Monday, October 31, 2011

Squalor: In Time

At a point prior to the Netflix boom and at the height of Blockbuster’s inflated in-store rental costs, my dad did something out of character: he bought a small stack of DVDs in a Virgin Megastore binge.  They were all science fiction, and they were all things he’d decided his kids “needed to see.”  Amongst them was Logan’s Run, a movie in which cheesy plasticity is a virtue and guilty pleasuredom seems to be the loftiest goal.  In 1976, life until 30 meant a world built off of simple, airy silliness.  There are robotic monsters and miniskirts; all one really needs to survive 3.5 decades of scrutiny while remaining a story compelling enough to be frequently copied, referenced, and placed on the ‘must-see’ list by parents with a penchant for science-fiction.   The latest Logan’s Run copycat is In Time, a dystopian thriller with an A-list genetic make-up, but not much in the way of personality.   Where in Logan’s world life ended at 30, In Time features a complicated economic allegory in which folks are essentially guaranteed the right to live until 25.  At 25 you stop aging, and that’s fantastic, but in order to make the most of it you must then beg, borrow, and steal to extend your lifespan.  Time is money, money is time.  Society measures everything according to the clock under their skin.  Years are the currency of the 1%, while the 99% life in squalor from minute to minute.
If you asked me to explain it further, I couldn’t.  In Time demands that you suspend your disbelief for the entirety of its run.  To do anything else would certainly result in a headache large enough to lend itself to hospitalization.  Don’t ask, for instance, how the clock is wired to their physical circuitry.  For that matter, you should also avoid asking how they exchange time by grasping each other’s arms.  For the sake of everyone: please don’t even think of asking how this all happened, or what time this is set in, or if it’s at least 125 years in the future why everyone dresses essentially as they do right now, or, you know, how it is there’s no way to shut down the clocks instead of “bank” robbing seconds, months, and eons.  All of those questions are silly.  Please, just watch the pretty people dash madly about the screen.

You’re right, sometimes it’s nice to have a film that doesn’t ask you to think so much.  The problem here, however, is that In Time absolutely wants to be thought provoking.  Its story is one of complex economics and class warfare.  Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is a young man living day to day in one of the slummiest ‘time zones’.  He toils in a factory for minimum wage, lives with his mother (Olivia Wilde.  Yep.), and watches the best minds of every generation obsess over one thing and one thing only: their remaining minutes.  In a forced twist of fate, Will meets a wealthy stranger hellbent on dying who gifts him a century, thus allowing him to finally take that dream trip into a time zone inhabited by aristocrats and tycoons who have lived for decades and decades in their perfect, youthful bodies.   One thing leads to another and soon Will is playing Robin Hood (or, well, Bonnie and Clyde) with Sylvia (an inhuman looking Amanda Seyfried), the over-protected daughter of one of the time-hoardiest Scrooges (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) in all the land.  Insert ‘time bandits’ joke here.   
As you read this, you’re likely thinking there’s something to it.  I agree with you.  The story has the making of an almost perfect action flick: social commentary, edgy criticism, chase scene after chase scene, bank robbing, and all the best reasons for a cast filled with young, attractive celebrities.   That last bit is part of the problem.  For all the supposed suffering, everyone looks too good.  For all the action, too much of it is devoted to repeating similar scenarios.  For all the raw opportunity, too much of the film’s dialogue is devoted to awkward exposition.  In Time is so complicated that its characters must spend the bulk of their interactions spelling out what’s happening.  So, while the film’s aesthetic is slick and stylish, its actors are clunkily plodding through bogs devoted to the discussion of time, puns about time, explanations, plot-advancing questions and tepid rejoinders.    It’s entertaining, but ultimately too serious to be much fun and yet too frothy for its message to carry any sort of weight.
Writer/director Andrew Niccol knocked it out of the park with 1997’s GATTACA, and with In Time he seems to be cobbling together the unused plot points from his eugenics thriller to make a second-string pot boiler.  As much as I like Justin Timberlake, he’s not much of an actor, and that becomes immediately apparent as he gives gut-wrenching sobs a stab in the middle of an empty street.  From his mouth, the flimsy dialogue grows ever-flimsier.  Each bad pun seems drawn out in a way that suggests someone wasn’t in on the joke.  Each typical bit of action movie deadpanning sounds all the more unnecessary.  As Will and Sylvia carry out their idealistic actions, they move closer and closer to an uncertain economic fate.  What good will a partial redistribution of wealth do?  What happens when it’s squandered?  What insures this doesn’t happen again?  Why do only a few seem to realize that living until age 150 isn’t ideal?  In Time bridges its plot holes with vaguely Marxist attempts at picking apart capitalism but fails to make its argument cohesive or at all clear.  When does it stop?  What’s the end goal?  Does it really apply to reality, or is that metaphor a little on the weak side?   While I was entertained by the film enough to engage with it and consider these questions, I’ll admit that part of me was really looking forward to the instant its time finally ran out.   

