Monday, March 29, 2010

Love: How to Train Your Dragon

I'll admit it, when it comes to animated features, I tend to pre-judge a little bit.  A decade or so of experience and observation based research has dictated that Pixar is the go to production company for your computer generated animation and Dreamworks is their competition only in dollar signs, not in quality.  The diffenece, in my eyes, is that Disney/Pixar generally makes stories built to last and targeted at anyone with a pulse.  They're emotionally complex, easily relatable, and don't go for the cheap laughs.  Dreamworks, on the other hand, tends to go exclusively for the cheap laughs.  In the past, films dropped on the public from Dreamworks animation have played out essentially as goofy concept comedies with big name stars in the voice roles and layers or layers of pop cultural refences thrown in as a "hey, you" for the adults.  They're bright, poppy, and amusing, but don't resonate.  Few outside the K thru 8 set will tell you that Bee Movie or Over the Hedge is a classic, and the next generation won't even get the majority of the jokes in Shrek 2
Of course, there's a market for what Dreamworks has typically produced, albeit a temporary one. This is part of the Hollywood pecking order, and they're filling in the brainless fun bracket while Pixar busies itself winning Academy Awards. Yet, it seems Dreamworks has been trying. They're putting in the effort. The vibrant Kung Fu Panda was, animation wise, a step in the right direction. Last year, while they struck out with the abyssmally juvenile Madagascar 2, they also made the surprisingly charming Monsters vs. Aliens. While these were improvements, they were not triumphs. Which is why it is perhaps somewhat miraculous that their latest effort, the goofily (poorly) titled How to Train Your Dragon is just maybe the best film the company has ever released.  For once, Dreamworks has made a movie for kids where the battles don't recall The Matrix and the jokes aren't hand me downs from some poor entertainment television attempt at satire. That's worthy of applause all on its own, yet past that Dragons is a legitimately entertaining tale filled with enough action and drama to captivate kids and adults alike.
Based on a book by Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon follows Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel), a young Viking who isn't living up to his father's expectations.  He's scrawny and clumsy, causing accidents and living very much in his own head.  The problem is twofold: 1. Hiccup's dad is tribe leader Stoik (Gerard Butler) and 2.the village of Berk has a bit of a dragon infestation, being uncoordinated is a serious health hazard.  As can be expected, one thing leads to another and Hiccup winds up learning far more about the reptilian pests than any Viking before him.  He bonds with the beasts.  He is the dragon whisperer.  Yet, dragons are the enemies of his race, and this sort of behavior is frowned upon in the extreme.  The themes are simple and universal.  The story transcends its simplistic fantasy construct to become a tale of intergenerational understanding and openmindedness.  It's about moving forward, being different, and having that be ok.  It's a simple message, one that you've seen repeated a million times in children's cinema, but this one.....this one has dragons.    
There can be little doubt that the dragons will be the main attraction for most theatergoers.  Everybody loves a creature with character, and the dragons have that in abundance.  The writing/directing team behind How to Train Your Dragon was previously responsible for Disney's minor gem Lilo & Stitch, and that past is evident in Toothless, the quirky, cat-eyed jet black beast young Hiccup befriends. Toothless will undoubtedly, for many people, become the film's selling point.  You'll walk out of the theater wanting one just like him.  That's just the kind of creature he is.  But, apart from that, the scenes between Toothless and Hiccup are also where the film truly finds its footing.  Using a lack of dialogue to positive effect, Hiccup's character gains quite a bit of depth during the scenes for which the film's title is most applicable.  Their interaction, far outside of the raucous Viking village displays of Hiccup's inate awkwardness, uses simple methods to establish a sincerity that keeps the viewer emotionally invested.  This is a quality Dreamworks has long failed to understand, often opting to keep their characters mouthy or precocious instead of allowing them to be perceived as potentially quite fragile.
How to Train Your Dragon represents a milestone for Dreamworks.  It's the closest they've ever come to a Pixar film, yet remains clever in its own right.  While the premise has a storybook simplicity, it offers enough action, heart, and organic feeling 3D aerial sequences to make it a scaled back triumph and bring a smile to even the most cynical amongst us. Suprisingly delightful, Dragons offers up a maturity in animation style and substance that's as exciting as it is just plain fun. 

Friday, March 26, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Teaser is Finally Here!

The hugely anticipated trailer for Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has finally surfaced online for geeks and hipsters alike to dissect at length.  The film has (as previously mentioned) been very well received at test screenings, with folks like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith talking it up as one of the most entertaining action comedies they've seen in a long time.  It's that kind of buzz that pushes Scott Pilgrim to George Lucas levels of excitement in the comic con set.  Wright's controversial casting of mumblecore Michael Cera as the titular lead was a little jarring, but I'd say these cursory glances are definitely pointing towards the right direction, and making good use of the boy otherwise known as George Michael's lightsaber skills.  Beyond that, Wright seems to have made a colorful, exciting mash-up of comic book and videogame stylistic sensibilities that could honestly be carried out to perfection in a way we haven't quite seen before. 

