Saturday, November 30, 2013

Love: Frozen

Frozen is a Disney princess film that follows closely in the footsteps of Tangled and, to some extent, Pixar's Brave. Like the "Rapunzel" update before it, Frozen is ostensibly meant to be a modernized, musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," though, you know, with 95% of the story excised and rewritten. Adding up what remains of the original fairy tale amounts to roughly a reindeer and, well, a queen with icy powers.  Purists may be disappointed, but many will find the revision a welcome one. Though the milquetoast, white skinned, blonde character design may be a bit too reminiscent of smirking Rapunzel for some haters, Disney gets everything else right with Frozen. After decades of criticism on their seemingly passive princesses, Frozen represents another strong step (or two) in the right direction. 

The story's construction is less old school fairy tale and more Broadway musical, though it follows the structure of both to a T.  We are introduced, in the once upon a time land of Norway, to two young princesses, Anna and Elsa.  Elsa, the elder, was born with magical powers. She can produce snow and ice out of thin air, much to the delight of her playful little sister. When Elsa accidentally injures Anna, though, all bets are off.  Anna's memory is wiped by a Troll King, and with no memory of her sister's magic, she can't understand why they've become distant.  Meanwhile, Elsa is forced to take her ever-growing powers underground, to hide in her room, try to control herself, sheath her weaponized hands in gloves, and ignore Anna lest she injure her again.  When the King and Queen die in an accident, the girls live an even lonelier existence, wholly detached from one another. Things change when Elsa comes of age. The castle gates are opened for her coronation and the sisters are reunited with each other even as they interact with outside parties for the first time. In true stage spectacular style, character grievances and motivations are spelled out in song, and the trajectory becomes clear from square one.
Excitable Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) is thrilled to engage with Elsa (Idina Menzel) again, and anxious to make first contact with eligible young princes.  Anna's enthusiasm finds her quickly smitten with a handsome guy, but when she enthusiastically drags him to meet Elsa, her disapproval escalates quickly into an argument, and Elsa's emotionally triggered powers plunge the kingdom into perpetual winter. Freaked out and exposed, Elsa bolts, escaping the scene, and tearing off into the wilderness. Halfway up the mountain, she comes to terms with her new freedom. She can be who she is, finally, but the problem with her glittering, fabulous, self-imposed exile is that everyone in the kingdom is suffering.  From here, the story shifts to Anna's attempt to connect with her sister and solve the problem, and on her journey the story picks up a handful of lovable, charming sidekicks: Kristoff (Jonathan Gross) the ice merchant, his trusty reindeer Sven, and enchanted, sun-obsessed snowman Olaf (Josh Gad).
All the pieces are in place for a cliff-scaling adventure chock full of romance, self-discovery, and cheeky jokes.  For the most part, Frozen delivers on those promises in full while providing a killer merchandising tie-in in its double dose of princess power. Extra doll sales aside, Elsa and Anna's story is an important one, and much needed.  As entertaining and impossibly charming as Frozen is, it's also a bit of a game changer.  It shouldn't be much of a spoiler to note that the kingdom can only be restored via a togetherness between the sisters. Elsa isn't a villain to be vanquished, but a woman who wishes to be understood and appreciated for her unique abilities.  The film's largest defect is that to successfully bridge the communication gap between the sisters, it must first keep Elsa at a distance. Consequently, we lose sight of the more complicated character for longer than we might hope.
Still, the decision is one that makes a fair amount of sense. Elsa is relatable in her insecurities, but more in keeping with the traditional fairy tale model of being a little too special.  Shifting the spotlight onto Anna allows the story to ground itself in something like reality.  Though her nose may be perfectly turned up and her waist teeny tiny, Anna is written to read on screen as a real girl princess: she has no magic powers, didn't know magic existed, has been desperately seeking her sister's attention for years, crushes too hard, is smart, resourceful, kind, awkward, and knows her priorities. She connects in a way that allows us to crack the surface of the sister that's been forced to hide away for years, and by the end?  It's all worth it. Point: Disney. This is a win, and one that girls need.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Love: Blue is the Warmest Color

The simplest synopsis of Blue is the Warmest Color involves describing it as a character study. In an unending string of close-up shots, we sit dangerously close to a young girl named Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and watch as her life unfolds. As a teenager, Adèle is navigating the waters of sexual attraction.  She tries to heed the urges of her gossiping friends, picks up with boys and loses her virginity to one who seems to really like her. All the while, she fantasizes about one of those slow motion instances, in this case a chance passing with a mysterious girl with blue hair.  Their eyes met, something happened, and Adèle's understanding of herself shifted.  For the first hour of the film, we are left alone with Adèle to work things out.  The film is patiently anxious, wrapped up in a slow burn of angsty emotions and trapped in a limbo of what Adèle can and cannot find space to express.  She breaks the heart of a boy, we feel for him. She tests the waters with a flirtatious girl, and is crushed.  She pours over books, messily eats spaghetti, ties her hair back and adjusts it nervously.  