Love: The Rum Diary

Like any respectable pop culture junkie, I went through my Hunter S. Thompson phase.  I chose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for an independent reading assignment in my junior year of high school and found a soft spot for all things Gonzo.  This means that no, I can’t hear “White Rabbit” without requesting that someone attempt an electrocution at the song’s climax.  Please, that goes without saying.  It also means that yes, I’ve read Thompson’s ‘long lost’ novel.  When I read The Rum Diary oh so long ago, the impression it left was one befitting of a work by Mr. Thompson: it comes in flashbacks and waves; tangible short bursts and colorful scenes without incident.  The book itself is muddled, but enjoyable enough.  There are plenty of bright pieces and memorable tableaux to be found: the drinking, the girl, the carnival, the decrepit newspaper and laboring masses; alcohol-soaked Puerto Rico remembered through a hangover-like daze of poorly linked, often humorous incidents.  The Rum Diary, in my opinion, was never a story to be taken as a cohesive work with a straight narrative arc.    Instead, it’s something tangled and a little broken, an early attempt by a young author loaded up like a jumbled pile of stained postcards from the edge.  Perhaps you love it, perhaps you find it listless, perhaps you simply don’t care (in which case, I wouldn’t recommend bothering).  Any which way you approach it,  from page to screen there’s a surprising amount of love invested in getting this messy little novel’s film transition just  right.  For my money, it succeeds.
Most are familiar with Johnny Depp’s bromantic love affair with the late great Hunter S.  He admired him, and had a personal history with the man after getting to know him for that Criterion captured role in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing.  For Depp, The Rum Diary is clearly a passion project, and one that glows with an odd warmth.  Depp no doubt realizes The Rum Diary wasn’t a fully realized text, it doesn’t have the spark of those later works and drug filled trips into pure psychedelia.  What it does have is a semiautobiographical origin story; the humble beginnings of the man who would be Gonzo.  The story is centered on Paul Kemp (Depp), a supposedly youngish writer with dreams of novel-penning sidelined by punching out journalistic pieces for profit.  It’s 1960, and Kemp moves from New York to the rum-soaked newsroom of the San Juan Star, a newspaper nobody reads and which its reporters never seem to write for.  The staff is a motley crew of boozers, losers, degenerate Hitler-aficionados, experimental drug-takers, and tenement dwellers.  They sweat and drink and eat and sleep in and then do it again.  It should come as no surprise that Kemp, who we see blasted, red-eyed, and crazed in the opening scene, fits right in.  Within no time he’s falling hard for the flaxen-haired dame (Amber Heard), getting wrapped up in real estate schemes, cock fighting and visiting hermaphroditic witch doctors.  There’s a tremendous amount of humor gleaned from these disparate situations, and ample opportunities arise for the creation of the sort of vivid scenes Thompson specialized in.  We get to see Aaron Eckhart be an asshole (not much of a stretch), Richard Jenkins go full-blown physical comedy, and Michael Rispoli deliver a performance which makes us really ask his name.   We’re also gifted with Giovanni Ribisi in fine form, stealing many a scene in a state of intoxication so advanced he reminded me of the Aristocats’ leering, sherry swilling goose.

As much as it pains me to admit it, Depp isn’t so young anymore (he’s 48), and while he’s still boyish at certain angles, he reads as a little old for a budding writer.  Still, when you watch him, you don’t question the casting.  While he may have pulled Bruce Robinson out of retirement to direct, this is, in many ways, Depp’s project.  And, honestly, I’ll be damned if there’s anyone I’d rather watch attempt Hunter S. Thompson’s pirate-like swagger.   For Depp, I imagine the film is a sort of living memorial.  It’s a memento, an homage, and a sweet farewell for a friend.  There’s something special about The Rum Diary, even as it toys with screwball conventions and boring attempts at cobbling together an overall ‘point’.  As a film, it’s unlike any comedy you’re likely to see this year.  Sure, it’s eccentric and louche, occasionally sinister and bristling with political tension, but the oddities are never played as defects.  The Rum Diary doesn’t apologize and instead uses its time concocting something delightful, full of energy and guiltlessly funny.  It may not be perfect, but it works with the assets it has.  In this tropical habitat, Depp is charmingly restrained, playing Thompson’s alter ego before his glorious descent.  It’s been a long time, but we finally got the man away from the lure of the giant blockbusters and studio constraints.  He’s enjoying himself beyond playing dress-up, and it’s clear he believes in this character. 


