Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Love: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

When I read the novel sometime last year, the greatest mystery inherent in Steig Larsson's bestselling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was how it managed to become so wildly popular.  Here was a very basic cut-and-dry detective story overrun with lifeless prose, rambling paragraphs, and moments of surprisingly bland sexualized violence.  I'd never read a rape scene so clinical or a revenge enacted with such restrained language, and yet, somehow what I found dull to the point of impenetrable was resonating with millions.  The reason, it's safe to say, lies not with the quality of the writing (apologies to the deceased Larsson, but, it's terrible), but with the ferocious, seductive draw of its enigmatic heroine.  Lisbeth Salander is a character deserving of a prominent place in the pop culture canon.  She's a slacker goth mongoose with a mercurial temper and a frighteningly keen intellect who serves as the furious, vengeful feminist id for readers and audiences the world over.  The argument can be made, perhaps, that she serves as a stand-in for all women in a story that has as its prominent subject matter the misogynistic brutalization of the female sex at the hands of sadistic, power-hungry men.  Lisbeth has been abused, she is damaged, she can be hurt, but she has opted to take control of her own person and rage against expectations.  She is, somehow, what a great many women seem to secretly admire.  I've met teen girls, real housewives, and elderly women who love her unconditionally; piercings, tattoos,bisexuality, and androgyny withstanding.  I can't say I disagree.  While Larsson's story is a jumbled bit of prose, he lucked out with Lisbeth.  Too bad she doesn't have a stronger piece of work to call home.
David Fincher's take on Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is likely the third outing with Lisbeth for most of us, and what's most at stake is not only his treatment of the title character, but also whether or not he's able to glean something out of material that seems so culturally overdone already.  The answer to the second question is that he both does and does not.  In some ways, the bulk of what he's achieved does come down to Lisbeth herself.  While I was among the many who expressed concerns regarding the over-objectified nature of some of the initial advertising (was it appropriate to appeal to viewers with a topless Rooney Mara?), it became immediately clear that Fincher intended to treat Lisbeth as the proper subject, and understood her as an action hero.  The title sequence was a jolt of electrified, oil-slicked style that captured so much of the stylistic sensibility of a James Bond opener I had to sit back and wonder if I'd walked into the wrong Daniel Craig film.  It was a visual cue if ever I'd seen one, and for the remainder of the run time I couldn't escape the sense that this was all just the set-up for what could become a franchise much longer than the three book arc.  As Lisbeth, Rooney Mara cuts an intriguing silhouette.  With her bangs cropped in a straight line too high on her forehead, her eyebrows bleached to obscurity, and her body scrawny as a thirteen year old, she reads as closer to the cypher Larsson likely had in mind.  Mara has an expression that reads naturally somewhere between disinterest and vulnerability.  Her eyes are wide, but occasionally fierce, and she conveys an effortless sense of an angry anxiety lurking just beneath an otherwise placid surface.  This restless, nervous energy permeates the scenes in which Mara is present.  When she's on screen, she dominates.  Fincher allows her to do so, as does Craig, and we understand that this is her story and the parts that don't yet belong to her soon will.
Still, while Mara makes for an excellent variation on the Salander character quite different from the one originated by Noomi Rapace, her power is in some ways dampered by Fincher's adherence to the story's twisting labyrinth.  Mara seems comfortable in Salander's skin, but Rapace brought a fury to the role that made for more explosive entertainment.  This Dragon Tattoo telling is about as cold as its icy setting.  One of the many problems with Larsson's story is that it's fractured in a great many directions, and succumbs to delusions of grandeur it cannot follow through on.  For those who have not experienced the story before, you may be surprised to find that Lisbeth Salander makes for a relatively slim portion of the groundwork.  We do not learn much about her, in this first installment, but she comes in like a hurricane.  The actual mystery is centered around a dying business tycoon named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), whose family of Nazis, drunks, and degenerates may also hold a murderer.  Vanger is keenly interested in closing the case of what happened to a beloved teenage niece who mysteriously disappeared in the 1960's.  He suspects his relatives and brings in Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a fallen journalist, to covertly investigate as he pretends to pen Henrik's memoirs.  The novel and the Swedish film spend more time with the Vanger clan, perhaps too much, but Fincher's somehow seems to devote too little.  It's difficult to say, at this point, whether my judgment is overly clouded by familiarity, but everything in Fincher's thriller reads as menacing.  In his half-light, all potential villains immediately show their true colors, a fact not helped by the uneven splicing of crucial relationships in spite of the  near three hour run time. We don't get time enough to spend with the usual suspects, and the finger pointing is so easy to do that by the time we get to an expository rundown of "ah yes, you found me out" the mystery feels too shallow.
This is not a sensation I recall experiencing with the Swedish film, which surprised me with its brutality and quick turns.  At the time, I recall feeling that it was a custom fit for Fincher, material that he's be able to expound upon and sketch in deeper, more shocking gashes.  While the film possesses the same shadowed style and modern noir touches that gave works like Se7en, Zodiac, and The Social Network their menacing hyper-coolness, there's something distant about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Something is missing here. The story feels almost more fractured, though stylistically it's operating at a level far above what we've seen before.  Everything here looks great, sounds great, and is handled competently.  Yet, while the film is entertaining, it does not reach the heights Fincher is capable of.  Ultimately, Dragon Tattoo doesn't possess the rage and adrenaline that coursed through the Swedish version, and Fincher makes some questionable alterations to the story's conclusion (which even I will admit are problematic and uninteresting) which too quickly shut off one plot thread in favor of beginning another.  Still, the groundwork is present, and the film at least equals its Swedish counterpart.  I expect that if Fincher continues to helm the trilogy it will grow stronger where the originals became weaker, and hope that we see Lisbeth's return soon.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Signing Off for the Holidays...

...a happy Chrismukkah to all, and to all a good night.  No, it's not an OC reference if that's actually what you celebrate.  Still, remember that show guys?  Seth Cohen!  Good times.  Ok. Now it's an OC reference.  That's right. I just went from Terry Gilliam to a teen drama with Mischa Barton. Ten points.

