Friday, April 30, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #8: Ben-Hur

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.
Wow, guys.  Just wow.  First off, I'm an incredible idiot in rare form this week.  You know what I did?  I put in the single disc of classic epic Ben-Hur on the wrong side and managed to let all 71 minutes of the second half play out before realizing that I was totally missing a huge chunk of the movie.  There was actually a minute where I thought, geez, for an epic that movie was really short and illogical.  Granted, the double sided disc the film came on wasn't marked with a part one or part two but merely said 'widescreen'.  I was like, yes, of course I want widescreen and took it from there.  It was for the better, ultimately, because I totally didn't pay attention to those 71 minutes apart from thinking that the famed chariot race happened way earlier than I thought possible for a climactic moment in the narrative arc and realizing that M.I.A.'s new song "Born Free" made it feel super intense.  Since I had no context for what was actually at stake in the chariot race, I brought in a whole load of references from other epic pieces of cinema.  I was all over Ben-Hur being free, man.  Escaping Roman tyranny and getting on with his bad self (why is that expression so hilariously ridiculous?).  The point is, really, in that first round anything could have been happening and I wouldn't have known because instead I got a phone call, watched youtube music videos, constructed a playlist for driving in the car and kept asking myself why this movie didn't make any sense.  Normally, the fact that the screen read entr'acte instead of overture at the beginning would have been a tip off...but, like I said, I was 100% pure film illiterate idiot on Monday night.  There are no two ways around it.
Of course, once I flipped the disc over and actually sat down to pay attention to the film, I watched Ben-Hur from beginning to end and considered myself accomplished.  At last! 212 minutes of an epic I'd been unconsciously avoiding for my entire life now done (and yes that last hour+ makes a whole lot more sense when you've seen the first 2/3)!  I've considered some things from watching William Wyler's classic.  Are they important or valid criticisms?  No, but I'll share them with you anyways.  The first is that I think I've found the reason for my avoidant trepidation of Ben-Hur.  It's something that I always forget.  I know it, I think, but I forget and I'll forget again.  The full title of Ben-Hur is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  What?  Whaaaat?  When I saw that my gut reaction was one of disappointment.  I was suddenly so not into watching this movie.  I can't pinpoint the exact reasons for this, but too much Christian doctrine in a motion picture tends to color it in a way that's complicated and negative, tending either towards the preachy or mundanely controversial.  I failed to see the connection between what I knew about the film and what I've heard about the Jesus.  After watching it, I'll still say I think there's a reason no one ever mentions the subtitle: it's simply not relevant.  The reason for the film's full title is that its story is taken from Lew Wallace's 1880 book.    Believe it or not, the 1959 Wyler adaptation is actually the third film version.  It's a remake.  A remake with 11 Academy Awards, but I digress.  Wallace's goals seem to have been less about direct presentation of that mythos and more about attempting to capture what a figure the likes of Jesus Christ could have evoked in others at the time of his existence.  Jesus, then, despite gaining a place in the title, has a cameo role.  He's the deus ex machina of sorts that allows for the more fantastical turns towards a happy ending in the film's final sequences.  Miracles are the only way possible to restore what Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) has lost via repeat instances of adversity.  You know what? I hate to argue with a classic, but I think this film might have been just a little bit better without the final scenes of crucifixion and curing of leprosy. I could believe it up until that point...then things just came too easily.  I felt the author's hand, and the author was apparently guided by Christ-like voices.  It's like being a story of Ben-Hur wasn't enough.  All of a sudden it needed to be a story about someone else, too.
Guess what, though?  At the end of the day, Ben-Hur is a film about Ben-Hur and not a tale of the Christ.  No. This is a tale of Ben-Hur being persecuted.  Ben-Hur getting majorly cheated by his former BFF.  Ben-Hur losing his family.  Ben-Hur getting ripped on a galley boat.  Ben-Hur climbing the ranks.  Ben-Hur being the horse whisperer.  Ben-Hur making friends and influencing people.  That's what this movie is about.  It's also about Charlton Heston and how even though he's 100% from middle American No Man's Land (literally, this is what wikipedia says.  and we know this means it's credible), we totally believe him as a wealthy Jewish merchant prince in Jerusalem.  He plays his role like a cowboy in gladiator sandals.  He sweats and swaggers and stares off into the distance and grieves and every interaction he has with another human being feels urgent.  He's a man's man with traitorous Messala (Stephen Boyd), Arrius (Jack Hawkins), and sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), but is sweet to his mother and sister and predatory with slave girl Esther (Haya Harareet).  Put a beard on him and he's Moses.  Give him a loincloth and he'll take on the Apes. In chainmail, he's El Cid.  Of course, this is his role as actor, and movies (especially in Hollywood's Golden Age) have always cast oddly Americanized versions of clearly foreign characters...but I've never heard anyone question Charlton Heston in any role outside of the NRA.  Maybe it's because Heston, like the epics he's famously starred in (and this one in particular) manages the same self-importance as the spectacle behind him.  He takes himself as seriously as the film's pompous grandiosity suggests you take it, and together, these elements dodge their own worst attributes.  The semi-pretentious, loosely drawn Christ theme disappears into the background, and you're not allowed to question the mid-20th century machismo that drips from Heston's every pore.  It works.  It worked then and it somehow holds up now.  So, though I still think the film is poorly titled and could do without the the end of the day, it would seem Ben-Hur still ranks.
This picture = someone's camera + vhs tape.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #7.5: The Blind Side