Thursday, October 27, 2011

M's 2011 Guide to the Movie Themed Halloween Costume

Halloween has returned and so have I, back from my hiatus to share some movie flavored costumes for last minute thrift store shoppers, hipsters, and creative seamstresses/seamsters. ~M 

Tippi Heddren - The Birds
Get some glue, some birds, and a retro suit and you're set. For those not as skilled at thrift store searches? Let Party City do the work for you.

Igor - Young Frankenstein
A faux hump, black jeans, and black hood is all you need to "walk this way," just like Igor in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. Visit your local butcher and get your very own brain to put in a jar. Just don't forget to write "Abnormal" or "Abby Normal" on the front with some masking tape.

Lisbeth Salander- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Easily one of film and literatures' biggest bad-asses, Lisbeth Salander is easy to do with some black clothes + big boots + real/faux piercings + black + more black + even more black.

Guy Montag - Fahrenheit 451
Maximize the black you bought for that Igor costume and behind the scenes theater work. Paired with a copy of his favorite classic and classic 60's hat, it's perfect for the new wave man that lights fires in women's hearts and cherishes the books he brings everywhere he goes.

Pris- Blade Runner
Pris not only has a fairly easy clothing look to pull off, but has make-up that just about anybody can do, and do fast. In this case, a steady hand isn't all that necessary to mimic her eyeliner, nor is smearing an issue half way through your party.

Rick Deckard - Blade Runner
Excellent choice for the hipster that already has most of these clothes in his closet and finds himself dating a woman whose memories may or may not be manufactured.

Romy or Michelle - Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion
Don't front. You know this movie. You've watched it. And now, you and your best friend are going to live it.

And what are me and Mr. M going as this year?
Ann Darrow and Richie Tenenbaum

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Love: Ides of March

Sometimes George Clooney does these things where he suddenly decides to remind us all of how talented and wonderful he is.  These things are generally called movies, yes, but every few years, right around the time we need to be reminded of how talented and wonderful the Cloon is outside of dashing, debonair acting jobs, he directs.   From the Cloon, we have received Good Night, and Good Luck the stylish bit of black and white that must have been a sort of wet dream for American History teachers.   Now, George Clooney has returned to bring us required Political Science viewing.  Behold: The Ides of March.  Come one, come all to the political circus!  See Ryan Gosling drink the metaphorical kool aid!  Watch as presidential candidates promise change!  Witness earnest young interns as they’re corrupted by big government!  See George Clooney play a Democratic candidate!  Wonder, at the film’s credits, just what, exactly, was achieved!

I’ll be perfectly honest with you:  while the film is all dressed up in the trappings of success, I’m not entirely sure it is one.  What The Ides of March wants to be is a sort of ruthless political thriller.  It talks and walks and finds its award-fodder cast conducting secretive deals in tension-filled moments.   Clooney steps in as Governor Mike Morris, an Obama-influenced democrat from top-to-toe, complete with snazzy screenprinted accessories.  In interviews, town hall forums, and debates, he plays the fresh and honest card, doling out neatly packaged sound bites on everything from religion to the death penalty.   He’s a background character here, the man the story is centered on, but not the true subject of the on-screen plot.  As we enter, we find Morris in the days leading up to the Ohio primary.  Behind the scenes, the campaign managers are ruthlessly hunting down public endorsements, negotiating terms and conditions, and doing everything in their power to get the edge on their Republican rival.  Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is the 30-year old political prodigy playing second-in-command to jaded vet Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  He’s impossibly slick, a master of the jargon and the public games who, amazingly, still holds some real faith in the man he’s supporting.  Stephen is fairly enthusiastic as Washington insiders go.  He has ideals, and he holds onto them until the moment his pretty glass castle shatters.  It shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise: open on: optimism,  close on: you guessed it…

What’s most interesting about The Ides of March is that, for a political film shot out of Hollywood, it doesn’t take sides in the red state vs. blue state debacle. What we get is a behind the scenes glance at the process itself, the way the public is manipulated, the strings that are pulled, the sheer amount of work that goes into getting enough backing to shoot any one person to the top.  I’d imagine that for an individual who still holds some sort of naïve hope in the American democratic system, this is a rather dark affair.  Needless to say, I’m not one of those optimistic folk, and from my standing The Ides of March fails to probe deeper, to harness any sort of electricity, or to really push past the “oh hey, look, politics is a dirty game” cliché.  Ultimately, while the performances are solid, there’s nothing to challenge the actors involved.  This isn't a thriller.  Not really.  It’s easy for the talented folks involved to be on top of their game because, frankly, Ides never calls for anything past a few instances of theatrical banter or the occasional crushed spirit.  

