Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Love: I Am Love

I have a small obsession with Tilda Swinton.  This statement requires no further explanation as I do believe her work does all the arguing and justifying necessary on its own.  The only thing I could possibly add is to correct my initial statement and admit that my obsession with Tilda Swinton might actually be slightly larger than small.  I love Tilda Swinton the way your mom loves Meryl Streep and sometimes think she's more artwork than human.  Because of this fascination, I have high expectations of Tilda Swinton.  I had eagerly awaited the release of Italian director Luca Guadagnino's art house epic I Am Love.  So long and so eagerly that my preconceived notions of what the film should be were reaching up up and further still.  What it needed to be, first and foremost was beautiful.  After that, it needed to (and please don't start singing that song from Nine) be Italian.  By Italian I mean Italian in the most classically cinematic sense of the word.  I wanted a bright and technicolor high-def edition of some sort of Fellini, Antonioni, neorealist slow burn with all the high fashion pageantry, luxe romance of images and scenery entailed therein.  You know, one of those films you can fall in love with based on the aesthetic progression from frame to frame while excusing slips of plot or loose dialogue.  Guess what?  I Am Love is that movie.  It just took me a little while to realize it.  
I Am Love concerns itself with the small melodramas of the aristocratic Recchi family.  The Recchis lord over a textile empire from their magazine spread of a manor.  They pat their patriarchs on the back and toast to being ornamental branches of the genetic tree.  Emma (Tilda Swinton) is our point of entry into their world.  She's an immigrant, the Russian-born wife of Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), one half of the recently appointed new company management.  The other half, in a surprise naming, is her son Edo (Flavio Parenti).  The film opens to a dinner party concerning this announcement, and lingers there in a series of long shots that introduces us to the family in its entirety, and to their lavish lifestyle.  I'm not going to lie to you, while in retrospect the scene serves its purpose, the opening party feels more like a test of endurance than an opening to the intrigue ahead.  You have to want to be there and have to be willing to start mentally drawing comparisons to Visconti and Resnais in order to believe in the eventual pay-off.  Of course, these comparisons are available and accessible.  If you can do these things, find the traces of The Leopard or some such tale, you're exactly the target demographic for I Am Love, and as the film slowly begins to unravel its initial deliberate nature, you will slip deeper and deeper into a satisfied coma of old school cinema literate gluttony.

After the initial passing of those awkward family moments (much like a subdued variation on that never ending rehearsal dinner in Rachel Getting Married), I Am Love is a sumptuous feast of color, photography, setting, emotion and well-constructed tension.  The dialogue is frequently minimal, but what is unsaid is conveyed through body language and camerawork.  Swinton is, as per usual, the film's highly magnetic core.  This world revolves around her and, as she slowly picks at the layers of her own unhappiness, the film itself becomes more and more heated and unpredictable.  Her performance here is heavily subdued, all the moreso after her outlandish, bawdy turn in last year's Julia.  One of Swinton's greatest strengths as an actress is her chameleon-like ability to become a character so thoroughly that the essence on screen is entirely different from role to role.  Swinton knows Emma and Emma is not the Swinton that you've seen before, even stripped nude, she projects this character without faltering or retreating into pantomime.  Emma surprises herself as she enters into a passionate, almost ecstatic affair with her son's friend the chef (Edoardo Gabbriellini), and it shows. Guadagnino shoots the oh-so-art house tastefully down and dirty lovemaking with as much enthusiasm as he devotes to the film's culinary focus.  Backed by John Adams's driving score, I Am Love's devotion to such rich subject matter (love, sex, food, family, etc) becomes magnified into pure opulence.
At the most superficial level my emotional range during this film was one of wanting. I wanted to go to that place, to eat that food, to wear that dress...but it went much deeper than that. Its volatile cinematic trajectory moved from the impossibly slow to the wholly engrossing, in which I just wanted to slow it down, drag it out, make it stop before it reached the end credits. I can honestly tell you, this film would get a 5 heart rating based on its last quarter alone. The final half hour is one of the most affecting, beautiful, perfectly constructed extended sequences I've seen in a long time. There's a turning point that surprised me (and no, I won't tell you what it is), and from there I sat completely stunned and slack jawed in the best way imagineable. It was awe I felt up through the last 5 seconds as I began to move steadily from liking the film quite a bit to loving the film and being invested in its outcome wholeheartedly. I don't throw this around very often so let me reiterate for emphasis: the final chapter of this film is perfect. There are no complaints. It could not have ended better. I wanted to tap on the glass of the projection booth and ask them to rewind so we could see that happen again.  Perfect, at once high art and desperately human, it's like Antonioni detoured from L'Avventura and time traveled back to Last Year at Marienbad

