Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Love: ParaNorman

Apart from the hotly debated merits of the wide worlds of Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, animation studio Laika has quietly stacked a second fearless stop-motion feature atop the already staggering achievements of 2009's Coraline.  Where Coraline wowed with surreal, storybook expressionism and effects that seemed too impossibly precise and painstaking to be the work of a team carefully shooting each frame, ParaNorman continues to establish Laika as a presence worth taking serious note of.  What appears to be a simple kiddie monster movie (and it is the ultimate trick or treat post-game show) gives way to sophisticated storytelling, smartly crafted dialogue, and a respect for its audience's intelligence that should send Pixar into a panic. Built from a collection of influences from Tim Burton to George Romero, Steven Spielberg to John Carpenter, ParaNorman has a clarity of vision that allows it to build a loving pastiche to its predecessors without succumbing to being mere parody or homage. First time writer/director Chris Butler knows what he's doing and orchestrates every witch's hex and zombie claw with exactly enough manic energy to keep it a first class cartoon, and enough heart to, well, devour yours.  Hey Laika? Three years between studio features is a long time to wait, but the quirky artistry of the strange and beautiful ParaNorman makes it seem completely worthwhile.
The Norman of the title is an 11-year old outsider who, it seems, finds a strange solace in the predictability of horror movies.  He lives in one of those charming little East Coast towns obsessed and haunted by their witch burning past, but no one seems to question their shared dark history.  Instead, they pick mercilessly on Norman.  Because he communicates with them on the regular, everyone knows that Norman can see ghosts, a gift which means he's relentlessly bullied by kids quick to label him as a liar, freak, or attention starved weirdo.  His own family has no faith in his abilities and worries aloud when Norman insists his deceased grandmother communicates with him from her seemingly eternal place looking out for him from the living room couch.  Things get complicated when the neighborhood lunatic (who just happens to be a relative) taps young Norman for a dead-wrangling responsibility involving the unhinged spirits of past pilgrims and victims.  While the film has quite a bit of fun with its zombie movie roots, and throws around a clever, more adult wit, it's sweeter than it is scary.  The joys of ParaNorman are only partially derived from its visual gags.  Instead, the relationships here are deftly rendered in small spaces.  The dialogue is doing wonders when it comes to constructing meaningful relationships that kids can understand and identify with while more grown up folk appreciate the unpretentious, unprecocious honesty of the connections here.  Norman is immediately lovable, and his new found friends and sidekicks (especially Neil and his big bro) have a real-kid quality found only in the most beloved, well-worn VHS tapes of someone's 80's childhood.  It's awesome, endearing, and spooky atmospheric.  And although I know it would be the perfect second film in a double feature with Hocus Pocus...i totally have to rant about the haters now.
Ahem. Because most of the talk I hear about ParaNorman revolves around whether or not it's "kid appropriate"... a short rant: too many kids these days all like weirdly coddled, nightmare-prone wusses. Their parents have no problem giving them highlights, high heels, and cell phones, but show them a movie with a touch of darkness or a 'scary' monster?  All bets are off. The kid freaks out, the parent doesn't want to deal with the hiding under the covers that could possibly result from short-term exposure to Lord Voldemort or Maleficent.  OH NO. YOUR CHILD MIGHT CRY/SCREAM/QUESTION YOU ABOUT THE NATURE OF EVIL/NOT SLEEP FOR A COUPLE DAYS.  This is out of the question, of course, so, you know, just cut them off at book three of Harry Potter, stick their noses in a Nintendo DS, and let them think everything is made of sunshine, My Little Pony, and Pikachu until one day they wake up in adolescence and don't have a single coping method from those sleepless nights quaking and hiding under the covers because someone's older brother decided to switch the cable channel to Friday the 13th and that hockey mask re-contextualized everything.  That might be a slight exaggeration, but, really: dear parents,  solve that shit early.  Let your kids watch ParaNorman, understand that they can totally handle it, enjoy the ride, and stop complaining about how supposedly inappropriate the film is for your precious, incorruptible offspring.  Try to remember every party spent telling ghost stories and sticking hands in vats of peeled-grape eyeballs and jell-o brains, every grizzly fairy tale of chopped off heels and man-eating wolves, every game spent hiding in dark backyards waiting for the adrenaline rush that comes from a seeker stepping close, every Halloween you wanted to be a witch, a mummy, a bloody-fanged vampire; people (especially kids) kinda like being comfortably scared. With ParaNorman? The Halloween imagery comes is backed with serious art.   