Director Abdellatif Kechiche allows Adèle to carve out her own space, and the objective camerawork never seems to pass judgment on her decisions. When Adèle finally does meet and speak to the blue haired girl of her dreams, the air changes.  The reality of Emma (Lea Seydoux) makes the already tight space of the film feel dizzy. There's a slippage that occurs, a disorientation that adjusts the way the viewer engages with Adèle's timeline. What had seemed stagnant and plodding is transformed, suddenly.  With Emma's arrival, time picks up speed, events become confusing. Friends are lost and gained, life events seem to come and go.  We wake up one day and find that Emma and Adèle are living together, that they have made a small life of their own.  The film's greatest triumph is the way it balances an individual character study with the love story of a couple. We watch as one girl becomes one of two, and the nuanced approach to attraction, the way time seems to stop when Adèle is away from Emma speaks to something universal.  Simply put: the quiet moments of the love story get something really right, and audiences should be able to relate regardless of orientation.  Our time spent with Adèle in isolation allows us to see the effect that Emma has on her, and vice versa.  There's a magnetic pull, and under its control Adèle is both liberated and trapped. Ultimately, the film seems interested in showing us the tremendous effect that a person can have on another's life.

Throughout most of its three hour duration, Blue is the Warmest Color moves steadily forward. For as many meditations on Exarchopoulos's face as we see, the film never really ground to a halt or wore at the limits of my patience.  There's little that's been added that feels at all extraneous to the central story. Adèle's life is Adèle's life, and what Kechiche decides to show us feels generally key to our understanding of her character and the ways her world is shaken by Emma's appearance.  It's worth noting that the Exarchopoulos's character shares her first name for a reason: the camera was set on her in off hours, too, and much of the film is improvised.  The original name was Clementine, but too much collected footage of Exarchopoulos when she ate or rode public transport resulted in a conflation of life and art.  There's something odd about this, something that feels both like a blurring of a cinema verite line and a cheater's move. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux each give tremendous, deceptively simple performances, but there's something about watching Adèle on screen that suggests both genius and real pain.  At points it feels less like acting than a curious form of manipulation, as though we are watching a real girl get put through the emotional wringer. 

Which leads us to the last bit. As seems to often be the case with Palme d'Or winners, Blue is the Warmest Color has attracted its fair share of controversy.  It seems that just about everyone involved in the production of the film has had their moments of disowning or speaking out against elements of it, of wanting to walk away from it like the thing itself itself were just a bad memory, a poorly chosen ex-lover.  Though claims of a fraught production have led to a fair amount of scrutiny, Blue wears the most glaring of its problems right on the surface.  For a great, often beautifully nuanced and subtle film, its sex scenes closely resemble unadulterated pornography.  As in, they are filmed not unlike what we have come to define as "porn." And when a middle-aged, male director turns his camera on two young girls ruthlessly and animalistically exploring one another's bodies, questions of necessity, voyeurism, and exploitation are unavoidable.      
To be fair, I admit that I did find the sex scenes to be a bit over the top, and generally just a snore. Though their treatment was in line with the objective lens of the film, there was something about the constant switching of positions, the duration of the events, and the sound mixing that went beyond presenting vital information about their individual characters (ie: proof of their intense, physical attraction, evidence of their level of comfort with one another, some releasing of carnal urges, etc) and began to work against the tonal qualities of the film.  In a story already so emotionally open, vulnerable, and tender, do we need a 10-minute love scene? Or, better question, do we need a 10-minute love scene filled with rim jobs and impish eyes peering up above the curvature of an ass?  I'm kinda like, meh? Maybe we don't?  Personally, I had to actively resist the urge to check the time or flip through my planner during that one in particular. Far from eliciting a puritanical response, it mostly felt as though the repetitive actions and fleshy monochrome had been dropped in as a carnal intermission from the real film. It felt like break time, and I thought it would be a good time for a bathroom or snack break, but didn't want to look like the prude rushing from the theater. Tough times. There was an accidental silliness to it that I found grating, and though the original graphic novel does indeed devote time to illustrating the physical bond between Adèle and Emma, I did question how essential the extended duration of the love scenes was to the film as a whole. 