Late Night Trailers: Prometheus

There's no speaking in the trailer for Ridley Scott's Prometheus, but sometimes all we really need are pure visuals.  This is Scott's return to science fiction, a genre he hasn't touched since 1982's Blade Runner (one of my faves).  Of course, Prometheus has more in common with Alien (another one of my faves), as it follows a group of scientist types traveling to a distant planet to investigate man's origins.  Deep space travel? Giger aesthetics?  Bad things will happen.  There's been a significant amount of speculation as to whether or not the film is a prequel, sequel, or firmly rooted to the Alien series at all, as Scott stated awhile back that Prometheus will not use the original xenomorph monster.  Still, the title fade in here (recognize it?) has me incredibly excited. Prometheus has a great cast lined up for all its horrors.  Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Wilson, and Idris Elba are all on board; you can bet I am as well.  As soon as this pops into theaters next June, I will be there and I will probably be way more high energy than I should be.   

Friday, December 23, 2011

Squalor: The Artist

There are times, my friends, where I find myself deep within the critical minority. The Artist, I fear, is one of those rare moments of nearly complete disagreement.  After all, the film has already landed on numerous 'best of' lists, racked up the most Golden Globe nominations, is a shoo in for a half dozen Oscar nods, and -for a moment- was a major contender for the Palme d'Or at Cannes (luckily, Tree of Life topped it).  I'd left a space open for The Artist on my own personal end-of-the-year wrap up, certain that I too would fall victim to the rosy warmth of its silent era nostalgia.  After all, a cinephile is a sucker for a movie about movies, and who could possibly resist a contemporary dose of shimmering black and white?

 I was ready for a rebooted silent; a playful, wink wink nudge nudge commentary on our current landscape of big budget monstrosities and loud, cacophonous disillusioned dark horses. A bit of that dolled up, wide-eyed glamour could have gone far. In some ways, we do need a film with a heart of gold and a simplistic sincerity to waltz in and remind us that movie making at its simplest can be a magical, transcendent experience.  What I got with The Artist, however, was little more than vapid pastiche with an overly familiar plot, a sort of perfume ad version of old world magic: dressed up, ready to go, playing to the style but simply mugging for the camera.  The Artist was a tremendous disappointment.  It was empty, silly, cloyingly saccharine, with a story that could be told more effectively by Bill Hader in a four minute SNL digital short.

Ironically, the film I'd hoped for has already came along this year, and when it did it arrived dressed up in all the trappings of the modern blockbuster:  it was Hugo.  With Hugo, Scorsese brought silent films to life.  He showed us their beauty, what went into the construction of their little worlds and how thoroughly they built the framework for everything we have today.  Scorsese showed us how to love silent film, how to believe in its powers and see it as relevant and alive.  In The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius is playing a cheap parlor trick, trying to fool us into thinking we're seeing something new, something fresh, when instead all he's showing us is a dusted off something old (with a still-wet coat of varnish).  "Isn't that nice?"  we're supposed to say as we dip into our bouts of seasonal depression,  "it's just so nice when you can go to the pictures and see a movie with a happy ending and a little scene stealing dog. Oh goody, oh golly, look at that half-assed tap dancing!  Isn't it great? Wow, forget Gene Kelly, you just don't get that from movies today.  Ugh, all you get are talking robots, 30-minute trips through the cosmos, and Michael Fassbender's wang. But this is so nice! They just don't make 'em like they used to..."

At its heart, The Artist is about one thing: making a silent film in 2011 that reads like a silent film from 1930.  As such, it has about a 50% success rate (but we'll get into more of that later), so it dresses up its attempts with a story nearly as old as Hollywood itself: talkies kill the silent film.  George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a debonair silent star at his zenith.  Valentin is John Gilbert and William Powell and Gene Kelly and, obviously, Rudolph Valentino all rolled into one omnipresent symbol.  Dujardin has the look and the charisma to pull it off.  We believe his face, the words of Norma Desmond echoing forever in our minds.  In this film, Hollywood is a mechanically flat galaxy with room enough for only one star at a time.  As Valentin stubbornly retains his belief that talkies are merely a passing fancy, he's phased out in favor of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a cute kid with a toothy grin who's plucked out of the chorus line and foisted into the limelight.  Peppy does not have the face.  She has none of the gravitas of a Greta Garbo and is clearly more of a Clara Bow 'it' girl, but for some reason Hazanavicius has aligned her with the star(...and isn't it amusing when she's given the "I want to be alone" reference. Uh huh. So amusing my eyes rolled back into my skull).

As Valentin's world crumbles, Peppy ascends. The two are inextricably linked: riches to rags, rags to riches, with a cheaply strung together love story somewhere in the middle and the full understanding that this film is not about to end badly anytime soon.  As such, The Artist is constantly aware of its own artifice and yet sincerely trying to overcome it.  The result is cloyingly cute and offensively inauthentic in a way that seems unaware it's picking up merely on stereotypical cliches instead of delving deeper into the medium. It is to silent film what Panda Express is to Chinese food: an altered state, a phony stand-in.  Yet, someone out there will actually think this is what the real thing is supposed to taste like.  It's like, hey, guys, it's a silent film about a guy who fails at life because he won't listen when other people talk. Get it? Get it? That's something new, right? That's the twist?
Frankly, my dear, as I watched The Artist I went from being unimpressed to actively disliking the film on nearly every level.  If you'd like to see a great version of the story The Artist is loosely working with, please go watch Singin' in the Rain. If you'd like to see the films that Singin' in the Rain loosely works with, please go watch a great silent film.  Choose from any of a long list of worthy titles: dig up Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murneau, Fritz Lang, and Louise Brooks.  In the spirit of Festivus, it seems appropriate that I simply air the rest of my grievances on the matter in a spilling, stumbling block of word vomit.  SO I SHALL...