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Love: Killer Joe

I never thought I'd say this, but Matthew McConaughey is growing on me.  Keep in mind: I'm a McConaughey cynic.  Generally, I can't stand the guy. I've never understood his former "sexiest man alive" appeal, because, honestly, he's always read as smarmy, creepy, and vaguely reptilian to me.  Who wants to watch an oily-haired slime ball romance all of America's sweethearts in every generic comedy?  Um, not I. This year, though, something changed. Either McConaughey got sick of playing it safe or the typecast offers stopped rolling in, but he seems to have finally embraced his inner slimeball, and the results thus far have resulted in a pair of performances that are legitimately brilliant.  Where in Magic Mike we watched the actor scuzz around for a bit of comic relief, in William Friedkin's (The Exorcist, The French Connection) daring Killer Joe, McConaughey gives a bold, downright maniacal turn in his role as the title character.  Everything about this movie seems absolutely wrong, insanely uncomfortable, and morally reprehensible - including McConaughey's casting - that it works.
Killer Joe is a deliciously depraved journey into a full set of very dark hearts and very small minds.  Without revealing any of the nasty nasty business to come, the opening scenes open up a soul sucking black hole of darkly comedic possibilities the film delivers on in ways that are actively disturbing. Set in the lowdown grime of a Texas trailer park, our first real introduction to the Smith clan comes in the form of a full frontal shot of Sharla's (Gina Gershon) pubic hair after she throws the front door open on her frantic, drug dealing stepson Chris (Emile Hirsch).  His panic segues into an argument on her inability to put pants on when she answers the door in the middle of the night, and, well, bam. Welcome to the family, folks.  Within minutes Chris has gathered his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) into the pickup, driven to the strip club so they can "talk" and convinced him they need to hire Killer Joe (McConaughey) -a dangerous police detective who moonlights as an assassin - to murder Chris's biological mother so they can collect the insurance money since Chris's rather slow, virgin little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is listed as the sole beneficiary. Sharla's a dirty Peg Bundy, Chris is a degenerate fuck-up, Ansel greedily goes along with anything that might help him out, and even sweet innocent Dottie (upon overhearing her brother's plot) cheerfully agrees they should have her mama killed.  
The Smiths are stupid enough to get themselves wrapped up with a killer they can't afford on the hopes of all going according to plan, so much so that the offer they work out with him immediately casts them as villains potentially much worse than Joe himself.  Killer Joe never bothers with false veneers and merely dabbles with empathy.  The Smiths aren't good people. Joe isn't a good person.  The person they set out to kill ain't so great herself.  As reprehensible as they are, however, the performances here are phenomenal in the face of out and out bad taste. Bottom feeding exploitative plot elements become frighteningly compelling art that challenges its viewers to keep watching with a knowing smirk. This is an art film, and the audience (mostly blue-haired couples at my screening) seemed able to process it without outrage while still noting how vile its characters were. While the very very dark comedy lands, and the screenplay is smart, I can't say enough about the cast.  As good as they all are, McConaughey and Juno Temple make the inconceivable appear painless.  Killer Joe is a villain for the ages.  He's a dark cowboy crossed onto the wrong side of the law who speaks in a slow drawl, pierces you with his eyes, and draws you in the way only the most dangerous predators can.
McConaughey switches his slimy charm on and immediately off, going dead behind the eyes, visibly tensing, edging slowly towards a breaking point that we can feel coming on like a sudden shift in atmospheric pressure.  He's terrifying and hypnotic, a career maniac who can only appear levelheaded when set against the vile, stupid, moneygrubbing Smiths.  Temple is the perfect foil, even if her role is problematic.  Over the span of her short career she's shown herself willing to put herself in compromising positions, and here the lengths she goes to are as painful as they are powerful. Dottie is the only light in Killer Joe, and her sweetness seems almost enchanted when contrasted to the grunged-out surroundings of down and out Texas.  Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts force us to wonder about her as well.  If the most innocent character in the film has no moral qualms regarding the brutal execution of her mother, who do we side with?  The answer: entertainment.  Killer Joe is unsettling entertainment, but entertainment that succeeds at subverting our expectations, playing with cultural cinematic commodities, and giving us something new.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Like: Celeste and Jesse Forever

File Celeste and Jesse Forever in with the films I'll look back fondly upon, but which I can't quite say I love just yet.  It's a story which I suspect will rank as a sort of lady version of High Fidelity, the sort of film you find yourself loving more and more intensely as you accidentally grow in to something resembling it.  Celeste (Rashida Jones) is a woman with one foot in a world of arrested development and the other grounded in the life of the professional, the mature.  Before the opening credits finish rolling, her marriage to the endearingly un-serious Jesse (Andy Samberg) has dissolved and they're amicably platonic best friends.  Though they spend all their excess time together, visit all the same friends, and live on different parts of the same property, they're in the process of a divorce because, we learn, Celeste decided that Jesse was essentially too stuck in an Apatowian immaturity to really grow with her into the next stage of their life. So, they tell each other they love one another, they share the same dumb jokes, but they can't stay married.  It's a decision we immediately see neither feels completely comfortable with, but, like a young, hipster version of Hope Springs, each is content to follow through upon in the name of the other's happiness. 
There's a lot that's frustrating about Celeste and Jesse, and most of it is derived from just how real the relationship depicted seems.  We can see what their friends see, and there seems to be this urgent need from outside of the relationship for them to make up their minds and get it over with.  They either need off the proverbial band aid and go their separate ways, or sign on to figure their shit out.  We know, inevitably, what's coming: that this is a couple that should never have separated, that there will likely always be regrets; and that's why it's so hard to watch them come to that realization on their own.  The story is presented primarily from Celeste's perspective, and because of that the film becomes trapped in a fair amount of content that seems rigidly formulaic.  Though the added twists here are that the girl dumped the boy and both parties are fairly confused, we still have to watch that tried and true third wheel trope play itself out: girl watches as male best friend finds other girl, girl watches as male best friend moves on, girl realizes she should have never let male best friend remain simply a best friend.  As Celeste gets pushed back onto the dating scene, instructed to 'loosen up a bit', and comfortable around the usual 'guy who would never be her type in a million years' (Chris Messina), I began to spend too much time wondering why the film's early focus on little details and inside jokes disappears in favor of the calamitous date shtick.
The elements that try to push the film towards romantic comedy seem forced, and while the film boasts a comically gifted cast, it's so clearly a tragedy that the resistance I felt towards those unwanted elements bordered on annoyance.  Jones is really rather wonderful here, and Samberg makes for a perfect counterpart.  The interactions we see between them in the film's earliest scenes are fluid, effortless, and loaded with a tension both actors have no problem playing off in a way that makes us understand what goes unsaid.  If the director had allowed the film's comic moments to arrive organically in the interactions between Celeste and Jesse themselves, I sense the depth of feeling here would resonate all the harder.  Instead, Celeste and Jesse Forever goes off on tangents that don't make sense (one involving a raunchy popstar played by Emma Roberts) in context and separates us from the story at its core.  I liked these characters, I believed them, I wanted to see them pull through, and I understood how absolutely traumatic it would be to realize that by simply progressing with your life you would be drifting further and further away from a happiness you knew with a person who was the closest to you in the world.  It's an unbelievably sad love story disguised as something bittersweet.  For all its tragically hip trappings, the melancholy pauses are where the elements click.