Ramona's Seven Evil Exes are also an impressive line-up, so far looking pretty dead-on.  Chris Evans might put in a performance that actually makes me and the rest of the planet like him as douchebag Lucas Lee.  I'd argue a scene stealing performance from him here might be quite crucial to the success of his new role as Captain America (missed that? Oh, it's happening).  Ex-Superman Brandon Routh is also onboard as a Vegan psychic, Mae Whitman (who played Anne on Arrested Development!!) is Ramona's lesbian fling, and one of my fake boyfriends, Jason Schwartzman is head hipster Gideon Graves.  Hurrah!  What's more? The film, (this means the music by fictional band Sex Bob-Omb) is being scored by Beck and two of the original songs are previewed in the teaser.  How excited are we?  Tremendously. It's palpable.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #6: National Lampoon's Vacation

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a near weekly feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.
It's that time of the year.  Bipolar (I mean positively manic) Midwestern weather, Cadbury eggs, gefilte fish, and that glorious gap in the midst of the shit storm: spring break.  Ah yes, spring break.  MTV changes its programming (now featuring more Situations), millions of high school and college kids embark on coming of age adventures of mythic, embarrassing proportions.  And I...well, I don't do anything but regroup.  In college, the week off was my chance to try to catch up and get ahead of the game.  In graduate school, it's the same.  So I disappear, I do a lot of writing, I calm my frazzled nerves with hours spent in partial hibernation or in darkened rooms with glowing screens. My vacation isn't really even a staycation, it's just a necessary preservation of sanity.  Which, of course, is a lot better than going on any vacation with the family Griswold.  

If you're a regular reader of Love & Squalor, you may have read my list of Christmas films and noted that Christmas Vacation was near the top.  You'd follow that logic through and say, alright, how has someone who loves that hot mess avoided the original Vacation?  Then you'd call me a liar, glove slap me and challenge me to a duel.  At this point I'd be forced to confess that yes, I'm a bit of a liar.  I've seen National Lampoon's Vacation before this week: on TV. Edited. With commercials. When I was about 10. Probably missing the first half hour.  So, break out your weapon of choice if you must, but I'm going to stand by that not counting.  It's the same thing as me saying I saw Friday the 13th Pt. II when I was 5 when in reality I saw the first few minutes on a family friend's premium cable after the already disturbing Return to Oz, then slipped into a nerve induced tizzy.  Sometimes when you're five, sinister music is all it takes to know you've gone somewhere you don't belong. Where was I? Griswolds. You don't want to travel with that family.  I mean, most of them are alright.  You can't fault Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall), Audrey (Dana Barron), or Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) for the missteps and small accidents that occur on the road...but you can't take Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) anywhere.

I'm pretty sure that Clark and Chevy Chase are the same person. I also have this theory about TracyMorgan and Tracy Jordan. Jordan and Clark are just slightly exaggerated versions of Morgan and Chase. Don't pretend they're not. It's not something you can lie about. Besides, you're a terrible liar and we all know Chevy Chase is a balloon filled with schemes and half-baked ideas.  I mean, I have no evidence, but I read Live From New York and I know what his former SNL cast mates think of him.  With my slim knowledge and the ability to make an ass out of u and me, we can safely conclude that if a busty blonde pulls up next to his family Maserati (or whatever it is the real Chevy Chase drives), Chevy Chase (especially 80's model Chevy Chase) will likely give her the eye and run the car off the road careening towards the Grand Canyon. Truth.  Another way Chevy Chase is like Tracy Morgan?  They both work opposite Jane Krakowski, are prominently featured on NBC Thursday night television.  Maybe we can go one step further and say that Tracy Morgan is Chevy Chase, or vice versa.  Maybe at night they smoke cigars on a veranda and consider the piles of wealth they'll make off DVD sales and the next step of their EGOT plan.  

Speaking of Jane Krakowski, I always want to call her Elaine Vassel.  Then I have to remind myself that she's not Elaine, that was just her character on Ally McBeal.  Elaine invented the facebra and accused people of being snappish. Jane Krakowski did a lot of Broadway.  Clearly, different people.  In Vacation, she shows up as Cousin Vicki and utters the line that made me really distracted.  See, Cousin Vicki is a little bit backwoods.  She's Britney Spears in a trailer on a farm with a bag of weed. Sometimes she makes out with her dad.  Say what now?  Gross. Speaking as someone long familiar with Cousin Eddie as the sort of likable mooch loser at Christmas Vacation, I got the heeby jeebies, and sat with a grimace on my face for the next couple scenes.  Really Cousin Eddie, for shame. You already play into stereotypes and cliches so very much...