Everything in the film feels over-calculated, phony, and just slightly off.  Bejo's face is all wrong for this role.  She has the eyes of a silent film star, but she doesn't know how to use them.  Her expressions are always empty, but then again, she's rarely given anything of substance to convey.  Instead, she transforms the whole thing into one long fashion editorial. A Chanel ad, perhaps. Her look is too modern, like a mix of my cousin and one of the Jackson clan. She needs heavier makeup, a kewpie mouth, and brows of a different sort.  The rest of the supporting cast, too (Missi Pyle excluded), feels dropped in.  No one here has the "face", they all need the "words." Speaking of, the dialogue cards are mostly poorly considered, like a bad student film script or dumb one-liners (no one laughed).  Too much faith is placed in Uggie the dog, who's no match for the dog in Beginners, though he can do some irritatingly overplayed tricks.  Human wise, the movements are off.  It's a muted version of an already silent film.  The actors feel tampered, restrained, unwilling to commit to the extra mile or frantic head movement.  The Waxworks in Sunset Boulevard had more life in the facial expressions at their bridge game than the stars do here.  No one can decide whether this is the sort of silent in which exaggerated motions are necessary, or if they can get away with Maria Falconetti realism.  Hint: they need a bit more exaggeration and some time with Tyra Banks: model head to toe, don't forget your face when you're focusing on your feet.  Part of this, though, could be that the cinematography doesn't take the broken, crackling look of those old pictures and run with it.  It goes as far as the aspect ratio and stops.  The blacks are not black enough.  The whites are not white enough.  The score is tremendously overwrought.  Granted, I've always had a problem with silent film scores, but there were points here which felt like they'd simply put the soundtrack from The Sims game on a loop.  You know what I'm talking about.  Why do we care about these people?  How are we attaching ourselves?  Everything happens simply and without reason.  Everything is pulled from an 8th grade understanding of history and not explored further. BOOM: stock market crash.  BOOM: talkies. BOOM: celluloid burns up fast (but here, not fast enough). The meet-cute is contrived, the downfall is as trite as it gets, and the resolution is so predictable it makes the end of The Change-Up seem almost like a gamble...ehhhh, I dunno guys, do you think they'll switch back!?  In other words: you've got to be kidding me.
2011 has been a remarkable year for cinema.  The sheer range of emotions and human experiences we've seen captured on film in such startling, inventive ways has left me in a sort of celluloid rapture.  I'm more in love with movies right now than I have been at any point since discovering Fellini as a teenager, more willing to admit to loving a silly bit of fancy, and open to finding the beauty in even my least favorite genres.  In some ways, I will admit that my evaluation of The Artist has been colored by all of the 2011 films to come before it.  Now, as I see this middling film at the tail end of a stellar year, it hurts to watch it receiving the praise and accolades that so many truly moving works of art simply aren't receiving.

For your consideration, I submit that The Artist is a pastiche at best.  It reminds me, in many ways, of a gift shop knick-knack.  You know, like a Venus de Milo paper doll set with sunglasses and evening gowns that you can play with to remember the trip where you saw the real thing.  No, I'm serious.  The Artist is a plastic snowglobe. There have been better pastiches this year, ones that have transformed their genres and blurred the edges of our expectations (Rango? Drive?)

For your consideration, I submit this as a meaningless distraction.  It may entertain you momentarily, but it is not worthy of awards.  No games have changed here.  The acting is so-so, the story is a retread, and the cinematographic possibilities have barely been touched upon.  This film barely accomplishes what decades of cinematic progress have worked towards and constrains the medium instead of liberating it.  This is cinema that has been trivialized in the instant it needs to expand its own possibilities.

For your consideration, I submit that The Artist is not a good clean reminder of the purity of cinematic roots.  It's not a breath of fresh air.  I believe that we have kept silence in our cinematic toolbox, that the silent film still exists, and that faces and physical expressions still matter.  I'm not speaking in the literal Guy Maddin way (though it's worth noting that he's been playing with the silent for years).  No, what we forget is that our definition has evolved.  Silents in the 20's were limited by necessity, not by artistic choice.  Now, we have that freedom of movement, we also have sound as part of our storytelling palette.  Now, when we make a silent film, when we punctuate something with dialogue, it is spoken instead of written. The emotion is felt, the words are given meaning, but silence has its place. Our silents now are films like Somewhere, We Need to Talk About Kevin, My Winnipeg, or Tree of Life. These films make use of their actors. They allow us to see what goes unspoken on their faces, to read between the screenplay's lines.  The Artist is a tchotchke, a nice reminder, an interesting novelty, but that's it.  If this film had been made in 1930, it would have been forgotten by now, condemned as a fluff piece from a studio system, and rarely dug up for public consumption.

For your consideration: if The Artist wins Best Picture...I will break my TV.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #25: Bad Lieutenant (1992)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old. Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time.

I hate writing about films that are actually pretty decent for this feature.  Mostly because what needs to be said has already been said in nearly every way imaginable, but also because these mini essays boil down to something that’s less free form ranting and more straight criticism. So, you can imagine how disappointed I was when nothing in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant really jumped out at me as a tipping point in either direction.  I’ve literally been trying to come up with an interesting angle for Bad Lieutenant discussion since the beginning of December.  Now, it’s Christmas time and I’m still scratching my head and wondering whether it’s better to just outline the weird, hellish things that happen here or to try to figure out just how much this film and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans have to do with one another. 