Oh, how I yearned for an Aaron Sorkin presence here, a bit of snap and vigor to amplify the complicated going-ons of our tireless campaigners.    There are hints of great political allegory, and greater complication.  The story ignores them, opting instead to run with easy outs, unnecessary twists, expected turns, and morally fraught black and white convictions.  You’re good or you’re bad, you win or you lose, your numbers go up or they go down, you live or you die, but there’s little room for being human.  There are, in my eyes, two key turning points within the film.  In the first: a character with a serious conflict is revealed.  In the second:  that character is removed from the equation quickly, in a way that seemed (to me) incredibly unbelievable and wholly problematic.  While The Ides of March is another competent film from Clooney, intelligently directed and, in some ways provocative, it falls short of winning my vote.   Here we have another story detailing the messy side of politics, an ideological standpoint I could easily get behind, but failing to dig any deeper.  Show me what happens next, Clooney.  Show me what happens when all hope dies and do it, please, without the soapy melodrama. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Guest Post: Tryst at the Dawn of the Dead

Guest columnist and special fashion consultant to Love & Squalor, Tryst is your guide to filmtastic styling, locatable on the sartorial street by her excellent taste in tutus and expertise balancing in ridiculous footwear. With a degree in English and Biology, she is officially certified to make up both words and diseases, and make fashion judgments. While she does enjoy curling up on the couch with a movie and her English husband, she will be the first to tell you that pajamas belong on the inside…not outside…of your abode. Look for more of Tryst's tips in the weeks and months to come!

Poor Brad Pitt.  Just the other week Hungarian authorities raided the World War Z set and took away all his shiny things that go bang because they were actual functioning guns.
On the bright side, once this movie finally gets made (I am so excited even though it’s already behind schedule and over budget),  I’m sure it will have a major box office presence.  7.3 million people watched last week’s premiere ofThe Walking Dead and with Halloween coming up it seems that zombies are on the mind more and more.
As I just watched Zombieland for the umpteenth time and I greatly enjoy a good zombie flick (Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, The Evil Dead, Hell Driver), lately I’ve found myself wondering how the living manage to still look so good…or at least so put together.  For example?  In Zombieland they talk about not showering for ages, so why is Emma Stone’s hair still so pretty?  
Now, before you tell me it’s just a movie and thus doesn’t matter, think about what you would have to cope with if there is, in fact, a Zombie Apocalypse. Yes, we will have to run for our lives and magically learn how to effectively wield a machete and shotgun, but… there are more trivial things to worry about as well. As the ever-prepared girl I am, I’ve decided to put together a survival kit to make me feel pretty during all the savagery.  After all, when the world as we know it has been ravaged at least I can find comfort in the knowledge that I still look good.  If worst comes to worst, at least I’ll look nice when I kill myself before the zombies eat me.
Multitasking is important when you can only take what you can carry, so I tried to think of things that are not only practical, but essential for my peace of mind:

  • Oscar Blandi Dry Shampoo: Showering will not be a priority when clean water becomes scarce, it’s far more important to drink than it is to bathe. My hair is one of the things I fret about regularly and I don’t think being chased by flesh-eaters will change that too much. Oscar Blandi’s dry shampoo is the one I currently use (in the real world) and it works wonders. It’s easy to use, comes in a travel size, doesn’t leave much residue and works well for volumizing as well.

  • Dove Clinical Protection Visibly Smooth in Wild Rose: When the zombies come, I’ll smell, but this should help a little bit. And, I can hope the wild rose scent might help me blend into the natural aromas found in the wilds of the woods.  

  • Vaseline: I am OCD about moisturizing, thus Vaseline is my best friend.  It’s a multipurpose tool that can be used to soothe burns, rashes and minor cuts. It doesn’t spoil in the heat or cold and could even be used as a lubricant to fit through tight spaces… 

  • Listerine Plus Whitening Mouthwash: Since water is scarce, I may not be brushing my teeth very much. Mouthwash won’t give me the same feeling, but close enough. It can also be used as a disinfectant.  Once it runs out I will probably have to resort to brushing my teeth with twigs, since that’s what the period dramas tell me they did before toothpaste came to be.

