Thursday, July 30, 2009

Love (but not really): (500) Days of Summer

M. already covered indie rom com (500) Days of Summer pretty thoroughly as a decent film plagued with mild annoyances and complicated by lackluster final moments.  Generally, I agree, though perhaps more vehemently in either direction. That is to say: I truly enjoyed watching the film, but the more I think about the characters, the more I'm (perhaps irrationally) irritated (for reasons which will be explained).

Chapter 1: The Film
One day after watching the formulaic, charisma-less Hollywood schlock machine The Ugly Truth, (500) Days of Summer was a welcome shift. While its Francophile and 80's-pop allusions were relatively shallow and its magical moments arose out of a forced saccharine injection at the hands of director Marc Webb, the conceits were easy enough to swallow. Webb constructs a fairly solid balance between the temporal shifts pre, during, and post a one-sided relationship between an underachieving greeting card writer(Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who really, is always pretty good) and a girl who seems perfectly content to be an executive assistant, though she's supposedly the ultimate free spirit (Zooey Deschanel). For the most part, (500) is a playful little film that's a welcome change in a season weighed down by heavy actioners and big budget star-studded vehicles. Undoubtedly, it will be a sleeper hit in spite of its shoddy narration and illogical conclusion. I watched it with a smile on my face and was consistently entertained. It's safe to say this is the next (and a peppier) Garden State for teens and twenty somethings with an underdeveloped film education and a penchant for relating to sad British pop lyrics a little too closely.  Basically: if you're 21, High Fidelity is in your All Time Top 5 movies/books, and you've only dipped your toes into French New Wave cinema; you should be prepared to fall madly in love. See this movie before you move back into the dorms next semester, because there's a strong chance that if you go to a liberal arts college, your roommate will likely have the mini-poster over his/her desk.  Which leads us to chapter two.

Chapter 2: Personal Issues
In which I shirk the objective, cross the boundaries of celluloid, climb up on my ivory tower, and tell you I have developed a beef with these fictional characters. That's right. A beef.  A beef which cannot be judged because the real-life versions of the characters themselves, Tom and Summer, would likely take up similar arms if confronted with this display. My complaint is this: I have met these characters before. I know them. I know them well. Neither side is that interesting, neither side that quirky, but both sides will now go forth and spawn less interesting clones that will only make me miserable (yes, this is all about my own personal tolerance, I am THAT selfish).  Basically, my objection to this film is that it promotes the self-invention of a particular brand of hipster scum.  I'm not delusional, I know I qualify for a level of hipsterdom myself, but in the words of Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Katharine Hepburn, I cannot abide this.  Let's break it down.

1. The Toms - In essence, Tom represents the type of guy I tend to go for. This guy is: a little bit awkward, musically preoccupied, wearing band t-shirts covered by corduroy blazers, collecting a whole back catalogue of pop culture references to work with. That said, there are two types of this guy.  Complicated!  The first is the one who is that way because he can't help it.  The second is the one who tries really hard to be that guy. The problem with this Tom is that, in reality, he's not this guy at all.  He's just a guy with mildly indie musical tastes who ascribes too much meaning onto Morrissey's clever wordplay and loves, loves, loves, being in love. Or, perhaps, more accurately, loves being in love with someone who can't love them, and then loves feeling like a brooding romantic. These guys are always charming. It's hard not to like them.  But, my god, they're insufferable. When they're in love they're "invincible", even when you're sitting there counting down the seconds til they crash and burn. When it doesn't work out?  Hiroshima.  Have you ever sat in a dorm room or a shadowy corner at an otherwise crowded party and listened to a dude talk your ear off for two hours about how his feelings are so much deeper than yours and you can't possibly understand the pain he's in? I have. I have indeed. And when i watch this movie I can only see it happening 200 more times in my life, but in the future the conversation beginning with "have you ever seen (500) Days of Summer?"  A million guys who see Joseph Gordon-Levitt being completely adorable (he is, it's true) and decide they must embody Joseph Gordon-Levitt because all the cute, well-dressed indie girls will like them. It's going to happen. Believe you me. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the new John Cusack.  Still, this is nothing compared to the Summers.

2.The Summers - In college, there was a small gaggle of girls with Anthropologie-based wardrobes who cultivated the appearance of being daintily indie and worked hard to make themselves seem interesting. They chased after all the mildly intellectual dudes and wanted, I can venture a guess, to be junior Annie Halls. These girls were actually entirely uninteresting and clueless. They would read one Kundera book, store it prominently on their desk, and be set for life emulating Sabina.  Guys always fell for it. That's what the film would call "The Summer Effect".  A guy like Tom always falls for the girl who (at first glance) seems to share similar interests meshed with a healthy sexual appetite. She's the perfect girl! She listens to ______! Her favorite movie is ________! We're made for each other! It's fate! 