It was the beginning of April when I promised a tirade on Oscar decorated The Blind Side. Then, I wrote a big puff and stuff load of bitterness against Twilight  and became exhausted and sidetracked.   Guys: ranting and raving is hard.  Maybe before we talk about this we should all chill out and watch the Insane Clown Posse dig on some "Miracles".  Fucking magnets, man, how do they work?  Or, better question: The Blind Side, how the hell did that get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar?  What kind of peace and love and kittens and nice things cigaweed was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences smoking with the ICP when both of these things were created?  If you haven't watched the football fable yet, stop now...there will be spoilers.

Guys, I'm not going to lie, part of me gets offended when there's almost no dramatic tension in a movie.  Maybe this stems from literary elitism and the overzealous focusing on story development that comes from graduate theory, but my god, I really have a hard time believing and processing movies where almost everyone is just wonderful and the outcome is peachy keen. I become even more enraged when whatever it is that has no dramatic tension is also "based on a true story."  Mostly because, if it was an interesting enough story to base a film on, there's probably some tension, but also, the truth is mostly unfun.  There. I said it.  James Frey had the right idea (it doesn't matter if Oprah said he didn't): if you're producing a life story for public consumption, there are places where the facts can and should be tweaked in the retelling.  That's entertainment.  I honestly don't care if you don't agree.  You lack imagination.  With The Blind Side what we have is a film so perfectly balanced on the feelgood beam it actually becomes an exercise in tedium.  Here's what you know about the film:  big African-American kid is basically abandoned, gets taken in by a mouthy white lady, becomes a football superstar.  Naturally, if all you were working off of were the trailers and preconceptions based on hundreds of other pop cultural examples, you'd assume there was some conflict.  Maybe the other family members aren't so happy.  Maybe the kid has some issues.  Maybe the mouthy white lady is crazy.  Maybe everyone has to work together to pool money and support this kid's endeavors.  Wrong wrong wrong. 
Here's the real story: Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) is a big, quiet kid who's been sleeping in the high school gym.  He's a misfit, and doesn't do well in school because the teachers just don't know how to work with him.  Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) is a prissy Southern belle who always gets her way and who owns like 84 franchise Taco Bells or something absurd like that.  She picks the kid up off the street, sets him up in a room in her mansion, buys him his first bed ever, and learns that he's basically the nicest kid on the planet and her own kids think he's fan-fricken-tastic. These are the miracles the ICP speaks of.  I mean, that's damn  miraculous any way you slice it.  On the one hand, Michael Oher won the jackpot of foster families.  On the other, Tuohy scored the best late-in-life adopted spawn in the history of Earth.  Amazing.  Now you're thinking....oh, but he was on the street!  There's the drama!  He's got a history, a back story.  Look, he's a teenager, he has a past in foster care and a cracked out mother somewhere in the slums!  Yes.  All of this is true.  The thing is: the film skirts around the unpleasant past and reduces the drama to zilch. Zero.  They're not interested in him.  They're way more interested in her.  We get little tidbits, but they pale in comparison to the scenes of the big game or the Tuohy snarkfest.  We should have gotten the film from Michael's perspective.  He's the man with the history.  He's the one experiencing something remarkable.  Instead, we get a valorization of the wealthy Tuohy's, an elaboration on what Michael did for them, and just the teeniest pieces of Michael's life and perspective.  We meet his mother, and we quickly forget her.  At one point there's even a car accident.  But, within about two minutes, we're made aware that "no, it's cool...everyone is alright."   Bland.  Just....bland.  This is the sort of human interest piece that catches America's attention on a slow news day.  It's lovely and is all very nice, but ultimately, the movie feels a little empty.  I'm not saying I want everything to be doom and gloom with a tornado headed straight for the middle school in the final seconds, but I mean...I have expectations when it comes to what qualifies as an award worthy, potentially groundbreaking work of cinema.  The Blind Side is so not it.  Here's what I believe: if you think The Blind Side is high art, congratulations: your idea of a good movie is the schlock they show 24- hours a day on the Lifetime Movie Network.  Buy a textbook.  Go to a museum.  Watch 100 randomly selected films pre-1980 in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.  Then, tell me this movie was worth being mentioned in the same sentence as those little gold statuettes.
On my Facebook feed several weeks ago, I noticed a conversation going on in which one person said they cried through the full runtime of The Blind Side and a half dozen other people immediately 'liked' and agreed with the sentiment, swapping their own teary stories.  Honestly?  What the hell is wrong with you people?  Did you not watch any other films this year that The Blind Side became the film with the most impact?  If you cried during The Blind Side and loved it, then guess what?  The Best Picture category alone offers up several more examples of 2009 films that dug deeper.  1. The Hurt Locker.  I mean, really.  2. Avatar's saptastic love story and environmental damage.  3. District 9: Apartheid aliens, scary racial criticism and heart wrenching family tragedy.  4. Precious: She wishes she were Michael Oher.  5. Up: that montage in the first 15 minutes is like an atom bomb of depressing.   The Blind Side?  Next to the destruction of home planets, war-torn nations, deceased spouses, concentration camps and sexual abuse by a parent, that's a cakewalk.  It's a non-issue. 