  • Bobby Pins: I have a feeling I will be sporting a high bun since my hair likes to pretend it is an afro (which never really manages to look as cool), so the pins will come in handy for my hair, and can also be used to pick locks or pluck out zombie eyeballs.

  • Girl About Town lipstick from MAC:  It has no real use. I just want to be pretty, besides I can use it to distract people from the hollows that will form under my eyes. It has a bright pink color that I can see going well with a multitude of skin tones. After all, I may have to share with those who didn’t have as much foresight as me. And like all the other MAC lipsticks it has great coverage and staying power.
  • Avon Glimmersticks eyeliner: They come in a variety of colors (some with glitter) that do not budge, even when running for your life. Another plus is that they’re self-sharpening so there’s no need to worry about keeping them nice and pointy. As for practical uses? One always needs a writing utensil, especially in a world where GPS doesn’t work and I’ll need to write down directions or mark things on a map.
  • Yes To Cucumbers face wipes: These are wonderful for makeup removal and I imagine would work just as well at cleaning up the blood that spatters on me from my kills. Plus, they have a refreshing scent which will come in handy after a long day of running, slashing and hiding.  To top it off?  They’re biodegradable. After all, just because you’re living hell on earth doesn’t mean you have to kill the Earth faster.
  • Laura Mercier Oil-Free Tinted Moisturizer SPF 20: I may have to kill myself before getting eaten but I would prefer that death not be a result of skin cancer. I’ll also probably need something to stop me from looking so sallow when I become malnourished.
  • Nars Blush in Orgasm: It is universally known that once you get naked in a horror movie, you will die. As such, I will have to get my kicks somewhere else. The peachy pink color is universally flattering and there is a nice dash of glitter to make sure I still feel pretty.

  • Monday, October 24, 2011

    Love: A Dangerous Method (Notes from the Chicago International Film Festival)