RIP: Tony Scott

There are times when you catch word of someone's untimely death and you're hit with a surprising touch of shock and sadness you didn't see coming.  Often, we don't know these people at all.  We know of them, or we've seen their work and it feels inappropriate, somehow, to talk about it too much from a distance.  Hearing director/producer Tony Scott had jumped to his death from a Los Angeles Bridge on Sunday was one of those moments for me.  The headlines read like an element from one of the dizzying action films he'd shot so well, that at first I had a hard time buying into the news as fact, but there it was: at age 68, Scott climbed onto the Vincent Thomas Bridge midday and left behind a suicide note.  We can't begin to speculate on why things like this happen, and it seems too trite an observation to talk at length about the fragility of life.  So, this is all I can really add to the discussion:  Tony Scott has been credited as a director of popcorn movies, often flawed or too legitimately entertaining to be taken seriously, and as much as that's true, he was a character I've defending on any number of occasions.  The term 'vulgar auteurism' has been thrown around the internet as of late, and if anyone can be pointed to as encapsulating iconoclastic visions while working in blockbuster genres, it would be Tony and (yes) his older brother, Ridley.

Tony Scott's movies were glossy, beautifully shot adrenaline rushes so hyper-stylized they were often immediately recognizable.  From Top Gun to Man on Fire to Unstoppable or Deja Vu, there was something kinetic about the films that transformed them into color saturated pressure cookers.  Scott spoke in the Film 4 clip posted above of the way his characters defined his technique, and the films I'm most fond of were his slightly off-the-wall ones: True Romance, Domino, and The Hunger; the places where the natures and habits of the characters merge with the editing to either create or suspend the action we see on screen.  The slow, hypnotic shadows of the vampire, the bright violence of two runaway lovers, and the frantic, confusing, overwhelming rush of the addict. They're glorious, dazzling works of pop deserving of being referred to as cult or trash or soft core only with love.  Gritty, dirty, violent and oversexed in all the best ways, I will miss Tony Scott's presence in cinema.

UPDATE: It's now being reported that Scott had been recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.  Terrible.

Because I love it so, here's the opening sequence of The Hunger.  Gorgeous vulgar auteurism and style for days (semi NSFW):