Don't get me wrong, sometimes these girls actually are that cool, but for the most part these girls are like the Summer in the movie. They have the aura of an interesting free spirit while, in reality, they're empty shells and walking contradictions. Summer, the free spirit, is an impeccably dressed, rather reserved secretary. She talks about not believing in love and then turns around and runs off with the next guy who she happens to be madly in love with.  Ringo Starr is her favorite Beatle because he's no one else's (wow, how many people have I met with that underdog complex?).  Note to humanity: that's not quirky, that's trying too hard. Trust me, I know.  I went through my "Summer phase" early (though really, I would prefer to be a Charlie from High Fidelity, thank you very much), around age 16-18.  I wrote stories about not believing in love and made claims that sound ridiculous and was embarrassingly obsessed with The Fountainhead and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (oh yes, it's true). I went home and listened to "How Soon Is Now?" while staring at the ceiling (I do still love The Smiths, which, apparently makes you real special according to this movie) and dreaming about love, fancying myself depressive, and considering things like dream life.  It was very boring. Now, at the ripe old age of 24, I can tell you the girls still in this period are also very boring. The difference being that when they shed their attempts at quirk, they won't do so in the nutty world of academia, they'll just slowly transform into, who knows, soccer moms? Baking domestics?  Just like with the Toms, there will be so many more faux Summers after this. Let's hope they cancel each other out. We will see a spike in album sales for Belle and Sebastian's Boy With the Arab Strap, and these vacuous hipsters will snap up all the decent guys.  True story.

Yes, I know I'm horribly bitter, but really, the movie isn't that bad. I just can't bring myself to like it as much as i wanted to. Possibly because i'm a cynical and wary curmudgeon prone to fits of extreme elitism.  Look at this fucking hipster.  Too damn hipster for the hipster movie.  Whatever.  Sometimes my bias comes through.

Who You Gonna Call...

I'm always amazed by the editing talent you can find on youtube. This clever re-imagining of Ghostbusters starring Dean Martin, Bob Hope, and Jerry Lewis is certainly something I'd love to see!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Squalor: The Ugly Truth

Hollywood's romantic comedies are in a sorry state.  They're about 90% braindead and on the verge of flatlining.  It's puzzling, actually, that so many manage to go so very wrong.  The rom-com is a genre aimed at women; and as they're also frequently written/directed by women, the portrayal of women is, well, embarrassing. Not merely because the results are often vaguely misogynistic, but because they often actually manage to show all women as rather misandrist as well. This is the only real truth to be found in The Ugly Truth, the newest in a sorry run of formulaic films starring one of America's most ho-hum sweethearts: Katherine Heigl.

Heigl plays Abby, a television producer with traits that make her stereotypically "difficult to love". She's supposedly a smart, sassy, control freak who has high ideals and a checklist of the superficial qualities she wants in a man. It's implied that in most areas of her life, she's a successful and confident woman. When it comes to relationships, however, all of her stronger traits obviously make her a desperate harpy (by Hollywood's standards). Never mind that Abby is less a high powered woman than a high powered shell. Also, you should probably ignore all the bits where her lack of social graces and inability to control a situation belie her reputation as domineering and intelligent. She's Hollywood's idea of the corporate Everywoman. No personality other than the one that gets the job done.  Also, apparently, no real job skills outside of being a nag.

What do we know about Abby? We know that she likes cats. Her ideal mate is well read and likes red wine. She's a television producer, and she doesn't really agree with Mike's (Gerard Butler) wacky rating-grab point of view. That's it! Her only friends are her coworkers, she has no family to speak of, no interests outside her job. As for Mike? He's a dude who mines 'the dark side of humanity'. He was hurt in the past. We're supposed to know he's not such a bad guy because he looks out for his preteen nephew. Together, Abby & Mike are shiny plastic people whose lives are a string of awkward moments stolen from the canon of more successful rom coms.  The Ugly Truth plays by the rules. Media jobs? Check. Grand gestures? Check. Yes, you best believe there's even a restaurant orgasm scene a la When Harry Met Sally. Yet, where the battle of the sexes is a theme that runs through the best of them (take, for example, any old school Kate Hepburn flick, or even Jane Austen) here it's less of a battle, more of a passive shrug of the shoulders.
We all know what happens. Don't feign ignorance, it's not becoming. Girl meets boy. Boy is pig. Girl listens to boy anyway. Boy's advice sort of works. Boy and girl get along alright. Everyone friends. Kiss. Oops! Big blowup. Grand gesture. Happily ever after.

