Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Squalor: Anna Karenina

Oh, Anna Karenina, what have they done to you? It's been a long while since we've visited, yes, but when last we met I don't recall noticing you were so dead behind the eyes, so light with empty melodrama, so prone to sudden bursts of choreographed meandering. Was it always so? Were your pages, were your lineages and intricate relationships always so black and white? So straight forward? So easily sketched and outlined?  Could you always be diluted to a series of long takes and stage directions?  Were you always missing a heart, or have they pulled it out of you? Have they sucked the marrow from your bones and left your skeleton a mere set of connected husks? A propped up clothes hanger for too many bustled gowns?
Let's go with the latter.  Anna Karenina's latest adaptation is muddled, beautiful dreck flawed in such a complicated manner it's bound to prove divisive.  Joe Wright, who has previously displayed a deft hand in the art of period piece adaptation (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) reunites with Keira Knightley and immediately succumbs to indulgent machinations and supremely bland bouts of lead heavy fancy.  Knightley plays Anna, the lovely young aristocrat who steps out on her young son and her too 'good' husband Karenin (Jude Law) and enters into a heated love affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson), who happens to be the object of her sister-in-law's (Kelly MacDonald (what are you doing here?)) sister's deep affection.  In doing so she parallels the sins of her brother (Matthew Macfadyen), though naturally as she is a woman her indiscretions find her guilty and all but exiled from polite society.  It's big time scandal in 19th century Russia, and in presenting the convoluted workings of Anna's poor decision making, the film adopts a curiously odd device.
The adaptation is penned by playwright Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), and he has chosen to stage the sweeping emotional sprawl of the novel on and around a, um, literal stage.  The effect is at first arresting, and the first 30 minutes or so unfold in a hypnotic manipulation of sets, props, and human beings all engaged in the same elegant choreography.  Love and passion in Anna Karenina occur, for awhile, in time and in step. The characters are engaged in a heavy-handed dance of metatheatrical manners until the point that they break from the expected norm and move freely outside of the confines of their class.  It's a bold experiment, but a rather pretentious means of illustrating the artificiality of the upper class.  It also, of course, lays terrible waste to the dimension and depth of Tolstoy's novel.
There are points where Stoppard's methods seem to clash against Wright's own directorial predilections. The stage is simply too gimmicky to sustain a drama of this size, and while the departures from it may have metaphorical significance, they begin to read as a cinematic giving up to the point that returns to the stage seem almost present in the name of an arresting image instead of a real narrative device.  As ambitious as the idea is, I found myself thinking I'd be far more interested in a straight telling from this particular director.  Knightley makes a stunning Anna and the film is so gorgeously shot and costumed that the fact it has little more than a shoddy soap opera episode for a plot is nearly as much of a tragedy as Anna's own famed end.  Anna Karenina is so busy changing clothes and waltzing with scandal that it fails, almost completely, to develop its characters. Ultimately, the film is a failed experiment; a tediously silly piece of work that's exhausting without reason.

Love: Lincoln

Is Lincoln an important film, or has it merely wrapped itself in the trappings of an important film? Steven Spielberg has returned to the historical drama yet again, this time casting Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role and thereby insuring himself at least three spaces on your annual Oscar ballot.  Of course, that's before you count the inevitable nominations of the Academy beloved Sally Field in her supporting role as Mary Todd, a nod to the art direction, and a definite acknowledgment of the elaborate period costumes. *Poof* we're  up to six before we're even out the gate.  Lincoln is a film with a pedigree, a political yarn timed perfectly to arrive in the wake of election mania, and, on paper, Oscar bait in the extreme. Harvey Weinstein probably lies awake at night wishing Lincoln had come out of his house, yet, for all the signals and signs, the question is: is it actually any good?
Ostensibly, the simple answer is yes. Lincoln is a neatly groomed bit of Civil War cinema that manages to be grittier than expected while still keeping its Spielbergian corners tucked safely in.  It's a good film with a better cast, and while worlds seem to revolve around the bureaucratic dealings of Abraham Lincoln, a better title for this might have been "The 13th Amendment," as the real battles are fought by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) in the House of Representatives.  This is no biopic, but is instead a slice of carefully chosen time marking the dawn of the president's second term in office to the moment of his untimely assassination.  It's roughly a year in the life, and it's a strange, heavy year of backhanded political deals, massive human rights issues, bloodshed, and big questions as to just when dubious, ethically unsound behaviors may become justifiable.
What I liked most about Lincoln was that it took the events of history to heart.  Watching it felt like a indulging in a well-balanced history lesson, and the film never seemed to resort to painting the beloved president as the sole redeemer of this remarkable and vital piece of legislation. Spielberg takes the time to build up Stevens, to show us the snapping congressional debates between the Republican abolitionists and the stubbornly pro-slavery democrats.  They're the big talkers, the outgoing personalities, the loudmouths of the movie. When we spend time with Lincoln, he's remarkably human, often to the point of frailty. Day-Lewis' portrayal is one of a man weary and broken. His shoulders hunch under the weight of the loss of a son and the constant reminder of his country's unrest. He's quiet and humble, content to sit back and think on something before leaping into action.  In other words: he's a far cry from the character intensity we're accustomed to seeing from the man who was Daniel Plainview.  The performance is one of the many ways the movie seems to actively undermine our expectations. It's resisting the "Hollywood" telling at every turn, eschewing dramatization for something lean, muscular, and technically impressive.  Lincoln is a noble film.  And yet...
...I did not love it. Not really. I cannot tell a lie, and as good as all the pieces were, I repeatedly found myself far less interested in the going-ons at the White House than I was in the events of cranky Thaddeus Stevens and the bribery goon squad (John Hawkes, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson).  The film operates so deeply in the melancholy funk of our 16th president that at times it becomes an intellectual waxworks, a museum so bloated with vivid details it forgets to connect the dots towards a stronger narrative arc.  So, like a too heavy meal of rich brain food, the history keeps coming until you find yourself lulled towards sleep.  Or, at least, that's how it worked for me.  I admittedly struggled to stay awake during Lincoln.  It was good, but not great. Masterfully handled but not particularly interesting artistically.  Lincoln is a film generations of high school students will be subjected to during their US History courses. They'll be better for it, I'm sure, but only if they focus on something other than Tommy Lee Jones' wig.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Place Your Bets: Twilight Edition

