Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Army of Me; In Which we Find Sucker Punch Beyond Standard Film Criticism and Worthy of Real Talk

I am disturbed by Sucker Punch.  I am disturbed on a number of levels and, to clear things up right now, this is not the "fuck this misogynist crap" essay you've seen repeated almost everywhere else.  No, my feelings on the matter have gone way beyond the exhaustion I experienced directly after viewing the film.  We're over it.  Yes, my immediate reaction, the one that kicked up as soon as the credits started rolling, was one shared by most critics: what I’d just watched was a jumbled mess I didn't want to bother unpacking right away.  Sucker Punch is tremendously cluttered, its world unfolds like 2-hours of moving concept art for fanboys.  Everything (including kitchen sinks, it's true) has been stirred into our dud Molotov cocktail: dragons, samurai, zombie German soldiers, robots, outer space, zeppelins, implied dance sequences.  No exaggeration: the whole nerd culture she-bang including, yes, girls in fetishistic, skimpy clothing doing flips and high kicks like a pack of emotionally damaged, CGI-enhanced cheerleaders.  Of course, mess aside, it's that last one that appears to be the deal breaker.  Critic after critic (including countless women and feminist blog Jezebel) have passed judgement and branded the "girls in revealing clothing" bit as both purpose and problem in Sucker Punch.  They chant like a scolding Greek chorus: Oh, Zack Snyder, didn't you know?  A weak girl with a samurai sword does not a heroine make...

As someone who won't hesitate to self-describe as feminist, I did have some suspicion I would wind up agreeing with the central thesis of the aforementioned Greek chorus.  Now that I've seen it, I can't jump on that bandwagon (and it really is one).  After careful consideration, I now have to argue that the critics latching on to this viewpoint are  contributors to the exact problems they're attacking:  the fact they seem so content to rage without analysis makes their noise all the more reductionist and just plain ignorant.  

Wait - let's push pause- if all you care about is whether or not the film is 'decent,' I'll answer you now  (as this is about to become a hell of a lot more complicated) Sucker Punch is a flawed, truly unpleasant, jarring movie that just happens to feature impressively strong visuals.  Dazzle aside, the story is not fun and unless you're looking for a sharp slap, it’s probably not the action movie you’re looking for.  Yet, for all of the hype, pans, and slams, it seems to be quite possible that the film has been astoundingly misread and written off without tact.  Because of that, I must now take up this dead weight.  Ask any of my co-workers over the past few days and you'll know it's become virtually impossible for me to write a straight review on Sucker Punch.  As an entity, it is a question, not a film.  We should not be discussing it in terms of cohesion or entertainment, but instead in terms of reaction.  It's a positing and a presentation of uncomfortable material from  unlikely sources in a way that's aggressively, caustically confrontational.  Though we may be happier ignoring its messages, we should be paying attention to Sucker Punch.  This is a challenging film, an enigma that has the potential to work outside of Hollywood dollar signs and sneakily change, as powerful art does, a very slanted game.  Yes, to be sure, its trappings are not conventionally feminist.  No, the approach is not one of gung-ho empowerment, but it is one that opens up conversation.  The title is apt, and can refer to nothing within the film, but only to your experience watching it.  It's nothing short of a literal sucker punch; a surprise blow to geek culture and jaded audiences used to on-screen violence and ladies skintight and strapped in, a profoundly tragic plea disguised as silly, dolled-up action adventure.  The long and short?  It's not what you think and then some.  When I say I'm disturbed by Sucker Punch, I'm disturbed by its content, yes, who wouldn’t be?   But I'm even more disturbed by its reception.  

To begin discussing Sucker Punch, we must first pound out the sketchy details offered us by the plot, since the trailers have done very little to outline what you'll be watching.  There are three levels of reality offered to us as our protagonist dissociates further and further from her "real life."  Loosely, in the first level:  the film follows a 20-year old young woman referred to as Babydoll (Emily Browning) as she is forced into an all female mental institution by her monstrous stepfather.  She does not belong there, but in the wake of an incident, has been drugged and driven there without comment.  Her stepfather has arranged with corrupt orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac) for her to be permanently quieted by a lobotomy she does not need in just a few days.  It’s important to note that the orderlies operate off the radar of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino), who appears to only work with the girls through an experimental, theatrical group therapy.  Upon Babydoll’s arrival, the film enters a second level of reality to “cope” with life in the asylum.  In the second world, Babydoll imagines the asylum as a bordello run by a gangster (Blue again), her fellow patients here are dancing girls and prostitutes, she is the newest among them.  Babydoll  is being saved and kept chaste for the “High Roller” (Jon Hamm), a man who has paid top dollar for B.’s virginity (in level one, he has no such intentions, but is the lobotomist).  In this world,  Babydoll is a spectacularly skilled dancer.  We learn that when she dances she's capable of captivating her audience to full distraction.  We never see what her erotic dance looks like, however, because in these ‘musical numbers’ B. slips into the third world.  The third world is where the real action happens.  In this level B. is a girl warrior.  She dresses like an anime schoolgirl and she and her fellow patients are soldiers of fantasy.  The second and third worlds connect in that each time Babydoll dances, she is using herself as the distraction so that the other girls can retrieve the items and information they require to eventually make their escape plan a reality.  Confusing?  A little.
Of course, the transitions are jarring and it’s difficult to understand why we need this triple layering of realities to deal with the subject matter.   Here’s where the problems arise.  The sexual implications of what’s going on here are obvious, and the studio unfortunately ran with them in their marketing campaign.  It becomes very easy to view the escapism as male dominated, male informed, and designed, specifically, for male consumption.  Babydoll and her new found ‘friends’ are exploited at every level of this story.  In the third world: they are Charlie’s Angels, their leader is an old wise man and their costumes are tight leather, fishnets, high boots, and midriff tops.  They may be lethal, but they seem custom made for the male gaze, and for material to be later added to a fanboy's spank bank.  In the second world: the girls are sex workers.  Plain and simple.  They are exploited by Blue and their efforts to escape are physical exploitations of themselves.  They do not own their sexuality.  They are not empowered though they have learned how to use, occasionally, their supposed wiles to their advantage.  In the first world?  Well, I’d believe this is the missing link to unpacking the other levels.  
Critics and detractors thus far have consistently questioned the validity of Babydoll’s fantasies.  I would agree, it's certainly worth asking why a young girl would imagine herself trapped as a sex worker as a coping mechanism.  I mean, like, why no rainbows and butterflies? (Sarcasm)  Anyhow, we should follow that first question with a query as to why it is Babydoll seems so obviously sexualized from the very beginning of the film, or, why every female relationship in the film must be torn apart (mother/daughter, sister/sister, friend/friend, etc).   Let’s consider this:  at the film’s opening, B.’s mother has just died.  She and her much younger (read: little) sister are left everything, the stepfather inherits nothing.  B’s sister is not sexualized.  She is a child.  B. is pink and pigtailed with perpetually rouged cheeks and thick false eyelashes.  She is the prototypical picture of post-Nabokovian jailbait, a definite nymphette.  Cut to: the stepfather.  The first couple times we see him, he is caught mid-gaze at these girls.  In the first, he appears to be loosening his tie and smiling maliciously.  Hmm.  As the scene reaches its climactic moments and the stepfather flies into a rage, it becomes very clear that the action he is about to take (on the youngest daughter first) is at least partially sexual, perhaps wholly.  He goes free for his crimes while Babydoll is hospitalized and blamed for the death of her sister.  