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Late Night Trailers: Rango

This sort of Desperado for kids is exactly the sort of thing I can get behind. Let's hope this animated Johnny Depp is better than his last one.

Stylista: Mary of "Party Girl"

1. Betsey Johnson Stretch Beatle Ring, (, 2. Oscar de la Renta  Silk Organza Ruffle Blouse (, 3. Jason Wu, Velvet Cuffed Shorts (, 4. Knit Bag, Blumarine (,  5. Lanvin Leopard Trench (, 6. Shabd Aurora Tights (,  7. Christian Louboutin Suede Metallic-Square Pump, (

So, we're starting a new feature.  Actually, technically, we started talking about this months ago, but it's taken that long to get willed into actual life.  It's called Stylista and yeah, much like that short lived CW reality show, it's all about playing fashion editor for Love & Squalor.  We uncover cinema's style icons and then waste a whole lot of time putting together an outfit influenced by them and collaging things in Photoshop.  Yeah.  See? It's a big time suck.  But hopefully worth it.

First up?  Mary (Parker Posey) of the 1995 indie comedy Party Girl.  Mary is a hapless New York City twenty-something who lives funemployed and generally maxed out, always relying on her librarian godmother to bail her out of trouble with her finances and the law.  Mary's 90's club scene wardrobe is an eclectic blend of patterns, bright colors, and cultural influences; Party Girl is the go-to cult comedy for millions of girls earning their MLS degrees.  It plays out like a cheap sleepover movie and is a lesser gem for anyone with a renewed interest in the 90's redux.  Mary is that girl whose sartorial sensibilities directly reflect her personality.  No, seriously.  I couldn't get away with most of this, but no one's questioning it on her.  Mary just owns it.  She picks up falafel in patterned tights and velvet shorts, lives it up in mismatched gloves and sequined t-shirts, and learns the dewey decimal system in neon layered tops.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Archival Footage: The Furies (1950)

After watching Anthony Mann's 1950 western The Furies, I considered my options.  Clearly, I thought, something must be written.  Though the film's Criterion release is a fairly recent occurrence, Under 250 seemed too slight of a subject header.  Yes, Really was out of the question as it's relatively doubtful that anyone in my peer group would ever utter the words "really?  You've never seen The Furies?"  Just not going to happen.  So, we must dip into the loosely defined Archival Footage tag.  M. and I have underused Archival Footage.  We would love to write analysis heavy essays on each classic we watch or re-watch, but there are only so many hours in our already harried lives.  Perhaps one day we'll be able to fund such lounging.  Dare to dream. 

In any case, The Furies begged for commentary.  I am, by nature, not a Western fan.  The genre has done little for me in spite of prolonged exposure, and while I enjoy High Noon and have been subjected to The Searchers enough times to suffer a Stockholm Syndrome similar to the one experienced by Natalie Wood's character, I usually have to force myself to watch stories about literal cowboys.  What Westerns I do take a liken' to are typically tales of antiheroes and corruption marked more notably by epic cinematography than by thematic genre headers.  The Furies, I suppose, is one of these. 
Walter Huston plays T.C. Jeffords, a sort of Daniel Plainview heavily invested in cattle instead of oil.  He's bitter, selfish, and mean; motivated by revenge and gain towards destructive acts.  He lives on a ranch named "The Furies".  The moniker comes from those vengeful winged women of myth, and you can bet the titular allusion is a sign of things to come.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as Vance Jeffords, T.C.'s spitfire daughter who has taken on some of her father's hard-nosed, mercurial qualities as her own.  Vance and T.C. get what they want when they want it.  When both parties take up lovers the other does not approve of, a latent violence is awakened on the ranch.  Vance has her share of daddy issues, and with a one-two punch of rejection and wrongdoing, she's had enough.  Father and daughter exact their manipulative punishment of one another on outside parties, with physical harm and emotional repercussions upping the stakes higher and higher.  T.C. has raised Vance in his image only to find that, when she is no longer a loyal daughter, she makes a particularly formidable adversary.