Ladies and gentlemen, let us extend our congratulations to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.  This Friday, their indentured servitude came to an end. They have been freed of the bonds created by tween fanaticism, painful contact lenses, and a moneymaking scheme far larger than themselves.  While their characters will haunt them for the rest of their mortal lives, they no longer have to endure the pressures of being teen idols or the ruthless talk of 'Trampires'.  If they so choose, they can walk away from their constructed relationship and live out their days without ever having to communicate again.  They are liberated.  It is over.

As much as I find the Twilight saga despicable, I have long defended the potential merits of the much derided Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Yes, they're both tremendously awkward. Yes, their performances as Bella and Edward are empty, dreadful, passionless things made worse by bad makeup and horrific writing.  Yes, it's bad form to do as much sideways snarking on the franchise that made them rich as they have.  But...I cannot blame them.  Twilight is a dangerously silly romance about a troubled girl, a killer, and the psychologically abusive push pull between them. It creates a situation where a teen girl must marry and reproduce instead of pursuing an education and, de facto, sets feminism back decades. Its stars know this (just watch the supercut of Pattinson's strange interview comments), and since the first film went kaboom they have been visually lamenting the success of the series; walking like zombies, developing chips on their shoulders, putting in performances as lifeless as a blood-drained corpse.  Still, in independent roles, Stewart has proven she is capable of using her awkward energy to her advantage (Adventureland, The Runaways, Welcome to the Rileys), and Pattinson's active interest in taking up projects like Cosmopolis speak to his own ennui.  The two went through a very public "break up" only to conveniently "get back together" just before press for Breaking Dawn pt. II went full swing.
With the 'relationship' and the bad rep on their acting abilities, what I'm wondering is: what do we see happening with these two now?

Here's one possibility: Stewart and Pattinson break-up just before Christmas, by early spring they're hinting in interviews that they were never really together in the first place and that their time dating was a largely platonic union during which they each saw other people.  Pattinson and Ashley Greene step out in public a few times before going their separate ways and the tabloids really run with the talk that they have been having casual sex since the production of the first film.  Stewart becomes noticeably happier and after deciding to back out of Snow White 2 (for fear of another lifeless franchise) she sticks to indie roles for a few years and eventually grabs a supporting actress nomination for a role as a mentally imbalanced young woman.  She does not win in America, but is lauded overseas and as an appreciation for her once again builds she takes the opportunity to announce in a print interview (after being spotted out by tabloid reporters) that she is bisexual, but largely keeps her relationships out of the public eye.  At age 30 she decides to retire from acting while mumbling that while it's been fun, her heart was never in it.  Much later, she writes a serious book many hail as "surprisingly decent." Pattinson tries to step out of his heartthrob box with some dark indie dramas before stumbling into an ensemble comedy and winning some surprise success. He gets jobs, but almost always in a supporting role. His roles and life decisions get weirder, but always seem surprisingly balanced. He begins washing his hair regularly and laments his inability to follow in the footsteps of Johnny Depp.  

I know, right?  I don't even know why I decided to speculate on this.  Regardless: place your bets, give me your best scenarios...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Under 250: LOL

Keeping with the YA theme today, I might as well own up to having watched LOL. BTW, guys, did you even remember/know that this movie was a thing that existed before I reminded you? Cause...yeah. Billed as the Miley Cyrus attempt at making an "I'm-all-grown-up-and-so-not-Hannah-Montana" edgy indie drama, LOL is a staid, relatively juvenile affair.  Based on a French film of the same name, LOL wants so desperately to be a free-spirited, sexually liberated trip through the confusing world of technologically enhanced adolescent relationships that it comes off as accidentally preachy and out of date upon arrival.  Cyrus plays Lola, a girl burned by a boy she thought was the love of her life at the start of a new school year. Lola quickly realizes she's actually in love with her BFF Kyle (Douglas Booth), and new dramas begin.  Meanwhile, the film tries to parallel the courtship rituals of Lola's generation with the attempts of her divorced mother (Demi Moore).  It's weird, has an obnoxious voice-over narration, and ultimately tremendously boring.  LOL reads as a story lost in translation and sanitized to sit comfortably at the PG-13 level.  It desperately wants to be an extended episode of the first season of the UK Skins, but manages to be bland, cancelled episode of the MTV version. Empty, clunky, and obnoxiously melodramatic.