This is the world that Babydoll comes  from.  Upon entry into the asylum, the omnipresence of male orderlies -who are (immediately) presented as entirely untrustworthy- indicates to the audience that this is not a safe haven.  The asylum will not be an escape from that lascivious male gaze.  B. is not safe here, with or without the lobotomy on the horizon.  A much later scene indicates that Blue takes advantage of the girls, that he frequently gets off on their complete lack of power.  There’s a very distinct rape subtext at work here.  Babydoll incorporates these going-ons into this other world, using fantasy to transform (partially) the grim asylum into a semi-luxurious brothel, where, though they are trapped, the girls possess a feigned amount of sexual agency.  She consciously understands that she is prisoner already, and via her disturbed outlook, she might as well imagine herself in a place where what's being taken from her is at least a prize of some value.

Another aspect to consider is that the film does not take place in the present time, and can instead be dated  in the 1940’s or early 50’s (though it’s loaded with anachronisms that call upon staunch Victorianism as well).  Babydoll’s cultural landscape is not one informed by practiced or militant feminism, but a feminism which has (in her lifetime) most likely been most readily informed by women’s involvements in the war effort, propaganda posters, and pin-ups.  As a too pretty 20-year old, we get the sense that she has --even in her childhood/domestic life-- been objectified.  Her stepfather has done so, the orderlies immediately do so.  For her, this objectification is unavoidable.  It’s fact, the way of her world, and something she has no power over as she has, at 20, thus far failed to achieve independence.  She is not worldly, but cobbles her visions from miscellaneous pieces: radio adventures, soldiers, Hollywood tropes (backstage musicals).  

While the golden age of valorized war may have been about to expire, at this point in history utmost respect went to male soldiers and those who had seen action battling the krauts, the Japanese, etc.  Soldiers were true heroes.  Meanwhile, women who were free in both spirit and body lived outside of the ‘pleasantville’ of societal expectations.  Some were brash pin-ups, some were characters in radio plays set in jungles or distant planets,  others were Katharine Hepburn.  Still, they (like Wonder Woman) had control over their bodies, dressed the way they wanted, and were generally not considered ‘good’ girls.  We must remember that there was a period where bikinis and miniskirts were seen as rebellious, body embracing, and envelope pushing by girls and not simply something mentioned in the same sentence as a Sports Illustrated special issue.   

So, ask again: why would Babydoll, an objectified girl from a very male dominated period of time fantasize herself into these situations? Quite simply: that’s what she has to work with. For her there is, however slight, still a glamour in visualizing herself in a Cyd Charisse leotard. For her, a very short skirt is a taboo because it pushes her to the societal fringe. She has her right to wear it.  For her, when strong women take up arms, they look like the girls on pin-up calendars and painted onto the sides of atom bombs. Remember, too, that the asylum setting is a place that would be rife with sexual politics.  Institutionalized girls were more likely to be suffering from “sexual issues” than legitimately insane. You will note that no one questions Babydoll’s insanity.  She has no advocates. This is tragic, but historically accurate.

Women in this time were frequently diagnosed hysterical, nymphomaniacal, or 'damaged' due to lesbian tendencies - all considered serious "disabilities" for a respectible girl- and hidden away where they would be unable to burden or embarrass their families. Female sexual agency was symptomatic of a ‘problem’ and women were given shock therapies and lobotomies to rid them of their demons. Babydoll knows this, Sylvia Plath knew this, Zack Snyder knows this. 

So, the real question I’d put forth would be closer to: why wouldn’t there be obviously sexualized imagery in this girl's tainted fantasy?  

B. is sexualized, not lightly, not clumsily, but in a very particular, pointed way that has worked to make viewers (critics included) uncomfortable.  She has been formed by our collective past culture and she is not educated enough to not buy into it to some extent. There’s no opportunity, no reason to transform her reality into a more noble calling.  Because she is already a victim, she can't be Katharine Hepburn, can't be Coco Chanel or Eleanor Roosevelt, but can be a pin-up doll.  B. and the other girls are trapped with no other means.  In this position, they are forced to use their sexuality.  It is their only weapon in this world.  Snyder does not let us take that from them.  He has done what he can to tone down their sexuality so we don't misread it. When they dance, we do not see what the men in the dark see. We see the third world, the place in which B. is in possession of a power that does not stem from the misuse of her body because, obviously, that misuse is one she is very clearly uncomfortable with herself.