The Furies is a psychological film and a western perhaps in setting only.  The climax doesn't arrive at high noon, the gun play and equestrian elements are downplayed in favor of tense dramatic scenes. Shift this story into corporate America or society's climbing, competing upper echelons and it would be equally convincing.  Yet, the land does something for the film's hard little heart.  It's desolate and dark.  Mann uses rich creeping blacks and shadows to inform his narrative.  There's a peril outside as well as inside the family estate, and the labyrinth of the Jeffords mansion aids and abets the dangers lurking in the minds of its inhabitants.  
The result is a bona fide gem.  Professors have been trying to sell me on the merits of Barbara Stanwyck for years.  Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity...all good movies, to be sure, yet not a one of them sold me on what Stanwyck was really capable of.  Turns out, Janet, if you'd wanted to sway me to your side of the Stanwyck love fest, you should have used the most unlikely contender: the western.  Stanwyck and Huston are incredibly well-matched lead performers.  Everything, from body language to the tone of their voices to the looks in their eyes seeths with a literal fury.  The dialogue is sharp, the intensity it's delivered with equally so.  Stanwyck makes for a more coolly subdued loose cannon here than she does as the literal femme fatale exemplar in Double Indemnity.  She's sharp, conflicted, and dangerous in that way that people who don't take crap from anybody always are.  Stanwyck makes the movie and ascends rapidly to the top of the heap in so far as female characters in this particular genre are concerned.  See it, whether you think you might be interested or not.  The Criterion transfer makes it doubly worthwhile.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Squalor: Splice

Splice does a lot of good things, and considering the preachy subject matter, that might seem impressive. But stripped of it's slick atmosphere and creatively designed monster, a great disappointment sets in as characters are left hollow and undeveloped, the victims of poor pacing and a lopsided narrative that does nothing but bring the cliches to the forefront. 

Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are not only snazzily dressed hipsters, but also some of the most brilliant scientific minds working in genetics. A couple at home and at work, they run the lab for a large drug manufacturer and develop the ability to splice together various animal DNA (creating "Fred" and "Ginger," two gelatinous, brain-like creatures) to create proteins used in drugs that will cure cancer and various other human diseases. Elsa, being the strong headed one, pushes the envelope one night, combining the animal DNA with her own. The embryo they create never gets destroyed, and the baby they name "Dren," grows to adulthood as they balance parenting, their own psychological pasts, and the moral implications of their creation.
Dren (Delphine Chanéac) herself, is a triumph of special effects, the care taken with the details during the extensive re-shoots visible in every swish of her tail and blink of her eyes. She's frightening and beautiful, freakish in a perfect way that's hard to take your eyes from. The cinematography is appropriately dark and stylized providing the perfect backdrop for the horror to come without making the film lose its modern art house aesthetic.