I'm sorry, did i ruin it for you? I mean, the poster alone was a spoiler so i figured we were pretty safe...
The worst part of The Ugly Truth (apart from the slapped together plot, lack of characterization, and alarmingly fast leap from mortal enemy to trusted confidante) is that it's a film written by three women. Kirsten Smith, Nicole Eastman, and Karen McCullah Lutz (some of whom have been responsible for smarter, more surprising comedies like Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You) are part of something Variety's Nicola Laporte is calling "The Naughty Girl Movement". The Naughty Girls are a response to the man-children of Judd Apatow brand bromances. If the guys can do raunch, why can't the girls? Well, because in attempting to amp up the raunch in formula comedies like The Ugly Truth, you wind up victimizing the people you're trying to connect with while at the same time reinforcing the myth of the happy ending.  Apatow's bromances are essentially inadvertent romantic comedies. Romantic relationships are not that which defines the character. Instead, relationships are (more often than not) the accidental result of a self-improvement and friendship brought about through personal reflection and trial and error. No one's worried about whether or not the romance is going to work out because that's not the point. The point is that the protagonist has completed something that allows us to walk away from the film knowing they'll generally be alright whether they're in love or not. What Hollywood has stupidly failed to realize is that the general prototype for your standard bromance is one that already exists in a female form.  We don't need a "naughty girl movement", we've already had it.  Sex and the City in its unedited, pre-movie run, was the perfect example of female based candor and crudity done right. That is, of course, until Hollywood sanitized it and released a three hour nightmare of a film. But that's a story for another time....don't get me started.

The point is that when Heigl's character goes for the laughs, it's a mortifying experience. She blindly follows Mike's advice and subjects herself to any number of misguided claims that leave the women in the audience sinking lower into their chairs. While there are a few laugh-worthy moments in the film, most are steeped in frustration. Gerard Butler's character doesn't escape either. He's not a rogueish charmer, but a guy who spits out a mess hundreds of men are going to have to clean up later when their girlfriends want to know if their ponytail makes them look like they're operating heavy machinery. The moral of the story: everyone is painted in a bad light. Supposedly independent women will do the most pathetic things to land a boyfriend, and all the best men hide their true natures under layers and layers of misguided bitter misogyny.  Having a personality is apparently the worst thing that can happen in love.

Have you seen a romantic comedy before? Because if you have, there's absolutely no reason to watch this one.

Archival Footage: Empty Salons...Corridors...Salons...Doors...Doors...Salons

Repeat in French. Fade in and out. Wander, in an extended take, through the building i see in my dreams. Do not make sense. Do not pass go. Do not let the organ stop playing. Look at the people. Look how they freeze. They stand like statues. They cast long shadows, but the hedges cast no shadow. Oh yes, it's profound! It's poetry! It's concentrated beauty and unadulturated nonsense! I have seen it! Watched for 90 minutes that felt like hours with my own two eyes! What is this miraculous slice of celluloid? It is the quintessential art film, the film upon which millions of art students have unknowingly based their own short pieces, the film that spawned millions more who loathe the pretention of foreign art house cinema. It is Last Year at Marienbad. Oh.....empty partitions....Coco Chanel....

What happened Last Year at Marienbad? Well, perhaps we met. Perhaps we didn't. Maybe you asked me to run away with you. Maybe you didn't. Maybe i said i would. Maybe i didn't. Maybe you're lying. Maybe you're not. Maybe i'm playing along. Maybe i'm not. It was certainly lovely, wasn't it? Why yes! Yes, i'm very sure it was! Darling, Last Year, maybe at Marienbad, maybe here or there, maybe Frederiksbad, we saw a statue. We talked about the statue, we played a game with matches or cards or cigarettes and someone always wins but we don't know why. There was a bedroom, but then But wasn't it grand? Well, certainly.
It was hypnotic. You would speak, crowds would freeze. They were empty anyway. We're alone. We are strangers, but we've met before. There could be an answer, but probably not. Do you love me? I think so, yet, actually, i don't know your name. But this luxury, this palace, the dark glamour of this lush hotel, it's something to talk about. We should explore it. Oh...empty salons...corridors....doors.....gilded ceilings....

Can you hear the organ? It's terrible isn't it? So menacing. So ominous. A silent film soundtrack to a scene in which all we do is speak. All we do is recite from memory the poetry of our souls. Can you feel the romance? The attempt to sway the heart with sumptuous eye candy and invented relationships. It's palpable. It's everywhere. Let us visualize our thoughts. There is no time, there is no space, outside (of course) of these glorious walls...these empty salons....
What happened? I'm not sure. I care. Maybe i don't. I know. Maybe i don't. I am here. Maybe, i'm not. Is it cinema? Yes, it is. It is a masterpiece. Maybe it's not. Is it intellectual? Yes. Maybe, no. Is it now? Maybe last year.

Hiroshima, mon amour? No, that was the other year. The year before last. This was at Marienbad....empty salons.....corridors....salons...doors...doors...salons.....weren't they divine?

Yes. A thousand times yes. And yet, no. To the end, Monsieur Resnais.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sadly a Squalor: M and 500 Days of Summer

500 Days of Summer
was supposed to be different; a new, refreshing indie love story, beautifully filmed, well written, and starring some of my favorite actors with an interesting premise. It seemed chock full of great moments, not unlike some of my other favorite movies, a male version of Amelie. Instead, it left me wondering why we were wasting so much time on such an unworthy subject, and sorely disappointed in the obvious attempt at creativity that made the movie fall flat.