I'm not saying that a display of pathos is necessary for a moving, worthwhile cinematic experience.  What I'm saying is essentially that all The Blind Side has to offer as a film is being a nice, big screen version of an after school Hallmark channel special.  A half full glass of the milk of human kindness does not a piece of film art make.  That sentence was weird and convoluted, but maybe you know what I'm getting at as I continue to allow this rant to spiral out of focus and control.  What does The Blind Side offer us as a work of cinema?  Is it filmed well?  No. Is it imaginative? No.  Is it escapist? No.  Does it show us something we can't experience? No. Does it have a smart script? No.  Does it have well-crafted, 3-dimensional characters?  No.  It doesn't.  It has a perfectly nice teenage boy, and a mouthy, smart-alecky Southern lady played out like a pageant mom with a heart of gold by Ms. Bullock.  There's nothing wrong with Bullock's portrayal of Leigh Anne just as there's nothing technically wrong with the film itself.  The problem, for me, comes when the world starts fawning over a performance where there's nothing wrong, but nothing stand-out either.  I like Sandra Bullock, but I'd be lying if  I called her performance in this film anything other than adequate.  Is it her fault?  No.  She does what she can.  The thing is, there's nothing in the film that allows her to push past mediocrity and dig into something deeper within her character.  This is a surface performance.  It's not impressive, it's just there.  If I were an actress, I would never feel threatened or inspired after watching this.  The fact that The Blind Side, and Bullock's role in it are now sort of canonized in our pop cultural memory banks is alarming and reflective of our state as a culture.  We're too depressed and recessed.  As soon as something mediocre comes along that makes us feel alright about life, we think it's the best thing ever.  God, I feel like I'm spouting a bunch of Ayn Rand influenced nonsense, but you've noticed, right?  That's how Slumdog Millionaire won the crown for 2008, isn't it?  We all know that's not really a fantastic film, just an entertaining diversion (at least it has dramatic tension).  Come on, admit it, I bet that as you read this you realized you'd already forgotten it. 
If The Blind Side had just existed, that is, if it had existed without being a dominant presence in award season, I would have allowed it to pass gently into the night.  It's a perfectly decent little film, as I've stated already.  There's nothing horribly wrong with it, it's just the sort of movie you watch, finish, think 'well wasn't that just lovely', have a cup of tea, and then move on with your life.  I don't hate it.  I just object to the praise.  Why?  Because I'm here to judge your taste levels and I'm just damn sick of the dumbing down of culture and our oversensitivity to everything.  Deal with it.  Watch the tough stuff. Watch the weird foreign stuff you 'don't get'.  Experience something outside your comfort zone.  Quit your whining and man up.  That's what Leigh Anne Tuohy would tell you right before she took you shirt shopping, and damnit, that's what I'm telling you too.  Boring, boring, boring.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Late Night Trailers: Easy A

The Scarlet Letter= one of my favorite books. Emma Stone= one of my biggest girl crushes. The little snippet above, which seems to have nothing to do with the movie, just made me spit out my Diet Pepsi.
After a little white lie about losing her virginity gets out, a clean cut high school girl sees her life paralleling Hester Prynne's in "The Scarlet Letter," which she is currently studying in school - until she decides to use the rumor mill to advance her social and financial standing.