    October is always a busy month around these parts, and November isn’t much better. It seems that lately we can’t get through the fall without all hell breaking loose (in the best way, I suppose), but somehow I always manage to sneak in a movie or two at the annual Chicago International Film Festival. This year, it had been my intention to spend a few days camped in the AMC multiplex the fest calls home. I had big plans to check out whatever the schedule offered me, and to take in more than the usual dose or two of ‘special presentations.’ Work, weddings, and travels out of town interfered with that goal, but fortunately I still took in a couple worthwhile screenings. Next year, maybe I’ll take a few days off. Next year, maybe they’ll update that god awful intro reel (I’m looking at you, Columbia College). Next year, maybe I’ll have time to border jump over to TIFF. Next year, next year, next year. For now, though, episode one: on Cronenberg.
    When the end credits began to roll on A Dangerous Method, my gut reaction came in the form of a bad pun:  that Method?  Not so Dangerous.   What I’d watched had felt less David Cronenberg, more Merchant Ivory; a lovely period piece lightly infused with just a touch of sado-masochism.  It’s funny, because before watching the film I felt I knew exactly why a director like Cronenberg would be interested in the story of Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein.  The version I’d been told was an embellished drama of adultery, insanity, and perversion.  Sabina was made out to be a torrid sort of enchantress, a manic, hysteric genius with an insatiable sexual appetite who so fascinated Jung and his mentor, Sigmund Freud, that an irreparable rift was created between them.   In this telling, I could have sworn Sabina was rumored to have taken each of the doctors as lovers, though we know Freud was famously distant from his patients.   
           Repeating my version now, the details of Sabina’s life ring as blatantly misogynist, the sort of rhetoric that men in the early 1900’s might use to describe such a character, but which today feels cringe-worthy, as if Spielrein is to be blamed for the sexual impulses of the very married Jung.  Still, the fact remains that Spielrein and Jung did indeed carry out an affair under his tutelage, that she was indeed committed, and that she did make the rather amazing transition from volatile, mud-coated patient to composed psychoanalyst herself.   If I were David Cronenberg I’d look at Sabina Spielrein and see a story rife with perversion and psychosexual intrigue.  She’s split, obsessed with her impulses and in love with the idea of fulfilling them even as she struggles against them.   Cronenberg, the man responsible for Dead Ringers, Crash, and Videodrome should be able to ace a reimagining of her story with both hands behind his back.   In certain ways, he does.  A Dangerous Method is a fine film with rich, wonderful performances.  It’s just, well, it feels like a boiling down of a simple historical fact instead of a building up into an intrigue.   Let me be amongst the first to admit it:  if I’d gone into this blindly, with not a clue as to who had directed this film, I’d never have attached this to David Cronenberg.  Joe Wright or Cary Fukunaga, maybe, but Cronenberg?  No way.
     We get the sense that Jung’s ‘Talking Cure’ may have been a dangerous method in practice.  In his own life, taking up with the seizing, screaming, snapping Sabina is certainly a risk to his livelihood.  Jung (here played by our man Michael Fassbender) is married and funded by his aristocratic wife (Sarah Gadon).  He depends on her, having no money of his own.  Sabina (Keira Knightley) is the perfect guinea pig, but unfortunately also an irresistible partner for a man so clearly frustrated by his own, suffering wife.  How could someone so intellectually curious not fall for someone who mirrors his own ways, who fascinates him as a subject even as she meets him in discussing the research surrounding her own condition?  It’s shrinky dink kismet, or something.  The film gives us a bit of the sense that all of this is a personal risk.  Jung is clearly taking chances in letting his own libido win out over his bourgeois morals.  Jung spends hours shooting the psychological shit with family man Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and while it’s interesting to see where their bromantic study buddy relationship slowly begins to diverge, the film doesn’t seem to follow through on digging in to the real meat of the story.  It resists, at all costs, a tabloid rendition of its intrigue.  While in certain ways I feel there’s something quite respectable about this, I couldn’t escape the thought that so much of the film became more iteration than dramatization.  
    While our tale is something of a bodice ripper featuring adulterous teacher/student relationships and spankings, somehow it feels textbook tame.   At some point in the telling, A Dangerous Method  becomes incredibly generic, an occasionally comic history lesson without, oddly, much of that tension-loaded Cronenbergian dread.   It’s literary.  It’s historical.  It’s coming close to being pretty damn academic, on the whole.  Yet, for a film spun on dialogue, neurosis, and sex drive; it left me a little cold.  While Jung may be feeling the pressure, there appears to be no real risk for the viewer and therefore, in a way, no real potential payoff.  What we have instead is a big turn of the century tableaux for academic chatter.   A better title might be “A Risky Method” or “A Method Which Could Result in an Uncomfortable Situation” or maybe just “Sigmund Will be Disappointed.”  I’d be curious to see the film again and to find out if any of the underwhelming ends gain power with a repeat viewing.
    Regardless of story, there are some undeniably strong performances here.  A Dangerous Method is beautifully cast.  The oh-so-Teutonic Fassbender (aka: actor of the year) puts in a good showing as the cautious Jung.  Wrapped up with him in a quiet battle of egos is Mortensen’s take on Freud; charmingly conservative and provided with enough sharp lines to make him more than a mere cigar.  Vincent Cassel drops by in a solidly humorous performance as Otto Gross, an id-riddled disciple of Freud who grants Jung the permission to pursue sexual liberation and the taking of as many mistresses as possible.  It's too brief, but certainly memorable.  The star here, though, is Sabina herself.  In the role of our brilliant/insane/deviant alt-heroine, Keira Knightley gives Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers a run for her money.  Her performance is raw physicality and blunt, almost Aspergian rage.  She speaks in bursts of uncontrollable volume.  With a heavy Russian accent she spits, stutters, contorts her skeletal frame and juts her jaw in a way that’s superbly unhinged.  Not long after she's dragged in kicking and screaming, Knightley delivers the sort of panicked monologue actors will be mimicking in auditions for years to come.  She pulls it off, all facial tics and unbearable pauses.  You'll want to shake her, but even so it's incredibly impressive.  See it for her.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Late Night Trailers: Young Adult

    The official trailer for Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman's Young Adult popped up late last week but, you know, sometimes you star something on Google Reader to post later and you wind up checking it out pretty long after the fact.  The new glimpse of the film casts the premise in a much darker light than I initially anticipated, with Charlize Theron's writer character seeming to toe the line between sympathetic failure and monstrously entitled ex-prom queen.  Either way, there's potential for a fascinating character study here.  Looking forward to seeing whether or not the script leans towards comedic razzing or if Young Adult leans towards burdening itself with a hatred of its own characters...

    Just another question we can look forward to answering come December.