What I'm arguing is that this is not a film about short skirts, despite what you've read.  It’s a film about the struggle of these women.  If all you can see are the short skirts, congratulations: you’re a guilty party.  You’ve just managed to objectify these women as much as the villains have.  Just as the girls perform on screen for men in the dark, you have become the man in the dark and the reason the film needs to exist. 

What Sucker Punch is about in actuality is not explicitly written into a skimming of its surface.  It’s instead co-opting a male dominated genre and using it as a forum to address very serious, very dire societal issues.  The film is, in many ways, dealing with the struggles of women over centuries.  

In fact, this film is about the realities of being a woman right now.  It’s a reflection of our own society, the very place in which what we’re watching is indeed correctly interpreted as misogyny, but incorrectly assumed to be accidental misogyny instead of that purposely depicted.   We can’t blame Snyder for his.  Appearances suggest that Snyder is indeed aware that his film is tragic.  He does not take the story (or the fates of these characters) lightly.  With Sucker Punch he is showing us ourselves and we don't like what we see.  The harsh reality of this film is that: 1. There is no happy ending.  2. Most of the characters die, cruelly.  3. Women must help other women if they hope to enact any change at all.  4. You (as a woman) will be objectified.  Doesn’t sound like a fun day at the movies, does it?  Nope. Didn’t think so.  Audiences have recoiled after seeing Sucker Punch, and rightfully so.  We’re used to watching faceless characters die by the dozens and we love ourselves a machine gun (I’m no exception, dammit), but Sucker Punch subverts and perverts that love.  What’s surprising is that the film, from scene one, takes absolutely no glee in its violence.  The acts in the first and second worlds are not cathartic vacuums, they're real and dramatically heavy.  The only senseless acts are performed by the girls themselves, over glossed, and deliberately dreamlike; otherwise the focus never flinches from addressing issues of victimization.  As the characters are killed off, each instance is delivered as a shock for the audience and the other players.  

The moments in which these characters are murdered are somber, dwelled upon, sickening and delivered very gravely, without any of the humor or distraction that might otherwise mark an on-screen killshot within the genre.  This is why I’m so alarmed by the reactionary statements I’ve heard and read.  No, I didn’t enjoy Sucker Punch. I couldn’t.  Yet, I understood that it wasn't asking me to.  My guess is that no matter the age of the audience member, we know, instinctively, that what we’re seeing is not right.  That's why this movie is currently flopping so hard: nobody wants to recommend it to a friend and those who have seen it have a bad case of the creeps.  Of course, instead of confronting this head on, it seems that some of us are happy to play like Babydoll and pretend these issues don’t exist, that the movie is just a movie and that victimization and objectification aren’t issues we ourselves have to deal with unless we “put ourselves in these situations.”  Instead, we're alright sitting back and blaming Snyder for not distracting us.  We’re uncomfortable with having to deal with the film’s too real heaviness, so we fault the man in charge: this is Snyder’s misogyny.  He has killed his characters because he’s a sadist, because he wants to see these women destroyed.  He made us- the zombie audience-feel uncomfortable.  Obviously, I call horseshit.

Conventional society is used to ‘girl power’ feminism.  We think it’s a step in the right direction if a violent film has a female president or a female team member capable of kicking the boys’ asses or playing right alongside them.  We don’t think that the death of a woman can be a feminist statement unless that woman is representative of some larger evil.  Um, ok, but then what?  The irony is that as our lady action heroes (still fetishized/heavily objectified in cosplay and fan art) become more numerous, our society remains just as dangerous, violent, and quick to blame the female victim for her mode of dress or ‘sending out signals’ that ‘ask for it.’  Our strong women are still objectified, we have whole networks of procedural shows devoted to a deep rooted fascination with so-called "special victims" of sex crimes, and violence (literal or figurative) between women has been escalated and showcased across the media.   We’re used to it, we’re comfortable with it, and no one pauses to consider just how disturbing that level of comfort actually is. So, as we watch Sucker Punch, we focus on the fantasy elements just as Babydoll does.  We try to make sense of that fantasy.  Why are there dragons?  Geez, that was stupid.  What’s going on?  Meh.  It’s far easier to say “I didn’t get it” and remark on how ‘hot’ Emily Browning is than to actually think through her character’s reality or try to tap into that empathy.  

Of course, Sucker Punch’s level of complication is all illusion.  The third world is just made of the smoke and mirrors Snyder lets us use the same way Babydoll does.  We've got our buffers in place, but when the actual sucker punches fly, they knock out your teeth and leave no room for misinterpretation.  When the girls die, they die at the hands of reckless men who do not value them as human beings, but who see them as disposable objects.  At least two of the girls are murdered as punctuation marks to a declarative male sentence in one particularly jarring scene.  

This logic winds its way through all other aspects of them film:  the women are assigned no value in the eyes of the men, but instead must find value in each other.  The lobotomy is a symbolic occurrence, a stripping away of Babydoll’s voice and mind to create a passive, quiet woman who is incapable of fighting back, or creating her own destiny.  It’s important, too, that all relationships between women are thwarted.  Contact and commiseration must be eliminated, according to these men.  B.’s sister is killed.  B.’s friends are ripped from her, Dr. Gorski’s interaction with her patients is partially blocked by Blue’s interference, Rocket and her sister Sweet Pea are robbed of each other. Babydoll is ultimately a self-sacrificing, tragic hero.  In the beginning, and throughout, she fights physically against her literal/figurative captors.  At the film’s conclusion, she has found partial victory at the cost of her own person.  She has enacted change in some way, and forced the oppression and victimization of these girls to light.  
What she has succeeded in most of all, and what Zack Snyder has also succeeded in (and you can read this interview to gauge for yourself just how aware of the irony he is) is opening up a mainstream forum for this conversation to take place.  You will probably not enjoy Sucker Punch, but it is, regardless, a powerful piece of art with a practical usage.  That the film managed to receive a PG-13, an outrageous budget, major studio backing, and a wide IMAX release feels like a coup as well as the mass market proof that society needs to have this discussion.  After all…Warner Brothers saw saleable objects where there perhaps were none. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Love: Arthur