Will the Next Supernatural Teen Saga Please Step Up?

Twilight is finally at an end, and while I doubt very much I'll be seeking out the closing chapter to Breaking Dawn, I am interested to see what will fill the supernatural void left by the vampire series. Two possible contenders will be vying for trailer space before the opening credits roll this weekend, both based on immensely successful young adult novels.  The first is Beautiful Creatures, the second is City of Bones, the opening to the supposedly engrossing Mortal Instruments saga.  Beautiful Creatures already had a teaser of sorts floating out in the world, but this new look ups the Southern Gothic camp that made the book surprisingly appealing.  I'll own up to having read book one, and I'll admit that when I did I found it a very entertaining jaunt chock full of witches, overblown spells, and the bombastic externalization of teen angst.  That said, it's not a great book, and it's very doubtful it will be a great movie, but it does have guilty pleasure written all over it, not to mention a strong supporting cast featuring Viola Davis, Emma Thompson, Jeremy Irons, and Emmy Rossum.
City of Bones, on the other hand, is a series I know very little about.  I worked with some folks who were completely addicted to it, and from what I understand it's about battling half-angels and demons who operate in a parallel world most humans are incapable of seeing. Which, of course, means there has to be one special Bella Swann type who can see it and then all of the supernatural business goes full-throttle and shit gets crazy.  Mirror Mirror's Lily Collins plays that character here, and it would appear that Jamie Campbell Bower is the warring angel she gets mixed up with. Add some Jared Harris and Jonathan Rhys Meyers into the mix and it actually looks like a pretty fun summer adventure film.  I could get behind this, guys. It's definitely possible.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Love: Skyfall

I went through a gigantic 007 phase when I was a kid, in the Pierce Brosnan days when puns and bawdy innuendos still ran wild.  Like every Bond fan, I have my own set ideas on nearly every element of the franchise.  When it comes to my secret agents, I'm partial to the old school. The 1960's rocked the espionage film best, and everything else has been struggling to harness that style ever since.  So, unlike most folks, I didn't fall head over heels for the cold, hard reboot of Casino Royale (though I loved Eva Green's Vesper Lynd).  It was Dark Knight-ed, Bourne-d, and cynical to the point that even its villain was almost an afterthought.  Casino Royale was the exact opposite of everything the franchise had become, a flat denial of the old ways in favor of something with a newly sharpened edge.  Quantum of Solace was a blip in its wake, proof that a continuation of those ideas wasn't exactly what the series needed, though it subtly tried to move towards something different. Skyfall needed to be the something different.  It had to succeed.  Thankfully, it has.  Fan obligations have paid off at long last, as somehow everything finally came together.  Skyfall is what I've wanted, this is what a Bond film should be.
In taking the helm of the 23rd installment of the series, director Sam Mendes has found a way to blend the best elements of the Daniel Craig era's embittered cynicism with the wink and nudge of the old classics. I find it unlikely that anyone ever argued against James Bond as a jaded, troubled killing machine -- he has to be. It's his job.  But part of what keeps him sane must manifest itself in some semblance of a sense of humor, not smug douche-baggery, but a belief in what's right and an ability to see beyond the flesh and bone. Skyfall attempts this via a furthering of the psychological elements at play in the past few films, but grounds them in doubt.  The franchise is celebrating 50 years, and for its anniversary it chose to mark the occasion with meta-commentary and existential reflection: in a world firmly rooted in tech warfare and online espionage, what use is an old school agent with a Walther PPK?  M (Judi Dench) is standing trial attempting to prove MI-6's relevancy, Q (Ben Whishaw) is a floppy-haired computer geek all but glued to his laptop, Bond himself is a scruffy, misanthropic ghost.
 The film's opening follows decades of predictable patterning. Before the sweeping, design-heavy credits begin rolling we find Bond within moments of another potential death, stalking yet another international criminal in possession of yet another object with the potential to bring down whole governments.  This time, things escalate in a way that seems almost like parody. Bond is so fixated on taking down this villain that the chase jumps from car to motorbike to moving train (with construction cranes and low-hanging tunnels in between) while fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) attempts to keep up from the ground.  At a crucial juncture, MI-6 issues orders to sacrifice Bond's life in the name of destroying the target, and we see 007 plummeting from fatal heights as we transition effortlessly into the strains of the slick, appropriately melodramatic Adele theme.  Bond is missing, presumed dead.  M (Judi Dench) has written his obituary and Bond doesn't bother to let her know otherwise, but a ghost with obligations as deep as his can only sit idly for so long before returning, and when MI6 itself is compromised by the sociopath Silva (Javier Bardem), Bond leaps into action: a little older, a little weaker, and with quite a bit less certainty.
It's a love letter of a set-up, an elegant construction built up around a deep, abiding homage payment to traditional formula. The over-the-top nature of every aspect of the opening ups the stakes enough for us to read it as fresh, yet succeeds in encapsulating the territory before it so well that it's a delightfully fun assortment for even the most casual of fans.  Indeed, Mendes continues down this path for the duration of the film. Where Skyfall begins with a verbal denunciation of "the old ways" it winds up cleverly employing them for a new generation.  Where the last two films have worked at digging into the psychology of the Bond character, Skyfall succeeds in finding a way to marry a more dimensional version of the character to the potentially cheesy formula elements that make up "a James Bond picture."  Reasons are devised, for example, to unearth the Goldfinger-era Aston Martin DB5 and make mention of the ejector seats, attention is given to trap doors, pits filled with predators, and women draped in gold.  The one liner returns with clever vengeance, too, alongside a particularly flamboyant, loud-mouthed, plot-dropping villain.  Bardem's Silva is campy, but frightening.  While the actor's ability to channel a truly sadistic sociopath is hampered by the film's PG-13 obligations, Silva's psychological instability shades itself as the dark version of Bond's possibilities.  He's what happens when a double-oh goes truly rogue, when a character like Bond falls prey to his own dark past.  It's the perfect Freudian excuse to bring in the maniac and keep hold of our new, slightly different Bond.
Daniel Craig has stepped up, too. With Skyfall he ascends in the ranks to be, almost undeniably, the best Bond since Connery and certainly the finest actor.  Mendes understands his actors well, knows the value of allowing the camera to linger on a moment, and finds the pain in Craig's square jaw.  Dench, too, is given new opportunities to take M beyond her stuffy confines.  M and Bond work well together, and their complicated relationship is played against Silva's psychology with surprisingly powerful results.