To its credit, Splice never really messes around with the "moral" issues surrounding genetic manipulation; the stuff we've already heard them fighting about on political shows and NPR for years now. Yes, there's a bit of discussion at the beginning and yes things change gender and grow spiny tails, and it's clear that Elsa and Clive's creations are dangerous. But the real danger isn't Dren. It's Elsa and Clive's own humanity and the psychological damage that they imprint upon their test tube daughter as she struggles with her changing body and burgeoning power, a much more engaging discussion than the one I was expecting.
But despite this interesting framework, director Vincenzo Natali can't bring his story or his actors to support it. The most successful films make you feel like you know the characters within a minute or two, at least setting the scene and creating a outline for the action to come, but Splice throws the audience into the story without bothering with any details. While Elsa seems a bit like someone who'd cut you in a dark ally and Clive seems willing to do whatever she says, we never really get a reason for the creation of Dren, or a glimpse into the minds behind her. I'd be ok with that, and the love that the scientists develop for the creation they once would have aborted, but Natali takes the film in a different direction.
Halfway through, as Elsa and Clive take the teen-aged Dren to a secluded barn that used to belong to Elsa's mother, it's revealed that Elsa had a horrible childhood, horrible in which ways we'll never know. Natali doesn't show us this throughout the film (other than a brief encounter in which Elsa displays skeptism as Clive talks about having children), but tells the audience in a sentence. From then on, Elsa's loving behavior takes a drastic turn for the worse, her neurotic and violent behavior encouraging Dren to act out and Clive to seek love elsewhere. It's the catalyst for the horror and perversion that ends the entire last half of the film, as she changes her mind every few minutes, debating whether to hug or kill Dren. Despite a fine editing job, this narrative back and forth makes the film's pacing erratic. By suddenly dropping this on the audience, Natali makes her unexpected emotional twists from love to hate unbelievable.
 Polley herself may be part of the problem in her failure to communicate the depth of Elsa's pain, her emotions as shallow as the petri dish she uses to concoct her genetic monsters. Although it's not exactly a fair comparison, I couldn't help but think of Charlotte Gainsbourg's stunning performance in Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. With a subtle hand, both Von Trier and Gainsbourg created a full picture of a mother and partner strung out to the extreme, smoothly building the tension to the breaking point. Had Natali and Polley worked harder to bring just an iota of that same care and narrative building, it would have taken this film to the next level, especially since the ideas are already there, but not laid out in a satisfying way.

Despite this somewhat major, destructive narrative issue, Splice has something to say, and for once it's not the tripe you'll expect to hear. While it may not redeem the film's troubled construction, it makes it interesting enough to stick with for two hours.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Late Night Trailers: I Am Love

I tend to fall in love with movies that choose excellent trailer music (John Adams in this case), contain the wonderful Tilda Swinton, or look pretty while involving some turn of the century story of tragic love and class wars. Imagine my excitement when I finally got to behold this trailer for Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love. I think it's time this came to my city. 

Love: Winter's Bone

When the HBO series True Blood first came out, I remember a bunch of Southerners getting all riled up; not about the graphic violence or hedonism, but because writer Alan Ball was a bit too heavy handed with the Southern stereotypes. I thought that was an overreaction, as some of the best southern stereotypes, especially the one's that hearken back to the Gothic South of Faulkner, are the most believable set pieces when you're talking vampires and things that go bump in the night. But having seen Winter's Bone, I'm starting to understand the plight of the misunderstood Southerners. As a native Missourian watching the film, you're given plenty of Missouri and Ozark stereotypes, with meth addicts instead of naked vampires and swamps, a meth mafia of sort, and formal dialog sometimes overly reminiscent to Huck Finn's various encounters down the Missouri portion of the Mississippi.
The "Huck" of Director Debra Granik's drama Winter's Bone, is Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who other than her baby's face is entirely unrecognizable as the 17 year old that she is. With a meth head for a father and mother stricken crazy and catatonic by his behavior, Ree is the soul caretaker of her two young siblings in their small backwoods house in the Southern Missouri Ozarks. When her father skips his bond hearing, Ree's only life line, her family home, is set to be possessed by the State. Unwilling to let her brother, mother, and sister end up in the woods to fend for themselves, Ree undertakes a Twain-like (minus the humor) journey to find her father and bring him back alive or dead with the reluctant help of her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes of HBO's Deadwood).
Granik sets the mood with lonely looks across frozen Ozark hills and close-ups on heavily lined faces. And while the film does get under you skin with it's strange nostalgic sentiment, by the end it feels exploitative. Missouri is the "Meth capital" of the world, but it's a problem almost more recognizable in the cities than it is in the middle of nowhere. And sadly, as romantic as the film makes Ozark poverty seem, the squirrel eating and banjo playing take it a bit too far into the stereotype territory, diminishing the emotional power that film works so hard to develop. It seems a cheap cop out in a film that seems to at least be trying to tell a real story that's unblemished by convention.
Were it not for the haunting performances all around, the film would have slipped into typical art house oblivion, bogged down by these cliches. Jennifer Lawrence is incredible as a young woman contained and strong by nature, not the adversity she faces on a daily basis. One particular scene at the climax of the film (let's just say there's a boat ride involved) makes Lawrence's performance. She's able to communicate the building emotion underneath the surface of the film in what could otherwise have been a ridiculous, corny turn of events. I still can't believe that this is the same girl from The Bill Engvall Show. John Hawkes gaunt face is equally fascinating to watch as his fragile frame oozes a restrained aggression that is both terrifying and impossible to look away from. The various actors that make up the "meth mafia" are equally engaging, helping Hawkes and Lawrence to steer the film into the Shakespearean and away from the obvious. Granik (a better director than the famed Kathryn Bigelow who won the Oscar in 2009 for directing The Hurt Locker), deserves every award for directing that's available, bleeding the emotion and depth from her actors in the subtlest and most successful of ways.