It's been a very long time since I saw the Dudley Moore original, but what I remember about the 1981 Arthur is watching it as a teenager and not liking it much.  It must have been fairly forgettable, since my memory has blocked almost everything apart from recollection of it as disappointingly rather unfunny.  With that in mind, I wasn't sure why studio execs decided the world needed a 2011 remake.  Of course, whether it was necessary or not: now we have one.  What's more?  While it may suffer from a case of pseudo-irrelevancy, I have to admit this new Arthur won me over.  Here we have a frequently funny, oddly genuine, never too tiring or preachy, family friendly comedy about alcoholism.  Its star is not the charming Dudley Moore but instead the rather grimy, rough around the edges Russell Brand.  It's a casting that, in some ways, makes sense given the British comedian's past history of addiction.  Yet, this is not Get Him to the Greek, and, as many critics have been quick to point out, Brand is a risky choice who, when trying too hard, tends to  fluctuate rapidly between charming and truly irritating.  Someone somewhere went so far as to label Brand's take on Arthur a "career killer."  Speaking frankly?  That's the kind of statement that makes the journalists come across as utterly pretentious, out of touch squares unwilling to concede that sometimes a film need have no heavier merits than entertainment value, charm, and the ability to elicit a few laughs.
As the incompetent, whiskey soaked, playfully romantic billionaire Arthur Bach, Brand is believably wide-eyed, childish, and excitable.  He skillfully walks a line bisecting youth and adulthood, mixing the disarming elements of one (he's an innocent, well-meaning, toy and cartoon obsessive boy) with the heavier bits of another (parties, booze, sexual politics) while never slipping into mental handicap.  I never questioned Arthur's motivation.  He's a slick and clever as he is spoiled and dependent.  Though he needs his childhood nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) to complete simple household tasks, Brand plays Arthur's shortcomings off less as idiocy than the toll taken by alcohol and privilege.  He's daft, sure, but charmingly so.  Mirren keeps his character firmly in line, weighing in with concerns that echo the audience's in the moments Arthur leans a little too far out of frame.  She's always the bad ass, and always in possession of an undeniable grace, even when she's reading a 30-year old man a bedtime story.  Consequently, she sells it.  Mirren and Brand have a surprisingly sweet dynamic that does much to keep maintain the film's focus.  When Arthur eventually refers to Hobson as his "mother," the non-biological validation speaks volumes.  Hobson is the film's moral compass.  We are asked, silently, not to judge Arthur's drinking as we otherwise might.  The omnipresent flask, the bottle of Maker's Mark, these are problems, but they're not the only ones.  We must have the patience, essentially, to view this as part of his character for the duration and not the sole focus.  He's a cartoon drunk, the happy-go-lucky, swaying old goose who burps bubbles and entered the scene to provide levity and merriment at costs only to his pride.  It's an old-fashioned perspective, in many ways, and part of  Arthur's critical failure can perhaps be chalked up to the fact that this simply isn't a laughing matter in contemporary America.   The film addresses the darker side of Arthur as little, or as gently, as possible.  It tries its hardest to always keep the champagne flute half full.  That it succeeds in pushing hot button buzz issues into the background is, I think, something of a win for comedy. It's also something of a testament to its actors, who give us the thesis without hammering us over our heads.
Brand and Mirren aside, indie darling Greta Gerwig offers a romantic interest the audience worthy of emotional investment.  As Naomi, an unlicensed, vaguely hipster NYC tour guide, Gerwig is fairly adorable and immediately likable.  She'd grounded, so believably normal, that you instinctively want her to find a happy ending.  Though she appears to deserve more than our alcoholic hero,  when we see that she finds value in him, we feel free to do the see the same.  Brand is a capable enough actor to finely tune the differences in the way he communicates with Naomi, Hobson, and his megalomaniacal intended (Jennifer Garner).  His character's defense mechanisms are varied, he becomes more or less lucid depending on his surroundings.  Each interaction succeeds in finding its humorous quotient with a surplus of pithy commentary and too clever asides.  The result is a warmly welcoming hot toddy, a film that may be made up of empty calories, but which is, regardless, enjoyable and comfortable.  

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mixtape: Follow Me, Girls

In which we continue our Wilderness Girls tutelage amidst the royal tribes of the Hollywood Hills. Appraising jewelry, shopping for that which has a price tag, writing our memoirs, and telling the world that cookies are an accessory that doesn't go out of style. Follow us, girls, as we grow up to be celebutantes who can build a campfire when we're not holed up at the Ritz. We're Troop Beverly Hills. We can do the frug, we can do the freddie, we will not call you back.  A playlist, as suggested by @kuroi_lion.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Under 250: Paranormal Activity 2

I don't understand Paranormal Activity. The first one, I thought, was 'meh.'  You know, not horrible, but pretty disappointing.  The second one (which is a prequel) is pretty much identical except for this time there's child endangerment.  What I've gathered from watching these movies is that apparently my levels of empathy are just really off, because I can't access why or how installing a home video camera in a corner and having doors slam or actors stand still is frightening to so many people.  This is similar to how I am befuddled by the number of ghost hunting shows on cable.  Am I supposed to apply these things to my life?  Is that what's supposed to happen?  Am I supposed to think "oh, yes, this would be a really terrible thing to have happen."  When the movie ends, am I supposed to believe that it's entirely possible the sibling will be possessed and one day I'll wake up in the middle of the night and that kid will be standing stock still in the middle of the kitchen carving demonic symbols into the cabinets?  Please. That happens all the time.  Also, why are these people so invested in their video camera? I mean, all the damn time?  Their lives up until this point are really not interesting or worth recording.  Also, the way they talk to the camera is ridiculous and works to make its horror movie suspense pacing more tedious than anything else.  What I'm saying is that despite claims that Paranormal Activity 2 is the scariest thing since you chopped your finger off slicing bread, all I saw was a movie almost identical to the first.  The proximity made it pretty predictable which should have, by my count, made it even less frightening for audiences.  There's nothing new here but a few jumpy scenes placed pretty much just where you might expect them to be.  This is a moneymaker.  It's a quick buck for the studio with almost no pay-off for the viewer.        