 More distracting than that, though, the film loses a half point for me due to its insistence on seemingly using "the mouth" and "orality" as a theme. Adèle is always smacking on things, slurping, kissing, drinking, using her mouth to consume and express.  For a person who despises listening to other people's mouth noises, the attention to them here exceeded what I'm able to stand. I reached a comical level of irritation at a few points during Blue is the Warmest Color, when bowl after bowl of spaghetti was served, oysters consumed, cheeks kissed over and over in a succession of greetings.  Maybe I'm imagining it, but I don't think so: much like the weight of the sex scenes, the insistence on the sounds seemed forced, imposed, and too much for the emotional ephemera at the film's center.   Every time another plate of spaghetti was introduced, my skin began to crawl.    

Love: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Where many YA adaptations have faltered, the first entry in the Hunger Games franchise succeeded in transferring the doomsday sensibilities of its dystopian vision to the big screen.  The film trafficked in fear, didn't cut itself down or hold back on the violence that concerned reluctant parents. It was, in many respects, a strong science fiction film, but still a sort of B-grade one.  It hadn't found its footing, seemed to have been treated as a relatively low-budget project. Something about it, though, connected with audiences beyond the age range of the book, and though it was flawed, its ideas and principles were manifest, its allegory en pointe.

For some there were still a few kinks to be worked out, and I know that as entertained as I was by the emotional jousting, many were counting up the mistakes. Yes, Peeta had to become a stronger character. Yes, Katniss needed a little more dimension. Yes, key background context  (familiar to those who had read the books) needed to be on screen for the newbies.  Yes, yes, yes, all of it, yes.  Fear not. This time, the odds are truly in the sequel's favor. With Catching Fire, all is forgiven. The cast and crew have taken the criticism to heart, learned from the experience, and done their absolute best to level up. The results are impressive. As a sequel, it's incredible. We're talking Empire Strikes Back, Prisoner of Azkaban, Dark Knight credit so far as upping the ante of the franchise goes. While that would be more than enough to please the average fan, the true feat of Catching Fire is really that it's kinda hard to deny its strength separate from the series context. There are strides towards an overall great film here, and I'm not afraid to admit it.

This may sound completely crazy, but I found myself engrossed in Catching Fire in a way I've yet to experience with the recent spate of Oscar dramas. In a lot of ways I felt like this was ostensibly a better, more satisfying film than a "serious artwork" like, say, Blue is the Warmest Color. Before you freak out, let me remind you that I know this sounds crazy and that yes, Catching Fire is a very different kind of film; one produced for raw entertainment value, to be consumed with popcorn, to be devoured as cult commodity, sure. But, there's a rare quality to it. Part of the credit can surely be given to Jennifer Lawrence, who, fresh off her Oscar win, plays our struggling heroine with a depth this genre simply isn't used to. Katniss has moved beyond the surly, snarly rebel of the first film. As a victor, her situation has become all the more complicated. Her fake love story with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) may have saved them both from death, but in producing it she became a symbol to an oppressed nation. She beat the system, found a way, and that has her in a curious fix. Her fiercely private lifestyle has been co-opted by the public. She's watched, recorded, and written about, but, even more than that, she's captured the special attention of the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Snow wants to keep the people in control, and Katniss can't seem to stop herself from accidentally giving them hope. Adapted away from the first person narration of the books, Lawrence must manage with little dialogue what Katniss has so much time to say: she is not equipped to deal with her role. She's torn, and Snow forces her to choose between sacrificing her family or her values, two things that seem to be inseparably linked. 
Needless to say, Lawrence delivers the goods. This time, though, Josh Hutcherson does as well. Peeta is far more compelling, and it seems that the actor and the character have grown together: Hutcherson has more confidence, more presence, Peeta is in the same boat. There's a chemistry and camaraderie between the two this time that makes the potential of their relationship feel more viable, and which strengthens the very core of instability at the story's center. Acting aside, however, the movie is brilliantly paced. There's a plotting here that feels somehow stronger than my experience with the book itself. We are made to experience the dire nature of Katniss and Peeta's situation, and the conditions of Panem itself. Where the first film relished the chance to jump into combat, we are here forced to fully immerse ourselves in a suffering country ripe for revolution. In District 12, a curfew has been instated, the government has deployed masked police, and those who ask for trouble find their public flogging nationally televised. As the victors tour the nation, they come repeatedly face to face with suffering, brutality, and injustice they have no power to stop. For Katniss, this is maddening. She knows that she is the cause, that what she did is changing the world, but that people are dying because she, essentially, did something selfish. This is a devastating conceit for an action film, and that central conflict permeates every moment of the film. When even the fleeting fight sequences seem to have the fate of the unfree world riding on them, nothing seems cheap anymore. Again, you can call me crazy, but when a surefire blockbuster manages to remain entertaining while throwing ethical weight, personal crisis, and tragedy behind's got something. It's really got something.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Love: Dallas Buyers Club