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Like: The Campaign

Like many of you, I too come from a family who likes to dig mirthfully (or bitterly, depending on how you look at it) into some serious politics upon gathering. There hasn't been a Thanksgiving or birthday party in the last fifteen years where one of my relatives hasn't called for an immediate ousting of a president.  Like a gang of talking head pundits, they throw around exaggerated slams.  Many an individual has been a fascist, a socialist, an American terrorist out to bankrupt the country and throw us deeper into an already deep recession.  Lately, certain relatives have been growing increasingly interested in throwing around 'facts' and 'headlines' picked up from the major news networks (which, let's face it, are all slanted towards ratings) that bring the dirty, twisted, warped perception game of politics into the living room in ways that constantly shock the hell out of me.  One aunt becomes a flame-haired Bill O'Reilly, another a comparatively subtle Anderson Cooper.  The networks feed into it, but the politicians sling a fair amount of hypocritical mud themselves.  Both parties are equally guilty of this, in my opinion, and sometimes it takes a film as flat out idiotic as The Campaign to innocuously deliver what HBO's The Newsroom's polarizing methods cannot: modern government is FUBAR, the tabloid method is winning, and if you're not yet guilty of the thing you're pointing fingers about, it's only a matter of time before you will be.    
In its strongest moments, The Campaign is fairly repugnant.  There's absolutely nothing subtle about the comedy here, and while the goal of the film offers a bit of satire, it lands mostly on the side of farce.  The jokes are broad sweeping master strokes of the profane.  There's a point to be made, but Dr. Strangelove it ain't.  The Campaign is playing with the election season feeding frenzy to give us a face-off between despicable democratic scandal-monger Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) and clueless conservative family man Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis).  Huggins is the outcast son of a Southern kingpin, reviled by his family seemingly because he's an effeminate, good-natured human being with a seemingly unbreakable optimism.  Marty's given the chance to make something of himself in the eyes of his father when the evil Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) decide to pluck him from obscurity and create a senatorial candidate stupid enough to blindly back their shady business ventures.  What follows is a down and dirty campaign as media hungry narcissist Brady finds himself cornered by the earnestly oblivious Huggins.  You can link up the pieces to find a bit of connection to the real-life political landscape, but past the generalized synopsis, the race here is amplified to absurd, ham-fisted extremes that work overtime to pummel you with the grotesque, awful possibilities for tabloid-brand politics.  Sex tapes?  Check.  Adultery? Check.  Bad parenting? Check. Baby punching?  Um...yeah, that happens.  It's a clearly fictitious world built on semi-probable fall of Rome concepts of modern America.  In a particularly apt scene a campaign ad is pitched at Brady in which centerfold style shots of his mistress are slowly luxuriated over until the commercial lands its "can you really blame him?" pitch.  It works.
Of course, the absurdity is also the downfall of The Campaign.  Over a relatively short run-time, the film devotes itself to a one-upmanship that shoots for bigger and badder one-liners instead of stopping to actually spend time making a joke that feels culturally relevant or game-changing.  It's an equal opportunity offender that posits, in part, that the American people are the bigger idiots for ever subscribing to any of these morons in the first place.  Politics here is all corrupt.  Here the democrats are savvy manipulators and the republicans are well-meaning, rather backwards puppets.  The portrait doesn't seem that far off, to me (I try to stay firmly in the demilitarized zone), but centering the story in a single congressional district instead of in the presidential race, for example, limits its does giving the film a fairly happy, resolved conclusion. There are a strong statements The Campaign could have gone for.  It could have hopped onto that nuke and rode it into the credits to make its fatalistic point.  Instead, its sharp corners have been sanded down and rounded out into gut-punch jokes and strings of scenarios.  Ultimately, while The Campaign is funny enough for a diversion, it doesn't take the time to fully work out its own potential.  See it for the laughs, but don't expect anything more than Talladaga Nights

Friday, August 10, 2012

Love: Hope Springs

In my freshman year of college I had a roommate who didn't understand me so well.  Granted, I didn't particularly 'get' her either, but there's no point going into that now.  One stellar example of our lack of communication was a specific conversation on When Harry met Sally.  She and a friend were hanging around the room and mistakenly thought I'd said I hadn't seen the movie, to which they emphatically responded "Oh, you would hate it. You would really hate it. It's not your thing at all."  Prompting me, of course, to reach over onto my rack of DVDs, pull out my copy of When Harry met Sally, and throw it onto the bed where they sat.  Then I followed it with Something's Gotta Give, a movie I had an especially strange love for at that point in time.  It was like operation shock and awe. You may have thought that was leading towards some sort of friendship counseling story (and it could have, in this situation), but where I'm really going is this: though it may seem out of character, I'm all for the Nora Ephrons and Nancy Meyerses of the world.  Though not a hard and fast rule, I'm all for throwing mom in the car and watching ladies sort out their complicated life issues when the rom com in question appears to have enough sour with its saccharine sweet.  So yeah, I may have instigated my mom's sudden need to see Hope Springs opening week.  And yeah, I may have looked forward to watching a middle age person sex-comedy as a pleasant break in the day.  And yes, amazingly I saw this before seeking out Total Recall or Celeste and Jesse Forever.  Deal with it.  
 Now that we've established that I have a not-so-secret love for beach houses and Diane Keaton's turtlenecks, let's talk about Meryl Streep's Midwestern makeover.  Streep is an actress who seems to balance the prestige pictures with the fun ones, and in her case even the would-be fluff pieces have a fair amount of meat to them.  For every Doubt there's a Mamma Mia! (no meat there, sorry).  For each Adaptation there's a Devil wears Prada.  She can do wonderful things with a surface archetype, and fresh off an awards rush for playing the immensely complicated Margaret Thatcher, she stepped comfortably into the sensible shoes of a meek, rather desperate housewife in Hope Springs.  Kay and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married for 31 years, the last five of which have seen their relationship slowly becoming a matter of platonic proximity.  They comfortably share the same space, but not the same bed.  They don't touch, they kiss perfunctorily in light pecks on the cheek, and they certainly don't have sex.  After another anniversary passes with little fanfare and a shared gift for the house, Kay tires of Arnold's curmudgeonly reluctance, steps out of her comfort zone, and signs them up for a week of intensive couples therapy with the placid Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Arnold, quite simply, isn't into it.  He goes, but unwillingly.      

