park, and don't plan on letting them go.
If you don't like horror movies, Trailer Park of Terror is obviously not for you. If you do, however, then you will consider it an almost perfect example of the form. It's campy supernatural horror, more akin to Rob Zombie's movies than to the self-important solemnity of The Ring. The characters, while they hardly need to be three-dimensional, are distinctive and well-acted. It is highly gory, with elements of sexual and psychological cruelty. There are a lot of dark laughs, but there is also one scene in particular that had me wishing for a character's suffering to end.
Trailer Park of Terror operates on typical horror movie morality, with death and dismemberment as the consequences for sex and drug use. (Interestingly, this provides the context for some of the most beautiful drug visuals I've ever seen in a movie.) The one character who sees the light of of the following morning might be the last one you'd expect; but then, as with all horror movies, we're here to see the protagonists die, even if we're ostensibly rooting for them.
While I actually enjoy a good horror flick more than many people, my favorite part was the music. It runs the gambit, from songs by Adkins to heavy metal to what can best be described, to borrow from Rob Zombie, as Hellbilly--Heavy Metal with a mixed retro gothic and rockabilly aesthetic.
It was interesting to stay afterwards, and hear Goldmann talk about the frenetic 18-day process of filming the movie. Trace Adkins joked that he signed on just for the Devil's “pissin' scene”.
Goldmann said that he made Trailer Park of Terror for Southerners, that he wanted us to consider it “Our fuckin' horror movie”. I have mixed feelings about this. Norma's trailer park at the beginning represents a very extreme picture of only one slice of Southern culture. At the same time, it rings true enough for Southerners to appreciate it; and he did get one thing right: we really do deep fry everything.
Friday, May 2, 2008
American Idol is nothing more than a record-industry machine set up to discover the next undistinguished voice in a can. Yes, it's true, many of the singers are not ready for a record contract. Many more, in the early elimination shows, are simply awful; but I believe that most people can a be trailed to at least sing passable. Just as many performers who get savaged weekly by the petty and cruel Simon Cowell--who has never, to my knowledge, sung publicly--already have voices that are assets to their communities. Idol looses site of the fact that music is not just a business, it's a force of nature. I go to work and hear "Idol"chatter in the breakroom, and all I can conclude is that "Idol" is there to help people who are out of touch with their artisic passion feel superior to those who aren't.
I'll admit to enjoying the occasional Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood song, but think about this: Idol would have never given us such unconventional voices as Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin or Joanie Mitchell.
The only reality show that's ever really held my attention was Rock Star: INXS. INXS was my favorite band at one time, and the outcome was important to me, even if it was a done deal before the last show. I'm not sure whether this incident indicates that American Idol is rigged, or just that Paula Abdul is loosing it (which we knew). Either way, give me a sitcom, courtroom drama or police procedural instead, any day.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
I watched Saved! on DVD a couple of weeks ago. It tells the story of Mary, a teenage girl attending a Christian high school, who gets pregnant when she tries to "cure" her boyfriend of his homosexual tendencies. Her nemesis is Hillary Faye, the Queen Bee of the school; her allies are Cassandra, the school's lone Jewish student, and Roland, Hillary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother (played wonderfully by Macaulay Culkin). Patrick, the pastor's son, is caught between Hillary Faye, who pursues him but who he dislikes, and Mary, who he likes, but who is reluctant for obvious reasons.
Saved! is a heartwarming funny film, and not at all hostile to religion. Both of the couples are really endearing. I was gad that in the end, even Hillary Faye is humanized, if not excused. She is a cautionary tale of what can happen when the pressure to be “good” becomes overwhelming. The worst thing I can say about Saved! Is that it, likewise, tries to do too much. The pregnancy storyline and the Christian school could both easily be movies unto themselves. (It's also hard to believe that Mary's pregancy would go undetected for so long.)
I think the real theme of this movie is diversity: diversity of beliefs, diversity of abilities, diversity of lifestyles. This is illustrated by the crowd that greets Mary's daughter at the end of the movie. All of them are keeping the faith, doing the best they can, and finding God within each other.