There are parts of Dallas Buyers Club that read like a fantasy, a fairy tale built around the redemption of a man who, at first, seems like a hopeless case.  When we meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), he's snorting coke and banging two girls in a rodeo stall.  He's that type of guy: a hustler so committed to his reckless lifestyle that he can't tell the difference between another bad hangover and a disintegrating immune system. When a particularly bad incident finds him in the hospital, a blood test reveals Ron is near death. A case of HIV he didn't know he had has progressed to full-blown AIDS.  So, with his T-cells are almost bottomed out and his body betraying him, Ron finds himself without a friend in the world. He's a loud-mouthed cowboy, a racist, wasted, aggressively hetero homophobe whose like-minded friends recoil when they learn of his prognosis. It's mid-80s Texas, and Ron's blood is considered tainted, his ghostly presence a threat to a whole way of life. With little but his car and a hard head, skeletal Ron starts desperately searching for a way to buy time; trafficking in AZT, bringing vitamin treatments up from Mexico, and partnering with a drag queen named Rayon (Jared Leto) to make a little cash and help people like himself.  These are the circumstances Dallas Buyers Club is built from. It's the story of a dying man whose stubborn refusal to die finds him making good with a hell of a lot of people. The most miraculous part about it is that it's spun from real life.   
Of course, the actual minute details of Ron Woodroof's life have been filled in and glossed over. There's no way to know for sure how he contracted HIV, for instance, or just what went down behind the scenes of the offices he and Rayon set up in a rundown motel.  It doesn't matter, really. What matters is that for a film based in truth, Dallas Buyers Club feels electrified by a commitment to storytelling over fact-finding.  Though its characters are withering away, the film is remarkably alive.  We follow the man and the mission here, but to get to the latter, we have to pass through the experiences, connections, and motives of the former.  Woodroof is never falsely elevated, and the film makes it clear that in starting the Buyers Club he's interested in saving himself, turning a profit, and raising a middle finger to the FDA.  What's compelling, of course, are the curious ways he adapts, and the people he meets along the way.  
Though the writing and direction are tight and the film strikes a balance between the darkness and light of its subject matter, the acting is what really makes Dallas Buyers Club work.  I've mentioned it with Killer Joe, Mud, and Magic Mike, and I'll say it again: I take back all my past hating and naysaying of Matthew McConaughey.  The man is going through a career renaissance that cannot be denied, and finally embracing all the slightly sleazy, rough around the edges characters he was born to play.  The dude can act.  He can act exceptionally well. To play Woodroof, the actor dropped to a rail thin weight.  He's a walking corpse, to the point that his hair seems capable of throwing off his balance.  His attitude though, pulls focus.  He swaggers and leans, chews and spits, juts his neck out like a snapping turtle, and brings a presence to the film.  You learn to like Ron very quickly though his demeanor is, at first, reprehensible.  McConaughey brings a good-old-boy anarchy to the character, and it's one that gels well with Jared Leto's startlingly good performance as Rayon.