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Love: Win Win

Win Win is aptly titled, this much is true.  It's name carries no punny irony, but instead, as if prophesied, it succeeds on two fronts:  it's a charming familial dramedy as well as an alarmingly engaging high school sports flick.  Paul Giamatti leads a cast of of familiar faces (Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Melanie Lynskey, and Jeffrey Tambor) through a quirkier, slice of life, grungier version of The Blind Side.  Except, you know, where The Blind Side is true, Win Win feels true instead of feeling like a moral fairy tale.  When small town attorney/wrestling coach Mike Flaherty finds the runaway teen grandson (newcomer Alex Shaffer) of his senile client waiting idly on the front stoop, lack of means and circumstance leads him to take the kid in.  It's another in a series of Mike's recent frustrations; there's not much work in town as an attorney, the wrestling team sucks, the plumbing at the office has gone to shit.  Kyle's a quiet, angsty looking blonde kid who makes initially makes Mike's wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) nervous and who has a mother that just can't be reached.  The longer it takes, the more Mike's stuck dragging the cigarette smoking skate punk from job to job.  Naturally, like the aforementioned film, it turns out Kyle's actually got a fair amount of skill as a wrestler. Naturally.    
It's unlikely that anyone will argue Win Win isn't predictable.  Spoiler alert: in many ways, it is just that.  Luckily, though, the story isn't what's at stake.  Win Win doesn't thrive on plot. When we travel from point A to point B we're not dwelling on whether or not the action is trite.  Instead, we're enjoying spending time with the characters.  Win Win  is a little film that works as a little world.  It's a portrait of a great many people in the midst of constructing common threads.  The film is driven by its characters, our relationships to them, and their relationships to each other.  It's best when it shows us its inhabitants at their most unassuming.  This is about Mike buying a pack of cigarettes, smoking one behind the mini-mart, and throwing the rest out.  It's about how oddly endearing it is to watch Mike and his overenthusiastic divorcee friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) checking out Youtube clips of Kyle's former matches and leaping up from their chairs in excitement like they're watching a live game on a 60-ince flat screen.  It's about Jackie's dorky Bon Jovi-themed tattoo, her daughter's desperate hunt for someone to play croquet with, and the little moments that add up to the bigger picture.  These characters aren't merely likable, they're realistic.   Director Thomas McCarthy does with this "family" what he did with The Visitor and The Station Agent, and his casting of Giamatti is perfect.  Giamatti is one of the great bumblers.  He's also, of course, an excellent actor who can use that power in mysterious ways.  Here, he's well-meaning guy with a little bit of conflict trying to live up to the expectation of his strong-willed wife and keep his kids in the life they're used to.  Ryan, with a bit of Jersey girl tough talk, is a great equal for Giamatti and they're absolutely believable as a married set.  Shaffer is perhaps the weak spot, but while he's not the best at emotional outbursts, he's spot on as 'average teen' and  there's something to be said for balancing the dual nature of school bad ass and good kid.  Together, the cast makes Win Win a movie worth seeing.  It's sweet and simple, in possession of fully formed characters and enough real heart to make semi-transparency worthwhile.    

Under 250: Country Strong

I don't know why I watched Country Strong.  The weather must be getting to me, is all I can say.  I suppose that apart from my latent masochism I must have been hoping that something redeeming (in that Nashville sense) could come from just another tale of those country blues, but that sounds horribly unlike me.  Needless to say: I put Country Strong on, threw up a little bit in my mouth, and let it ride itself out as I read a book and moved around the room suddenly looking for things to do.   Amazingly: I didn't miss a damn thing.  It feels as though there are a million of these down and out redemption fables centered around country music, and where I could deal with Crazy Heart in some respects as character driven (but still silly mediocre, I maintain this), Country Strong is about as shallow and derivative as they come. The problem here, as I see it, is that the characters are archetypes instead of real people.  Their dramatic motivation seems crafted from artifice and never truly genuine.  Kelly Cantor (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a superficial tragic hero awash with petty, poorly acted, superficial substance abuse issues and marital drama.  She's a weak, fairly unlikable character the film wants us to back wholeheartedly and cheer on.  It pitches low balls, giving us mopey Kelly Make A Wish moments or a lucid bit of friendly advice to her adversary (Leighton Meester) to prove she's human while never actually delivering on her lowest lows.  All of the drama is sort of in the past, what's left is an on-stage, lame emotional breakdown, a tame drunk moment dancing on a bar and a bit of puking in a trash can.  Ah yes, the horror. We're truly touching bottom in the most tabloid friendly way imaginable.  Kelly is a sad character, but she's written and played without any gravitas.  She's an easily dismissable magazine headline.  We don't see the strength or commitment to her art that could make her downward spiral truly worth watching.  What we see instead is a decidedly weak woman who's happiest staring into the eye's of baby Tron and kicking her feet around on an unmade bed.  We're told Kelly was once "tough as nails" but we see nothing but a frustratingly resigned trembling wad of goop.  Really, she's exhausting in a way that's not compelling.  So, where Country Strong wishes it were Crazy Heart, Walk the Line, or Coal Miner's Daughter, it's instead a musically-inclined Lifetime movie.  From beginning to end, it's a Texas-sized cycle of cliches, southern accents, attempts to play to your sympathies, and nothing new.  If you watch it and make it to those final scenes, you'll know what I mean. For those with no intention of doing so (spoiler alert) let's say there were two roads: redemption and sudden death. This movie takes the one that's the most nonsensical and plays it for shock value.  It's trite, bland, boring, and just not for me.  Maybe if you're a fan of the music, you can find a little bit more to love.  I couldn't, and admittedly found myself fast forwarding through the numbers after about thirty seconds of each one.  I just don't believe Gwyneth Paltrow as a country queen.  Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund made it work, but Paltrow?  Um...what did I miss?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Love: Source Code

Source Code has been out for a few weeks now.  My review, then, is late to the little Groundhog Day high tea that surrounded its release.  No matter.  Here in Chicago, it actually snowed yesterday.  This was disappointing for everyone, I think, as such an occurrence tends to be.  We dealt with it, but for some reason (I'll be honest) it took a lot out of me.  I'm dead tired, a couple posts behind, and Source Code has already been praised quite enough.  Too much, maybe.  Anyway, Source Code is partially set in Chicago.  With the weather now, the sunshine on film appears to be some sort of otherworld, fictional Chicago.  It's maps and grids are foreign, the Metra has been rechristened, and it's a Chicago in which one resident seems to believe that bringing another resident to visit Millennium Park's mirrored Cloud Gate ("The Bean") sculpture is a novel concept, not at all touristy, and something they'd be certain not to have seen before.  Funny.