  Actually, now that I mention it, the one thing that really befuddles me about the similarly titled films is how it was possible that the Nicolas Cage starring Port of Call could crib the title and be “neither remake or sequel” to Ferrara’s 1992 film?  I’m not one to question Herzog when he tells me something, but it seems tremendously odd that the man claims never to have seen a Ferrara film prior to shooting his film when the two stories do have a fair amount in common.  Perhaps all films about corrupt cops should simply be released under the Bad Lieutenant title.  Maybe Training Day could have been amped up and called Bad Lieutenant: Lamer than the Other One.  
I kid.  Compared to the tripped out insanity of Nic Cage’s performance in Port of Call, the ‘original’ ran a little south of my expectations.  Comparatively: it was dismal and serious. Here, Harvey Keitel stars as our unnamed Lieutenant.  For a long while, the camera follows him as he runs through his criminal rounds.  The Lieutenant is supposed to be investigating the devastating rape of a nun, but instead he spends most of his time gallivanting with prostitutes, chasing the dragon, tripping out stark naked in a crack house, and trying to blackmail young ladies he pulls over for speeding violations into performing sexual favors.  The most vivid, reprehensible scene is one in which our antihero threatens and demeans two teenage sisters until one shows him her ass and the other feigns oral sex (on the air) while he jerks off.  This goes on for way too long and is about as uncomfortable to watch as it sounds.  You may wonder as you watch it if it’s actually a hugely effective way of illustrating just how low the Lieutenant is, or if it’s a sort of exercise in seeing just how many times Keitel can nastily use a euphemism for his genitalia within a span of five minutes.  It’s worth noting that Port of Call has a scene like this as well, in which Cage’s lieutenant actually has sex with a woman and forces her boyfriend to watch. 

Obviously, both characters are real charmers. Keitel’s, though, has none of the demented joy present in Cage’s performance.  Cage, as is his nature, had a manic energy that tended to push things towards the comedic.  He’s a loose cannon, sure.  He’s remarkably dangerous, yes.  But, we’re trained to find a raging Nic Cage fairly humorous whereas Harvey Keitel is, by comparison, a scary son of a bitch. Keitel’s entire countenance is more frightening than Cage’s.  There’s nothing funny about him.  He looks like he’s seen things, horrible things, and they never left him.  I don’t know why, but I have trouble imagining Keitel laughing, not even a maniacal laugh.  I know I’ve seen it happen before, but I can’t conjure the image.  His entire face is too weighed down by the burden he carries from his visit to the lowest circles of hell.  I believe Keitel’s character more. The nastiness of the performance forces the obviously culty, over the top elements to be repressed in favor of true grit and hard boiled crime.  It’s an exploitation flick, of sorts, but everything about Keitel’s character reeks of a loathsome desperation. For brief seconds, he seems to want to change, to want to do something good. These solutions usually come in the form of revenge. An eye for an eye will help him heal.  He never succeeds, and it never does. Instead, he makes things worse.  
We begin to realize that the Lieutenant is suffering from a torment that’s self-inflicted, as if he’s decided to just go the extra mile and flagellate himself until he gets what’s coming to him. He wants to be punished, he probably wants to die; his regrets are so numerous he can no longer effectively repent, so he doesn’t try to make good. Towards the end of the film, Keitel crawls screaming on the floor of a church as a placid hallucination of Christ looks on. It’s an unnervingly odd moment of visual throat-jamming in what, I would argue, is at heart a dark morality play. I read this Bad Lieutenant the way I tend to read Bret Easton Ellis: all of the brutality, the vulgarity, the mean-spirited nihilism, and drug use are not depictions of something darkly entertaining but are instead meant to disturb and shake the audience into a realization that none of this pays. Message received, Bad Lieutenant. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like very much to never see Harvey Keitel naked again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Late Night Trailers: The Dark Knight Rises

Now that it's been mentioned: it must be posted.  I have to confess, I've sort of been avoiding posting the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises.  Part of this is because I don't want to let myself get my hopes up (especially since the wait is still such a long one).  The other part is because I've had so many out and out ranting speculation/concern sessions with so many people that writing about my expectations for this film at all has become almost impossible.  So, instead of introducing a film that needs no introductions or expressing my numerous concerns and annoyances (why did they cast Anne Hathaway!?), I'll just open up the floor.  Thoughts?

Late Night Trailers: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Happy Hanukkah and a merry early Christmas, my fellow nerd-folk.  As if the arrival of a more involved teaser for The Dark Knight Rises late last week wasn't enough, we have now been granted our first official look at next year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Peter Jackson returns to direct the epic prequel to The Lord of the Rings, which, for the weirdos who haven't read it, follows the journey of a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he embarks on a quest fronted by the wizard Gandalf.  Oh yes, my friends, this is where Bilbo comes into possession of the ring.  Along the way, we get all the usual goblins, dwarves, creatures and orcs, this time with a dragon and giant spider or two along the way.  Hope that the world doesn't end before the film is released on December 14, 2012.  Then, prepare to wait until part two, The Hobbit: There and Back Again is released in December, 2013.  

Guest Post: Tryst Raids a Man's Closet

Our guest columnist and special fashion consultant Tryst is your one-woman guide to filmtastic styling, easy to spot on the sartorial street because of 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, but prefers to 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. 

If I were to pick a polar opposite to my sense of style I would say menswear. However, as seems to happen from time to time, this autumn menswear for women seemed to be everywhere: blogs, magazine, MSN features. The sudden saturation in the market intrigued me. I may be a bit late to jump on this bandwagon but I can comfortably run after it once in a while.

Something to note is that there is a difference between menswear inspired and actually wearing menswear. For example, Katharine Hepburn actually often wore men’s clothes. Now, you have starlets like Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton who regularly sport wonderfully tailored suits. Not being tall and willowy seemed to be an impediment to my experimentation until I discovered Janelle Monae. As a musician, she may not exactly qualify as a starlet but girl knows how to dress.

Armed with these visions I took to my husband’s closet to see what I could come up with. This may not have been the best choice. He’s a foot taller than me, so I ended up looking a bit like a 5-year old trying on daddy’s clothes - not the chic look I had imagined. But, with a few tweaks I was able to salvage the experiment.