Ron and Rayon become a sort of odd couple. Their friendship is one, at first, of necessity, and they are bound together by their business and their death sentence.  Despite their tremendous differences, they're similar: stubborn, type-A survivalists. As time passes, they become family. It's hard to recall a time when Leto was this good, perhaps because he never has been. After a few years off the grid, though, Leto's Rayon is a career-resurrecting performance.  He disappears into the character, becomes her.  When Leto and McConaughey share the screen, it's hard to know where to look. They've brought their A-game, they look their parts, act them, and push their true life characters from biopic imitations to living, breathing people. In Dallas Buyers Club, everything is right.  Like Ron himself, the film finds its heart without losing its edge.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Like: Enough Said

A few years back, I was pleasantly surprised by writer/director Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, a comedy centered around the ties of New York women plagued by the desire to be decent. It was an exacting blend of humor and drama, just enough pain to keep it real, just enough laughs to warrant repeat viewings.  This is what Holofcener does best, and she tends to write her characters (male and female) as interesting, frustrating people, not constructs. Holofcener's style has frequently been aligned with the Woody Allen school of neurotic characters, though her characters tend to be smart, awkward, Los Angeles ladies and not repeated NYC proxies. Enough Said is sunny and broadly comedic, in part because its lead is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, an actress whose sourest state still tends to register as funny. Louis-Dreyfus  stars as Eva, a divorcee mom and traveling masseuse struggling with the idea of sending her good-kid daughter off to college.  When Eva meets Albert (James Gandolfini) at a party, they hit it off.  At the very same party, Eva also meets Marianne (Catherine Keener) an elegant poetess who she quickly develops a friend-crush on. Problem is, of course, Marianne is Albert's ex-wife.  In true screwball fashion, of course, Albert and Marianne don't realize they both intimately know Eva, and much of the tension comes from this juggling of sleuthing, with supporting characters tacked on for additional complication.
While effectively warm, there's something about Enough Said that feels "less than" Holofcener's capabilities. Though sophisticated and smart in a way that makes it a welcome breather from so many theatrical comedies, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching something made for TV -- specifically a compressed season of some premium cable tentpole.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course.  Your HBOs and Showtimes have long been stripped of any stigma, and perhaps it's because Gandolfini, Louis-Dreyfus, and co-star Toni Collette have all been so successful in the cable-mode, but I couldn't quite escape the feeling that Enough Said was more really good sitcom than cinema.  When it ended, I was struck most powerfully by a sense of loss for James Gandolfini, who passed away last June, and not by a lingering appreciation of the film as a film. Since, I've been trying to figure out why it was, essentially, unsatisfying despite so many strong gestures and bittersweet notes.  
What it comes down to may be an unevenness between the odd structural balance of Eva's character arc and the unfinished quality of so many distracting, charming side characters.  Eva is the focus here, naturally, and when we're entrenched in her perspective, the film is one particular thing: a Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy rooted in her timing.  Beyond that, though, there's a cyclical nature to her life that creates expected repetitions and resolutions.  We're made to see these repetitions in the lives of the supporting characters as well. Each individual is given ways of doing things, peculiar tics or issues that impact Eva's life at varied levels.  Her friend Sarah (Collette), for example, keeps rearranging furniture and battling with her housekeeper.  Eva's daughter's friend Chloe (blogger Tavi Gevinson) doesn't like her own mother, so she shows up at odd times looking to foster a relationship with Eva.  They're good subplots, of course, and layer up a slightly more realistic life rife with the complications of what I guess is a 'dating in your 50s' storyline.  These little things are numerous, though, and forced under the weight of the concealed identity plot at play in the Eva-Albert-Marianne triangle.  Eva's story wraps up, but too many characters are left as hanging threads, or with forced conclusions.  When the film ended, I felt like I was just waiting to tune in next week.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Like: Captain Phillips