That was a tangent.  Then again, this whole thing is a tangent.  The whole movie, really, is a tangent.  Vacation is a comedy about a road trip to a Disney-esque amusement park centered around Walley the cartoon moose.  Clark's been planning it diligently and the road trip that will bond them as a family is set to go off without a hitch.  As is the case with road trip films, though, Murphy's Law is in full effect.  As soon as the Griswold's get on the road anything that can go wrong does.  Cash depletion, car trouble, detours, unexpected deaths; the Griswold family fun time makes the family in Little Miss Sunshine look well adjusted.  The difference, of course, is that the Griswolds never get down and out about it.  They're peppy and optimistic, Clark in particular.  He's so intent on making the most of his two-week vacation that nothing, absolutely nothing will stop him.  He'll do whatever it takes to make sure his family gets what they came for.  Even if that means waving a gun around to get a ride on a rollercoaster.

There are ways in which we all know this feeling, have all been on this vacation.  Who doesn't have a memory of bickering in a hotel room before getting back in the car with a parent saying "well, we're going, and you're going to like it, goddamnit"?  Nobody. That's who.  Nobody.  Even if you never went anywhere as a child, you experienced this very moment.  That's what Vacation is.  It's a tale of obsession.  Of madness. Of what happens when having a good time becomes so important that you don't even realize that you're not having a good time at all.  Vacation is a solid comedy that makes the most of its cast. It's easy to overlook the slapstick in favor of the universality of its satirical moments and the exaggerated familiarity of its plot.  Yet, it makes me never want to go on a road trip again.  Thus, on spring break, as I sit at my desk and regroup, I'm on more of a vacation than the Griswolds.  This is a good thing.    

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Love: She's Out of My League

In the new world of comedy Judd Apatow reigns supreme with often mean spirited bromance, while Queen Nancy Meyers plays blithering middle-aged house with equally unattractive (personality wise) cohorts. As a result, I wasn't expecting anything much from She's Out of My League. I didn't even know that I was expecting something to be different. Trained by my love of Apatow's films like Superbad and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I wasn't expecting the sweetness and sincerity that once made romcoms watchable and fun on a date night, didn't even know that existed anymore. But She's Out of My League is out of the league of nearly every romcom released in the last ten years and exactly what a date movie should be: fun, hilarious, sincere, sweet, and just generally well done.

Kirk Kettner (Jay Baruchel) is a "loser" with a horrible family and ex-girlfriend that take any and all opportunities to beat the TSA airport employee into the ground. He's skinny and awkward, nearly drowning in his uniform, beaten down into a sniveling existence yet somehow retaining his heart of gold and humor. When a stunningly attractive, "hard ten" blonde (Alice Eve) loses her phone in airport security and develops a crush on Kirk despite his disbelief, things get out of hand and dramedy ensues.

I think we've all heard this scenario before, but unlike the unlikely circumstances in Knocked Up, Molly and Kirk have real chemistry, neither burdened with the other's presence (yeah, I get it, that's part of Knocked Up's premise, but bear with me). There's something genuine going on that's fun, not cringe worthy to watch. While Apatow often luxuriates in displaying the awfulness of many of his leads (Kathrine Heigel's character was an stereotypical uptight bitch unable to let go of her career, while Seth Rogan's loser among many of the men in his films, was borderline repulsive), the writers and director of She's Out of My League take the time to build up strong characters that while playing with stereotypes, never become them. Molly is beautiful, but her looks never come off as "Hollywood," concerned about her career but always down to earth and understanding. Kirk is a genuinely grown-up, mature, good guy, just a little lost a result of an entirely unsupportive family.

The "friend" situation is equally awesome. Kirk's friend are a light-hearted, lovely mix of a heavier, happily married sweetheart with a penchant for comparing every romantic situation to a Disney movie, a fast talking, annoying insecure laden friend to the end, and the "hot" one, experienced in among other things, proper grooming habits. Maybe I'm easy to please, but when Molly's hard assed (but again, not disrespectfully so) friend Patty says to Kirk's friend Stainer, (who the filmmakers are setting up as the inevitable friends that hate each other but fall in love) that she "hopes he didn't take her annoyed angry words as a veiled attempt at love because she actually hates him," and he says, "god no," it's totally, refreshingly awesome.

Yes, there is plenty of the sweet cliched stuff that makes a movie a romantic comedy here, but between the genuine, relatable laughs perfectly timed by the darling cast, you won't even notice.