Of course, you shouldn't let all my talk of pain, psychological depth, and relationship issues convince you that Skyfall is something other than the action film it should be. No, it's simply a superior version of that action film.  Skyfall is serious fun, often beautifully photographed, and oddly feel good in its progression.  After 50 years and 23 films, 007 can still find ways to surprise us, and if that's not the mark of a great thing, I don't know what is.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Under 250: The Loved Ones

We're used to referring to certain kinds of horror films as 'torture porn'.  It's a brand of the slasher that seems to relish in the undoing of its sexualized characters.  Attractive teenagers are slowly dismembered or forced to endure painful, unthinkable, Inquisition-style devices as we look on.  There is something troubling and depraved about this sort of catharsis, yes, and many of the films that attempt to scrape new depths fall critically flat.  The Loved Ones, however, is a strange success. The Australian film (released there in 2010) is a rare blend of torture horror and actual teen film, a sort of twisted John Hughes coming-of-age interested in acting on wildly oscillating emotions instead of dealing with them.  Lola (Robin McLeavy) asks Brent (Xavier Samuel) to the prom, but he already has a date.  Frustrated with his rejection, she has her creepily loving daddy (John Brumpton) kidnap him and drag him back to their house for a mandatory, housebound prom.  Daddy buys her a pink dress, Lola is the queen, and together they begin to play a very disturbing game at poor Brent's expense.  It's a bizarrely comic scenario that embraces heavy gore as much as it relishes the weird, tongue-in-cheek growing pains beneath the surface. Director Sean Byrne has a way with violence, and while the film involves a fair amount of it: it knows its limits and understands the points at which the camera must pull away if the film wants to retain any hint of levity. The Loved Ones is dead on. It strikes just the right balance and is, somehow, a truly likable torture horror film that redefines the possibilities within the sub-genre.  File this one under: new cult classics.

Under 250: Katy Perry: Part of Me

Like What to Expect When You're Expecting, I decided to watch Katy Perry's big bright piece of propaganda as a means of getting through yet another tedious project (there seem to be a lot of those these days).  While I have my share of problems with Perry's candy burlesque, do not understand her apparent obsession with firing various substances from her breasts (whipped cream, fireworks, etc), find her overtly girly Barbie femininity difficult, and am frankly annoyed she's basically been living off the same album for the past two years, my great love of camp, kitsch, and artifice forces me to secretly relish elements of her act. Well, that and I'm becoming increasingly interested in pop music's very different ideas on what it means to be feminine/a feminist. So, I've paid attention to Katy Perry. I get it. Fuck it, sometimes I'll even play along (let's be real here: that's some well constructed bubble gum music).