In theaters now - Run, Fatboy, Run
I'm not doing a full response to Run, Fatboy Run because so much ink had already been spilled over it before I even saw it. I don't honestly think it deserves the poor reviews that it's gotten. Yes, it follows a very typical romantic comedy form—boy meets girl, boy panics and looses girl, boy leads a meaningless existence before winning girl back from perfect-on-paper Baxter character. However, it was far funnier and more poingnant than I'd been led to believe. There are many refreshingly likable charaters. Unlike other reviewers, I also thought that Simon Pegg and Thandie Newton made a credible couple.
The “F” word put me off at first. While his character's weight gain is obvious, Pegg didn't exactly don a fatsuit. I'm unsure whether this shows that Europeans are healthier than Americans, or that everyone's body image is screwed up these days. Fortunately, the central issue is the hero's overall health—his stamina and endurance—and the titular insult only comes up once.
Like so many love stories, this is also a coming-of-age story. I totally connected to the idea of someone not finishing things for fear that they might not be deserving of the good results. I'm sure a lot of people can relate. The “wall” that people hit in a struggle, both in sports and in life, has not been visualized so well since The Animatrix. No, this is not Shaun or Hot Fuzz, but it's worth seeing in the theater.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Two years after the movie's release, the premise is probably familiar to most moviegoers. Andy Sitzer, an isolated electronics store employee, admits to his co-workers that, for various reasons, he has never had sex. In the process of trying to help him, they become his friends, bewildering him with their varied and contradictory perspectives on today's muddled sexual politics. He finally meets someone he cares about, and ironically, she decides that they should wait and get to know each other before becoming intimate. (There is one huge medical inaccuracy in the movie, but I won't describe it!)
The first thing that got my attention was how well the film captures the complexity of modern life. Andy's workplace illustrates both inter-racial and intra-racial tensions. The love interest, Trish, is a young grandmother with a complex family situation. A trip to the health department illustrates epidemic sexual misinformation, among both youth and adults, even as society becomes more sexualized. Andy's adventures in dating also feel very contemporary, from the “straight” bar where girls openly snog together to the butch speed-dating bisexual who is "transitioning" back to men.
Not all of these images feel friendly or fair-minded. The character of Jay represents misogynist attitudes that exist all across society, through the lens of the Black community. When confronted by belligerent, stereotyped behavior, he responds by acting the same way. In the end, we're supposed to infer that he has grown up, just because he shows off some sonogram footage and minimizes his own infidelity. I would have felt much more comfortable if there had been at least one more positive, or even more balanced, Black character. Then, there is the “why you're gay” discussion that treads the line between hilarious and offensive.
Also toward the end of the movie, Andy is repulsed by a seductive display from Beth, a woman he picks up when he thinks he's driven Trish away. On the one hand, it's easy to imagine how anyone might be turned off by what she's doing. It's like a pre-packaged porn fantasy that has nothing to do with Andy as an individual. It's good to see the movie elevate women like Trish instead, who are whole in themselves and behave authentically. Unfortunately, the script never quite escapes the Madonna-whore dichotomy or the old Double Standard (R, TM). “I hit that a while back”, Jay explains as he leads Andy away from Beth.
I hesitate to pigeonhole myself by making feminist critique my “shtick” as a reviewer; but this movie is surprisingly ripe for it. All of the characters struggle for self-respect and wholeness in our MySpace-meets-Girls-Gone Wild culture. Trish accepts the news about Andy's inexperience very well, but I did wish that I had been more assured of her eventual sexual happiness. (The musical number at the end also kind of lost me.) The love story and the coming of age story are the real point, and I enjoyed them.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Monday, March 24, 2008
The Tantra subplot was actually kind of funny...although I can neither confirm nor deny how accurate it might be. What really bothered me was the subplot where Rashida Jones's character Kate keeps encountering a female co-worker naked in the gym locker room
I think that many people would find that awkward in and of itself; however, Kate had to go into detail later with her friends about how disgusting the older woman's body is.