Despite my Missourian complaints, Winter's Bone is the type of movie you want to see acknowledged at the Oscars, the kind that should remind an entire industry that sometimes it's not about the action or the glitz, but the subtle look on an actor's face.

Love: Toy Story 3

Disney/Pixar made a movie.  Another movie.  Another good movie.  That's really all you need to know.  There's nothing more that needs to be said.  The Toy Story series is now one of the most solid film trilogies of all time.  If you're judging solely in the animated category, it is the most solid film trilogy of all time.  Of course, you're not surprised that Toy Story 3 is good.  It's a Pixar film, after all.  Even when their films aren't great they're still at the top of the cartoon heap.  Yet, maybe you should be a little surprised.  Or, at the very least, a little impressed.  Toy Story is Disney's Star Wars, it generates tie-ins and merchandise in abundance.  Everything is a toy, after all, and is thus born prepared to return to forms of plastic or plush.  The first film installment hit theaters in 1995.  It's now rolling through a decade and a half of child belovedness.  Middle schoolers who saw the flick in its original run may now be dragging their own spawn to the trilogy's 3D conclusion.  With 15 years, a never ending stream of Disney Store products, a permanent place in Disney theme parks, and a quality timelessness to its animation, these characters have transcended every generation gap.  Toy Story doesn't cater to any one audience, it doesn't have to.  Its themes are broad, its characters recognizable.  Every child falls in love with it if only because they already recognize its key players from the floor of their playroom.   Where am I going with this?  Toy Story 3 is good.  Really good.  It's an instant classic perhaps in spite of the fact that with the momentum built up from all that came prior, it didn't have to be.
Most of Hollywood pushes out sequels as income generators.  They're the sure things.  Second and third rounds of high-grossing popcorn flicks will continue to do well even if they films themselves aren't good at all.  Need an example? Look at Shrek.  The Dreamworks ogre lost his way somewhere between the second and third films, but the fourth film is well past the $200 million mark and sitting pretty in the box office top 5.  Disney/Pixar will certainly rake in a disgustingly large sum of cash as a result of Toy Story 3, but there's a distinct difference: nothing in the film feels forced.  Instead, everything has been carefully considered, and the tale it has to tell feels necessary to the completion of the initial narrative.  We've followed Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the gang from petty rivalries in their owner Andy's childhood through to Andy's coming-of-age, and the films have matured as well.  Toy Story 3 is as stressful as it is heartfelt.  As Andy prepares to go to college, his mother asks him to clean out his room and separate what can be boxed in the attic, what can be put in the trash, with what he wants to take with him to the dorms.  The remaining toys are anxious.  Those who have been spared yard sales and broken pieces have been left to sit without play for years now, they're prepared for the worst.  Then, of course, a glitch: the toys wind up packed and donated to Sunnyside Day Care.     
The toys, under the guidance of Woody and Mrs. Potato Head's misplaced eye, understand that there has been an error.  As they are subject to the joys and injustices of Sunnyside and its puffed-up plush patriarch Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear, Jessie, Bullseye, Hamm, and the others are left to anguish over their manufactured purpose (to be there for Andy) and their own desire to finally be played with.  It's a harrowing adventure that, as per usual, blends exacting, well-timed humor with a depth of emotion that hits on something profound within the human experience.  Toy Story 3 is a cinematic feat of a sequel.  It takes the successful pieces of its other parts and expands upon them, reaching towards a conclusion that is as satisfying as it is complete.  While the film indulges in its share of goofy humor and referential jokes, it is also a work that takes the melancholy sense of lost built into the series from the get go and brings the series to its universal thesis.  Yes, these are toys.  Yes, they know (as do we) they're designed to be temporary.  It's that inanimate awareness that makes it all the more resonant.  This plastic life is what makes it beautiful, and brilliant.  Every child grants their possessions imaginary life.  That life withers, but the memories of these attachments remain.  Toy Story in completion is a brightly-colored, effervescent epic of love, loss, and the impermanence of objects.  It draws you in with pep and laughs, but the reason you come back?  Well, that's something deeper.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Squalor: The A-Team