If you have the slightest bit of interest in pop music as artifact, Part of Me is innocuous enough and very much in keeping with Perry's branding. While it pretends to be a backstage documentary, it's a fairly clear confection. Here, Perry seems to be attempting to publicly reconcile the disparate parts of her persona: she is a sex symbol and an innocent, a bubbly personality from a very Christian upbringing who made a mark exploiting an act of intoxicated lesbianism ("I Kissed a Girl"), her songs promote horrific acts of self destruction (listen closely to "Last Friday Night") and yet she's a hardworking woman, she's an overgrown child who married (and divorced) one of the most notorious personalities in comedy. She is a paradox: in control and yet perhaps not aware. Where Gaga plays with her fame to make herself a benevolent, protective mother monster and Rihanna explores a 'don't give a damn' aggressive sexuality, Katy Perry seems to just want to play. Part of Me cuts through the pin-up image and shows us a construction of Perry as girl  The concert footage is boring as hell, but the backstage cuts between Katy out of makeup and Katy in character offer a fascinating contrast. When she tries to prove that she's sincere, she comes off as phony, when she isn't trying, she seems completely sincere.  The quiet moments away from tabloid fodder are the most revealing, and while the film talks a big game about living your dreams, what I saw was a woman who has done just that and discovered that her dreams are much more complicated than she imagined.  There's sadness hiding in the ebullience. Katy Perry is unsure, she acknowledges that she is still growing, she admits that she does not see herself as an adult (though she's 28). And while the preteens may fall harder for the pop idol projection, I found myself liking the girl behind the cartoon, the personality committing to making these decisions.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Love: Cloud Atlas

 In quickly glancing over some of the meaning-hunting and plot-unpacking write-ups prior to sitting down to type out my own thoughts on the complicated Cloud Atlas, it seems the general consensus is that the film offers a map of human experience.  It is built on a butterfly effect of relationships; of souls across time, not bound concretely by a punctuated sentence like reincarnation, but pivoting off of the myriad of ways human beings weave in and out of one another's lives.  Cloud Atlas is a chronicle of human accomplishments and foibles, it is about the strength of bonds of love and friendship, the beautiful things we can create, the devastating power we have to destroy our own, and the lasting way that evil is ever-present in our natures.  Across time, across worlds, the song of man remains the same: we do not change, we do not always learn, but we persevere and in darkness find light.  Yes. The arguments supporting this reading are sound, and certainly written in to the mercurial structure. While I'll posit a secondary consideration here, I'll agree: Cloud Atlas is a song reliant on six voices, a sampler of the best and worst things we are capable of.  As such, it's a remarkably ambitious undertaking in any medium.  In adapting the novel for the screen, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have largely succeeded at making a beautiful, thought-provoking, wholly unique cinematic experience.  While Cloud Atlas is at times self-important and certainly has its flaws, it's a daring project which manages - above all things- to be graceful.
How to explain Cloud Atlas to the uninitiated?  Well, it's in some ways an omnibus: a collection of shorter stories making up a larger whole.  In this case, there are six wildly different tales linked by threads and cross-edited and cut in some of the most impressively comprehensive montage I've ever had the pleasure of seeing.  You'd have to be visually illiterate (or asleep) to mix up the timelines, and to illustrate just how separate these stories are, it's worth a quick run through.  Or, well, as quick as can be:

We open on an island in the distant future, "106 winters after 'The Fall'," according to the film's lore.  Here we are introduced to Zachry (Tom Hanks) who belongs to a tribe of people who speak in a cultural mash-up of stylistically broken English (a bit of UK street accents, Jamaican, creole, southern drawls, and Jar Jar Binks).  Zachry is plagued by visions of a demon (a Baron Samedi leprechaun, basically, played by Hugo Weaving) who urges him towards a loss of humanity even after he decides to help a technologically advanced stranger (Halle Berry) on an important quest.
Before we know any of this, really, we're warped back into a 19th century sailing drama built of mysterious ailments, slave trades, and searing sun.  Here we follow a young lawyer (Jim Sturgess) attempting to take care of the particulars of a complicated business arrangement.  It's all terribly Melville.

From there we jump out of Melville and towards Waugh and Isherwood: our 1930's UK-based story follows a dandy Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) as he pens lilting love letters to his secret boyfriend Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) and composes the "Cloud Atlas Sextet" as amanuensis to an established, slippery old master (Jim Broadbent).  So follows a direct connection in which a much older Sixsmith participates in a 1970's conspiracy narrative involving a nuclear plant.  He recruits Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a hard-nosed journalist who picks up Sixsmith's cause when he meets an untimely end.  They're after the truth, dammit, and the genre stylings mirror every espionage thriller of the day.   Chronologically, after the 70's we move to a present day sideways commentary on the literary world, in which we're given a delightfully wacky sort of British prison-escape comedy in which an editor (Broadbent) becomes unwilling prisoner at the hands of his own brother. The themes here lead us indirectly towards the final, heavily science-fiction influenced section set in 'Neo' Seoul.  I won't reveal too much on what's happening here, but, uh, if you like the dystopian sci-fi flicks of the 60's and 70''ll probably love this.