Late Night Trailers: High School (NSFW)

I'm not really into stoner movies, but this trailer, combined with the description below, is getting me kinda very much excited.
"Michael Chiklis plays a smarmy high school principal who suddenly institutes a zero-tolerance crusade, introducing mandatory drug tests for all students. Failure of which will result in immediate expulsion. Matt Bush plays a straight-arrow valedictorian named Henry Burke who normally would have nothing to worry about, except he just tried marijuana for the very first time. I’ll let the Sundance description take over: “With his college scholarship hanging in the balance, Burke begrudgingly teams up with charismatic pothead Travis Breaux to do the only thing they can think of to neutralize this threat—get the entire student body stoned.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Under 250: Cheri

It's very hard to make me hate a pretty looking, historical bodice ripping romance. I'll watch anything with corsets, accents, nice art production, and broken hearts. But Cheri, with it's ridiculous and misplaced cuteness, perpetrated by the awfully fake Michelle Pfeiffer (Lea) and Rupert Friend (Cheri) as lovers separated by years and professions (she's a concubine, he a ne'er-do-well), and the whimsy of the narrator (the usually impressive Director Stephen Frears previously of High Fidelity and The Queen), I could hardly take it. Every moment of the film felt like a poorly done high school production with stilted dialog articulated in the worst of dramatic ways, horribly timed and obvious. The relationship between Cheri and Lea is barely explored, communicated through numerous nude scenes (the only parts of the film that display any real emotion or intensity) and even more numerous scenes of wooden dialog. Worse, the interesting and somewhat disturbing maternal part of Lea's relationship with Cheri is done the injustice of Pfeiffer's breathy "mommy" voice instead of any real communication of it in her acting.

Cheri also tends to suffer from what I now consider the Twilight syndrome. Being in love is all encompassing...for you and your beloved. But sometimes those long talks late into the night about your past, the little looks and smiles and inside jokes are boring to other people. It takes a real artist to communicate those feelings and draw the reader or the watcher in, making them relate and get caught up in the passion. Done correctly, you get the great love stories of the world. Done poorly, you get this film. Whether the fault of the source material (I've never read the original by Colette), the director, or the actors, Cheri is a missed opportunity to give an older actress the chance to dig her teeth in what otherwise would have been an intriguing role.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Love: Kick-Ass

Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves.  Kick-Ass is now playing in every theater near you.  It's threatening your morals and values, being an affront to your taste level, shaming you when you find it amusing, and attracting the children to its candy colored, high octane, profanity peppered orgy of blood.  It's dividing critics into camps of those patently offended and those reluctantly waving their fanboy freak flags.   And it will most certainly be featured with commentators deriding it as a negative influence and cause of violence in America on some Fox News evening report with a red faced talking head yelling about how outrageous it is and how Hollywood is a contemporary Gomorrah.  More importantly, however, maybe most importantly, as the characters in the film might tell you, Kick-Ass is f#@!*$g awesome, a smartly crafted whirlwind action comedy that skimps on neither part and slams its viewer with ethical questions that have never been more fun to address.  Yes, I belong to the league of disaffected youth who think playing Grand Theft Auto is a blast.  Take my commentary and slant it with that in mind.
Kick-Ass is based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar, a man of some ill repute amongst comic fans and a sure thing if you're searching for a quick, cathartic read that's all id. I've read the graphic novel, and while I'll admit to enjoying it well enough (in part because of its glossy glossy pages and John Romita Jr's illustration style), I have to say, flat out, no questions asked, this is an instance where the movie surpasses the original content in leaps and bounds. There are a lot of similarities, a lot of sticking to the plot, but somewhere in the transition from frame to frame, Kick-Ass came to life and the inherent satire did as well. Trust me, while it may be buried deep within bazookas, batons, and too many blows to the head, there's some lively satirical work being done with the generation in question and the reliance on technology, super ego, and instant gratification. Sure, it's also prodding the action genre itself, but mostly it mocks the notion of internet celebrity, media presence, and (what can be translated as the scariest bit) the way that those growing up in this age of technology perceive violence and mortal combat situations as something that they're equipped to grapple with. These kids are not invincible. So while you, sensitive parent, freak out about a mob boss bloodying an 11- year old weapon master's fragile frame, part of you needs to recognize the importance of the filmmakers exposing her mortality, and the real life danger involved.  I swear to you this isn't a twinkie justification for how much I enjoyed every bit of slicing, dicing, and clobbering in this film. Moving on...
The narrative ins and outs of Kick-Ass are quite simple.  Teenage comic book geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) dreams of being a costumed crime fighter.  He wonders why, in an age where everyone wants to be Paris Hilton, no one aspires to be Spider-Man.  He invests in a scuba suit, dons a mask, calls himself Kick Ass, and starts cruising alleyways with noble ambitions.  One thing leads to another, and with a stab wound and a masochistic addiction to his cause, he winds up a celebrity of sorts with a huge MySpace following and a lot of unwanted attention from the likes of a homicidal, well trained vigilante ex-cop called Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and his pre-pubescent assassin daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), who, in pigtails, has a taste for blood and more skill with the blade than anyone Tarantino ever put on screen.  Kick-Ass himself is something of a pathetic figure, he never quite gets past that Peter Parker pre-bite phase.  His success rate is low and he's got the wounds to prove it.  Dave is just a kind of whiny dork lusting after a popular girl who thinks he's her new gay bff, and when he gets himself in hot water and Hit Girl mercilessly fells 8+ people with enthusiasm, he becomes a target for mafioso justice.