Now, I love pop culture, obviously. All too often, though, it's used to try to make women self-conscious about being anything other than the ideal. All too often, it tries to enlist women to judge each other. It is not impossible to imagine the same subplot with a naked man, but it seems less likely. More to the point, that is not how the story was written
As if that weren't enough, once Kate finally confronts her colleague with her discomfort, the other woman breaks down crying. She confides that she feels repulsive, that her body is why she's divorced, and that she's starved for physical contact of any kind. It ends, of course, with an uncomfortable, arms-only hug.
All of this is supposed to be funny.
Guess what? It isn't.
There's really nothing all that unusual about the woman in question. She looks like--if not "better than"--any number of middle-aged ladies you might pass on the street. So I can comfort myself with the knowledge that the writers of Unhitched are out of touch with mainstream America. Most people don't see each other this way...except when they do; except when they've drunk too deeply of this kind of poison, which is as endemic in advertising and popular music as it is in Story.
What's more, to the extent that anyone does go without the physical affection that they need, for any reason, it hardly strikes me as comical. Watching the woman's pain was disturbing to me. I wonder what it says that the audience was expected to find it funny. This is the kind of mean-spiritedness that passes for honesty on many sitcomes these days.
Jones was better off on The Office , even if Jim is better of with Pam.
Thanks for letting me unhitch my high horse for a moment.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
This weekend, however, I decided to end my post-Oscar hiatus by responding to two new shows for you.
Canterbury's Law, the new Juliana Margulies vehicle, debuted on Fox last week. There's very little here that we haven't seen before—aside from the fact that in our post 9-11 America, making your protagonist a public defender represents at least a small risk. Other than that, we have a driven career woman who's personal life is falling apart, a wan, hapless, young male defendant, a unisex bathroom scene (without the laughs of Ally McBeal), and dramatic confrontations culminating in courtroom pandemonium. In the end, I had to agree with Canterbury's associate, who warns her that her less ethical tactics may backfire on her clients. I also found it a cheap gimmick not to reveal until the finish that she has lost a child. The best I can say about it is that Margulies and Aidan Quinn are always very watchable, and it is still probably a better way to spend an evening than any given “reality” show.
The next new thing I checked out was Quarterlife. This is a web series created my Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Swick, the creators of Thirtysomething and producers of My So-Called Life. The first online “season”--thirty-six episodes of eight minutes each—were recently combined into six hour-long episodes for NBC. The pilot got such poor ratings against a Democratic presidential debate that it was moved over to NBC's partner channel, Bravo, to finish it's run. (All episodes are now available on hulu.com.)
To be honest, I wondered at first if I would make it through the first episode; but I didn't want to be like a recently infamous Rolling Stones critic. The characters were just introduced very abruptly, and the dialog felt painfully contrived. We've seen much of this before, too—a cast of pretty young friends, both indie and yuppie, complete with one of their youthful-looking, immature mothers. As the episode progressed, however, some strong performances emerged, and I started to care about the characters. The story also dealt realistically with some very important themes—specifically, fear of success, and the often complicated connections between young adults and their parents.
The one thing that still gets me about Quarterlife is the fact that we didn't actually see the band make music until their concert. I'm around enough musical people to know that music—and not necessarily their own--oozes out of them steadily, especially when they're around each other, just for the pure joy if it. This past December, I saw a group of Nashville musicians on an independent movie set do a much better depiction of a band partying on their off hours. (Yes, you'll read more about that film eventually—MUCH more.)
In summary, neither of these shows is likely to become regular viewing for me, but I enjoyed Quarterlife better. It probably comes down to whether you prefer—or are in the mood for--Thirtysomething” or The Practice.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
If I hadn't been reading Dreaming the Dark, by Starhawk, all week, watching Michael Clayton might have been a very different experience. The movie is all about what Starhawk would refer to as “power-over”. It is the power of force, coercion and hierarchy, and the societal institutions which allow some people to prosper at the expense of others; it is also the sense of estrangement between people that allows them to think such systemic suffering is okay.
The film opens in darkness, with just the voice of hotshot attorney Arthur Eden. In the middle of defending an a chemical company in a class-action lawsuit, he's had what appears to be a breakdown, stripping naked during a deposition, and rambling to the plaintiff about offering himself in atonement. The language he uses to explain himself is spiritual. He has had an epiphany, and can no longer be part of the harm that his client, uNorth, is causing. The thing that really struck me is how almost everyone around Arthur immediately tries to pathologize his experience. Only Michael Clayton, the firm's “fixer” who has been called in, even pretends to take his concerns seriously. Go back on your meds, he tells Arthur; if what you've seen is real, it will still be there. Unfortunately, Michael has problems of his own: his brother has just left him high and dry with a failed business, making it difficult for him to resist his gambling addiction.