A few tips I would suggest:
  • Make sure things fit right. 
  • You want to look polished, not dowdy (belts, tailored blazers and suspenders are very useful).
  • Adding a few feminine touches can make an outfit pop (like flower print, a bow or some sparkle, lipstick).
  • Layers are lots of fun. 
  • Keep in mind that a big part of pulling off a menswear look is how you carry yourself.  Just because you borrowed your man’s sweater doesn’t mean you have to borrow his posture too.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Love: Young Adult

A dark comedy done right is a thing of terrible beauty.  When the mean-spirited, black heart of a deeply cynical film can be effectively punctuated with sharp, stab wound laughs, it becomes impossible to look away.  In Young Adult, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody team up for the second time to bring us a nasty, brutish, and short portrait of a train wreck. While the formula is a familiar one built from rom-com cliches of boyfriend snatching and pining old flames, the script is phenomenally fresh and, frankly, outright ballsy. Cody has been criticized in the wake of Juno, accused of overwriting dialogue and ushering in a new era of overly glib screenwriting (amongst other sassy twee annoyances).  Yet, while I tired of Juno's cutesy teen pregnancy long ago, I have found myself admiring Cody's tenacity since.  She has a way of making us interested in unlikable characters.  "United States of Tara" frequently toed the line between good and evil in each member of its fractured family, making us hate them even as we sympathized.  Jennifer's Body dared to make a cheerleader queen bitch both villain and victim.  Young Adult goes the extra mile with Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron).
Mavis is the ghostwriter of a burned out Sweet Valley-esque series of books.  We believe that she has some sort of talent, and the folks she left behind in small town Mercury, Minnesota can't seem to mention her without imagining she's one of the lucky ones. Mavis escaped to the city, she's been written up in the paper, her life must be glamorous.  The truth is that Mavis is in the midst of a breakdown.  She lives in a box of a high rise apartment littered with the detritus of her self-induced misery: empty vodka bottles, dirty laundry, Hello Kitty branded t-shirts, a constant stream of Kardashians on her flat screen.  It's the messy dorm room habitat of a stunted adolescent and exactly the sort of place you'd expect to find a pretty blonde girl sleeping in sweatpants at noon.  The problem, of course, is that Mavis is in her late thirties.  She's well past the expiration date on most of her behavior, a sort of female take on the stock Apatow male.  When she receives a birth announcement from high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), she takes it as a sign.  This wrinkled baby is her bat signal.  Mavis Gary must return to Mercury, she must liberate Buddy, she believes that fatherhood must make him tremendously unhappy.  This is, of course, a projection of her own dissatisfaction.  Yet, upon sensing that someone she was once so close with must be as miserable as she is now, she seems to believe that what's been missing from each of their lives has been one another.  The key to her happiness, she thinks, lies in Buddy Slade.

Mavis is the girl you hated in high school.  She was that one.  Not the one who you resented because she was well liked, but the other one: the one people feared.  Mavis is the type who would steal your boyfriend, rub it in your face, recklessly throw around mercilessly cruel slurs, not bother to learn your real name, and probably offer blow jobs between long swigs of hard liquor in the woods.  When she returns to Mercury, she believes that everyone still living there is worse off than she is.  Her former classmates are backwoods idiots devoid of all her Juicy Couture sophistication.  Yet, while they seem in awe of the city: we know that running away didn't do anything for Mavis other than entrap her in her own isolation.  She's as delusional, conniving, and bitter as they come.  You'd like to feel sorry for her, but the movie won't let you.  She doesn't have any redeeming qualities.

Theron commits to her character in a way that pushes the boundaries of audience discomfort.  There's none of the latent charm or accidental camaraderie that we might expect to sneak through in the film's quieter moments. Mavis is monstrous, a character we are forced to laugh at from the outside, but who saddens in a way that inspires violent frustration.  We see how damaged her psyche is, we watch her drink away her present moments and pull at her hair, but Young Adult doesn't sympathize with its protagonist.  It eschews moralizing, statement making, and redemption.  Theron has bitchface down pat: she's a gorgeous woman who here, with limited makeup, seems to find ways to deaden her eyes, ice over her features, and lock into a perpetual scowl.  Though you can understand her...you hate her, you hate her motivation, you hate how self-centered she is.  Yet, as much as you may loathe Mavis, that's how much you will love Theron for playing her.