    Monday, October 17, 2011

    Love: Melancholia

    We all know I’m a tireless, dogged defender of Lars Von Trier’s psychologically shattering  Antichrist.  For all its horrors (and there are many), it carries itself in a way that’s hauntingly beautiful and which makes its nightmarish provocations all the more lasting.  See it once and, unless you’re prone to burying bad memories deep within your psyche, you’ll remember it always in fits, starts, and bursts of graphic imagery.   Antichrist was Von Trier’s version of semi-conventional horror.  The pieces are simple, familiar:  cabin in the woods, a dead toddler, insanity, graphic mutilation and the evocation of Satan.  The way they came together was alien; pieced from the darkest depths of its creator’s brutal depression.   When Von Trier announced that his next go would be a science fiction film centered, essentially, around the end of the world, I could only imagine what that would entail for someone with his off-kilter vision.  Would we wind up with Tarkovsky?  Would we rehash Antichrist’s bleakest points of nihilism?  Could we see society tipping towards the sense of loss that Charlotte Gainsbourg made so visceral, so painful, in 2009?   All we could count on was  Von Trier discontinuing his current mode.  Love him or hate him, he’s ever-changing, innovative, and consistent, perhaps only in a latent distrust in humanity and Dogme 95 (though we seem to have moved beyond that movement). 
    As it turns out, Melancholia is in many ways a sort of companion piece for the other film.   Where Antichrist found its director and characters put through hell (literally and figuratively), Melancholia is a turning point, an acceptance, and a meditative, remarkably gentle approach to the conditions so violently depicted in its sister celluloid.   This is a different Von Trier than any of the personalities we’ve met before.  He’s lucid, potentially marketable, and seemingly  in touch with his feminine side.  At the empathetic center of the film we find an assumed proxy in a woman named Justine (Kirsten Dunst).  The film opens with a beautifully shot slow motion dream, an operatic dance of the cosmos that turns, slowly, backwards in time to a celebration.   Justine has married Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and they arrive, happily, at a lavish reception put together by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland).  The cheerfulness of their first on-screen moments of marital bliss slowly erode as supporting characters step up to contribute to our own frustrated sense of impending dread.  There’s humor here, but it’s a bitter, crackling one (though Udo Kier gets a moment seemingly to channel Martin Short in Father of the Bride). In a speech-making scene to rival any of the familial hostilities in Rachel Getting Married, Justine’s bitingly negative mother (Charlotte Rampling) hacks into her blissfully odd father’s (John Hurt) moment, Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard) brings work to the party, and Justine’s cheery façade gives way to the manic nature of her personality.  She leaves her own wedding to take a bath.  She returns with some goading.  She leaves again.  She returns.  She cannot pretend to be that which she is not, though her sister has tried to give her everything.
    In the second, at first disparate part of Melancholia, we are introduced to the film’s namesake: a planet which has been hiding behind the sun, and which is now entering a dance of death with Earth’s orbit.   How much time has passed between moments, we don’t know.  Not much, but enough that we find Justine at her lowest low.  She’s clinical, unreachable, and powerful in her dissonance. Claire takes up the burden of her sister, and the family resides together on a sort of country club estate of manicured lawns and conical trees.  She tries to feed her, to bathe her, to chase her from her funk.  All the while, she has greater fears.   Melancholia is hurtling towards Earth.  John says it will pass them right by, Claire suspects otherwise. 
    While on paper the concept is one of pure, blockbuster science fiction, in execution Von Trier’s interpretation of the apocalypse is far from all that noise and ruckus. This is a film primarily concerned not with the literal end of the world, but with drawing the viewer into the impending sense of doom Justine can’t shake from her psychology.  Von Trier’s take on science-fiction is not simply one of universal imbalance, but of how the universe can appear when one is mentally out of balance. Where Von Trier has been abrasively agitated in his past depictions, here he manages a film about depression that’s as stunning in its cinematography as it is aching in its nuanced capacity for emotion. 

    Melancholia is planet and girl.   Where we begin with a shattering glimpse inside Justine, we find her crashing into the other life forms in her orbit,  eventually offering us a dark, profound treatise on the human condition.  We are fragile creatures, all of us, bound by powers far outside of our own control.  What makes us so frustrated with Justine is what makes Justine so frustrated with herself.  We feel for her, we know she cannot change willingly, that she’s locked inside and prisoner to the strength of her emotions.  Yet, we also feel for all of the characters, know that the same fate awaits each of them.   Justine changes, over the course of the film, from volatile presence to a sort of zen-prophet.   As the imagery expands in scope and scale, the intimacy, the peace of Justine and her family inches closer and closer. There’s a juxtaposition between the grandiose and the minute that’s really quite something, and which resonates in a way that can perhaps best be defined as a reaching, on Von Trier’s part, towards the romantic notion of the sublime.  For my money, he comes quite close to achieving it.   This time, without complicating the experience with the shock of something like, oh, you know, a his-and-hers genital mutilation.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011

