Thursday, January 31, 2008

Storywh0re's Oscar Best Pictuer Series - Juno

This week, I began my marathon of Oscar's Best Picture nominees with Juno.

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

Oscars and rememberance

This year's Oscar nominees were announed this morning. I am embarassed to admit that I haven't seen any of them; but I intend to do so before the telecast on Februaryh 24th.

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

The Blair Kaiju Project

I just saw Cloverfield.

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

You know...for kids!

The co-inventor of the frisbee and hula hoop has passed away.

May he rest in peace. I couldn't help but think about The Hudsucker Proxy .

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Adventures in the Gaiman-verse

Recently, I read two novels by revered fantasy/horror writer Neil Gaiman. I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on them.

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.

Anansi Boys

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.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Well, this was supposed to be a review of August Rush, but that seems to have left the theaters. (You'll definitely read about it once it's out on DVD!) Instead, I elected to see and write about Sweeney Todd.

This is a story that has popped up for me more than once. I remember reading the back of a VHS of the 1936 movie as a child, and being disturbed by it. Perhaps this is why, when playing “barbershop”, my best friend and I unceremoniously threw our “patrons” (stuffed animals) behind the couch after they were done. (Her mother explained that this was no way to treat paying customers.) I think my first exposure to the Stephen Sondheim score was a hilarious scene from Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl. (Sadly this song is different in the movie.) Most recently, I went through a “Sweeney Todd” vignette at the London of the scarier and more effective parts of the Dungeon.

Let's start with the obvious: Johnny Depp singing! He does a good job; his singing voice sounds, strangely, exactly like you'd expect it to. I tend to agree with the reviews which have said that Helena Bonham-Carter's voice is a bit on the fragile side.

Somehow, both Depp and Bonham-Carter manage to create very sympathetic characters out of their brutal anti-heroes. You feel sorry for Todd, who has suffered a lot through not fault of his own; and Ms. Lovett's very typical domestic aspirations are both incongruous and endearing. About the time that we actually see how Todd's victims are disposed of, it occurred to me that she was the one who was really hard-core...after all, Sweeney only cut people's throats! To me, however, the most disturbing story-arc involved Alan Rickman's character, and his cross-generational amorous exploits.

There are two twists at the that you see coming a mile away, and the other one, not so much. There is a happy ending for some characters, but we don't get to see it. Instead, the camera fades out on the sad tableau of characters who seem to have been doomed before the movie started. It kind of makes you wonder what the point was.

Perhaps the point is another vehicle for Tim Burton's vision, the look and sound of his movies...ranging from the surreal to the gritty, but consistently both beautiful and dark. It occurred to me at one point that Todd's razor set was the only thing in the entire movie that was in good condition...including the characters.

Sometimes you think about the strangest things while watching movies. The friend who went with me, a historical reconstructionist, was impressed by the relative accuracy of the costumes. I couldn't help thinking how difficult it would be to pull off a such a succession of murders without running water. I am also grateful for improvements in the justice system and social safety net since the Victorian Era, both in England and the US. (Let's be mindful not to lose those gains, because they are eroding.)

I would say that this movie makes a good holiday diversion. If you can't handle movie violence at all, you obviously don't want to see it; but if you can handle some, as long as it's not gratuitous, you should be okay with Sweeney Todd. It doesn't register nearly as high as it could on the gross-out scale, either.

I would be interested to see this musical with all of the songs that were cut for the film, and with singers who could really blow it out of the water. Most of all, though, Sweeney Todd made me wish that they would make a screen version of the musical Jeckyll and Hyde. Perhaps Johnny Depp or Gerard Butler could play the leads...or maybe Australian singer Anthony Warlow, who sang the roles for an official recording. Any other suggestions?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Christmas Movies

It's a bright, shiny New Year's Day, and I wrote this sitting sitting in a hip little local cafe, working on my first blog post. This may seem a little belated, but I thought I'd start by discussing holiday movies...starting by taking aim at a sacred cow. Spoiler warnings for all of these, BTW.