A lot of the trappings of this movie are quite familiar—the evil company with the harmful product, the innocent victims, the noble whistle-blower, and the character at the crossroads of decision. It does have an immediacy and intimacy that not all such movies have. The characters' personal and professional lives are not neatly separate, all of their problems bleed together.
It drags for a long section in the middle, in part because Michael is catching up to learn what we already know. The black-ops hijinx that we see—especially the faked suicide—weren't convincing to me, even though such things probably happen. On a technical note, this is probably the visually darkest of all the Oscar nominees. The score reminds me of Ambient music, and gives the film a dreamlike quality.
George Clooney does a good job playing a man under extraordinary stress. It was a bigger treat for me, though, to see Tom Wilkinson. This script allowed him a more nuanced role than that of the one-dimensional Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins. (Yes, folks, it's “Six Degrees to Cillian Murphy”.) Tilda Swinton portrays great hidden uncertainty as uNorth's unethical lead counsel, Karen Crowder. That is probably believable, but somewhat cliché. Perhaps a remorseless and arrogant female villian would have been more original, or at least more satisfying.
One thing that bothered me, as someone with friends in recovery, is that Michael loses a form of sobriety at the end, and it is not given near enough importance. It amused me that uNorth outsourced legal services to his firm, and in the end, it is printing outsourced by Arthur that saves the day. Michael is used to presenting limited options to people in tight situations, and then helping them by unconventional means; but he discovers power-within—the power of personal authenticity and interpersonal connection—in time to do the right thing.
THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
- W.B. Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"
No Country For Old Men opens in the Texas desert in the 1970’s. In voiceover, Tommy Lee Jones's character, Sheriff Ed Bell, talks about how times have changed, especially the job of a local sheriff. He mentions the prospect of finding an evil beyond understanding out in the metaphorical and literal wilderness.
We see the arrest of a man dressed in black, who quickly kills the arresting deputy. He then uses a stolen police car to pull over an innocent stranger and cut them down with his weapon of choice—a compressed-air stun gun intended for cattle. We soon learn that this is ruthless hit man Anton Chigurh
It also quickly becomes obvious why Chigurh is in town. Hunter Llewellyn Moss comes across the scene of a drug-related massacre, and finds a satchel containing two million dollars. From there, a bloody cat-and-mouse game ensues that encompasses Moss, his wife, Chigurh, Bell, and bounty hunter Carson Wells.
Movie audiences are very used to seeing Tommy Lee Jones as a lawman; but this is a more nuanced performance than before. Imagine one of his U.S. Marshall characters, twenty years down the road. I enjoyed seeing Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean Moss. I first saw this Scottish actress in the fabulous Intermission, and here she does a mean Texas accent. However, I'd have to say that the stand-out performance goes to Javier Bardem as Chigurh. His presence is off-kilter, unsettling, and yet somehow mesmerizing. Ironically, that awful late-70s haircut is part of it.
There are some interesting gender dynamics in this story. While there is a great tenderness between Llewellyn and his wife, their relationship is very traditional for the time. He makes all of the decisions, but unfortunately, he makes remarkably dumb ones, and it is hard to watch her struggle to keep up. In a way, all of the male characters are working out their (often cliché') notions of what masculinity means. Wonderfully dry, funny dialog helps punctuate this. Bell is surprisingly open with his feelings and has a relationship of equals with his wife; but Moss and Chigurh let their pride take over them. While Carla Jean is a well-drawn character, her fate is cliché. Cormack McCarthy, author of the source novel, missed a ripe opportunity there. It would have shattered expectations had she been a killer instead of killed.