Love: The Runaways

The master list of my guilty pleasure films is heavily populated with movies that rock.  Give me a girl group, a pack of boys in platforms, a glitter sheen and some electric guitars and chances are I'll be willing to give the movie at least a couple shots.  I love the energy of the scene.  The casual corruption, the clothes, the coon eyed make-up and the soundtrack it produces.  I've watched Todd Haynes's flawed glam epic Velvet Goldmine at least a half dozen times, hold pop tart tales like camp fiasco Spice World and Josie and the Pussycats dear, and have a soft spot for Russ Meyer's slasher soft-core Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

I won't be the first person to point out how similar the meteoric rise and fall of The Runaways was to Beyond the Valley's girl band The Carrie Nations.  That film, a piece of fiction (from the mind of Roger Ebert, no less), seemed to partially predict the narrative arc of the teenage superstars five years prior to the band's birth. Of course, it's just a matter of rock formula. Everyone loves to watch the making of the band, the success of the band, and the downfall of the band.  It's pure music industry fable; do everything right until your get everything wrong.  As a film, The Runaways doesn't necessarily try anything new.  What it does do, however, is take enough chances with its cast and get enough pieces right to create something that captures the essence of rock's filthy downside while simultaneously making something compulsively watchable.
The real life Runaways were the result of a chance pairing of drummer Sandy West with amateur guitarist Joan Jett. Connected by music producer (and club presence) Kim Fowley, when they returned to him with material, he assembled other members and became the group's enigmatic svengali; encouraging them to shift from ambitious, edgy teens into out-and-out sexually aggressive members of rock's boy's club.  With feathered-blonde, Bowie-obsessed 15-year old Cherie Currie plopped into the role of lead singer, the Runaways were young, but they had genuine rock star swagger.  Long before Madonna, before Britney or Christina; Cherie, Joan, Lita, Sandy, and Jackie vamped and tramped and reminded the world that they could, in fact, jump out of adolescence fully formed and dangerous.
Director Floria Sigismondi has cast her junior deviants perfectly.  Kristen Stewart sheds the trappings of Twilight's Bella and embraces the gritty, bad ass persona of Joan Jett.  Dakota Fanning, too, is reborn as Cherie Currie.  Say goodbye to the days of her as precocious child actress.  The Runaways, for Fanning especially, is her Jodie Foster moment.  As a film, it might not be Taxi Driver, but it's at least Foxes (which, appropriately, the real life Cherie Currie actually starred in).  All the girls hold their own, and you can believe them as these women. Here in lies what is, perhaps, the film's biggest success.  That while we can say yes, they were just teenagers.  Yes, these were kids dealing with family issues and slipping into lives of addiction and promiscuity.  Yes, it would be easy to name call and cite the true life and fictitious forms as exploitive... the film doesn't judge.  The camera looks on impartially and allows its characters, these young women, to speak on their own terms.  What they have to say may be uncomfortable for some audiences, but it's undeniably their own.  Even as they pop uppers and downers, we know that when it comes to their personas, they were/are completely in control of their aggressions.  This is a teenage wasteland.  This is what it looks like: tattoos, Farrah Fawcett hair, dog collars and stage lingerie.  It's every parent's nightmare and every teenager's secret dream.

Sigismondi gets that.  Even as the Runaways indulge in questionable behavior and slip into the cliche, shock value moments of lesbianism (unfortunately, the soundtrack choice for the Stewart/Fanning moment of passion is "I Wanna Be Your Dog", a favorite song I will not work hard to dissociate from this cheesy cinematic instance),  the film captures something really quite interesting.  It's perspective is slanted in a way similar to the dreamlike moments of Almost Famous, but without the moral imposition.  Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) has his motives.  He stamps these girls as jailbait and trains them to become men, to treat music like a weapon, and to tease.  He's a dark figure, but strangely ambiguous, reminding them as he pesters that this "is not about women's lib" but instead about "women's libido."  I found it hard not to like these girls, even as they made decisions that would be stupid in almost any context.
Of course, the film itself is mildly problematic.  While the casting is perfect and Stewart and Fanning easily keep their cool even in the face of seasoned, wild-eyed Michael Shannon, the story is a little fragmented and scattered.  It can't seem to decide where its focus lies.  Is it on the band as a whole?  Certainly not. Lita Ford, surprisingly, gets almost no play here (perhaps this was her own decision?).  Is it on Joan Jett (who produced the film)?  Yes, a little bit, though her character background is not as established as one might think.  Is it on Cherie Currie (whose book, Neon Angel served as the film's basis)?  More so.  We see the most of Currie's character and the family she comes from.  Yet, there are so many fits and starts to the film that it's hard not to feel crucial development has been excluded.  We, the able minded filmgoers, are made to fill in the gaps ourselves.  We know, from repeat rock narratives, that they'll wind up on drugs.  When the drugs appear, we expect it.  When it gets worse, we knew it would.  The Runaways doesn't take the time to dramatize the in-between.  It just wants to stick to burning out beautifully.  It skims the surface of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, doesn't become a biopic, but instead a celluloid portrait that takes enough raunchy risks to feel true, but isn't as down and dirty as it could/should be.  Still, it's colorful and reckless.  Sometimes (and these times are few), a thin plot can be made up for with a consuming energy.  Yes, I would have preferred a more in-depth story with heavier dialogue, but I absolutely believed this version, too, and I enjoyed spending time in this sun-baked netherworld.    
The real-life Runaways (from left: Lita, Joan, Jackie, Sandy, Cherie) 