The film starts with a hilarious and intriguing author’s note dedicating the film to a girl who the author describes as “bitch.” But within the first few minutes the movie begins on the course that destroys it in the end. When we are first introduced to Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the girl that Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls for, the narrator begins to describe the “Summer Effect” an occurrence that all males are evidently well experienced in. Apparently, the girl at the center of the “Summer Effect,” is abnormally attractive to all men because she has mildly indie rock music tastes that include the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian and is fairly pretty, but dresses slightly more on the quirky side of normal. Most of the girls in the theater around me could be described in the same way. The description hardly felt intriguing and I was left unconvinced of the "specialness" of this particular girl.

From here on, the movie tries to tell us that Summer is a “free” individual. She doesn’t pander to others, but remains entirely true to herself and to her own wishes while Tom is far below her because he can’t entirely let himself go. Even though the film warned us in the beginning that this girl was a “bitch,” the end of the film did not express the anger that would have redeemed it and brought it full circle. We were supposed to love her, just as Tom but it became impossible to do so. As in most romance movies, Tom is eventually destroyed by their relationship, but finds himself and realizes his true potential because he’s experienced the “Summer Effect” and is thus able to become free himself. Suddenly, her harsh behavior is forgiven since she was the impetus for his change. I kept thinking of the Family Guy clip that unfortunately I can't find, where they spoof an episode of Dharma and Greg. Dharma stands on the kitchen table and looks dumbly around while Greg says, "Oh Dharma, you're such a free spirit."

I have a lot of trouble with movies like this, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where quirkiness and freedom become excuses for a character to morph into a person you’d never want to be around in a million years. This is the type of girl (or guy) you might fall in love with at 16 in suburban high school when you’re looking for an escape, only to find that even though she listens to the Smiths and wears Doc Martens, there’s nothing beneath the surface. The film, just like that high school relationship becomes extremely disappointing once you realize this superficiality. It would have been one thing if the film was trying to convey that type of experience, but it was shooting for something entirely different, exploring the meaning of "soul mates," fate, and true love.

The film was well acted. I really felt something between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel who sink perfectly into character and salvage the film despite its flaws, making me remember for a brief moment what it's like when you first fall in love. It also looked hip and pretty, rocked an awesome soundtrack, and included some great moments, and a well written script. But it was further brought down by the odd pacing. The film jumped back and forth between the good and bad days of the relationship, but it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to create a rhythm to that editing or just jump freely in time, making it feel awkward and loose.

I can't say I hated the film, and if you don't mind watching a girl like Summer work her charm and mystical indie hipster-ness, this one's for you. But all things considered, I'd wait for Netflix.

2 out of 5

Read more from M @ Bubbly

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Love: (I Re-watch the) Watchmen.

Fanboys and haters, get down on your knees and shout "save us" so that I may whisper "no."

As I see it, there are two camps of negative criticism on Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore's genre-busting graphic novel Watchmen.  In the first, we have the hardcore super fans. In the second: those new to the story. The former argue the film isn't good enough, the latter that it has no soul. Both, as I see it, are missing the point.
Before you doubt me and launch into you huff and puff treatise on why, oh why Watchmen sucks...let me clarify that yes, Watchmen is one of my favorite novels as well. Yes, I read it long before the film was greenlit. I have the appropriate level of nerd clearance to effectively judge the Watchmen's leap from page to screen. Things were changed, sure. Deal with it.  This is true in every adaptation.  Moore's work is an incredibly complex tale that calls for the on-screen establishing of multiple primary antiheroes, the creation of a very specific universe, large temporal leaps, and its own isolated moral code. Simply put: there's a reason the book was deemed 'unfilmable', but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth trying (even if Moore himself was sitting overseas in his pajamas hexing the production). For such a tremendous risk, Watchmen is undeniably a success. The execution and attention to detail is phenomenal.  Every second looks slick, the editing is a feat in and of itself, the characters drawn (for the most part) close to what i always imagined.  Jackie Earle Hayley is, for all practical purposes, the exact personification of antihero Rorschach.  I buy Matthew Goode's Berlin Bowie-esque interpretation of Ozymandias, who is perhaps the book's vaguest character. I've even found the trace of humanity left in Billy Crudup's monotone-by-necessity voice over for Dr. Manhattan.
This is where debate over the film's soul comes into play. For wary newcomers who found last year's Dark Knight possessed by a bleak worldview, Watchmen sinks further into an uncompromising mire of hopelessness. There's no optimistic folks holding out for a hero here. The lines between the righteous and the villains are blurred, those with the ability to save humanity are those willing to first destroy it. As I always read it, the story's heart is barely beating. It was a cold text that makes (as tends to happen) for a colder film. Snyder and company have artfully maintained the calculating sci-fi/noir tone that may have made critics argue they were being kept at a distance. But, wait, isn't that how it should be? How else would one expect masked, discarded, largely jaded vigilantes with stability issues to sound? Do we want to be drawn in, or should we be comfortable being pushed away? There's no positive outlook here. The soul of both the novel and the film can be found in what it reveals about the darker side of human nature. Happy endings are false. The movie version manages this without the use of the rather ridiculous giant squid, an exclusion that's frequently cited as a cause for uproar though it would have likely destroyed the overall believability of the film. Really, a CGI squid would be the Jar Jar Binks of the comic book world.
What's remarkable about this particular adaptation is everything that was painstakingly included. Watchmen is a rather phenomenal project that was clearly a labor of love on Snyder's part. As a companion piece to the book, the film is a visual marvel that will in time be canonized as a work of art in its own right. There's never been a superhero genre film quite like it, and it will likely be years before there's another.  It's a beautifully rendered film that probes deeper into manic terrain and the psychological issues of those who parade in tights and masks than any before it.  As it stands, Watchmen will likely never accumulate the mass culture resonance of mainstream Marvel and DC comic blockbusters, though it's more deserving of rabid fandom than most.  This is a film that tries so hard it manages to be a success even as it falters, and as such it will have to settle for its comparatively small yet militant army of admirers.  In time, I see many coming around. Author Alan Moore, too, should probably suck it up and watch it, he might find something worthwhile.
If the attention to detail was remarkable in the theatrical version, the DVD/Blu-Ray Director's Cut adds enough luster to truly shine. 24-minutes of footage were added to the already epic length of the film, and while it may take a fan to appreciate them, the scenes appended feel like vital components to the overall package. Conversations have been extended, the story progression flows more cohesively, newcomers can understand the motivation of the characters, and we are given (most notably) the death of Hollis Mason and some (perhaps) unnecessarily brutal violence. This is one of those movies that reveals more with repeat viewings. This second time was a remarkable improvement on an already impressive first, I look forward to the third.
My one complaint? I would have loved to have seen a bit of the soundtrack shaken up in the Director's Cut. Specifically, the use of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" during the sex scene makes it alarmingly laughable. Sort of like, I don't know, last week's episode of "True Blood". There are times when immediately identifiable pop songs color the scenes in ways that detract from the atmosphere. Nena's "99 Luft Balloons", for example, or  Simon & Garfunkle just don't carry the necessary darkness in tone that the out-of-context, temporally incohesive Smashing Pumpkins track featured in the trailer did.  All I can say is that it's really too bad the Pumpkins' "Beginning is the End is the Beginning" was written for the soundtrack to a truly dreadful comic book adaptation: Batman & Robin.  Guys, that's what a bad caped hero movie looks like.  Watchmen?  It isn't one of them.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Love: Moon