    Love: 50/50

    I’ve found trying to concisely appraise 50/50 pretty difficult.  Each time I’ve tried, up until now, has involved a sloppy mess of a first paragraph attempting to throw the cancer dramedy up against any number of its ‘young (or youngish) people suffering’ counterparts.  I haven’t seen Gus Van Sant’s Restless yet, so mainly I keep bumping up against Love Story and Love and Other Drugs as my most recently viewed entries in the “this shouldn’t be happening” subgenre.  Those two films, to put it bluntly, sucked.   They wear their tragedy like a sadistic merit badge and attempt to solicit your tears  via cloyingly saccharine falsehoods and the crimes not only of dying too young, but of leaving behind a widowed lover like a lost puppy.  50/50 doesn’t do that.  Or, that is, it doesn’t do it in the way we’re used to.   While its young protagonist faces the dizzyingly surprising odds of not making it to his 28th birthday, the film neither stoops to snatching at your emotions or dumbly launches on a feel-good “I’m going to conquer my bucket list” adventure.  We don’t see the power of positive thinking, we simply see the process of being, well, a sometimes optimistic but generally depressed lump.

    The film focuses on Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a smart guy with the sort of life many a young hipster will covet: public radio producing gig, artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), neat little house in Seattle; that is, until a chance visit to a doctor finds him discovering that he’s been unknowingly suffering from a spinal cancer.  The news is a blow not only to Adam, but to his family and friends.  His mother (Angelica Huston) immediately announces her intention to move in, his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is angered and dumbstruck, his co-workers fatalistically compare Adam’s situation with those of other people in their lives at an odd party in Adam’s honor.   Everything is crisp, concise, uncomplicated in its complications.  The plot flows effortlessly.  We tag along as Adam begins chemotherapy, as he walks stoned through the hospital halls, as he waits for his girlfriend to pick him up, as he begins therapy with Katherine, an awkward 24-year old doctoral candidate (Anna Kendrick).   The film finds the humorous moments in what would normally be dour.  Everything is cheery when you’re stoned.  Shaving your head before the hair falls out if hilarious if you use the razor your friend uses for his balls.  

    Though Adam’s suffering is downplayed (from what I understand, anyone who’s encountered cancer will tell you the symptoms here are not presented in full), we don’t need to be shown everything to understand that this is horrible.  What we see instead of an outpouring of love is the way people try to cope and the loneliness that results when people can’t.  Adam’s friend Kyle tries to put a spin on his friend’s illness.  He distracts them both by making it a game, a tactic to get them both laid.  Rachael, Adam’s girlfriend, tries to be supportive, but isn’t prepared to take on the responsibilities that come with watching a casual lover falter.   As his situation changes, Adam becomes defined by his illness.  It’s part of him, a constant topic of conversation, and something no one seems able to stop talking about.   By the film’s climax, the old Adam is already dead in many ways and the present Adam mourns that loss daily.  Gordon-Levitt is remarkably effective in this role.   He has a sort of boy next door aura about him that makes him appealing and sincere.  We see all the manifestations of his pain and we want him to make it.   If he feels authentic, that’s because he is.  Adam is a character based in reality.  The film’s writer, Will Reiser is a real-life friend of Seth Rogen’s who did, in fact, find himself diagnosed with the very same ailment.  While 50/50 presents a fictionalized account, there’s little doubt it remains very much his (or their) story.   While I’ve never subscribed to the “write what you know” approach to storytelling, on this particular topic it seems ‘being there’ is a valuable asset.   50/50 manages  an even-keeled humanity in all elements.  The comedy never tries too hard, but instead comes through in unexpected ways as the film makes the best of what Adam himself can’t see in the moment.   It’s a comforting nightmare that finds a bit of good with the bad and weaves them both into something easily consumable.     

    RIP: Steve Jobs

    Apple co-founder and visionary Steve Jobs lost his long battle with pancreatic cancer today at the age of 56. He's survived by his wife, four children, and the wealth of his creative visions and advancements that have left an indelible impression on modern life as we know it. It's truly unfortunate that his time had to come so soon.

    Mixtape: A Real Human Being

    We drive for you. You give us a time and place, we give you a five minute window. Anything happens in the five-minute window we're yours no matter what. We don't sit in while you're running it down. We don't carry a gun. We drive. Synth beats for midnight runs in downtown Los Angeles inspired by Nicolas Winding Refn's 'Drive'.

    Mixtape lucky number 13, listen here or on 8tracks.
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