The narrative shifts in the middle, from focusing on Moss to focusing on Bell. This was slightly jarring to me, especially since I had been wishing for more of Bell's story up to that point. The plot is like a small war there in the desert, which is interesting, because the recently-ended Vietnam war looms large. The importance of choice seems to be a theme. Also, each character's struggle, while interconnected, is also highly individual. The ending is startlingly abrupt and deliberately unsatisfying. We see that Chigurh suffers, on an ongoing basis, for his misdeeds; but we're reminded that life rarely gives us sweeping meaning and tidy conclusions. Instead, there is just wistfulness about the passage of time.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
There Will Be Blood is based on Oil!, by Upton Sinclair, which in turn was based loosely on oil baron Edward Doheny*. It was directed by Paul Paul Thomas Anderson, who also brought us Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.
As the movie opens, we see an oil prospector scrabbling in the desert sand, at the turn of the twentieth century. He gets injured and literally crawls into town on his back. He resumes digging, persevering through setbacks. He adopts the orphaned son of one of his workers. He strikes it rich, going from oil prospector to “oil man”.
All in the first eleven minutes, and all without a word of dialog.
Our protagonist is Daniel Plainview, masterfully portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. The real narrative starts ten years after his big strike. An mysterious young man invites him to visit his family's desolate ranch in California, where oil literally lays thick on the ground. Oil on the surface is apparently apparently no guarantee of oil underneath the ground it—only one of many geological facts one learns from this movie. However, when Plainview finds that there are, in fact, reserves there, tapping them and piping that oil to the sea becomes his project for the next twenty years. He ruthlessly overcomes many obstacles, including reluctant landowners, Standard Oil, a long-lost brother, and a tragic injury to the aforementioned (very precocious) son. The principal conflict, however, is with a self-appointed preacher—the twin brother of the young visitor.
A Pagan high priestesses that I know has a list of pop movies which illustrate the Four Elements—Earth, Air, Fire and Water. This is definitely another elemental film—Earth and Fire. Oil, usually hidden deep in the Earth, is omnipresent. It is easy to understand, as Plainview talks about how oil will bring the bread and water to the community, how people could get excited about fossil fuels without thinking about the consequences. The Earth is not just valuable, though—it's mysterious and dangerous. The scene with the oil rig fire is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen on the big screen.
It's hard not to side with Plainview, if only because of his tenacity. There is no denying, however, that he's an asshole. His complete misanthropy is explicitly stated, but never explained. About the time that he's sitting alone in a mansion, firing a gun into the dark, you ask yourself--”Haven't I seen this before?” What? You mean a thinly veiled biography of a rich, influential and lonely man? Yes, you have. It was called Citizen Kane
Paul Dano, who plays the preacher, also does a wonderful job. I had been hoping that his rivalry with Plainview would illustrate a tension between commercial and esoteric values, but that never really developed. Instead, their story ends in a brutal and somewhat unexpected way. There is a sense of detachment and meaningless that left me with a cold, dark uneasiness. I found myself wondering: could a bully be incited to murder by the smell of fear, by the idea that they could get away with it? A terrifying question.
If you want to see an “arty”, somewhat heavy, very well-done film, this is a fine choice. If you're looking to laugh or relax, not so much.
* c/o IMDB
Monday, February 18, 2008
I hope my readers will allow me a moment's self-indulgence tonight.
You see, it was a year ago tonight--not factoring for any differences in time zones--that I got to see "Love Song", a play by John Kolvenbach, at London's New Ambassador theater.
The case was amazing: Michael McKean, Kristen Johnston, Neve Campbell and Cillian Murphy. Yes, I was there to see Cillian Murphy. I would watch that man in a life insurance commercial, as those of you who know me know, and as those who don't will learn. One of my best friends and I went there on a wild hare, just for this show. For the record, this is not the kind of thing we're usually willing or able to do.
I'm writing, however, not to congratulate myself, but to to say, if you ever have a chance to see this play, with any cast--SEE IT!
The story revolves around a lonely eccentric named Beane, whose life finally takes off when he falls in love with Molly, a feisty stranger who breaks into his apartment. His sister and her husband, who have been taking care of Beane from arm's length for some time, are naturally concerned. But without even meeting them, Molly begins to open their minds, too.