All of these stories are different.  They are visually singular and while connected by threads and shadows cast from time period to time period, can be appreciated when divorced from the overarching grandeur of the full arrangement. Each is narratively sound as its own miniature movie, and while the actors overlap repeatedly, it's easy to see why they were all cast.  Everyone does a rather fabulous job in Cloud Atlas, and if you (like me) were surprised by the rather 'generic' casting of this heavily cerebral film, the value of these familiar faces is immediately apparent in the viewing.  The benefit of a Tom Hanks, a Halle Berry, and even a Hugh Grant is that no matter how much odd makeup you pile on them (and there is some very very odd makeup in this film, which is at times problematic), they are somehow immediately recognizable.  You understand, implicitly, how the souls of their characters have traveled or developed.  You know, without question, who is who (thought the "Asian" makeup in Neo Seoul is perhaps the most distracting).    As you watch Cloud Atlas part of the experience is stumbling upon the small connections: the Easter eggs snuck into other chapters.  The bloodlines, name drops, and lasting impressions of past ages.  Humans leave traces, there are strange echoes heard across time. It's phenomenally easy to understand, and yet difficult to articulate.  It seems to be suggesting very basic things: this is good, this is bad, this stuff carries over.  But, if that's all it's doing, it seems almost not worth it.
Yes, Cloud Atlas is making definitive statements about human nature, but it's not stopping there. While the story may be laced with moral implications, there's something often clinical about its perspective.  It's exacting, devoted to its structure, and using the act of a new creation to do that which all of its stories' protagonists are also attempting: it is investigating. It is finding higher truths in smaller fictions.  I'd read a chunk of David Mitchell's sprawling novel in the not-too-distant past, and while I sadly never got around to finishing it (I will), what I gathered from its shifting points of view, styles of narration, and bold experimentation with genre was that it was just as much (if not more) interested in the formal elements of telling a story as it was with the basic, emotional draw we have to a story.  While Cloud Atlas uses the musical sextet as a point of reference, I'd argue it's also a poetic sestet: a stanza arrangement seeking to give us information with rhyming corollaries.  End rhyme, slant rhyme, beats where we find stretches of alliteration, corresponding images. The characters all seek the truth, and via analysis, so do we. The contrasting styles Mitchell used are, perhaps, a virtuoso act of utilizing genre to peel back the layers on not only the act of being human, but the act of telling stories.  Cloud Atlas gives us memory, it gives us art, it gives us soul, and it shows us all the different ways we can tell the exact same story; all of the ways we will continue to tell the exact same story because the elements are set and while the conditions may shift, we cannot change. Perhaps it's the literary theorist in me coming out, but what's most interesting about what these directors have done with Cloud Atlas may be the largely successful execution of the form. While we can analyze the individual elements and seek out meaning, the 'truth' sought is subjective.  Cloud Atlas presents us with a way of reading.  Ultimately, what you take from it is your truth. 

Under 250: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

I should have something to say about this movie.  I should be able to tell you whether or not I liked it or disliked it, for example, but the simple fact of the matter is that it was so bloody innocuously precious I basically watched it and immediately dismissed it.  Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a dreadfully titled little film that's so perfectly nice it's ultimately forgettable.  It's rather like that girl you were classroom friends with in high school who was great to work with on projects and cordial in conversation: everyone remembers her fondly, but no one can remember exactly why.  Just a couple weeks later you'll think, oh yes, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, that's the film with pretty Ewan McGregor and lovely Emily Blunt and they're trying to make salmon fishing happen in the Yemen.  And then you'll think: maybe it had to be titled that way all along just so that people could have some sort of vague recollection as to its plot.  This may sound as though I hated it, but when I was watching it I recall finding it palatable enough. So, yeah, it's very nice.  It's a tasty dinner mint that doesn't seek to shake anything up even as it's just different enough from all the other candies out there.  It just....dissolves quickly.

Under 250: The Sound of My Voice

The Sound of My Voice is a sort of muddled variation on two of the three noticeably repeated themes that seem to have been preoccupying indie cinema (and occasionally seeping into the studios) since early last year.  Specifically: the nature of cult and the possibility of time travel (the third is, of course, the end of the world).   Another Earth's Brit Marling stars as Maggie, the quietly enigmatic leader of a mysterious cult.  Maggie claims to be from the year 2054, and the film approaches her claim from a position of doubt.  While Maggie is at the film's center, the story's framework is built around a couple's undercover attempt to crack the mystery from the inside. They want to to expose Maggie as a liar and make a name for themselves as they film a sneakily shot documentary.  It's an intriguing premise, and one that admittedly allows for some startling performances from its leads.

As we get to know Maggie, as we get to see her maybe fumble or maybe not, as we first doubt her than wonder, as her possible motives may be revealed, the film carries itself with a cool intellectualism that seems, almost, to trick the viewer into subjugation.  The Sound of My Voice seems as though it's doing something clever, as though it's saying something new, but ultimately the ending belies its own uncertainty.  Where I don't have a problem with an unsatisfying or sudden conclusion, The Sound of My Voice has an ending that reads as though the filmmakers themselves actually couldn't decide which possible ending they wanted to run with and decided to try instead to leave it up to the audience.  Problem is...usually there aren't this many threads left hanging at the moment of supposed resolution.  See it for the middle section, don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Love: Wreck-It Ralph