Everything you've heard is true, Chloe Grace Moretz is the film's break-out star, and one of the biggest on-screen bad asses you will ever see.  She's a bonafide action hero who plays her part with a balance of snark and sophistication those four times her age still fail to master.  She's a firestorm of uber-feminist girl power wrapped up in a teeny tiny package and topped with an electric purple wig, and because she's just a can-do kid, she manages to shred and eviscerate every absurdly sexualized, Angelina Jolie-vision of female empowerment ever served up in a double barreled popcorn flick.  Every line of dialogue she delivers is a gem, and her enthusiasm during the fight choreography is executed just as well as she pulls off the tragic emotional resonance needed later on.  Meanwhile, Johnson is an abolute charmer and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (as Red Mist) plays a version of McLovin run on pure, genuine, homegrown teen angst.
Director Matthew Vaughn, previously responsible for Layer Cake, also manages a small miracle: he reverses years and years of Nicholas Cage's career.  He does for Cage exactly what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta.  Between this and Bad Lieutenant, Nicholas Cage has now officially boosted the underground street cred he's been slowly depleting since he refueled with Adaptation.  Apart from that, though, Vaughn guides Kick-Ass deftly through potential pitfalls, plot lags, and ethical dilemmas.  It's a slick mixed bag of mayhem and genuineness that reveals something of the conflicted emotional capacities of its characters even as it keeps you laughing and, if you're the right temperament, eagerly awaiting the next triple loop on the roller coaster.  It mines the dark hearts of teen fantasy and excavates a spit-polished grenade.  I'm not at all ashamed to admit that I found Kick-Ass to be 100% entertaining.  Not at all. 

Of course, I'm for all practical purposes an 'adult'.  A stunted one, sure, but an adult nonetheless.  I understand the concerns that Kick-Ass is a film too dangerously seductive for an 8-year old to possibly lead to anything good.  But then again, I also understand violence, even gratuitous violence, as sometimes necessary for the effective production of a stylized art form.  I also understand the difference between cinema catharsis, and real life idiocy.  I have the processing capabilities nailed down and I grasp that Kick-Ass is simultaneously symptomatic of both positive and negative attributes of our culture & times.  The kids don't.  The irresponsible parents behind me in the theater, for example, with their  <10 daughter, were doing it wrong.  If the kid has to ask "is that guy really dead? Did it hurt?" in the wake of a full-body microwave explosion (far less of a moment than the head in Scanners, btw), congratulations, you're not doing a good job explaining the difference between reality and fiction, and probably should have bought a set of tickets for How to Train Your Dragon.  Here's what I advocate: don't blame the media, there's a market for everything and Kick-Ass is an above average example of young n' dumb, genre bending entertainment.  Instead?  How about beginning to introduce the essential principles of communication theory in elementary school.  Have a class devoted to understanding images. Teach them how to deal with and process the differences between fictitious violence and its real results instead of trying to hide them away or overexpose them.  I mean, that seems like the real no-brainer. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Love: Date Night