To a certain extent, you can predict how their sessions will play out.  You know that Kay and Arnold's therapy conversations will be awkward at first; he'll bristle at Dr. Feld's comments and she'll become upset. Words will be spoken, revelations will be made, surprising fantasies may be revealed.  Streep looks every ounce the Nebraskan lady and plays Kay with an odd integrity that's almost frustrating.  Kay never gets angry.  She lets Arnold complain and bottles things up only to later release them in passive aggressive displays of subtle resistance.  As I waited for her to have the comedic break and go ape-shit on the therapist's couch, I realized it wouldn't be believable if she did.  That may be Streep, but it's not Kay.  Kay's not there for conflict, that's not what she wants.  She doesn't know quite what their relationship could be, but she knows it's not good enough in the condition that its in.  To a certain extent, Kay is trapped by her upbringing, but Arnold is too.  As Kay fancies herself a lady, Arnold is a gentleman of the old school variety.  He complains at Kay on occasion, but he never complains about the stuff he thinks would really sting.  Neither communicates their needs out of a perceived respect for the other's wants.  Streep plays it quiet, Tommy Lee Jones breaks out the dry humor at a slightly louder level.  We realize as we watch him just how well he can play all those shades of monotone.  Both actors are masters of revealing small, evolutionary details in minuscule actions, tics, or inflections.  The chemistry (or lack thereof) works.
 While there's a certain level of transparency to Hope Springs, the strength of the performances adds something unpredictable and volatile into the mix.  There are points at which we're really not sure whether we're watching the resurrection of a relationship or its dissolution.  Hope Springs is funny, but softly tragic in its depth of feeling.  It breaks with the conventions of its supposed genre and paces itself with a notable absence of kicky pop music montage, unrealistic budgets, and glossy details of so many of those 'beach house' movies.  We get wonderful, realistic details here: attempts at holding one another in a shoddy splendor of the Econolodge, generic cars, lived-in looking rooms, and unsatisfying retail jobs. Past that, there's a weighty amount of indie-real false starts and confused soul searching.  This isn't a movie where the passion is rekindled by a quick trip to the coast, it's not one where Steve Carell gets to play wacky doctor, but is instead one about the way two people who have spent everyday of the last three decades together can fail to know one another.  The more you grow to like Kay and Arnold, the more you begin to realize how strained their relationship has been since day one. You feel for them.  You understand their difficulties.  You get - really get - how sad a marriage like this really can be for those involved and the way things can go unspoken and how those unspoken truths can become unpleasant, self-created traps.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Late Night Trailers: Killing Them Softly

Formerly titled Cogan's Trade, Killing Them Softly is the latest bad ass contender sneaking in for the Oscar season buzz.  Director Andrew Dominik (who made the stellar Assassination of Jesse James) has rounded up an accolade-friendly cast for what appears to be a gritty, down and dirty crime tale revolving around enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) as he investigates a heist worked well within the mob circuit.  Pitt looks awesome here, and the film has a look somewhere between last year's Drive and Rampart; that sort of muted realism that tends to signal a serious performance worth watching.   

Monday, August 6, 2012

Squalor: To Rome with Love

Though I'd come across some scathing reviews in the critical community, there was never any question of whether or not I'd wind up eventually going to see To Rome with Love.  Like every self-respecting pseudo-intellectual, opinionated, hipster film disciple: I take my Woody Allen watching as seriously as one can.  When you follow the strange cult of Woody Allen, you get used to the naysayers.  With the exception of universal crowd pleaser Midnight in Paris, it seems as though nearly every Allen film opens with a touch of derision.  He's a man who specializes in a certain brand of comedy and who draws inspiration from a handful of oft-repeated themes: troubled relationships, adultery, celebrity, neurosis, the existential, ongoing twin focus of love and death.  He repeats himself often, and when he's at his best Allen typically evolves or re-contextualizes the joke.  At his worst?  He's a mimic performing a slightly more uncomfortable parody of himself.
In To Rome with Love, the usual Allen subplots rear their heads across four separate story-lines: a young woman's (Alison Pill) parents (Allen and Judy Davis) fly in to Rome to meet her Italian fiance and his incidentally talented family, a middle class nobody (Roberto Benigni) wakes up to discover he's famous for nothing, an American architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg) struggles with a moral dilemma when his girlfriend's (Greta Gerwig) neurotically-seductive best friend (Ellen Page) flies into town, and, finally, a newlywed couple about to meet his relatives stumbles into a comedy of errors involving a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and a questionable actor.   If it sounds a bit repetitive already, that's because it is.  If certain storylines stick out with a glaring WTF, that's because they do.  Given adequate time, attention, and consideration, several of these threads could have been shaped into something perhaps strong enough for a Vicky Cristina style European sex-romp. Together they tangle into a pasta bowl mess of metanarratives, staggering cliches, and strange comic set pieces which - while occasionally rather amusing - never seem to tonally adhere to the "hey, look at all the different crazy stories we've got over here in Rome" motif sloppily bookending the film's various chapters.
Though I found myself actively attempting to just sit back and enjoy the film as a frothy summer comedy, a case of the cringe crept in time and again.  My thoughts jumped constantly from points of reference I knew I'd seen before (Felliniesque themes, Night on Earth structure, self-referencing to the point of becoming 'indulgent' (see what I did there?)) to head shaking doubt, to moments where I though "oh, that was pretty good" and then immediately wondered if the film just had me in a Stockholm Syndrome grip.  To this moment, I'm not sure if the elements I enjoyed or found intriguing about To Rome with Love were actually entertaining or if I was searching too hard for something to grab onto and try to love.  Was the opera gag funny?  It was at least cute. Were there some wry observations on the 'type of girl' Ellen Page plays here?  Definitely.  Does that make up for the way all the characters are archetypes?  The painfully rigid presence of Alec Baldwin the spectral conscience? The fact that the Benigni story runs like an animated non sequitur?  How over the top every note seems to hit? The disjointed lack of connective tissue between the subplots? The way that Rome is a backdrop of almost no consequence and the cast could have been cut in half?  Not really.
For those who don't identify as Woody Allen fans, To Rome with Love may be just the harmless, cutesy little jaunt down the Via Veneto you're looking for.  And, to be fair, I've seen Allen films I've disliked more.  Compared to typical Hollywood comedies, To Rome isn't terrible, but merely lazy.  We can hope it's just an adverse reaction to the success of Midnight in Paris.  Box office attention brings unexpected pressure, and Allen has become used to releasing his one film a year in relative silence.  The lack of effort, though, is problematic.  Alison Pill and Greta Gerwig, both of whom should be right at home with Woody Allen's dialogue, are completely wasted here.  To a certain extent, Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page are as well.  All of these actors should be superstars in this arena, but the script never gives them any quotable moments or any chances at becoming dynamic.  Those four young actors cast in one, continuous, debauched Roman tale of studies abroad gone awry could have led to something fresh and engaging.  Somehow, that never happens.  And when Jesse Eisenberg can't manage to do Woody Allen as well as Scarlett Johansson has in the past? You know there's a problem.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Liebster Award