In the past, I've tried to explain my aversion to (and general disinterest in) thrillers thusly: they just bore me. When too much real world-style action happens too rapidly, I get tired. It's an exhaustion that's triggered by an empathetic response to the events on screen, maybe, but more so because my brain just turns off.  I didn't make it through the Bourne series because of this, and I have no interest in try try trying again.  If we dig a little deeper, though, it would perhaps be more accurate to insist that it's not thrillers I'm disinterested in, it's realism.  I'm totally on board with an otherwise generic thriller that incorporates some combination of the following: 1. a distinct, stylized color palette, 2. a seriously compelling villain (preferably of the smart, sadistic, evil mastermind kind) lurking as impetus to the action, and 3. a passing chance at snarky cleverness.  Captain Phillips, of course, is a ripped from the headlines think-piece of a thriller.  It's not a sexy, grinning, gun-barrel-licking Hollywood confection, but is instead so straight-laced it kind of hurts.  I mention all of this not because I'd wish anything else upon it, no; Captain Phillips is approached as it should be and with respect to the real life parties involved.  It's a harrowing, relentless, dramatic thriller.  It's just, see, I'm so not into it.    
Captain Phillips is, in many ways, an excellent version of the genre it works with.  This is director Paul Greengrass's specialty: the smart, gritty, somber, socially-conscious action movie, and he exercises an absolute control over the tightly constrained elements of 2009's headline-grabbing events.  Given my predilections, the smart film aficionado has likely already arrived at the conclusion that I have never been able to properly appreciate a single Greengrass film.  This is accurate, but I can still give a go at giving credit where it's due.  I understand, to a point, why audiences readily accepted Captain Phillips.  The film deals with actions shaded by emotion. There's an investment juxtaposing the lives of cargo ship captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the leader of the Somali pirate gang holding him captive, but it's one that Greengrass is cautious with.  The film opens showing us the conditions that foster African piracy, and though it works in those moments to emphasize the extreme poverty and lack of options available for the desperate 'fishermen'. When the story steps onto the Maersk Alabama, however, it understands its focus lies in the moral and ethical complications of its characters and forces the audience to see the villainy and threat represented by Muse and co while having a sense of their humanity.  There are very deliberate, smart moves here to avoid profiling a culture or painting these individuals as somehow unified in their reasons for being there.  In this respect, Captain Phillips manages to be oddly enlightening even as it succeeds in not apologizing, condoning, or otherwise pardoning the extreme actions of the pirates.  There's no gloss here, and the flat surface of the news story is given dimension by Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi.
Hanks is better than he's been in several years, and as Phillips gives a solid, physical performance.  More than Hanks, though, it's perhaps Abdi who steals the show, and his skeletal frame and striking profile lend a curious sort of power to his portrayal.  So, all the pieces are where they should be...and that's all well and good.  Captain Phillips is a film that gets a lot of things right, but, still (and I'm quite serious about this), none of the many positives could stop my eyes from repeatedly closing during all the on-board tussles.  Once the initial tension of the boarding subsides, I was done with the arguments, struggles, and negotiating that just kept on keeping on.  It's pretty damn likely I'm a special case here, and I acknowledge that in full, but the action was thoroughly draining and repetitive.  Apart from a theoretical appreciation of its superficial differences, sensitivities, etc, it's difficult for me to truly read Captain Phillips as anything but more of the same.  I'd rather see a wholly fictionalized property with the same interests; something capable of opening up questions without the safety net of an understood, known conclusion.  It's a harrowing true story, but as a film, it's just another thriller; another piece of Oscar bait without any real creative ingenuity.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Like: Ender's Game