Young Adult's warm center is Mercury High's resident outcast, Matt Freehoff (Patton Oswalt).  Oswalt is an ingenious bit of casting, the sort of figure we'd hardly expect to find playing opposite of an ice queen like Theron.  Matt is a geeky cool character firmly grounded in the reality of his situation.  Unlike Mavis, Matt's life has actually been hard, and high school left him physically damaged (the result of a truly heinous hate crime).  Where Mavis dwells on the negative, however, concocting elaborate fictions to cope with the emptiness of her own existence, Matt seems genuinely comfortable in his own skin.  The two strike up an odd friendship which, for him, seems based in a mix of curiosity and genuine kindness.  He clearly loves the twilight zone weirdness of their interactions.  Guys like him, he insists, can't help but fall for girls like her.  In the big budget, Katherine Heigl version of Young Adult, Matt would be the "suitable" alternative, the guy our heroine doesn't notice until she runs the risk of losing him in a climactic moment of epiphany.  Young Adult ain't typical.  It's caustic.  In this reality, the epiphanies come not with heart-bursting pop songs, but with dirty, kicked at grunge.  While Matt gives us a glimmer of something good, Young Adult is a painfully funny jaunt into the darkness.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Love: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Guys, we need to talk, ok?  Just, like, take a seat or something so I can try to explain to you how this works: can we please remember that Guy Ritchie's version of Sherlock Holmes is not a fancy BBC adaptation?  It's just, well, it's just not.  Can we please also remember that the first Sherlock Holmes (while your memories have shaded it positively) was far from a great film at the time of its release. It was a good film. It was a fun film.  It had two men who shared a surprising amount of on-screen chemistry.  But...it was also meandering, murky, long, and Rachel McAdams was supremely irritating.  Still, what it was really about, that is, what you likely really took from it was Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law having a grand old time being a bantering, turn of the century odd couple.  Now, use your powers of deductive reasoning, my dear naysayer, and know before you go that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is more of the same.  It is not out for plainclothes espionage, sleuthing and skulduggery.  It is an extension of the first installment, but, like nearly all of Ritchie's films, has staged its characters for full-force engagement in rampant bad-assery and sharp, silly dialogue.  That is, essentially, all it's about.
If the first film was a pleasant escape that reminded audiences that Sherlock Holmes was, at heart, much more than a tweedy crime-buster in a deerstalker hat, Game of Shadows is the next step in the character's evolutionary development.  This episodic installment is cut from the cloth of all standard issue action flicks. The only difference is that the bromantic elements here tend to queer our expectations, in a manner of speaking.  While officially the plot centers around the proper introduction of notorious nemesis Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), the real catastrophe for Sherlock Holmes is, more likely, the marriage of John Watson.  Luckily for Holmes, Moriarty's dastardly plans involve the dispatching of Holmes' loved ones.  So, naturally, Sherlock must invite himself on his best friend's honeymoon and recklessly involve him in one more adventure.  He's essentially already solved the case, you see, but he needs Watson by his side for bickering moral support. The game is afoot, there are a great many explosions, we get more of that absurd slow-mo fight choreography, and we completely lose track of any actual plot for at least an hour.  Noomi Rapace (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is on hand as some sort of gypsy who has some sort of brother who is caught up in some sort of nasty business, but all of that is pretty much just a huge excuse for her to simply be present.  The plot doesn't matter here.  Rapace is just there, I think, so the camera can cut away to her "wow, you guys are such a cute couple" expression as the boys flirt via argument.
By all technical counts, Game of Shadows is a big dumb Hollywood cacophony of shrapnel, sight gags, and poor planning.  Sherlock's powers of observation are pushed to a ridiculous, nearly supernatural level.  And, to make matters worse, the film falls victim to a weird alchemy by which its brilliant protagonists are magically transformed into lovable goofuses. Where we're used to Sherlock Holmes as a mouthy, drug-addled bastard with a genius IQ and autism-spectrum social graces, in Game of Shadows he's occasionally reduced to a slightly more adept Inspector Closeau.  There are retrospectively stupid disguises, scenes predicated on the notion that Sherlock Holmes in smeared lipstick is funny, Stephen Fry naked is hilarious, or Robert Downey Jr. trotting away on a miniature pony might be a laugh riot.  These things probably shouldn't be funny. My brain tells me that there's something juvenile about them. Yet, admittedly, they are. They are completely funny. I laughed like an idiot during this movie. No, seriously, I don't think you understand: like an idiot. As in, my friends and I were the people caught in the giggle loop who could not stop finding every slight absurdity this film threw at us as hysterical as intended.  We may never know for sure whether the other theater goers were laughing with us or because of us, but one thing is for sure: while Sherlock Holmes may not be a "good" movie, I had the same reaction I did to the first one...I totally loved it. I had a fantastic time. Even now, as I think about Robert Downey Jr. on that little horse, I'm stifling my laughter. If I imagine him saying the words "Hedgehog goulash" I lose it. I CANNOT EXPLAIN THIS.  HEDGEHOG GOULASH.  PAUSE FOR CRAZY PERSON LAUGH.  Instead, I can only say that there's a definite charm to Game of Shadows and it's one I'm anything but immune to. This may be my Kryptonite.  I'm incapable of evaluating this film as anything other than I LAUGHED A LOT.
Of course, if we had to name that charm we could probably get away with calling it Robert Downey Jr.  This is his movie.  Forget what you know about Arthur Conan Doyle's literary super sleuth and accept that in the Ritchie films the character has been surrendered to and reinvented by Robert Downey Jr. RDJ's Sherlock is, essentially, just RDJ having a bloody good time playing a character who appears to be basically himself with an English accent.  This is his Jack Sparrow, and he's playing it as over-the-top as he can. He's eccentric, bitter, rude, manic, narcissistic, blathering, roguish, and a tremendous pain in the ass. Yet, while he destroys nearly everything he touches and shouldn't be likable, he possesses a level of self-assured charisma that makes the movie.  It's a neat little parlor trick that seems like it shouldn't be anything, but it is.  Downey's is an extended act of physical comedy punctuated by fits of smartly timed verbal retorts that fit effortlessly with Jude Law's gently bent straight-man presence.  Together, these two are the film.  In my review of the first one, I closed out my argument saying that I'd be perfectly happy watching a movie made entirely of "Sherlock being batty, snippy, and strung out at 221b Baker Street while Watson the mother hen pops in with commentary and exasperated glances."  It's not an exact fit, but if you consider Game of Shadows a version of that imaginary sequel, we may be able to close the case of why it is I like this movie.   

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Love: Shame

What you know about Shame is that it's an NC-17 portrait of a sex addict.  To a teenager (or those who have never watched an Almodovar film) the taboo rating signifies something immediately forbidden.  There will be nudity, there will be sex that somehow qualifies as "more adult" than the MPAA's R-rating.  In all likelihood: there will be boobs.  It's true.  But, you know, where aren't there boobs?  So, the thing is that there will also be a penis flopping about somewhere. If you're lucky, it won't belong to Harvey Keitel. What gets overlooked, often times, is that simple body parts do not an NC-17 rating warrant. In the case of Shame, and, in my experience, the case of a great deal of NC-17 'serious' films (versus 'unrated'), anatomy is sullied.  Sexualized content is rarely sexy.  It will be somehow dirtied up, plot relevant, and often horribly unpleasant.  What this really means, apparently, is that when an NC-17 film actually makes it into a theater,  the combination of these elements will prove a great annoyance. Personally?  I was carded multiple times before the film started, the theater management felt the need to post detailed warnings as far out as the parking garage elevator that Shame contained content of a graphic nature, and the final usher to check my ID muttered "Good luck" as I walked in.  "Don't worry," I assured him, "I won't ask for my money back."
 As its title suggests, Shame is something other than an exercise in provocative titillation.  It is the story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome, successful, seemingly well-liked New Yorker who drifts from apartment to work to dimly lit clubs and back again.  He's polite and sociable in an unassuming way ; men enjoy his company, women blush when their eyes connect with his.  In a surprising scene, we watch Brandon assist in navigating the waters of the casual hookup for his buffoon of a boss.  He is not smarmy, he does not dance or go out of his way to catch the attention of the women this other man approaches.  Instead, he passively stands back, a reserved wing man there to support, though we'd assume this "whole scene isn't really his thing."  Like a different sort of American Psycho, Brandon appears at first to be a catch. What we learn, however, early on, is that Brandon's life is dedicated to the tragic, desperate, compulsive pursuit of sex.  His hard drives at work and at home are filthy, loaded with every variation on the act he can find.  Women are drawn to him, and he picks them up the second he walks away from his co-workers.  That's not enough, though.  No, Brandon must pay to watch women via webcam over breakfast, he plays host to an endless stream of hookers, he masturbates furiously multiple times a day and locks himself in public restroom stalls with what we can perceive as some regularity.  We don't understand his compulsions, or where they come from, only that they lead to his profound unhappiness.