Of course, Source Code is directed by a Brit, not a Midwesterner.  This is Duncan Jones' follow-up to Moon, a low-budget sci-fi success story I quite enjoyed.  Where Moon seemed to easily expand beyond its limited confines, Source Code seemed to reek of Hollywood influence.  A little low on style, a little high on Jake Gyllenhaal, a little overripe with inserted secret government official dialogue and silly filler.     It's a thriller driven by a deceptively complicated mechanism that comes across as easy and refreshing.  Gyllenhaal and his desperate, searching, anime puppy dog eyes star as  sergeant Colter Stevens, a man who wakes up to find he's on a commuter train surrounded by people he doesn't know who seem to know him, and whose day gets progressively weirder from there.  As we wind from train to catastrophic incident to military lab, the pieces slowly begin to come together for Colter (and the audience) and he begins to accept that this moment will be repeated several times in the not too distant future.  He will ride that train and meet that girl (the very tepid Michelle Monaghan) and have her thank him for that advice over and over and over.  I'll stop there and resist the urge to spoil the film for you.  What I'll tell you is this: while Source Code was refreshingly simple, for me it was perhaps too much so.  The ice keeping it cool is melted and the whole thing feels watered down, hollow, and too willing to capitalize on a very nearly sappy empathy instead of really maintaining any sort of edge. 

In a highly mechanized, repetitive plot line, it is perhaps important to heighten the 'humanity' of the story.  Colter is trapped.  He has to do this.  Each time he makes his 8-minute return we as the audience do need to see him latch on to something.  Similarly, each moment spent in the interim has to hold up its end of the story as well.  In that respect, Source Code is a successful film.  It's entertaining, it doesn't spend too long in one place or overstay its welcome.  Gyllenhaal is generally sympathetic even if you'd prefer to see him time travel back to Donnie Darko, and Vera Farmiga, in her role, plays it down the straight and narrow.  The film mines its characters and forces them (and us) to feel something, however shallow it may be in hindsight.  The problem, though, is that there's a pretty large suspension of disbelief involved in respect to both the science and the sort of interpersonal relationships formed on that train.  There are topics not addressed, options shot down too early, and answers that ultimately wind up being remarkably transparent.  Don't let me tell you it's not worth watching, it is.  You'll like it, even if you don't love it.  For a single serving spring release: it's not bad!  This is one of those pieces of cinema with that certain "something" for everybody: action, romance, politics, fantasy, suspense, cheap thrills, and, well, you know, all that harmless fun.  What it lacks?  Style.  A little bit of style and a substance past tugging gently at your too human heartstrings.  Though I'd solved the puzzle early on (and yeah, it was maybe mostly a guess, but one I suspect most culture literate folks might make), I enjoyed the journey while it lasted, but am content to let it drift away into mere memory.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Late Night Trailers: The Three Musketeers

I grew up watching any and all Three Musketeers movies. I have high, high hopes for this one.

Late Night Trailers: Beginners

How great does Beginners look?  Really great, if you ask me.  Ewan McGregor (who I will probably be in love with again after this movie), Christopher Plummer, and Melanie Laurent star in Mike Mills' (Thumbsucker) dramedy about a son coping with major changes in his father's life.  Beginners is slated for release stateside on June 3rd, to battle it out against X-Men: First Class or -- it's more likely limited release blood brother -- Submarine.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Love: Insidious

Insidious is an ode to the old school haunted house flick with enough style and twists to keep things interesting, but not nearly enough to make it stick with you as the hideous demons stick to its main characters.
 After opening with a jolt and a flaming red title card that reads INSIDIOUS, the credits meander through several spaces within a house, revealing a variety of ghosts and frightening images, introducing the demons we're about to become acquainted with before any of the living have a chance. The "living" are Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne), who move into a massive old home with their 3 children only to discover that something is haunting them, particularly after their eldest son falls into an unexplained coma. Voices threaten the family over the baby monitor, hideous forms appear on the other side of the window, and bloody claw prints stain the sheets of the sleeping children. The rest of the film is full of twists that are better kept secret.
Like many horror tales that have preceded it, when Insidious finally comes to a (slow) climax, those twists are explained in a rushed sentence by a newly introduced character. It's a huge, intense let-down, even if the details of the story seem decidedly unique. When Director Wan (of the Saw series) fully exposes the haunters to the hauntees the game's up, and any and all fears of the darkness you had been cultivating disappear entirely and the film just can't recover.
But like those many horror tales that have preceded it (particularly films like The Haunting) Insidious is strangely comforting. It follows the usual horror format in every edit, turn, and look in a frightened character's eye. It's a solid film that looks good, flows nicely, and stars two excellent actors that at least make an effort, even if Wilson sometimes looks more bored than befuddled. It's fun to watch because you know what's coming (the same reason my parents' watch House every Monday), and though the music warns you that a scare is on the way, you'll still jump in your seat. Even when the insidious ending's sprung on you and your predictions come true, there's still a bit of joy to be had in the nostalgia of the discovery.