I remember the music. The opening song is “Just What I Needed”, by The Cars, and to hear that song still hurts me in the best possible way. All of the songs chosen, however, give the play a funky, intelligent, contemporary feel. The set—at least the way it was constructed in London—was ingenious, making visual the feeling of the walls closing in. And the script? The script is by turns hilarious and sad and poetic. There were times I was laughing so hard that I couldn't breathe, and moments where I grew teary.
Interestingly enough, a lot of the themes in the play are familiar to neo-Pagans like myself. At the risk of revealing too much, the play deals with the power of the imagination, the nature of reality, and even the concept of thought forms. In the end, all the characters are able to strike a balance between “fantasy” and “real life”. Beane emerges ready to face the world, and his sister and her husband restore wonder and vitality to their lives.
The whole night was magical. We were still jet-lagged, as circumstances forced us to see the play the night we arrived. However, as the curtain rose, I was pulled right into the excitement of theater in a foreign city.
In case you're wondering, I did get my autograph. I didn't get a picture—Murphy is notoriously shy, and somehow, that just seemed like too much. It all happened very quickly, and I still hope that I managed not to make a fool of myself. In some ways, the play seems far more real than the press of the crowd backstage, anyway.
I guess February is just a month for theater. This year, my friends and I took to the stage ourselves, and became our own fandom. I'll never forget London, though.
* * *
(Promotional photo found on uCillian.com.)
Sunday, February 17, 2008
The story begins on a sweltering sumer day at an English country estate, a few years before the advent of WWII. An attraction is building between Cecilia Tallis, the young daughter of the family that lives there, and Robbie Turner, the housekeeper's educated son. Cecilia's younger sister Briony, a budding writer of 13, has a crush of her own on Robbie.
If you have seen the trailer, you know that Briony walks in on an intimate encounter between Robbie and Cecilia, then accuses Robbie of something he didn't do, causing him to be sent to prison and then to war. However, I was surprised that Briony's accusation actually has nothing to do with Cecilia.
The first few scenes of the movie feel disjointed, and the dialog sounds unnatural. As the movie progresses, it pulls together and smooths out a bit. Some confusing things are done with the timeline at the beginning. In the last fifteen minutes we learn that the whole story has been told through an internal narrative device. That device skips so far into the future of the characters, without preamble, that it is at once ingenious and excessively jarring.
All three of the actresses playing Briony at different ages are fantastic. Young Briony and her cousin Lola are wonderfully precocious—probably typical for their context. Some of the best acting in the movie is from James McAvoy. He brings a moving portrayal to the already endearing character of Robbie. Keira Knightly's cold and imperious Cecilia is less likable. It is unclear why Robbie loves her, aside from possibly her beauty; in spite of the injustice she suffers, she has few sympathetic characteristics aside from being in love. The best thing I can say about this pairing? I'll never see library bookshelf ladders the same way again.
As far as the technical aspects of the film, I would not be the first writer to mention the brilliant way that the score incorporates the sound of a typewriter. I also noticed that at several points, the music comes together with the movie itself in one sound. There is some very interesting cinematography--shots around corners and through doors and up stairwells. The rural scenes are beautiful, and the clashing textures and patterns in the manor house express a lot about the family. There is also some striking imagery in the war scenes; this is not, however, a war movie at heart, and I'd say its less disturbing than something like Saving Private Ryan.
Honestly, the technical aspects of this movie are probably the reason to see this film, if at all. If you're looking for a romantic movie to share with a date—or with a pint of Ben and Jerry's—you can do better. Briony is right—the true ending to the lover's saga does feel kind of pointless. Unfortunately, the fact that she chooses to tell a different story doesn't help the audience of Atonement as much as it helps her. I left feeling that the war was the bigger injustice, the thing that really kept Cecilia and Robbie apart; and Briony's own fate only goes to show that everything evens out in the end.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Reast in Peace, Roy Scheider.
Fortunately, I was able to convalesce from my allergies with some good online TV yesterday.
As much as I hate to admit it, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is growing on me. I still find that the charactes all tend to come from the same emotional place, all the time, but at the same time, something keeps me watching. This last episode certainly seemed to have enough action, and enough twists, to keep me enganged. I think the show is getting better as it goes along. On an amusing note, my recent experience on a movie set has changed the way I view film. I think they have used the same warehouse set--or at least the pieces of it--for two or three locations by now.