Duncan Jones' Moon is a philosophical film at heart, examining a variety of complex subjects and dilemmas with a precise and perfect manner, mirroring the voice of its robot servant Gerty (by Kevin Spacey) and the emptiness of the base itself. This is both the source of its beauty and a few problems.

(Spoiler Alert) Moon tells the story of Sam Bell, a moon miner marooned (say that three times fast) for the past three years. He’s about to return to Earth when things begin to get complicated, especially when he wakes up after an accident to find an exact replica of himself standing over his bed. The old/current Sam eventually discovers that he and the “new” Sam are both clones. They quickly find out that the mining company they work for has been orchestrating this vast deception all along, and that the wife and daughter that they both remember have long since aged. Without any outside communication, they are left with few options for survival if they are designed to do so at all.

Although the beginning of the film gives us the usual stark view of the “astronaut alone,” common in all well-done space movies and in this case especially derivative of the original Solaris, it is in Sam’s discovery that the film really takes flight and becomes something exciting and new. Sam Rockwell gives a stunning performance, playing multiple versions of Sam Bell with great care and delicacy, making each clone new and yet the same; totally different from the often unintentionally comedic performances a role like that can manifest.

But the subtlety of Rockwell’s performance, when combined with the starkness and quiet of the base, can make the film feel mechanical to the unprepared viewer. Rockwell doesn’t force his audience to feel for him. It’s something that occurs only when you take time out from the screen to examine just how lonely, terrifying, and unfair Sam’s experience is. You have to explore Sam’s plight on your own. It is up to you to unravel the multitude of layers and depths swimming beneath the surface of this intricate story or take them at face value, an aspect of the film that can potentially leave many viewers understandably unsatisfied and unmoved.

One of the emotional surprises in the film does come from Sam’s interaction with Gerty the robot, his only companion. Gerty is the best on screen portrayal of a robot “friend” to date. He takes great care of Sam, not because he feels for Sam, but because that is logically the best thing for him to do, and yet he does his job well. He is neither sinister or abnormally compliant, his emoticon “face” lending the film an at times eerie and other times emotive component that feels more realistic and effective then his counterparts like HAL or Robbie the Robot.

I loved the film, was compelled as I watched it, and unable to easily leave it behind once I left the theater. But I also didn’t leave with a strong emotional response, despite my understanding of the broad horrors of that Sam was facing. I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing or not; maybe it depends on which version of me was watching.