It's A Wonderful Life
For a long time when I was younger, I loved this movie. I hate it now. It pains me to say that, because I still really like Jimmy Stewart; but I became done with this movie in the course of one Christmas.

It may have been the last Christmas my grandfather was alive. I loved him, and in some ways, I'm more like him than any of my other grandparents; but unlike me, he was a lifelong alcoholic. He got blood poisoning shortly after my parents got married, and was dependent on them pretty much the whole time I knew them. Rather than take care of him on her own terms and balance his needs with hers, my mother instead fell into a codependent pattern, running herself ragged to preserve the illusion of her father's independence.

I remember sitting with the three of them that year, watching IAWL on my granddad's tiny TV, seeing George Bailey's attempts to see the world get thwarted again and again. His frustration was painful to me. It occurred to me how much it would suck if the same essential thing happened to my parents. What if they spent their whole lives within two hours of their hometown, because of my grandfather? What if death or illness prevented them from ever doing all the traveling they wanted to do, or ever truly having an empty nest? This was an especially poignant possibility since my sister and I often worried about the toll that stress was taking on them both.

In the light these realities, Frank Capra's message of self-sacrifice over self-exploration, of trading the whole world for small town America, seemed like so much garbage.

Fortunately, since my grandfather's death, my parents' health has been very good. They have pursued their interests, enjoyed being grandparents to my niece, and traveled extensively, including Xtapa, Niagra Falls, Italy and the American Southwest. I still haven't been able to go back to It's a Wonderful Life.

Don't get me wrong; I understand what Capra was trying to say. I like the idea that even the most ordinary life has significance, and that you never know all of the impact you have on others. I just still prefer to take a more balanced view. I chose to believe that the missing money turned back up, and that the townsfolk used the money they had collected to put George and his family on a plane.

Whew! Now that that's over, I'd like to write about my favorite Christmas movies.

While You Were Sleeping
I didn't watch this one this year, but I probably have most of the dialog memorized. What can I say? My middle-school crush on Bill Pullman has faded considerably, but I still think he's hot. He and Sandra Bullock make a great couple, and the bubbly warmth of the family in the movie is irresistible. I love fact that Lucy eventually falls for the less ostensibly “glamorous” brother, not the one that never noticed her. Maybe this is the anti-It's-A-Wonderful-Life: it acknowledges the joy of a loving family, but also the importance of pursuing your dreams. I know that a lot of the conventions in this one have been seen 1,000 times since, but to me, this is still a perfect romantic Christmas comedy.

The Family Stone
I think I would have to be in a certain mood to watch this one, an that mood did not come around this year. Nevertheless, I think it's one of the best Christmas movies to be made recently. I like the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker's character, while obviously quite different from the family she's supposed to join, is humanized, rather than demonized, in the end. There is one dramatic scene that addresses the sexuality of older people, and of cancer survivors, with more courage than I have seen in a long time. The movie's only flaws are an somewhat implausible romantic switch-up toward the end, and the way it skirts the edge of maudlin. On the whole, however, I think it portrays its characters and the holiday sympathetically and realistically at the same time. It also reminds you to appreciate the people you love.

Love, Actually
This Christmas was the first time that I've seen this movie the whole way through. It has an all-star cast, and moments that make you laugh, cry, or cheer. It was refreshing to me that it was set in England, although his might not mean as much to others. I liked the way that the storylines overlapped. I appreciated the fact that it dealt with all sorts of relationships, not just romantic ones. Enough connections were made to give you the warm fuzzies, but enough problems remained unsolved for it to be believable. My only warning would be that some of the laughs—especially those provided by Bill Nighy—are on the bawdy side. My favorite story arcs were the one with Liam Neeson, who broke my heart, and Hugh Grant, who brought a touch of Bridget Jones to the role of Prime Minister.