Sofia of FilmFlare, Mettel Ray of MR Movie Blog,  Trevor of Northwest Movies, and Jay of Life vs. Film have all been kind enough to pass the Liebster Award my way.  It's one part compliment and one part writing exercise, a sort of Q&A blogging chain letter (without the dire consequences).

The rules are that I'm supposed to tell you 11 things about myself, answer 11 assigned questions, tag 11 bloggers of note, and give them another 11 questions.  Since I've got 4 sets of questions, though, I'm going to cheat a bit, cut out my own facts, mix up the questions, grab about 5 from each and just run with this.  The other problem? I really put this off and it seems that most of the other blogs I follow have either already gone through the process or been nominated to do so.  So, instead, I'll be cutting down the number from 11 and inviting anyone and everyone to answer whatever questions strike their fancy in the comments below.

Love: Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks is what happens when Stranger than Fiction gets a little intoxicated and runs into a cloying, cute, needy (500) Days of Summer belting out "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" at a bar's Wednesday karaoke night and (500) Days of Summer blinks like a plastic doll and says "I love how meta you are, it's like you're a magical fairy! Do you wanna go to my place and make out and knit and watch a Godard movie?"  and Stranger than Fiction is drunk, so it seems like a good idea in the moment so it goes and they make out and then one thing leads to another and (500) Days of Summer is like "oh, my roommate is Charlie Kaufman's twee fake twin brother, do you mind if he snuggles with us?" and somehow (500) Days of Summer gets pregnant and a child is born and it's raised by the three of them because everyone is too chill to get a DNA test and they name that child Ruby Sparks because of course they would.  That sums it up perfectly, really, but the shorthand version is this:  Ruby Sparks is a too cute, occasionally clever, woefully twee attempt at a thesis on the problematic facts surrounding the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  While its goal is admirable and it's smart enough to comment directly on its own issues, the blunt fact is that in trying to make a movie on the topic of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Zoe Kazan has merely managed to transform herself into a new one.   
In his now famous review of Elizabethtown, critic Nathan Rabin laid down the definition of the MPDG as existing "solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures" [via AV Club].  This was his description of the Kirsten Dunst character in that film, and has since been applied to any number of half-baked female characters who seem written for towards that particular purpose.  In Ruby Sparks, actress/screenwriter Zoe Kazan takes the problematic idea behind these characters and runs with it.  Her film is the tale of a sensitive writer named Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) who is plagued by his own early success to the point that he's broodingly unable to write something new, enjoy life, make friends, or effectively communicate with people other than his brother (Chris Messina).  

When Calvin's shrink (Elliot Gould) advises that he write a short, deliberately horrible piece on the mysterious girl he's concocted in his dreams, Calvin becomes so into spending time with his fictional character that the floodgates on his writer's block open wide and release a novel-sized manuscript on a girl his brother quickly (and smartly) tells him has none of the qualities of a "real person."  It doesn't matter. Calvin is in love with the Ruby (Kazan) of his dreams, and one morning he wakes up to find her manifested in his house, in the kitchen, making breakfast and asking, doe-eyed, why he's acting so weird.  She's real.  He can control her by typing something on a page.  It's the ultimate wish-fulfillment and a dose of indulgent male fantasy that would be incredibly offensive if Kazan and directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) weren't fully aware of the misogynistic undertones.  
Thankfully, they are, but that doesn't mean the film is without its faults.  Ruby Sparks is -if taken with a grain of salt- a perfectly charming, safe, generally intelligent romantic comedy. Dano and Kazan are really quite good in their individual roles, and while the stellar supporting cast is woefully underused, they elicit a few laughs from the crowd.  Just below the surface, however, there's a thesis tangled to the point that it will endlessly preoccupy anyone who's ever read Jezebel or been thrown into gender theory class.  Kazan appears to be genuinely attempting to slowly pull back the curtain on Ruby's MPDG-tendencies.  She wants to destroy the idea and prove the superficiality of these characters, that much is clear.  Zoe Kazan doesn't like the MPDG archetype (and why should she?),  and the film wants Calvin to realize that the girl he wrote cannot exist, and that when he attempts to control her he creates someone flat, improbable, and irritating. His edits destroy what he most loves in an otherwise fully dimensional, complicated person.