Speaking of sets...that brings me to my juciest discovery of the weekend: HBO's In Treatment. The format of the show is brilliant: it goes through each week in the life of a therapist by showing him in session, as the therapist for four days and as the patient on Friday. Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Weist are well-matched....ooh, is that brogue of his a pleasure to hear! I can't help thinking that most therapists' lives are NOT this interesting, but it is just this side of believable. Plus, the format gives the script an intimacy and immediacy that practically jumps off the screen. Five nights a week could be a lot to devote to one show...but the beauty is that the Paul re-caps his week for Gina at the end of it. I will definitely keep watching.
And good news...the writer's strike may almost be over. Here's hoping for an equitable compromise, and an end to the long drought of new Story.
Thursday, January 31, 2008
The first thing I noticed was a consistent aesthetic, a distinct “vibe” established by the animated open credits and folky music. Initially, the dialog is so aggressively snappy that it takes a second to wrap your head around it...and yet, it's somehow believable.
The movie deals with a very serious issue—teenage pregnancy. I found that very interesting, since teens are so often sexualized in the media. Such pregnancies don't happen as often as they used to, but they still happen. The heroine, Juno, decides to bring her baby to term and give it up for adoption. This is depicted, remarkably, without taking sides in the abortion debate. There is a confrontation outside of a clinic, but it is comically civil (or civilly comical). Seeing Juno walking around her high school pregnant drove home how much things have changed since I was in high school; at the same time, the events around her prom remind the audience that girls bear the burden, so to speak, of an unplanned pregnancy.
Juno is one of the warmest and wisest movie characters in recent years. It's refreshing to see her and her friends portrayed without resorting to stereotpes of teenagers. She's the Creative Kid (R, TM) in your school, not part of the mainstream; but she isn't bitter or cynical. She's totally smitten with her baby's father, even though he's kind of awkward and not conventionally handsome. She remembers their first sexual experience dreamily, where so many teen characters would be blasé. She keeps her baby when she realizes that it has fingernails; and she can't understand why she can't pal around alone with another woman's husband.
Most of the other characters are equally likable. Juno's stepmother, far from evil, ends up being a better mother than her biological mother. The wife of the perspective adoptive couple is speeding down the mommy track, and her husband seems to have a Peter Pan Complex; they both could be villanized, from certain points of view. In the end, though, they, too are three-dimensional characters. My only complaint on characterization might be that Juno and her father both take everything a little too well, almost as if they've done this before.
This is a movie about family relationships, specifically between couples and between parents and children. Juno is struggling to figure these out, and find her role within them. She sees that while we may learn things as we grow older, we always have such questions at different times in our lives. There are no messages or pat answers here, but there is a celebration of love. The resolution of the plot made me cry at a movie for the first time in a long time.
This film has heart, as trite as that sounds. The rest of the Oscar nominees are supposed to be quite bleak. They'll have to be really good for me to like them better than Juno.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
The Oscar ceremony itself hangs in the balance, as the writer's strike drags on. The ceremony may be reduced to a press conference, as were the Golden Globe Awards. I haven't addressed the writer's strike so far in this blog, but I feel that I should. I am very sympathetic to the writers, because it does seem like they got the raw end of the deal the cut for VHS and DVD rights. There would be no television or movies without them, anyway, so I wish them success...and I wish it quickly, because reality TV is bad for America.
Nor can I post without mentioning the tragic passing of Heath Ledger. I am really still in shock. He wasn't even as old as I am. Yes, I reserve the right to be sad about people I don't know personally--celebrities are human, too. I also enjoyed his work. I wish peace for him and for those he left behind, especially Michelle Williams and their daughter. One of my first thoughts was how strange it was going to be to watch The Dark Knight this summer.
Friday, January 18, 2008
Wow. Just...wow. Don't let the glib title of my post fool you: this movie makes an impact.
For those who don't know, it was directed by J.J. Abrams, creator of “Alias” and “Lost”, who has also recently taken on the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises. It is the story of a group of Manhattanite friends throwing a going-away party for one of their own...only to be interrupted by a monster that rises from the ocean and devastates the city.