Under 250: How Do You Know

The thing about How Do You Know is that after watching it, my emotions were sort of aligned with the characters.  I was like "how do I feel about this?"  "Do I like this?"  "Do I regret this decision?"  "How do I know?"  My answers, I fear, are few and inconclusive.  How Do You Know is written and directed by James L. Brooks, which means it runs somewhere in between benign Woody Allen and whoever actually writes (if anyone does) those Adam Sandler rom coms like Just Go With It; except for it's like 2 hours long and tries really hard to be profound instead of simply neurotic.  How Do You Know is complicated.  The focus is on Reese Witherspoon's character Lisa, who recently got cut from her pro-softball team and is thus officially old or something.  Lisa is likable enough, and is fairly 'real' about quite a few things.  Except for, you know, she makes a few really poor life decisions when she gets too involved with a remarkably shallow major league baseball player (Owen Wilson).  Other times in the movie, the focus shifts to George (Paul Rudd), who is a wreck and obviously the third point in the expected love triangle. The problem with George as a character comes from George's actual problems within the plot.  They're too numerous, too difficult to explain simplistically, and thus distract tremendously from real character development.  The easy assumption we can make is that George's problems were written so that Brooks could fit Jack Nicholson in there somewhere.  Voila!  Guess who we don't need in this movie?  Jack Nicholson.  Moving on...

How Do You Know has a handful of legitimately funny, very charming moments.  It's cute, but would be cuter if they'd shaved it down 20 minutes, didn't spread it too thin, and prevented awkward moments in which Witherspoon does her best Diane Keaton (which is like a Family Stone Keaton instead of Annie Hall).  Witherspoon and Wilson together come across as inherently stagey.  There's something stilted about their delivery of the dialogue.  It's a little meta, a little 'hey we're in a movie and we're acting funny', a little too 'with it' to feel natural.  If the question were how do you know you're watching a fiction and not a documentary...I would say that.  Since the question is more like is this movie good I can only say yes?  Except when it's not?  But sometimes it's really working?  Though there are other times where it just made me really tired?  But I still was involved?  And I really wanted to know exactly how things panned out?  So, maybe? 

(Totally Not) Under 250: The Tourist

It is a truth universally acknowledged (by everyone outside of the apparently sycophant-filled Hollywood Foreign Press, that is) that The Tourist is something of a flaming pile of celluloid shit. Still, when Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie are involved, people will watch.  I'm no exception to the people rule.  I watched The Tourist some time ago.  Then I didn't want to bother with it.  Now I've overcome my laziness to bring you this fun fact: The Tourist is a turd from a purebred French poodle sprayed with metallic paint, bedazzled by Damien Hirst with cubic zirconia, lit on fire, and left at your front door.  It's a big shiny mistep and a really poor addition to most evenings.  I say this as someone who secretly hoped it would be otherwise.  When I sat down I knew I wouldn't be getting something actually "deserving" of Golden Globe nominations, but I was hoping for a bit of espionage camp.  Didn't happen.  The Tourist is a cinema case study in which everyone and everything seems to be operating on different wavelengths.  Depp, with an unflattering haircut and puffy face, appears to be trying really hard to make this a zany spoof.  Jolie saunters about doing this thing where her makeup is always perfect and the camera does these slow motion close-ups on her like she's supposed to be sexy time but it's cheesier than a French market.

Meanwhile, the director (who somehow made The Lives of Others) wasn't made aware that his movie was in possession of gaping logical gaps, a too easy ending, and an unbelievable relationship; or that it would be best tackled by someone who hasn't yet received high praise as a "serious" director.  The Tourist feels like it was adapted from a script that failed to go into production in 1985, but somehow (via illegal Chinese time travel) landed in the hands of Jolie and was clumsily updated as a glamour project with cell phone technology.*  It features, in a scene that at first feels benign but becomes a deeper and deeper pit of LOL despair the longer you consider it, the slowest boat chase ever.  Also, it asks you (several times) to do that thing where you pretend that no one in Italy would notice people running about with guns in the street.  Impressive. Even more impressive is that its glorious Venetian scenery does less for the suckiness of the film than setting did for Eat Pray Love.  What's more?  The flirting is painful.  It's, like, a serious case of the awkwards.  You'd think two beautiful people would maybe have more chemistry just for superficial reasons alone, but it's like Brad Pitt and Vanessa Paradis were standing just off camera with a fire hose and brass knuckles giving them both the stink eye.  I'm pretty much convinced that Depp packed on an extra 15 pounds just to try to build a buffer between them.  In some ways, he looked better as the Mad Hatter.    

The Tourist's grandest offence, however, is undoubtedly the fact that's it's just plain boring.  You might keep watching it, but the viewing is this odd sort of ritual in which you wait for the film to improve as you try to figure out exactly what it's getting at (or why you should care).   By the conclusion, my level of disappointment had almost completely bottomed out.

*which, ironically, is exactly what they should not have done. Totally could have worked if they'd set it in 1960's, didn't take themselves seriously, and threw a fancy ski lodge in.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Late Night Trailers: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I am not a fan of monkeys and apes.  Similarly, I'm not so much a fan of humans.  It's that whole a person but  people thing.  The dislike of one runs into the other.  Yes, I don't find babies cute.  Yes, I think apes (chimps in particular) are fairly vile creatures.  Yes, I'm a terrible person.  Oddly, I think Gorillas are pretty alright.  Overall, I prefer to think of humans as closely related to lemurs.  Don't question it.  All that said, I have absolutely no problem with the old school, talking, planet conquering apes.  Roddy McDowall?  Whatever, sure.  Tim Burton?  No.  New version with James Franco doing science?  No.  Early evaluation:  this movie just looks ridiculous.  Apart from having James Franco as a scientist, it has a slow motion shot of an ape taking the stereotypical action leap towards a helicopter.  Also?  It apparently has no redeeming value to put forth other than that it's brought to us by WETA, who happened to do the effects on that other movie that was really big.  Right.  They also did the effects in Prince Caspian, and let's be honest: those were rather shit.  Not really looking forward to this, is what I'm trying to say...