I love it when a plan comes together.  My plan was: find a friend, go to the theater, see a fun ol' rollicking summer action flick.  My plan came together.  Like magic.  I didn't even have to steal 20 airbags, rig up an elaborate diversion, or hijack a helicopter to do it.  Oh, how simple life is.  Seriously, I love it when a plan comes together. That's an A-Team catchphrase.  I'm assuming it was also a catchphrase on the actual TV series as well, but since the show ran while I was barely conscious...I'd be playing into some huge Wikipedia-based charade if I claimed to know for sure.  Either way, Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) and company say it about a million times.  There are a lot of plans coming together in The A-Team.  Elaborate ones that fall like dominoes one after another in a straight line of action from beginning to end credits.  It's the sort of blockbuster action movie that only comes along in the muggy dead of summer.  A few big names, a lot of explosions, and an enjoyable enough shred of story to keep an audience sufficiently entertained.
No, The A-Team is no great movie.  Our elite group of certifiably insane military fugitives is two parts charisma and pyrotechnics, one part poor acting.  Colonel Smith puffs his cigar and leads the rag-tag team through adrenaline draining feats of lunacy.  Pretty boy "Face" Peck (Bradley Cooper) plays second in command, "Howling Mad" Murdock (Sharlto Copley) provides the straight-outta-the-asylum comic relief, while mohawked "B.A" Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) is alternately the source for bad-assery and bellyaching.  Their places and traits are established before the opening credits, and the actors play out their pre-destined archetypes as two-dimensionally as appropriate.  Jackson, a UFC fighter, isn't cut out to deliver convincing dialogue, but we have Copley there to throw the audience off the scent.  Cooper gets to take his shirt off a lot, which is probably great for those who care.  Neeson looks better with a salt & pepper hairdo than he maybe ever has before, and he seems to be having a good time.  Past that, I pity the fool who walks into this film expecting depth (that one I know is rooted in the series).  There isn't anything here.  The A-Team is a B-action movie.  It doesn't cash in on fancy technical special effects, but sticks to stunts and flames.  It's also a sort of prequel.  If the show chronicled the adventures of the group as mercenary fugitives, the film shows how they reached that point and attempts to prep the world for a shiny new franchise.  Based on the opening box office numbers, that future isn't exactly set in stone, but if there's room for a third Transformers film, there's certainly enough space for a second silly old school romp.
It's hard to actually describe the plot, but that's of little consequence.  All you need to know is the A-Team gets wrongly accused, jailed, and they break out to prove their innocence. Before, after, and in-between all of that, there's a lot of plans being hatched.  Jessica Biel is on hand as a military Captain who runs about in fancy shoes and plays bloodhound in tracking down our team of half-deranged action figures, this seems important to mention but otherwise not especially noteworthy.