Love: 4 out of 5

Read more from M @ Bubbly

Friday, July 17, 2009

Movie Star vs. Actor

I've always been a Craig Ferguson fan, but it wasn't until recently that I discovered he's one of the funniest stand-up comedians ever to grace a stage. I also didn't know the real difference between a "movie star" and an "actor" until I got his perspective.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

M: Half Blood Exposes the Real Beauty of Rowling's Work

The real triumph of the latest Harry Potter film is not that it is a beautiful, remarkable film (which it is), but that it most accurately captures the magic and heart of the novels, a surprise considering that it is based on the least impressive of the books. I am hard-pressed to think of another film adaptation that has ever done so so effectively, especially considering the span and depth of Rowling’s creation.

The film achieves this first on a superficial level, through cinematography, set design, and lighting, filling each and every shot with the lavishness of Rowling’s world. Each shelf, trinket, and exterior is scratched and worn with care, or bright and shining with an inner energy that we can only wonder about as it speeds past in the tracking shot. Each shot is so well composed and evocative, it could be printed and framed; my favorite, a glimpse of Harry underwater as he is struggling against an army of zombies, their bodies creating a beautiful arc as they current flows. Like the books, the attempt feels effortless. I never feel like I’m reading page after page of descriptions, yet I come away totally immersed in a world and picture so clear, I could call it my own. The film also retains a sense of dark gothic fantasy, without feeling overdone or fake, very unlike the experience of watching other visual stunners like Watchmen or 300.

Whether it’s a result of growing up as these characters together or not, the actors are able to keep every interaction entirely unforced, real, and moving. Most critics will entirely disagree with me, but I did not find anyone in the film underrepresented or awkward, unless they were supposed to be. Alan Rickman was perfectly able to show us Snape’s artful duplicity and his distress, and in a big surprise, Tom Felton showed us Draco’s descent into desperation with great skill and sincerity. Michael Gambon again reminded me why he is the only person that could ever really be Dumbledore, switching back and forth between, weariness, eccentricity, and strength. While many critics found Daniel Radcliffe’s performance wooden, I found it engaging, especially as his personality changed drastically due to the consumption of an illegal potion. The producers must be thanking their lucky stars that these children grew into great actors.

Unlike the other Potter films (most of which are some of my favorite movies) this one does not scrap the meaning to cut down on time, it just makes every edit worthwhile. That is the strong point of the film. Each second, scene, and performance is packed full of emotion, each word has meaning.

One of my favorite scenes was the reimagining of the kiss between Harry and Ginny. In it Ginny tells Harry to close his eyes so she can hide his potentially harmful book and kisses him. It is awkward, but then again, it’s supposed to be. They are teenagers, she’s his best friend’s sister, and hey, they don’t know where they stand. But the few lines that Bonnie Wright delivers pack a huge punch. They are seductive in a strangely dark way, and I couldn’t help but read between the lines and think back to how Ginny too had a bad experience with the Dark Lord, with a dark book. While this bond is not really explored in the book with great depth, it’s an important one that the film dealt with beautifully and delicately.

Many fans and critics have also complained that David Yates did the book a disservice by cutting out the funeral of Dumbledore. But while the funeral scene worked on the page, it would come off cumbersome on film. Yates did the right thing by again, streamlining the action, but leaving in the heart. In that scene, we are mainly missing Harry dumping Ginny, telling her that he has to leave, a message that was easily conveyed in his final talk with Ron and Hermoine on the tower instead. When I try to picture Dumbledore’s funeral on film, it comes off as cheesy to me, much like the funeral of Professor X in X3.

The Half Blood Prince is creepy. It is at its heart one of the best horror movies I’ve seen, bringing to the screen all of the best parts of British gothic fantasy. It is haunting and unsettling (I found myself often thinking of my reaction to The Ring, one of my favorite horror films), but it is also hilarious, and touches on many different issues with great depth. It is frightening because underneath the sparkle, the wands, and the good vs. evil, it is really about dealing with horrible things. Who hasn’t had to face the despair of watching someone you trust, someone who is supposed to take care of you, suddenly transfer responsibility to you, as Harry faces in the cave. Who hasn't felt that sort of loneliness? It is this mix of horror and reality that makes the film so perfect, and such a great representation of the original medium.

The film, like the books relies on this ambiguity, and hovers somewhere between the darkness and the light, just as Harry’s world hovers between ours, and the truly fantastical. There is always something lurking in the dark. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you walk right past it. Sometimes you find out its not something all that bad. But it’s in the looking over your shoulder that you find excitement. Voldemort is clearly, 100% satanic evil, but his followers are not. Snape is torn between the two sides of himself and his duties. Draco is torn between his life, and his true nature. He’s not exactly nice, but he’s not willing to kill either. Harry struggles with himself and finds that he is capable of doing things that are not considered out rightly moral. Hermoine struggles with relinquishing her perfectionism; the list goes on, budding sexual tension and puberty only scratching the surface. That is the beauty of Rowling’s work. As Harry grows up, so does her audience, and she is able to capture not only the joys and sorrows of dating as a teen, but also the heartbreaking choices of someone on the brink of adulthood who has faced great trauma. She does not down play that experience, but connects us all to it, young and old. That is the real magic.