All of this is Brandon's dirty, shameful secret.  So, naturally, when his screwed-up little sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves herself in, the rinse and repeat pattern of his indiscretions is disrupted.  Sissy has problems of her own, you see.  Her issues, like his, are dangerous and damaging.  We get the sense that Sissy's presence destroys Brandon.  Something about her frightens him, tears at the facade he has built and reminds him of some mysterious, obfuscated past.  "We're not bad people," Sissy insists, "we just come from a bad place."  The nature of that place is unknown.  There's a scar on their shared childhood.  Is it abuse? Is it incest?  All we know is that Sissy longs for someone to lean on, that she desperately wants her brother in her life while Brandon recoils at her proximity and pushes her away in an increasingly aggressive manner.  We get the sense that his frustrations are two-fold, that he must fight to repress himself in her presence in part because he must appear as strong as she is weak, but also because he is incapable of divorcing his compulsion from their bloodline, that her touch is a guilt-charged temptation.
Sissy is a frustrating character for the audience as well, in part because she's so desperately manic that she becomes nothing more than mere device.  Carey Mulligan serves her purpose well here. She launches herself physically into the role and embodies a level of needy vulnerability that's almost grotesque.  Yet, though she's the impetus behind a few wrenching scenes, it's hard not to see her as merely a rogue element in Brandon's life.  When Sissy is present, Brandon's unhappiness is amplified into violent, self-reflective/destructive rage.  Fassbender is spellbinding to watch.  Shame is fueled by moments of frenzied angst.  It's deliberately over-the-top in quiet, unhappy ways that seem familiar.  Yet, while aspects of the film may seem to damn it to some sort categorization as a sensationalized tale of alienation and addiction, Fassbender is capable of single-handedly elevating everything to another level.  The physicality of the performance is matched by an almost frightening ability to tap into the emotional depth of this damaged character.  As we watch Brandon, we find ourselves caring about him though he seems incapable of caring about himself.  We know that he should be repellent, that he is cold, distant, and partially inhuman.  Yet, Brandon is predatory in an odd way.  Fassbender takes what could be an empty shell and transforms him into a sympathetic man.  He is vulnerable, childlike, and awkward when he finds himself in the presence of someone he does care about. The sex acts themselves are shrouded in pain.  There is a scene, at one point late in the film, where the eye of the camera meets with the eyes of Brandon as he engages in another affair.  What we see there bears no sign of pleasure.  He is in absolute misery, and this one glance is simply devastating.
 Misery permeates everything Brandon does and every place he goes, and Shame captures its character's fragile psyche in its cinematography.  It's a cold, beautiful film that belongs to the same New York City that gave us Black Swan last year-- a humorless dimension of darkened melodrama and excess.  This is not a vibrant metropolis.  It is not alive, or good.  It is a death trap painted here, by McQueen, as a sensory deprivation chamber.  The muted colors and minimal dialogue somehow strip away the presence of the camera though, counter-intuitively, shots are oft framed in an obviously exacting way. Brandon, too, aspires to be perfect.  He wants to hide, to commit his sins in private and save face. Of course, Black Swan ran camp, on occasion, bursting with absurd histrionics, and artful interpretations of the horror genre.  Shame is, in some ways, hard to believe itself.  Though it's largely a cooler, more restrained narrative than Aronofsky's film, its primary currency is that same melodrama.  Brandon (Michael Fassbender) would have probably run into Nina Sayers on the subway.  He probably would have stared at her longingly.  He likely would have tried to seduce her into a quick tryst in a boutique hotel or darkened alley.  Yet, the affair would be dispassionate.  It would be a temporary solution to a potential unsolvable problem.  And so, it continues.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Golden Globe Nominations Announced

The nominees for the 69th annual Golden Globes were announced in the morning half-light earlier today.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the silent The Artist came in as nominee front-runner with  just a nomination more than The Descendants and The Help.  Of course, the Globes famously break down their categories between genres, opening up more spaces for films that likely won't meet Academy standards.  Still, in such a solid year, it's surprising to see a drama as weak as The Ides of March back it into the Best Picture category.  It's similarly surprising to see a film like 50/50 nominated at all where critically applauded darlings like The Tree of Life, Beginners, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Drive, and Melancholia have failed.

On the television side of the nominations, there are much larger upsets, however.  American Horror Story and The New Girl have both snuck into Best Series and acting nominations where cult hits like Breaking Bad and Dexter are notably absent.  As someone currently on the American Horror Story bandwagon, I'm pretty pumped its listed so early in the game.  Yet, you know, conflicted...

Also, I was really hoping someone would step up and give Community the recognition it deserves.