Last Saturday, you'd have been better off throwing down the money for a late night movie ticket to Date Night than watching Tina Fey host SNL.  The SNL was a festival of awkward invested too heavily in spotlighting Fey, prodding young Justin Bieber, and the success of the predictable Sarah Palin sketch.  That's what happens lately on the show, they get a real comedian and the cast and host seem to be locked in some sort of power struggle in which nobody really wins.  So, Fey winds up unfortunately sinking on SNL and shining alongside Steve Carell in silly rom-com buddy action flick Date Night.  Who would have thought? The film revolves around a simple, fluffy premise; boring couple Claire & Phil Foster (Fey and Carell) from New Jersey try to spice up their predictable, vanilla marriage by stealing someone else's dinner reservation at a Manhattan hot spot and suffer a case of mistaken identity that sees them pursued by a big time mobster (Ray Liotta) and wrapped up in political scandal.  It's a frothy story with a relatively blase script, nothing you haven't seen before and nothing you won't see again.  Yet, as you watch Fey and Carell dodge bullets, awkwardly pole dance, and engage in grand theft auto, something magical happens: you like them, you really like them.
Granted, I love Tina Fey and Steve Carell regardless, but Date Night is a winning comedy because the two Second City alums have got chemistry.  They know their roles and they stick to them.  You can easily believe them as a couple, and their reactions to the events of the evening are as comical as they are relatively natural.  They share a timing and an understated madcap quality that transforms the illogical, ridiculous script into something you're experiencing as ridiculous with them instead of wondering why the hell they're stupid enough to keep digging themselves in deeper.  They're just a tax attorney and a real estate agent watching the marriages of their friends deteriorate and doing something charmingly out of character.  Director Shawn Levy, who has previously helmed the Night at the Museum films, got lucky when he cast his two leads.  Where he provides episodic action sequences and high speed sight gags, it's their improvisational skills and can-do attitudes that spin mediocre idiocy into pure comic gold.  Well, that and the always shirtless, self-mockery of Mark Wahlberg, who wins laughs literally just by exposing his pecs and speaking Hebrew in the midst of marital awkwardness.
Carell and Fey could probably keep an entire movie afloat with their reaction shots alone, but here they offer up more than that.  Is it a great movie?  Certainly not.  Is it a worthy distraction? Absolutely. You'll get more for your money here than you will from a pre-summer would-be blockbuster like Clash of the Titans.  Date Night is a simple, 2D, ensemble comedy that's charming and elicits laughs out of situations that, if they involved anyone else, would be cringe-worthy schlock.  The supporting cast, from James Franco and Mila Kunis as the real bumbling criminal couple, to Kristen Wiig's short appearance and J.B. Smoove's expressive cab driver, may not do much, but they do enough.  If Carell and Fey are the future of the dying Hollywood rom com, I'm 100% for it.  They can shove (and shove hard) Katherine Heigl out of the way any day of the week and I'll keep my fingers crossed for a smart, understated script to drift their directions and take them out of their comfort zones.  We'll be seeing more of them.  That much is certain.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Squalor: The Ghost Writer

Earlier today, I had a big talk with my soon to graduate high-school little sister about expectations. We talked about how you can only expect people to believe in you so much, and that once that magic wears off, you have to be able to back up your work and efforts with a product that at least looks like you gave it your all, even if it sucks. That is my main problem with Roman Polanski's return to mainstream film making. While pretty and foreboding in all the right ways, it's hard to watch The Ghost Writer and not wonder if a lesser talent ghost wrote this screenplay in place of Polanski himself, as he seems not only distant, but uninterested in bringing forth a genuine story here, let alone a sleekly done film as per his usual.

Known only as "The Ghost," which is one of the nicer touches in the film, Ewan McGregor takes on any ghost writer's dream project: writing the memoirs for a controversial former Prime Minister of England (Pierce Brosnan) who is currently embroiled in a torture scandal and marital issues at home. As he unravels more about the Prime Minister's past, "The Ghost" begins to discover the seedy and alarming double dealing that may or may not have led to the previous ghost writer's untimely death, exposing an entire underbelly of global intrigue.

Polanski, like Martin Scorcese, is a modern film master who despite (or as a result of) his tragic past, can usually make any project feel effortless and interesting, a perfection in the very least of techniques including cinematography, direction, and editing. But The Ghost Writer feels careless and unnecessarily melodramatic in all the worst ways, a sloppy homage to the noir/Hitchcock vibe that he's normally so adept at capturing. Polanski is undoubtedly the master of atmosphere and has proven his ability on many occasions (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, The Ninth Gate), as if with a simple flick of his wrist the camera subtlety creates tension and fear. But instead of relying on the beauty of his cinematography, art production (and it is absolutely stunning here), and the subtle timing of a correctly placed score, every moment of The Ghost Writer is drowned by the usually fabulous Alexandre Desplat's music, screaming at the audience "LOOK! THIS IS INTENSE! CAN'T YOU SEE! IT'S SO TENSE! WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN! SOMETHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN!"