Cannes 2011 Lineup Announced

Unless some wealthy relative I didn't know I had dies and leaves me a fortune in the next couple weeks, I won't be going to Cannes.  As an independent blogger with no outside backing, I don't get the shiny privilege of checking out Melancholia, Tree of Life, or We Need to Talk About Kevin early.  Grumble.  Regardless, I can look on, dream of a vacation along the Riviera, and silently curse these limitations.  Check out what me, probably you, and everyone I know will be missing out on after the jump...

Late Night Trailers: Sleeping Beauty

You may have noticed that the Cannes lineup includes a film called Sleeping Beauty.  If you groaned and went, another one?  Let me clear up one thing for you right now: this is not exactly a fairy tale retelling, though director Julia Leigh calls it an "erotic fairy tale."  From appearances, Sleeping Beauty takes after the sinister, Italo Calvino side of things, and appears to have less in common with the recent Red Riding Hood and quite a bit more in common with, say, The Piano Teacher, Eyes Wide Shut, or, I don't know, Salo?  Sucker Punch's Emily Browning gets down to business playing a student dabbling in prostitution whose specialty is the "sleeping beauty chamber."  What is a sleeping beauty chamber?  Well, I'm so glad you asked.  Today's lesson (please imagine in the voice of Stefon):  a sleeping beauty chamber is that thing where a hooker is drugged and old men do what they want with her and she doesn't remember it when she wakes up.  AKA: Emily Browning is so far away from being that Lemony Snicket kid.  I will go into this hoping to be disturbed in that special way that happens when lady directors tackle creepy lady issues that dudes shouldn't dare going near (a la Fat Girl or Water Lilies).   

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Love: Hanna

In the days since I saw Hanna, I've been trying to figure out exactly where it is the film falls. It's harder than appearances (and first impressions) might suggest.  On the one hand, it's quite obvious that Hanna is a slick little chase thriller.  In some ways, when casually juxtaposed against your typical running, jumping, shooting, killing actioners, Hanna seems to possess a definite poise; an indie sensibility over concerned with gritty artistry and a touch of realistic character development.  This is, of course, at the same time that Hanna is a variation on the norm.  Killer kid, genetic manipulation, ice cold government agents, loose plots, and a fair amount of choreographed fight scenes: nothing you haven't seen before.  When you get right down to it, the film's joy is derived from a very base, guilty pleasure place.  A place where it doesn't matter whether the story holds up if the body count keeps rising, the jokes are well timed, and the adrenaline never ceases its flow.  Is Hanna a guilty pleasure?  In some ways.  But, you see, you might never notice.

The thing about Hanna is that it's a relentless, sparkling bit of entertainment.  It speeds by, ending seemingly before it's even begun, never drawing out its affairs or keeping its ADD viewers in one place for too long.  Here's the rare wall to wall action flick that never feels repetitive, is stocked with competent actors in odd little character roles, and which manages to give us not one, but two ladies who would be worthy foes for Kick-Ass's Hit Girl.    So, yeah, some might say it's a guilty pleasure.  I can see how it could fall into that categorization.  Sure. But you know what?  Fuck that noise.  Hanna is more than a damn cool, bass-pulsing flick about folks with guns.   It's a morally ambiguous Bourne for girls who are sick of watching movies with muscular action figure prototypes for leads and buxom, irrationally leather-clad chicks for heroines.
Saoirse Ronan stars as our young, cold blooded imp of death.  The opening scenes establish a life off the grid;  in an icy forest where (like Hit Girl) she's prepped for survival.  We don't know why, exactly.  All we know is that if she flicks that switch,  she'll trigger a signal to attract those who want her dead.  If it were up to me?  I wouldn't flick the switch.  Hanna, though, is ready.  She's braced for combat and waiting, apparently, to exact her revenge on the woman we learn (in fragments) is responsible for the murder of her mother so many years prior. Pay no attention to why Hanna and her father (Eric Bana) would have this box.  Don't ask too many questions about where they are or why they couldn't sneak back into civilization and take action.  Just understand that this is the action that drives the film. You wanted a chase?  You'll get one.  Hanna switches scenery the way a high class prostitute turns tricks: fast, and often.  From the forest of snow we switch to an underground compound to a Moroccan desert to a bazaar to Spain to camper parks to Germany to an abandoned amusement park and so on.  Here, there, everywhere.  Along the way, we get to know Hanna via an odd couple friendship with a tourist girl her age (Jessica Barden) and her slightly kooky family.  Ronan gives her child soldier some real soul.  She's present in every scene, filled with hope outside of her circumstance and a lingering naivete that goes against her training. She's the sort of young actress who can guarantee that you still like her dangerously callous character even as she's slitting someone's throat.  Her face runs on a hair trigger.  In one moment, she's an almost normal little girl, in another, she's a machine.  Maybe that's what talent looks like.

The real driving force, however, and probably my favorite screen villain since Javier Bardem wore a pageboy wig, is the positively vicious Cate Blanchett.  As ruthless operative Marissa, Blanchett is bizarrely watchable.  I loved to hate everything about her and their were actually points at which her eyes conveyed something so dead, so horribly robotic, she managed to drift far away from Elizabeth I to become convincingly terrifying.  Blanchett plays Marissa with a definite strength, pushing her far from the crooked law(wo)man archetype and transforming her into an evil sort of force, someone who you actually believe can take you down in Prada heels and who will given the first opportunity.  She will kill you and your family without a flinch, but maybe with a Southern belle smile.  Eegads.  Did I mention her little henchman is a Germanic Tom Hollander in an out of date track suit?  He's a sort of Bond villain or Lebowski nihilist, a Eurotrash piece of shit for whom your repulsion knows no bounds.  Hollander's sociopath scumbag will stand right next to Marissa and tear you apart with a giggle.  It's kind of amazing.

The long and short of it is that Hanna is gifted with a cast, a director (Joe Wright), and a score (Chemical Brothers, anyone?) working together to pull it up out of the silly travel murder mire.  It is, in many ways, electrifying; eliciting occasional laughs, cheers, and gasps from its audience in such an easy manner that it feels like, well, child's play.

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