The full list of nominees is below...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Late Night Trailers: Rock of Ages

The question is: do you buy Tom Cruise as a rock star?  I'm not sure I do.  Then again, Rock of Ages really wasn't made for me.  True story: I went with my friends to see Rock of Ages on Broadway, or whatever, and I have no idea why I was there.  Literally, I took one look at the music credits in the playbill and I was just like, good lord, I'm going to really hate this.  As you may be able to tell after watching the trailer, Rock peddles in a brand of 80's nostalgia music I just can't relate to. You know the stuff: the big hair music.  The cheesy strip club music.  The girls writhing on car hoods music.  Your Def Leppards, your Journeys, your Poisons and Twisted Sisters.  I'll give you ten bucks if you can't immediately guess which song basically closes out the show.  I mean, I just can't stand the bulk of this music.  When it comes to 80's business, I'm more of a New Wave/New Romantic, things that are gothy, things that are  synthy pop, things that are the Pixies kid.  I will take The Smiths over all of this business any day at any moment of my life.  Anyhow: the show wasn't the worst thing.  As Broadway musicals go, however, it would qualify as a very, very light weight guilty pleasure.  Still, as a movie there's plenty of opportunity for flashy numbers and pyrotechnics...if you can get past the obvious once the film is released next June.  

Late Night Trailers: Men in Black 3

There's a trailer for Men in Black 3.  Why is that a thing that exists?  Honestly, I couldn't tell you.  It seems sort of after the fact, to me, but I can only guess that someone in Hollywood noticed the surplus of alien invasion movies this year and was like, hey! Boomtown! It's the late 90's all over again!  Except for it's not, and stuff.  I was a huge fan of the first Men in Black.  I watched that movie about a million times and I know that somewhere out there is a music video made at someone's birthday party involving a  dancing puppet wearing fake Ray-Bans and some back up dancers (of which I may or may not be one, I honestly can't remember).  The sequel, though, kind of burned me out on the franchise as it was admittedly terrible.  A million years later, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have returned as Agents J and K.  Only this time, there's time travel involved.  And this time, Josh Brolin will get to do a Jones impersonation as a young Agent K.  I'm not really excited about it at this point, but let's be honest: this is probably what a lot of us will be watching come Memorial Day.

Love: Martha Marcy May Marlene

When we talk about Martha Marcy May Marlene, do we speak of it in the language of its characters, or the language of the audience?  T. Sean Durkin’s film (his first) never makes explicit use of the word ‘cult’, but we know that the commune these young 20-something inhabit is just that.  Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is our protagonist’s given name.  To her biological family, that’s who she is, just Martha – a troubled girl who fell off the map.  For two years, though, she has lived docile amongst a second family as Marcy May, the name assigned her by Patrick (John Hawkes), an enigmatic, backwoods cult leader.  There’s something to the film’s unwillingness to label Martha’s experience, something which stems from the character herself.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is an unnerving, haunting film.  In certain respects, it’s very much a ghost story.  Here, though, instead of literal specters, we have the shadows of a too recent post-traumatic past.  Martha is haunted by her memories in a way we can’t quite understand.  She doesn’t share them with anyone.  In the opening scene we watch her as she’s chased through the woods, making her daring escape to a rural pay phone to reach out – reluctantly – to her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for help.   On the phone, in gasps and frantic glances, she can’t seem to decide whether to stay or to go.  It’s a sense that pervades the entirety of the film: a fear, a palpable anxiety triggered by both potential outcomes, real independent life is scary, is the cult more or less so?

 For the viewer, there’s no question which is the better option.  Within the idyllic landscape of the commune, horrible, animalistic compulsions are afoot.  It’s a bad place. Without revealing too much I can tell you that the moment Martha enters, willingly, she’s already lost any agency she has over her life.  Patrick greets her with a flirtatious name change, and in that moment she is possessed.  Martha is dead, she is Marcy May, or, Marlene Lewis when she answers the communal phone. Olsen, in her first role out from under her famous siblings’ twin shadows, has a surprising command of the screen.  As Martha, we believe her mood swings.  We can see the glimmer of the free spirit she once was, the sort whose travels would lead them to a commune in the first place, as well as the crushed, terrified little girl she’s become.  In a startling scene, Martha enters Lucy’s room and curls into a fetal position on her sister’s bed…while on the other side Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy) have sex. Martha doesn’t understand what’s wrong with that picture.  This is who she is.  The film accomplishes all of its decentering with the minimum amount of histrionics or drama.  Remember: Martha never talks about her problems.  She accepts them.  She holds on to the positives and in dark moments, they pull her back.  She’s damaged goods, a psychologically battered woman who remembers faint glimmers of praise and spits them out only to hate herself in the morning.

  In her performance, Olsen seeps to captures all of the purposeful nuance and uncertainty of Durkin’s script.  She’s a cipher, a half formed person, a girl without identity or purpose.  Yet, we feel for her.  Sometimes, true, we’re also insanely frustrated by her, but we need to be.  There’s something of the best parts of Maggie Gyllenhaal about Olsen, with little of the waifish imp or humble hipster.  It says something, then, that in his supporting role John Hawkes is able to pull the focus away from Olsen.  His actions and dialogue are minimal, but Hawkes has an icy presence as Patrick.  Durkin gives us moments where the film positively crumbles in Hawkes’ presence.  His intensity is scary and, when he lies, something in us believes him against our better judgment. 

All of this, of course, is captured in an aesthetically low-fi manner.  The textures here are swiped from the palette of an old Malick film; all grass, trees, and clap board houses, none of that HD shit. The stagnant nature of its locations only seems to add to the suspense of the film. Martha barely moves, and yet her world shifts.  She’s isolated, and yet surrounded by monsters and phantoms.  Everything takes on a dark magic, a latent danger.  It’s captivating.  No less so because it forces us to consider its significance, its meaning, long after the credits have rolled.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is a powerful film with powerful performances, but it leaves us with questions.  When we psychoanalyze its multi-monikered protagonist, can we claim to understand her?  Can we pick through the wreckage of her dissolved identity and decide, one way or another, whether the film’s narrative ambiguity points towards recovery or impending doom?  Is recovery even an option?
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