But nothing really happens. I could excuse all this fuss and hullaballo if Polanski had managed to really build up any sort of tension. The film takes far too long to get into the swing of the story, and once all is revealed, the grand revelation feels cheap, predictable, and gimmicky. With such a pacing problem, the viewer begins to lose interest in the characters despite the actors better intentions, the high caliber of McGregor and Olivia Williams' performances the only thing standing in the way of total disaster. By the end of this film I was way more concerned about finding out where they filmed it (the Baltic Sea stands in for East Coast, USA), instead of wondering about the story's outcome or about the whereabouts of any of the characters. Polanski feels as withdrawn and icy here as the waters framed in the windows of the Prime Minister's secluded, modern beach front home, but for once, it doesn't do the film any favors. 

Sometimes the melodrama and the attempt at building old school Hitchcockian tension can work (it certainly did in Scorcese's Shutter Island, and almost every other Polanski film, and it's utter magic when it does). But if you're going to pull it off, you have to commit, and you have to try to at least make the solid film that is expected from you. If only Polanski's tangled story had made it out through his tangled editing. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #7: The Twilight Saga: New Moon

When I started the Yes, Really feature, I never planned on writing about recent releases.  Yet, today, as I attempted to organize my thoughts on two Under 250 DVD reviews (for New Moon and The Blind Side) I realized that there was no way I could contain my tirades on either film within those 250 words.  Thus, I bring you a pair of very special Yes, Really writings that are less meandering and more flat out criticisms.  And no, I do not agree with the kindnesses and allowances M. previously gifted to our glittering vampire friends.
Let me begin very much the way M. did on that fateful day after very little sleep: I have my Twilight street cred papers filed. I've done the time, read the books, seen the first movie. I'm a pop cultural sociologist. If something catches fire this quickly I look into it. I will also own up to being moderately on board with the first book. It had certain charms, I understood the appeal of the teenybopper love story and will admit that as quick reads go Stephenie Meyer's first round was at least an entertaining one. From there, while I continued to read the books in an effort to keep up with the rapidly snowballing trend, I found myself slowly becoming enraged. My hatred blossomed and grew. I wasn't going to bother reading Breaking Dawn, but after being told that it would make me angry, I did (yes, it's masochistic). Now you might as well call me the regional president of Twi-hard hating....but I'll return to that a bit later.

Though I was embittered and perhaps far too jaded for the books, I watched the first movie hoping for laughable camp and the awesomely bad. It was not awesome, but it certainly was laughably bad. The vampire baseball scene! The poor glitter effects! The complete and utter lack of chemistry between Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson! The deranged, stalker translation of Edward Cullen! And, lest we forget, the in-class meet cute where Edward Cullen catches a whiff of Bella and looks like he's about to hurl like Linda Blair.  It was dreadful, but there was no pretending I wouldn't eventually watch the second film.  After all, the reviews had been slightly more favorable and, as we've established, I occasionally self-inflict poor films and writing upon myself (I say for the greater good, but we all know that's crap).  So, I watched New Moon

Dear reader: it might be even more boring than TwilightNew Moon takes a few steps forward, but manages to squander the effort in other ways.  I don't even know where to begin, so perhaps we should start with what little is good, or, more appropriately, 'decent' about New Moon.  Here we go:
1. Lovely foliage.  2. Taylor Lautner has more personality than you might expect. 3. It actually feels like there's a hint of chemistry between Jacob and Bella.  4. The Volturi.  That's it.  For those not in the know, the Volturi are an Italian vampire clan that are sort of like the vampire Vatican.  They police things and are a tad on the dangerous side.  They're more like the campy vamps you know and love, and they're played by actors who are easily the most talented to appear thus far in the series (Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning, etc).  I liked watching the Volturi. They were ridiculous.  Unfortunately, they were also only there for about 10-15 minutes at the end of the film.  Lame.