Of course, all of this makes it sound like I hated the movie.  I didn't, actually.  The A-Team is kind of a warm, happy, bounding dog of a summer blockbuster.  It might just run about chasing its own tail, but it's fun to watch.  Most of the joy of The A-Team comes from its basic mechanics: hatch a plan, carry it out, repeat.  There might not be enough time to develop the inner-workings of the characters, but you can't find time to run out to the bathroom or refill your popcorn if they're constantly in the midst of a chain reaction.  It's repetitive, but works.  "Why did they need all those airbags?" you ask yourself.  Sit back and wait, it's only a matter of minutes until all will be revealed.  Oh, how simple life is.  No, The A-Team is no great feat...but, it wisecracks its way to diversion and never burdens you with the darkness of anything that resembles real life.  The lack of darkness may not lead to award shows, but it does bring enough superficial fun to provide you with the break you just might need.  All in all?  It's not so bad.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Late Night Trailers: Somewhere

The first trailer for Sofia Coppola's film Somewhere.  Coppola is one of my contemporary favorites, her films are always beautiful to behold little jewelry boxes.  Somewhere looks promising, like that which could bring Stephen Dorff back from the dead and into a real, stable, leading-man career.  It may also prove to be that which skyrockets Elle Fanning past her big sister.  Don't get too excited, though, it isn't set to release until December.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Love: Get Him to the Greek

Get Him to the Greek is not Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  Though it's partially a spin-off based on Russell Brand's rock star lothario Aldous Snow from that sun-soaked rom com, you can forget Sarah Marshall.  Aldous Snow already has.  The closest you'll come to Jason Segel's film is a televised Kristen Bell cameo in which Snow takes a hard look and decides that yes, in fact, he does think he used to have sex with her.  No, Get Him to the Greek is not Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  It's a deep black pit of a comedy where everything potentially sweet is soured and the gods of chaos pummel mercilessly at bruised egos with strikingly somber undertones.  The superficial lure is a madcap buddy comedy of errors, but beware: Get Him to the Greek does knows few boundaries. It dives headfirst into music industry excess and transforms suddenly into an oft unpleasant cautionary tale on the limits of control.  It's also, of course, scathingly funny.

Superbad's Jonah Hill plays (semi)straight man as record company toadie Aaron Green.  Aaron has a doctor girlfriend (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss) who spends her free time sleeping, a too-intense boss (Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs, going 100% over-the-top to pull off a pretty decent comedic performance), and is a superfan of musical act Infant Sorrow's Aldous Snow (Brand).  Aldous Snow is an off the wagon rock god with a miserably failed last album.  His vulgar pop star girlfriend (Rose Byrne), whose sparkling lyrical subject matter seems anal-centric, has left him in the ditch and his best girl now is the hypodermic needle.  When Aaron is instructed to fly to London, retrieve Aldous, and get him to Los Angeles's Greek Theater in time for the anniversary concert that could revive the rocker's career, the trip is a snowballing accruement of disasters beginning with petty gags and spiraling towards dangerous, destructive behavior.
Get Him to the Greek is peppered with pop culture references and loaded with satirical ammunition.  It puts the music business on the spot and sheds light on some of its most dubious practices.  Aaron is instructed to play sycophant and indulge his idol's every whim.  In doing so, his values are compromised, his dignity is stripped away from him.  Hill plays his character well, alternating between boyish naivety and no fear, gross out stupor.  Brand, though, steals the show.  Aldous Snow is a stripped-down approximation of Brand's real life.  He's been to hell and back: addicted to sex and substances with equal fervor, stricken with depression, eating disorders, and causing enough havoc to accumulate a record of 11 arrests.  Brand knows this character, and his portrayal is magnetic.  On stage, he has charismatic swagger.  In private, his vulnerability, neurosis and fear are real and damn near heartbreaking.  You find yourself liking him even as he does or demands the unthinkable (and believe me, there are points in this film that steer much closer to Trainspotting than 40-Year Old Virgin), and it's these qualities that save the movie from itself. 

Get Him to the Greek is not an easy comedy.  In fact, it's frequently downright offputting.  It challenges its characters and its viewers, constantly upping the ante on its risks and moving very rapidly into territory that will be patently offensive (or depressing) to many.  Yet, perhaps in spite of all the vomit, slapstick, and mental/physical risks, it is a surprisingly complicated film, and a small success.  What Get Him to the Greek has going for it is its attention to the detail of its characters.  Aaron and Aldous are fully formed.  The clash of their personalities as they grapple to understand or battle one another creates the perfect laboratory for experimentation with Murphy's Law.  There are only a couple moments that leave you questioning a character's motivation, and in a movie like this, that's quite something.  Get Him to the Greek is a wild ride with any number of laughable lines.  Don't be alarmed, though, if at times it feels as though you really have to want to find them.  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Under 250: Valentine's Day