5 out of 5 (and not just cause I love Harry Potter)

Read more from M at Bubbly

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Love: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

If you promise not to revoke my membership to the Boy Who Lived fanclub, I'll tell you a secret: I didn't much like the print version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Book six, for me, was a tremendous letdown after the angst-driven character development of the fifth installment. As I recall, I complained to any who would listen that JK Rowling had drawn out a filler piece in a rush to arrive at the final chapter. There were obvious narrative developments, yes, but the other 500-odd pages seemed of little consequence.  The sixth book was, out of all of them, the one that felt the least like a cherished work of children's literature, and the most like a brainless bestselling thriller.  I remember feeling the plot was built on a Dan Brown-esque (but better, of course) harried short mission after mission, a whirling ride on the disapparation express with an uncharacteristically (and suspiciously) frantic Albus Dumbledore. It simply wasn't satisfying.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the film adaptation managed to, with surgical precision, locate the story's heart, pull it from the wreckage, and display it in a gilded frame up on screen. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is nothing short of a stunningly gorgeous film.  It works as both companion piece and  compromise between the visual mastery of Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban (easily the best in the series) and the humor/humanity of the otherwise underwhelming Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix.
While it's hard to argue that, storywise, this is little more than an extended set-up for the rollicking events of Deathly Hallows, the film manages to make the most of very little. Director David Yates (whose most notable contribution stateside is the BBC miniseries State of Play) has transformed the most frustrating piece of the franchise into something comfortable in its skin enough to sit, meditative. This is a different sort of Harry Potter film.  The usual expected sequence of events does not factor in. There's no torture with Dudley, no horribly suspicious faculty, no major battle brewing.  Hell, even Voldemort is kept at bay. Instead, the hoards of supporting characters have been stripped away and we are left to focus on the major players. We are given the time to be reintroduced to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ginny (Bonnie Wright, stepping into the spotlight) not as precocious pre-teens, but as preternaturally wise teenagers. The film allows us to see how they've grown, to recall their humble beginnings and chart their maturing into likable young adults suffering the burden of hormones and heavy loads. They are rendered, particularly through the film's artfully methodical pacing, into realistic people whose relationships are not those of children, but instead the delicate and fragile experiences of innocence lost too early.

Yates and his director of photography have created an aesthetic that fully supports the underlying drama of the film. This is a visually stunning piece of work not so heavily reliant on whimsical digital effects as it is for a more practical magic. Cinematography and set design are key here, and through filters and lighting the filmmakers have achieved a palpable, flickering darkness. You can feel the storm coming. It's in every scene of this fractured snowglobe, no matter how joyous the occasion. There are times, in fact, when the film's influencing pieces seem to be based more in  The Assassination of Jesse James than a work of children's fiction.
Of course, it is not a perfect film.  Daniel Radcliffe,though he has essentially been Harry Potter for most of his youth, seems just a little bit uncomfortable in his role.  Call it post-Equus adapting, perhaps.  While he keeps his character thoroughly in line with his other performances, he seems to be holding back. Same with Bonnie Wright. While teenagers in love are awkward as hell, these two stand so rigidly it's like they're playing statues. But then again, maybe that's just good old English reserve.  It's certainly not enough to obliterate the film's reputation.
Where Radcliffe plays restrained, Emma Watson jumps at the chance to broaden her range a bit, and Rupert Grint (as usual) is a reliable source of comic relief.  Michael Gambon, as second generation Dumbledore, does as much as he can with the mellow, unwashed and slightly dazed Dumbledore without becoming Ian McKellan's Gandalf.  Meanwhile, the award for most nuanced perhaps goes to Alan Rickman as the "is he or isn't he evil" Severus Snape. While rigidly slimy and monotone as always, Rickman manages to work the eyes and face enough to up the depth of his character and give a hint of what's to be revealed in the final film(s). Jim Broadbent's Professor Slughorn too, is a welcome addition; fey and twee with just the slightest hint of menace.  The fact remains that Harry Potter is a who's-who of British actors capabla, even in their weakest moments, of beating any and all Twilight films to a pulp.  Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is a sure thing; a success that improves upon the source material and sparkles while doing so.  It slips easily into place as the second best film adaptation thus far.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Short Film: Treevenge (aka, Why I'm Sticking With Artificial Christmas Trees)

Twitch has become the online home of "Treevenge", a short film which shows us what happens when we mess with Mother Nature. I'll give you a hint, what happens involves a whole lot of disgruntled plant life, and a whole lot of bad. You don't want to be around for that. Brought to you by Jason Eisener, who made the "Hobo with a Shotgun" Grindhouse trailer, "Treevenge" is an impressively awesome display of revenge. I will warn you though, it is neither safe for work, or for the weak of stomach. Blood and gore galore, but all in the name of conservation! YEAH environment.