Ender's Game is a novel that seems to come and go. I remember it having periods of popularity at different points during my childhood, with different crowds.  It's recurring success makes logical sense, it's the thing in between Starship Troopers and The Hunger Games, a deeply sci-fi driven dystopian epic centered around a society who misuses children to carry out unspeakable acts. Ender's Game is the root of a thirteen novel arc centered on young Ender Wiggin (Hugo's Asa Butterfield), a strategy wunderkind plucked from ranks of middle school hopefuls and thrown into the orbiting Battle School by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford).  The Colonel and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) have a special interest in Ender. They focus on him, prime him, throw him special challenges within their child army.  Ender progresses swiftly, easily, beautifully; picking up their tests and responding appropriately enough, though we're not clear what it is he's being primed for.  We know that everything in this society seems to be hinging on the possibility that a race of monstrous, ant-like aliens called Formics will return. They'd wreaked havoc fifty years prior, after all, and left Earth reeling.  The attack was a massacre, and reason enough to convince reasonable people that their best and brightest children needed to be shot into space and trained for intergalactic warfare.  So, Ender is.  He's good at it. Too good. And while the film itself is a competent, successful adaptation, my problems with it are essentially the same ones I had with the book itself. 
The film doesn't suffer the marks of author Orson Scott Card's unfortunate social politics, and to my memory, the book doesn't seem to reflect that particular issue either.  It is pure military science fiction, the type of narrative that imagines a particular world, builds that world in detail, and populates it with characters who spit jargon and move through life with the jaded, chilly airs of human beings at the edge of their own humanity.  I never much liked reading this kind of novel because it seemed rooted in exposition more than characters. While I like the aesthetic of a good sci-fi landscape, I don't tend to dig the imagistic aesthetic on the page.  When I read books like this (and, when you have my dad, you read quite a few before you even hit middle school) people become odd names interacting with created technologies and cold metal, they speak to forward the plot instead of out of the nature of their character.  This is my own subjective preference, of course, and while I didn't feel the need to continue beyond the debut book, I can acknowledge that Ender's Game does what it's doing extremely well.  It's interested in what happens when you force a bunch of kids to exchange their childhood innocence for war games, competition, and repetitive team building.  It's interested in the fallout of killing off the individual and manufacturing a super soldier.  It's also interested, like so many dystopian stories, in making the consequences burden the characters and the story itself.  Every single element of Ender Wiggin's life leads to the climactic moment of the narrative... but he doesn't know it, and neither do we.
The result, of course, is a debilitating sense of unevenness, undeserved emotional turns, heaviness, and, well, an off-putting chill.  Ender's Game is a movie that feels complete up until its hail mary conclusion, at which point all the placed elements become mere set-up for a much larger string of possible events.  Unfortunately, like The Golden Compass, the film may never get the opportunity to reach beyond its humble beginnings and build the necessary pieces of its action franchise, in this case largely because the film sticks so closely to the moral questions and creation of a distance between the viewer and the characters.  Ender's problems are also its successes, which places the movie at a difficult crossroads.  As mentioned, though the action is centered around groups of children, there's little fun to be had. The games are never play, they're always war, and there's something stilted and inhuman about nearly every aspect of the production.  The dialogue tends towards the forced, practiced, over-articulated.  Space is too clean, organized, perfectly bland. Imagination is suppressed in favor of cold logic. Butterfield's Ender possesses none of the wonder of Hugo Cabret, and the film's effects beat us into a submission similar to the mental grooming of the child soldiers. It's an odd experience, bold in its practiced difference, frightening in its rigidity, and bound to receive wildly mixed reactions from audiences. If you're willing to accept that you likely won't enjoy the outcome, Ender's Game does its job as all-ages science fiction spectacle with some degree of skill.  It's disarming when the moments where the kids are most at ease, when they're most comfortable with each other become the site of exploitation and betrayal.

Squalor: Carrie

It was never really clear to me why Carrie needed to be remade, but I could see how it might be managed. Though society has shifted in significant ways since the 1976 original, the anxieties of that first go still seem to be writ large: Sissy Spacek's Carrie White is a girl becoming a woman without understanding what that means, and De Palma successfully merged Carrie's erotic terror of her body with her sense of coming into an additional, supernatural power.  That Carrie's telekinesis seemed like an extension of her late adolescence, and that film trapped the viewer in a claustrophobic space created by those central anxieties: it's the looming darkness of an awful teenage experience encapsulated in a relatively short film.  Of course, then it was also necessary to strip Carrie of some of her ability to be a fully fleshed out figure. Spacek's Carrie and her tormentors are less characters than stand-ins for ideas of persecution, suffering, and nastiness.

Now it's 2013. Kimberly Peirce has picked up Stephen King's original material, and the potential seemed extraordinary: a female director dealing with visceral girl-on-girl crime at a point when the psychological abuse of bullying is constantly in the headlines and a character like Carrie can be presented as so, so outside of the tech-reliant, raunch culture norm. It's unfortunately quite easy to imagine the crimes that could be perpetrated against a repressed, uninformed, suffering soul like our new Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz); she's a creature from another time, a walking relic.  Her fanatic mother has all but boxed her into an unending version of 1976, blocking knowledge, pop culture, and basic biology from corrupting her daughter's fragile soul.  To be a girl that cut-off from society in a world where her peers thrive off constant connection sets her so far behind the curve that the potentials are limitless.  In the rehashing of the first scene, Peirce seems aware of the possibilities: as Carrie gets her period for the first time in the locker room showers, Moretz morphs her from girl to animal, she is something wild, so outside of girl culture that she appears a writhing, monstrous thing squealing and shrieking with bloodied limbs as her peers press record and whip tampons at her. The difference is clear, there can be no catching up.