With the arrival of its much-talked about trailer, Wreck-It Ralph quickly skyrocketed to the top of my 'must see' list for 2012.  There was little chance of it falling flat, and indeed the film is generally quite a successful blend of elements.  Disney cribs from the 'behind the scenes' stories Pixar made successful in Toy Story and Monsters Inc. to add new, happily nostalgic life to the arcade. It's situated at a strange place in the animation cross-hairs: clever but not terribly smart, sometimes too sweet,sometimes too sour, built with Pixar-styled themes but boxed in a slightly more Disney framework, slightly underdeveloped but well-meaning. Wreck-It Ralph aspires to greatness and is legitimately delightful, but falls just short of being much more than an endearing distraction. Still, the Disney corporation has been on a roll this year, and it's safe to say that Wreck-It Ralph deserves the third nomination in the Animated Feature category come Oscar time (after Brave and Frankenweenie, of course) it's bound to receive.
Ralph (John C. Reilly) has spent 30 years playing the building-crushing villain of a Donkey Kong-esque game called 'Fix-It Felix'.  Unfulfilled, misunderstood, and cruelly treated by the other characters in the game, Ralph has started to question his place in the world.  He's attending Bad Guys Anonymous and trying to reconcile his unhappiness with his place in the world, but the final straw comes when the game's townspeople throw an anniversary party lauding medal-winning Felix (Jack McBrayer) and fail to invite Ralph, he abandons his post and decides he wants to be the hero for once in his life.  What I've described, of course, is the story outlined in the advertisements.  What Wreck-It Ralph actually is is something significantly more complicated. While the early scenes create ample opportunity for clever cross-overs and creative appropriation, the further along the story goes, the further its characters get from their basic motivations.  The action moves to the candy coated, mouth watering sandbox of the Sugar Rush go-kart game (which I really hope Disney releases for PS3 (if they haven't already)) and Ralph's accidental friendship with sprinkle-haired sprite Vanellope (Sarah Silverman).
Sugar Rush changes everything.  Its aesthetic all Strawberry Shortcake-style tarty brats, candy Kings, donut policemen, mentos, cola and heaps of glorious gloppy frosting.  The animators took the Choco levels of Mario and amped-up absolutely everything into a cavity-inducing world beyond even Willy Wonka's wildest dreams, and the dessert puns fall in line one after the next. Vanellope pulls focus here, and suddenly Ralph's reason for leaving all but disappears.  Take a second to breathe and you're did we get here?  So, yes, I'm tempted to call it overplotted -I'm sure many will settle on that as a definite- and the truth is that even though I love the Sugar Rush landscape and a great many of the literal eye candy opportunities it offers, the jumpy, constant readjustment of the story's focus is, I think, the thing that prevents us from building a real connection with the film.  There's something a touch too artificial, a little bit too self-aware, and perhaps too skittish about Wreck-It Ralph.  It's cute enough, but something just isn't there... 

Under 250: The Five-Year Engagement

Let's review the equation, shall we?  The charming Jason Segel + the charming Emily Blunt + the very funny Chris Pratt (Parks and Rec) + the equally amusing Alison Brie (Community) + a comedy of errors + a fair amount of heart = _________.  By my calculations, the blank on this worksheet should be filled in with something along the lines of "success" or "hilarity."  Somehow, though, the math has been botched.  The formula has been tampered with.  These elements do not add up to the pleasant, raunchy, good natured comedy that The Five-Year Engagement should have been, but instead lead a confusing mess of fractures, misplaced decimal points, and faulty mechanics that frustrate the basic narrative and lead to a film in the midst of an identity crisis.

Five-Year begins on with a few promising notes.  Tom (Segel) and Violet (Blunt) are a young couple in love.  They mix well together, and we sense we'd be alright seeing them tie the knot.  Life, however, has other plans.  Five-Year runs 20 minutes too long and becomes hampered by the worst parts of reality infringing on what could otherwise be a slick piece of celluloid.  Tom and Violet move, they're underemployed, they have accidental affairs, they go to graduate school, they breakup, they makeup, they become bored with one another, they change their minds again.  The writing isn't smart enough to sustain the twists and turns, and the story collapses in on itself.  There's a great moment or two (Brie and Blunt have a Cookie Monster and Elmo-voiced heated discussion worth a look), but they're tucked under the nonsense. Tom and Violet are, basically, the couple you know in real life who you start to hate to hear about and you're just like do it or don't, but let's move on.  

Under 250: People Like Us

What People Like Us has going for it is its ability to craft characters who read as real people.  They are human, they are flawed, and they are dancing around the creation of relationships that are fairly engaging.  Where the film fails, however, is in cutting through the bullshit and allowing the characters to actually mine those relationships with honesty.  While the film is thankfully nowhere near the sunrise-soaked cheese it could have been, it struggles with setting these characters too firmly in a melodrama too touched with soap opera-style issues to be truly satisfying.  The problem, you see, is that the story keeps half of its characters in suspense while neglecting its audience.  Sam (Chris Pine) returns home for the funeral of his father.  He didn't get along so well with the old man, and he carries more passive anger along on his visit than sadness.  As he begins settling his dad's estate, he learns that his father had another family, that he has a sister (Elizabeth Banks) and nephew (Michael Hall D'Addario) he never knew about.  Therein lies the problem.

People Like Us tells us right off that this is his sister.  Somehow, Sam just knows, and he spends much of the film trying to get closer to them without revealing this information to his secret sister.  This is, I think, perhaps creepier than if he tries to get closer to them to solve the mystery. Why can't he go along thinking this is a young mistress instead of knowing it's his sister?  Why can't he tell them?  Why doesn't he think it's kind of weird that he's getting close to this unstable woman who maybe is starting to have a crush on him?  Why wouldn't he just be like: look, so it turns out you're probably me sister, I didn't like dad either, you wanna try and make a decent family out of the ashes of his awfulness?  These are real problems the film is content to draw out for no apparent reason.  There are compelling elements here, but they're ultimately not arranged in a way that's satisfying.