Squalor: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (In Which Everything Transforms but my Opinion)

The first Transformers film, contrary to box office numbers, was no great work of cinema.  You know this and I know this.  Even in the wide world of action films it was an overblown, over-budget celebration of mediocrity.  In spite of its delusions of grandeur, however, it somehow wormed its way into being an inarguably massive success. So, it was no surprise that the sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, ascended to higher heights upon its release a few weeks back. This was, of course, even with a pitiful critical consensus, a brutal throttling by the fists of Roger Ebert, and negative word of mouth.  It's a trend in movies this year: the worst movies dominate the box office while the decent ones flounder...but maybe that's a subject for another time.
I wasn't planning on watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. At least, not until it was released on Blu-Ray, and even then, I could probably hold off for a solid year. There are good reasons for this, if you happen to be me. The first is that I find Shia LaBeouf to be an irritating, loathsome excuse for a leading man. I've said it before, but whoever decided that he be handed a role in every action movie made in this decade needs to be shot at close range. The boy is a chipmunk-cheeked, grating embodiment of Woody Allen's worst traits.  A tumor on Woody Allen's testicles.  His face registers surprise well, and this is why the world has decided to embrace him as an "actor".  That's what I think of Shia LaBeouf.  End subject. But he's not the only reason I'd considered avoiding Transformers.  The second problem is named Michael Bay. They call him a director, but that's a lie.  Bay can't seem to get a handle on plot. He can start out with a story that seems clear, but then, mid-way through, he decides ten other complicated, half-formed ideas need to be introduced that will double the length of an already too-long movie. He's pulling stuff out of his ass, wiring it with explosives, and serving it to you on a $200 million platter.

Are you willing to partake of Michael Bay's $200 million robotic golden shit? You probably are, and you will probably like it. You won't like it because it's a great cinematic achievement or because you can follow the plot (because you can't, believe me), but because your senses will be so thoroughly assaulted that you will be numb and submissive. You will think, in the dark of the matinee, "yes. me like film. me completely block out real world for long time. Mmm talking robots.  Mmmm things go boom. Neat!  Me like.  Me watch Bad Boys II now."
No, Virginia, you don't "like".  And no,  it wasn't "neat".  You're dizzy and suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and blunt trauma amnesia. You've been so thoroughly lulled by shifting heaps of CGI scrap metal that you've forgotten this was the most boring display of frenetic excitement you've ever seen. You've forgotten the illogical cuts from robot/boy conversation to Megan Fox stripping down behind the garage. You aren't sure which Decepticon was which. Perhaps they're all the same one. Why do we have to merge the spark with the matrix? Why do we need the Fallen if we can already cause so much damage? If the Allspark gives Transformer life, and something already was a Transformer, can a Transformer be stuck in its transportive disguise and revived by this piece of the Cube? Is the US Army the only army in the world capable of dealing with Transformers? If an Autobot falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?
I feel like i'm usually pretty good at parsing through movies.  I was that annoying jerk kid who explained Donnie Darko to everyone in high school and I once furiously typed up my interpretation of Inland Empire after a late night show.  Apparently, Richard Kelly and David Lynch are no match for the webs of deep mind fuckery woven by Michael Bay, because I'll be the first to admit that I have almost no idea why most of the action in the last 45 minutes was happening.  Repeat: no idea. Nary a clue outside of Autobots and Decepticons fight because it's their job as mortal enemies.  I don't really feel qualified to discuss this movie. So, let's just say this isn't a review and you can take that how you will.  If you want the opinion of an expert, i suggest you ask the twelve year old boy who's completed the internet research and bought the collectibles. That kid knows. He knows what Michael Bay was shooting for and he would like more cleavage shots, please.
Me? I have a theory. My theory is that roughly 10 years after the fact, Bay finally got around to watching The Matrix. Then he also saw Stargate. It was a pretty big year for Michael Bay. Then Michael Bay, sly trickster that he is, was like, "if I mix elements from these into a movie with giant robots, no one will know! Cue evil laughter. That's my theory. So if I can just connect ancient aliens being responsible for the pyramids with having a matrix that needs to be merged with a spark, I'll be pretty close to figuring out what happened. The problem is, unlike Sam Witwicky and Daniel Jackson, I'm not that interested in deciphering hieroglyphs.
The thought I'll leave you with is this: unless you're a special effects junkie, the place for this movie to be consumed is at a drive-in or an empty showing. Conversation, especially if it veers towards the MST3K variety, is pretty important if you want to avoid being sucked into the mindless vacuum of Michael Bay's imagination.  No one wants Stockholm Syndrome. You'll especially need your own rapier wit when confronted with the blatant racism of the gremlin-faced ghetto bots (I wish I were joking).  All that aside, Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are still awesome. They are the bright spots of the film, and if a third movie is made (as it undoubtedly will be) I would like to see them band together to work at annihilating the human race.  Ahem.  It's also worth mentioning that the CGI effects have improved as well, and many of the battle sequences move at a slightly slower pace that allows the viewer to distinguish between Prime and Megatron with more ease than the final showdown in the original. The last nice thing i can say? Shia LaBeouf is just a little more fun when he's having a mental breakdown.
Be forewarned, if you're one of the millions who thinks they hate Megan Fox, just wait until you meet Isabel Lucas.

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