Monday, March 15, 2010

Under 250: 2012

If you watch 2012 expecting anything other than destruction, destruction, and more destruction, than you're either a very naive human being or a staunch optimist without much of a frame of reference for the Hollywood disaster picture.  Director Roland Emmerich is no stranger to apocalyptic chaos.  He's pulled out all the explosive stops for everything from Independence Day to The Day After Tomorrow to the 1998 remake of Godzilla. In his latest end of the world blockbuster, however, he constructs an inescapable event.  There are no aliens to fight off, no climate change that could have been prevented. No, instead there's just planetary alignment and the slow overheating of the Earth's core.  All the necessary pieces are there: a sympathetic president (Danny Glover), a slip of a love story, the divorced and slighted father (John Cusack) trying to regroup his fractured family as Los Angeles cracks open and Yellowstone becomes the "world's largest active volcano".  Here's what you need to know about 2012, even though you already know it: it's a series of unlikely escapes and perfect, some might say coincidental, timing.  Family arrives, things go to hell, family escapes just in time.  Family arrives, things go to hell, they narrowly make it.  Family arrives, things get real, etc. It's frustrating, implausible, absurd, repetitive and overblown in its measures. As a  clever human being, you know whether or not you want to see 2012, and you're not going to let me tell you otherwise.  It is a spectacle, to be sure, but with the light show comes a fair bit of green screen.  Don't be surprised if you find yourself checking the time.

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #5: Braveheart

Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a near weekly feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.
When I started with this feature, one of the films I immediately had in mind was Braveheart.  Here was my excuse to finally force myself to watch the three hour Best Picture winner without diverting my attention or taking up some menial task if I happened to get a little bored.  I would have to watch it.  Have to.  It would be like taking my cinematic medicine.  Yet, I can't pretend I didn't do a bit of organizing during Braveheart.  I did.  Not because it's particularly boring or bad, no, it's a perfectly decent epic with its fair share of brutality. It's just...that drawer full of papers had hit capacity. 

Admittedly, part of me really wanted to be a contrary little person and search for a reason not to like it.  It's just, eh.  Braveheart, you know?  Epic, been there done that jazz.  I was sort of turned around.  It's a good film.  I can't say I loved it, but it's perfectly decent.  Then I started to have a problem, after a certain point, somewhere between the unjust slaying of William Wallace's beloved and his sentencing by King Edward I and the Brits, I realized that Braveheart wasn't going to be any fun to write about.  I can't gush.  What's more?  There's just nothing much to poke and prod at.  No massive criticisms, nothing to repeat about how it's the prototypical Oscar selection, no snarky remarks to make about it being the only battle-centric film I can recall in which one side commences taunting the other (armed with many a sharp arrow) with a display of the fleshy property under their kilts (oh those Scots).  No.  There's none of that.  The only thing I can talk about is how I had a small epiphany while watching Braveheart; I realized that I found myself dwelling on the omnipresence of director/star Mel Gibson and trying, really trying, to displace the smug dislike I was projecting in the direction of the television.

Yeah, Mel Gibson.  I mean, geez did that guy screw it up or what?  Remember when people liked him?  Like, actually liked him as a crazy pseudo-Aussie nice guy who made fun buddy cop movies and harmless romantic comedies?  I can't really.  Apparently it was in 1995, but I'm pretty sure it continued at least through the release of What Women Want (say what you will, but the cheap scene of him sampling lady products in his bachelor pad was a fun time).  That Mel Gibson, the Mel Gibson of the 90's, feels like a different animal.  That Mel Gibson became endangered during the production of The Passion of the Christ, then extinct with his grand DUI incident; let's all recall "Fucking Jews...Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" [source].  Basically, it would be a tough sell these days to reconvince me that Mel Gibson is just a kooky bloke who gets caught up in the fervor of filmmaking.  We have to call an asshole an asshole.  The Gibson who made Braveheart and traveled beyond Thunderdome is gone, only the zealot Gibson is left.
This may change with The Beaver, in which Jodie Foster directs Gibson as a man who communicates via a beaver puppet.  If there was ever a way to try to prove that you're not entirely serious business, it might be that.  Between now and then, though, Gibson is a public personality too complicated for me to try and understand.  He likes falling into the middle-aged actor trap of making movies where he has to save his kids from certain doom.  He likes to crack wise with Danny Glover.  He likes to flog Jesus Christ and up the whole "he died for your sins" thing.  He likes to drink to excess and then climb into his car to ask police officers about their religious and ethnic heritage.  Sometimes, he puts on his leathers and confronts Tina Turner and her hair of the future.  These are the many faces of Mel Gibson.