If she'd kept up that otherness, found new ways to shift and expand the painful humiliations into the true horrors of the film while slowly sealing all possible escapes other than telekinetic apocalypse, the new Carrie would triumph.  Instead, Peirce merely paints on a new, 21st century gloss in the most superficial of ways, and the big difference between this version and the last is that now the bullies have smart phones, make video recordings, and can repeatedly rehash embarrassing moments.  It should go without saying that this isn't enough. Giving Carrie White the power to Google telekinesis or her tormentors the power of social media is necessary, yes, but not reason enough to re-shoot a classic using so much recycled material (particularly the dialogue). Worse, though, is when this seems to stand in for any sort of spark.  Carrie is curiously lifeless, and its best moments seem to be wholly inadvertent appropriations of old lines.  There's a palpable sense of the paths the film could have taken.  As Carrie's mother, Julianne Moore has the chops to easily work the story towards raw drama or pure camp (and Moretz seems to give off a camp energy no matter what the role), but Peirce seems to be torn between the two.  She knows better than to exorcise the fun from a horror classic, but may be too aware of the gravity of Carrie's situation to really let it swing camp.  It's a problem the film can't reconcile, and consequently, the tone is uneven yet flat, punctuated by strong moments amid furious eye rolls.

As a basic horror film, it's not terrible. Carrie may be, in fact, significantly stronger on the whole than most "scary" movies in a given year, and if I'd written this within a couple days of actually watching it, I may have been willing to give it a little extra benefit of the doubt.  A little bit of extra time has further stripped Carrie of any color.  It's a bland piece of work, forgettable and lifeless, occasionally frustrating.  Most importantly, though, as a remake of a genre classic?  It's an unnecessary mess.        

Like: Rush

In a long line of Ron Howard films "based on a true story," Rush has the benefit of being among the more thoroughly alive.  It's the type of content that lends itself naturally to the cinematic -- Formula One racing, roaring international crowds, 70s style, bantering competitors -- and requires no outside knowledge from its audience.  You don't have to be engaged with Formula One to appreciate what Rush has to offer, you don't even have to care that its characters are stand-ins for real-life figures.  Howard handles the content prepared for his audience's complete ignorance. We're introduced to the characters as bright, cartoon figures through peppy voice-over narration: James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a British playboy whose daring, competitive edge is trumped only by his penchant for booze, vice, and women.  Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), meanwhile, is a sharp-accented Austrian who approaches driving with a strategy, an interest in scientific precision, and a cold, aloof nature that does little to endear him to his colleagues and crew.

There's something of the high school rivalry in Lauda and Hunt's relationship, and Howard draws that out deftly from the opening scenes.  Hunt, for all his charisma, is the reckless quarterback who abuses his ability and power and responds violently to ideas that this "rat"-faced other could somehow close in on his turf.  Lauda is the practicing nerd: he sticks to the playbook, crunches the numbers, follows the rules, his routine, and ascends quickly through the ranks.  The two characters feed off of each other's energies, at times out for blood, at others consciously aware they need their rivalry to achieve greatness.  What Rush manages to its great credit is that it never quite seems to favor one driver over the other. The screen is shared here, and the audience's sympathies dart between characters.  It would be all too easy to paint Hunt as the charming daredevil hero (especially with 'Thor' behind him) and Lauda as a Die Hard-style villain, or, to let Lauda's underdog status win out over Hunt's arrogance.  Howard does neither, but shows each in the other's shadow, seething and competitive even when one is clearly at the top. 

It's an fascinating turn, but in some ways the split between characters works to cheapen the overall impact of the film.  Though each is rounded out enough to play both hero and villain, to suggest some sort of dynamic edge to their character, Hunt and Lauda seemed somehow crafted for the purpose of a sports rivalry story, like living cartoons repeatedly pitted against one another.  Though professional obsession can indeed block out the nuances of a full life, Rush has to split the focus between two characters, dwell in the space they inhabit, and fill in the blanks in broad strokes. Consequently, the background characters become flat shadow figures we're meant to color with our own meaning.  Female characters, especially, seem to serve as shallow stand-ins for the idea of a support network or some trace of an outside life.  Weirdly, this is how the film should be.  The other characters do need to be suppressed, perhaps even more than they already are. Rush is about two things: rivalry and racing. When it's working, it's doing both of them brilliantly, and the racing scenes are, of course, perhaps the number one reason to actually see the film.  They're smartly staged, and deftly shot (I can't be the only one who thinks this and not that dog book should warrant the title The Art of Racing in the Rain), all big-budget raw style in a film that reads small. When it's not working, though, Rush reminds you of what it is: an overblown, overrated affair about two loudmouths, an intimate story blown up by Hollywood into a clash of the glaring titans.

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