It's a nice idea, and Kazan's screenwriting is pretty decent. Unfortunately, she doesn't allow the story to go where it needs to or to get past the twee.  Ruby Sparks never gets dark, deep, or weird enough to successfully subvert the cliches Kazan wants to kill.  While Ruby does have her own personality beyond her surface quirkiness, the problem is largely that Kazan isn't quite sure how to write a character powerful enough to actually step out of the doll box, and when she tries to, Ruby still conforms to rather lackluster traits associated with 'lady problems'.

When Kazan gives Ruby her own agency she becomes a sort of miserable version of "the moody girlfriend" who's "unhappy in the relationship" or deliberately hurtful or depressed to the point that she just wants to watch reality TV marathons while slumped on the couch in her pajamas.  Her 'real girl' traits are primarily made up of those that merely negatively impact Calvin instead of positively advancing or strengthening Ruby.  She's always in Calvin's shadow.  He is the writer.  He is the talent.  He is the success.  He is the literate, intelligent, psychologically complicated individual. Yet, while he himself is a sort of stereotype, comparatively, Ruby is still just a Summer: a girl who can paint but who doesn't, who has none of her own successes, ambitions, or independence, who likes interesting things but isn't particularly interesting herself.  She has real-person emotions. We feel for her, yes.  And the treatment of the relationship is worthy of discussion, certainly, but while we get to see the 'idea' of Ruby become complicated, we never get to see Ruby the person really take off on her own.  She's a series of well-coordinated outfits, flighty 'let's jump in the pool with our clothes on' moments, and 'she makes a great meatloaf' asides.  No one involved in the film seems to understand that it takes more than a mercurial temperament and a Pinterest account to draw out a flesh and blood woman.  And that, my friends, makes an otherwise intriguing, enjoyable film into something less than.  Good on Zoe Kazan for pinpointing the problem, too bad the solution is so hard to articulate.

Under 250: Footnote

Footnote was one of the films in the running for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, and it's not hard to see how it got that far.  It has all the qualities the Academy looks for in its overseas picks: it's unflinchingly smart, deals with a family in peril, has universal, cross-generational themes backing its drama, and the acting is so on target it almost feels like a documentary.  Joseph Cedar's film is a battle of egos between aging, unrecognized father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and his lauded son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), staged in the surprisingly tense world of Talmudic scholarship.  When a clerical error finds Eliezer up for a major award meant for Uriel,  the embittered man finds his life's work validated - never realizing that his well meaning son is the man making sure he doesn't suffer the embarrassment of learning the truth.  It's an intriguing, rather droll comedy of errors premise, but the fact is: it should have been a short.  Footnote runs too long to sustain the tension, and though we begin to actively care about the outcome of the story, the payoff is so minimal it makes the preceding scenes feel like an utter waste of time.  As I actively tried to enjoy it, the film seemed to be fighting me...

Late Night Trailer Round-Up: The Master, Cloud Atlas, & Life of Pi

I have been in a crazy-busy frenzy and substituting nonsensical tweeting (or twittering, as I like to call it) for actual posts of substance.  So, of course, I have missed out on the discussion of the obviously very important trailer releases of three massive, complicated, Oscar seasony movies:  Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and a double-header of book-lust "there's-no-way-they-can-make-that-a-good-movie" films - The Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas.

First up, after a whole lot of doubt as to whether or not this film would even manage to score a release this year, PTA dropped the official trailer for The Master and followed it with word that the movie was slated for release IN SEPTEMBER.  Which, ahem, basically meant that I freaked out and sent like a WHOLE BUNCH OF EMAILS DETAILING HOW EXCITED I WAS ABOUT THIS TO PEOPLE WHO ABSOLUTELY DO NOT CARE AND WHO LOOKED AT ME ALL LIKE SRSLY?  WHO IS PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON, ANYWAY?  And then I was like: why are we even friends?  What is going on here?  How do I know people who aren't enthusiastic about this?  Considering how hypnotic PTA managed to make a little movie about a greedy oilman, I'm more than willing to sign on to whatever slow burn he has planned for the cult origins at work in The Master. 

Then there's the Wachowski's curious attempt to adapt the complicated narrative structure of David Mitchell's epic Cloud Atlas.  I'll confess: I didn't finish that book (I'll have to pick it up again), but knowing what I know about the interlinking of the various stories within its pages, if the Wachowski's can manage to translate it visually it will be a feat worthy of much discussion.  For now, though, I'm mostly puzzled by how milquetoast the casting is.