I once had a roommate who came from a very Christian upbringing.  She was dating, rather seriously, a boy of a different religion (Hindu, if you must know).  When the boy went to dinner at her parent's house, my roommate's father presented the boy with some gifts: a Bible and Mel Gibson's "masterpiece" The Passion of the Christ.  This relationship did not last.  Mel Gibson?  Are you to blame?

I'm tempted to do as Ellen Copperfield did for Tom Hanks over at This Recording.  For example, I could summarize Braveheart like so: King of England walks up to Scotland and says "all your virgins are belong to us". William Wallace does not want.  William Wallace can haz ninja battlez skillz.  William Wallce is show u many pale moons.  Englandz does not want.  Scotlandz is slits Englandz throat.  Bond Girl of the future thinks ninja battlez skillz are hot.  Too bad for Bond Girl of the future, William Wallce still does not want.

Or, What Women Want: Lesser Don Draper of the future gets magical powers from a blowdryer.  He learns that what men want is Helen Hunt.  Helen Hunt does not age well and no one understands why.  Lesser Don Draper of the future wishes he never met the blowdryer.

Look at him. Flanked by guards. Mel Gibson, it's hard to watch Braveheart without thinking about Jesus in a very superficial and embittered way (insert sidecomments here).  Oh, Mel Gibson, this is why you can't have nice things.   

RIP: Peter Graves

Actor Peter Graves, famed for his roles on television's Mission: Impossible (as intelligence master James Phelps, a role for which he took home a Golden Globe in 1971) and as Captain Oveur in the Airplane! movies, died on Sunday afternoon of natural causes.  Graves had a career in Hollywood that spanned over 70 different films and numerous TV series. In recent years, he had slowed down his career, limiting it to small television appearances on shows such as House, 7th Heaven, and voice work on American Dad

CNN reports that Graves collapsed in the driveway of his California home and attempts at resuscitation  were unsuccessful.  He was 83. [SOURCE]

Saturday, March 13, 2010

82 Women: What Would You Do?

"This film was born six weeks ago, over dinner, as the filmmakers discussed Kathryn Bigelow's nomination and wondered why there hadn't been more women nominated in the category of best director. They spent the rest of the meal on a blackberry looking up articles about the Oscars, Bigelow, and the 3 women who have received the honor previously.
The next week they set out to speak with 82 women -- one for every Oscar -- and asked them the following questions:

If you had an unlimited budget to make a film, what would you make? 

What is your proudest professional accomplishment? 

Which women have inspired you?

Interviewees include Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (1976: Harlan County USA, 1991: American Dream), actress Chyna Layne (Precious) and producer Neda Armian (Rachel Getting Married)."

Reel Round-Up: Storms Brew Between Critics and Studios, Vampires and Werewolves

Gwyneth is set to play Marlene Dietrich. Like her GOOP newsletter, this irritates me despite its good intentions.

"'Vanessa [Paradis, Johnny Depp's current live in love] plays the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir and I play her lover Nelson Algren, who is real macho,' says Depp, 46." This sounds quite lovely and awesome.

Love It! In Joaquin Phoenix's first film after his rap "retirement" he's playing Edgar Allen Poe.

NBC has a Bridget Jones series in the works. Could work, could have run its course after the fiasco that was The Edge of Reason.

Clueless' Amy Herkerling sinks her teeth into the Twilight fad. This interview with Krysten Ritter starts off the buzz, but I'll believe it when I see it.

Equally somewhat-kinda-promising-sure-I'll-see-it is Tim Burton's Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, based off the upcoming novel. Remember Tim, make this one count, learn something from Alice in Wonderland.

Mel Gibson's "last movie" is about Vikings and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  I don't think I need to comment here do I? Thor seems a bit more promising.

There could have been a Black Widow movie before her appearance in this summer's Iron Man 2, but Aeon Flux's disastrous showing at the box office tanked the project. Politics are a bitch in any business, but something tells me this wouldn't have been much better than Halle Berry's Catwoman.

Hugo Weaving may be the first cast in Captain America.

The Independent examines the strange dichotomy of Hollywood and homosexuality

Michael Cera as Gilligan in a Gilligan's Island movie. Oh yes, this is happening. Let's hope they do something totally crazy. Then it just might be something totally awesome.

Zoolander 2 gets the green light during New York Fashion Week. Sure. Why not?

Neil Patrick Harris has been cast as the lead Smurf in the upcoming Smurfs: The Movie, "a mix of live action and animation." I don't know why this movie is happening, or how anyone could pull this off with a straight face.