Now, what's not so good, or downright awful about New Moon would be a much larger list.  There's a lot.  The vampires, when they try to look angry or come hither just look sort of mentally handicapped, or completely vacant.  The glitter effect is absolutely absurd.  Every male character seems to live for pulling off his own shirt.  Taylor Lautner has a face less like a wolf and more like a pug.  Bella is apparently the most tragic and pathetic excuse for a 21st century woman to ever grace the planet Earth.  In order to stop a vampire feeding frenzy in the wake of a paper cut, Bella gets shoved into a lot of glass and just makes it worse....but somehow it's contained.  The werewolf CGI is dreadful...plodding, unnatural, and not situated well within the film.  The jumpiness of the plot makes the flimsiness of the story even more evident. Nobody knows how to use logic.  The soundtrack (which on its own is far superior to the film) is poorly integrated into the movie, it stops and starts and sounds like product placement.  Alice Cullen, fashionable vampire, is still not fashionable. No high schooler in their right mind would accept the Cullens as teenagers. Edward appears out of thin air to tell Bella not to do things she does anyway because she's actually dangerously unstable. Ridiculous. More ridiculous. Nonsensical. Absurd. Silly. Totally lame.  Do I need to continue?  I don't, but I will.  The melodrama is angsty and lukewarm, there's very little tension, Edward's big suicidal gesture is poorly realized and feels more like a halfhearted gesture than a pit of despair.  Edward still has no discernable personality.  Did he do any acting? Not that I can tell.  Alright. I'll stop.  I'm holding back.  Basically, in a scene by scene breakdown there's very little that could be stitched back together to make a salvageable, worthwhile blockbuster.

My issues with Twilight and the cult of Meyer run deeper than simply thinking the whole phenomenon is another example of the universal embrace of mediocrity.  Personally, and feel free to quote and then fight me on this, I think this particular saga pushes feminism back a good 50+ years and its success amongst generations of women, from the preteen to the mid-30's is troubling.  I'll reiterate that Bella is a pathetic character.  She's not a hero.  She has few admirable qualities.  In the books she's drawn as someone the average teen can project themselves onto.  She's a bit angsty, has some problems with her parents, feels like an outsider, but sort of just lets herself float.  The thing that saves her from being anyone else is the mutual attraction to a night creeping monster in the shape of a beautiful boy.

Bella is a shell of a girl who allows herself to be defined by her romantic relationships.  When Edward is present in her life, all else disappears.  She abandons her friends, she repeatedly lies to and betrays her family.  When Edward is not present, she has nothing to do but feel sorry about herself.  New Moon has a scene where, in the wake of Edward's departure, the camera pans around an unmoving, still Bella looking downright depressed as the seasons change.  We are lead to believe that her desperation is such that she collapses in the forest and stays there for two days.  That she sits dead to the world for months with no activities or outside interests simply because her high school boyfriend moved away.  This is the textbook definition of girl whose life is defined by a man.  It's the OED definition of imbecile. Add to this the fact that the sexual tension is built up via abstinence (Meyer is a Mormon...enough said?), and that Bella fears aging since her boyfriend is eternally 17, and you just get one big mixed bag of goody goody, stereotypical thinking.  This is the type of character who sits at the top of ever young adult's reading list.  I'm fearing for the future just thinking about it.  I mean, I'm not saying all the kiddies should run out and slut it up, but I am saying there's a real damn good reason why Kristen Stewart needed The Runaways to make a point about her career...

In Breaking Dawn, things just get worse. Bella decides that college isn't important and runs off to marry her vampiric beau.  After the first round of near fatal sex (yes, near fatal, no Dan Savage, not in an S&M way), she gets pregnant with nonhuman spawn.  Papa, she's keeping the baby;  though it repeatedly tries to kill her from the inside out. This was the scariest piece of children's lit I think I've ever encountered.  I don't mean to sound like a crazy paranoid extremist or ranting, raving propagandist, but I mean...COME ON.  Vampire half-breed baby eats your uterus and makes you a housewife at the same time?  What the hell?  Doesn't it bother you that the book that's capturing the Harry Potter demographic's (HP, I would argue, btw, does all the right things with its multi-faceted, growth driven teen, as heroines go, Hermione could shut down Bella any day of the week on every single playing field) attention is one that basically says to girls look, you know, all that stuff about school?  That's not necessary.  You don't need an education or your own social circle, forget jobs and sanity, all of your problems will be solved if you just dive right in, get married, and get started raising that demon baby.  Your family and everyone you know will try and talk you out of it, but hey, what do they know?  They're not dating a predatory bloodsucker!  You just keep pining away and crushing out hard and making split second life decisions that are basically the equivalent of self-mutilation.

Say what now?

I mean, is this a cruel joke? When do we get to hit the punchline part?  I have to go, I need to keep scraping the cheese off of my TV.

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