Finally, check out the big budget visuals on Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's Life of Pi.  That's some shiny business, yet, while I found the novel quite lovely all those years ago, the earlier "scene" teaser and this official trailer haven't completely sold me on the story's transition to the screen.  The written themes were broad, and the trailer is excessively low on dialogue and a little too high on the attempted evocation of our pathos.  Ang Lee is a more than capable director, but will this float?  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Love: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild falls into that much fawned over category of Sundance sweethearts turned summer sleepers.  It was a jabbered about favorite at last year's festival, and the underground hype leading up to its slow blossoming release made cliche mountains out of raw, low-budget molehills.  Is it magical and divine and sacred and so outside the norm it'll touch you with its juvenile profundity for the rest of your life?  Let's go with a tepid 'sort of', 'no', 'uh...definitely not' and 'well, I don't know, maybe?' on all of that and just agree to the very clear, very simple observation that it is indeed unlike anything else you're likely to see this year.  While not without its share of problems, Beasts effectively transforms the squalor and wreckage of Hurricane Katrina effected Louisiana (though the film is NOT explicitly about that event) into a fairy tale netherworld and marks a strong debut for director Benh Zeitlin.  When Beasts succeeds, it's a patchwork piece of folklore that feels ripped from the enchanted worlds of Hayao Miyazaki.  When it falls flat, it succumbs to a lack of cohesion and picks at the illusion of its pint-sized heroine.    
Like the best works of magic-realism, Beasts of the Southern Wild has a tenuous grip on the realities impacting its characters.  6-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her alcoholic father in the wilds of a place called the Bathtub.  Geographically speaking, they're placed on the Isle de Jean Charles out past the levees off the Southern edge of Lousiana, a point Zeitlin claims inspired the story [source], though the rest is fiction.  In the telling, the Bathtub sits in constant danger of being wiped out when the water chooses to rise.  If the icecaps melt, they go under, and what we see is a land of forest and swamp where the houses are ramshackle trailers and tin sheds built up on legs and ladders as though they housed Baba Yaga.  The population is small, they celebrate life constantly, they're surrounded by animals (as meat and as pets), their healers mix up roots in oversized jars, and the world is safe enough for little Hushpuppy to live in her own treehouse trailer across the field from her daddy's (Dwight Henry).  The water is a danger, the storms threaten, but the scariest thing in Hushpuppy's life is the mythological arrival of boar-monsters called aurochs and the idea of being left alone.  While her home looks like a first world nightmare of poverty, danger, and improper childcare; Hushpuppy navigates it with a assertive logic and convinces us- without fail- that the things we perceive as threats are the things she holds dear.  She's a survivor, but an innocent.  Her daddy is a bit of a loud-mouthed, meanish brute, but she loves him and he teaches her the skills to keep on living through the toughest of situations
The actors are untrained, the camera tends to shake, the locations are fairly wild, and the whole thing feels very nearly like a documentary gone rogue.  In some respects, these are the elements that make the film what it is.  Beasts feels homemade and special, like a hand drawn treasure map unfurled and marked with the scribbled insight of an overly philosophical child.  As the film is about a 6-year old girl, it's hard to argue too hard against its stumbling logic or the strange, vaguely unsatisfying way all the pieces of Hushpuppy's universe 'fit together just right'.  Zeitlin seems to want us to take the story as is or view it as a fictional artifact, and the crew he's assembled helps him work towards that goal in a way that's as admirable as it is refreshing.  While I'd disagree with the bombastic claims that young actress Quvenzhane Wallis is a "revelation", I'll freely admit that she's pretty damn good.  Wallis has just the right amount of sparky, wild-child power to compel even the biggest cynic to see things her way.  We believe her to be as fearless and capable as Hushpuppy herself, which puts her half way there at the outset.  Are there places where she seems too precocious?  Where it seems as though she's just repeating a line at a louder, more faux-mad pitch (think the Olsen twins on Full House)?  Absolutely.  But, I mean, the kid is 6.  You can't really ask for anything much better than this.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is -when the camera isn't shaking you into a stupor - a lovely piece of poetry about a petite bayou princess who slays her own dragons and defends her own kingdom.  As a bit of existential, ponderous folklore, you can't go wrong.  If Beasts could strike a balance between its current form and something like The Tree of Life, it might be perfect.  The problem is that where Malick's movie flew over heads, Beasts hits too low, which leads me to a situation where I found myself appreciating or admiring the film more than I found myself actually enjoying it.  There's a lot at work here, but quite a bit of it seems like the director reaching without knowing if his experiment will pay off.  To his credit, despite a bit of flux, the narrative is present -- it's just broken in a way that we understand doesn't fully make sense (even if we chalk it up to dream-logic).  The cliches, too, are unfortunately rampant.  For all the film's beauty, it's too easy to pick at its seams to find the places where extreme poverty is coated with a glossy, dreamy sheen, where common drunkards and uneducated 'everymen' drop mystical wisdom, where cold light is exchanged for something sentimental, starvation is an adventure, and a little girl speaks primarily in the tongue of a particularly eloquent poet dipping into dialect.  These arguments against the film exist, and if the film is still afloat come Oscar time we can expect them to surface en masse.  I expect it will be very much afloat, of course, and while I didn't find myself loving it, it is a film worthy of closer inspection.  With that, I'll leave you with a sentiment I don't think I've ever written before:  I really really wish this had been a 2D animated film from Studio Ghibli.  Same plot. Same structure. Same voice talent. Same look.  Just animated.  Yes. That's a request for a remake.   

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