There is a John Hughes script running around out there, and people are interested, but no word on who or when it might be made.

One film critic finds himself face to face with the film studios over Greenberg. A fascinating read for anyone in the industry and anyone who wants to know how it all really works.

Variety gets sued by filmmakers, claiming the review defamed the film and prevented it from getting distribution. 

Women buy more film tickets than men, and no, not because of Nancy Meyers, Nicolas Sparks, or Nora Ephron.

In the wake of Corey Haim's death this week, Jezebel asks why we are so hard on child stars.

They also ponder, as do I, why everyone gets all bent out of shape about KStew's scowling on the red carpet. 

Leonardo DaVinci, code maker, painter, and genius is now a Warner Bros. action hero.

Sparkly Vampire Saga #3 now has a trailer complete with clouds that look like the Nothing in Neverending Story:

Love: The Last Station

Going into The Last Station, I thought I knew exactly what I was going to get. Looking at the trailer, it seemed clear that this was one of those movies. You know the ones, designed for the older, richer crowds, all artifice and unbearable sappiness, lacking in anything real yet full of stuffiness. A movie about Tolstoy, in Russia, in which everyone has a British accent or in the case of Paul Giamatti, an overtly fancy American one? Yep, I thought so. I call it a vanilla cupcake movie; perfectly iced and sweet, and boooring. It was, however, a nice exhilarating surprise to find out that this movie was entirely different, an honest, almost giddy examination of love and friendship with performances that prove why Helen Mirren should be, in the words of my college English professor, Dame Helen Mirren.

The Last Station retells the last year in the life of Russian literary genius and libertarian Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) as he struggles to balance his pacifist and non-material beliefs with the love of his firey wife Sofya (Helen Mirren). According to legend, history, or whatever you want to believe is the truth, Tolstoy and Sofya's love was entirely passionate until the end, but also destructive, a balance that few, if any, have ever been able to pull off on screen. Leave it to Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren to present two old people in love and make it sexy as hell, yet also moving and heartbreaking without feeling trite. They let it all go on screen, screaming at each other, making love, crying, burning, aching. It's hard not to believe that they've been in love for over 50 years and can't decide between ripping each other apart or falling down into bed, let alone that Plummer can still act with that intensity without collapsing. It's the kind of love you dream about, the kind that makes every cell of your body burn, but here, director Michael Hoffman exposes both sides: the reality of the ugly side in addition to the incredible passion. Plummer and Mirren's ferocity is exhausting in all the right ways. It kills me that neither was awarded for this performance at this year's Oscars (even though Monique was awesome in Precious, and Cristoph Waltz was amazing, so I'm not sure I could decide between the two).

James McAvoy is similarly impressive, his exuberance and charisma an excellent contrast to the quarrels on screen. He's totally convincing as a young man that grows up in the face of his idol, transforming in that moment when he like so many of us, realizes that the person you want to be may not always be who you think he is. When he falls in love despite his better judgment, it's sweet and sincere in the way that first love ought to be in the face of a love nearing the end of its run. Paul Giamatti's Chertkov is the only meh performance, doing his usual gruff thing, but in the face of such greatness, he just disappears and can be ignored well enough, even if he is the driving force of "evil" in the film.

The strength of this film rests on these incredible performances, but starts to stall towards the middle, more and more frustrating as issues with Tolstoy's will and Chertkov's meddling seem to drag on a bit too long, as does the final few days of Tolstoy's life. Luckily, at this point Mirren, Plummer, and McAvoy have made sure you give a damn, making it impossible for you to look away.

Despite a few nitpicky issues, The Last Station is a collection of some of the best performances to grace the screen in recent years, a strong punch to the gut that manages to say something true and powerful about love and what it does to two people in the grips of it unable to ever let go.

Love: Fish Tank

This Oscar season was full of movies about young girls over coming obstacles and finding love only to lose it. If you combine the plots of Precious and An Education, pump it full of a surreal hip hop soundtrack and inject it with unparalleled realism you'll spit out Fish Tank, a film also about a poor, struggling misunderstood girl who finds love in the wrong man as she finds herself and tries to follow her dreams. But unlike the two films above (which are well done in their own rights as reviewed here and here) Fish Tank is unabashedly alive, a rarity in an increasingly distant Hollywood where films are polished to 3D perfection and actresses are too pretty or well dressed to be the character they're trying to get us to believe in.

The mood of Fish Tank was set in the initial casting. Oscar winner Andrea Arnold discovered lead Katie Jarvis on a train platform at 18, a high school drop-out, pregnant, unemployed, and screaming at her boyfriend who was across the tracks. While Gabourey Sidibe isn't anything like Precious (and perhaps should have won the Oscar for her performance which was so subtle, and so unlike herself), Jarvis may very well be Mia, just in a different context. There is no line drawn across the sand that she must cross, the understanding there in her eyes in every scene, making each look powerful and haunting. Michael Fassbender (the older man that swoops in full of promises) is the only nearly famous person in this film, and each performance is a great reminder of nice it can be to see a film where you don't know any of the actors. It's rare to get this experience, one in which everything is still beautifully rendered into a fantasy, yet with the grit of the true emotions boiling underneath.