Under 250: What to Expect When You're Expecting

0 out of 5.  That's right.  0 out of 5.  If you know me, you may be wondering what would compel me to even put this movie on.  I mean, I'm clearly not the target demographic: I'm frightened of babies, not at all interested in a pregnancy narrative that doesn't turn towards body horror, and have hated every single one of these ensemble lady comedies (see: Valentine's Day, etc) with a fiery, fiery passion.  Still, I needed something stupid on while I completed some mind-numbingly repetitive work, and I figured this would be innocuous.

Innocuous? Maybe.  Vacuous?  Yes. Irritating? Beyond. So far beyond. Who did they make this movie for?  How is it possible, I wonder, that Hollywood was able to round up this many actors for a film in which not a single joke reads as funny?   In delivery the lines are a cloying mess of spittle, but even on the page I cannot fathom a point at which any of these lines 'worked'.  If you're not aware of the basic premise, What to Expect is actually 'based on' an instructional non-fiction text (first possible mistake) and seeks, apparently, to explore some of the different symptoms one may experience during pregnancy. What you may not realize about this complete pile of shit is that most of the women you see on the poster do not even have storylines that intersect at all, let alone in a constructive way.  Instead, this is a film that bounces between characters (mostly white, too-privileged ladies) over the course of nine months and somehow thinks it's achieving something revelatory when its unmarried couple suffers a miscarriage or it throws Elizabeth Banks on a stage to have her bitch about how she's actually quite miserable being pregnant.  I mean, that tired old scene is the closest that What to Expect When You're Expecting gets to the apparently alien concept of 'humor', and is so forced its actually painful.  I won't even get started on what Cameron Diaz is being forced to do in this so-called 'film', suffice to say that it's pretty bad when Jennifer Lopez manages to be among the least annoying components of a movie (these days).  What to Expect is so mindbogglingly vapid that I'm convinced the producers must have had serious blackmail leverage on all of the actors involved.  Short of saying that, you know, maybe it's actually just a side effect of these actors selling their souls to the devil, there can be no other reason for its existence.  

Under 250: Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed is an indie comedy that doesn't bother with mumbling and bumbling along a road of uncertainty. Ironic, perhaps, because in many ways the actual narrative finds the characters doing just that.  Parks and Rec's wonderfully droll Aubrey Plaza stars as Darius, an awkward 20-something magazine intern who sets off on assignment with two co-workers (Karan Soni, Jake Johnson) to try and investigate a guy (Mark Duplass) who placed a mysterious classified ad seeking a companion for time travel.  Does he have the technology?  Is he insane?  And what, we wonder, did the characters hope to find when they took up the job?  The results are surprising, and the relationships drawn between characters carve out surprisingly beautiful little spaces at the edge of the improbable.  This is -simply put- the way you go about blending quiet science fiction with small budget, very human storytelling.  Where a film like Looper weighs itself down in explanation, Safety Not Guaranteed creates a context where we're capable of accepting the possibility of the impossible without incident. Its confident in the path it's taking, and the actors carry themselves with an odd deprecating confidence. They are these characters, and somehow that link-up saves a potentially too-twee or wishy-washy story from wallowing in the treacly mire. In other words: Safety Not Guaranteed succeeds at actually being funny even as it's lovely and human.  It works.

Under 250: Cabin in the Woods

I'd been fairly upset about missing this in the theaters.  Then, you know, I actually saw it.  Cabin in the Woods may be directed by Cloverfield's Drew Goddard, but the Joss Whedon too-pithy meta-scripting shows through in a way that pulls it beyond the point of horror commentary towards somethings that's obnoxious in its self-awareness.  What begins as a seemingly typical "college students in the woods" slasher pic is filtered through a too-obvious conspiracy film.  We are simultaneously treated to a view of a blissfully ignorant Scooby gang of usual suspects (horny blonde, stoner, testosterone-pumped jock, wary quasi-virgin, other guy) and a glimpse at some white collar government dudes charged with clearly monitoring and engineering the horrors our unsuspecting youths are about to experience.  For my money, the film blows its load as soon as it decides to reveal its mechanism early on.  Knowing this is a conspiracy (immediately) halves the possibility of a successful climax.  Yes, there are some amusing lines here.  Yes, there are ways in which the concept is clever.  Yet, as Cabin in the Woods becomes more and more interested in deconstructing the semantic elements of the genre, it fails at effectively constructing a cinematic syntax capable of seeing it through to the conclusion.  The last chapter of the film is a calamitous exercise in WTF, mind-numbing absurdity that cancels out any intelligence displayed in its earlier moments.  Not only does it recycle a plot element from the juvenile Paul (do they really think we don't know that voice?), it throws everything it has at the wall and not a damn thing sticks.  It's a problem, I think, when a film so conscious of its genre can't manage to use that genre to its advantage.  Entertaining, but...really?
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