Much has been made already of the style of this film. The monster is shown only in glimpses at first, and even after that, gets a minimum of screen time. The entire movie is shot from one digital camera, originally intended to record the party. This does prove quite effective. Likewise, the origin of the monster is left ambiguous, and there area a few incidents where it remains deliberately unclear what exactly happened.
On the other hand, the jerking and swinging of the camera bothered me more than it did with The Blair Witch project. It seemed me to that Hud, the cameraman for most of the movie, goes back and forth between amateurish shooting (cutting off the top of people's heads) and professional grade (sweeping shots of the Brooklyn Bridge). The idea that he filmed so much and that the tape survived strains credibility.
The cast are not so well-known that it is distracting. I like that. Just based on my brief experience there, I thought the characters look and act like New York. Many small details help evoke the essence of the city. I think it says something that the public accepts a movie this iconoclastic. Perhaps we're finally moving into a post-post-9/11 world.
Then, of course, there is my Lilith complex. I always have sympathy for the monster. Not people who act like monsters, but actual monsters...especially kaiju. They don't know any other way to be. They monst. It's what they do—cut them a break! While I was rooting for the human heroes, I must confess a twinge as fighter planes harried the “horrible thing”. My sympathies did not, however, extend to the smaller horrors it brought up with it.
Early on, one character advises another: “forget the world...cling to the people you care about” (paraphrase). This movie does leave you with a lot to consider. Who would you risk your life for if this happened ? At what point are the odds of saving them just to low? What would you do in an emergency—run or go to ground?
The medium itself, I believe, is the message: moments in time, frozen as ones and zeroes...panic and suffering, poignantly intercut with literal flashbacks to happier times. Some days are good. Others...just aren't. We've seen the subject matter before--Cloverfield owes as much to The Children of Men as to Godzilla; but Abrams' innovative take makes for a gripping ride.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett)
This book is pure joy. It helped get me through a serious illness. I grew up reading Douglas Adams' brilliant Hitchhiker's Trilogy, and this is probably the funniest thing that I have read since then. The subject matter and writing style are different, but the dry humor—by turns irreverent, self-deprecating and absurd--are similar. As a friend of mine said, it's all in the footnotes.
My favorite characters were Aziraphale and Crowley. Their respective angelic-ness and demonic-ness, and the attendant supernatural powers, manifest in very creative and humorous, but believable ways. Also, I'm not usually into slash, but let's face it—such a couple! They are written with a very genuine and even tender connection.
Armageddon was also done creatively, and the Four Horsemen were updated for our modern world. Well...three of them were, anyway. I love the children in the book, and the implied location of Eden. The book idealizes childhood a bit much for me, but as another friend pointed out, perhaps that's the point.
The story has a couple of philosophical points that, while not totally original, ring true for me: the idea that Good and Evil need each other to define themselves, and that the consequences of our actions should be reason enough for the choices that people make. It is also probably no accident that both Aziraphale and Crowley would rather be on Earth than anywhere else.
The Afro-Caribbean trickster god Anansi was a secondary character in Gaiman's novel American Gods; but he—and more specifically, his sons—take center sage (sometimes literally) in the sequel.
One of the jacket reviews refers to the story as “spooky”. I don't agree—although in fairness, I have a pretty high threshold for “spooky”. If American Gods had a very serious, heavy tone, Anansi Boys is both funnier and more fun. I would say that the books are different in the same ways that Odin and Anansi are different.
As usual, Gaiman draws on mythology and archetype in ways that are very enjoyable. There is also a strong theme about the power of Art—specifically Story and Song. I really liked the way that Anansi's sons both grow and change to become more whole. The female characters are also quite endearing—especially Maeve Livingston. The only thing I am fuzzy on are the four old ladies from Mr. Nancy's neighborhood. I don't know if they're supposed to represent specific mythological characters, or just the wise women that work quietly in communities all across the Americas.
Since finishing these books, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Neil's personal weblog. I also wanted to cry when a friend read his short story, "The Price", at the weekly bardic circle I attend. I look forward to further adventures in the rich and magical universe of his work.