The cinematography is the perfect foil to Jarvis' performance. The film is stunningly beautiful, but not in an artificially produced way, different from my usual cinematography favorites like Alfonso Cuaron or recently Tom Ford's A Single Man. Each image is a snapshot of Mia through her eyes, summer and adolescence bottled by director Arnold and let lose on the screen. It's surreal in a special way that reminds you instantly of growing up. You feel the sunshine and the summer wind, feel your own finger tracing the childhood stickers on Mia's now frightful little sister's bed and remember the better days. When Mia sees an old horse chained in a parking lot next to the highway and runs to free it, it's impossible not to become instantly engrossed in the image's strangeness and power.

The sound editing and mixing is also subtly perfect, rounding out the film's ability to capture a season and time of one girl's life and make it universal experience. Music is always blaring from someone's house in the poor apartment high rise, dogs are barking, pots are boiling with water, people are murmuring in the next room. It's a sensual film, each layer bustling with the current of movement and life.

The film reveals the plot and story mainly through these images and snapshots, long looks and feelings. You have to relax and luxuriate in it. It's not driven forward in a typical way, and meanders through like a long summer day. As a result it does get a bit bogged down towards the end, but pulls out of itself quickly, a problem that made me give it just under five hearts, but that might be fixed on a second viewing.
Fish Tank has gotten a lot of hype, but every word of it is true and deserved. If you're able to catch this film as it makes its way through the U.S., don't miss it. It's an absolute gem in a season full of Oscar artifice.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Under 250: Women in Trouble

I've read suggestions that with Women in Trouble director Sebastian Gutierrez is aspring to be Almodovar or trying to be Altman, albeit a knock-off model.  I'd say this is a fairly accurate summation.  Gutierrez has assembled an ensemble cast, 10 LA women headed up by Carla Gugino (an actress who deserves a solid lead), and placed them in a talky rinse cycle of the torrid and superficial.  Women in Trouble feels soapy in its pretention.  As Gutierrez struggles to piece together loosely connected plots with near constant dialogue on oral sex, the perks of being a porn star, or the strains of extramarital affairs, he never succeeds in grounding these women and making them accessible. There's a strange sense of friction between the women (most of who are playing into objectified roles/allowing objectification) and what the film wants us to take from our experience watching them. This, to me, was what made the film perhaps more interesting than some critics would have you believe.  Gutierrez is operating within the realm of the exploitation cliche.  The women, like the subplots themselves, are standard-issue homogenized renderings, yet while the pieces themselves are silly fluff, there's something that feels more deliberate between the lines.  Gutierrez is working towards something, though what that is is not quite clear. Even as I questioned its motives, however, I found the end result of Women in Trouble strangely pleasant.  The narrative never stayed put too long, the stories told were intriguing confections.

Under 250: Gentlemen Broncos

I was optimistic about Gentlemen Broncos. Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess seemed to be going back to low-rent basics, eschewing the Jack Blackisms of Nacho Libre in favor of off-kilter time warped middle America. The premise seemed ripe with absurdity: a home schooled boy (Michael Angarano) writes a sci-fi novel and enters it into a high school writing competition where its premise is stolen by a creatively challenged established genre author (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords). On the outside looking in, it has all the makings of an instant cult classic. Bad outfits, Clement acting in full-on pomposity, horrendous sci-fi art, and an insane student grade reenactment of the novel in question. Once you get in, however, you realize you're watching the film slowly commit artistic suicide. The side characters become unwatchably quirky as our supposed hero exists as a black hole of personality. He's forgettable and bland, leaving the work to Clement (who is perhaps the film's saving grace, and spot-on as a caricature) and an oddly-cast Sam Rockwell, who elicited the most snickers as a flamboyant, reindeer-riding hero searching for his stolen gonad. Past the issues with character, the story is a mess and the humor frequently falls back on toilet references and exploding bodily fluids. Napoleon Dynamite succeeded mostly because it was so deadpan, so odd, that you couldn't help but find the comedy. Gentlemen Broncos doesn't seem to know that the plot alone would have been enough fodder for comedy. While, thanks to Clement and Rockwell, there are indeed amusing moments, the film is largely a failure. Alarmingly juvenile and frequently downright gag inducing, there's too much poorly placed shit & vomit for Hess to ever pull his third effort out of the gutter.  If we cut everything down and made a movie solely out of Jemaine Clement....we would have had comedy gold.
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