It seems to me that if Valentine's Day is a movie which, if you go into with high expectations, proves you're probably living under the delusion that you like movies. Because, I mean, which part are you excited about?  The epic scope of the romantic comedy?  The grand assemblage of a cast comprised 50% of actors who tend to ruin more films than they make?  The 10 minutes of Julia Roberts screen time (trust me, her character is completely non-vital)?  The Hallmark card level of chick flickiness it aspires to, even in the title?  I'm questioning your judgement.  Valentine's Day does manage something of a feat.  It takes quite a few actors who I typically find irritating (Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Jamie Foxx, Ashton Kutcher, Taylor Lautner) and makes them palatable, though a little too sickly sweet.  The film is the Short Cuts of fluff cinema (right down to the presence of a phone sex operator, Anne Hathaway, who may win the game here), building narrative arcs and shoving them together in ways that are sometimes surprising, sometimes forced, always just a little bit shallow.  The fun here comes in watching how the  threads established in the opening scenes begin to intertwine, and not, typically, from the comedic viability of the scenes themselves.  The characters are generally likable and surprisingly grounded in spite of their short bursts of screen time, but ultimately, the film feels overdone and can't escape its own penchant for the saccharine. While there are a few laugh-worthy moments, much of Valentine's Day is trite and bogged down with the usual surplus of relationship baggage.  You might laugh the most at Taylor Swift, but unfortunately, it's not because of her bubble-headed lines, it's their delivery...she's really a shockingly bad actress.  No. Really.

Under 250: The Road

Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer winning The Road, a book that has the added distinction of being perhaps the least Oprah-y Oprah books ever, gets an easy adaptation to the big screen.  The harrowing tale of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son's (Kodi Smit-McPhee)  survival against the elements in a post-apocalyptic landscape populated by roving cannibals and devoid of new life, The Road takes a formula built by a million movies of the past (zombies, Mad Max, all of it) and transforms it into something surprisingly moving.  It's hard not to get caught up in the horrifying struggles endured by the characters, to wonder how they keep pushing forward, or why they keep moving.  Mortensen is fantastic, and the film pulls few punches when it comes to the realism and intensity of its scenarios. That is...until Smit-McPhee starts getting obnoxious.  A problem that was, perhaps, not as noticeable in the book, Smit-McPhee plays his character with a shaky lip and a constant whine.  He'a a boy born into the end of civilization.  He has never known anything else.  And yet, he has apparently avoided the quick onset of adulthood or any sense of reality.  As he cries and calls for his "papa", you have to wonder how any kid in his situation has avoided the collection of his own wits.  Smit-McPhee, in the film's final half hour, slowly obliterated the impressive progressive-build of emotional tumult and transformed it into something that felt like a cheap fable. The average viewer will likely remained touched, but for the cynical amongst us, prepare to revel in the film's destructive beauty even as you curse the casting of its figure of hope.

Under 250: Daybreakers

With pop culture so heavily saturated with a certain kind of shirtless vamp, it's hard to remember a time when the bloodsuckers were just plain monsters.  Daybreakers, a sci-fi horror romp in glorious hi-def shades of blue, serves as a partial reminder of simpler times.  No heartache, no reflections; lots of haunted house scares, bat wings, and blood geysers. Blending zombie-style plague mythos with fangs and a quest for some last shred of humanity, the film is set on an Earth in which humans are a species near extinction.  The planet is dominated by an infected race of vampires who harvest and hunt the remaining population.  Ethan Hawke plays a conflicted creature on the hunt for a substitute under the corporate sponsorship of a crooked, appropriately-cast Sam Neil.  Daybreakers is a glossy action flick with just enough thought-provoking cultural commentary to keep it afloat between the cheap thrills.  The first 45-minutes are a blast; part GATTACA, part Universal horror.  Unfortunately, the second act tends towards the drawn out and labored.  Yet, in spite of this, Daybreakers is an inventive Hollywood B-movie with  enough entertaining bits to keep the subpar effects at bay.  Worth a look for fans of non-sparkly vampires.

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